PRAYER: When you sat preaching on that mountain, O God, did you see our faces among the crowd? Enable us to hear your voice today, that we may be reminded that we are the light of the world, called to shine, that others may see your good works and not ours. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Last week, we began a short three-week journey into the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We read verses 1-37, but focused only on verses 1-12 – the Beatitudes. We talked about the fact that the beatitudes are not statements about how we need to live if we want God to love us; they are statements about how we live because God is in relationship with us.
The beatitudes are, for us, a prescription for how we are to walk with God. For those of us who long for a genuine encounter with God, we must first recognize that the Gospel is more than just a guidebook of how to get to heaven in the next life. It is a reminder that, as we are wired to want intimacy with God and genuine connection to God’s purposes, our transformation is in how we live here and work to bring God’s kingdom into how we live today and every day.
I invited you into a time of renewal and hope by living in a sense of expectation through the beatitudes. I encouraged you to let this time be one in which you renew your commitment to living into the beatitudes every day and living in such a way that the Kingdom of Heaven comes at last into our world. It is through our mutual work and faith that hatred is ultimately turned to love, war is turned into peace, apathy is turned to compassion, swords are turned to plowshares, and we are all reminded of the great truth of whose we are, and how we can ensure the blessings that God offers, today and always.
Today, we are picking up in verse 13 and reading through verse 20. Next week, we will finish this journey by reading verses 21-37 before Lent begins on February 22.
Before we look too deeply into the Gospel reading, I want us to look at the text from Isaiah which accompanies the Matthew text in our lectionary today. The people of Israel were complaining because they believed that they were doing all the right things: they were fasting, they were praying and so on, but God did not seem to notice. Isaiah speaks God’s response that challenges them on their attempts at piety with no results. He points to their injustice and exploitation of the poor. He accuses them of fasting on one day and fighting the next. “Such fasting as you do today,” he says, “will not make your voice heard on high.”
Isaiah tells them exactly what they need to focus on if they want God’s favor – and it is more than just keeping up appearances.
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”
Very important and informative words from Isaiah this morning. A contrast is drawn between the desire for making outward appearances, which are generally self-indulgent and the calling of God to acts of mercy and love. Their culture had become disconnected from God and from God’s purposes, which is why they felt no response from God. They were following the rules with their heads but not with their hearts! They were going through the motions of fasting, but only out of a sense of obligation… following the rules because that’s what the rules say.
When we fast – and I will tell you that fasting can be a wonderful spiritual discipline, if you’re so inclined – we are not supposed to adopt an attitude of how we’re suffering because we’re skipping a meal or two. It’s not an opportunity for drama; it’s supposed to be an exercise in faith. Not, “Oh, look at how we are fasting O God, aren’t we good pious little children, suffering so?” For the Israelites, it was faux-suffering all while others in their midst were actually suffering and dying. They were not learning anything or standing in solidarity with the poor. God is not interested in playing make-believe. God is not impressed with words or activities that carry no weight. God is interested with what’s in our hearts.
Jesus went onto that mountain and among the things he said was, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.” Both of these statements are uplifting and affirming. He’s telling the people gathered there that they matter. He’s not telling them that if they play their cards right, they could be the light of the world. If you check all these boxes, then you’re the salt of the earth. He says that they ARE those things… now. And that’s an important distinction.
Both salt and light are significant elements of life in first century Jerusalem. I know that there are some that say we should limit our salt intake, have low-salt diets and so on. In our family, our daughters have standing instructions to sneak salt into wherever we are because we love salt. If it’s “low salt”, we want no part of it. But in that 1st century culture, salt was not something that you just season to taste, it was an absolute necessity of life. Yes, it was a seasoning, but it was also used as a preservative, a disinfectant, a component of ceremonial offerings, and even as currency. When we read about salt in the Bible, very often it is used metaphorically to illustrate permanence, loyalty, durability, fidelity, usefulness, value, and purification.
Likewise, light – as in you are the light of the world – is life giving, life affirming. Light breaks away darkness, light gives hope. In the story of the exodus, as the Israelites traveled through the wilderness, it was a pillar of light that guided them at night.
But notice what Jesus says. After he tells the people that they are the salt of the earth, he then says that 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 underfoot. After he tells the people gathered there that they are the light of the world, he says that people do not light a lamp and put it under the bushel basket; rather, they put it on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.
On the one hand, he tells people that they are, just by virtue of being born, of great value to God. At the same time, they have an important calling that must not be ignored. Salt must not lose its saltiness; light must not be hidden. You are, he tells them, of sacred worth and you should use that to God’s glory. Do not lose your light. Do not lose your saltiness.
As the church then, how do we lose our light? How do we lose our saltiness? Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail addresses this very subject when church leaders publicly condemn his actions in fighting for justice instead of joining him in the struggle. He lamented that the contemporary church is an ineffectual voice and has become a supporter of the status quo. He writes that If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.
I believe there is an important balance that must be maintained. With that in mind then, there are two ways that we absolutely can lose our saltiness and light.
One is that we become so focused on the legalistic aspects of our life of faith, we follow the rules come what may because that’s what the rules are there for. There are plenty of churches that fit this mold. A friend of mine used to describe churches like this as “so heavenly inspired, they’re no earthly good.” They’re so heavily focused on maintaining purity and avoiding sin… and they get so hyper-focused on that very subject that absolutely everything they see then becomes suspect and subject to their condemnation. They lose context and they gain a sense of moral superiority over everyone they encounter.
The second way that we lose our saltiness is that we become so hyper focused on the aspects of justice in the world that we lose sight of why we are focused on justice in the first place. When we lose sight of putting God first in everything that we do, our work becomes solely intellectual pursuits and God gets left to the side. We lose our way. In the Birmingham letter I mentioned earlier, King called this kind of church nothing more than a social club.
Jesus tells us, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Throughout his ministry, he will teach his disciples that the law is important, but also to understand WHY we follow the law, to fulfill all righteousness, to encounter God in relationship with us, to build God’s realm here and now.
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. When we are the light, others will notice. No matter who we are, where or how we live, no matter what our lifestyle may be, we are still the light.
So as the church, we must do what we know is right, which we do when we follow Jesus. We must remember that when we speak God’s truth, when we share God’s love, we are letting our light shine.
We are the salt of the earth when we care for those most vulnerable, the poor, the sick, the differently abled, the marginalized…
When we welcome the immigrant, the refugee, and the stranger, we are welcoming Jesus and shining our light into the world.
When we work for fairness and justice in the name of Christ, we live in hope, and we are God’s light!
We accept that our faith is never an exercise in my way or the highway; rather, we wrestle with our faith and find ourselves stretching the boundaries of what we once thought we knew to continually accept and love others. We strive to always be listening, always aware that we may be wrong, always looking for the best in those with whom we disagree. Our light shines when we stand in solidarity with those who are in need of a hand. We are the salt of the earth when we have the back of those who are desperate for help.
Beloved, when we are the light, others will notice. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Be the church. Be the light.
To God be the glory