Salt, Light and Righteousness

“Salt, Light and Righteousness”

Isaiah 58:1-12   Matthew 5:13-20


          The Beatitudes that we focused on last week are sometimes called the “Beautiful Attitudes” because they describe the inner character of those who are true members of the kingdom of God.  Realizing that the Beatitudes are essentially on the inside a person might be tempted to think they can live in isolation…away from the world that seems so contradictory to God.  But…actually it is impossible to live the eight Beatitudes in private.  They are very social and outward when we put them to work.  It is putting them to work that Christ emphasizes in our gospel for today.

Think about this.  Jesus Christ spoke these words early in his ministry…when he had only a few poor…uneducated followers.  To those listening his words might have seemed a bit absurd.  He told them that they and they alone were the salt of the earth…not just of Palestine…but of the whole earth.  He was telling the few who were listening that they would perform a vast and universal task that would affect all mankind.  He was expressing confidence in his followers…and the Spirit that would fill them.  And…despite their shortcomings and inconsistencies you and I know that they accomplished their mission.

What did Jesus mean when he said “You are the salt of the earth?”  In the world of Jesus’ day the number one function of salt was to be a preservative.  Jesus was telling them that the world around them…and us…tends toward decomposition and rotting away.  Jesus had no illusions about the world that was apart from him.  When the world is left to itself it festers just like an untreated wound.  The germs of evil and hate remain present and active today…at all levels of our society.

That story is repeated over and over.  The world began as a perfect creation…but when sin came…decay set in…and God eventually removed most of the population with a flood.  Mankind was given another chance but failed again…leading to the time of Sodom and Gomorrah.  We live today in a world that is constantly tending toward decay.  Some of the Christ-less structures…leaders and thought-shapers may look okay…but they are rotting away on the inside.  Christ wants us to be the salt that stops that rot.

The church…you and I…are to function as a retardant to decay…and as a preservative.  Jesus was saying…in effect…”Humanity without me is a dead body that is rotting and falling apart.  And you…my followers…are the salt that must be rubbed into the flesh to halt the decomposition.”  The church…that is…you and I…must be rubbed into the world so that it might be preserved.

Being a preservative has a negative and a positive side.  On the negative side…the presence of a salty Christian will retard the decay simply because his or her life is the opposite of the sin of those around them.  We all know there are certain people in whose presence certain stories are told and there are others before whom no one would think of telling such a story.  The salty Christian is not self-righteous or condemning…but their life makes ungodly conversation seem shabby and inappropriate.

The simple presence of such people influences the community.  Their presence reduces crime…restrains corruption…promotes honesty…sharpens the conscience…raises the moral atmosphere…and opens hearts to love.  The presence of such people will raise the level of those around them.  And…their absence could have the opposite effect.  Salty believers are the world’s preservative.

There’s the positive aspect.  Our lives are also meant to bring out the best from those around us.  To live a life that is so salted that others are drawn to God and want to live lives like ours is indeed beautiful.  Sad to say…however…not everyone who claims to be a Christian has this effect.

Salt is also a spice…a condiment.  Christianity is what brings spice and zest to life.  Believers must be salty and write the best words…be the most courteous…work the hardest…be the best at who they are…and…show open hearts and love.

And…salt creates thirst.  Jesus made people thirsty for God.  Whenever anyone met Jesus that person became thirsty for God.  Are we salty enough to make other people thirsty for Jesus?

If we are salt…how do we be the most effective?  We must be spread out on the world.  Salt can sit for years in the saltshaker…but it will never do any good until it is poured forth.  In Jesus’ time its effect was maximized when it was poured upon and rubbed into the meat.  We must allow God to rub us into the world…without our becoming like the world.  We may fear that we will disappear…and disappear we may.  But…that is the point.  Salt dispenses its power as it dissolves into the world’s flesh.  That is when its effect is greatest.  As salty people…empowered by the presence of Christ’s Spirit within us…we are to penetrate society…not hide from it.  We are to become involved in life….in the community…in our schools…in politics…in our neighborhoods.  That’s when we truly become salt for Christ.

Much of the world is in darkness.  And…many of the people living on it enjoy that.  John wrote…”And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” (John3:19)

It is this reality that makes Jesus’ pronouncement so thrilling.  He told us that you alone are the light of the world…you and me.  If we are truly believers then…we are the light of the world.  To say something like that…if Christ hadn’t said it…would be the height of arrogance.  But Jesus did say it…about you and me.

Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus…”at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.  Walk as children of light.” (Ephesians 5:8)  Our acceptance of Christ allows us to become light…however imperfect.  And…it works.  The church…this church…has had…and has…some great shining lights. The question is how can we shine even more.  We must expose ourselves to Jesus…delight in his Word…and spend time in prayer soaking up his rays…then be about spreading his light.

He gave us a couple examples…a city on a hill and a light set in a home.  There is no way to hide the lights of a city on a hill.  The city of Quito, Ecuador…at 10-thousand feet above sea level lights the sky for 75 miles around it.  It cannot be hidden.  Yet…when you get into the city of Quito…the light from the tiny villages higher up in the Andes can be easily seen.  Cities on hills cannot be hidden.  Believers are like this.  They are visible.  There is no such thing as an invisible believer.

Jesus also said believers are like a household lamp.  The principal function of the lamp…and the believer…is to provide illumination to all around it.  Light reveals things as they really are.  We have all walked into an unfamiliar room…felt our way to the lamp…turned it on…and discovered a room different from what we had imagined.  Light also promotes life.  In colder climates…like Chicago…summer patio plants flourish in basements in the winter if they are provided enough light.  Light also awakens us.

Jesus…our captain and model…did all of these things and more by bringing spiritual light into the world.  He made us able to feel the darkness of sin…imperfection and impurity…made us feel the difference between good and evil.  He ended the option of thinking ourselves good by comparison with others.  Jesus was and is the standard for all of us.  His life drew men and women to him.  You and I are lamps…and Jesus…the householder… places us perfectly where we need to be…to shine at the best advantage for him.  God calls us to shine where we are.

Jesus gave us a command…not a suggestion…”to let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” It’s not an option.  If you are a light…then shine.  He tells us to shine by good works.  He is not recommending self-conscious staged works.  He would tell us that works of compassion and caring are top priority.  He would tell us to hear the words from Isaiah…take them to heart…and live them…openly and publicly.

Jesus has called us to strive for radical righteousness in a world that prefers darkness.  Apparently…Jesus thought some of those listening would feel he wanted to overthrow the Old Testament law.  But…his opening words said that he came to fulfill the law…not to undo it.  Christ was the author of the Law and is its Fulfiller.  He spoke of the Old Testament Prophet’s and Law as God’s perfect…enduring Word…and furthermore…he saw his life as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.

The righteousness of Christ is radical…not because it is new…but because he truly lived it.  Though you and I are under grace…the Old Testament is tremendously important.  The Law clearly instructs us in the righteous demands of God.  Through the Law we see how high his holiness and his standards are…and we see how far we fall short and desperately need God’s grace.

John Wesley…initially tried to keep the details of the law…but failed.  He finally realized that even he had been saved by grace and lived and believed in a powerful Christian life.  Like him… we need to be people of both Testaments.

Righteousness for Christ…living the law as taught by the Prophets…meant exceeding the word and deeds of the scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus said that clearly.  To the average person on the street…the Jews of Jesus’ day…that was absolutely shocking.  The scribes and Pharisees made obedience to what they called God’s law the master passion of their lives.  They calculated that the Law contained 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions…and they tried to keep them all.  How could anyone do better than that?  And how could such righteousness be made a condition to entering the kingdom?  Jesus seemed to be saying, “Don’t think I have come to make things easier by reducing the demands of the Law.  Far from it?  In fact, if your righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you’ll never make it!”

The problem is this….the Pharisees’ righteousness was only external.  It focused on the ceremonial and the visible.  It was for show.   Its man-made rules actually were unconscious attempts to reduce the demands of the Law and make it manageable.  Those rules insulated them from the Law’s piercing demands on the heart.  Those men were also self-satisfied.  A Pharisee could stand on a corner…looking at a publican…and say…”I thank God I am not like that man.”  Jesus was demanding a deeper obedience…an obedience of the heart.

Christ’s strong statements…his hard…unbending words…were actually full of grace.  When he said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”…he was speaking as kindly as he ever spoke for he was explaining in the most dramatic terms the impossibility of salvation apart from his grace.  This takes us right back to the first Beatitude…”Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  He was saying…”Blessed are those who realize they can’t make it on their own…for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

When we understand and accept…as John Wesley did…that there is no way but that of grace…we will see that Jesus did what we could never do.  Jesus fulfilled the Law.  His righteousness was greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees.  And…because he fulfilled the Law…he can give us a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.  He fulfilled the law by leading a perfectly righteous life.  He fulfilled his demands against us…and saved us…by dying for us.

Let us come to the Lord’s table this morning…the table of the one who died for us…yet lives with us…celebrate and remember…then leave this sacrament…serious about utilizing all of God’s gracious gifts of time, talent and treasure…to be the salt and light… reaching out to those who hurt…and those whose righteousness…like that of the Pharisees…was only for show…actively reach out to them as Christ would have us do.