Salt, Light & A City

by susan on February 10, 2014

During our Sunday worship gatherings, we have been making our way through Matthew 5, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.  This often ignored bulk of Jesus’ teachings have been challenging us to think about how we live as Jesus-centered & kingdom -oriented people.

Here is the sermon that was shared yesterday…

Salt, Light & A City
Matthew 5:13-20

Over the last week and a half, we have heard a lot about the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. He died after an apparent drug overdose.  We are hearing this same story way too often.  Unfortunately, it takes the deaths of high profile celebrities to turn our heads and make us ask “what is going on?”

Stories like these are reminding me that some struggles in life are nearly impossible to overcome.

Not long after singer Amy Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning, English comedian, actor and climate change educator  Russell Brand wrote a very confessional post describing his empathy for so many who struggle with addiction.  Although 10 years sober, listen to how vividly he describes the power of addiction:

The last time I thought about taking heroin was yesterday. I had received “an inconvenient truth” from a beautiful woman. It wasn’t about climate change – I’m not that ecologically switched on – she told me she was pregnant and it wasn’t mine.

I had to take immediate action. I put Morrissey (ee) on in my car as an external conduit for the surging melancholy, and as I wound my way through the neurotic Hollywood hills, the narrow lanes and tight bends were a material echo of the synaptic tangle where my thoughts stalled and jammed. … I am becoming possessed. The part of me that experienced the negative data … is becoming overwhelmed, I can no longer see where I end and the pain begins. So now I have a choice.

I cannot accurately convey to you the efficiency of heroin in neutralising pain. It transforms a tight, white fist into a gentle, brown wave. From my first inhalation 15 years ago, it fumigated my private hell and lay me down in its hazy pastures and a bathroom floor in Hackney embraced me like a womb.

That is the power of addiction; and, it comes in many different forms.

– – –

In the face of overwleming powers such as these, we are confronted with some significant questions:

Does the gospel we have received still have life-transforming power?

Can the kingdom that Jesus announced and embodied really overcome competing powers as dark and difficult as these?   

And, if so, how is it going to happen?

These are questions we are longing – even dying to have answered.

– – –

As we continue to explore Matthew’s gospel and the series of Jesus’ teaching referred to as the Sermon on the Mount, I think it’s fair to say that things are getting real for Jesus’ followers.  Where they may have been attracted by his miracles or by rumors that he was quite the rebel, they are beginning to see the bigger picture.  Jesus is not just inviting them on an adventure – he is inviting them to choose to live under God’s rule, as part of God’s kingdom.

Jesus began teaching his followers by telling them about God’s way of blessing.  God blesses the  poor, mourning, meek; those hungering and thirsting; and, even those persecuted, reviled, slandered with evil.

When we come to the middle of Matthew 5, Jesus gives his followers their first instruction:

13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks 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. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  (NRSV translation)

I said things were getting real and here is what I mean.  I wonder if some of Jesus’ followers thought that they were following him to some desserted place where it could just be them and Jesus – loving and healing and singing happy songs.  And, then, Jesus begins this whole talk of salt, light and a city on a hill.  And you can bet those Jewish followers of Jesus hearing this gospel according to Matthew knew what Jesus is saying.

When Jesus tells his disciples that they are the salt of the earth, they knew that salt was used for seasoning and preservation.  Without salt to save and store food, people would starve to death.  Those hearing Matthew’s gospel also know something else.  In the Old Testament, salt was also used for purifying (2 Kg. 2:19-22), for finalizing covenants (Lev. 18:19, Chr. 13:5) and for preparing sacrifices to the Lord (Ex 30:35;Lev 2:13; Ezek 43:24; Ezra 6:9).  And Jesus says…

You are the salt of the earth.

Salt changes things.  Salt transforms.

When Jesus tells his disciples that they are the light of the world, another picture came to mind.   Old Testament scriptures said a lot about light.  Light was a symbol of God’s guiding presence.  The prophet Isaiah called Israel to be a light to the nations.  But, the title “Light of the World” had another familiar meaning.  Apollos was the Greek and Roman God of Light.  Apollos was the god Greek and Roman citizens were told to worship.  He was the one with power to bring light and healing.  Believing Apollos was their God, Rome itself at one point even claimed the title “Light of the World.”   And Jesus says…

You are the light of the world.

Light conquers, light invades, light transforms.

And, finally when Jesus tells his followers they are like a city on a hill, they encounter another familiar image.  They remember the prophet Isaiah’s vision of hope to devastated people: In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. ”  And Jesus says…

You are a city on a hill.

The city on a hill restores.  The city on a hill transforms.

These followers of Jesus came to be healed, they came to be fed and now they are told that they have a purpose.  In the face of powerful armies, governments and societal pressures, they must have felt so inadequate.  Can our little band of misfits really make a difference?  Can anything this awesome happen from such modest beginnings?  And if so, how?

And, it’s like Jesus is saying YES, and here is how:

You are going in.  Like salt, like light and like a city on a hill,  you are going to invade this broken world and help me make it whole again.

The momentum just has to be building.  Jesus begins by calling them blessed and now tells them they have a purpose.  I can almost see the crowd clapping, maybe even raising a crutch, a cantine or a clenched fist and shouting:

Yeah! Go Jesus!  Let’s do this!  

And, oh yeah, how exactly is this going to happen??

Are we going in with an army?  

Are we starting a rebellion?  What’s next?

This is when Jesus gives them the first imperative of his sermon on the mount.

Here is how you are to break in:

“…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

I wonder just how many followers Jesus lost on that day as tends to happen when things get real about being on mission with Jesus; when we realize that following Jesus is not some magical formula, some quick fix, a sprint to the finish line.  It’s not about us kicking butt or leaving this world for another.  That’s not the kind of kingdom Jesus came announcing.

You, followers of Jesus, are going to invade this broken world and help me make it whole again…one relationship, one good deed at a time.

According to Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation, in verse 15 Jesus was telling his followers,  “Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”

God’s transforming power will unfold
in relationship
in vulnerability
in generosity
in shared pain, meals and money
in welcoming the stranger into your home
in healing and compassion.

And if we read on in Acts, we see that this is exactly what happened.  The good news became flesh and blood through relationship – in people gathering to practice the way of Jesus as they shared life together; and they grew in number. The growth of this early group of followers is astounding. 100 years after the death of Jesus, there were an estimated 25,000 followers.  By 310 (before Christian worship was legalized by Constantine) there were roughly 20,000,000 Jesus followers.

We will be tempted to stop believing in God’s power to tranform.  At times we will be disillusioned and doubtful.  We may even decide it’s better to be more spiritual and less community-commmitted,  to separate ourselves from others or to just blend into the crowd.

Yet, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be God’s transforming presence in a world that is filled with competing powers.

– – –

Jesus went on to say that the Law the Pharisees so fully devoted their lives to was incomplete.  And, just like the Old Testament Law was incomplete without God made flesh in Jesus, the gospel is incomplete without our living it out in flesh and blood relationship.

Does following Jesus still have the same kind of life-changing power that it did when it was first received?  Yes, and we share that transforming power one life-giving, love-centered relationship at a time.

At the end of his re-telling of his temptation to get a quick fix, Russel Brand writes,

Even as I spin this beautifully dreaded web, I am reaching for my phone. I call someone: not a doctor or a sage, not a mystic or a physician, just a bloke like me, another alcoholic, who I know knows how I feel. The phone rings and I half hope he’ll just let it ring out. It’s 4am in London. He’s asleep, he can’t hear the phone, he won’t pick up. I indicate left, heading to Santa Monica. The ringing stops, then the dry mouthed nocturnal mumble: “Hello. You all right mate?”

The transforming power of God shows up in flesh and blood relationship.

Imagine the transformation, imagine the hope, imagine the healing that could happen if we dared to invade one another’s lives this way.  Imagine the transformation, imagine the hope, imagine the healing that could happeni f we dared to invade the world this way?

Previous post:

Next post: