Salt and Light
This morning we are embarking on a new journey. We have spent nearly all of the last three months working our way through the New Testament letter of James. It has been a tough, but good journey. We have learned quite a bit about what it means to be a follower of Christ in the nitty-gritty of life. In order for our declaration of fidelity to the Christian life to mean any more than the weight of our words, we need to take action. But this action isn’t something we can do on our own. It requires us to stay tapped into the power and wisdom of God through a vibrant prayer life as we talked about last week. Well, as we worked our way through James, I said at one point that James can kind of be seen as an interpreter of Jesus. Although he never uses any direct quotes from Jesus, nearly everything he says alludes in some way back to something Jesus said. This is particularly true of the Sermon on the Mount. With this in mind, I want to shift gears with you for the next few weeks to some of the words from which James drew so much inspiration. We are going to work through the first chapter of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5, Jesus lays out in clearer and more direct form than we find just about anywhere else in the Bible exactly what it looks like to be counted among His followers complete with examples so it’s no wonder James draws so heavily from here. Essentially, in the Sermon, Jesus gives us a primer on discipleship, which is the title of the series. Let me give you a disclaimer right off the bat: for most of you these are going to be really familiar words. You have heard these words taught in Sunday school, on Wednesday nights, on other Sunday mornings, by TV preachers, and in your own personal devotions. This is the Sermon on the Mount, people. These are some of the most well-known words Jesus ever spoke. Even people who don’t really care much about Jesus know about these words and consider Jesus a great moral teacher because of them. Because of this it will be very easy for some of you to assume you already know what the answers are and tune out. Yet, I implore you: stay tuned in. There are riches here that never run dry. If you are willing to do the work again, you will be surprised at just how much the Spirit has to say to you. Let us not let familiarity breed contempt.
Here’s the deal: we all need a good reminder of (or perhaps introduction to) the kind of life we are called to live as followers of Christ. We live in a culture with so many competing voices that at times it’s really difficult to remember. Not only does our culture offer us a variety of options in terms of what model our life should resemble, but the church does as well. In the church you will find voices calling for a radical engagement with the world. There is a well-known pastor up in Seattle who is known for, among other things, spicing his sermons up with an occasional cuss word since that’s the kind of culture out of which much of his congregation is coming. There are other voices in the church, however, that call for a radical separation. Although the Amish community certainly represents the most extreme element of this, a bit closer to home is the stereotypical (and not without due warrant) image of the Southern Baptist Christian. I remember when the SBC called for a boycott of Disneyworld because they had some sort of a gay pride day the same year the annual convention was in Orlando. Guess how many messengers skipped out on the last day of the convention to go to Magic Kingdom. Somewhere in the middle of all this is the path we should be walking as believers. This is the path Jesus lays out for us in the Sermon on the Mount. And as we work through these words this morning and for the next few weeks, we are going to come to a better understanding of the answer to this question: what does the life of a devoted disciple of Christ look like?
With all that said, I want to get down to the text with you because the text here is the real feature. We are talking this morning about three things: salt, light, and the kind of life that measures up to God’s standards. Also, I’m treating this sermon as kind of an introduction to the whole series. So if we get to the end and you feel like things are still incomplete, that questions still remain, come on back and hear the rest. If you have your Bibles with you, open them to Matthew 5 and we’ll pick up in v. 13. “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
So Jesus begins by declaring that His followers are the salt of the earth. You’ve heard this before. But, have you ever thought much about exactly what this means? What does it mean that we are the salt of the earth? In order to really understand this, I guess we need to understand why Jesus used the image of salt in the first place. Salt is used today primarily for flavoring food. It is also used for melting ice in order to keep roads and sidewalks safe. It’ll kill a slug pretty effectively. In the past salt was much more important in its use as a food preservative. It kept things, meat in particular, from going bad. In Jesus’ day, salt was also used in sacrifices, fertilizers, cleaning newborns, and had some connotations of wisdom. One commentary on Matthew adds another five uses of salt on to that list. Scholars observe all these different uses of salt and then debate over which one Jesus most had in mind when He spoke these words. So which one is it? Well, just like salt as flavoring is what comes to mind for most of us today, Jesus’ audience would have likely thought first about salt as a preservative. But perhaps the better understanding of what’s going on here is this: salt is important. Salt matters in this world. Life really would not be the same without it. In a lot of ways life wouldn’t go on without it. This is what Jesus is saying here: His followers matter to the world. The world is not the same place without them. And He doesn’t say that we gradually work our way into this position; we are in it by virtue of being His followers.
Think about what this means, then, in light of the second part of v. 13. Salt that loses its saltiness is worthless. Now, a lot of folks get hung up on what exactly Jesus meant by salt losing its saltiness. They look at detailed archaeological data on the kind of salt used back then and how it was different from the salt we use today. Scholars have pointed out that salt back then often had a lot of grit and other sediments in it. Sometimes the actual salt would leech out of the rest of the grit leaving what was thought to be less salty salt. Critics quickly point out that salt is a stable molecule and so chemically speaking salt can’t lose its saltiness. But again, the point here (made with colorful, figurative language so it was more memorable, and given that people are still talking about it, I guess it worked) is very simple: salt minus saltiness is worthless. In the same way, a professed follower of Jesus who is not actively making a difference in this world—bringing life and interest and variety and overall enhancement—is not worth anything to Him. This situation is doubly tragic. Because the person has claimed the name of Christ the world has rejected him and because he is not really following Jesus and lying about it, Jesus has rejected him. The idea here is that if we are going to claim the mantle of Christian, we’d better make certain we are living up to the title in every way of which we are capable.
From here Jesus changes metaphors to light, and makes basically the same point but from a more positive angle. Believers are not only to bring relevance and vibrancy to this life, they are to bring light to it as well. Using illustrations that would have been very familiar to His audience, Jesus says that His followers are to help the people around them see not only this world for what it really is, but also to see God for who He really is. When we lived in Colorado, we had the great pleasure of living a couple of miles from the mountains. And as we drove up and down the main road through town which ran parallel to the mountains near Christmas, there was someone who lived up on the Front Range who had a giant illuminated cross. You could see that cross from just about any point in the west side of town. A light on a hill can be seen by everyone. There’s no hiding it. This is the kind of light we are to be. And our light is to shine forth in our good works. Did you catch that, by the way? Our light, the light of Christ dwelling in us, shines forth in our good works. This means that if we are not actively striving to be a force for good in this world—perhaps, being salt in this world—no one is going to see our light. But when they do see our light, they will see God.
When Lisa and I moved out here we had those compact fluorescent bulbs in several of our light fixtures. Now, I’m all for saving the world, but those are terrible bulbs. They take forever to reach full brightness, they’re not very bright, they don’t put off very pleasing light, and if they ever break you have to evacuate the house and just about call in a hazmat crew to clean up the mercury in them. Well, because the standard 100 Watt incandescent bulbs are coming off the shelves forever in January unless the law changes, we went and bought a bunch. When we got them home, I took one out of the box, screwed it into the lamp, turned it on, and sighed with pleasure at the nice, bright light that greeted me with a smile. I thought to myself: “Thank goodness they still make bright light bulbs like this.” But you know, thinking about it, I shouldn’t have thought that. Sitting in the box on the shelf in the cabinet, those bulbs aren’t very bright. In fact, they’re not bright at all. They’re not bright when they’re taken out of the box. They’re not bright when screwed into the lamp. They’re not even bright when the lamp is turned on if the lamp’s not plugged in. They’re not bright until the lamp is connected to the power grid. Instead of thanking goodness for bright bulbs, I should have been thanking goodness for the power company that enables otherwise only potentially bright bulbs to actually reveal their full brightness. When we are the light of the world, we have the opportunity to remind people about the power company. Indeed, we are to bring light to the world. And putting these two halves together, we are to be salt and light in a bland, dark world.
Well, that tells us what to do, but not how to do it. After laying out the kind of life His followers should be living—one marked by a consistently enlightening relevance—Jesus goes on to specify the manner in which this is to be done. In order to really get what Jesus is saying here, let me give you just a bit of background. In Jesus’ day, the Law of Moses (which I’ll refer to simply as “the Law” from now on) was everything to the people. It was their guiding rulebook for how to live life. Between the Law and its interpretations, there were rules governing just about every aspect of life. When Jesus came along, though, He started saying some pretty radical things that seemed to contradict the Law. Some of the people listening to Him were undoubtedly nervous that He was going to take their precious Law and abrogate it. Jesus spoke the next words here in part with this in mind—to assuage their fears. A major reason why Jesus came was in order to see the covenant of the Law not done away with, but to see it fulfilled. You see, we serve a covenant-making God. Covenants are stronger and deeper than mere promises or contracts. God’s covenants don’t ever go away, they get fulfilled. We may not hold up our end of the covenant which puts Him in the place of needing to take some steps to call us back to it, but our disobedience doesn’t somehow undo it. In the Old Testament, God made four major covenants: one with Noah to not destroy the world with a flood again, one with Abraham to make him the father of a great nation, one with David to always have one of his descendants on the throne, and one with Moses and the people of Israel. This last covenant was the most important. This was the covenant of the Law. In this covenant God told the people that if they would live the way He commanded them, they would experience the blessing of His abiding presence all the time. Unfortunately, they couldn’t live up to their end necessitating the new covenant of life in Jesus’ blood which we celebrated just a little while ago. Again, though, the point of Jesus’ ministry was not to undo the covenant of the Law in making the new covenant of grace, it was to fulfill it. And the covenant of the Law is fulfilled when the whole Law is kept.
If we are going to be Jesus’ followers, then, we must be similarly committed to seeing the Law fulfilled. This is why Jesus says what He does about keeping the Law or not and teaching others to do the same. If we are actively seeking to uphold the demands of the Law and instructing others (like our children) in doing the same thing, then we are hastening the fulfillment of the Law and are actively advancing the mission of Jesus in the world. If we are not, then we are not. Folks who are not sold out to the mission of Jesus and thus are working actively against it have no place in the kingdom of heaven. The question here many people are drawn to ask is: how far do we have to go? I mean, there are a lot of commands in the Law. How many of them do we have to keep and teach? Jesus answers this pretty clearly in v. 20: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” As many of you know, the scribes and Pharisees were like the Southern Baptist Convention of their day. They knew all the laws and they were meticulous about keeping them. They took great pride in being able to look down the list of the laws needing to be kept, looking at their lives, and putting checkmarks all the way down the page.
The obvious issue here is this: If all that law-keeping clearly didn’t work for them, how are we supposed to take it further? Well, this is the point at which we have to jump away from the text for a minute and do some critical thinking in order to understand it better. We can’t keep the Law so Jesus came to free us from the demands of the Law. The problem with this statement is that while it is true it runs the risk of oversimplifying things. Yes, Jesus did keep the Law perfectly so that it can no longer stand in the way of our being able to enter unfettered into the presence of the living God, but this does not mean that the Law is now irrelevant. In fact, if anything the Law is still just as relevant as it was before Christ came. The difference now is that with Christ’s help we are able to keep it. We are able to have our lawlessness forgiven. We are able to make a run at law-keeping that will actually result in success. This is the miracle of grace: not that the Law becomes irrelevant, but that salvation is no longer found in the Law, in the things we do in an attempt to earn it. With the help of Christ, with the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we are freed not to ignore the Law, but to join in Jesus’ pursuit of its standard of righteousness. Law-keeping, then, becomes, not a means of salvation as it was understood by Jesus’ contemporaries, but an exercise in thanksgiving. If we are grateful for what Christ has accomplished in our lives, the proper response is to seek to follow His lead (relying fully upon His power) in keeping the Law.
This, then, is the answer to our earlier query. How are we to be salt and light in the world? We are to be salt and light in a bland, dark world by perfectly keeping the demands of the Law. We are to be salt and light in a bland, dark word by perfectly keeping the Law. “But wait!” someone might object. “What does not muzzling working oxen or not boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk have to do with bringing salt and light to a bland, dark world?” Very little on its own. But, when understood through the lens of Christ who is our medium for understanding what exactly the demands of the Law are, a great deal. This is the beauty of law-keeping in the age of Christ. He boiled the Law down to be incredibly simple for us: love God first and love others as a function of this first love. That’s it. If we are doing that faithfully in every aspect of our lives, we are going to be keeping the Law. Here’s why this makes us salt and light in a bland, dark world: the world doesn’t do it. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it much, but there’s not a lot of real love out there in the world. The law of the world is dog-eat-dog. It’s survival of the fittest. It’s natural selection. That’s the landscape of the world: bland and dark. There’s no life and vibrancy there. There’s no joy or hope there. There’s only a tasteless darkness from which people are crying out for something more. When we are living up to our calling as followers of Jesus, we bring just that. We are salt and light in a bland and dark world.
Now, this all sounds pretty good, but knowing this now and practicing it later are two very different things. And for four of the next six weeks, we are going to take a look at some ways this can actually play itself out in our lives and in the world around us. We are going to talk about how we can be salt and light in times of conflict, in our marriages, in our speech, and in times of persecution. Then we will tie everything together Labor Day weekend before we kick off a new calendar year of church life together. For now, though, go out of here knowing that being salt and light isn’t something we become as followers of Christ: it’s something we are. And the way we demonstrate this most clearly is by living the life of Christ every chance we get.