"May we be light in a dark world, and salt to a world that has in many ways become tasteless."
Read Matthew 5:13-16
The preceding verses from chapter five of our reading are those famous words of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, which start "Blessed are those...." Surely one of the most well known and loved passages in the bible. A passage which has been described as a "Kingdom Manifesto", not quite the same as a political manifesto put out by a political party before an election, but similar in that it tries in a few words to express the benefits of following a particular lifestyle.
And what a lifestyle! Not one that the political leaders of the time would have even contemplated, and one which seems alien to the lifestyles we hear and see about on the radio and television news.
Now, after shocking his disciples with those radical thoughts on the way he expected them and all those who might follow him to live their lives, in verses 13-16 Jesus goes on to talk about the effect that following this "Kingdom Manifesto" would have on the world at large. "You are the salt of the earth" and "You are the light of the world" Jesus tells his disciples.
Complements indeed, but then Jesus goes on to qualify those statements. "If the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men" and "A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl."
Jesus liked using picture language when he taught. In a sense he was using multimedia presentation long before it became popular with the computer age. If there had been overhead projectors around in first century Palestine then I'm sure he would have used them. He talked about splinters in peoples eyes and planks of wood. To a group of shepherds he talked of losing a sheep. He liked people to be able to get to grips with what he was saying, to relate it to life around them. He wanted the words he was speaking to feel relevant.
And as we read those same words two thousand years on, can they still be as relevant to us? Of course they can, but sometimes we have to look back in history and place ourselves in the middle of that crowd of followers sat on the mountainside listening to that fascinating man speak.
Firstly, a short history lesson!
In prehistoric times, man stumbled upon a strange substance occurring naturally in the landscape. It not only produced a pleasing sensation on the tongue when licked, but seemed able to make meat and fish last longer when they were rubbed or buried in it. Salt was often included as part of the religious rites of the Greeks, Romans and indeed Jews. It has in the past been highly prized and valued. In fact in some Asian countries it was severely taxed. As salt cakes it served as money in ancient Ethiopia and Tibet, and our term salary - which used to refer to a soldier's allowance for salt - comes from the Latin salarium, the amount of salt issued to soldiers serving in the Roman army.
In the time of Jesus the main industry at Magdala on the Sea of Galilee was the salting of fish. There was of course no shortage of rock salt on the SW shore of the Dead Sea. When first broken and gathered the outer layer was often impure and hard with hardly any flavor or preserving use, the result of water dissolving out the crystals of salt. This useless layer was often spread on the temple courtyards in wet weather to make them less slippy.
What did Jesus say about salt losing its saltiness? No use for anything except to be thrown out and trampled by men. What a picture for the disciples. They understood all about the uses of salt, and how important it was not to let the rain wash out the goodness from the rock. All they had to do now was try and guess what point Jesus was trying to make.
You (plural) are the light (singular) of the world. In the times of Jesus and his disciples, travel at night was not something to be undertaken lightly. In the day there were always landmarks to look out for, mountains or rivers, outcrops of rock or towns in the distance. But in the night there were no illuminated road signs giving you useful information about direction and distance from your destination. There were no cat's eyes in the center of the road to keep you from straying, and there were no bright sodium street lights illuminating not only the road but the night sky as well. There was just darkness, lots and lots of darkness..... and the night sky. If you've ever been camping in the middle of the Black Mountains or somewhere similar as I did as a teenager, and looked out at the sky after dark you get some impression of what it must have been like. Without a flashlight even the brightest stars make movement difficult, and tent guy ropes are easy to fall over..
Towns and villages were often built on a hillside, and people lit lamps in their homes. The purpose of the light from those lamps was for it to be seen. Travellers would be drawn towards the lights flickering on the hillside.
The disciples, who had rather made a career of following Jesus as he travelled around the countryside, often choosing to escape the crowds and find seclusion on a remote hillside, must have known all about the difficulties of night travel, and they could easily relate to a picture of someone lighting a lamp. But again, they needed to put this picture into perspective, they needed to understand the meaning behind the words. Or else how could they put Jesus' words into practice in their lives?
These pictures that Jesus paints, about salt and light, talk about being noticed - and being useful as opposed to useless.
Jesus is in a sense here already preaching to the converted. These were men who had made a conscious decision to follow Jesus, and although they were still a little hazy as to His real nature and purpose, they recognized Him as someone very special and were sincere in their desire to follow his word and work with Him.
So they've just heard Jesus finish telling them the lifestyle that they should adopt, his "Kingdom Manifesto", and no doubt were still a bit shell-shocked at the thought that this was all a bit radical, offering a set of life values that veered a long way from the conventional wisdom of the day.. The Kingdom that Jesus invited them to belong to was a very different kingdom to the one they were currently living in. But the choice he gave them was not one that compromised, and indeed there's no point in talking just about them in the past tense, because the choice is the same for us. Either we live for today, taking what we can from life. Or we live by faith, trusting in a God who has promised to supply all that we could ever need. (2 Cor 5:7)
The happiness Jesus offered was for those ready to experience poverty, hunger, weeping and persecution. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus outlined the outcome of having a living, vibrant faith. Such people would be
Happy when poor in spirit
Happy though mourning
Happy in meekness
Happy in hungering and thirsting after righteousness
Happy in showing mercy
Happy as people with pure hearts
Happy in making peace
Happy in facing persecution
What a reversal in basic human values..... and yet these are the values that are basic to a genuine and living Christian faith.
A living faith. This is one that takes these radical values, this Kingdom Manifesto of Jesus, and puts them into practice in everyday life. Christians are notoriously good at talking about their faith. Week after week in churches throughout the land, thousands upon thousands of words are preached, and yet it is as important to act upon them as it is merely to listen and nod acceptance at the truth.
We must take our faith, Jesus tells us, and be like salt in the world. Salt preserves, and we should be ever looking to uphold the word of God as it comes to us from those early followers of Jesus, uphold the values and the truth contained within it. We should be prepared to stand up and be counted when we see corruption or greed in the world, wherever man is failing to live up to the values that we know are right. Salt cleanses and purifies, and we should be prepared to take the love of God into our daily lives, bringing God's healing touch to relationships and lives that have been soiled by contact with sin.
Kiekegard said this, "If the New Testament is to decide what is meant by a true Christian, then to be a true Christian in all secrecy, comfortably and enjoyably, is as impossible as firing a cannon in all secrecy."
A Christian who bottles up his or her faith and keeps it secret except to those in the know ( within the church that is) is not an effective Christian. Salt is useless if it is kept in the salt cellar and never sprinkled onto our food. In the same way, Jesus tells us that we need to spread ourselves and our faith and lifestyle around our neighborhood and workplaces. In this way we become the seasoning by which others will taste something of the love of God.
Let me tell you something about light. Light is emitted from a source in straight lines, and spreads out over a larger and larger area as it travels. When light strikes an object it is either absorbed or reflected.
The bible often uses the contrast between light and darkness to show the absolute difference between God and evil. "God is light, and there is no darkness at all in Him".
In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we are taught that in Him, light won its victory over darkness. Jesus called himself "the Light of Life" to all who followed him. Man could now "Live in the light - just as he is in the light" To become a Christian is to move out of the darkness, drawn by that bright light on top of a hill. It is to take hold of that light, like the Olympic torch is carried around the world to the site of each new games, and let that light shine out to others.
We become light when we are filled with His light. Our light may only be a small torch in an awfully black night, but its effect is far greater than it appears to us. Our definition said that light when emitted spreads out over a larger and larger area, striking every object in its path. Some simply reflect the light, others absorb it.
When we live our Jesus' Kingdom Manifesto as presented in Matthew chapter 5 and are prepared to show His light in the world, when we are prepared to stand up and be counted when it comes to standing up for what we know is right, in a world which seems not to know the difference between right and wrong at times, then the world can't simply ignore us. It can reject what we stand for, and like the light beam be reflected. Or it can absorb what we say and are and change. For no-one who is touched by the light of God is ever the same again.
LIVING GOD'S WAY IN GOD'S WORLD ENABLES GOD'S GLORY TO BE SEEN.
May we be light in a dark world, and salt to a world that has in many ways become tasteless.