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Salt & Light


Sheldon Vanauken once wrote, "The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians, when they are somber and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths." (Sheldon Vanauken, Encounter with Light, p. 10)

That, in a nutshell, is a good rephrasing of what Jesus had to say in Matthew 5:13-16. . . .
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
In Jesus' day salt was highly valued and it was associated with at least three important qualities. First of all, salt was associated with purity. The Roman world thought that salt was the purest of all things because it came from the sun and the sea. Of course, the glittering whiteness of salt caused people to think of purity. Salt was often used as an offering to God, even in the Jewish religion. And so when Jesus said to his followers, "You are the salt of the earth," he was calling attention to the purity that needed to be in their lives, lives which could be offered wholly to God's service. A few moments before this Jesus had said, "Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God."

What does it mean to be pure? Think of products we find in the supermarket. One product I can think of advertises itself as 100% pure Florida orange juice. What does that mean? It should mean that all you get in that bottle is 100% orange juice from oranges grown in Florida with nothing else mixed in.

To be pure Christians means we have 100% of Jesus in us with nothing else mixed in. Now, I will grant you, none of us are there yet. I for one still have a lot of the world mixed in with the Jesus parts in my soul. But the goal of the Christian life should be that the Jesus ingredient grows while the rest diminishes. Like John the Baptist said, "He must increase and I must decrease."

A second thing salt was known for in the ancient world was as a preservative. In the days before refrigeration salt was used to keep meat and other foods from going bad. In the same way, Jesus is saying, my followers will help to keep the world from going completely bad.

How does a Christian act as a preservative in the world? In order to do it the Christian has to first get out of the saltshaker and into the world. Many of us as Christians spend most of our time holed up in the church. When we do that we can have no preserving influence in the world. The Lord wants us to get out into the world and make an impact for him. Simply by being in the world but not of it, standing up for what we believe, we can lead others to make better choices.

I think of the positive influence of Christians in politics. Often we do not hear their stories. All we hear about is the latest sex scandal in the Senate. We don't hear the stories of people like Mark Hatfield, a man who served for many years as the United States Senator from Oregon and who stood for Christian principles, with integrity, throughout his life. People like that have an immeasurable, incalculable influence for good. We, perhaps, would notice them more if they were suddenly taken out of politics. The political world would become even worse than it is. Imagine that!

However, politics is not the only place where Christians can have a preservative influence in the world. You can make a positive impact right where you live and work. There are certain people in whose presence, for example, a crude story would simply not be told. In fact, something like that happened to me one day. I walked into the Fast Break convenience store in Monterey, Virginia, and walked over to the ATM to get some cash. A bunch of old Highland County friends were sitting around jawing. I didn't know a single one of them. However, one of the old men, who was in the midst of listening to a story, suddenly said, "You better watch it Joe, the preacher is here." The whole group laughed and so did I. As I walked past the group and out of the store I said, "As you were!" Sometimes it seems strange that people should act different just because a preacher is in their presence. After all, I'm not God. But I am glad that I can have that kind of preservative effect on people I don't even know in a personal way.

A third thing that salt was known for in the ancient world, just as it is today, was as a flavoring. The story is told of a king, who lived many hundreds of years ago, who had his three daughters brought before him. Each daughter professed their love for their father and their king using whatever flowery language they could think of, until the last daughter was invited to say something. And she said very simply, "Daddy, I love you like salt!" The king was not very pleased with his daughter's answer until the next day the chief cook served the king his breakfast without any salt on it. Suddenly he understood what his daughter had been trying to tell him. She was saying, "Daddy, I love you so much that life wouldn't taste any good at all without you."

The Christian ought to be like that king was to his third daughter. Life just shouldn't taste any good without us. But again, we cannot act as a flavoring in the world unless we get out of the saltshaker and into the world. We need to spend time hanging out with non-Christians as much as we do with Christians. And I am just as guilty of not doing that as anyone. It is easy for pastors to get so wrapped up in their church work that they never spend time with non-Christians. But that just should not be the case. Jesus was known for hanging out with "sinners and tax collectors" at all the best parties. We, as Jesus followers, should be known for the same thing.

The problem with that is, as Christians, we often lose our distinctive salty tang. Jesus asked rhetorically, "What good is salt if it loses its salty flavor?" The answer is: "It is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trodden under foot."

Bible commentators aren't exactly sure what Jesus meant by this statement, because technically speaking salt never loses its flavor. But what Jesus may have been talking about was a white powder that was called "salt" but had other minerals mixed with it. This substance could be found in abundance down by the Dead Sea, not far from where Jesus lived and taught. Out of this white stuff the substance that was most easily washed out was the salt. The white stuff that was left was still called salt; it looked like salt, but it didn't taste like salt. It was just road dust.

This provides a very interesting analogy for what the Christian life can, unfortunately, become. The Dead Sea is full of minerals because the Jordan River flows into it, but the Dead Sea has no outlet. It is so full of minerals that nothing can live in it. That is why it is called the Dead Sea. I have been there and it is amazingly easy to float in that body of water because of all the minerals; in fact, you can't sink. And if you have a cut anywhere on your body, however small, it will sting like anything when exposed to the elements of the Dead Sea.

On the western side of the Dead Sea lived a monastic community of Essenes, known for their library of scrolls discovered a number of years ago. These people had withdrawn from the world as much as they could in order to preserve their own purity. They called themselves "the sons of light" but they took few if any steps to let their light shine into the darkness of the world around them. The one very good thing they did was to preserve literature that was important to them. Among their scrolls were some of the Hebrew Scriptures like Isaiah. Because those Essenes preserved those scrolls we have a more exact idea not only about their movement but also the best text of Isaiah.

But in terms of the witness those Essenes had in their own time, I doubt there was much to speak of. Their salt was as useless as the "salt" deposits around the Dead Sea because they kept the salt in the saltshaker. They had all the wealth and wisdom of God's Word flowing into them but they had no outlet to the people of their time and so you might say that they, like the Sea nearby, were somewhat dead even while they lived.

The Lord Jesus doesn't want us to be like that. Yes, he wants us to be distinct from the world. He wants us to retain the purity he alone can put into us by his cleansing blood and gracious power. But then he wants us to get out into the world and act as flavoring and preservative. He wants us to be like the life-producing Sea of Galilee which had water flowing into it and water flowing out of it and thus was a great place to go fishing. Jesus doesn't want us to be like the Dead Sea, only receiving and never giving away what we receive from him.

And what we receive from the Lord Jesus is all important. Jesus paid a great compliment to his disciples when he said "You are the light of the world." I say this was a great compliment because Jesus also said, "I am the light of the world." In fact, the only way any of us can be the light of the world is by reflecting his light, passing on to others the light we receive from him. He is the sun and we are the moon.

We must remember that when Jesus spoke these words he was saying something very familiar to the Jews. To the Jew, Jerusalem was "a light to the Gentiles". Jerusalem was also the city set upon a hill. And they believed that "God lit Israel's lamp". But now Jesus was applying this word specifically to his followers and saying: you are now the light of the world.

From Jesus' perspective Israel was supposed to be the light of the world but they had failed in their vocation. They had hid their lamp under a bowl; they had not shared the light of Yahweh with the Gentiles as they were supposed to do. So now Jesus' followers would take up where Israel left off.

What did Jesus mean, specifically, when he declared that his followers were the light of the world? First of all, he meant that light is something to be seen. Houses in Israel were very dark at night. They usually had only one little window. Their lamps were like little bowls filled with oil and a floating wick. These lamps were hard to light. Remember the Israelites in Jesus' day did not have matches like we do. Usually a household lamp would be put on a wooden stand. However, when people left their homes they would remove the lamp from its stand and put an earthenware bowl over it so that it could continue burning, but without risk of starting a fire while they were away.

So, Jesus was saying, "Look, you need to let your light shine all the time." In other words, there is no time when the Christian is off duty. And there is no such thing as secret discipleship. Everyone whom Jesus called to follow him he called to follow him publicly. As someone once said, "There is no such thing as secret discipleship, because either the secrecy destroys the discipleship or the discipleship eliminates the secrecy."

And notice where Jesus says our light is to shine . . . in the world. "Let your light shine before men." Jesus doesn't want us merely to shine our light in church, among Christian men and women. He wants our light to shine in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, in our schools, wherever we go.

The world would be a very dark place were it not for Christians. It would be like when I used to drive home to Monterey from Staunton or Harrisonburg on Route 250. Sometimes at night, before I would climb over Shenandoah Mountain, when I was driving through the George Washington National Forest, away from all civilization, I would pause, if there was no one behind me, and I would turn off my headlights. If you want to talk about darkness, that is darkness. When I would do that I couldn't see a single thing in front of me, behind me or beside me, especially on a moonless night. All I could do was look up and see the stars.

That is what the world would be like without Christians. Do you realize that it is the church that has built most of the hospitals around the world? It is the church that feeds most of the hungry and clothes most of the naked around the world. Oh certainly the church has done a lot of harm over the last 2000 years. The church is full of weak, sinful, fallible people who can do a lot of evil when they are not following Jesus Christ. But the church has also done a lot of good over the last 2000 years by the grace of God. We are the light of the world and we need to continue to let our light shine, by God's power.

Secondly, a light is a guide. The story is told of a captain of a ship who looked into the dark night and saw a faint light in the distance. Immediately he told his signalman to send a message: "Alter your course ten degrees south." Promptly a return message was received: "Alter your course ten degrees north."

The captain was angered; he wasn't accustomed to his commands being ignored. So he sent a second message: "Alter your course ten degrees south, I am a captain!” Soon another message was received: "Alter your course ten degrees north, I am seaman third class Jones." Now the captain was even angrier than he was before. And so he sent a final message knowing the fear it would instill in the heart of the receiver: "Alter your course ten degrees south, I am a battleship." Quick came the reply: "Alter your course ten degrees north, I am a lighthouse."

In the midst of our dark age, all sorts of voices are calling out in the night, telling us what to do, how to live our lives. However, out of the darkness, one voice sends a message quite opposite to the rest of the voices of the world. Sometimes it seems crazy to listen to that voice, but we better do it because that voice happens to belong to the lighthouse keeper, the One who is the Light of the World.

And the lighthouse keeper calls us to be the Light of the World in and through him. It seems crazy, but he even calls us to speak in his name. As we shed his light we can be very helpful and necessary guides to people in the world.

Jim Eliot, the missionary who gave his life trying to reach the Auca Indians of South America, once wrote in his journal that he wanted the Lord to make him a "fork in the road" to every person he met. He wanted every person, upon meeting him, to have to make a decision for or against Jesus Christ.

The Lord wants each of us to be that kind of fork in the road for others in the world. He wants us to be lighthouses who will guide people away from the treacherous rocks of worldliness.

And that leads to a third thing that Jesus meant when he said that we are the light of the world. A light can also be a warning light. When you see lights flashing at a railroad crossing then you better stop. Or when a warning light comes on in your vehicle you better take it into the garage or the car dealer to have them tell you what is wrong so you can get it fixed. To ignore warning lights is a dangerous thing to do.

Often the Lord can use us to be a gentle or not so gentle warning light to other people. And the most important thing we need to warn people about is the danger of rejecting Jesus Christ. For Jesus himself said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6) And he also said, "If you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins." (John 8:24) As the writer to the Hebrews asked, "How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?"

How are we to be the light of the world? The answer is: by our good deeds. More is caught than taught. Witnessing to the world is not so much something we say as it is something we do. And even more than that, being a witness is something we are. It is who we are in Christ which haunts the mind of the unbeliever and by God's grace can draw him or her to Jesus.

There are two words for "good" in the Greek language of the New Testament. One is "agathos" which means something is good in quality. Then there is the word "kalos" which means something is not only qualitatively good but it is also winsome, beautiful, and attractive. "Kalos" is the word for "good" used in this passage in Matthew. Jesus wants us to shine our light by doing good deeds which are beautiful and attractive to the non-Christian. In short, we need to love people to Jesus.

And finally, we need to do good deeds which do not call attention to us, but to our heavenly Father. As I said at the beginning, Christians are the best advertisement for Christianity, and they are also the worst.

Philip Keller tells the story of a airplane flight from Nairobi to London. After a stop in the Sudan, a very austere, stern-faced, grimly dressed missionary lady from the Congo came aboard. Through conversation she proceeded to tell everyone who would listen how she had poured out her life for the people of the Congo. But her testimony was contradicted by the fact that she did nothing but complain during the whole flight. The net result was that the non-Christians who were on the plane directed cruel jests and cutting sarcasm toward that woman. Keller says he felt ashamed to see such ridicule poured on one who claimed to be a follower of Christ.

By contrast, at another time in Keller's life, he had a big, powerful, raw-boned rancher call on him and his wife. The rancher and his wife had just committed their lives to follow Jesus Christ and they wanted to tell Keller and his wife about it before they told anyone else. When the Kellers asked why, the rancher said, "Because on a hot blistering day you helped us harvest our crop and saved it from a terrible drought. We saw through you what it was like to be Christian. And so we decided then that we would give our lives to the Lord."

To be salt and light for the king, we do not have to be spectacular; we do not have to be sensational. To be salt and light we do not have to be successful by the world's standards. We just have to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit. We have to be in tune with the presence of Jesus Christ. We have to be available to the purpose of the Father for us and for others around us.

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