February 5, 2017
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany A
View a video of this sermon here.
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 lamp stand, 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.” – Matthew 5:13-20
Last week, we heard Jesus offer a radical view of blessing to his listeners. To them, wealth and power were strong indications of God’s blessing, while poverty and suffering were signs of being cursed. These people believed that you got what you deserved, so anyone who held wealth and power must have done something really good to deserve them. Likewise, anyone who suffered in poverty must have done something really bad.
But Jesus turned this around, and said, “You are blessed when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. You are blessed when your spirit is poor, when you hunger and thirst after righteousness, when you mourn. Yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Jesus packs a lot of new ideas into his Sermon on the Mount. We will only look at part of this sermon during the season after Epiphany, but I urge you, sometime before next Sunday, to go ahead and read the whole thing, Matthew 5-7, at one sitting. In the meantime, let’s take a look at the way Jesus tells us who we are, who he is, and how we can be part of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Let’s start with who we are. Jesus says we are salt and light.
What is the purpose of salt? What do you use it for? (Possible answers: To season, make things taste good; to preserve, keep from spoiling; to clean, scrubbing agent, prevent leg cramps, to melt ice…)
Salt doesn’t just add flavor to food; it also acts as a preservative, and a cleaning agent. Salt is a fundamental requirement of our physical bodies. When Jesus says, “You are salt,” he’s telling us “You are a fundamental part of the way things are supposed to be in God’s kingdom.”
Salt held a special meaning for the people of Israel: it was a sign of covenant. Every agreement, to be legal, included the sharing of salt. Some churches today offer a taste of salt when they welcome new members. It serves as a symbol of entering into a covenant agreement with people of God who seek to live in community as the body of Christ. As salt, we offer a sign of God’s covenant with the world, his promise to redeem it from its brokenness.
As salt, we are important to God’s work of saving his good creation. It isn’t something we do or have to work toward. How can salt not be salty, Jesus asks? It can’t. We are the seasoning that puts God’s stamp on this world, as he works through us to bring his kingdom to completion.
Salt is also a very real sign that you are alive and active. Salt on the skin is evidence of sweat. Whether you are glowing, perspiring, or plain old sweating, there is genuine work going on in you. God does not expect us to sit passively and wait for the Kingdom of Heaven to appear. He expects us to invest some sweat equity in bringing that kingdom to completion.
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says. And, “You are the light of the world.” Jesus doesn’t say, “ You should be salt and light,” or “Please be salt and light,” or even “I command you to be salt and light.” It isn’t something we need to become, because it’s something we already are. Jesus says, “You are salt and light.”
Light is more than a metaphor here. Its primary function is to eliminate darkness. Light was the very first thing God created. And light is also directly connected to God’s covenant with his chosen people. In Isaiah 42:6 God says, “I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason. I will grasp your hand and guard you, and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations.”
In Revelation, John describes the city of God as needing no sun or moon, for God himself lights the city. (Revelation 21:23, 22:5) We reflect that light into the world. Jesus tells us that we are the signs in this world of God’s kingdom, and then, in verse 16, he does give a direct command: “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.”
Wait a minute. See our good works? That sounds a lot like following the law. But Jesus is already a step ahead of us. “I didn’t come to abolish the law, but fulfill it,” he says. Not one tiny mark of the Law will disappear until it is completely fulfilled, and that is what Jesus came to do.
Christ came to fulfill the spirit of Torah. The scribes and Pharisees had been caught up in the details of abiding by the Law, but they had forgotten the spirit of Torah, which focuses on righteousness. It’s not the kind of righteousness that comes from obeying all the rules, but the kind of righteousness that seeks the good of others, helping those in need, caring for those no one else cares about. This is where that sweat equity comes in that I mentioned earlier. In Matthew 23, Jesus tells the Pharisees, “You’ve done a great job of tithing your spices, but you forgot to feed the hungry. You should have done both.” (Matt 23:23)
The Torah describes the history of God and his people as well as the commandments he gave to the Israelites. So, living Torah means more than following the rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. It means identifying with the chosen people of God from the beginning of human history. It means living a life that is set apart from the way the rest of the world lives and treats each other.
The Pharisees were stuck in thinking that the fulfillment of God’s promises lay in the future, but God was already doing a new thing. The kingdom of heaven was in their midst, but they were trying to squeeze God into the box of their own expectations.
The Pharisees saw Torah as a way to limit sin, by complying with 613 specific commandments. Jesus saw it from a Kingdom of heaven viewpoint, where human limitations are overcome by the abundance of God’s righteousness.
In the Kingdom of heaven, Jesus calls his followers to a different quality of righteousness, not an increased quantity. Righteousness comes from the realm of grace. It is available to all who respond with a repentant heart to the kingdom of heaven here and now in the person of Jesus Christ.
Kingdom righteousness is also about teaching others to repent and believe the good news. If we teach them to ignore God’s commands, we will be least in the Kingdom of Heaven, but living Kingdom lives, and teaching others that same kind of Kingdom living, makes us great in God’s eyes.
So what are we teaching by the way we live our lives? And what does that tell the world we really believe? Are we seasoning the world liberally with Christ’s love, or sparingly with some routine we call “church?” Is our light shining brightly or dimly?
Or maybe we need to ask ourselves, “What gets in the way of shining our light into the darkness? What dilutes our saltiness?” What keeps us from being everything God calls us to be as followers of Jesus?
Christ calls us to live well-seasoned lives that uncover God’s light for others to see. As salt and light, you are the sign that God is alive and working in this world he loves so much. It isn’t something you have to strive for, or need to become. You already shine. You can’t be hidden under a basket. You are like a city on a hill that can be seen from miles away. Jesus says, “let your light shine, that others will see your good works” —
- as evidence that you are genuine
- as evidence that God can be trusted to keep his promises
- as evidence that works of justice and mercy aren’t how we get to heaven, but they reveal that the Kingdom of heaven has already broken into our world. It is here among us.
Remember District Superintendent Fred Vanderwerf’s sermon from a couple of weeks ago? He talked about the places in today’s world where people find the fellowship and meaningful service they once found in the church. They can build strong friendships around sports, and they can do good works through secular organizations. But there’s one thing the church can offer people that none of those sports teams or charitable organizations can offer. That’s Jesus.
Jesus is love. Jesus commands us to love in his name. This is how we are salty and shiny as followers of Jesus: we love people. We offer them hope that no one but Jesus can offer. And we don’t confuse hope with optimism or wishful thinking. Our hope is in the crucified and risen Christ.
Walking through the old downtown of Charleston on a Wednesday night, we passed one of the many historic churches in the city. The lights were on in the sanctuary, shining out into the darkness, and as we approached, another tourist stepped up to the huge front door and gave it a half-hearted pull.
She was obviously surprised when the door actually opened, and as soon as it opened, we could hear voices inside. Choir practice was in progress. The tourist quickly closed the door again and tiptoed away.
Maybe she had been hoping to slip in and pray. My guess is that she really just wanted to look at the architecture and admire the building as a bit of history. But this church building was not a museum. This congregation was alive and well. The lights were shining out into the busy community around it.
As we walked on, I kept thinking about that surprised tourist. She had not expected a living, breathing, worshiping community of real people to greet her when she opened the door. Sometimes, I think people are surprised when they open our door, to find us investing some sweat equity into building up the kingdom of heaven here at Center and Broadway. Being salt and light is not what the culture expects of us. Faithfulness is not what the culture expects of us. But we are salty and we shine anyway, because that is who we are. That is who Christ calls us to be.
As we approach this sacred Table, Christ invites you to bring all of who you are to this Feast. Come salty, come shining …. come.