The following sermon was preached at Church of the Atonement, Carnegie, PA, February 6 2011 (Super Bowl Sunday) at 8:00AM
[Jesus said] “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:13-20 RSV
“You are the salt of the earth…”
How many sermons have you heard that started with this quote? If you’re anything like me it’s been quite a few. And if your experience has been anything like mine the sermons you’ve heard have gone something like this:
“Y’know, salt is salty, but it has one other outstanding characteristic: it’s a preservative. When you rub it into meat it preserves the meat. And back in Jesus’ day that was an important thing because people lived in a near-desert climate. So meat needed preserving. And Jesus’ disciples would have understood that. We as Christians are to act like preservative in our society. We need to be rubbed into the culture so that our influence, like salt, keeps society from going bad…”
Sound familiar? I know I’ve heard a lot of sermons like that. Interesting to hear but it misses Jesus’ point entirely.
Stepping back for a minute to take in the scene: Jesus and His disciples have gotten away from the crowds and have climbed a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus sits down and starts to teach them. He starts out with the Beatitudes – a list of blessings.
In this week’s Gospel reading Jesus follows the list of blessings with three warnings. Jesus gives these warnings gently, with a twist of humor, maybe because the list of blessings didn’t sound a whole lot like blessings – at least not according to conventional wisdom. Just to recap, here’s the list of people being blessed: “blessed are you poor in spirit, you who mourn, you who are humble, you who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, you who are merciful, you who are pure in heart, you peacemakers, you who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”
People back in those days, like people today, lived like just the opposite was true: Society said, “Blessed are you rich, you who throw lavish parties, you who are proud, you who go along to get along, you who stand up for your rights, you who fight for what you want, you who refuse to take the fall. And God bless the child who’s got his own.” That’s what society said back then, and it still does today.
Jesus turned all that on its ear. He said God blesses the ones who look small in the eyes of the world, who long for a world that’s right the way God intended it to be.
And then he gives the Three Gentle Warnings.
The first is this: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can it be made salty again? It no longer has the power to do anything, and therefore will be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.”
Jesus isn’t talking about preservatives here. He’s talking about flavor. He says “if salt has lost its taste”. So what is it about the flavor of salt that Jesus is drawing our attention to? What does it do? Well, it makes bland food interesting. It adds zest to a meal. So is He saying that we as Christians are supposed to make life interesting? Could be. In fact I think that may be part of it. But we don’t need to work at making life interesting… it’s the nature of Christian life to be interesting just like it’s the nature of salt to be salty. It doesn’t require any effort on our part.
There’s one other characteristic of salt, and that is it draws out the flavors of foods it’s added to. Unless you totally overdo it with the salt-shaker, a bit of salt makes eggs taste more like eggs and broccoli taste more like broccoli. And in the same way, the closer we walk to Jesus, the more we bring out the true ‘flavor’ (so to speak) of the people around us. There is something about the Spirit of God living in us that other people react to. And that’s when things get really interesting. For instance I know I’ve had people comment on things I’ve never said, only to find out later they were sensing something spiritual and reacting to it as if I’d actually said something. That’s what spiritual salt can do.
So Jesus warns us not to lose our saltiness. Which raises a question: How can salt become un-salty? We learned in high school chemistry that salt has a chemical composition of NaCl. It will always be NaCl, and NaCl will always be salt. It’s one of the laws of God’s great creation: that the chemical formula of a substance always remains the same no matter what form it takes. So how can salt become un-salty?
Being stumped by this question, I did what comes naturally: I googled it. And I found an answer that is highly relevant: The only way salt can become un-salty is through dilution. If you mix salt in enough water it will lose its flavor. And in the same way, if Christians get too tangled up in the world, in the culture of our day, we get diluted, we lose our saltiness. Jesus talked about this in the parable of the sower. He talked about the seed that lands among thorns and gets choked by the brambles. He said this seed represents people who “get entangled in the cares of this life and the deceitfulness of riches”. That’s dilution. And when that happens the Word of God within us gets lost, gets drowned out. So that’s Warning #1: don’t lose your saltiness.
Gentle Warning #2 comes in verses 14-16: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel [basket], but on a [lamp]stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light shine in such a way that people see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
As followers of Jesus, we can’t hide who we are or Whose we are, and there would be no point in trying. Therefore be bold!
This being Super Bowl Sunday I have to mention the Steelers at least once. Did you all catch the article in the paper a few weeks ago, when Troy Polamalu wished a Merry Christmas in Greek to the Greek Orthodox community? He used the fact that Orthodoxy is outside most peoples’ experience to share his faith with the world. And he talked very openly about what faith means to him and how he and his wife go about living it. Bottom line, he took his 15 minutes of fame and gave it to God. That’s a great example of shining light into the darkness. You and I will probably never have a 15 minutes quite as big, but we can be ready, like he was, to take advantage of the opportunities that come.
So the warning here is: don’t hide your light. And Jesus says this because He knows we’re tempted to try. We don’t like stick out in a crowd, we don’t want to call attention to ourselves. And the thing is, we’re not trying to call attention to ourselves, we’re trying to point people to God. But when we do people sometimes notice us and start treating us differently. I remember one time a co-worker said to me “you’re not one of those Christians are you?” If I’d had my snappy-comeback-machine working that morning I might have said “you’re not one of those prejudiced people are you?” But you know how it is. Christians who live what they believe sometimes make other people uncomfortable and they react. And Jesus tells us we’re blessed when this happens, even if it may not feel like it at the moment. So Gentle Warning #2: We shouldn’t try to hide who and what we are. It can’t be hidden anyway, and if we try we just look silly, like putting a lamp under a basket.
And the third warning is in verses 17-20. Jesus says, “Don’t think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever breaks the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
This third warning doesn’t seem quite so gentle. Be more righteous than the Pharisees? How is that even possible? These were the guys who tithed 10% of everything they owned, right down to the spices in their spice racks. They were fanatics about keep the law of Moses. And Jesus says our righteousness needs to be so far above that of the Pharisees as to take it to a whole new level. (That’s basically what the Greek says… the word ‘exceeds’ means riches in such abundance that you’ve got lots of leftovers.)
There are two things to point out here. The first is, it’s impossible to outdo the Pharisees at keeping the law. We need to trust Jesus when He says “I have come to fulfill the law”. He does it for us, because we can’t do it for ourselves. And the abundance of His righteousness is rich enough to leave leftovers.
The second is: the law and the prophets never intended the development of thousands of picky little laws and miniscule rules. They were intended to bring glory to God by creating a nation who reflected His glory by the way they lived. Jesus said the Pharisees were experts at “straining out gnats and swallowing camels”. They tithed their spices and fasted on every holy day but they forgot to treat people with kindness and mercy. And they were so far off the mark that ultimately they condemned the Messiah.
So what is it the law and the prophets actually ask us to do? Here’s one example the book of Isaiah:
Isaiah 58:6-10 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free… to break bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into a house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, [you see here how Jesus continues the theme of God’s people being light]… Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer… If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the wants of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness…”
These words show us a God who loves people. He is deeply concerned that we care for one another, live in peace with each other and provide for the needs of the least of us. The Pharisees, with all their religious rules, completely missed the point. So in gentle warning #3 Jesus calls attention to this and tells His disciples to remember that the law and the prophets still stand, and that what they taught is summed up in love for God and neighbor.
So to pull it all together, the Three Gentle Warnings:
- Christians are supposed to be salty. We’re supposed to make life interesting, and to draw out the flavor of people around us. But we need to be careful not to let our saltiness get diluted by worldly cares.
- As Christians we are supposed to be light in a dark world. And we shouldn’t feel awkward about that; we shouldn’t try to tone down the light.
- The arrival of the Messiah does not undo the words of the Old Testament. What Moses and the Prophets had to say was and still is God’s word. What’s new is that Jesus fulfills the law on our behalf so that we can enter God’s heaven through faith in Him rather than by trying to keep rules we can’t keep.
And by the way it should be noted that the word ‘you’ in ‘you are the salt, you are the light’ is plural. We don’t have to do all this by ourselves. We’re not meant to. That’s what the family of God, the Church, is for. Both individually AND as a community of believers, we are to be salt and light.
And it should also be mentioned that these warnings come with a great promise, and that is: our lives matter! God has given us the opportunity to be salt, to be light, to make a difference, be a part of His master plan of salvation. And He has given us His word, which never changes because He never changes.
So be salt in a world that is bland and tasteless. Be light in a world that is dark and getting darker. Live to His glory: and no compromise. AMEN.