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Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany – February 5, 2023
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks new realities into being. Just as God the Creator said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, now God the Son is speaking new things into existence.
Last week we heard Jesus say, “Blessed are you,” over and over again. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said. “Blessed are those who mourn, and those who are meek. Blessed are the pure in heart and the peacemakers. Blessed are you when you are rejected and reviled for my sake,” Jesus said. And as Christ spoke these blessings, they came to be. Jesus’ word does what it says! Just as God the Father spoke creation into existence, so too now God the Son is speaking new realities into being by the power of his Word.
We are in the second of a three-part series on the Sermon on the Mount, and as we pick up where we left off last week, we hear Jesus continuing to do this. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says. This is a declarative statement. Christ has defined his hearers in this way, and so that is what they now are! “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says, echoing the Father at creation. Jesus calls this light into being and then says, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
What does it mean to be the salt of the earth? Throughout most of human history salt has been used as a seasoning. It is really quite an amazing substance. Salt is a flavor enhancer. It draws out the goodness of the food being seasoned. Salt also neutralizes bitterness, which is why you almost always need a pinch of it even in sweet recipes. Salt, of course, is still widely used today. It is found in every kitchen around the world, and on the table of every restaurant.
In the ancient world, salt was also used as an essential preservative. In Jesus’ time there were no refrigerators. There were no Coleman coolers. You couldn’t grab a bag of ice on your way out of the grocery store. The only way to preserve meat was to salt it. Even just a thin layer on a fish filet or a slab of lamb would keep it from rotting, preserving those important sources of protein.
To be the salt of the earth, then, is to bring out goodness. It is to neutralize bitterness. It is also to be a preservative for the sake of the world, for the sake of human society, keeping it from rotting.
What does it mean to be the light of the world? From ancient times and across cultures, light has represented truth. Many educational institutions use a torch as part of their insignia to represent the pursuit of truth. Light has long represented hope and comfort, like the first light of dawn after a long night of darkness. Light has long been a symbol of goodness and holiness and life, in contrast to the darkness of evil and sin and death. To be the light of the world, then, is to be bearers of truth and hope and goodness and life. It is to reflect the light of Christ into the darkness of the world.
When I think of what it means for us Christians to be salt and light, I think of a news story that came out a couple of years ago about a high school in Louisiana. The school was dealing with some serious discipline problems. I’m not just talking about kids being tardy. This high school had 23 students arrested over the course of three days after a series of fights on campus. In response, a group of dads formed a group they called “Dads on Duty.” They worked with the principal to have dads come in to just roam the campus. They weren’t there as security. They weren’t there as counselors. They were simply there to be dads. And so they did what dads are supposed to do. They told dad jokes! They got the kids to smile and laugh. They listened to these kids. They provided encouragement, giving high-fives in the hallways. They provided guidance on basic life skills, like tucking in your shirt and wearing a belt, and showing up on time. These were just a few dads who took turns coming in, just a handful of dads spread out across the school, none of them doing anything particularly spectacular or special. They were just being who they were as dads. But what a difference it made. Since the “Dads on Duty” program started there hasn’t been a single fight on campus.
This, I think, is a microcosm of what we are called to be and do as Christians. We are the salt of the earth. As we are scattered and sprinkled throughout our communities, we bring a measure of goodness that preserves God’s world. This isn’t a goodness that comes from us, it is a goodness that Christ has given us when he declared us to be the salt of the earth! And so we don’t need to be anything more than what we are. Just by sharing the goodness we have been given we provide seasoning and preservation to the lives of the people around us.
We are the light of the world. As we reflect the light of Christ which shines on us, we bear the truth of God to the world. This includes the truth of God’s law. Jesus himself says in this very sermon that whoever breaks one of the commandments of the law, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever does them and teaches them, Jesus says, will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. And so part of bearing this light is to teach the truth about God’s law, God’s commandments. We shouldn’t do this in a way that is aggressive or mean-spirited. Remember, we’re called to bring light, not heat! But part of bearing this light is to show the goodness and beauty of God’s ways, living our lives in stark contrast to the darkness of the world. Part of bearing this light is guiding others away from the lies of the devil, the world, and their sinful selves, and into lives that are pleasing to God.
But to bear this light is not only to bear the truth of God’s law. It is also to bear the truth of the gospel. It is to bring the light of God’s grace. It is to bring hope to those burdened by their sin by assuring them of Christ’s forgiveness. It is to bear witness to the goodness of God, who sent Christ to fulfill the law for us.
This isn’t easy. We won’t always be as well-received as those dads at that school in Louisiana. Sometimes the salt we bring stings those who have rejected God. Sometimes the light we bring hurts the eyes of those who have lived too long in the darkness. We are called to navigate this hostility very carefully, in ways that neutralize bitterness – in us, as well as in others. As we heard last week, we are even called to rejoice when we are reviled, for that is what happened to the prophets. We’re in good company, Jesus promises, and our reward will be great in heaven.
Sometimes we might feel discouraged as we increasingly seem to be pushed to the margins of society and the fringes of culture. We might get discouraged as we continue to see the church losing numbers and Christianity losing influence in society. But it doesn’t take much salt to make a difference. Many recipes call for only a pinch, right? It doesn’t take much salt to preserve something. A thin sprinkling, spread out, can be very effective in keeping things from rotting.
Likewise, a small amount of light can chase back a lot of darkness. As long as that light isn’t hidden under a bushel for some dumb reason, it brings light to the whole room!
Today Jesus declares us to be salt and light. He isn’t giving us a suggestion or an invitation, he just up and says it! By his Word he is bringing a new reality into existence. He has said that we are salt and light, and so that is what we are! Christ isn’t calling us to anything particularly heroic here, necessarily. He is simply calling us to be what he has made us to be. He is sprinkling his people around the world to enhance and preserve the world he so dearly loves. He is shining his light on us so that we would reflect his light for all to see.
How we live as salt and light varies greatly depending on the callings and opportunities God gives to each of us. Some are salt and light as dads or moms or aunts or uncles or sons or daughters. You are salt and light in your jobs, your careers, your workplaces. You are salt and light in your service as volunteers. We have our own school program here where kids come over on early-release Wednesdays. I see them fed and high-fived and welcomed and encouraged. I hear them being guided into proper behavior, like not running down the halls or doing stupid things in the bathrooms. Some are salt and light by putting on coffee for us every Sunday. Some are salt and light as Stephen Ministers. Others in our congregation are salt and light in our community as they volunteer at Spin Café or the refugee support team or the crisis pregnancy clinic. You are salt and light as citizens as you care for our communities and participate in the political process.
These are simple things, but they are so profound. Christ has infused your life with purpose and meaning. As you roam the hallways of Oak Harbor and Coupeville and Anacortes and wherever else you live and work and play, you are the salt of the earth. You bring the flavor of Christ, which brings goodness to others, which neutralizes bitterness and preserves this world from going completely rotten. You bring the light of Christ, the light of truth and hope and grace and life, simply by being who Christ has said you are.
You are the salt of the earth. This isn’t merely my opinion of you. This isn’t something you might become if you try hard enough. This is what Christ Jesus has declared you to be. His word does what it says. It brings new realities into being. And so this is who you are.
You are also the light of the world. So let your light so shine before others that they would see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church