Sunday, August 7, 2016

Salty Church, Shiny Church: Sermon on Matthew 5:13-16

Good morning, brothers and sisters! If you were here last week, you remember that Jesus opened his greatest sermon by painting a picture of God's kingdom-ready people – the people called by God out from the tribes and nations of the world to be a special people. We call that the church. The church is the disciple community built on Jesus. 

The church is the people of the Beatitudes – maybe not living the world's version of the blessed life, but living the real blessed life because they're being made ready for God's kingdom to come in full. That's who we are. We're built on Jesus and the salvation he offers, and through discipleship and fellowship, we're being made ready for God's kingdom to come in full. That's what makes us blessed. But there's more that Jesus has to say about the church after the Beatitudes, and this morning, we've heard the next four verses.

And honestly, the very next thing Jesus says is a bit odd. He says, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). Why would he say that? What's so important about salt? Isn't that a weird thing to compare the church to? I mean, of all things we could be... salt? But actually, we have no idea just how important salt was in the ancient world. Salt was so important that Roman soldiers were given a special allowance of money to buy salt. It was called “salt money,” or a salarium – it's where we get the word 'salary.' When you earn a salary, you're getting 'salt money.' That's how important salt is.

And salt's always been used for a lot of things. In the ancient world, salt was used for purification. Israel's priests salted the grain offering (Leviticus 2:13) and the burnt offering (Ezekiel 43:24), the basic sacrifices made to God. Salt was a necessary ingredient in the holy incense that rose toward heaven (Exodus 30:35). Salt was used in the worship performed at God's temple (Ezra 6:9). In other words, salt was needed for everything holy. Newborns were rubbed with salt to purify them from contamination (Ezekiel 16:4). In one story, Elijah heals the impure waters of Jericho by sprinkling salt on them and praying to God for a miracle (2 Kings 2:19-22). Salt was like a disinfectant, and even to this day, salt is part of the process of making meat kosher. Even today, salt's the first step in a home remedy for ulcers, to dry out and kill the bacteria.

But salt wasn't just for purifying things. Salt is one of the oldest methods of preserving food, making it last longer – and in a world without refrigerators, that was unbelievably significant. And throughout history ever since, salted meats have been part of our diet. Maybe you've heard the Italian word that means “any and all salted meats”: salami. And besides that, we have plenty of salt-cured meats in our delis: bacon, prosciutto, corned beef, cured ham, salted dried fish – and it was no different then. Salt is for purifying things; salt is also for preserving things.

And because salt did those things, it was used for ratifying covenants. There are a couple verses in the Bible that talk about a “covenant of salt” (Numbers 18:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5). And what that meant was a bond of friendship and peace that was built to last, because the people had shared salt. Even today, in the Middle East, there's supposedly an Arabic expression that means, “There is salt between us.” We find the notion in the Bible, too. One of the letters preserved in Ezra has people explaining their loyalty to King Artaxerxes by saying, “We eat the salt of the palace” (Ezra 4:14) – in other words, we've shared salt with the king, and that makes us loyal friends who want to look out for his interests. Salt purifies, salt preserves, and salt builds a lasting covenant of peace and friendship.

But let's not forget the most obvious purpose of salt. Salt is a flavoring agent, a spice! We use it all the time! And they used it just as much, if not more. We have a much more varied diet than they did; in biblical times, food was often so tasteless that even bread needed to be dipped in salt so that they could enjoy it. And to this day, Jewish law mandates that salt be present on the table at every meal, partly because, in the absence of the Jerusalem temple, the rabbis decided that every table was an altar. And those same rabbis said that the world could no more go without salt than without the Law of the Lord. So salt is pretty important, I'd have to say.

And now you may be thinking, “Pastor, I did not know 'church' had been renamed 'lectures on common household items.' Some of those salt facts are a little interesting, but what on earth do they have to do with us here today?” 

Well, let me tell you. Jesus said to us, “You are the salt of the earth.” What might that mean? First, we said salt was used to purify things and make them acceptable before God. And so are we. Jesus is saying that we are here to purify the world. The church is on the earth as disinfectant for the land where we live. There's a lot of pollution out there, and I'm not just talking about the kind that upsets the Environmental Protection Agency. But we can do something about it. We can speak and live the gospel. We can do that in our own backyard.

Second, we said that salt is a preservative. It preserves what's good, so that the good lasts longer, so that the good endures. And that's what we do. Jesus is saying that we are here to preserve the world's good. We slow the rate of society's moral and spiritual decay. And has that ever been so needful as today? We're called to be a preservative for what's good and a purifier from what isn't.

Third, we said that salt was used to ratify covenants – that salt signified friendship between people who shared it in a “covenant of salt.” And maybe that has some meaning for us, too. We are here as agents of reconciliation for the world – like Paul said, the gospel is “the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19), first between people and God, but also between neighbors and enemies. Jesus already told us in the Beatitudes that being peacemakers is in our job description. We bring people back into contact. We bind society together. We make friendship where there once was indifference.

And fourth, we said that salt was used to give flavor to food – and it still is today. And so are we. Jesus is saying that his disciples give the world flavor. We here are the spice of life, as it were. We enhance the taste of society. Life is so much more interesting with the people of the gospel. A boring believer is a contradiction in terms. Maybe that's a surprising thought. A bishop in England named Timothy Ware tells a story. He had a friend who was a priest, who for a time in his life was hearing confessions – you know, in a confessional – just one after another, for quite some time. And the priest and the bishop got together, and the priest was a bit frustrated. And you know what he says? He blurts out: “What a pity there are no new sins!”

The truth is that sin is terribly tiresome, terribly dull, terribly monotonous and repetitive and deadening. Sin is extremely boring. We tend not to see that; we so easily fall under the devil's deception that makes sin seem so glamorous and exciting. But it isn't. Sin is the most uncreative thing you can do. What a pity there are no new sins! 

But, the bishop commented, “there are always new forms of holiness.” Holiness is creative – there's no end to new expressions of it. Holiness is inventive. Holiness is fresh, exciting, adventurous, heroic. And in being holy, in living publicly as a righteously creative community together, we season everything we touch with Christ's flavor, so that all earthly things come to taste like heaven. 

That's what the church is all about. That's what you are here for. You are the salt of the earth. You make life interesting. You, with Christ's flavor made perceptible, are the life of the party. “Let your speech” – and your character and your actions – “always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6). John Wesley put it this way. He said:

It is your very nature to season whatever is round about you. It is the nature of the divine savor which is in you, to spread to whatsoever you touch; to diffuse itself, on every side, to all those among whom you are. This is the great reason why the providence of God has so mingled you together with other men, that whatever grace you have received of God may through you be communicated to others; that every holy temper, and word, and work of yours, may have an influence on them also.

That's the point! To be the salt of the earth, we have to be different. The whole point of a seasoning is that it isn't the same as what it's put on. I've never sprinkled ground-up chicken on a chicken dinner. To be seasoning is to be something different, something that reacts with the chicken and brings out new expressions of flavor while adding its own. And if we cease to be different, if we so adapt to the culture around us that we're all but indistinguishable, then we lose our saltiness and become contaminated with the world's flavoring. Jesus has a warning about that (Matthew 5:13).

But all the same, to be the salt of the earth, we have to actually be in the earth, in society. Like Wesley says, we have to be “mingled together with other men.” Salt doesn't season a thing 'til it comes out the shaker, does it? And neither do we. When we come together on a Sunday morning or any other time to worship God and have fellowship with each other, we're in the shaker. And that's not bad: we need to be reflavored, refined, through that. That's necessary. But it isn't the point. 

The point of being the salt of the earth is to then leave the shaker and go carry Christ's flavor into the world. Think about the last week, the last month. Think about the people you've come in contact with. Watch your life through their eyes. Feel your impact through their skin. What difference did you make? How did you influence them? How salty are you? A salty church influences those around it – whether by purifying, preserving, pacifying, or flavoring. Do we do that? Are we a salty church?

Think about that. Mull it over in your minds and hearts this morning. But let's keep going. Jesus has more to tell us. He doesn't stop with the image of salt. He then says, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). What does 'light' mean? We know what light is, obviously. But in the Bible, the three things it most commonly signifies are truth, love, and God's presence. Light is what lets us know the truth. The psalmist prayed, “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling” (Psalm 43:3). And, of course, we get that light from God's Word, which is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (cf. Psalm 119:105) – you know the verse, you know the song. 

Light is also connected to love: “Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause of stumbling” (1 John 2:10). And, of course, light means God's presence: “For you are my lamp, O LORD, and my God lightens my darkness” (2 Samuel 22:29). “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1). “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD (Isaiah 2:5). “The LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory” (Isaiah 60:19). You get the picture!

And the world needs light because the world is dark. Like the prophet Isaiah said, “Behold, darkness shall cover the earth” (Isaiah 60:2). And when the world is dark, people can't tell right from wrong or true from false. “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Isaiah 5:20). Paul said we live “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” (Philippians 2:15). And when the world is dark, people mislearn what's around them. What I mean is that, when we try to walk around in the dark, we don't get the full picture; and we fill in the blanks with whatever our limited experience suggests. 

Maybe you've heard the fable of the blind men and the elephant; one feels the tail and says an elephant is like a rope, another one feels the leg and says an elephant is like a tree, and so on, but none of them can figure out what an elephant is. Because their world is dark. Paul talks about people being “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18). The story of human 'progress' is a story of how we became “futile in [our] thinking, and [our] foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21). And when the world gets dark, and when the world's darkness is inside our minds and hearts, people excuse their indulgences. Remember what Jesus said in the Gospel of John: “Everyone who does wicked things hates the light and doesn't come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20).

A dark world is in desperate need of some light. And God had always said that the world would get it. That was Israel's job. Israel was called to be the special Servant of the LORD, to reveal his saving grace to all the nations, to let them see God's truth and love made present to them. The Father said to his special Servant, “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). 

We know that the biblical nation of Israel lapsed into darkness; they had no light to bring, and like Jonah, they didn't want to take what they had. But Jesus took up the task. That's why he kept saying things like, “The light has come into the world” (John 3:19); “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12); “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). We don't have to grope in darkness and touch the elephant and guess. Our eyes are healed, the room is lit: look and see the elephant; look and see the truth and love of God.

That was Israel's job – to be light to the nations, so that God's saving grace would reach the whole world. But now Jesus tells his disciples, “You – not the Pharisees, not the chief priests, not the Sanhedrin, not the Romans, but you poor in spirit, you persecuted, you mourners and you meek, you hungry and thirsty, you are the light of the world.” 

He's talking to us. We, in Christ, are the light of the world. That's what we're here for. We shine with his light. And we don't just shine privately; we are here to publicly manifest the grace of God. We aren't just called to have good opinions about Jesus and go about our daily business. We're called to reflect him, to shine for him, in our actions and our attitudes, which our words interpret by sharing the good news.

And we shouldn't hide it from the world's view or obscure it with our own agendas. That's what Jesus tells us. Who lights a candle and then covers it up? Why did you light it, if you didn't want it to do its job? You light a candle for a purpose. And God lit us for a purpose. But too often, the church's worship stays hidden inside church walls. It may be spiritually bright in here, under this bushel of a building, but we aren't meant to be hidden. We're meant to give light to everybody in this great global house, and certainly to those nearest by (Matthew 5:15).

Too often, we live as disciples in name only. We're Christians in theory, maybe, but a theoretical gospel gets you nowhere and rescues nobody. Theoretical Christianity makes no sense. John Wesley was right when he said that to turn Christianity into a solitary religion – something you can do on your own in private, and not in connection with other believers and with the world at large – would be to destroy it. Real discipleship doesn't let us do that. I know plenty of professing believers who try – far too many who try. Live like everyone else, say you're a Christian when the pollsters ring your phone, and go on as a theoretical Christian, a believer in name but not nature, on paper but not in practice. Maybe sometimes that's what we do, what I do, what you do.

Real discipleship is visible. Real discipleship is public. The life of a disciple is apparent and effective, like a city on top of a hill (Matthew 5:14). See, a village nestled in a valley, somebody could maybe miss that. You could hide in a valley. But there's no hiding a city on a hilltop. Eyes are drawn to it. And Wesley remarked, “As well may men think to hide a city as to hide a Christian.” You can't hide an active Christian, a practical disciple of Jesus. There's no point in trying, and even if you could, it'd be pointless to do it anyway. “Be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15).

We are the light of the world. The church, the disciple community, is the light of the world. If the salty church influences those around it, the shiny church illuminates those around us with the gospel, made known in word and deed and attitude. With the light we shine, we let our neighbors see God. With the light we shine, we let our neighbors see the world. We let them see themselves and their deeds for who and what they really are; we expose it all, bring it out into the light. And we let them see the promise of the kingdom; we show them what could be, what will be, what they and we together have the opportunity to get in on, through the doorway Jesus opened for us. We can't guarantee that they will see – they may well shut their eyes tight, and as Jesus warned, they may try to extinguish the light or convince us to install a dimmer switch – but we make sight possible.

Or, at least, that's what disciples do. And that's why we're here: to be disciples, to be salt, to be light. But how shiny are we? Do we make plain to our neighbors the glory and the grace and the truth and the love of God? Do we light up their life? Are things clearer when we're around, more joyful, more hopeful? Do we reflect Jesus Christ in our actions and attitudes? Or are we easy to ignore, in exactly the way light never is?

The truth is that a community where a salty, shiny church resides is inevitably different from one without it. But merely having a band of private worshippers changes little or nothing. Jesus warns about that. Jesus warns that a disciple who isn't focused on the kingdom, who isn't bringing Christ's flavor and brightness into the life of the community – well, such a disciple is worth about as much as tasteless salt or invisible light. And I don't know about you, but I wouldn't pay too much for a lamp nobody could see by or a can of salt that didn't make a difference. 

Friends, don't become saltless or lightless, don't be dull and dim; be vivid and bright, be disciples of the Lord Jesus! The point of it all is to glorify God in a way that brings others into contact with his good taste and his lovely light: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Hundreds of years ago, a saint named Gregory Palamas, the head pastor in Thessaloniki, explained that verse this way:

Just as light effortlessly attracts people's gaze, so a way of life pleasing to God draws their minds along with their eyes. We don't praise the air that shares in the brilliance of the sunlight, but rather the sun that's the source of this brilliance and bestows it on us. Even if we do praise the air for its brightness, we praise the sun much more. So it is when someone makes the brilliance of the Sun of Righteousness visible through his virtuous deeds. As soon as anyone looks at him, they are immediately led towards the glory of the heavenly Father of Christ, the Sun of Righteousness.

Ain't that the truth? We sparkle and shimmer with Christ's light in the good things we say and do and the good ways we say and do them, not so that people see us, but so that they can see Christ through us, and give glory to his Father in heaven. The glory isn't for us; it's for him. And when people are touched by God's goodness through us and give glory to God, that's the healthiest thing for them; that's how we live the kingdom, that's how we bring healing to our neighbors and neighborhoods, in a dark and decadent time when that light and salt is so desperately needed. 

Look around you this week. The people you'll meet – the people you could meet – need what you have, need what you're in their lives to bring. So for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ, who once died and who is risen and who will surely come again, let's commit to being a salty, shiny church this month, neither tasteless nor hidden, but flavorful and bright. To God be the glory. Amen.

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