Thursday, February 10, 2011

Quote of the Day

Many people visualize a god who sits comfortably on a distant throne, remote, aloof, uninterested, and indifferent to the needs of mortals, until, it may be, their importune cries badger him into taking action on their behalf. Such a view is false to the point of blasphemy. The bible reveals a God, who, long before it even occurs to man to turn to Him, while man is still shrouded in darkness and sunk in sin, takes the initiative, rises from His throne, lays aside His glory, and stoops to seek until He finds him.
-- John R.W. Stott, from chapter 1 of his terrific little book entitled Basic Christianity.

Monday, February 07, 2011

You Are Salt and Light

Scripture Text: Matthew 5:13-16

The first thing that should be said about this text is that it is part of the Sermon on the Mount, and falls between the beatitudes (freely bestowed blessings from Jesus), and the hard commands of Jesus on a number of subjects (including personal righteousness, anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and loving enemies). Note carefully the order: The blessings are given freely first. This is grace. The commands come only after the grace, which is good because the commands are incredibly difficult. What connects the two? What effect does the blessings have such that the commands become something possible rather than another law to condemn us? The connection between the two is our identity in Christ – Salt of the earth and light of the world. In this text Jesus reveals this new identity to us and shows us our calling as missionaries.

Christ dispenses his blessings, the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, and in doing so creates new creatures with new identities: Salt of the earth and light of the world. Dale Bruner, who has written one of the best preaching commentaries on Matthew, calls today’s verses the “You Ares.” The dispensation of blessings by Jesus creates new people with capacities for obedience to his divine commands. If you are called by Jesus to receive these blessings, you become a new person. So this sermon asks the question: What kind people are created by these blessings from Jesus? What are there characteristics? How do they live together? What does the world see when they see these new creatures?

This text also calls the church to account. As we examine our life together as recipients of grace, are we living fully into the new identify which we have received, as people who are salt and light, or not?

Christians Are the Seasoning of the World

Matthew 5:13,
[13] “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.
Jesus begins with a declaration of who his disciples are. This isn’t a declaration of what they will become at some point down the future or a statement of what they ought to be or what they should be. Christians are, as a result of receiving the unmerited grace of covenant blessings, the salt of the earth. The “you” at the beginning of the verse is plural, as in y’all, those who Jesus is addressing directly in this text, but also those here in this room hearing his words in public worship. You all are the salt of the earth.

Now, what is salt used for? It serves several functions, but it is most commonly known as a way to season food, to enhance it’s flavor so that it can be better tasted. Christians are to be the seasoning of life for the whole of the earth. “You are the salt of the earth,” he says. This is no small commission here, is it? How does salt season? It is mixed in and penetrates the food so that the richness and fullness of the food can be brought out. Christians are charged with living lives this way, in a penetrating way, in the world so that the grace shown to us might season all of human life throughout the world.

In creating this new covenant community by calling disciples, dispensing blessings to them, and giving them a new identity – salt, and light – Jesus is here making a new kind of Israel with the church. The Old Testament nation of Israel was the fulfillment of the covenant made to Abraham that his seed would become a blessing for all of the nations of the world. In Christ, this ancient promise receives its fulfillment decisively in the mission of the Church. By being the salt of the world, Christians bring the zest of new life in Christ to those who have nothing and who have not ever received the good news of the gospel.

There are big implications for the church in this text. Bruner gets them right, I think. Salt, he says, does not exist for itself. It does no good to have salt in a container if it’s never used to season anything. Similarly, Christians are not called and created to exist for themselves.1 This is a huge issue for the entire church. We are not called to be the salt of First Presbyterian Church, and we are not called to be the salt of just Jackson Minnesota. The question is: Are we living the gospel life as those who are the salt of the earth? Are we passionate about fulfilling the great commission, or have we become flaccid in our faith? Are we uncomfortable by not being missionaries to our community and to the world, have we become overly comfortable by our lovely surroundings? Are we anxious to be salt for those who are strangers to us, who are sinners like us, or are we content to stick with only those we know, who we are familiar with, comfortable around? It is only through the power of the gospel, through our unmerited acceptance by God in Christ that we will ever be capable of being salt to the world. There is an individual aspect to this too. When was the last time you received a request from the church to go care for someone in need in the community who is not a member of our congregation? A church that is living as the salt of the world equips and prepares and sends everyone in the church to be salt for the world. If that is the standard, how would we be rated? How would you rate me and the other leaders of the church in this regard? Are we holding each other accountable, as we should, for our saltiness?

These questions are important, because this text shows us that while Christ makes us the salt of the earth, we are to stay that way. There is a warning here which follows this amazing affirmation that we are the salt of the earth. Beginning with the second half of first 13:
[13b] “but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.
Here’s the warning: If we don’t stay salty, we not good for anything. Bruner again nails this: “Salt a centimeter away from food is useless; Christians not living for people outside themselves are worthless.”2 Those are some strong, stinging words, but they are true. Being salt to the world means that we should all feel great urgency for the world’s needs. Brothers and sisters, we have been blessed by God this way, to be the salt of the earth, for the purpose of blessing others. If we’re not doing that together in this congregation, then we might as well shut the doors and go home. That’s how radical this call to discipleship is.

One significant challenge to this is that the world would have us be bland. The world gets worried when disciples are “too Christian” or take their faith “too seriously.” The world prefers blandness, so it uses our pride, our need of the approval of others, to soften us, to not be so pushy, to back off. If we buy that, the warning from Jesus will become reality, we’ll be thrown out and trampled underfoot as useless. Father, kill all pride within us. Make us certain of our calling so that we can fearlessly be the salt of the earth, to be a blessing for others.

You Are the Light of the World

Matthew 5:14-16
[14] “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. [15] Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. [16] In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
We are the salt of the world, says Jesus. And now we learn that we are also the light of the world. Can you see how highly Jesus things of his disciples? I love this. Christians are the light of the world. The world is filled with darkness and death and sin and destruction, but the disciples of Christ are created to be a light that penetrates this darkness. We are created to be beacons that show the way to glory Risen Lord. We are, as a congregation, called to show people how life is lived in Christ. This is highly dangerous.

The reason it is highly dangerous is that the world often assumes that the church is composed of human beings who never sin. The result of that is that when sin rears its head, and there is, say, conflict in the church, the world will say – “See, they’re not really perfect after all.” Of course, the church is comprised entirely of imperfect people who, as a condition of membership, proclaim publicly that they are sinners. And of course, Christians are called to live fully into the grace they have received by living in obedience to Christ and his Word. But Christians do sin, and it is how the community responds to that sin that will ultimately make it a light to the world. Being a light to the world means that “there is something about the way Christians ‘are,’ about the way they live together and talk about each other, and about the way they relate to the not always friendly surrounding world.”

What grabs the attention of observers of the church is when sins are openly confessed and forgiveness immediately given, or when brothers and sisters happily give of their time and resources, without worry, and without the need for human approval, to feed the poor and tend to the sick.

Just as you, the church, have been made into salt by the blessing of Christ, we are set up as a visible light to a broken world. We are, in a way, ignited by Christ. The Lord does not call disciples from death in sin to eternal life and then leave them feeling useless. No, they are set up high so that people can see the glory of the one who is Lord.

Listen again to Matthew 5:16:
“[15] Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. [16] In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
What does this say about how Jesus uses us as a light? It says that we called by God and appointed to the task for shining in such a way that the good things we do, the services we perform for others, ultimately give glory to our heavenly Father, and not to ourselves. We are not called and set apart by Christ for the purpose of glorifying ourselves, but for showing off the glory of God to the world.

Jesus has a high view of his disciples whom he deeply loves. They are the very salt of the earth. They are the very light of the world. The reason Jesus has such a high view of his disciples, however, doesn’t just end with them. It ends with God. Christians are called, by God’s grace, to the high offices salt and light in order to glorify the Father. What this means is that you weren’t saved simply to protect you from punishment or hell. You were saved for a purpose that doesn’t end with just you. Christians are saved ultimately because it shows the glory of God. We are salt and stay salty when our impulses and desires find their fulfillment when God is highly exalted and glorified. We are light and shine the brightest when we show most fully the glory of the one who called us. The more transparent and humble we are, the more brightly God’s glory shines through us.

Remember, brothers and sisters, beloved of God, that you are the salt of the earth, the seasoning of goodness among the people. Remember that you are the light of the world, shining most brightly when God is seen most clearly in what you do. Remember that you were created not for yourself alone, but for the glory of the creator and sustainer of the entire universe. And if you think you may have forgotten all this, know that the Father is waiting for you like the father longing for the prodigal to return. And if you are a prodigal, know that you too can share in this gift of being salt and light by receiving Christ into your life right now.


1Bruner, Dale. Matthew:A Commentary.Volume 1:The Christbook. Eerdmanns: Grand Rapids, 2004. 189.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
February 6, 2011
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew