Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Light for the World

Light for the World
Matthew 5:13-20[1]
Most of us are private people. We tend to keep what is most personal very close. Many of us don’t even want to feel our emotions, let alone talk about them. Even when it would do us good to do so, we prefer to keep them private. We don’t easily share our deepest problems, because we don’t want other people to know our business. We certainly don’t want others to know about our health problems, because we find it embarrassing. In some respects, this tendency to keep some things private can be healthy. There are some aspects of our lives that simply aren’t meant to be shared in public.
Unfortunately, we carry that privacy over to our faith. For example, it has been generally agreed that we don’t talk about religion or politics in polite company. We may find that to be especially true at large family gatherings, like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. Most of our families are diverse enough that they represent a range of political and religious convictions. And some of us know by experience how uncomfortable it can be to get into a “discussion” of religion or politics with our extended families. So we talk about sports, or the weather, or anything else that’s “safe.”  Unfortunately, this tendency toward privacy also means that we don’t talk about our faith much at all. Except at church, because that’s where you’re “supposed” to talk about those things.
The problem with this is that our faith was never meant to be kept private.[2] We cannot simply set it aside when we walk out the doors of this building. The kind of commitment that the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ seeks from us is one that is by definition public. It affects every area of life. There is no line that separates what is sacred from what is secular, that separates our faith from our lives. Our faith is meant to be lived out in our lives—and that means every facet of life.
I think this has something to do with what Jesus was saying in our lesson for today. If you pay close attention, Jesus did not shy away from talking about topics that were controversial. His teachings upset the political and religious status quo. That’s what got him killed. Think about it—people don’t get riled up enough to execute someone for simply telling them to love God and to love other people. Jesus got into trouble with the political and religious leaders because he spelled out what that was supposed to look like in a way that exposed their hypocrisy. In the words of Isaiah, they acted “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness” but the reality was that they had forsaken God’s ways (Isa. 58:2).
In our lesson for today, Jesus proclaims that those who follow him and embrace the values of God’s kingdom of justice, mercy, peace, and freedom as laid out in the Beatitudes are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” It’s a little hard to tell what Jesus meant by saying that we are “the salt of the earth.” One use for salt that I think of in this connection is to purify that which is contaminated. We still use saline rinse to cleanse wounds. I wonder if Jesus didn’t intend his followers to be the “salt of the earth” in that sense: to live in such a way as to “cleanse” society of the prejudice and hatred and injustice and violence that plagues the human family. It may be painful, like salt in a wound, but the goal is to promote healing.
Jesus also said that those who follow him are the “light of the world.” I think this also has a dual emphasis. Light shining in the darkness exposes that which we would like to keep hidden. Most of us don’t parade our wrongdoing for all to see. We much prefer to keep it hidden. And we don’t much like it when what we want to keep hidden is exposed. But when the wrongs that are hidden in society are allowed to remain secret, they have a way of festering and getting worse. In a sense, I think Jesus intended for his disciples to shed light on the wrongs in this world by speaking the truth about them, rather than allowing them to remain hidden. In this way, they also serve as “light” by showing the world the way God intends for life to be.
An interesting feature of this text is that Jesus doesn’t say “You shall be the salt of the earth,” or “You are to become the light of the world.”[3] He simply stated it as truth. Those who follow Jesus are salt and light for the world. When we place our faith in Jesus and align ourselves with the kingdom of God, that decision means demonstrating the difference it makes in our lives. We cannot help but be salt and light for the world.[4] And if you’re wondering what that means in terms of specifics, Jesus said it this way: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt. 25:35-36). You can’t keep that private!
The truth of the matter is that we simply cannot keep our faith to ourselves.[5] In doing so, something happens that is similar to salt becoming insipid: it saps the life out of our faith. It makes about as much sense as turning on a lamp and covering it with a tarp. Jesus calls those of us who would follow him to a life that puts our faith out there in public. Our faith is not meant to stay in the realm of “interesting ideas” we talk about only at church. For our faith to be real, it has to be put into practice in every facet of our lives, from work to family to community to politics. We’re meant to demonstrate the difference faith makes in every way possible. When we live out our faith in that way for all to see, then we are salt for the earth and light for the world.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/5/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Fred Craddock, “Two Arenas for Faithfulness,”  The Christian Century, (Jan 31 1990):98, where he says, “There is no way that Christ’s cause can be converted into an individual or community lifestyle of self-interest, self-protection and defense against vulnerability. To do so is not to interpret Christ differently, but to abandon him. The way of Christ is to take the initiative and rather than hide from the world let the light shine in the hopeful trust that the praise of God will be increased.”
[3] Cf. W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 472: “Jesus’ followers are not the salt and light of Israel … but of the whole world.” Cf. also J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 125-26; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.2:804-805.
[4] Cf. Paul Louis Metzger, Christ, Culture, And The Sermon On The Mount Community,” Ex Auditu 23 (2007): 25-26. He says, “Being ‘relevant’ does not necessarily suggest that we let culture shape the gospel to make it appealing. The gospel creates its own relevance. Followers of Jesus are not salespeople who sell a product but witnesses who are promoting a kingdom and who are participating in the life of the king as his people who give and receive from his abundance.”
[5] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 478: “Jesus’ disciples are to live in the world so that the world will see them and be moved to glorify God. Closet Christianity and self-directed service are excluded.”

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