Sunday, 9 February 2014

Taste and See: a sermon on salt and light

Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church, 9 February 2014. Text: Matthew 5:13-20.

The psalmist wrote: “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” And today I’m going to talk about salt and light, the way we enable others to taste and see Jesus in our lives.

A couple of years ago, we were due to drive up to Scotland for Christmas. We hadn’t finished off all the work needing doing, and we were all a bit poorly, so we postponed the journey by a day. The next morning came, and it was snowing heavily. But we were committed to going, and the car was packed, so we set off. It was slow driving, the visibility was poor, and the roads were in danger of becoming icy. We were protected by two things: the lights of our car and those of other cars around us; and the salt which had been put down on the road. Light and salt. Salt and light.

They’re familiar, everyday things. Yet they’re also metaphors, images that help us understand a particular way of being followers of Jesus. Given the winter we’ve had this year, I’ve been reflecting this week what it would mean to be umbrellas and sandbags to the world!

The trouble with metaphors is that they become an end in themselves. And the trouble with these two metaphors, about salt and light, is that they get taken out of context. Here’s a diagram about what happens when you take bits of the Bible out of context. Last Sunday at the evening service, we heard Micah’s words about seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God. That verse is often quoted by itself, with all the rest of Micah – good solid destruction-and-repentance OT prophet stuff – being ignored.

So it is with this passage. It’s really important not to take it in isolation, but to see it in its context. The text we’ve just heard is sandwiched between two much longer chunks of the Sermon on the Mount. First comes the Beatitudes, Jesus’ great teaching on who would be blessed in the kingdom of God. And after it comes a whole series of moral teachings, on themes such as murder, adultery, divorce, violence, and love for neighbours. In each of these teachings, Jesus begins by saying “you have heard it said” and gives the usual account from the Jewish law, and then follows it with “but I say to you” and presents a really radical reinterpretation of the law. So what Jesus has to say about coming to fulfil the law not abolish it is a very important introduction.

The keeping of the law of Moses, the Torah, was absolutely central to Jewish identity (and still is). Jesus says that his followers – that our – righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. The poor old Pharisees have a bad press now, but they were hugely respected in Jesus’ day. They were righteous people, they lived upright and decent lives and encouraged others to do the same. The problem was that they didn’t always match up to their own aspirations. It’s a familiar enough image from our own times – those who do all the right things outwardly, but inwardly know they’re just doing it for appearances.

Because Jesus has a different way of treating the law. It’s no longer about outward appearance. It’s about what we do inside our hearts, how we live out the law within ourselves. In later times, we talk about this as receiving the Holy Spirit, or as the Inner Light of Christ, but when Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Mount, he showed again and again that what was needed was to take the law within ourselves, to write it on our hearts, to live it day by day. To be more righteous and less self-righteous, more concerned with deeds and less with rules.

And Jesus gives his disciples, gives us today, these two clear images of what it means to be his disciples. He says that we are the salt of the earth, and that we are the light of the world. These are big statements, which might seem quite daunting. Salt had a big spiritual significance – it was seen as divine by the Greeks, a symbol of purity to the Romans, and was mandated for the Israelites both as part of their sacrifices to Yahweh and as a seal of covenants of friendship. And light – well Jesus is called the light of the world, who shines light in our darkness, many times in the gospels, especially in the gospel of John. I think I’ve shown this picture before here – for me it bursts with light and life. So for Jesus to give this title to his disciples is a big statement.

Notice that he doesn’t order us to be these things, he doesn’t do “thou shalt”, he doesn’t even say it’s better if we’re salt & light than not. He says that we are salt, that we are light – that by living in his way, those who follow him are salt of the earth and light of the world. It’s worth pointing out – and I don’t think this is just nit-picking – that the “you” in the Greek is plural both times. We are called to be salt and light in community. We are called to a common enterprise of shared discipleship, to act together as disciples to make the world better.

Let’s look a little bit more about the images, and why they matter. First, salt. Here’s the most obvious connection with salt in Jesus’ time: food. It must be lunchtime soon! In the ancient world, salt acted as flavouring and as preservative. It made food worth eating, and it kept it fresh. Then as now, salt’s flavour works best in moderation – too much and it overpowers the food. But I love the idea of Christians being called to give flavour to life. Jesus said that he came that we might have life, and have it in abundance. Too often, the public idea of Christianity is of rather serious people. The writer Robert Louis Stevenson once recorded in his diary, as if it were a rare event: “I have been to Church to-day, and am not depressed”. But we are a people who know joy through following Jesus, through his life and his example and his sacrifice. We can give flavour to the world, bring hope to others through our actions to help them and through the lives we lead. The URC’s own John Proctor, who teaches at Westminster College, compares salt and honey, and writes that “there is an honest tang about wholesome Christian integrity: salt is clean, rather than cosy, whereas honey coats everything, however sour and rough, with the same artificial film of sweetness. Trying to be all things to all people can strain us beyond credibility. Being ourselves, where we are and as we are, is what Jesus asks of us.” We’re talking about salt and light, not sweetness and light.

And in this way, Jesus’ calling us to be light to the world carries a similar message. Light is not always comfortable or easy – it can be a searchlight just as much as a gentle candle – but it shows up what is to be found in dark places, and it’s the very stuff of life. Every bit of life on the planet, ultimately, comes from sunlight. So being called to be light is powerful calling. Again it’s about hope. The founder of the Iona Community, George Macleod, wrote the following: “Follow the light you have, and pray for more light”. We have a great deal of light, individually and together. It’s sometimes easy to forget about it, but we can be radiant with light. Even if it feels hard, the light of Christ is waiting within us, and if we nurture it, more will be given to us.

One last thing. Jesus talks about us falling short from this great calling. He’s not suggesting that this is sinful or inevitable, but that we will become less useful as disciples. The salt of his time was often rock salt, typically gathered from the edges of the Dead Sea, roughly the same stuff as we put on roads in winter. If the salt was washed out of it, all that was left was rock. And of course he talked about the foolishness of putting a lamp under a bushel basket, which at best would hide the light and at worst start a nasty fire! If being salt and light are ways that Jesus wanted us to think of ourselves as disciples, then he was warning us that it wasn’t inevitable that we’d stay that way. Because we do lose flavour, we do risk becoming bland; and we too often don’t let our light shine. But Jesus offers us the opportunity to do so.

I’m going to end with a prayer from a writer called Peggy de Cuehlo from Uruguay:

You placed me in the world to be its salt.
I was afraid of committing myself,
Afraid of being stained by the world.
You placed me in the world to be its light.
I was afraid of the shadows
And my light slowly faded away.
You placed me in the world to live in community.
Thus you taught me to love,
To share in life,
To struggle for bread and for justice,
Your truth incarnate in my life.
So be it, Jesus.

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