A different people - Matthew 5:1-16

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 16th February 2003.

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Let me tell you about Dave. Dave was a post- graduate student who was extremely effective in talking to other students about the Christian faith and taking them through elementary Bible study. He was smart, highly disciplined and inevitably very busy. Whilst being kind he did not suffer fools gladly. One day a young Christian student brought to Dave’s room two non-Christians. The student had gone as far as he could with them and discovered that they were asking the sort of questions which, quite frankly, were out of his league. Dave welcomed them in and offered them coffee. Once the polite preliminaries were over, he turned to the first student and asked: ‘Why have you come to see me?’ The student answered along these lines: ‘ Well, you know I have been going along to this Bible study and I realise that I could learn a lot more about this Christianity. I’d also like to learn something about Buddhism, Islam and maybe one or two other religions. I am sure it would broaden my perspective.’ Dave stared at him for a few seconds and then said: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have time for you.’ Well, the Christian who had brought his two friends along did a Victor Meldrew with a ‘I don’t believe it’ reaction. So Dave went on: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I only have so much time. I am doing post graduate work and if you simply have a mild, passing interest in Christianity then I am sure there are plenty of others who could satisfy your curiosity, I can even give you a few books. When you’re really interested in Christ, then come and see me again.’

Then he turned to the second student- Rick. ‘Why did you come?’ After listening to the rebuff given to the first student ,he was a little more cowed, but he ploughed on. ‘Well, I come from what you guys would call a liberal home. We don’t believe the way you do. But its a good home, a happy home, my parents loved us. And to be honest, I cannot see that you people who think of yourselves as Christians are any better. Apart from a whole lot of abstract theology, what have you got that I haven’t got?’

Silence. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. Dave stared at him for a few seconds and simply said: ‘Watch me.’ ‘Pardon?’ said Rick. ‘Watch me’ replied Dave. ‘ Come and live with me for a month ,if you like. Be my guest. watch what I do when I get up, what I do when I’m on my own, how I work, how I use my time, how I talk with people, what my values are. Come with me wherever I go. And at the end of the month, you tell me if there is any difference.’

Rick didn’t take up Dave’s invitation exactly on those terms, but he did get to know Dave better. He did watch him and in due course Rick became a Christian, married a Christian woman, and both became doctors and practised their faith overseas.

That is very impressive isn’t it? But do you see what was happening? Dave was living the Sermon on the Mount- that is why he could say: ‘Watch me’. Being rightly related to the King Jesus, has an observable effect so the Christian should be able to say: ‘Watch me.’ And this, as we shall see, is what lies at the heart of the Sermon’s message. And so let us turn to the key text which unlocks the whole Sermon, of which the rest of the Sermon is but an exposition and application: vv 13-16 ; 'You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. 'You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.’

Now what we have just read doesn’t make the sort of impact upon us as it should because we think we know what it means. The standard interpretation goes something like this: ‘The salt is symbolic of social action and the light is symbolic of evangelism. The salt is a preservative and its function is to prevent society spiralling down into further moral and spiritual decay. And for Christians to be effective ,like salt they have to penetrate the society in which they live. What is more Christians are to be the light and spread the light of the Gospel throughout the world.’ Penetration/illumination that is what we are meant to be about. That is the way this passage is largely taken. I myself have taken it like that and preached it like that. Now I am not so sure. While it is important for Christians to engage in social action and evangelism, and there are plenty of other passages which point in that direction, I am not now convinced that that is what Jesus is getting at here.

How do we know that Jesus had in mind the preserving nature of salt when he used the metaphor? Or the idea that we are to bring a little wholesome taste into society, which salt does to a bland meal? Salt was used for many things in the ancient world- as a form of payment in a business transaction, as a symbol of an agreement in making a covenant, an ingredient in a sacrifice-but functioning as a preservative didn’t actually figure that much. Neither does it function like that in the rest of the Bible. There is one other place where Jesus talks of salt- Luke 14: 34 ‘ Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure heap; it is thrown out’. Salt was an important ingredient in fertiliser. That is the imagery Jesus is using in Luke 14, but is that what he means in Matthew 5: ‘You are the manure of the world’. You certainly wouldn’t put that on your food to give it flavour would you? So what is Jesus getting at?

Part of the problem is that people tend to focus on only two of the images used, being salt and light. But there is a third picture there. Did you notice it? v 14b ‘A city on a hill.’ We might be able to think about what salt does, or a lamp, but what does a city on a hill do? Not much it is just -there, it is part of the landscape. So the question is: is Jesus using three different images to refer to three different functions of his followers or is he using three different pictures to say the same thing? Is he contrasting or comparing them? If it is a comparison: what is it that these three metaphors- salt, light, a city on a hill -have in common? Well, salt, light, a city on a hill are all observably different. They are distinctive. If they lose their distinctiveness-the salt and the light-they are useless. The city on a hill never loses its distinctiveness- ‘it cannot be hidden’- that is why it is used as another illustration. Salt which has lost its saltiness-you throw away, it is good for nothing whatever you use it for. A lamp covered up again, is useless-you don’t do that, it defeats its purpose. And a city on a hill can’t not be not seen, if you pardon the double negative. It all has to do with difference-observable, essential difference. The point of the existence of salt and light is their difference, lose the difference, you lose the point of their existence- it is their difference which makes them effective.

Now we can see what the whole point of the Sermon is about. Followers of Christ are different, they are meant to be different, like salt, like light, like a city on a hill. And their difference is that they are faithful to the teaching of Christ, as Israel was meant to be faithful to the teaching of God and so ‘be a light to the nations’- showing a better way, a more wholesome way of operating as a society. And here Jesus is saying that now applies to his followers who are members of the new kingdom. All that follows is an exposition and an application of this one principle- take a look at 6:8 which puts it in a nutshell, Jesus is contrasting his followers with the Pharisees and says : ‘Do not be like them.’ i.e. Be different. How? In all sorts of ways- your attitude to anger, adultery, divorce, promise keeping, forgiveness, giving, fasting, praying, spending, worrying, judging, asking-the subjects of chapters 5-7. And it all turns on how we respond to Jesus and his words- we either hear them and don’t do them and so we are like a fool who builds a house on a mud flat- one storm and it is all gone, or we pay very close attention to them, put them into effect like a wise man who has a solid foundation and survives come what may. Which are you?

Now let me tell you something. As the Christian foundations of the West become increasingly eroded away; when the sanctity of life becomes exchanged for its cheapness, when courtesy is replaced with rudeness, when public service is swapped for personal gain- it should become much, much easier for Christians to stand out as different. I say should be easier, but of course that is dependent upon Christians remaining different. But if we buy in to sub-Christian versions of the Gospel such that it is just making a decision for Christ that matters rather than being a disciple of Christ, or that you can be as a self-centred and materialistic as the rest of society while wrapping it up in Christian guise that God wants us to be rich and happy so as long as you pay your dues by coming to church once in awhile-then the world will not notice us -the city on the hill has become in effect- invisible. It used to be asked: ‘If you were put on trial for being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict you?’ And maybe, just maybe it is time that we started to ask that question of ourselves again.

But what it is that will show the world how we are different? v16 , ‘..that men may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.’ That is, when people see how you conduct yourselves, they will say, ‘That has the touch of God about it.’, ‘God is it work in his life’, ‘God has changed her.’ They will not praise you, but they will praise God. Good works is a way of identifying people isn’t it? Hollywood knows that. In the old western movies it was easy-the good guys always wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats. Now what do they do to help us identify the hero? In the first scene he does something nice- he pats a dog, he helps an old lady across the road, after that Arni can cause as much murder and mayhem as he likes, but you know he is a goody because of what he did at the beginning. The good works show what a good person you are. But not here, the good works show how good God is. Now, of course this presupposes that people know that you are a Christian, so that they can say you are different because of what you believe and not just because you were born that way. But nonetheless, the difference should be so marked that really no other explanation will do but that something supernatural is going on. And just how this shows itself is spelt out for us at the beginning of the chapter in vv 2-10. Here are the different people, the Jesus people, the Kingdom people. How can you spot them when you meet them in the street? Is it because they wear a little fish sign in their lapel or a bracelet with WWJD written on it? Maybe . But there is something more remarkable about them than that. These are ‘blessed’ people, ‘happy’ people, the ‘good life people’- it is not easy finding an English equivalent to the Greek ‘makarios’ Lets say, they are the fortunate people. Do you realise that if you are a follower of Christ you are among the most fortunate people on this planet? Now, of course to most folk they don’t seem that fortunate-they are poor in spirit- recognising their spiritual need, they mourn- they are aware of their sin, they are meek, they long for justice, they are merciful-a forgiving lot too as well. They have a heart orientated towards God and all that is good and they are people who not only love peace they bring peace and -they are persecuted for it. But their happiness consists in all the things which flow from having these God-given attributes-they receive God’s kingdom-enter his saving rule, they enjoy God’s strengthening- comfort, one day the whole earth is going to be theirs as they populate a new world, they are going to have their fill of justice and will see God face to face and be known as his sons- those who inherit his kingdom and so will rule with him. Most of that is still future, but boy it makes a difference to living in the present. If you know that a good degree is at the end of the line, you can put up with all the cramming. If you know there is a good figure at the end of a diet, then you will cope with half starving yourself to death. You see, what lies ahead and what we think is important will shape what we do now.

But are there 8 or 9 ‘blesseds?’ Those in vv 3-10 all follow the same pattern. And v3 and 10 end the same way, to such people are ‘the kingdom of heaven.’ Which seems to suggest that it forms the two bookends of a literary unit. But v11 is also different from the others in this respect, all the other blessings are of a ‘blessed are they’ nature, here Jesus says, ‘blessed are you’. This is where the disciples fit into the kingdom of heaven-at the point of persecution; ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.’( note when, not maybe or perhaps). If you are a Christian, don’t expect too many complements. Expect the bad mouthing, slander, the brick through the window. And be glad about it, says Jesus- v12. Why? Because first, you are going to have a terrific reward in heaven and second, you are in great company-the prophets. Not one of them had a good time, especially the greatest of them all- Jesus the Son of God.

And it has ever been thus.

Bishop Warburton warned everyone that John Wesley was ‘ a wily and malignant hypocrite’- that would have hurt and done more than its fair share of damage. It was also put about that Wesley was expelled from Oxford for gross immorality, and that George Whitefield, the main leader in the 18th century Revival, was an anarchist plotting a bloody revolution- very dangerous stuff that was when the whole country was on awash with plots of the Pretender. Some of the Methodist preachers had glass ground into their eyes, their houses burnt down. And then we romanticise the Revivals! What did they do? temper their enthusiasm. Change their message? Accommodate their morality so that it fitted in with the spirit of the age? No. They rejoiced.

And why are such people going to be persecuted, because of vv 13- 16, because his followers are the salt of the earth, the light of the world and a city on a hill- in short because they are different. So 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. 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’.

Now remember who Jesus is speaking to? Disciples. Those he called out in chapter 4 to fish for men. Basic to fishing for men-and women- is difference. If you are not different, you will not catch anybody. If meeting with God’s people, working hard at listening to God’s Word being taught is something you feel you can do without- well then you are not that much different to the rest of society which is also looking for the easy, fun, non-cost way forward. You have got to be different, so different that the world will actually hate you for it. How are we to be different? Wear long flowing robes, long hair, beards and sandals- and that’s just the women? No , it hits home at the level of living- what Jesus goes on to talk about in the next section -righteousness.

My dear friends we in the West at the beginning of the 21st century of an opportunity for Gospel witness which in many ways was denied our parents and grandparents. When nominal Christianity was rife, when Church going was the done thing, when Christian values were adopted but the belief was denied, like with Rick- it was easy to say ‘What’s the difference’? That can no longer be said. Our values in terms of honesty, hard work, caring for people, especially those who are on the bottom rung of the social ladder, should mark us out significantly. Our attitude towards money, and careers should mark us out as differently too, in that we should not be living for them, but sitting loose-being willing to abandon the careers maybe our parents want for us in order to go out onto the mission field here or abroad or to use the money we do earn to support others in that work. A friend of mine, who is a minister, was asked by a very wealthy businessman whether he should give it up and become a Vicar. My friend said to him, ‘I don’t think it matters too much what you do. But if you decide to stay in business and earn the dollars, then live on a Vicar’s salary and give the rest away to Gospel work.’ Had he done that, he would have been different wouldn’t he? But what about you and me? It is a great challenge, but it is also a great opportunity- be different.

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