Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Salt

Isaiah 58.1-12
Matthew 5.13-20

Salt is a seasoning. We add it to our food to make it more interesting. Without any salt at all food can sometimes be tasteless and bland.

Salt is an antiseptic. It has healing properties. Sometimes, if we have a scar that needs to heal, the doctor will tell us to have salt baths to make it heal faster.

Salt is essential for life, especially in hot weather. But even in England, if we don’t have enough of it, we will feel faint and unwell.

But too much salt is also bad for us. It makes us thirsty. Sometimes restaurants give customers salty snacks and food to persuade them to buy more drinks. Instead of being thirsty for the wrong reasons, and for the wrong kind of things, may salt remind us:
  • That Jesus can be the seasoning we need to make our lives more interesting and to help us spice up the lives of the people around us in ways that will help them and challenge them;
  • That Jesus can bring healing and peace, and reassurance and comfort, like the antiseptic salt baths recommended by the doctor, and that he can help us to bring healing to others;
  • that knowing Jesus is essential if we want to really enjoy life to the full and share the same energy and excitement with others;
  • that we need to be thirsty for a deeper relationship with Jesus and encourage other people to meet him too.
Last week we read Micah’s striking image of God conducting a huge open air debate with the nation of Israel about her shortcomings. This week’s passage from the prophecy of Isaiah offers a different, but no less striking, image - loud, loud music.

Micah accused the people of Israel of wasting time on empty and meaningless sacrifices which didn’t really reflect a change of heart. Isaiah accuses the people of asking God for guidance, and saying they delight in knowing his ways, when they’re not actually listening to his answer. Perhaps it’s time, says Isaiah, to turn up the volume, to prevent the people from being blissfully unaware of how far they are falling short.
They delight in approaching God, but they don’t act rightly.

The people don’t understand what’s wrong. They think God isn’t answering their prayers. They don’t realise that they’re not hearing his answers. It’s as if they’re tuned into the wrong wavelength on the radio and don’t know that God is still broadcasting somewhere else on the dial.

‘Why should we fast if you ignore it?’ they ask God plaintively. ‘Why should we mortify ourselves, deny ourselves, if you’re not paying attention?’

But God’s reply is this: ‘You’re not serving my interests when you come to worship, you’re serving your own interests! And you spend more time wrangling with one another, locked in vicious disagreements - presumably about how to order the worship - than you actually spend trying to discern my will.

Real fasting and prayer, says Isaiah, is not about bowing our heads or sleeping on itchy sheets to deny ourselves a good night’s sleep. Instead, it begins with loosing the fetters of injustice, setting ordinary people free from the heavy burdens they have to bear, feeding the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless, clothing the naked and making sure that we don’t evade any of our responsibilities. Then, says Isaiah, when we call the Lord will answer!

I think the passage is rather reminiscent of Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats. It is those who have compassion for the needy who show themselves to be really tuned in to God, not those who simply delight in prayer and singing.

Once again, of course, just as we saw in the case of Micah last week, Isaiah does not say that prayer, and worship and fasting are wrong, only that they are not enough. In fact, they’re not even the starting place for approaching God. The necessary preliminary is to do what is right.

Salt was difficult to keep dry in ancient times and, if it got repeatedly damp, some of its saltiness would leech out into the water and be lost. Eventually, if it was kept for long enough, it could lose most of its saltiness, and then - says Jesus - it is only good for throwing away. He adds, ‘and trodden underfoot’, because - of course - in ancient societies people tended to throw their rubbish out into the street.

When God’s people are simply a worshipping people, says Jesus, we are like salt which has lost its savour, or like a light hidden under a bowl. We lose our purpose. And what is our purpose exactly? It is to do good, so that other people will see it and give praise to our Father in heaven.

Jesus also says that he has not come to remove even one stroke of a letter from the Books of the Law and the Prophets in the Hebrew scriptures. In other words, like Micah and Isaiah, he doesn’t want his message to be interpreted as anti-religious. But he thinks he can sum up the essence of the Law and the prophets’ teachings in the simple phrase ‘doing good’ and being ‘righteous’.

Yesterday we held an open day so that people could see the changes we’ve made to the church. It was arranged by the Church Family Committee at the request of the Church Council. Some people have been a but puzzled about it and have wondered what exactly the Church Council was aiming to achieve.

Was it to show other churches in the new circuit, and our neighbouring churches from other denominations, the changes that we’ve made? Well, yes, it was an invitation to them to come and see what we’ve done. But it was also am invitation to the wider community, part of an effort that needs to be on-going, to connect with the people of Sandal, and Agbrigg and Portobello. Because in the end, our effectiveness as a church does not depend only on our worship on a Sunday, nor even on our community life within the church, the things we meet to do together - important though these are; it’s also about our impact on the world beyond.

It’s about connecting with ordinary people and showing them how we can ease their burdens. It’s about meeting their needs and providing them with somewhere to meet. At it’s most basic, it’s about doing good, so that other people will see it and give praise to our Father in heaven.

Our friends at the Baptist church have really got stuck into sheltering the homeless and clothing the naked. Does this reading give us an opportunity to ask, ‘What is God asking us to do?’

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