Celebrations take different forms. I never expected in my lifetime to be leaping out of my seat, arms aloft and with a shout of joy, celebrating England winning a penalty shootout! All that God has done for us in Christ is cause for great celebration. All that he has done by his Spirit in and through us so far is cause for great celebration. And the very best possible way to celebrate is to listen to God's Word, to commit ourselves afresh to living it out, and to get on with doing that in the power of the Spirit. So that's what we're going to do.
'Salt and Light' is my title, and we're on to the next section of this extraordinary Sermon on the Mount that Jesus preached to the crowds that surged around him, and that continues to ring around the world, profoundly challenging hearts and minds and changing lives – ours included. So we're looking at Matthew 5.13-16. Please have that open in front of you. Now, by way of introduction, and to put our passage in context so we can understand it better, let me make four points.
First, this comes hard on the heels of Jesus calling the first disciples. Matthew 4.19:
"And [Jesus] said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Immediately they left their nets and followed him."
This is about the way of life of disciples of Jesus.
Secondly, this is about the way of life that flows from repentance, faith, and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Look at Matthew 4.17 for repentance:
"From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.""
Matthew 4.19 that we just looked at about the first disciples leaving everything to follow Jesus is really a picture of what faith means. With regard to the empowering of the Spirit, look back to what John the Baptist says in Matthew 3.11 about Jesus:
"He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."
So what Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount in general and in Matthew 5.13-16 in particular is a supernatural way of life. Without that supernatural transforming and empowering we can't begin to do it. It's all about having faith in Jesus, following Jesus, and being full of Jesus.
Our little back garden is chock-a-block with glorious tubs of flowers now. And they're very thirsty, not least in this wonderful warm weather we're enjoying. So I take hold of our hose and go all around from one tub to the next. But that would be entirely useless if I didn't turn on the tap. All that gushing, life-giving, growth-producing water doesn't come from me. It comes from those high-pressure mains. So it is with us if we're going to make a life-giving difference in the world. We have to be connected to the water supply, with the tap open. We have to be connected to the mains electricity, with the switch on. We have to be united to Jesus, with a living faith so that his power flows through us to the world.
Thirdly, Jesus' teaching about being salt and light is in the context of living as joyful, persecuted peacemakers in Jesus' name. Look at what comes just before our passage, in Matthew 5.11-12. Jesus says:
"Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
When I was boy, I would often fall over when I was out playing in my shorts, and get painful grazes on my knees. Back I would run to my mum. Out would come the TCP antiseptic. On it would go. And boy would it sting. It hurt me, and I would shriek. But it was for my good. The world might shriek rather more violently in reaction to the sting of the saltiness of distinctive Christian witness. But it's doing the world good, even if it doesn't recognise it.
And fourthly, note that Jesus says, "You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world." It's not something we're to aspire to or grow into. It's who we are in Christ. We can hide it. We can degrade it. But we are it.
Our ten-month old grandson Ezra has done virtually nothing in life so far, except be. But I look into those bright blue, curious eyes, and what do I see? A little man. A fully-fledged human being. A person. He doesn't have to work at being a person. He's not growing into being a person. He is a person. He has much growing and learning to do of course. But he doesn't have to learn to be human. That's who he is. Salt and light is what we are in Christ.
So I have the two obvious points from these verses. The tricky bit is living them. First, then, we are the salt of the earth – so we mustn't lose our saltiness; and secondly, we are the light of the world – so we must let our light shine. Let's take those in turn. So:
1. We Are the Salt of the Earth – So We Mustn't Lose our Saltiness
This is verse 13. Take a look. Jesus says, speaking to his disciples:
"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."
What does that mean? The key idea is that salt is distinctive. Its power lies in its difference. The same is true of the disciple of Jesus. And salt works in two ways.
First, salt works on taste. It improves the taste and flavour of things. The Beatitudes in Matthew 5.1-11 are all about the blessing the true disciples experience. But we are blessed to be a blessing. Even if we're hated. We make things better for those around us. That's not down to us. It's because we're in contact with Jesus.
I like salt on my food. The cooks in my family keep telling me that I should taste the food first before I start grinding the rock salt all over it, because they've gone to great trouble to season whatever it is just right. I just put the salt on anyway. Why? Because it improves the meal. As I see it, the more salt, the better the flavour. Christians are the salt of the earth. Christ-connected people make the world a better place.
Secondly, salt works as a preservative. It prevents decay and destruction. We have to imagine a world without fridges and freezers. And in a hot climate. Salt prevents things getting worse.
How could salt lose its saltiness, you might ask? Well as Don Carson puts it:
"Most salt in the ancient world derived from salt marshes or the like, rather than by evaporation of salt water, and therefore contained many impurities. The actual salt, being more soluble than the impurities, could be leached out, leaving a residue so dilute it was of little worth."
This summer I'm enjoying re-reading some of the brilliant Hornblower books by C.S. Forester about life in the Royal Navy at the time of the Napoleonic wars 200 years ago, that I first read as a boy. Part of the staple diet for all those press-ganged sailors was meat preserved by large quantities of salt. Along with the weevil-filled biscuits, they'd get salt-beef and salt-pork. The salt kept the meat edible and nutritious through those long months away at sea. We don't use salt as a preservative much nowadays. We have fridges and freezers. The other day I saw a TV documentary that showed, with images rather too graphic for my taste, how all food has bacteria in it, which will multiply and rot the food given half a chance. Freezing the food prevents the bacteria from multiplying, and so stops the rot. We are the salt of the earth. Nowadays, you could say, we are the fridges and freezers of the earth, stopping the rot.
So salt both improves and preserves. It's good stuff. That's what we're called to be like.
Why must we be like this?
In order to be useful to Jesus. And out of love for a hurting and decaying world. The same love that led Jesus to lay down his life.
How, then, should we be like this?
First, we should taste of Jesus, so to speak. That's what it means to be salty. That's what it means for our speaking to be "seasoned with salt" as the apostle Paul puts it in Colossians 4.6.
What with all this unaccustomed sunshine that we're enjoying, we're well and truly in the barbecue season. Long may it last. I do like a tasty piece of chicken marinated in a delicious barbecue sauce. If the chicken's really going to take on the flavour of the sauce deep down, it has to be marinated for a good long time. The sauce maybe even needs to be rubbed in vigorously. Then the sauce and the chicken become one. Cook it on some good smoky flames and you're away. If I can say this reverently, we have to be marinated in the Spirit of Jesus. Soaked in him for a long time. Continuously in fact. Then we'll taste of him. When the world takes a bite of us, we need to taste of Jesus.
And secondly, we should spread out all over the world. Rebecca Manley-Pippert's classic book on personal evangelism has the great title 'Out of the Salt-Shaker'. It's when we're spread around that we make an impact. And the way it is with salt is that a small amount relative to the whole, well spread, has a large impact. Do you feel isolated as a Christian in your particular world? Do you feel insignificant? It's not so!
I enjoy watching the Antiques Roadshow late on a Sunday evening. The other week they were at a fabulous old manor house. It had a moat all around it, with a working drawbridge at the main entrance. Pull up the drawbridge, and you can keep safe and keep everyone else out. Some are arguing that in a world that's increasingly hostile to Christian faith, that's what the church needs to do. Some call it the Benedict Option with reference to the early monastic communities in the dark ages.
What is true is that our churches need to be very strong and very supportive counter-cultural Christian communities in which we can learn to love one another and love God together as disciples of Jesus. But we must not pull up the drawbridge. We are to spread out all over the world. We are the salt of the earth. However salty we may be, if we're not spread everywhere, we're useless.
We are the salt of the earth. We mustn't compromise and conform to the world. We mustn't lose our saltiness. We mustn't withdraw. That's the first thing.
2. We Are the Light of the World – So We Must Let our Light Shine
This is verses 14-16. Jesus says:
"You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 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. 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."
What does that mean? Just as we have to imagine a world without fridges and freezers, in the same way we have to imagine a world without electric light. We have just up the road from here at Cragside in Northumberland the first domestic home in the whole wide world to be lit by electric light. But that was really a very short time ago. Throw your mind back to a world of candles and oil lamps. What does such light do?
First, light enables people otherwise in the dark to see reality. Jesus is the truth. He is reality. People need to see Jesus through us.
There has been distressing publicity recently about the number of suicides of young men and women away from home as students at university. If possible it's even more distressing to hear that suicide rates among students are if anything lower than in other parts of the population. And suicide is the tip of the iceberg of the misery that blights our society. It's dark out there. Those who are lost in the darkness desperately need the light of the world. Jesus is the light of the world. He shines through his people. Our calling is to show the lost the way to hope and peace through Jesus. So first, light enables people otherwise in the dark to see reality in Jesus.
Secondly, light enables people otherwise lost to find their way around.
The other day Vivienne had abandoned me to fend for myself so I did what I usually do when I have to cook my own food, and headed off to the supermarket to buy a ready meal. As I was browsing the chicken tikka masalas with pilau rice, I noticed along the aisle a young man standing there discussing the ingredients in various items on the shelves and choosing what to buy. Nothing remarkable in that, you might think, except that he was obviously completely blind. His guide dog was the first give-away. How did he know where to go and what he was looking at? He was holding the elbow of a young woman in the outfit of the supermarket staff. She was being his guide around the store, and his eyes to read the labels. Without her, he couldn't see where he was going and he couldn't read what he was looking at. We are the light of the world. Our calling is to enable otherwise lost people to find their way.
Why must we be like this?
First, because we – the church – are this light. This is what we're for. We are in Christ. Jesus is the light of the world. That's what he said about himself of course. John 8.12:
"I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life."
And now that we're in Christ by his Spirit, and Jesus is in heaven at the right hand of the Father, we his people, filled with his light, are the light of the world on earth.
Secondly, we must be the light of the world for the praise and glory of God the Father - and of his Son. Verse 16:
"… let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."
How should we be the light of the world?
First, don't keep quiet. Like a city on a hill – like Jesus on top of that mount, teaching the crowds of his disciples, we are to tell what we've found and what we know about him. Philippians 2.14-16:
"Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may 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, holding fast to the word of life…"
Don't keep quiet. Then:
Secondly, do good. We might even be reviled and persecuted for our pains. But we are to stick at it. As Rudolph Stier has put it:
"The good word without the good walk is of no avail."
Don Carson, in his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, gives a reminder that at the time of the evangelical revival and following it (I quote):
"… the faithful and divinely empowered proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ … so transformed men [and women] that they in turn became the light of the world. Prison reform, medical care, trade unions, control of perverted and perverting liquor trade, abolition of slavery, abolition of child labour, establishment of orphanages, reform of the penal code – in all these areas the followers of Jesus spearheaded the drive for righteousness."
May the same be said of our generation, by the grace of God. One small lamp can throw light into a far larger space. Do you feel insignificant? It is not so. So, we must let our light shine. Don't hide it. Don't withdraw from the world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:
"Flight into the invisible is a denial of the call. A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him."
Let your light shine. What a privilege! However hard the road, what a cause for celebration! What a joy to know Jesus and to have his light within us. What a privilege to be useful to him. It is sheer grace that he should use us and make our lives purposeful. What a privilege it is to be a blessing to others.