02/09/14 Sermon (February 9, 2014) “Let our light shine”

posted Mar 11, 2014, 10:41 AM by David Hawkins

02/09/14 Sermon (February 9, 2014)

“Let our light shine”

Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:13-20 (Liturgist)

“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.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 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. In 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.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For 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. Therefore, 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.

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Sermon: "Let Our Light Shine"    Rev. David Hawkins

Today we find Jesus continuing his sermon on the mount from last week. His disciples and crowds of onlookers are gathered on the hillside at Jesus’ feet, hoping for an encouraging word.

Last week, Jesus began his sermon with blessings. And now he moves into the meat. This is where he began his exhortations to live an ethical and moral life, to live the life of a disciple.

And the life of a disciple is difficult. Especially in that time, in that place. The people on that hillside are facing huge obstacles. Their way of life is under constant pressure. They live in an occupied city, under the rule of the Roman empire. Their religion is based on the worship of the God of Abraham, the God of the Isaac, one God, the God of all creation.

The Romans worship many gods, sometimes all at the same time. And they offer sacrifices to particular gods at certain times to achieve specific favors. Sacrifices to Mars for victory in war. Sacrifices to Venus for fertility. Sacrifices to Minerva for wisdom.

And the Romans know that their gods are fickle. They are unpredictable and jealous. And so when something went wrong, it meant that someone had made one of the gods angry. And you don’t want to make the gods angry. But here in Israel, we have an entire population, an entire country, that not only doesn’t worship the right gods, they don’t even believe those gods exist.  

And that’s not all. The Israelites also refuse to give the emperor the proper respect. They don’t recognize the deity of Caesar. This is outright treason. It’s as though the Hebrews want the empire to fail. They are inviting the wrath of the gods. They are inviting the destruction of the entire empire.

And so when disasters struck, as they inevitably do when you live on this earth, the Romans knew exactly who to blame. When there was a drought, or a flood, or a plague, it was easy to figure out who was at fault. As has been the tradition for thousands of years, even into our time, blame the Jews. It is the Jews’ fault that that the gods are angry. It is the Jews’ fault we don’t have enough food. It is the Jews’ fault that we lost the war. It’s always the Jews’ fault. This is nothing new.

And so it might be natural for those following Jesus to hope that he might tell them that maybe, just maybe, they can relax just a little bit with the whole Jewish thing. That maybe they can let go of their identity as followers of the torah. That maybe they can not be quite such an obvious target for those who would seek to use them as scapegoats for everything that goes wrong in the world.

Maybe they’re hoping that they can just fade into the background a little bit, not be so obvious about their faith.

Because it would be easier, wouldn’t it? To not have to worry about sticking out, about being noticed for the way that you are different? To not be singled out for special attention, negative attention? It would be nice to just go along with the crowd, to ease into the flow of what the world expects.

But Jesus isn’t going to let them off the hook. He challenges the idea that one can be a secret disciple. He calls them to remember their roots, to claim and proclaim those things that make them who they are.

He calls them salt, and this is no small compliment. Now, we think of salt as a seasoning, something we sprinkle on our food, something we should probably stay away from if we have high blood pressure.

But salt had different meanings in the ancient world. Salt was, in some ways, the most valuable commodity in Jesus’ time. Roman soldiers were paid in salt, in fact, our modern word, ‘salary’ comes from the latin word for salt. The earliest towns and trading posts in the world were formed around salt deposits.

Salt allowed people to preserve food. Salt prevented decay, and made it possible for people to survive periods of scarcity. Without salt, meat would not last more than a few days. With salt, it could be cured and then eaten for months. Salt was more than an optional flavoring. It was an absolute necessity for life.

And because it was so important, it gained its own religious importance. It was a critical part of burnt offerings, both animal and grain sacrifices. It was part of the incense burned in the temple. A covenant of fidelity and trust between friends was called a salt covenant. To say that someone was worth their salt was a high compliment indeed.

And so, when Jesus tells his listeners that they are salt, he means much more than just flavor. He means that they are the ones who preserve the truth, that they are the ones who keep covenants, that their very lives are an offering to God, their worship and their work rises like incense to the heavens.

And so, what would happen to the world, Jesus asks, if this critical element was missing? What would happen if there was no-one to remember the law? What is there was no-one left to live out the promises made by God to Abraham, to Isaac? What if salt lost the ability to preserve and sustain the faith of our ancestors?

No, Jesus says. I did not come to absolve the children of God from the work that is laid out for them. Being a disciple is more than just sitting at the feet of Jesus and receiving a blessing. Being a disciple means being salty in a world filled with bland indifference to the needs of others and a decaying sense of right and wrong.

It also means that this work of preserving the good cannot help but be noticed. It cannot be hidden. Going against the flow always attracts attention, and sometimes that attention is not positive. Being salty means that the light of God’s word is lifted up in the darkness. And people can’t help but notice that light.

And when it’s dark, it doesn’t take much light to make a difference. On a clear dark night, the human eye can see a candle flicker from 30 miles away. Jesus calls his followers to be that candle, to be the light that shines in the darkness. This light cannot be extinguished, cannot be hidden. As long as there are disciples who are willing to be salt, there will be light.

And then, Jesus goes one step further to make his point perfectly clear. And this step takes him to an uncomfortable place for us. He ties the works of discipleship to membership in the kingdom of heaven. He tells his followers that if their righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and pharisees, they will not even enter the kingdom of God.

I have to admit, I was shaken by this part of the scripture. Is Jesus saying that we can earn our way into heaven? Doesn’t Jesus know that there is no such thing as works-righteousness? Doesn’t he know that what he is saying is bad theology?

Well, wait a minute. Jesus probably knows what he’s doing. Let’s give him the benefit of a doubt. He might be going somewhere with this.

What exactly is Jesus trying to tell the crowds on the mountain that day? Let’s take a look at this story again.

There’s no doubt that Jesus means it when he talks about what it means to be a disciple. It’s not an easy thing, whether you live in the Israel of Roman occupation, or in our culture driven by money, excess and material consumption. Being salty takes guts, and being the light in the darkness often just means that that you present an attractive target.

And so Jesus is making sure that we know that he’s serious about this. We are going to find it tough going sometimes, but we need to stick with it. We’re going to be mocked, marginalized, ignored, and in some cases, persecuted for our faith. It would be easy to quit.

But Jesus tells us that’s not an option. Our life’s work is to follow the path that Jesus lays out for us. Discipleship means that our lives must be be even more righteous than the scribes and pharisees, those religious leaders who have spent their lives memorizing every part of the law.

He says that the ethical and moral quality of our lives must exceed even the lives of the most zealous priest, the most pious pastor, the most fervent and eloquent preacher, the most humble monk, the most dedicated servant of the church. This is the standard which Jesus sets before his followers, and it is a very high standard indeed.

In fact, if you think about it for any length of time, it’s too high. If Jesus is asking his followers to obey every single jot and tittle of the law, then Jesus is asking for perfection.

When we truly comprehend the scope of the what Jesus is saying, we are overwhelmed by his expectations. There is no way we can meet this standard. The bar is too high. If our admission to the gates of heaven is dependant on our own perfect righteousness, then we are going to fail.

And maybe that’s exactly what Jesus is driving at. That we are called to live a life of high moral and ethical expectations, but the reality is, we can never live righteously enough to earn salvation. But if that’s the case, what are we to do? It seems hopeless.

Except for one thing: while Jesus says he didn’t come to abolish the law, he also says that in him the law is fulfilled.

And that’s the good news of this Gospel. Because we simply cannot be righteous enough to make our way into heaven. In fact, the Psalms tell us that that no-one is righteous before God. The Apostle Paul tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But in Romans we read that in Jesus Christ, we are given the free gift of righteousness.

And today, we read that in the person of Jesus Christ even our weakest attempts at keeping the law are fulfilled. This is the tension and the promise of the life of a disciple. We are called by Jesus to live up to an impossible standard, but in Christ we are given an impossible grace. Jesus is our alpha and omega. He is our exhortation, and he is our reward.

In Jesus, we find more than just preservation of what is good, we find life itself. In Jesus we see more than just a candle in the dark, we see the rising sun of a new creation. Our salt and our light come from Jesus, and while we can never live up to the standard he has set, we are called to try. Our best efforts might fall short of that goal, but we are promised that in Jesus, we are carried the final lap to cross the finish line together. And in that moment, all righteousness is fulfilled.

We are salt of the earth. We are a light in the darkness. We are children of God, and our best and worst efforts and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In him we have all the strength and courage we need to run the race set before us. Let’s let our light shine, and hold onto what is good and right and  just in this world.

Thanks be to God. Amen.