Date: February 9, 2020
Festival: 5th Sunday after Epiphany
Text: Matthew 5:13-16
Preaching Occasion: St. Paul Lutheran Church, Union, MO; New Haven Care Centre, New Haven, MO
Sermon Hymn: LSB #578 Thy Strong Word
Exegetical Statement: Having received the blessings of the Beatitudes, in this part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount He emphatically tells the disciples they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. This does not come from within themselves but it comes from Christ. Salt that has lost its saltiness is useless, and it is tossed outside where it will be trampled underfoot. The disciples must salt the earth with the Gospel. As the light of the world, their shining is obvious. It makes no sense to light a room only to place a basket over it. In the same way, as the light of the world, it would make no sense if the disciples hide the light Christ has given them. The means by which the disciples salt the earth and light the world is through their good works for the purpose of glorifying their Father who is in Heaven.
Focus Statement: Jesus has called you to be the salt and light of the world in your daily vocations.
Function Statement: That my hearers will do good works for the benefit of their neighbour who needs them according to each of their vocations.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Salt of the Earth
The context of this passage is the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus began to teach His disciples. He begins with the Beatitudes, blessing His disciples. Having blessed them, He then tasks them with their duty. By the way, you’re all disciples too, so this message is just as much for you today as it was for His disciples all those years ago.
Jesus begins, “You are the salt of the earth.” Unfortunately, the force of what Jesus is saying is lost in our English translation. If we were to translate it literally from the original Greek, Jesus says, “You, you are.” He uses the verb for “you are” and then He says “you” again. This is redundant.
In these times, when a person spoke or wrote with redundancy in their verb usage, it was done to express emphasis. So, when we read this, we should hear the force in Jesus’ voice, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.” As disciples of Christ, you don’t have a choice; you are the salt and light of the earth. You either are or you aren’t. So, He warns against losing your saltiness and hiding your light.
Let’s consider salt for a moment. Why do we use it? It’s used as a preservative, such as preserving a wound; and it’s used to enhance flavouring, such as on our food. As soon as I put salt and pepper on my mashed potatoes, man does it taste better! Now, what if that salt lost its saltiness? What if instead of enhancing the flavour, it made your mashed potatoes taste bitter or bland? You’d throw it out, right? It’s useless! This is what the people of Rome did with useless salt—they tossed it out into the streets where it would be trampled underfoot.
Jesus is making a strong implication here: “I have made you the salt of the earth. Therefore, do not be useless, lest you get trampled underfoot.” This could be interpreted as other people trampling over you or God Himself trampling over you. Either way, Jesus has made you the salt of the earth to be useful to it and the people living in it, not useless.
What does He mean that we are the salt of the earth, though? I’ll get to that a little later, but let’s briefly talk about what it does not mean.
Jesus calls you to be salt, not salty. We Lutherans are really good at being salty Christians. If you don’t know what I mean by this, what I mean is that we are snarky toward others—we deal with others sharply, bitterly, or sarcastically. This is really hard for me because I come from a sarcastic, snarky family, but that’s our sense of humour; we use sarcasm to joke around. And that’s okay! But the type of sarcasm I’m speaking against is the type that causes harm to another person. Also, if someone doesn’t get sarcasm, it’s probably best not to use sarcastic humour around them.
So, be salt. Not salty.
Light of the World
Moving on, Jesus says next, “You are the light of the world.” Jesus being Jesus, He uses two more metaphors to explain this metaphor. As the light of the world, you are like a city that is set on a hill. It’s obvious—you’re out there for all to see.
It’s obvious when a person becomes a Christian. There’s a noticeable change in them. There’s a transformation. You may not know the change is because Jesus has made them His disciples, but you notice it. Maybe you notice it in yourself, too. Even more, it’s attractive. People go toward this light in you and want to take part in it.
This is kind of like my drive back to St. Louis after visiting my dad in Illinois. Cruising down I-55, I see the St. Louis Arch and the bright lights of the city off into the distance and I know I’m almost home. It’s attractive; it’s a beautiful sight.
“A city set on a hill cannot be hidden,” Jesus says. Indeed. When you’re driving to St. Louis, or any other major city, you cannot miss it. It’s so obvious and nobody can hide it.
Yet being a city set on a hill also means everyone is watching you. People are just waiting for you to make a mistake so they can accuse you of being a bad Christian. So, we also must be careful with how we act toward others.
In the same way, Jesus says, nobody lights a lamp and proceeds to place a basket over it. Why do we light a room with a candle or lamp? We can’t see! What sense would it make if we turned on a lamp in a dark room only to place a basket over it? That would defeeat the whole purpose, wouldn’t it?
Likewise, Jesus has made you the light of the world. What sense would it make to hide yourself from your spouse, your children, your friends, your community, the world? That would defeat the whole purpose, wouldn’t it? The world is darkened and disillusioned in sin, and it desperately needs the light of Christ.
By Means of Good Works
“So,” you may think, “Jesus has made me the salt of the earth and the light of the world. That’s all fine and dandy, but what does that mean? How do I salt the earth and light the world?” The first thing you need to know is that this salt and light comes from Jesus, not within yourself.
Just a couple weeks ago, we read from Matthew 4 where Jesus called His disciples with the promise to make them fishers of men if they follow Him. Now He is teaching them just how they are to be fishers of men; He makes His disciples the salt and light of the world.
Yet before this, Jesus blessed them with the message of the Gospel in the Beatitudes. After blessing them with the Gospel, He then makes them the salt and light of the world and sends them out to salt and light the world. How? Well, what does He say? “Through your good works.”
At first, we Lutherans might balk at this and say, “What?! Good works?! Ephesians 2:8-9 says I’m saved by grace through faith alone, which is not my own doing, but the gift of God, not the result of works!” Yeah, you are absolutely correct. But don’t stop reading.
The very next verse says, “for”—I’ll stop right there. That little word, “for,” means something significant. This little word in Greek is used to express the cause or reason for something. Continuing with Paul’s statement, then, you were saved by grace through faith not by your own doing for the purpose that “we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
God has saved you—redeemed you—from damnation and the Devil out of His own doing, yes, but He also saved you in order to make you His workmanship—or literally, His work.
God has saved you from death and damnation out of His love and graciousness to be with Him in eternity. So long as you and I remain on this earth, however, He has also called each of us to be and to do His work on earth in Jesus Christ. This is a wonderful gift! At creation, man was initially created to do work, and it was God’s work, and what did God say it was? It was good. In Christ, this good work of God has been restored to you for you to do.
Jesus explains this work God has prepared for us with metaphors: salt and light. As salt, you are preservative and flavourful. We preserve the faith through preaching, teaching, tradition, and ongoing catechesis. And we are to be flavourful in our proclamation of the Gospel, not bitter and snarky.
As light, you let the light of Christ in you shine. Do not hide it. Let’s sing that children’s song again, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna’ let it shine! Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!” [Reader’s Note: This portion of the song was sung during the children’s message for their object lesson.]
As you read the rest of Jesus’ sermon, one of the important things to glean from His sermon concerning the good works He calls us to do is that these are works that take place in our ordinary lives—that is, in the vocations God has placed us. They take place in our ordinary lives, yet the works themselves are transformed.
To use a single example, one of these transformative works Jesus commands in His sermon is to love our enemies rather than hating them. In our ordinary lives, we come across all sorts of enemies: that bully at school, that guy at work who drives me bananas, the President, that presidential candidate, Islamic terrorists, and so on. Yet Jesus calls us to a transformative work—to love them and pray for them rather than hating them.
Such a thing is transformative because it is not ordinary at all to love and pray for your enemy, or not to look at a man or woman lustfully, or to refrain from divorce, or to keep an oath, and so on. And these works are possible because it is Jesus who causes the transformation in you by the light of the Gospel.
God has given each of you ordinary vocations, but you are by no means called to live your vocations in ordinary ways. Where God has called you to live and serve is ordinary, but unlike the rest of the world, He has transformed you. As Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” [Romans 12:2].
This is what Christ has done to you by the light of His Gospel. He has transformed you as husbands and wives who love one another just as Christ loved the Church (which, by the way, means to the point of death, even death on a cross). He has transformed you to be engaging and supportive parents, especially regarding the faith-life of your children. (Do not let their faith lose its saltiness!) He has transformed you to be remarkable students, sons, daughters, and so on.
So, good works are the means by which you salt and light the earth. The purpose of this is not to glorify yourselves and make you feel better about yourself, but, Jesus says, to glorify your Father in Heaven. As Paul says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” [1 Corinthians 10:31].
Forgiveness in Inevitable Failure
Some of you are probably thinking, “That’s a lot of Law, Vicar Ricky! Where’s the Gospel?” Well, that’s because this text is all Law! Jesus tells you to do and to be something. Remember, though, this faith and these good works come from Christ Himself. And guess what? You will fail. You have failed.
Maybe you haven’t been the best husband or wife, or the best father or mother. Maybe you’re divorced. Maybe you haven’t been a good student or son or daughter. Maybe you refuse reconciliation with your sibling in Christ. Maybe you begrudgingly hold forgiveness back for someone. Maybe you really hate someone or a group of people.
None of this is okay. In these and various ways, you and I fail as the salt and light of the world—we lose our saltiness and hide our light. Yet the danger is not that you fail; the danger is that you do not go to the One who restores you in His salt and light, which is the seasoning and light of the Gospel where you receive the forgiveness of your failures.
The other danger, too, is that you neglect good works for your neighbour who needs them. Jesus has called you to salt and light the earth with the good works He enables you to do because of the Gospel blessings from which they flow, which you do through your given vocations. Consider your vocations, then reflect on what each one calls you to do for others. By doing so, you fulfil your vocations as the salt and light of the world in a dark and bitter world that desperately needs Christ. Being salt and light is Law, but remember that they stem from the Beatitudes, which is all Gospel.
The Beatitudes are your core identity in Christ. This Gospel is equally as emphatic as Jesus’ command. The kingdom of Heaven is yours; you shall be comforted in your mourning, you shall inherit the earth in the new creation, your thirst for righteousness is satisfied in the Eucharist, you receive the mercy of Christ, you shall see God, and you are called a child of God.
This is all true for you not because you do good works, but because it is the joy of the Father to give these to you in Christ because of what He has done. And it is by this blessed identity in Christ that shapes and forms you as the salt and light of the world. In failure, Jesus invites you to repeatedly come to Him to be restored in these blessings.
May this peace of God, which surpasses all understanding as you live out your vocations, keep your hearts and minds in the saving salt and light of Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.