February 03, 2020
The Epiphany 5A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 5:13-20 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12) from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 112:1-9 (10) from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16) from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 65 (Lord’s Day 25)
Author: Scott Hoezee
At a restaurant in California some while back I asked the waitress if their cioppino was good. She assured me it was. Cioppino is a wonderful seafood stew, and the server assured me theirs contained a lot of very fresh clams, shrimp, calamari, and more. I ordered it. And . . . it lacked all salt. Seemed like not so much as a shake of salt had been applied. Most of the seafood had had more salt clinging to it the day it came out of the ocean than it had in my bowl. And though the seafood was fresh and the tomato broth good, the whole dish fell flat. No salt, no flavor. (No positive TripAdvisor review either!)
You are the salt of the earth.” That’s where Jesus starts this part of Matthew 5. Salt, of course, is one of the most sublime as well as one of the most ancient of all cooking spices and additives. Sodium chloride is the only mineral that we human beings take directly from the earth and eat. We would die without salt but we’d also find a good bit of otherwise tasty food to be dull and lifeless were it not for salt. Perhaps that’s why in history some cultures exchanged salt as money. The earliest roads were built to transport salt, the earliest taxes were levied on it, whole military campaigns were launched to secure salt. Salt gave Venice its start as a commercial trading empire in Europe and it helped Gandhi bring India to independence in the mid-twentieth century.
According to Jeffrey Steingarten’s book, The Man Who Ate Everything (whence I got all the info I just wrote), we’re probably the first generation of earthlings to be paranoid about salt. Some people do legitimately have a low tolerance for salt, and people who already have high blood pressure need to monitor their sodium intake. But for the most part we need salt to live and the vast majority of us can handle about as much salt as we want.
On average Americans take in 12,000 milligrams of salt a day or about 266 shakes from a salt shaker. And again, why not? Salt is indispensable to good food. When used thoughtfully, it sharpens and defines flavors and aromas, it melds flavors in ways that transform bland dishes into something complex and wonderful. Salt controls the ripening of cheese, strengthens the gluten in bread, preserves meats, and just generally provides what Robert Farrar Capon called the “music of cookery, the indispensable bass line over which all tastes and smells form their harmonies.” Of course, even so, salt needs to be used well. Few things are more disappointing than finishing a dish at the stove only to remember too late that you forgot to add any salt. Then again, nothing can ruin a soup faster than too much salt (they say you can leech out some salt by floating raw potato slices on top of an over-salted soup but I don’t know . . .).
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus said to his disciples. (Note: Jesus did not say to become salt but that by virtue of being a disciple, each of us just IS salt.) It was a striking image then and it’s a striking one now, but what does it imply for the life of discipleship? Well, I just mentioned the good effect salt has on the food we eat. Of course, to get that tasty effect, you have to mix the sodium chloride into the food. How foolish it would be to think that just having a box of kosher salt next to the stove will make a difference even if you never sprinkle it into the soup. If you ask a cook, “Did you add any salt?”, then the answer had better not be, “No, but I have a box of it close by. Isn’t that enough?”
That’s an absurd scenario, yet it seems pretty much to be the one Jesus has in mind. In verse 13 Jesus talks about salt losing its saltiness. Actually, however, in Greek Jesus wonders about salt becoming moronos, from which we derive our English word “moron,” or “fool.” If salt becomes foolish, Jesus asks, then what good is it?
To have salt but not use it, to have a shaker of salt sitting next to the stove but never to put any into the pot, is foolish. What’s the sense of having it there if you’re not going to add it to the food thoughtfully and with proper balance? You may as well toss it out the window for all the good such unused salt will do your dinner! Salt has a definite purpose and if you won’t use it for that purpose, then the salt becomes foolish to have around.
The implication for disciples is exceedingly curious: it means that we exist for mixing it up with the world. It means that for us to do our savory gospel task of making this world a better place, we need to be out there, being mixed up into people, culture, and society. Following hard on the heels of his Beatitudes, Jesus is saying that if you’re going to live those grace-filled attitudes, then it’s not enough to work inside the church community, it’s not enough to nurture a strong interior life of spirituality. No, the result of all your piety must be pouring yourself out onto this earth so as to bring out life’s complex and beautiful flavors.
To be useful and true salt, you need to mix into the world, bringing with you gospel savor. But the light still needs to shine, the pathways of God’s kingdom still need to be followed. Maybe it would be easier to let your light shine if you stayed in church all the time, never left home, so to speak. But literal salt that never leaves the shaker does nothing to add zing to your French Fries, and likewise Christian disciples who never interact with non-Christian people have no chance of reaching those people with the influence of that whole new world of God that just is the kingdom.
A while back someone asked the preacher and writer Eugene Peterson what he would say if he were writing what he knew would be his very last sermon (and since Peterson died last year, I wonder if he ever did this). He replied, “I think I would want to talk about things that are immediate and ordinary. In the kind of world we live in, the primary way that I can get people to be aware of God is to say, ‘Who are you going to have breakfast with tomorrow, and how are you going to treat that person?'”
Peterson suggests we need to stop thinking that being a Christian means always being part of only obvious religious contexts. We just need to pay attention to what the people around us are doing most every day and then help them do it in ways that glorify God. “In my last sermon, I guess I’d want to say, ‘Go home and be good to your spouse. Treat your children with respect. Do a good job at work.” We need to be salt in the real world, and that involves genuinely being with real people, listening to them well, and treating them as the little images of God they all are.
Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12)
Author: Stan Mast
On some liturgical calendars, we are in Ordinary Time right now. But the Revised Common Lectionary helps us keep the glory shining for a bit longer by calling this the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany. The Lectionary throws us a curveball, however, with this hard-hitting text about fasting. What on earth does this social justice passage have to do with Epiphany?
In two weeks, we will reach the climax of the Epiphany season on Transfiguration Sunday. We will remember that transcendent day when the disciples literally saw the glory of God in the face of Christ up on that mountain. Our text for today suggests that we will see the glory of God in the lives of God’s people when they take care of their faceless brothers and sisters. As one scholar said, ‘God’s light shines no more brightly than when we serve humanity.”
Understanding the context of Isaiah 58 will help us preach it relevantly. Ordinarily I don’t pay much attention the traditional higher critical division of Isaiah into three parts—the “real” Isaiah in chapters 1-39, Second Isaiah in chapters 40-55, and Third Isaiah in chapters 56-66. But one scholar’s explanation of the history behind that division made this chapter glow with contemporary brightness. “Third Isaiah was written by the followers of Second Isaiah to articulate the disappointment after the return of the Exiles when the glorious vision of Second Isaiah didn’t materialize.” Israel had been redeemed from Babylonian bondage, but it had not been fully restored to its former glory. They were back home, but home was in shambles. To adapt the campaign slogan of a certain American President, how could they make Israel great again?
One of the things they did to restore the glory of Israel was to fast as part of their approach to God in prayer and worship. The post-exilic prophecy of Zechariah gives us a picture of the exponential growth of fasting. But all those growling stomachs and gloomy faces had not restored the glory, and they were puzzled and disappointed by that failure. They actually grumbled to God about God’s apparent deafness and blindness to their commendable piety (verse 3b). “What’s it going to take to bring the glory back to our country? What do you want from us, O God?”
God answers them here with a roar (“shout aloud, do not hold back”) and with a trumpet blast (“raise your voice like a trumpet”). But what God says is not exactly encouraging. In fact, God calls the prophet to declare “to my people their rebellion and in the house of Jacob their sins.”
That opening verse confronts the contemporary preacher with the challenge of this text. Do we dare to preach this message to our own congregations, especially if they, like Israel, are pious, prayerful to the point of fasting, and hurting because the promises of God haven’t been fulfilled in their seemingly faithful lives? I think about my last church, which I loved (and love) dearly, and wonder if I could shout aloud and blow the trumpet of judgment in their sweet faces. It will take great courage to preach on this text. But compassion for hurting people demands that we preach it, because the glory will not return until we do the will of God as outlined in this text.
In his compassion, God wants his people to shine with glory (see God’s promises in verses 8-12, which we’ll consider in a moment). But compassion must not make us blind to the real faults of people. God sees through the piety of his people to the deep sin in their lives. “For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways…. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.” But even as they soulfully sing, “O, For a Closer Walk with God,” they are guilty of great sin against their fellow humans.
They seem sincere in their worship. Why, they have even added fasting to their public and private worship. And they cannot understand God’s lack of response. “Why have we fasted and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?” Even in the way they ask, there is a note of selfishness, a focus on what they have done. God identifies the sin at the root of their fasting, when he says in verse 3b, “Yet on your day of fasting, you do as you please….” It’s all about you and getting what you want, rather than about me and doing what pleases me.
What pleases God, what God commands is justice, social justice (cf. verse 2, where the word “commands” is the Hebrew word for justice). Here, again, you will need courage, because in the minds of many Christians, social justice is part of a liberal political agenda, rather than an essential part of God’s will for his redeemed people.
There is nothing wrong with fasting in itself, unless it enables us to avoid the down and dirty work of caring for the least and the last and the lost. Worship is no substitute for street level love. Indeed, love for God must lead to love for our fellow humans. That’s what God means when he condemns the occasional humbling of oneself in sackcloth and ashes. The kind of “fasting” God wants is a continual reaching out to the oppressed in humble service.
We’re not talking here about a mixture of biblical and Marxist theology. We are talking about a mixture of personal righteousness and liturgical holiness leading God’s people into concrete acts of social justice. God could not be clearer. If you truly come before me in worship seeking the will of God for your life, you will “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, set the oppressed free and break every yoke.” If that is too abstract, God makes it concrete: “share your food with the hungry, provide the poor wanderer with shelter, clothe the naked, and [do] not turn away from your own flesh and blood.”
That isn’t the entire will of God, of course. Social justice is no substitute for making disciples of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19). Rather, it is part of making disciples and it is part of what disciples do. Further, social justice is no substitute for worshiping God in spirit and in truth, but those who worship God will take care of those made in God’s image and worship will inspire them to do so. But worship becomes problematic when we hide in our worship (as Israel did with its fasting) and think that’s all God cares about. God doesn’t allow us the luxury of luxuriating in our glorious worship. Those who truly love God must love the least of God’s image bearers in life changing ways.
And because God is gracious to the core, he promises glory to those who love him and his creatures in the way outlined in our text. It is possible to read the “then’s” of verses 8 and 9 as a kind of works righteousness (“if you do this, then I will do that”). We can earn God’s blessing if we do the right things. But the consistent message of Scripture is “salvation is by grace, not works.” So, our text is not telling Israel and us how to work ourselves into God’s good graces, but how to experience the gracious presence of God in our lives. God is already there, but we won’t realize it, until we combine true worship with genuine mercy and justice. Then, in the faces of the poor, we will hear God say, “Here am I.” (Recall Jesus’ words saying exactly that in Matthew 25:35,36)
Where is the glory of God in our hurting world, as we plow through day after day of Ordinary Time? We get our Epiphanies when we loose the chains of injustice that bind so many, lift the yoke of oppression off those who are bowed down, and meet the needs of the most needy. “Then your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then (not when you fast in the traditional way, but when you observe the kind of fast God prescribes here) you will call and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help and he will say, ‘Here am I’.”
How can we make a country, a people, a church, a family, or an individual great again? Not by simply praying, even with much fasting, and surely not with this or that political agenda, but by humbly obeying God’s commands to love God above all else and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The God of all grace who revealed his glory in the contorted face of Christ promises to “rebuild, raise up, repair, and restore (Isaiah 58:12)” when we do his will on earth. Epiphany happens in the dark places when ordinary people enact justice and mercy like God.
Like all Americans I have been deeply moved by the tragedy of multiple mass shootings that have spattered blood all over the face of our country. I have prayed that God would stop this bloody epidemic of violence. I appreciated it when officials would say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their loved ones.” So, I was initially stunned by the bitter words of survivors and activists who said, “We don’t want your thoughts and your prayers.” Who wouldn’t want thoughts and prayers in such times? Well, maybe God. Those bitter folks always concluded their remarks by saying, “We don’t want your thoughts and prayers. We want action. We need someone to do something to stop this senseless slaughter.” Isn’t that what God is saying to Israel and to us in our text. Don’t just pray, even with fasting. Don’t hide behind your piety. Do something to bring justice and peace to our land, in the name of God. I’m not advocating for any particular political agenda or social action. That’s not my place. But God is calling with a voice like a trumpet for a faith that expresses itself in love, love that acts to bring justice.
Psalm 112:1-9 (10)
Author: Scott Hoezee
About all I can say after reading Psalm 112 is that it’s one thing to wear rose-colored glasses but quite another to fuse those glasses to your head so you can never take them off! Psalm 112 is by no means the only poem in the Hebrew Psalter to paint a glowing portrait of what the life of the righteous looks like but it has no peers in terms of doubling and tripling down on its claims. I know I have noted it in other sermon starters over the years but this is surely one of those times when you quite simply have to thank God that a psalm like this is not the only portrait of life that emerges from the Psalter.
Thanks God there are also those Psalms of Lament that remind us that as a matter of fact, life for the righteous does not always sail along in endless bliss. There are plenty of other poems in this collection that tear the rose-colored glasses off in order to cut loose with some serious tirades about life’s unfairness. The only mistake we can make when reading the psalms is to give in to the temptation to let any one of these 150 songs be the final word on everything. Lament is not necessarily going to be our only experience in life but then again neither is Psalm 112’s lyric claims that those who try to live holy lives for God will ever and only experience success and a never-ending string of blessings for them and for their children.
Even so, honesty compels us to wonder about a psalm like this. Not only does it not square with the reality of the lives of so very many good and honest people we know, it does not even line up terribly well with Jesus’ words in the New Testament that tells the disciples that in this world they are going to experience plenty of trouble. The world that rejected the Master will reject the followers of the Master. And sure enough: in the decades following Jesus’ ascension into heaven after which he put his disciples in charge of things, they were to a person persecuted, roughed up, jailed, and ultimately killed for their attempt to witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. All of that seems a far cry from Psalm 112’s claims that the world would be our oyster if only we live righteous lives.
That, in turn, undercuts another possible way one could approach Psalm 112. It would be possible, one supposes, to take Psalm 112’s claims at face value and then conclude that if as a matter of fact we do not experience the kind of cascading blessings promised here, then the reason lies with us. We only think we take delight in all of God’s commands and follow them well in our lives but maybe not. Maybe if the experience of us and of our children does not line up with the portrait sketched in Psalm 112—if, as a matter of fact, we not only fear receiving bad news but have actually gotten our share of bad news across the years—it is because we have fallen short of the righteous ideal which, were we to achieve it, actually would result in the blissful existence described by this poet.
But that cannot be quite right either. And it’s a mean-spirited believer who makes a given person’s life worse by as much as saying, “Well, sorry for what you’re going through but if your righteousness were strong, probably all this bad stuff would not be happening to you.” This is the case that Job’s friends tried to make to him, and in the end God told them all to take their tidy theological worldview and take a long hike with it.
OK, but that still leaves us with the conundrum of what to do with Psalm 112’s unstinting claim that the righteous will never have a bad day. Is this a portrait of what life should be like were the world not the fallen place it is? Possibly. Probably. Is this a sneak preview of what the New Creation will be like once God banishes evil for good and returns this universe to what it had been intended to be like in the first place? Possibly. Probably.
But this could also be read as an aspirational portrait. Whether or not life always works out this way for good people—and we know it doesn’t—nevertheless Psalm 112 stands as testament that we should want to delight in God’s commands and follow God’s ways whether it results in more immediate rewards or not. And on this front there are other things in Psalm 112 that point this direction: it is true that the righteous will triumph in the long run (and the fact that even this sunny poem admits that the righteous do have “foes” is telling) and that at the end of the cosmic day they will be remembered, they will continue in God’s presence, their righteousness will be happily embraced and remembered long after the ways of the wicked will be blotted out forever. This is the right way to live because the pattern of righteous living is on an arc of trajectory that will endure in ways that all other arcs will not.
Yes, for now in this world the lives of the wicked sometimes blaze one big, glitzy, impressive-looking trail behind them. The rich and famous surely look like they are heading somewhere great. They sure appear to riding the crest of various waves that we can scarcely imagine ever dissipating. But they will. What will endure, what will go on and on, are the arcs of the humble, are the lives of the quiet and meek people, of the lowly people whom Jesus blessed the most ardently in the Sermon on the Mount and its opening Beatitudes.
Might we all wish that the seemingly simple and sunny portrait painted by Psalm 112 were singularly true for people who try to live in righteous and good ways. But the Psalms of Lament witness to other realities we all know only too well. Still, in the long run and even in the near term what Psalm 112 says is fundamentally right. Goodness is not only its own reward, it will last, it will redound to God’s praise and to the honor of the saints long after the seemingly impressive ways of nasty people have faded away.
[Note: The Lectionary assigned Psalm 112 in Year C not so long ago. If you want to read a slightly different set of angles on this same passage, you can go to a sermon starter article I posted just last summer in 2019.]
Here is the conclusion of Frederick Buechner’s summary of Jesus’ Beatitudes from Matthew 5: “Jesus saved for [the last blessing] the ones who side with Heaven even when any fool can see it’s the losing side and all you get for your pains is pain. Looking into the faces of his listeners, he speaks to them directly for the first time. ‘Blessed are you’ he says. You can see them looking back at him. They’re not what you’d call a high-class crowd—peasants and fisherfolk for the most part, on the shabby side, not all that bright. It doesn’t look as if there’s a hero among them. They have their jaws set. Their brows are furrowed with concentration. They are blessed when they are worked over and cursed out on his account he tells them. It is not his hard times to come but theirs he is concerned with, speaking out of his own meekness and mercy, the purity of his own heart.”
Frederick, Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 19.
1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Already on the first pages of J.K. Rowling’s first “Harry Potter” book we knew she was going to come up with a whole little universe of wild and funny things. The first such gadget we encounter is Dumbledore’s “deluminator.” It was the opposite of a cigarette lighter—you did not use the deluminator to light a candle but to snatch the flame from a burning candle and put it out. The device could similarly snatch the light from already lit street lights and table lamps, storing the energy inside the deluminator until you decided to put it back. Clever. (Most of us who were pre-reading that first book before allowing our kids to read them were hooked from the deluminator forward!)
Another wonderful bit of intrigue is the Hogwarts Castle and its “Room of Requirement.” This was a real—and very large—room that did not appear on any castle maps, had no entry or exit door anyone could ordinarily see. It was said to be the repository of many mystical objects (and a few dangerous one). It was an assemblage of vast secrets—the place where all things were hidden. But getting into the room was itself a trick. You had to sort of believe in the room and wish your way inside. And there was a standard way to refer to how to find and get into the Room of Requirement and it went like this:
“If you have to ask, you will never know. If you know, you need only ask.”
That pretty well sums up 1 Corinthians 2 as well.
Paul rounded out the first chapter of this letter with a meditation on the glorious mystery that is the cross of Christ. The cross turns everything on its head in this world. Its weakness is true power, its apparent failure is galactic success, its utter folly as a source of hope is nothing short of the truest wisdom of God for all hope and new life. Now as Paul turns the corner into what we call the second chapter, he reflects on the message about all this mystery that he preached when he first came to Corinth years before. The message was something straight out of anything and everything the rest of society (then and now) would label as a non-starter, as foolishness, as a formula for going exactly nowhere in life.
“I came to you determined to know only Christ and him crucified” Paul writes. Think about that: that is ALL Paul wanted to know about. That was the full content of his mind and heart. If he knew that, he knew it all. If he could get others to know that and understand what that cross of Jesus means, they would know all they’d ever finally need to understand for eternal life, too. It was at once that simple and that complicated. Paul was an unapologetic one-trick pony if ever there were one. He was all one note. He sold exactly one flavor of ice cream.
But simple and consistent though his message was, it was no cinch for people to grasp it. It required a whole new set of mental software and only the Holy Spirit of God was capable of installing the necessary program components. Once this gift of faith is received and duly installed, everything would become clear. The apparent foolishness of the cross would become the wisdom of God, the dead-end nature of the proclamation would become the gateway to life. But it was going to require a whole new way of thinking to get one’s mind around this. Because it is finally a very great mystery.
But a true mystery can never be explained. That’s part of a mystery’s charm! If you could explain it, break it down into bite-sized pieces, square everything at the corners or tie off every loose end, it would not be a mystery. It might be a math problem. It might be a recipe for the best chocolate soufflé ever. But if you can reduce it, explain it, break it up into logical component parts, then it’s not a mystery.
When it’s a mystery, the most you can say at the end of the day is something like “I don’t know how or why it works but it does.” Science hates mysteries. Hardcore scientists insist they can—sooner or later—explain everything, even love. They are probably wrong about that and what they are even more profoundly wrong about is the idea that everybody wants something like love explained and broken down into so many neural transmitters, electrical flashes, and enzymes. What is love? Well, if you have to ask, you’ll never know. And if you know, you need only ask. To coin a phrase.
What we believe as Christians about how we get saved through a death on a cross of all things is a mystery like that. Now, we can wield this fact arrogantly, turning our noses up at unbelievers and taunting them with some version of the playground chant “We know something you don’t know!” But that’s hardly Christ-like. All we can do is bear humble witness to the fact that we cannot really tell you, either, why we believe in the Gospel as ardently as we do. It’s a mystery to us, too. And it’s all frankly a little crazy and far-fetched. We know that. But we also know and believe its truth in a way we can but pray will come to more and more people through our loving witness.
“We have the mind of Christ” Paul writes at the end of 1 Corinthians 2. That’s a, no pun intended, mind-blowing claim. But so it is. We have been grafted into Christ and now share his life and his very mind. We didn’t do that. We didn’t earn that. It was a sheer gift. That is what we know for sure. But unlike the Room of Requirement, in this case if you do not know, you still need only ask and the Spirit of God may lavish you, too, with the knowledge of the mystery that had been kept hidden for ages past but is now revealed to us. Thanks be to God!
From Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. San Francisco: Harper & Row 1973, p. 64.
“There are mysteries which you can solve by taking thought. For instance, a murder-mystery whose mysteriousness must be dispelled in order for the truth to be known. There are other mysteries which do not conceal a truth to think your way to but whose truth is itself the mystery. The mystery of your self, for instance. The more you try to fathom it, the more fathomless it is revealed to be. No matter how much of your self you are able to objectify and examine, the quintessential living part of yourself will always elude you; i.e., the part that is conducting the examination. Thus you do not solve the mystery, you live the mystery. And you do that not by fully knowing yourself but by fully being yourself.
To say that God is a mystery is to say that you can never nail him down. Even on Christ, the nails proved ultimately ineffective.”