Text: Matthew 5:13-16
Sermon 5 in our “Rule of Life” series.
Listen to it HERE.
When we first got married my parents gave Diane and me a pizza stone. That thing is awesome. Diane has become quite a pizza maker over the years, and because of that stone the crust has just the right amount of crispness. Our Halloween night routine is not to order pizza, but to be cooking and enjoying homemade pizza between the rings of the doorbell.
Not only is the pizza stone good for cooking pizza, you can also make bread on it and it has the same effect. The crust is just perfect – nice and crunchy. So good.
Early on in my experimentation with the pizza stone, I decided to make some bread for dinner. I had the flour and water together into a good consistency. Then I went to the cabinet to grab the salt. “No problem,” I thought. “The recipe only calls for a little bit of salt, and salt isn’t very good for you anyway, so I will just leave the salt out of the dough. What difference could it make?” I finished kneading it, let it rise, then put the loaves in the oven. Soon the house filled with one of the greatest smells in the world. When we sat down for dinner I cut the warm bread and prepared to enjoy it. But we didn’t. It had almost no flavor at all. I found out that bread needs salt.
This is a lesson I should have learned several years before. As a youth my mom sent me to the grocery store one day to get butter. I distinctly remember standing there looking at the fact that there were two kinds of butter – salted and unsalted. I had never noticed that before. I thought, “my mom always grabs the healthier stuff whenever she is shopping so she must have wanted me to get the unsalted.” I learned that day that butter needs salt.
I wouldn’t describe bread or butter as salty, but without the salt they are just bland and tasteless, and probably only good to be thrown out and trampled under foot.
For the most part I don’t like salt very much. I buy unsalted peanuts to snack on, and when I order a hot pretzel at the mall I ask for it without salt. But some things really need it.
But salt can also, at times, be overpowering. Have you ever gotten something with too much salt?
In his book Relearning Jesus Matthew Paul Turner tells the story of the birthday cake his Mammon made for his seventh birthday. Everyone at the party was excited because Matthew’s grandmother’s cakes were outstanding. Aunt Jean got the first piece. He writes:
“Oh, my word!” exclaimed my aunt. She shook her head in disgust as she spit out the cake into her napkin. “Mother! What did you do to this cake?”…
Perplexed by Aunt Jean’s question, my grandmother took a small bite of her cake, then quickly grabbed the closest napkin and spit it back out…
“It tastes like I put salt in the batter instead of sugar. How on earth did I make that mistake?” …
I was only seven years old, but my Mammon and I were close. I loved her dearly. I walked over and gave her a big hug.
“Can we still eat your cake, Mammon?” I whispered in her good ear.
“My goodness, no, Matthew. I am so sorry; too much salt makes something like a cake taste awful” (Turner 42-43).
Too much salt ruins things. No salt ruins things. It seems to be the salt of the earth requires some balance.
Jesus talks about purpose after character
One of the challenges of preaching this sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount is not to take the sermon as a whole. Many are tempted to take this sermon apart. We read these teachings in bits and pieces, as if they are proverbs – unrelated to one another except for the fact that they all come from Jesus. Our Bibles encourage that by the headings offered. Yet when we pull a teaching out from the rest of the sermon, we miss something of what it is saying.
In the first four sermons in this series Bob has said several times that he sees the Sermon on the Mount as a type of “constitution” for the Kingdom of God. This constitution-for-the-Kingdom-of-God-sermon begins with a preamble that we commonly refer to as the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes give us the characteristics of a follower of Jesus, a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. You may recall as Bob led us through these that each of these sets of three beatitudes consists of a thesis, then an antithesis, and finally a synthesis. There was always a need for balance.
For example we are to hunger and thirst for righteousness or justice, but that has to be balanced with mercy for people. We cannot simply be all about the rules, nor can we be all about the people. When we do both, we become pure of heart and begin to see God in the world all around us. Balance.
There is this balance in the beatitudes that is characteristic of the citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. Then Jesus moves directly into telling us, his followers, what our purpose is – to be the salt of the earth.
Again, this idea of balance comes into play. Too little salt ruins things like bread (one of the staples of the diet of Jesus’ original audience) and butter. Without the salt they are bland and tasteless. They need the salt to bring out the flavors that already exist within them.
On the other hand, too much salt overpowers and can ruin things as well. What does this look like in the church? Comedian Michael Jr. gives us an idea in a humorous way.
Salt is best in balance
We can laugh about it, but have you been there when it is less than laughable? We see it around us quite a bit. People who are quick, in the name of being salt and light, to point out the flaws of others. They talk. They picket. They protest. They annoy, offend, drive people away. They make people feel unwelcome and even make others wonder if it is possible for God to love them in their brokenness. Salt is good, but not when it is rubbed into wounds.
It is not good when salt dominates. It overpowers and ruins the cake.
The role of salt is not to be tasted itself. The role of salt is to bring out the flavors around it. As salty Christians we need to balance remaining salty with remaining somewhat undetected as ourselves, and simply bringing out God around us.
The danger then can become blending in so well that we lose our flavor, our identity as salt.
In order for salt to be effective it has to be immersed in its surroundings and yet remain salty. If it loses its flavor, if it no longer is salt, it becomes useless. Jesus says, “It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot” (Matthew 5:13b). So too it is with the citizens of the Kingdom of God. We are here on this planet for a reason. So we must get immersed in our surroundings, and yet remain separate, self-differentiated, working from a different realm of authority as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
We need that time apart so that we can remain salty, to remain connected to the source of the flavor – our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But too often we Christians want to stay in the shaker we call the church, in the name of “protection.” At times we operate as if the role of the church is to be the salt shaker – a gathering of the saved. In fact we have done such a good job of that, it is the perception of most outside of the church. Jesus reminds us that we need to get out of the shaker of the church and into the dough of the world around us. Sometimes we need to dare to go out and be the salt of the earth. We need to allow the Spirit to break through.
Christianity cannot be concealed
In his book Simply Christian, which a group of us are studying on Wednesday nights, N. T. Wright offers a parable about a dictator of a particular land that had great water reserves underneath of it. The problem was that the water came up in inconvenient places – where it was quite frankly in the way. So the dictatorial ruler devised a plan to pave over the entire kingdom with concrete and to run the water through a series of channels, canals, and pipes. The goal was to control the water so that it would come up where it was most useful, and not just wherever it wanted. So it was done. An intricate system of underground irrigation was installed and the kingdom paved over to control the flow of the water. All was well, he says, for some time. But then the water started to build up force under the ground and started to break through all over the kingdom (Wright 17f).
Wright says that our “spirituality” as he calls it, is much like that underground water. We often want to control it, but it refused to be controlled. It must come out. It must present itself.
John Wesley puts it rather concisely, “Whatever religion can be concealed, is not Christianity” (Wesley II.4). You might try to keep it a secret, but like the light, or the water under the pavement, it cannot be kept in forever. It has power and a way of breaking through!
You are the light of the world
To this end Jesus balances his salt imagery with another image – “You are the light of the world,” he says. Salt goes almost unnoticed, except when it is missing or overpowering. Salt is like what they say about umpires and referees – if you notice them, they are NOT doing their job well. Light, on the other hand, is hard to miss.
N. T. Wright in Simply Christian writes, “Matches, candles, and flashlights are things we can use to help us see in the dark. What makes no sense…is to go out with either matches, candles, or flashlight to see if the sun has risen yet” (Wright 56). What he is saying is that we don’t go out into the darkness looking for the light, we simply go outside and enjoy the effects of the light. We don’t see the light, but the light illuminates the world around us.
Light is a powerful force yet is invisible. Light is dispels darkness allowing us to see, but we cannot see it. Light is easily identifiable when present, but cannot be pointed out. Like salt, light is not the end in and of itself. Rather it is a means to an end. We don’t see light, but the light allows us to see.
Jesus says that we, members of the Kingdom, are the light of the world. Notice he does not say that we are the source of the light, but rather the light itself. Let me explain.
Listen again to what the text says (Matthew 5:14-15):
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.
Where does that “city built on a hill” comment come from? Jesus just kind of throws that image out there and it appears at first blush to be a mixed metaphors here. The image of a city interrupts the image of light. What is going on?
A city built on a hill
I think Jesus is saying something fairly specific when he talks about “a city built on a hill.” For Jesus’ first hearers who had followed him up the mountain for this sermon, and the first readers of Matthew’s recounting of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, when they heard “city on a hill” a specific city would have popped into their heads – the city of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem was built on top of a hill. That is why so often we read in the Bible of going “up to Jerusalem.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going North – as we might say we were going up to Denver (even thought the altitude is lower) as opposed to down to Pueblo. When they say, “up to Jerusalem” they mean quite literally up. From all directions one has to climb a hill to get to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is “a city built on a hill.”
Jerusalem is more than just a capital city of a nation, it is the religious center of the Hebrew people. The Temple in Jerusalem was seen as the thinnest of thin places, the place where Heaven and Earth, our world and the dwelling place of God overlapped and intersected most clearly. Even today, our Jewish friends know that when they want to be closest to God the best place that they can go is to Jerusalem, to the Temple.
Jesus alludes to Jerusalem in the middle of this light image. The image that Jesus uses that most closely relates is the lamp on the lampstand (Remember, that’s how we got here?). City – lamp; hill – lampstand; take that imagery knowing what we now know about the city to its conclusion and the lamp is not you and me, but is instead the presence of God right here right now dwelling among us.
Our job is not to be the lamp on the lampstand, getting all the attention. We want to be that city on a hill for all to see and point to and admire. But that is not our job. That is God’s. We are instead to be the light, emanating from God who dwells within us as He does within the Temple in the “city built on a hill.”
So in other words, it is not our job to get up on a hill or a soapbox to complain about how things ought to be or used to be. But rather to shine the light of God in the world around us.
It’s not about us
Notice that being salt and being light are not about us. They are not about being noticed. They are not about being dominant. They are about enhancing what it around us. In The Message Eugene Peterson translates these verses well as he writes (Matthew 5:13-14):
You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth… You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.
We are not here to be the flavors or the colors, but to bring them out in the world around us.
In his book Velvet Elvis, author Rob Bell uses an image I like a great deal. He says that our role as Christians is to serve as tour guides (Bell 87f). A good tour guide, like salt or light or the umpire, is not there to draw attention to himself/herself. Rather they are there to point out things that we would not see if we were to travel the same area on our own. The tour guide points out the architecture that was used in that building; or the colors that are employed in that painting; or that bird that is indigenous to this area; or shares with us something about the people who used to live in this historic house. They don’t really bring anything to the tour. Rather they allow us to see what has been there all along.
That’s our job too as salt and light. We have not been called to draw attention to ourselves. Rather we have been called to bring out the God-flavors and the God-colors of the world. Notice how Jesus says we are to do it (5:16 emphasis added):
let your light shine before others, so that they may see your GOOD WORKS and give glory to your Father in heaven.
We are not called to just talk about it, but to live it. We are called at citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven to do something – we are called to do “good works.”
Lest you think I am letting you off the hook, I’m not saying this is easier. I am saying it is harder. Talk is cheap. In the body of Christ, we need fewer mouths and tongues and more hands and feet!
The function of salt and light is not to suppress the bad, or to expel some things, or to purify. The function of salt and light is to get in the mix and bring out the good.
Yet Jesus says not that we are to let our light shine by our words that irritate, by our negative signs, by our shouting from the tallest tower they things that we are against. Rather we are to shine by our “good works”; by “opening up to others” (MSG); by our “good deeds” (NIV).
Jesus is asking us to get out there into the world and be the salt and light to the people around us. He is calling us to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick and in prison. He is calling us to shine by meeting the needs of those who see themselves as unlovable. He is calling us to get out of the pew and into the soup kitchen, out from these walls and into the community, out of our small group of all Christian friends and into the houses of our neighbors, off this platform and into the lives of people who are lonely, ill, afraid, broken, needy, etc.
Jesus is calling us to go out into the world to bring out the flavor; to go out into the darkness around us and bring a light that shows the good.
I was in a conversation this week with a friend who is one of those Christians that Jesus just seems to pour out of like the water under the concrete or the light on the lampstand. She was asking me about her struggle with what to do about some of her friends non-Christian friends or maybe better said, her friends who are not living out the Christian life in the way she understands. Some of her other, “Christian” friends are making her feel guilty for not saying something that will let the others know that they are wrong, that will point out their faults. They tell her she needs to do that to avoid her own judgment. (Interesting that somehow the Christians have made this about her and not about them).
She told me that she just wants to continue living as an example before them. Not judging, not condemning, not sending them away, discounting them, or alienating herself from them. My response now, that I wish I would have thought of then, “Shine on, girl!”
I say the same to you. Be the light, be the salt, bring out the God-flavors and the God-colors of the world. Don’t be shy about who you are as a Christian person who has a living, vibrant relationship with Jesus and shine on in your world every day. Shine on! Amen.
Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.
Jones, E. Stanley. The Christ of the Mount; a Working Philosophy of Life. New York: Abingdon, 1931.
Michael, Jr. “Over Saved” on Michael Jr.’s website http://michaeljr.com/videos/.
Turner, Matthew Paul. Relearning Jesus: How Reading the Beatitudes One More Time Changed My Life. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2009.
Wesley, John. “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount: Discourse IV” here: http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/wesley/sermons/24/.
Wright, N. T. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.