Sermon series: Balanced Spiritual Growth
Scriptures: Matthew 5:13-16
When we serve as Jesus commanded, using our gifts and talents to meet the needs of people around us, we become as salt and light to people, pointing them to God. This sermon explains how we make a lasting impact on our communities by being salt and light.
A quiet forest dweller lived high above an Austrian village along the eastern slopes of the Alps. The old gentleman had been hired many years ago by a young town council to clear away the debris from the pools of water up in the mountain crevices that fed the lovely spring flowing through their town. With faithful, silent regularity, he patrolled the hills, removed the leaves and branches, and wiped away the silt that would otherwise choke and contaminate the fresh flow of water. By and by, the village became a popular attraction for vacationers. Swans floated along the crystal clear spring, mill wheels of various businesses located along the water, farmlands were naturally irrigated, and the view from restaurants was picturesque beyond description.
Years passed. One evening the town council met for its semiannual meeting. As they reviewed the budget, one man's eye caught the salary figure being paid the obscure keeper of the spring. Said the keeper of the purse, "Who is the old man? Why do we keep him on year after year? No one ever sees him. For all we know the strange ranger of the hills is doing us no good. He isn't necessary any longer!" By a unanimous vote, they dispensed with the old man's services.
For several weeks nothing changed. By early autumn the trees began to shed their leaves. Small branches snapped off and fell into the pools, hindering the rushing flow of sparkling water. One afternoon someone noticed a slight yellowish-brown tint in the spring. A couple of days later the water was much darker. Within another week, a slimy film covered sections of the water along the banks and a foul odor was soon detected. The mill wheels moved slower, some finally ground to a halt. Swans left, as did the tourists. Clammy fingers of disease and sickness reached deeply into the village.
Quickly, the embarrassed council called a special meeting. Realizing their gross error in judgment, they hired back the old keeper of the spring. Within a few weeks the veritable river of life began to clear up. The wheels started to turn, and new life returned to the hamlet in the Alps once again.
This story is more than an idle tale. It carries with it a vivid relevant analogy directly related to the times in which we live. What the keeper of the springs meant to the Swiss village, Christians mean to the world. We Christians may seem feeble, needless, unimportant, and small to the vast world, but God help any society that attempts to exist without our influence.
We, Christ's ambassadors, are assigned the position of influencing and impacting our world not unlike the old gentleman in the Alps.
Jesus called his followers to be a front-line militia. Nowhere do we get the impression that Jesus wanted us to live in isolation, separated from the world. It is impossible to live, truly live, for the kingdom in private. We are called to a social agenda and an outward expression of God's principles. We are called to make a difference by influencing and impacting the world around us.
Dr. E. Stanley Jones, the famous Methodist missionary, author, evangelist, was asked to name the number on problem of the church. He replied quickly that the number one problem was irrelevance. He went on to say that 3/4ths of the opposition to the church stems from disappointment. We promise to make men different, but the promise goes largely unfulfilled.
Dr. Jones went on to tell the story of a multimillionaire who said, "If brother Stanley cannot convert me, I will sue him." He said it half in jest and half in truth. Dr. Jones said that this is in truth what the world is saying to us, "If you Christians cannot convert us, we will sue you for breach of promise. You promised this, now fulfill it. Show us that you can and will convert us. There is no hope from any other direction."
Twenty-five years have passed and I am sure that what Dr. Jones said is truer today than it was when he first said it. The number one problem of the church is irrelevance.
Put simply, the church has lost its influence in the community. There are many reasons why this is so, but one reason stands out above the rest. The church has lost its influence because Christians have neglected their responsibility to be salt and light in the world. As we have neglected to be what God has called us to be, the world has decided to ignore us. And the flip side of that is also true. When Christians decide to be salt and light, the world pays close attention to what we say and do. Let me say it simply: When we are salt and light, the world listens to us. When we aren't, they don't.
Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of the New Testament, The Message, explains our position of salt and light in the following fashion:
Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You've lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.
Here's another way to put it: You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a light stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand-shine! 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 (Matt. 5:13-13 The Message).
Upon sharing with his disciples the Beatitudes, which are essentially interior character qualities, Jesus crowns them with two brilliant and searching metaphors (salt and light), which are essentially exterior change agent qualities. These two descriptive terms inform us, who live the beatitudes, on the position to relate to, to influence, and to impact our world. The impetus of these words on society is not unlike the involvement of the keeper of the spring on the Swiss village.
In our day and age of big thinking and large images, why did Jesus commission us to be salt and light? Salt and light are strange figures. Why not appeal to our pride? He could have motivated us by saying, "You're the eagles of the world." Or, "You're the lions of the world." Or, "You're the stars of the world." But, rather, Jesus said, "You are the salt-seasoning of the earth. You are the light-bearers in the world." Why? Understanding why Jesus used these terms reveals the substance of our influence.
I. What do salt and light do?
I think the reason Jesus chose these two metaphors - salt and light - is because of their unique qualities. Both carry enormous influence. Both have immediate impact. Both are noticed instantly. Both are difficult to veil. Both are ubiquitous.
"You are the salt of the earth" is so famous that it has become a proverb in the English language. If someone is genuine, useful, honest, straightforward, and without hypocrisy, we say he is a "salt of the earth" type of person.
What did Jesus mean? Salt was one of the most common substances in the ancient world. Roman soldiers were paid in salt and would revolt if they didn't get their ration. Indeed, our English word "salary" comes from the Latin salarium, which literally means "salt-money." And our expression, "That man is not worth his salt," is a reminder of the high value that salt had in biblical times.
What are its uses?
1. Is a preservative.
In the ancient world the primary function of salt was a preservative. It retards spoilage. Likewise, believers act like a preservative in the world. As we bring Christ's word and the Kingdom's influence into our society, we help protect society from the full sway of evil that would otherwise be present. Imagine our land with no churches . . . no Christian colleges . . . no church-supported hospitals . . . no Christian social action groups . . . no Christian organizations ministering to those in need.
2. Is a flavoring.
Or seasoning. In a similar fashion, Christianity brings spice and zest to life. The Christian is the personification of how life is to be lived.
3. Is an antiseptic.
In ancient times newborn babies were rubbed in salt so that the cuts and infections of medically primitive birth methods could be healed. While this sounds painful, the cleaning out of a wound with salt was very effective in fighting infection.
Christians have a responsibility of not only pointing out sin, but practically offering healing and help. By exerting our influence we can prevent the ravages of disease and death caused by sin.
4. Creates thirst.
It has been said that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. But, the rest of the saying goes, you can give him a salt tablet and making him thirsty. As Jesus made people thirsty for God the Father, so do Christians make people thirsty for the real life found only in Christianity.
Jesus not only says that we are the salt of the earth, he also says we are the light of the world. The dictionary defines light as a "source of illumination."
1. Dispels darkness.
Christians, reflecting the light of Christ, bearing his light dispel spiritual darkness. The progress may seem slow, but the results are apparent.
Have you ever walked into a darkened room and not known what was there? Then, suddenly, the light is switched on and the contents of the room are revealed.
As Christ's presence in our world, we become his instruments to reveal his truth to a world in darkness.
We are to be the light of the world, awakening men and women to the truth of the Kingdom's arrival, awakening society to the presence of God.
In the same sense that a lighthouse warns of dangerous waters or a police car flashing light warns of the policeman darting through traffic, Christians warn of impending danger to a careless world.
II. How to make an impact?
We are called to be salt-seasoning and light-bearers in our world. "Wait a second," you may be saying. "Surely, God did not mean me." Yes, God meant for you and me, his followers to be salt-seasoning and light-bearers in our world. When Jesus said, "You . . ." he meant "You, and you alone . . ." His words were not a suggestion, but a command. With urgency in his voice, Jesus says, "If you are salt, then season!" "If you are light, then shine!"
"How do I do that?" you ask. Glad you asked.
A. Recognize that your distinctiveness makes a difference.
"You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world" (Matt. 5:13,14 NIV). Do you notice what is absent in this command? The words like or as. We are commanded to be salt and light not just to be like salt and light. The common denominator of salt and light is their uniqueness, their distinctness. There is nothing quite like salt. There is nothing quite like light.
Just as salt is different than pepper, and light is distinct from darkness, so are Christians distinct from the world. Have you ever been with a group of people and someone started to tell an off-colored joke and then stopped in mid-sentence after looking at you? Your distinctiveness was coming through. Have you ever been with a group of people and they suggested going somewhere that they wouldn't want their children knowing about, but then said we can't do that because you were with them? Your distinctiveness was showing through.
It is the Christians' distinctiveness that makes a difference in the world. In business, it is called marketing. In advertising, it is called positioning. In basketball, it is called strategy. In Christians, it is called holiness. It is the distinguishing feature about us. It is what sets us apart from the rest of the world. Blaise Pascal said, "The serene, silent beauty of a holy life is the most powerful influence in the world, next to the might of God."
B. Stay close to Christ.
Jesus warned his followers, "But 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" (Matt. 5:13 NIV). Perhaps the most important thing about salt is that in its purest form it never loses its taste. Salt will always be salt. It is an extremely stable compound. You can put it in a dish, walk away, come back ten years later, and it will still be sodium chloride - salt. The only way salt can lose its saltiness is to be mixed with something else.
The point Jesus is making that it is dangerously easy for Christians to become diluted and lose their salty, preserving influence in the world.
If we are not affecting our world, the world is affecting us. If we are not salting the world, the world is rotting us.
In order to prevent the world from affecting us, we must stay in close contact with the ultimate influence - Christ himself. I bought one of those glow in the dark figures for my daughter. It stayed in the box until I got home that night. When I gave it to my daughter and told her what it was she was so excited. She tore open the box to reveal her gift. But it did not glow. She was sad. "What's wrong, Daddy?" she asked. The answer was revealed on the label attached to the figurine: If you want me to shine in the night, keep me in the light.
So it is with us. We must expose ourselves to Jesus, spend time in his word, soak up his rays through prayer. A weekly contact produces a weak influence. A daily contact produces a dynamic influence.
C. Make your works visible.
"A city on a hill cannot be hidden" (Matt. 5:14 NIV). Our influences, however small or great, will be seen. Salt can be tasted. Light can be seen. Great effort has to be made to cover up either.
As a child Robert Louis Stevenson was in very poor health. And one night, when he was quite sick, his nurse found him with his nose pressed against the frosty pane of his bedroom window. "Child, come away from there. You'll catch your death of cold," she fussed, but young Robert wouldn't budge. He sat mesmerized as he watched an old lamplighter slowly work his way through the black night lighting each street lamp along his route. "See, look there," Robert pointed. "There's a man poking hole in the darkness."
That's what we are called to do, poke holes in the darkness.
Jesus is calling us to be audio-visual Christians. The Christians' seasoning is something to be tasted. The Christian's light is something to be seen. Secret discipleship does not exist. Either the secrecy destroys the discipleship, or the discipleship destroys the secrecy. Our Christianity should be vibrant and visible. Salt in a saltshaker and light under a bushel basket makes no impact. Christians void of visible deeds of compassion influences no one.
III. The sphere of our impact.
Twenty-three chapters later in the Gospel of Matthew and three years later in his ministry, Jesus will be sharing his Great Commission, "Go and make disciples of all the nations . . ." Yet, here in this section on the Christian's positional influence, Jesus is laying the foundation for a worldwide challenge. The disciples are to be the salt of the earth and light to the world.
Interestingly, Matthew's gospel is the most "Jewish" in character. The author's main purpose is to convince the Jews that Jesus is their Messiah. Yet, he is making it abundantly clear that the witness and influence of followers of Christ is not restricted to the covenant community (the Jews).
The sphere of the Christian's influence is the whole world.
A. We are salt to the earth.
B. We are light to the world.
To reduce it to anything less would be tantamount to restricting the power, authority, and grace of our Lord. He has informed us that he whole world is the sphere in which our influencing activities are to be lived out. The entire world is to feel the seasoning influence and see the lightning impact.
God has called us to influence our world. Maybe the old keeper of the springs was not seen very much, but his role meant survival to the village in the Alps. Likewise, our role as salt-seasoning and light-bearing means the survival to this planet.
We aren't called to save the world. But we are called to make a difference. We can't do everything. But we can do something. And what we can do, we ought to do. That's what being salt and light is all about.
Remember that song we sang as children:
"This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. Let it shine, Let it shine, Let it shine."