Saturday, February 7, 1987

SALT OF THE AGES: A Sermon Preached at Midway Church, Sewanee, TN 2/3/87

Lectionary Readings for Year A, Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Habakkuk 3:2-6,17-19
1 Corinthians 2:1-11
Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored.”

God has had a remnant of his people throughout history. At times, they have been barely visible. Many have lost their identity, their saltiness, but the remnant have kept their savor, their faith in God, despite the most dire of circumstances.

Let us imagine we are operating an eyewitness news camera that can travel back in time.

The year is 605 B.C., an extraordinary year in the life of the people of Israel. Extraordinary because at last, after all the warnings of the prophets, the dreaded Day had arrived. Outside the walls of the city of David, Babylonian troops have pitched their camps and are preparing for a long siege. Inside the city, defenders with bows and arrows and pikes are pacing anxiously above the gatehouses. Slaves are busy heaping dirt against the inside of the walls for reinforcement. Women are pulling screaming little children through rude, noisy crowds on the streets. Long bucket brigades of youths are filling the city’s cisterns. The last of the fruits from the countryside has been sold in the markets at scalper’s prices, and beggars already line the entranceways to the Temple. Inside the temple precincts, the priests are busy with extra offerings to a God who does not seem to hear.

If we look very carefully, way up in the parapet overlooking the Kidron Valley, we may notice a solitary figure, a man oblivious to all the bustle and alarums of war. He is praying, and his name is Habakkuk. Let’s listen to him:

O LORD, I have heard the report of thee,
and thy work, O LORD, do I fear.
In the midst of the years renew it;
in the midst of the years make it known.
In wrath remember mercy.

Yes, he is one of those who warned that the wrongdoing of the nation would have its reward from on high, that God would rouse the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, to punish his own chosen ones. But now that the word has come to pass, Habakkuk prays for his people, that God would have mercy on them and do a new work among them. As he prays, he begins to sing a hymn of praise, a Te Deum about God’s coming in person to save his people of old:

God came from Teman,
the Holy One from Mount Paran.
His glory covered the heavens
and the earth was full of his praise.
Thou didst bestride the earth in fury,
thou didst trample the nations in anger.
Thou wentest forth for the salvation of thy people,
for the salvation of thy anointed.

As he sings the hymn, his voice rising ever higher over the sounds of the bleating animals and wailing widows, suddenly he finds himself overcome with an indescribable sense of awe:

“I hear and my body trembles,
my lips quiver at the sound.”

The voice within him comforts him: “Peace, be still.” His awful sense of doom, which has so haunted him through his years of public preaching and argument, is somehow touched and transformed. No, the city will not survive, nor its inhabitants, nor he himself. No, there will be no quick fix for that congenital stubbornness of the human heart, so manifest in Israel. But the God who called and saved in the past cannot fail in the future - for those who wait and bear his burden. He recalls the word from the LORD he had once heard: “He whose soul is not upright will fail, but the righteous will live by faith.”

Turning these words over and over in his mind - “the righteous shall live by faith” - the lonely prophet is flooded with hope, hope against hope, yes more than hope, joy:

Though the fig tree do not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
though the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls –
yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will joy in the God of my salvation.
The LORD God is my strength;
he makes my feet like hinds’ feet,
he makes me tread upon high places.

Our lens zooms through six centuries of history, from one of the critical moments of the Old Covenant people, to a rather ordinary day in the life of the city of Corinth. It is early, just before dawn. The farmers’ carts have not yet arrived for market day. The sailors and prostitutes are fast asleep after a long night. A few Roman centurions huddle and stamp their feet to keep warm outside the barracks. Slaves in the large villas are kindling the cooking fires, and the dogs are beginning to bark at occasional passersby. The priests at the Temple of Apollo begin shoveling away the entrails from yesterday’s sacrifices. But on the whole, all is quiet in this busy trading town.

In a small courtyard, a group of Christians gathers to pray before heading out to work. The elder is reading part of a letter just received from the founder of the Church, Paul of Tarsus. The letter starts off: “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom.”

“That’s right,” one man chuckles to his neighbor: “I remember when I first saw him - what a sight: short and bald, and with a stutter to boot. He was about as far from your typical orator as you can get.”

“Yes,” says another, “and I remember him saying he had tried to argue like a sophist at Athens about the being of God and the notions of the poets, and it just wasn’t right and God didn’t bless it.”

Another adds: “And it’s just as well he didn’t try that stuff with us, because we don’t understand all that school-talk anyway. We work with our hands, not our minds.”

The elder reads on: “So I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” A hush falls over the gathering - a few say softly: “Come Lord Jesus.”

The elder pauses and comments: “And you know, brethren, this is why we are called Christians - not Paul’s group, or Apollos’ group.”

Heads nod, a bit sheepishly. He continues reading: “and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”

“That’s the truth!” one old fellow says, raising his voice with passion. “Fifteen years with the gout and now I’m healed.”

“And the demons of Mithra,” cries another, “the bloody rites and the silly stories, they’re all gone.”

“Praise God for that,” continues the elder, “but listen. God’s power was shown to you for a purpose, as our brother Paul says, ‘a secret and hidden wisdom of God that the rulers of this age do not know which he decreed before the ages.’ This is the mystery the prophets yearned to see, straining their eyes in hope. And what is the mystery, my friends? It sounds crazy but it’s true: “Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures predicted, and was raised on the third day, and we have been baptized into his Body and eat his Supper until he comes for us in glory! There is nothing more to say. Now let us pray.”

It is now time to zoom into our time and our place. We gather together in this New Year in this small congregation, some with the ordinary concerns of life (my wife tells me that sermon time is commonly used to make up grocery lists for Piggly Wiggly on Monday); others may find themselves at more critical moments such as our brother who is approaching surgery tomorrow. We gather together with doubts, with anxieties, with human hopes and joys.

But as Christians we share with Habakkuk and the believers at Corinth a faith in a God who has done wonders in the past - indeed he has in the Cross of Christ saved us once and for all time. He is a God works not - who would forgive us, put away his anger at our sins, and renew us when we come to him penitently - and work new miracles in our midst. And he is a God who through his Spirit will give us a peace that passes understanding, yes a joy that sustain the worst that the world can give.

This is the good news that makes us salt of the earth, if we would have its savor. We come to remember, renew and look forward to his transforming presence when we share in bread and wine, when “we remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, and look for his coming in glory.”

Amen. Come crucified and risen One!

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