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. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. —Matthew 5:13-16
Jesus is talking to us about the power of the gospel. He is not saying, “You might become the salt of the earth and the light of the world, if you make the grade.” He is saying, “You are right now, with all your weaknesses, living proof of my power.” Then he adds a warning: “Don’t lose it, don’t hide it.” He is saying, “Your past does not define you. What other people say doesn’t define you. I define you, and I’m giving you dignity. Live up to it.”
Jesus is addressing our self-image, our identity. We might think, “I can’t make a difference. Who am I? No one is going to listen to me. There’s no way I’m proof positive about Jesus. My shortcomings are obvious to everyone. Someone else maybe, but not me.” We’ve got to stop thinking like that. We are not defined by our failings. We are redefined by God’s grace. He knows all about our problems, better than we do. And he still says we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
Here at Immanuel, how should we see ourselves as a church? We are no longer a small church. The typical breakdown is that a small church has up to around 200 people. (And the average church in America today has less than 100 people.) Immanuel stopped being a small church about two years ago. We’re now a medium-sized church. A medium church is around 200 to 400 or 500. We’re averaging around 350 to 400 people every Sunday now. A large church is up to 800 people, and beyond that is a very large church. In August of 2009 your elders and deacons prayerfully concluded that within ten years we expect Immanuel to grow to somewhere between 1000 to 2000 people. We set up a big target, because it’s easy to hit a big target. But that’s where we’re going. Let’s see ourselves now as a medium-sized church on our way to becoming a very large church. And here’s the striking thing, the more important thing. As we grow, our experience of community keeps getting better. The salt is getting tastier and the light is getting brighter.
But I wonder how you feel when you read what Jesus says here: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Is that elitism? Does that open the door to smug self-exaltation? No. It’s the opposite. Who are the “you” in verses 13 and 14? Those people – it’s a plural “you” – are the people of the Beatitudes. Jesus is not speaking to glib people. He is speaking to broken people. Let’s refresh our memories. We are coming to God now with no sense that we’re adding value to his cause. The poor in spirit have nothing but need. We mourn over our failings. We don’t want to be demanding but meek. We don’t see ourselves as measuring up, but we’re eager to grow. We don’t want to be vindictive but forgiving. We’ve been so scraped down to basics, all we want out of life now is to see God glorified. We only want this shalom for more people. If we’re misjudged, we accept it.
The Beatitudes describe the new community Jesus is creating. It’s all about humility. Jesus is announcing that the unqualified are now the qualified. He is building his kingdom in people who are so discredited they have to be rescued from what they’ve become. It’s those people who add salt and light to the world today. Beatitudes-people think they have nothing to offer. That’s what they have to offer, because then the power of God enters in. And that power from above is the only hope of the world. Let’s think it through.
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.
Why salt? Because it’s common and cheap, but it makes a difference you can taste. The Bible says, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). Realistically, how can more and more people taste God in this world so eager for everything but God? Through us. Jesus is saying, “You are my flavoring in your world today.” He has sprinkled us into this place, to help the people around us get in touch with who God really is.
Marie Antoinette put it famously: “Nothing tastes.” We all know what she was talking about – when life is boring, and nothing brings relief. Why do we all understand that? Because we know from experience that living without God is trying to live without life. But we can be so blind to that. Simone Weil, the French intellectual, nailed it:
Nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, as the good. No desert is so dreary, monotonous, and boring as evil. But with fiction it is the other way around. Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied and intriguing, attractive and full of charm.
In this world, good things can seem tasteless, while we drool over bad things. We need the gospel to tell us what’s real and worthy. This week our President declared his approval of gay marriage. I object. Not because of any human tradition. There’s a lot wrong with human tradition. But I object because of the gospel. The Bible has a lot to say about human sexuality. The Bible says that God created manhood and womanhood to portray the ultimate romance of his love for his people. His love for us is too passionate not to be represented by marriage. But gay marriage falsifies human sexuality. So does premarital sex. So does extramarital sex. Biblical sexuality is amazingly glorious. But our fictionalized versions of sexuality—they can look intriguing and attractive, but they deny what God wants to say through one man faithfully married to one woman for a whole lifetime. If you disagree with the President, the thing to do is not to embarrass your gay friends. The thing to do is to have such a crazy-in-love heterosexual marriage that all your friends are thinking, “Where does that kind of love come from?”
Look again at verse 13. The “you” there is plural, not singular, as I said. We, as a community together, are this salt. And the word “you” is also emphatic in the Greek text. “You, and you alone, are the salt of the earth.” God’s only strategy is Beatitudes-churches. A healthy church is the only taste of Jesus most people will ever experience.
But do you see the Lord’s warning to us? “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.” The Lord is not telling us we fall short and now we have to create our own amazingness. He is warning us not to dilute our flavor and our bite and our tang and fall from what we are. He’s saying, “If unbelievers look at you and say, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty much how I live too,’ then you’ve lost it. And what’s the use of unsalty salt? Throw it out.” When a church blends in rather than stands out, the salt has lost its savor. And it’s time either for revival or for judgment.
Remember how the Lord set up the Sermon on the Mount: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). In other words, “I’m bringing something new. Start adjusting.” Let’s not go into reverse repentance and renounce Jesus. Let’s not be afraid of being set apart to God. You and I are in no danger of being too holy. If you are not pursuing personal holiness through repentance, God cannot use you. Why? Because his kingdom is something new. If we taste like Jesus and some people don’t like it, at least God is getting through.
Here is the Lord’s purpose for Immanuel Church—that we would be so clear about him people can taste him here. Many of our friends think they know Jesus, but they don’t. They’ve never seen the difference he makes. They’re like John Wesley, who saw himself as a Christian before he was a Christian. Then he met a band of real Christians on board a ship sailing to America in 1735. They were having a worship service on deck. A storm broke out. Wesley later wrote, “A terrible screaming began among the [other passengers], but the [Christians] looked up and without intermission calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Were you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’ I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.’” John Wesley finally saw how far he was from Jesus, and he turned a corner that day. That’s how God wants to use us today. May there be many storms.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.
The word “you” is again plural – you as a community – and again emphatic – you, and you alone. He describes us as a city – a community that stands out as an alternative. What might be the result of a word-association test, if we used the word “church” as the trigger-word? How many people today would say, “Church? That’s easy: the light of the world.” Even Christians underrate their own power. But in the eyes of Jesus? He’s saying, “Without you, the world lies in darkness. With you, they will glorify your Father in heaven.” We’re not here for our own big-deal-ness. We’re here to be a community radiant with the glory of God.
At night, when I look east from our house, the horizon glows. Why? It’s downtown Franklin. If I look west, it’s dark. If I look east, even in the darkness I can tell there’s a city there. Jesus is saying, “You are my Beatitudes-people, so that others will see the glow and say, ‘God is there.’”
Here’s the thing about light. It doesn’t go so far and then just stop. Light is not self-limiting. It spreads out as far as it can. Even so, we’re not saying to Jesus, “Thus far, and no further.” We’re not bargaining with him. We’re not hiding from him. We are totally available to him, moment by moment. It’s how we shine.
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). Now he says to us, “You are the light of the world.” His gospel in us is a light spreading out in all directions, illuminating all of life. Light shines with no limits. It’s simply what light does. It can’t do anything else and still be light. That is the Lord’s point with the city and the lamp metaphors in verses 14 and 15. Now in verse 16, he makes his main point clear:
In the same way – that is, without holding back – let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Now we finally see what the salt and the light metaphors really translate into: “good works.” The Lord isn’t saying we earn his love by our works. He is saying that we display his love by our works. And the word “good” means “attractive.” There is an ugly kind of goodness. Goodness that wants other people to feel small is ugly. The people of the Qumran community, where the Dead Sea scrolls came from, called themselves “the sons of light.” But they were down there by the Dead Sea because they saw the Pharisees up in Jerusalem as liberal compromisers. There is a kind of goodness that is snooty. But Jesus is attractive, and he’s calling us to be attractive. Here’s why. No one can look directly at the sun. It burns our eyes. But we can gaze at the moon, which reflects the sun. Jesus is the sun, and we are the moon. He is our only light. We are his only visibility.
What then does the Lord want every one of us to do? Just this. Let’s take a risk with someone and say something. We can start taking risks with one another, especially in our care groups, and “gospel” one another. But let’s start somewhere, confident that the Lord will be with us to the end. Let’s stop thinking we have to be superior people to make an impact. We’re not superior people, and it’s better that way, because then it’s our Father in heaven who gets the credit. But here’s how it can happen with ordinary people like me and like you.
Maybe you’ve heard the name Abraham Kuyper. He was the Prime Minister of Holland about a hundred years ago. But he was also a theologian and a journalist and a pastor. He founded a university. He won awards for his essays in Latin. He was brilliant and accomplished. As a young pastor, he served a little country church. But he had a problem. He didn’t take the Bible straight, and he didn’t know Christ. All he could do is preach moralistic sermons. Some of the people in his church liked that, others didn’t. There was a woman in his church named Pietronella Baltus. She was not sophisticated. But she knew Christ. And she wasn’t buying Kuyper’s message. She confronted him. How can you help others when you don’t even know the way yourself?, she asked him. She warned him he was preaching his own self-invented message. She warned him he was in danger of judgment. She was blunt. And her courage and her life led him to reality with Christ. Kuyper later wrote of these Christians in his church, “Their obduracy [stubbornness] became a blessing for my heart and the rising of the morning star in my life.” Their obduracy!
Kuyper was convinced not because Miss Baltus could out-argue him but because who she was and what she said cracked his heart open to the love of God. All she did was be true to who she already was, and her unimpressive qualities not only did not prevent the work of God but made the work of God the more obvious. And it was God who got the credit.
Where do you and I begin today? With our own families and friends. We love them, and they love us. But let’s tell them the truth. Let’s tell them they are more evil than they ever feared, and much more loved than they ever dreamed. Let’s tell them judgment is coming. They know that deep inside. Let’s tell them that God loves them. He doesn’t love them just the way they are. He loves them despite what they are. In his love for the undeserving Jesus died on the cross to take onto himself the punishment they have coming to them. Let’s tell them that. Let’s tell them that all he asks now is that we would be willing to be loved as forgiven sinners. Let’s tell them that the greatest glory of God is not that he hung the stars in space but the greatest glory of God is that the One who hung the stars in space cares for them in all their mess and failure. All he asks, and all we can do, is hold out the empty hands of faith and receive a love we don’t deserve. Then let’s ask them, Will you? Will you let go of your surfacy goodness and get real with him and be loved by him? If you will, he promises to love you forever in spite of everything. Let’s tell them. Let’s ask them. The Lord will use us.