Being different - Matthew 5:13-16
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
When I was as student at Hull University Christian Union, back in the ‘Dark Ages’- almost quite literally as it was during the time of miner’s strikes and power cuts- I remember being particularly challenged by what a guest speaker said to us one evening; he asked: ‘If you were to be put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’ That is a very interesting question to ask ourselves isn’t it? ‘If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’ What sort of evidence would be considered admissible? Is it that the person is a nice character? Well, there are plenty of people who aren’t Christians who are nice, but at least you might expect that to be true of Christians. Is it that the person attends church? Well, again there are plenty of folk who attend church (maybe not as many as there used to be) out of a sense of family duty, or maybe an appreciation of the aesthetics of the service, but who are not committed believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. But nonetheless you would think it would count against someone if they claimed to be Christian but hardly ever darkened the doors of a church building. So what is it about those who would be friends of Jesus that people could point to and say- ‘There- that shows they are Christians and are serious about it?’
Well, in this familiar passage that we are looking at tonight from the Sermon on the Mount we are going to find the answer to that question. The problem we have is that we are perhaps over- familiar with these words in such a way that we think straight away that we know what they mean- all this talk of being ‘the salt of the earth’ and ‘the light of the world’. Those are the main two metaphors or pictures Jesus uses to describe his disciples and their relationship to the world-salt and light. But we need to be aware of the possibility that what we mean by someone being ‘the salt of the earth’ is not necessarily what Jesus means by the term. So what we tend to do is think: how do we use salt- for seasoning food or in the days before refrigeration, as a preservative- and then deduce that Jesus must be saying something like this-‘Christians influence society by making it more wholesome, by changing it into a more pleasant place to live in and they arrest the moral and spiritual rot which otherwise would accelerate if they withdrew. Also since light exposes the dark and illumines the good, we too are to be a force for social change.’ Now Christians may do all of those things- indeed in the past they have- but that is not necessarily what Jesus is talking about.
Given that Jesus’ world was not only the world of the first century, and so how they thought about things-such as how they used salt- was probably how Jesus thought about things; his world was primarily the world of the Old Testament. Since in v17 Jesus goes on to say that he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets- what we now call the Old Testament Scriptures- it is more than likely that it is how the Old Testament uses these two metaphors of salt and light that Jesus has in mind here. In fact pretty well everything he says in this Sermon has a distinct Old Testament background, especially that of the prophet Isaiah.
First of all we need to appreciate who Jesus is talking to. Notice he says quite emphatically: ‘You are the salt of the earth….You are the light of the world.’ And the ‘you’ is the group of people gathered around him on that Galilean hillside, who, if you can picture them in your minds eye, are not all that impressive, with their non-designer stubble and sweaty, hairy armpits (and that’s just the women!). In verse 1 we read, ‘His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying, ‘The poor in spirit, those who find themselves needy and dependent, feeling like beggars, are the fortunate ones because to them belong God’s saving rule-the kingdom of heaven’. Who are the fortunate ones? It is those who have come to Jesus and are listening to his teaching. Now will you notice that they are fortunate, their present position is one of immense privilege and honour for they have come to the King of God’s kingdom- Jesus. So when Jesus said to them, ‘You are the salt of the earth’ they would have been dumbstruck. ‘What us? Those who catch and gut fish for a living? Those who are in fear of our lives because we work for the Romans-skimming off the taxes? Us?’ ‘Yes, you’- says Jesus that is precisely who I am referring to as the fortunate ones.
So what would Jesus and his hearers have understood by the idea that this tiny, insignificant group of fishermen, tax collectors and political enthusiasts, was the ‘salt of the earth’? Well, when we go to the Old Testament we find a very specific and unique use of salt and it has nothing to do with spicing up your fish and chips! Just listen to some of these passages and see if you can work out what the common theme is: Leviticus 2:13: ‘Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings.’; 2 Chronicles 13:5: ‘Don’t you know that the LORD, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants for ever by a covenant of salt?’ Salt is being associated with God’s covenant, which is a word meaning amongst other things-God’s promises. This includes the promise that Israel has a special relationship with God, he loves them, he cares for them and they in turn have certain privileges and obligations as a result, especially to listen to his Word and obey it and so to be different from the surrounding nations. Then this is applied to King David and the special promise made to him that he will have a kingship which will last for ever, and a special descendent, the Christ who will reign for ever. So both the people and the king are to be different-set aside by God and for God. So might it not be that the reason salt is used in the sacrifices and the making of promises is that it symbolises the need to preserve the promise, to prevent it from decaying and disintegrating in some way? So how might this special relationship between God and his people be preserved- kept salty- and conversely what might rot it up-losing its saltiness?
Well, let me ask: who in the Old Testament were commissioned by God to hold people to their covenant promises, to make sure they acted like God’s people and called them back when the didn’t? It was the prophets. People like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos brought God’s word to the people and often called them to repentance and warned them what would happen if they did not repent. If the people of God themselves lost their saltiness, having abandoned the covenant, then what would happen, what would God do? Interestingly enough we are told in Isaiah 10:6 that they will be ‘trampled down like mud in the streets’- the same language Jesus uses in verse 13 about being trampled under foot. And do you think that the prophet’s were thanked for their message and given a pay rise? Hardly, look at what Jesus said happened to them in v12, ‘they persecuted the prophets who were before you’ and Jesus warns that the same is going to happen to his disciples who are the ‘salt of the earth’.
So bringing these thoughts together means that in order to be the salt of the earth we are to bring God’s Word, the word of the Gospel of promise, to a perishing world. Now did you pick up on the implication of how Jesus understands the world by these two pictures? Salt is needed to preserve something which otherwise is rotting. Light is needed to illumine what is otherwise dark. Friends that is our world- rotting like decaying fruit, benighted by unbelief which doesn’t accept the promises of the Maker, and blinded by ignorance-ignorance of the God who made them and the judgement which is yet to come. So how is the rot to be arrested and reversed? How is the darkness of ignorance and sin to be dispelled? Well, by the same way the prophet’s did it in the Old Testament, and the response of the world we be the same, v11, ‘Fortunate are you when people insult you, persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you because of me/ rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ So Jesus is making a connection between his followers and the prophets, and it seems logical that it is to the same kind of activity he is referring to –proclaiming God’s word- a word of promise- salvation for those who repent and believe, and a word of judgement for those who will not.
In other words, we change the world, we hold back the rot-we act like salt- if we speak the Gospel. The apostle Paul says something similar in Colossians 4:4, ‘Pray that I may proclaim (the mystery of Christ) clearly as I should. Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone’. Here again the emphasis is on speaking the Gospel-‘the mystery of Christ’. So here is one way a person will produce enough evidence to convict us- are we looking for and taking opportunities to speak of Christ? That will make us distinctive because if on a Monday morning at the school, at the factory, in the lecture class we are not sharing the Gospel who will? And if we do, then you can be pretty sure that people will know that we are Christians, we will be salty.
The same goes for the second image of light and being a city on a hill-which in Isaiah is a picture of the Messianic community- or as we would say now-Jesus’ family- as symbolised by Jerusalem. It was from here that the light of God’s Word was to go out into all the nations- Isaiah 62: 1, ‘For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not keep quiet, till her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing touch’. That is now to be fulfilled with this ‘New Jerusalem’ this new ‘city on a hill’- the gathering of the King’s people who are literally on a hill as Jesus speaks to them and it is probably from this very same hill he will send them after he has been raised from the dead, so at the end of Matthew’s Gospel the Risen Lord Jesus gathers his disciples around him and tells them to make disciples of all nations, baptising them into his teaching so folk will obey all that he has commanded- again just like prophets are meant to do. To be salt and light is to be prophetic, it means bringing God’s Word to bear in our world. If we keep on doing that we shall be like salt preserving the Gospel and in one sense preserving the world-it is still the time of salvation-do you see?
In the past I have tended to think the ‘light’ that Christian was to shine was the good deeds we are to perform-v 16. But I now realise that doesn’t make sense because we read, ‘Let your light so shine before men, so that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.’ The light is distinct from the good deeds; it is the light which enables people to see our good deeds as Christian good deeds and so praise God for them. So it seems to mean something like this: As we share the Gospel message- we are being salt-we are keeping God’s promises alive and fresh. This message also brings light, it shows up the wayward, empty life of the unbeliever and also the different way of life of the believer, so people will say, ‘So that is what it means to live as a Christian? That is the difference it makes in the way they relate to the sexes, how they handle their money, how they live in the light of another world, a greater reality, the Kingdom of heaven- I can see what their good deeds are about because the Gospel explains them to me.’ Let me put it another way. Supposing on Monday morning someone notices that you always tell the truth, that you give a hundred percent to your work, that you are always courteous to your workmates and yet you say nothing about your faith? What might they conclude? Well, they might conclude that you are just a nice person who has had a good moral upbringing. They might be cynical and conclude you are just sucking up to people in order to get promotion. So what possible reason would they have to think you are behaving like this because you are a Christian unless at some point you open your mouth and tell them you are a Christian and what it is you believe? If we don’t do that, then we are the one’s who on the first reckoning will get all the praise: ‘What a polite person she is! What a caring man he is!’ But if folk know we are Christians, even if it is in a begrudging, backhanded way- people will be forced to think-they do this because of their God- and so he gets the praise. Do you see?
According to what Jesus says here at the beginning of his sermon, there are two responses to Christians being different. The first is that people are going to praise God because of you. The second is that people are going to persecute you because of you. You see, the world does not like people who are different; they want everyone to conform to the same pattern of lifestyle. That is largely what the tyranny of Political Correctness is all about; it creates a climate of fear-the fear of being different. Say something mildly questioning about a woman’s role, you are sexist. Say something critical against homosexual practice, you are homophobic. But say something derogatory against Christians and you are exercising freedom of speech. It does seem that is always open season on Christians-but that is what Jesus said would happen. The world does not like difference, because it makes other people feel different and uncomfortable. On the other hand, people cannot ignore the good such difference brings. There is often a grudging admiration of Christians. In Hindu or Islamic countries- the faith of Christians may not be well received, but they do like their hospitals and their schools and the tremendous care and love they show. And sometimes they will even say, ‘God is in this’.
If that is how we keep our saltiness and shine like lights on a lamp stand or a city on a hill by speaking God’s Word and having lives as individuals and a Christian community which are lived out in the light of that Word-then how might we lose our saltiness; how might we become like lights hid under a bowel? Quite simply, by not being different and by not speaking the Gospel.
I have to admit that I am very blessed to be surrounded by Christians in my work place- that should not come as a surprise to you. And some of you may also be surrounded by Christian friends and so you will be under pressure to be godly, to conform to Christian standards because those are the standards of your circle of friends. If so, thank God for that. But I would suspect that for most of you that isn’t your situation- the people at work, at school, at college, even maybe at home are not Christians and so the pressure will be upon you to shake of some of your saltiness by keeping quiet about what you believe, to keep your light shining as dimly as possible so that you don’t stand out as being different, but fitting in as closely as possible with those around you for the sake of a comfortable life. Do that, says Jesus and you have lost your saltiness and as far as my intended purposes for saving this world you are good for nothing, you might as well be under the same judgement as everybody else- trampled under foot. Indeed, maybe the reason you are not that different and have so little to say is that you aren’t different, you yourself are not yet converted and so you need to get that put right first. But maybe you are a Christian and because of hostility or fear of hostility you look for the nearest bowl to crawl under to hide. And I sympathise with that. I wasn’t born with a clerical collar around my neck and spent a number of years in secular employment so I know at first hand all of those pressures. My wife and I have raised three sons and especially as ‘PK’s’- preacher’s kids- we have had to help them deal with those pressures and at times it has been quite heart breaking watching what they have had to go through. But that is not why Jesus saved us- to hide and clam up- that is not why we are here on earth. Again, remember the emphatic nature of what Jesus says which is in the indicative, not the imperative, a description not a command- ‘You are the salt of the earth’; ‘You are the light of the world’- not you might be, or on the odd occasion you will be, or you ought to be- but this is what you are, it defines you. And our world, God’s world, needs us. Our great privilege is to be out there as the salt of the earth and the light of the world and to be as salty as possible and shining as brightly as possible in speaking for Christ- for the sake of the world. Of course the people might not appreciate us, they might try and knock the salt out of us, they may even persecute us and say all sorts of things about us which are incredibly unkind and untrue- but oh how they need us. Without us they won’t hear of the saving love of God; without Christian families behaving and speaking like Christian families they won’t know that there is a better way of living as families where persons rather than possessions count the most; without them seeing and knowing how Christians relate with members of the opposite sex in purity, they won’t know that there is a far more wholesome approach to sex than the take, use and dispose approach which is so prominent today. Friends, the world needs us to be salt and to be light.
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