Salt and Light
Topic: Default Scripture: Matthew 5:13–5:15
Good morning! If you were here with us two weeks ago, you know that we are walking our way through The Sermon on the Mount. This is THE most famous sermon ever preached. There is no discourse in human history that has generated more study than this one. More than Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech. More than Winston Churchill’s Never Give Up. More that Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. There are volumes and volumes of books written on the volumes and volumes of books written on The Sermon on the Mount.
Two weeks ago we looked at the Beatitudes where Jesus finished by telling us that in this world we will be persecuted. So, as followers of Jesus, the question that raises is how are we then to relate to this world. Historically, there are three options. We can flee from this world and create monasteries or compounds, we can compromise with this world to minimize the persecution we receive or, as Jesus is teaching in this passage, we can influence this world.
The Christian church has been struggled for 2000 years to agree on what exactly our role as a church is as it pertains to how we influence our surrounding culture both at a corporate level and an individual level. Christians struggled to agree if the church should get involved in the abolition of slavery. Christians struggled to agree on whether to support the American Revolution. The church has historically disagreed on whether it is our role to provide hospitals, schools and orphanages (all historically started and run by Christians). The church has even disagreed on exactly how we love our neighbor or even who our neighbor.
Do we get involved in issues of homelessness? Do we get involved in politics? Do we church get involved in issues of race and discrimination? Do we proselytize? What should our influence in this world look like?
This morning I want to look at this text from three angles. First, the need for Christian influence. Second, the nature of Christian influence. Third, how you grow in your influence.
- The need for Christian influence
There are, believe it or not, those out there who think the world would be a better place if there were no Christians in it. And maybe there are some significant stains in church history that we would all like to go back and change, but Jesus in this passage seems to be clearly saying that we are necessary. Christian influence, according to this passage is necessary because this world is dark and in decay.
There is an interesting cultural shift happening right now. It actually resembles a shift we saw in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. Up until the early 1900’s, there was an air of optimism. A deep belief that humans have an inherent capacity for good that we will achieve the perfect utopian peaceful existence if we continue to develop our technologies. But that mindset was all but crushed in the 20th century and replaced by utter cynicism and skepticism. Why? 100 million people died from two world wars, countless smaller wars and the rise of communism. Everything people put their hopes in ultimately made life worse.
But now, things have been good enough for long enough and we are seeing a return to that mindset. What is it that people don’t understand that would cause them to buy into this idealistic understanding of our own humanity? They don’t understand that the world is in decay. Everything that we are able to study is in decay. Left to its own devices everything drifts toward decay. If I don’t manage my yard at my house for just a couple weeks, it looks like no one lives there. The neighbors will begin to talk.
Every now and then I work up the courage to clean the back seats of our minivan. If I don’t get back there and take care of it, it isn’t long before there are new species of Cheeto fueled fungi growing back there.
Angela and I lived in Italy for five years and one of the great wonders of Rome is the Colosseum. It is an archaeological marvel. Rome built it in 8 years. It is as tall as a 15 story building. Every inch was covered in perfectly white marble. It held about 50,000 people. There were 240 massive arches that each had huge statues under them. There was a labyrinth underneath the floor from which lions would pop out of the ground. They would flood this place and have maritime battles.
When Rome fell, the Colosseum was largely untouched. It’s not like you can pull it down or burn it. But when Rome fell, there wasn’t anyone to keep this massive achievement up. And in just a couple decades plants began to grow up in it and slowly, but surely one of the greatest human accomplishments in history began to decay, from plants. What’s left to day is impressive, but nothing like what it was.
We all know that one day the sun is going to burn out and all life in our solar system will end. Our bodies are decaying. We can work hard to keep in shape, but the moment we stop, what happens? It goes the opposite direction. That seems to happen a little faster each year. But no matter how hard we work, one day, our bodies will literally just fall apart molecule by molecule.
I know this sermon is off to a very encouraging start. But the point has to be made if everything we have ever observed, if left to itself, decays, why would humanity be any different? There was a time when humanity first rebelled against God and that rebellion began the cycle of decay in our planet, in our bodies, in our relationships and in our minds. Sin plunged this world into darkness and decay.
But Jesus is saying here that something has broken into this world that can slow and even reverse this decay. Something that can illuminate the darkness. And He is saying in no uncertain terms that, if you are a Christian, that thing is you. You are salt in a decaying world and you are light in a dark world.
So, what exactly does that mean? To understand that, we need to understand something about the nature of Christian influence.
- The nature of Christian influence
Now, if you are here today and you’re not a Christian, I could imagine that what I just said sounds pretty arrogant. All humanity is lost without Christians. I get that, but that’s not exactly what I’m trying to communicate. Think about it this way. All of us at some level desire to be connected to something bigger than ourselves. That’s basically what influence is, right?
We gain influence based on what we are connected to. If you are connected to a PhD, that gives you influence. If you are connected to a very important person, that gives you influence. If you are connected to a lot of money, that certainly can give you a lot of influence. But the problem is that all of those things are themselves decaying. All of those things are plagued with the very problem Jesus is wanting to counteract.
Yet we still run to those things. Why do we run to these things? We run to them to feel better about our own shortcomings caused by our own decay. But, do you know what we are really doing when we run to those things? We are running to them and asking, “Are you my savior? Money? Boyfriend, are you my savior? Job I’ve always wanted, are you my savior?” And they will always let you down because they are all in decay themselves.
What all of us need is for something out of this world, not affected by the decay we experience to break into this world. And that is what Jesus has done. Jesus is the only One not marred by decay because He is the only one not marred by sin. He is perfect. He will never tire of you, never let you down and never stop loving you. And we know this because He gave His life for us.
And when we believe in Jesus and His Holy Spirit comes into our being, we are, for the first time, connected to Someone immune from the decay of this world and that gives us an influence that isn’t limited and that will last eternally. In Jesus’ words, at that time we become salt and light and we believe deeply that that it is for the good of everyone, believers and unbelievers alike, that we influence all the places we touch.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, become salt or become light. He doesn’t say that one day you might be salt and light if you try really hard and go to church more. He says you ARE salt and you ARE light. He’s not asking you to be any more than you are. He’s saying that by virtue of being a disciple, you are now salt. You are now light. The command is to stay that way! What in the world does that mean? Let’s look at them separately. Let’s think of salt as the defense and light as the offense.
First, the defense. Salt. It’s funny if you read all the stuff out there how many uses of salt there are out there. I had no idea. One commentary identified eleven different uses of salt. Salt is tasty, so we need to be tasty. Salt makes you thirsty so we need to make people thirsty for Jesus. Salt takes the ice off roads, so I’m not sure how to apply that in Florida. One commentary actually said salt if white. White represents purity, so we need to be pure. Now, I don’t think any Christian has been misguided by these uses of salt, but I don’t think that is what anyone around Jesus would have heard.
Salt was an extremely valuable commodity in that day. People were paid in salt. That’s where we got our expression “worth his weight in salt.” And the reason it was so valuable was because it was used to preserve meat. Any other benefit of salt would have paled in comparison. They didn’t have refrigerators back then. The moment you cut up meat, you had to cover it in salt so it wouldn’t decay. There were all these microbes that spoil the meat, but the salt dehydrates the meat and stops the spoiling process. And Jesus is saying, “That’s what you are! Little pieces of salt for the earth to preserve and prevent decay.”
I know it can sound a bit anticlimactic. The King of Kings, Lord of Lords has chosen you! He has made you His ambassador! He has brought you out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of light and now….you are….a little piece of salt. Why salt? Why not the diamonds of the earth or, better yet, the kings and queens of the earth? Salt is common, it is ordinary, it is small...but because of its properties, it is powerful.
Again, we are thinking defensively here. There is less gossip in your workplace because you are there. There is a higher view of sexuality in your student organization because you are there. There is a more humble attitude in your gym when you are there. The more Christians there are in a city, the more the poor are taken care of, the unborn are protected and the disenfranchised are lifted up.
There’s some push back in the secular world against Christianity because all of the atrocities that have happened under the banner of Christianity. And there’s no doubt that horrible things have happened in the name of Christianity. But no one can argue that infinitely more good has come from Christianity. Societies void of Christianity have led to the worst crimes in history. Mao’s China. Stalin’s Russia. Hitler’s Germany. The Ung family’s North Korea. Hussein’s Iraq.
Societies filled with Christians breed higher views of humanity and higher level of human rights. The first person in history to speak out against any form of slavery was a Christian: Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th century. William Willberforce, a Christian, helped end it in England. Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. day. Last year marked fifty years since his assassination and last week would have been his 90th birthday. His message in the Civil Rights Movement was uniquely Christian.
Do you realize that the whole concept of human rights and human dignity came from Christianity? There is no record of it outside of the influence of the Bible. The whole reason we live in a grace based society and not a shame based society is because Christianity went west. Hospitals, orphanages and schools largely exist because Christians wanted to influence society for good.
Christianity has hugely benefited the world even outside of people being brought into the Kingdom of God. Whether people see it or not, it is for the good of this world that we are called to be the salt of the earth.
And Jesus’ command to Christians is to stay that way. Look at verse 13:
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. - Matthew 5:13
Now, from what little I understand about salt and chemistry, salt can’t actually lose its saltiness. Strictly speaking, salt will always be salt. But, in that day, salt was mostly derived from marshes. Marshes contained all kinds of dirt and other impurities. So, sometimes, if the salt is mixed in with these other impurities, it no longer tastes salty. The taste of the salt in your hand was the test of its ability to preserve meat.
So, how is it that we could lose our saltiness? Compromising our Christian values.
Living lives that look no different than the marsh we came from. Now, I want to be clear. Christians won’t perfect this world, Christ will when He returns. Christians also can’t take up every Kingdom issue in this city. But, because we serve a different King over a different kingdom, we will not flee, we will not compromise. We will engage. That’s salt.
Second, we are also light. This is the offense. Light doesn’t preserve, it illuminates. Likely, Jesus is up on a hill teaching as the sun is going down. And surrounding Jesus are hills and on top of many of the hills is a town, because that was where you placed towns back then to be safe. And as the sky got darker the towns got brighter.
I don’t know how many of you have driven in rural Mississippi or someplace similar. The cities don’t sprawl there like they do here. They are more like islands. So if you are driving at night between towns it is very dark. And the first thing you see on a clear night as you approach a city isn’t a sign or a gas station, but the light of the city.
And Jesus is saying that this is us. We are that light on a hill. I appreciate Ronald Reagan, but his exegetical skills needed some work. The light on the hill is not the US, it’s the church. People are lost in darkness. And I don’t mean darkness like walking down Maitland Avenue at night, I mean darkness like being in a cave 200 feet below ground. Disorienting darkness. Darkness where you have no hope of finding your way unless you find light. And you are that light. You illuminate the way.
So, how in the world do we do that? Verses 15 and 16: 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 in heaven. - Matthew 5:15,16
We as Christians are called to let our light shine. But, let’s be honest, we don’t always want our light to shine. We don’t always want to look different. And, make no mistake, if our lights are shining, we will look different. It can be very uncomfortable to be the only Christian in the locker room, the only Christian on the golf course, the only Christian in your classroom, the only Christian on the sideline of a little league game. So, sometimes it seems like life would be easier if we could just put our lamp under a basket.
But you don’t exercise the influence that Jesus wants His people to exercise by walking the easy path. And, as uncomfortable as it feels to stand out and look different, it is for God’s glory and everyone’s good that we do.
We shine and people respond. It doesn’t mean everyone is going to like it. People respond to light in different ways. I turn on the light in the morning in my four year old’s bedroom and he is so excited it’s morning. He runs and hugs me. “Thank you for waking me up!” I turn on the light in my eleven year old’s bedroom and it’s like I’ve come to kill him. He will do anything he can to hide form the light. We can’t control how people respond. Some will be repelled and some will be attracted like a ship to a lighthouse or a moth to a flame. Our call though is simply to shine.
So, how is it that we shine brightly? Last point. How to grow in your influence.
III. How to grow in your influence
I want to stay with the light metaphor and look at three ways we can shine more brightly. First, move into darker places. If you are surrounded by Christians all the time, it will take a lot of work for your light to look very bright. But, imagine the smallest little flame...maybe the flame on the end of a match. How bright does it shine in a pitch black room? The darker the room, the brighter we shine.
Some of you might feel like you are surrounded by such darkness all the time and I hope this text is encouraging to you. You might just be a baby Christian with the smallest little light, but in darkness, that’s all you need.
As a pastor, I have to make a real effort to be around people who aren’t professing Christians. So, in Oxford, Angela and I decided to join this gym where there are classes where we can get to know people who wouldn’t identify as Christians. And it’s not like we are leading group prayers before the workout or anything. We just lived life there and over time, God created some really neat opportunities. Are there areas of darkness you could move into more?
For some of you that might be a challenge, but for others of you, you have the opposite challenge. Which takes me to the second way we can shine brighter: connect to other lights.
If you are reading the NIV or the ESV, they translate a Greek word in our text as ‘you.’
But, if you have the DSV, The Deep South Version, that Greek word is translated as ‘Y’all.’ And I think that is the more accurate translation. Y’all are the light. Jesus gives the picture of a city on a hill because there are many lights coming together to collectively shine brighter.
Some of you operate more like a Lone Ranger. What might it look like for you to connect with other lights? I think it definitely means making Sunday a priority. It might mean joining a community group. It might mean taking a step toward church membership. Our next Discover OGC starts next week:) It could mean meeting up with other Christians every now and then and studying the Bible together, praying together or talking about what God has been teaching you together. You light is brighter when it shines alongside other lights.
Finally, and most importantly, if we want to shine brighter, we must reflect the True Light. In our day of electricity, it’s easy to miss the point Jesus is making. Jesus is actually comparing us to the lamp, not the flame. Did you notice that? Back then, they would have had a lamp with a candle and oil inside and the lamp contained the flame. We don’t produce the light, we contain it.
We don’t have light like the sun has light. We have light like the moon has light. The sun generates its own light, the moon simply reflects the light of the sun. This is why Jesus said, "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 Do you know what causes the moon to go dark? The world. Only as we draw closer to Him do we reflect that light for all to see.
Christian influence has little to do with us and much to do with Jesus. Of all the major world religions, only Jesus claimed to be the light. Every other major figure claimed to point toward the light, but Jesus claimed to be the light. When we believe in Him, He shines through us. Is His light shining in you?
The more we draw to the Source of the light, there we will reflect its brilliance in a way that people will see. Some will be repelled, but some will be drawn in.
Can you see now why Christian influence in the world is different than any other kind of influence? And if you are here this morning and you are wondering why does Jesus even care. Why does He care if I am salt? Why does He care if I am light? We see the answer in the way Jesus taught us to pray.
Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Matthew 6:10
He is bringing His kingdom here and He wants to use us to see it happen. So, I want to finish by just thinking to ourselves about how we can be salt and light wherever it is that God has us. In our neighborhood, our workplace, our kids schools or anyplace else we do life in this city.
Let’s just take a moment to reflect silently and I’ll close us in prayer.