Saturday, February 05, 2011

A, Epiphany 5 - Matthew 5:13-20 "How Salt Saves"

Jesus speaks about two elements in the Gospel reading today – salt and light. Light is a concept used many times through the bible! We hear of light and darkness. Light is used in relation to holiness, goodness, and as radiating from God’s glory, etc. Light is the opposite of darkness, and darkness is the realm of the hidden, the shady, the underworld, the realm of evil; a place where God is not present nor is the light of his glory.

So when Jesus says, “You are the light of the world”, and “Let your light shine” it’s easy to grasp what he wants us to do. And that’s to let others see our good works and give glory to God.

So before we move onto the element of salt, let’s be clear about this light we’re called to shine – these good works that will cause people to glorify God. Notice though, these good works don’t cause others to glorify us rather just God. That’s important not to forget, lest we employ good works to be seen righteous and therefore seek glory for ourselves.

This is illustrated by the simple picture of a light hidden under a bowl. Why would you light a candle only to put it under something to cover up the light? One may as well not light the candle in the first place! It’s a complete waste of time and useless! One lights a candle so it can shine and remove the darkness and reveal the environment around it.

Just like a city on a hill whose light cannot be hidden, Jesus tells his disciples to let their light shine. But the light they shone was not a light which brought glory to them.

As a matter of fact the light they shone after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, won them imprisonment and martyr-hood. Like Christ, whose death on a hill continues to shine salvation on all who let this light shine in their lives, the disciples’ witness of our Lord shining at transfiguration, Calvary, and ascension, causes many others to give glory to God. To this day the disciples’ good works continue to bring glory to God even as they lay in their graves.

So the light we shine is, in fact, a light not of ourselves, but God. Covering God’s light by parading it as something that might bring glory to ourselves, is the same as putting a candle under a bowl - it’s completely useless and dysfunctional. Our good works are God’s good works set apart for us from before the creation of the world.

Believers don’t even know most of the time when they are shining this Christ centred light let alone have the opportunity to hide it. You can trust God is shining in you as you continue returning to him with a repentant heart, knowing your sinful nature always seeks to hide this God-glorifying light in you, from you, and others so that his light is hijacked for our glory.

The other element Jesus speaks of is salt. He said to the disciples and he says to you, “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 trampled under people’s feet.” (Matthew 5:13 ESV)

One might ponder, “How can salt lose its saltiness?” This immediately moves us to think about one aspect of salt – the one most of us use salt for today – for taste. Salt for many of us is an additive used to enhance flavour, but it has many other qualities too.

To see how these qualities are important for us as disciples of Christ, and the reason why Jesus tells us we’re “the salt of the earth”, we might look at salt in the same way as we do light.

Light shines in the darkness to dispel the darkness. Where light shines, darkness cannot exist. So salt flavours the flavourless, but if salt loses it saltiness, what actually is it? Or better still we can ask, “What is the opposite of salt? Is there an opposing element of salt that makes things bland?”

Now it might be a simple job to distinguish the opposites of light and darkness, however, salt is a little more complex. But when we examine the opposites of salt we can know what it is, what it’s not, and why it’s such a good image for Jesus to liken believers to.

So what is the opposite of salt …?

Sweet? Pepper? These two also give taste. Some might find sweet more pleasant than saltiness, but they both give taste among other things. And pepper it’s a spice, a taste agent too! All three add flavour, but what takes flavour away, a subtracter as opposed to an additive; how can salt lose its saltiness?

Salt is not just a taste agent. Salt is also a preservative. It’s used to sustain food from spoiling, and it’s used in the leather tannery process. Salt is a retainer, a keeper, an absorber. Salt in a body retains water, salt cleans by attracting moisture. Spill red wine on carpet and the best thing to get out the stain is lots and lots of salt. It preserves by sucking up the mess with the moisture.

It appears we can only find opposites of salt’s action. Salt gives flavour, it purifies and preserves, it stops food from rotting, and salt retains water by drawing it from other things. So we get a picture of what salt does and what it wouldn’t do if salt could lose its saltiness.

Jesus uses these pictures of salt and light to lead us into a deeper understanding of who we are as his children. He uses this illustration to show how the kingdom of heaven functions. He teaches a way lost on most cultures — the way of servanthood, suffering, and submission. Jesus teaches the way of righteousness lost even amongst Jews in favour of a righteousness built on pride, status, and self-achievement. But Jesus’ pictures of salt and light show how true righteousness and servanthood functions in the kingdom of God’s glory.

Jesus says,Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will 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 5:17–20 ESV)

Jesus didn’t come to take the saltiness from the salt, nor did he come to turn off the light. Rather he came rubbing salt into the wounds of sin, and he came letting the light expose all the deeds of darkness. The righteousness required by God is perfection, and the servanthood necessary, complete submission. Jesus came calling humanity back to the saltiness of God’s word and he came to shed light on a new way of righteousness.

When Jesus called the disciples to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he was calling them to let the salt and light of the law do its work within them. Unless they first were preserved and given flavour by the Word, how could they have been salt and light to those around them?

Many of us today have a great faith and a high level of righteousness. Unfortunately though, this righteousness and faith does not find favour with God. It brings glory, respect, honour, veneration, fame, reward, pleasure, and power. But this righteousness and faith only lasts for fleeting moments and has no value in the kingdom of heaven.

The scribes and Pharisees were masters of this type of righteousness. They used the word of God to believe in themselves. They had a high moral conduct, they sought to follow the law, yet it was still not good enough. They were passing over the dots and iota’s, the bits and pieces, leaving their righteousness incomplete despite how astute they appeared to be.

Unfortunately for humanity, as hard as we try to do the righteous thing, there is always a dot or an iota left out. These are the motives for our righteous deeds. Motives which seek glory for the self — fame and fortune fought for by the follower!

So as good, clean living, honest and upstanding citizens as the Pharisees and scribes were, it was not enough to earn the kingdom of God, and unless your righteousness exceeds theirs you too will not enter the kingdom of God.

If the law is left to do its holy work. It lights up all unrighteousness and gives us a dose of the salts. It exposes and cleanses us first. Think of what it’s like when you’ve had a stomach bug. One is literally cleaned out, exhausted, and weak. This is spiritually what the law does to us. We are left in need of food that will strengthen our being. And we receive it, and more. The food we receive is forgiveness and faith, salt that preserves and purifies and a light which leads us in all righteousness.

Jesus fulfils all righteousness in his life, death, and resurrection here on earth. He gets right the bits and pieces of the law, the dots and the iota’s. Jesus Christ dots all the “I’s” and crosses all the T’s, and yet he hung on the cross as if he was guilty of all unrighteousness. And for those who trust in him and allow his righteousness to persevere in us it will preserve us eternally.

Those who believe they are weak, who let the law do its work, freely receive the grace of God’s forgiveness and a faith that’s born of his Word through the action of the Holy Spirit. God’s will is grafted into us; our will is washed in the blood of the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. And God enables us to live repentant lives as he shines into the world through us and seasons the earth with the righteousness he intended from the beginning.

Pray God lets his good works shine in you. Ask for him to give you strength to endure and persevere. And know through you he can implant the hunger of righteousness in the hearts of all who come your way. Let us give thanks to God and give him all praise and honour till his kingdom comes and all is preserved and enlightened forever, righteous in the glory of God. Amen.