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Salt & Light

Our Gospel reading for today is from Matthew 5:13-16. Listen for God’s word to you…

“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.

In Jesus’ day salt was highly valued and it was associated with at least three important qualities. 

First, 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 he wanted there to be in their lives, lives offered to God’s service. 

Last week we read these words of Jesus: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”

How do Christians remain pure in this world?  The only way I believe that is possible is through Christ living in us. But even then, none of us are perfect. I doubt that even the best person can live their whole life completely unstained by the world.

That’s why we confess our sin to God and ask his forgiveness through Christ. It is a way of restoring our purity when our lives become sullied.

People often ask me what my favorite C. S. Lewis quote is. It is this one from a letter he wrote to a former student whom he had the blessing of leading to faith in Christ…

I know all about the despair of overcoming chronic temptations. It is not serious, provided self-offended petulance, annoyance at breaking records, impatience etc. don’t get the upper hand. No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be v. muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up. It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us; it is the v. sign of His presence…

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 suggesting that his followers might serve as a preservative in the world.

How does that work? Well, I think 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 have little or no positive impact on the world. I think Jesus wants us to get out into the world and make an impact for him. Following Jesus means going where he would go if he were in our shoes, saying and doing the kinds of things Jesus would do.

I think of the positive influence of Christians in politics. Often, we do not hear their stories.  All we hear is the negative. 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! I think we need to be praying for our political leaders and praying that God would raise up more men and women to serve him with integrity in that arena.

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.

I know that sometimes, preachers like me have a strange effect on people. I remember an incident that happened a number of years ago when we lived in the tiny town of Monterey, Virginia, population 200. I walked into the Fast Break convenience store one day and walked over to the ATM to get some cash. A bunch of old Highland County friends were sitting around jawing. You know the group. Every little town has them. 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 if I can have a positive impact on people I don’t even know, then I’m glad.

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. We should make life taste better for others. 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 people outside the church. 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 people outside the church. But that just should not be the case. Jesus was known for hanging out with people that others considered “sinners”. Jesus was at all the best parties! We, as Jesus followers, should be known for the same thing.

My mother and father were two of the finest Christians I have ever known. When I think about who some of their best friends were when I was growing up—they were all unchurched people! They set a great example for me in that way just as they did in many other ways.

Of course, the problem with some of us Christians is that 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 one wonders if they took any steps to let their light shine into the darkness of the world around them. People outside the Qumran community might have considered the “salt” of the Essenes’ lives as useless as the “salt” deposits around the Dead Sea because they kept their salt in the saltshaker, so to speak. The Essenes had all the wealth and wisdom of Scripture flowing into them, but they had no outlet. Now, thankfully, they left us some very valuable first century manuscripts. But one does wonder what positive impact the Essenes had on people outside their own group in the first century itself.

I don’t think Jesus wants 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. 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. As I told our children during the Mystery Box time a few weeks ago, Jesus is like the sun and we are like the moon.

We must remember that when Jesus spoke these words about being the light of the world, 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 the Jews 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.”

Apparently, from Jesus’ first century perspective, Israel was supposed to be the light of the world, but he felt they had failed in their vocation. Jesus felt his own people had hid their lamp under a bowl; he believed they had not shared the light of Yahweh with the Gentiles as they were supposed to do. So now Jesus was telling his followers they 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, I think 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 others.”  Jesus doesn’t want us merely to shine our light in church, among Christians. He wants our light to shine in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, in our schools, wherever we go.

So, first, light is something that should be seen. And second, 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 it is to our advantage to listen 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, to be a helpful guide to others. 

How are we to be the light of the world? I think 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. 

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 others.

The goal is not to attract others to ourselves by our good deeds. Rather our goal should be to point others to the loveliness of Jesus. 

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.[1]  

Christians are the best advertisement for Christianity, and they are also the worst. Let’s try to be the best advertisements we can be, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

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.

[1] Sheldon Vanauken, Encounter with Light, p. 10


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