Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Matthew #17: You Are Salt and Light

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:13-16

Introductory Comments

The Sermon on the Mount moves now from the beatitudes, which we finished last week, to a couple of clear declarations by Jesus about who the disciples are. Disciples of Jesus are salt, and they are light. We should note that Jesus does not say that the disciples should be salt and light, or ought to be salt and light. Disciples are both these things. So the big questions you need to ask yourself, the question that stands over this text for all disciples of Jesus, including me, is this: Am I living as the kind of person I actually am in Jesus Christ, or am I not? Let that question settle in your minds as we begin to unpack each of these terms.

One of the things Jesus is very, very good at is using the most familiar things to illustrate eternally important truths about who humans are, and in his case who his disciples are.

Disciples Are Seasoners

Let’s begin with verse 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.
Several years ago there was a trend in the publishing business where writers would present histories of commodities, things like gold, coffee, sugar, and such. I happened to buy one of these books, a very interesting book called “Salt: A World History” by Mark Kurlansky. You might be thinking: What on earth could be so interesting about the stuff that we sprinkle on our food using little shakers or packets to give food some ping? Salt merits a “world history?” In fact, it really does, and the short little book makes the case very well. Did you know, for example, that there were times in human history when salt was worth more than gold by weight? More than just a seasoning for food, salt was at times a medium of exchange (money). It’s used as a preservative. The phrase, “that person is worth their salt” refers to a time when salt was actually used to pay salaries, a word that is derived from the word salt.

Beyond its uses in the world, salt is essential to human life. If you sodium levels get too low in your body, a condition known as hyponatremia, you might suffer from nausea, confusion, fatigue, muscle weakness or cramps, even seizures. That is why products like sports drinks contain salts. If you work out and just drink a bunch of water, you might dilute the salt content of your body too much, and so these drinks include salts to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

So salt is critically important for a variety of reasons. We may take it for granted, but salt is an essential element of flourishing human life.

This means that Jesus is making a very important statement about the disciples. When he calls them “the salt of the earth,” he is telling them that they, like salt, are an essential component of human life and flourishing. That has radical implications for those of us who are disciples of Jesus Christ. We are granted, by virtue of our discipleship, an extremely important position in the world. Dale Bruner thinks referring to the disciples as salt means that Jesus, “is very fond of us."1

When Jesus says, “you are” that is a plural you. The disciples are the salt of the earth. Because he is referring to the disciples as an assembled group this scripture today refers to the church. The church collectively, and individually, has a high calling by Jesus. You all are of critical importance to the world. The world might view the church as a relic of a bygone era, but Jesus has established it as the means of human flourishing for the world.

Salt, as I’ve said, has lots of applications. For example, salt seasons food that is bland and tasteless. Disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ are the seasoning that gives flavor to bland and tasteless lives. At the conclusion to his letter, Paul gives the Colossians directions about how to behave toward those who are outside the faith. Colossians 4:5-6 says
Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
Do you know anybody who has ever complained that they just can’t find meaning in their lives, or that their lives are boring? This isn’t the case with the Christian, who has been made eternally alive in Christ and who has a passion to bring that same vibrancy of life to others. That is what it means to be salt. To be salt of the earth means that Christians have a global calling to be the salt that brings flavor to tasteless lives.

Jesus knows what he’s doing when he equates his disciples with the incredibly valuable commodity of salt. Being the salt of the earth is way more than just doing good things for people, being salt brings life to people. A human being will die without adequate salt in the body. Similarly, people will suffer eternal death unless the church is what our Lord says she is, the salt of the earth, the means of sustaining eternal life in people that would otherwise only know eternal destruction. To be the salt of the earth means to bring the message of salvation and hope and joy to those who don’t know where to find them, who are lost apart from the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is clear what happens if we don’t live as the people we are created to be. If we aren’t salt of the earth, if we say that we are followers of Jesus and yet do not live as the salt of the earth, then we are, as Jesus says, “no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” It is when we do not live as the people we are that we become useless in the world. The church today struggles to find meaning and relevancy in the world. It would do better to remember what it already is, salt of the earth. This truth should permeate our own church and our own lives. If we are the salt of the earth, then life will not be boring for us. Bruner speaks truth when he says, “Salt does not exist in itself.” Salt is useless if it just sits there. If we are not living as the salt of the earth, the earth will simply not be interested in the church at all.

You Are the Light of the World

Jesus now uses another metaphor to call his disciples into action, in 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.
Our Lord Jesus also declares that his disciples “are the light of the world.” We were warned about uselessness in the previous verse, but now Jesus grants to us the assurance that, if we are truly his disciples, we will be put to kingdom use.2 We are the light of the world. And the one who is the source of that light won’t hide it under a basket, but will place that light high up on a stand, where its rays might shine to the greatest extent.

God did not save you and then forget about you. He saved you for a purpose that is outside of yourself.

Our Light Is A Reflection of Jesus’ Glory

As the light of the world, we are to let our light shine, unbounded by constraints or worries about what others might think, so that when the world sees us and the good things we were saved to do, they will desire to give glory to the Father. When people look at the church, at any local congregation of believers, we should not be surprised, but rather hope that they ask some questions: “What is with these people? They are doing good things, but they’re not seeking credit for them. They don’t seem to care if nobody notices the good things they do? What’s up with that?”

Earlier this year, Sara and I attended a conference on Missions held in Minneapolis. There were several pre-conference talks on the schedule, and since we live in Minnesota we arrived early and were able to take in several of these presentations.

One of the first presentations was by a man named Jeff Vanderstelt who is big into missional communities and their role in planting new churches. Every member of Jeff’s church has to make a firm commitment to mission in his or her lives and have to plan how that is going to happen.

One day, Jeff and his fellows were meeting with a married couple that stated that they wanted to be salt and light in their communities, but then some reasons came out for why this wouldn’t be possible. The husband was a full-time student, and the wife worked to support the family and their three children.  The woman, in particular, had concerns that in order to be effective in mission, she would need to quit her job and become a stay-at-home mom of three.  There just wasn’t space in the schedule to participate in most of the mission activities of the community.

In response, Jeff and the group with asked the question: What would it take to allow you to quit your job, become a stay at home mom, and do the work of mission for the glory of Christ?

The mom looked back, wondering what was up. “What do you mean?” she asked. “We mean, how much money would it take to allow you to quit your work and take up a mission opportunity for Jesus.” The woman couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She told them what it would take. Immediately, the people in attendance make concrete financial commitments until the total number was achieved. Then they gave her the money.

What happened next is very interesting. This woman began telling others about how this amazing thing had happened, that her church friends had secured a way for her financially to throw herself more deeply into the mission of the church. People were happy, and wanted to know how such a thing was possible. When she told them what happened, there were lots of quizzical responses, especially from nonbelievers. They wanted to know why anyone would part with their own financial resources to allow someone else to quit their job and take on a life of mission for Jesus. All of those questions allowed the woman to tell them about Jesus, about how Jesus Christ produces people with these capabilities and capacities and empowers them to serve him.

Jeff Vanderstelt concluded this story by saying that is how others should see our lives. If we are salt and light, people will wonder what on earth is going on. What is with these people? What makes them tick? Why do they do the things they do? The only answer that makes sense is that it is the gospel that makes these kinds of people. It is Jesus who calls people from dead, tasteless lives and saves them, through his sacrificial death on a cross, and then gives them a commission and empowers it with the Holy Spirit so that we can be his missionaries, proclaiming his word and showing his love to a broken down, bland world shrouded in darkness. Disciples are salt and light, and live in such a way that the only answer for why they live together and love each other as they do is because of what Jesus has done for them.

A big, big problem for the church today is that people, when they see the church, too often see a pale image of the bland, dark world they already live in. The answer isn’t to work harder or to promote ourselves more. The answer is to remember what we already are in Jesus Christ.

Believers, disciples, followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You don’t need wonder about this, because your Lord has established this truth by his own word. Maybe you’re wondering what the next step it. Let’s talk about that. There are so many ways God can make use of your in your roles as salt bearers and light bringers. You are already qualified for the work because you believe in Jesus and have the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Christian discipleship all about becoming what you already are. That means you are free to take some risks. You’re free to walk away from a job, free to turn off the TV, go outside and tell someone about Jesus without fear. You’re free to volunteer in one of the church’s helping ministries. You’re free to teach children about the bible. You’re free to stand up here on a Sunday to help lead the worship of our God and King. You’re free to prepare and deliver food to saints and others who have need. You’re free to give generously to the ministry and mission of the church. You’re free to sponsor a child through World Vision or a similar ministry. You are after all, salt and light. You were made to bring zest and flavor to the lives of others. You were made to reflect the very glory of God to others. You were saved for this. Let’s get to it. Amen.

1Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew: A Commentary. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007. 188.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
December 4, 2011
2nd Sunday in Advent
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew