Salt and light - Matthew 5:13-16

This is a family service talk by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 1st April 2001.

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A few weeks ago, I was browsing through some shelves in a second hand book shop, and I came across a copy of Who’s Who from 1983. Who’s Who, you remember, is a directory of all the important people who live in our country. And it was a fascinating read. There were all sorts of people who had done various extraordinary things, all of whom had contributed something to the wealth and health of the nation in different ways. And we are told that you have made it only when your name is recorded in that marvellous volume. But I wonder how many of those names would be in God’s Who’s Who if there was such a volume? How many of those lives would have achieved anything of lasting eternal value? Some I guess, but not many. You see often we believe that the ones who can really make a difference, who can really change the world are the people in high positions, those who hold the real power, such as those whose names are in Who’s Who. But our passage this morning from Matthew 5 will teach us that the ones who can really make a difference are sitting in these pews in front of me. We are the ones who can really change the world and make a difference, and we are the ones who can do something that will last for eternity, whose names will be in God’s Who’s Who.

Now that is quite a boast, but it is a boast based on what Jesus says about us in these verses in Matthew 5 vv 13-16. Jesus expects us to be involved in the world and to make a difference. It is part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Now the context of this remarkable little passage is that it is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And that sermon is not so much a nice code of ethics which good people follow. Rather it is the standard that Jesus sets for life for those who choose to follow him. Jesus has been explaining in verses 1-12 the sorts of qualities that these followers must display. They will be thirsting after righteousness, they will be meek, they will be peacemakers, they will be pure in heart. And of course the obvious question is, "What kind of influence can such people have in the world? They look so weak and feeble." And Jesus’ answer is that we are salt and light in the world, not that we should be, but that we are. We can have a profound influence for good.

You see the fact of the matter is that in God’s plan the people who have been transformed by the power of the gospel and who are living lives marked by the qualities of verses 1-12 are to have a role in penetrating the world with the life changing message of God. And this message must be lived out by Jesus’ followers in the world. Jesus never expects such qualities to be lived out in cosy communities, like little churchy salt cellars or nice, warm light shops. No, we are to be in the world, being, as Jesus says, salt and light. That is what we are. It is not a tough option for the keen Christians. It is the command of the Lord Jesus for each and everyone who follows him. We are salt and light, and by definition salt is for putrid meat, and light is for dark places. And it is a task which the whole church together is to be devoted to. You plural, says Jesus, are the salt of the earth; you plural are the light of the world. Thankfully only a few of us are paid to be full time pastors and teachers. For the rest of us, we will be in the world working and living and interacting with those who are not Christians. The church if you like (and I’m aware the apostle Paul didn’t use this illustration) is a giant octopus with its tentacles finding its way into all sorts of areas where Christians work and spend their time. And it is in those places that the Christian church, represented by individual Christians, are to be salt and light. So as we look at this passage this morning I want you to think of your place of work, or where you spend most of your time, and to listen to the challenge Jesus gives us. And as we turn to look at this passage together we’ll find ourselves confronted with three challenges:
1) Challenge 1: Understand the World

2) Challenge 2: Slow the Rot

3) Challenge 3: Spread the Light

1) Challenge 1: Understand the World

So first, then, we must understand the world in which we live. Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world. Now the unflattering assumption that Jesus gives in these verses is that the world is a decaying, putrid and dark place. Salt in the ancient world, and indeed still sometimes today, was used as a preservative. In days when there were no fridges and freezers, salt would be used to stop food going off. It was often rubbed into meat, for example, to stop it decaying and going putrid. Or it would be used to stop fish rotting, as the fish would be packed into mounds of salt. The assumption is that the world is like that fish or meat. It is rotting away, and it needs the protection of salt to keep it from decaying any quicker. Of course, salt won’t stop the rot completely, but it will drastically slow the rot.

Or take the next verse about light. The assumption again is that the world is a dark place. You don’t need lights in a lighted room do you? Only where it is dark and dingy do you need the warm glow of the lamp. The world is in darkness and Jesus says that this world needs Christians to be in it to slow the rot and shine in the darkness. Now Jesus’ assessment of the world goes against the grain doesn’t? Few I guess would say that the world is slowly rotting away, morally, physically and spiritually. Many would say the world isn’t in great shape, but few would be so ruthless in their assessment. Many would point to the great advances in technology that have been seen in recent years, the great leaps and bounds we have made in health care, the way food production has been enhanced so that we have butter mountains and milk lakes and the like. Many would rejoice that God has been pushed out of the picture in the Western world because of the so called Enlightenment. We are living in the post Christian age, we are told. And yet is it a new dawn? Are we living in a wonderful world? Two thirds of the world do not have enough to eat, despite the huge resources we in the West have. And in our own city there is rising violent crime, increasing teenage pregnancy, spiralling divorce rates and no end of broken hearts, and even the long established moral framework that our parents instilled in us is being whittled away. Let’s be realistic, we live in a rotting and dark world.

Perhaps one of the most graphic illustrations of this is seen in the film Good Morning Vietnam, starring Robin Williams. Williams plays an American forces DJ, and in one particular scene he is playing a record by Louis Armstrong, "What Wonderful World". And as the camera pans round, it moves from the studio to the world outside. There are scenes of Napalm exploding, children being burnt alive, whole villages being destroyed, and as we watch the pictures, Louis Armstrong sings on: "I see trees of green and skies of blue….. and I say to myself what a wonderful world." Yes the world is a very wonderful place, but our experience shows that it is also a place of terrible evil and suffering. And that is Jesus’ assumption in these verses. The world, for all its beauty and for all God’s goodness to mankind, is slowly decaying and is becoming darker and darker.

And it is vitally important that we grasp the seriousness of the situation. For only then can we administer the correct medicine of the gospel of Jesus Christ to this sick world. We need to understand our world. That is the first challenge.


2) Challenge 2: Slow the Rot

But once we have understood the world in all it’s rot and darkness, then we can understand the next challenge which is for Christians to slow the rot. And that is what Jesus means when he says in verse 13: "You are the salt of the earth." You see it would be very easy to get depressed looking at our world. And yet there is hope. And here’s the surprise. That hope is you and me! There is a very sharp distinction between the church and the world which is sinful humanity opposed to God. And it is to the church that Jesus gives this command. You are the salt of the earth. You who are the meek and the peacemakers and persecuted, yes you are to be the salt of the earth. Incredible isn’t it? So what does Jesus mean?

Well as we have already seen, salt in the ancient world was used as a preservative. It slowed the rotting of food. And it is as if Jesus is saying to us that we Christians are the ones who have been given the task of slowing the rot in the world. We are if you like the moral disinfectant for the world in which we live. We have God’s morality and truth, and so Jesus says live it out in the world and slow the rot which is taking place. Rub yourself into the flesh of the world and get involved. Stand up for Biblical ideals and show a better way.

Now I don’t think Jesus is asking you to go into your office on Monday morning, stand on a desk and say: "Woe to you heathen, woe to your evils that you have done on Saturday night at that club." Judgement must be left to God alone. Sometimes of course it may be right to denounce something. Often this will take place in the public realm. Institutions like the Christian Institute take a very public stand on issues such as homosexuality, Section 28, or human rights. They are being salt in the public sphere, pointing out something that is wrong, and suggesting in its place something that is right. And we should support that work, perhaps lobbying our MP about the age of consent, showing that the gay agenda is not the only one available. Christians down the years have always got involved in the public sphere and we have seen many wonderful successes for the promotion of biblical ideals. We only have to mention people like William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftsbury, Dr. Barnado, George Muller and others. They were Christians who acted as salt in the public realm and were able to make big changes. And how we need men and women like that today. Let’s pray for Christians in parliament that they would be salt, slowing the rot by promoting God’s values. Sir Fred Catherwood who visited the church just last week has said that: "To try to improve society is not worldliness but love. To wash your hands of society is not love but worldliness." And let’s pray for friends involved in the media that they would be salt in those rotting places. Christians must be seen to be taking a stand in this public realm.

But most of us are not in the public sphere. How are we to be the salt of the earth? Well more often than not, being salt means not so much saying anything, as being something. In other words, the quality of our lives is to be the way we show our saltiness. We are to live lives which are distinctive from the world around us, putting into practice those gospel qualities which Jesus talks about in verses 1-12. Take for instance the woman or man that works in the office. She tries not to swear, and she doesn’t get involved in the backbiting that often happens when the boss’ back is turned, and when the dirty jokes are flying around, she quietly slips away to get a cup of coffee because it’s clear that they make her feel uncomfortable. She never makes a big thing of it, and she wouldn’t have a go at the others, but she just doesn’t get involved. She tries to say a warm hello to the receptionist each morning, and she remembers when her colleague’s mother has to go into hospital so she can ask how she is. She works hard and tries not to complain. She tries not to put people down when she is tired or over worked. And over time people begin to notice. Some don’t like it; Jesus of course said in verse 13 that we will be persecuted. Salt does bite doesn’t it? But others secretly respect her. Some will even stop swearing because they know she doesn’t like it.

Now you may think I am describing "Samantha the Super Christian", but actually all this lady is doing, and there are plenty like her who do it, is applying the teaching of the Bible to the workplace, not in some superspiritual show off sort of way, not being judgemental, but in a way that is humble and gracious. She loves her Lord and she wants to be salt in that office. She is living a life which is distinct from those around her.

But notice too, before we move on, that there is a warning. Jesus says that "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." Now, I am not a chemist, but I am told that strictly speaking salt cannot lose its saltiness. But what often happened in the ancient world was that salt would be mixed up with other impurities, so that the salt itself would be leeched out, leaving just a mushy white mess. All it was fit for was to be chucked out. Now Jesus is not teaching us chemistry, rather he is making a very serious point. If we are not being salty and distinctive in the world in which we live and work, then we are as good as tasteless white mush. We are as good as the rotting and putrid world around us. In fact the word for "lose its saltiness" literally means to be a fool. A foolish Christian has no impact in the world. The Christian who goes with the flow in that office, who swears like the best, who backbites with the rest and whose lifestyle at leaving does and end of year parties leaves a lot to be desired, is fit for nothing according to Jesus. They have lost their saltiness. They too are like putrid and rotting fish. Fit for nothing except to be thrown out. That’s Jesus’ warning. Don’t be conformed to the world around you. Be distinct, be salty.

There’s an old Greek story about a man called Jason who sailed to discover the Golden Fleece with a crew of sailors called the Argonauts. Well one day they sailed past an island on which were some creatures called Sirens which were half women half beast. But they had beautiful voices and they used to lure passing ships to their island and then kill them. Well Jason knew this danger and as they were passing the island Jason sang his own crew a song. And the crew had a choice. To listen to Jason’s song and be saved or else to listen to the song of the Sirens and risk jumping overboard to go the island and face certain death. And there are two voices ringing in our ears all the time. Jesus’ voice in His Word, or the voice of the world. The voice of the master teacher Jesus is saying listen to me. Be distinctive, be salty. If not then you are heading for disaster. So let me ask. Is this you? Are you salty, or have you lost your saltiness. You are the salt of the earth.


3) Challenge 3: Spread the Light

But then lastly, the third challenge is to spread the light. Verse 14: "You are the light of the world." And if the challenge of the previous verse was don’t lose it, then the challenge of this verse is don’t hide it. You see both salt and light are complementary. Salt has a negative effect of slowing the rot; but light has the positive effect of pointing the way and bringing light to darkness. Now the interesting thing is that Jesus does not say you are the honey of the world. Rather he said you are salt and light. We are not just in the world to be sweet and nice. Rather we are in the world to be distinct and point the way to Jesus. And it is the latter half that Jesus is teaching us now. For it is not enough simply to be different. People need to know why we are different. And the answer comes in where we get our light from. Jesus himself is the light of the world and we reflect his light. For example when you look at the moon, you don’t actually see the moon shining on a bright night. Rather than beautiful silvery light is light reflected from the sun. And so the Christian reflects Jesus’ light, the light of the Son of God. We are light. And so we must point people to the light, that is Jesus. We are not simply nicer people than the rest in the office. Rather we follow a Lord who has set a different standard, a Lord who has paid the ultimate price to get us out of this dark and rotting world, a Lord who longs for others to come to him to. And we are the means to lead others to him. We are lights who point to the light.

But of course a big temptation is to conceal that light, to hide the real reason why we are different. I guess many of us can testify to lost opportunities whereby someone has perhaps asked why we are different or what makes us tick, and we squirmed and wriggled and then eventually said something wishy washy and vague. Well we let’s not feel guilty. Let’s keep asking God to give us those opportunities and to have the courage to take them when they come. For we have nothing to be ashamed of. Jesus gives two illustrations of what we are to be like. We are to be like a city on a hill. You can see it for miles around, it cannot be hidden. So too the Christian who is being truly salty in the world. Nor do you hide a lamp under your bed. No, you put it on a lampstand so that it shines for all to see. Don’t hide that light, says Jesus. You’re there for a reason, to point people to me. The German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said these words: "Flight into the invisible is a denial of the call [to be a Christian]. A community of Jesus [or individual] which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him." God really wants to use us in the world where we are. That is our mission field. Don’t hide the light.

And again notice the way this happens. Verse 16: "In the same way, let your light shine before men that they might see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven." Again it is the life you lead which is so effective. Jesus says that some non Christians will end up glorifying God because of our witness. We are like shop windows. People can look at us and see, imperfectly maybe, the light of Christ. And notice it is not us who get the glory but God. And this does happen. I can think of one friend who knew a girl who was not a Christian at university. They lived on the same corridor together in a set of flats. Well over those years this girl saw my friend’s life, a just a few times she was able to tell her about Jesus. Well they both left university and a couple of years later my friend received a letter from this girl. And the letter was amazing. It said that she had become a Christian, and then she said these words. "I looked at your life and I saw something different. I realised that there was something special about you, and I just had to investigate." And that investigation led her to Christ. My friend had reflected Jesus’ light. Don’t hide it says Jesus. You are the light of the world.

Well do you want to change the world? It is possible, maybe not in big ways, but little by little we can slow the rot and spread the light. It’s not rocket science. It’s just simple authentic Christianity. It is the Christian’s privilege and responsibility. It won’t always be easy, but it is what we are called to do. Hear the challenge: Don’t lose it and don’t hide it. For you are the salt of the earth and you are the light of the world.


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