A sermon based on Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matthew 5:13-20 preached on February 5th, 2017
Today, we continue looking into the Sermon on the Mount. Last Sunday, we looked closely at the Beatitudes, the series of eight blessings Jesus bestows upon His followers, all of which come together to give us one comprehensive picture of what Christian character looks like—the attitudes we should have and the things we should pay attention to in order to grow into God’s idea of full human being. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount is simply Jesus’ effort to enflesh—to put skin and muscle, tendon and tissue around the bones that are the eight beatitudes. And, if we continue to listen carefully to the rest of what Jesus has to say in Matthew chapters 5 through 7, the closer we’ll come to developing into the full-bodied and faithful creatures that God wants us to be.
If the Beatitudes of last week come together to describe a Christian’s character, today’s lesson describes a Christian’s influence—the approach we take as we relate to the world, how we engage others, how we are called to be difference-makers, and how we put the Beatitudes to work. Sometimes, we hear the Beattitudes, each one of those Blesseds, and we say,
Well, that’s nice, those are beautiful words, Jesus, but how do we live them out? And what for?
When we begin living out the blessings inside the Beatitudes, when we start shaping our days and our decisions around them, what do they make of us? And this is Jesus’ answer: When you live the blessed life of the Beatitudes, you will become an influencer. You will live as salt, and you will live as light.
Salt and light seem on the surface to be two completely different things. Isn’t Jesus mixing metaphors here? But when we dive into the thick of the metaphor, use our imaginations to draw out the substance and character of both salt and light, Jesus’ words begin to make sense.
First off, both salt and light are no good on their own. Just a tip: Don’t eat a tablespoon of salt. I did it as a dare once, and it’s gross. Aside from Double Dog Dares, we would do no such a thing.
Salt is useless on its own. Neither do we stare into the sun. Our parents teach us this from a very young age, but we do it anyway, and we learn the hard way that light by itself is no good on its own. In fact, kinda like salt, on its own it does harm. Light can’t do its thing unless it has something to reflect off of. Both salt and light are no good unless they’re poured out, thrown onto everything around them. That’s how both fulfill their purpose.
Another thing about both light and salt: neither one is made to draw attention to itself. Both work to reveal the character, glory, texture, and substance of other things. We scatter salt over a pot of homemade chicken soup to bring out the flavor of each ingredient. That salt doesn’t work for itself. It works for all the other things inside the pot. Same thing with light. Without a surface to shine off of, light does nothing. But, give it a surface to bounce off of, light finds its purpose, it reveals the character and shape of a thing. Our verse 14 says,
light brings out the God-colors, the God-shapes, the God’-textures in everything.
Without salt and light, our lives and many things in them would lose their meaning and significance. They would be bland and tasteless. With them, though, everything comes alive! We are salt and light, Jesus says. And, notice the way He says it. He doesn’t say,
If you want to become salt and light, then that’s an option you have, but only if you want to…
He doesn’t say,
You better be salt and light, and start acting like it!
Neither does He say,
I have an idea! Why don’t you start acting like salt and light?!
Jesus says we already are salt and light. We don’t get to opt out of this one. This is our character, our purpose. This is how we should be difference-makers in the world.
It’s important to stop right here, though, and clarify something. Notice there are no imperatives here. No command to be salt and light. No must’s or shall be’s. This isn’t something we have to do or else. Rather, salt and light are what we will inevitably be once when we take the 8 beatitudes from last week and live into them. Our Christian Character, shaped by the Beatitudes, yields salty and light-bearing lives. This is our Christian influence. We cannot help but be salt and light in, to, and for the world.
Salt has an edge to it, though, doesn’t it? It bites back. Light can reveal what we or others do not want to see. And both can burn. Both salt and light, for better or for worse, can reveal the true character of things. When Jesus called us these two things, salt and light, He had both the upsides and the downsides in mind. But He tells us to be them, anyway.
The prophet Isaiah is an example of how being salt and light has an edge and a bite to it. Isaiah shouts out to his own people. God tells him to hold nothing back as he does so. And with words that God gives him, Isaiah confronts the peoples’ ways with God’s biting, edgy truth. Isaiah calls his people out on the floor in the passage we read this morning. Through the prophet’s voice, God confronts the people with their unjust behaviors. It appears they’re only pretending to be right-living people, but their actions speak a whole lot louder than their words. Isaiah declares to the Israelites that God can see right through all their religious activities. All their devotion to God is hollow, insubstantial. It’s just for show.
The kind of devotion that God wants comes down to how we treat others. Do we live to break the chains of injustice? God says that’s what real devotion looks like. We are to take steps to get rid of exploitation wherever we see it, to free the oppressed, and cancel suffocating debts, sharing food with the hungry, and inviting the homeless into our houses. Put clothes on the naked ones among us, and giving ourselves to our own families. Do those things, God says, and become difference-makers! That’s right living according to God! That’s what being salt of the earth and light for the world is all about!
Salt, in order to do its work, must be poured out. Light’s the same way. It must go where there is darkness, and there it does its thing. With these words, Jesus speaks about our influence and the difference we’re called to make, indeed will make, if we step up to the call of God upon our lives and are faithful to the work that God calls us to dare and do. For Christians to be influencers, we must be distinctive and involved.
We have a tendency, though, do we not, to lean towards comfort, conformity, and complacency? Most of the time, we just want to blend in. Become a part. Let others come up with the plans and policies with which we live our lives, and then simply follow their lead. We follow in unquestioning allegiance in the ways of others. But by doing so, we give away our distinctive voice and character, and influence, and before we know it, we’re simply repeating what others say, and uncritically and unthinkingly proclaiming someone else’s vision and version of truth, or living out someone’s else’s vision and version of life. That’s the danger that Jesus is confronting here—our tendency to lose our uniqueness in our effort to simply blend in.
Salt and light never blend in. Whenever they show up, they change the situation. They change the look and flavor of whatever they’re poured into. By their very nature, salt and light are change agents, and so should we be! An influence for good. Distinctive, involved, and hard to ignore!
The clatter and din and anxiety of these days in this current political climate—it’s immense. It’s really too much to take. We’re all on edge, have you noticed? No matter our political leanings, we are a hurting and uncertain people right now. Many of us feel attacked, embittered, misunderstood, and to one extent or another, we feel like our personal agency has been compromised or even taken from us. Do you come this morning exhausted by it all?
It’s easy to become a part of the uproar. To add to the chaos of these times. The greatest danger in doing so, though, if Jesus’ words here have anything to do with it, is that we lose ourselves in the process. We can easily give away too much of ourselves or lose our distinctiveness and character if we give in to the hand-wringing, the grenade-lobbing, the senselessness of this loaded and loud moment.
I believe that Jesus words to us this day, amid all this, is to take up a different manner, to undergo an attitude transplant, to take a bigger perspective, to step off the battlefield that so many of our fellow Americans are waging war on—trying to destroy one another on, and to step up onto a different sort of field, into a different way of being. To become an influencer, to cultivate something new, a different conversation, to be the people who plant new seed beneath our feet—something nourishing and life-giving. To rise out from all the messiness, and practice a new way, speak in a new voice. To be difference-makers. Live in the sort of way where we can be strong and distinctive reminders to anyone who pays attention, that we stand for the way of love and grace. That we have no use for the ways of hate and fear and division. That’s being salt. That’s being light. When everything we are, everything we do, and everything we say points toward love. That’s the Christian’s influence. You and I are agents. We’re here to sprinkle, plant, and shed a little bit of heaven around.
No one ever said that would be easy. Discipleship is daring work. That’s why it’s so rare these days. It is into this world full of accusatory, pointing fingers, furled eyebrows, and snarling teeth that Jesus has placed us and called us to be salt and light. And that’s hard. Following Jesus is hard. It’s so much easier to hate and speak than it is to love and listen.
“Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus says.
“But that’s hard!” we say.
Jesus replies, “Yes, neighbor, I know,”
So let’s trudge on, living our way into the way of love. Acting as salt and light of, for, and in the world. It’s a daring way, and it is the Way of Jesus.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!