Salt and Light in a Dark and Decaying World
Topic: Sermon on the Mount Passage: Matthew 5:10–5:12
Sermon on the Mount
Grace Community Church
August 14, 2016
Salt and Light in a Dark and Decaying World
Let's turn together to Matt. 5. For the past several weeks we've been looking at the beatitudes and the kind of character God's kingdom values, but this morning as we come to the last beatitude, we find that Jesus begins to turn a corner and kingdom character flows into kingdom influence. Jesus left his church here to have an influence on the world, and in the world, by confronting the world with the good news of Jesus Christ and his kingdom, and the result of that kingdom influence, Jesus says, is that some receive the message and find eternal life but some will reject not only our message, but reject us as well. Kingdom influence won't always be well received by the world.
This question of how the church is to influence the world is, I believe, one of the most important questions and challenges facing the church today. The question is not only how do we reach the world, but what do we reach the world with? An entire industry has been built around getting more people through the church doors. I received a magazine in the mail this week devoted to this question: how do you get more families to visit your church? It's all about getting them to step inside, nothing about what happens once they step inside. One enterprising pastor, in an effort to motivate his congregation to invite people to church, promised to shave off half his moustache if they got a certain number of visitors to church. The congregation went out and invited people like mad, the number was reached, and the pastor kept his promise and shaved off half of his moustache during the service. You could say they reached their community, but what did they reach them with? How the church is to influence the world is one of the greatest challenges the church faces today.
With that challenge in mind, one of the buzzwords in the church has become the word "relevant". Many churches invest a lot of time and energy into the elusive goal of being relevant. And it's obvious why, what church wants to be known as irrelevant? Our website, under the heading, What You Will Find, promises you will find "relevant preaching from the Bible." I'm not looking to change that to: "you will find irrelevant preaching from the Bible". Churches should work to connect with our community and culture in a way that they can relate to, so in that sense we should try to be relevant.
But we can be so focused on being relevant and connecting that we forget what we're supposed to be connecting with. Some churches, in their desire to be relevant, spend a lot of time trying to preach clever messages with clever titles on relevant subjects, but sadly, containing little scripture, and even less challenge to the listeners. Sermons that might draw people in because they're easy to listen to, but don't have much more impact than shaving half a moustache off would. It is possible to connect with our culture but have no influence on our culture and that would be a serious misfire for the church.
In a letter written from a jail in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a response to some clergymen who openly disapproved of Dr. Kings message and methods, feeling them too disruptive: "There was a time when the Church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were a “colony of heaven” and had to obey God rather than man."
"Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the Church as never before. If the Church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early Church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century." - Dr. Martin Luther King (from prison)
Jesus didn't call the church to be a thermometer, gauging the temperature of the culture, he calls us to be thermostats, affecting the temperature of the culture. As we'll see in the passage we're looking at this morning, Christians are to be a kingdom influence on the world around us. Jesus calls us to be salt and light in a dark and decaying world.
The price of kingdom influence
Jesus makes an really strange statement here - blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake. Then he makes it personal and says "blessed are you…" when people revile you, falsely accuse you of doing wrong, and persecute you because you bear my name. Yours is the kingdom of heaven, and great is your reward in heaven."
There's an uncomfortable truth in this for the church today: there's really no cheap and easy way to make an eternal difference in the world. Jesus paid the entire price for our salvation, but if we want to reach the world with the good news of that message, there's a price that needs to be paid.
The fact is that pretty much anything worth having and anything worth doing comes at a personal price. Last week the US women's gymnastics team stole the show winning team gold by a large margin. As they stood on that podium with their country's anthem playing, and their families and friends and country so proud of them, it must have been quite an amazing experience for them, one that they'll remember and carry with them all their lives!
But behind the scenes, there was a tremendous price they paid to be there. How many early mornings, grueling training sessions, strict dietary restrictions, and intense discipline affecting virtually every area of life, did they have to endure? The fact is, very few people accomplish great things easily. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
The price of being a faithful kingdom influence is that we may be slandered and hated and falsely accused and persecuted for it. Jesus isn't saying that we should seek being slandered and persecuted, but we shouldn't seek being popular either. One of the dangers that seeking to be relevant opens the church to is the temptation to remove from the church anything that might seem offensive or abrasive or out of step with our culture. We begin to measure success by popularity, by the community's acceptance, by things like buildings, bucks, and butts, rather than faithfulness to God's word and a radical kingdom influence in people's lives.
In this country we don't encounter physical persecution very often, but there is a lot of psychological, reputational, and even vocational persecution around us today. As our culture applies more and more really well crafted pressure to believe things that flatly go against God's word, we need to be willing to be considered old-fashioned, out of touch, and whatever other names might be attached to us for adhering to biblical truth. Jesus said that we will face persecution for righteousness' sake, not for relevancy's sake. Standing for righteousness may not get a lot of "atta boys" or slaps on the back, but it's the price for having a kingdom influence in the world.
Jesus calls us to be thermostats, not thermometers. It doesn't cost us anything to reflect the temperature of our culture, but if we are to affect the temperature of our culture it will cost us. Jesus promises us that there will be a great reward - better than an Olympic gold medal - waiting for us in the kingdom of heaven. The more our hearts are living for that kingdom, the smaller the price will seem to us.
There's a price to be paid if we as the church are to have a kingdom influence in the world. But what is a kingdom influence? In vv. 13-16 Jesus goes on to describe what kingdom influence should look like.
The nature of kingdom influence
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, 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 who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16 ESV)
Jesus used two common metaphors to describe the nature of our kingdom influence: salt and light. We know salt primarily as a seasoning to flavor our food, and that was certainly true then as well, but because they didn't have refrigeration back then, the most important function of salt was to preserve meats from decaying. God has left the church as a preservative in the world, slowing down the putrefying effect of sin in the world.
Light's nature and purpose is to illuminate, to help people see. In our modern times, we rarely experience true darkness. There are lights all around us - even the earliest hours in the morning have street lights. And if we need a light, our phones all have built in flashlights. We almost never experience true darkness anymore.
When I went to Guatamala, we traveled into the mountains to a small town call San Andres and at night there were no electric lights and it would get pitch black. I remember it seemed weird, unsettling, to me - because I'm so used to there always being some source of electric light.
Jesus calls us to be light in a spiritually dark world. Some people will love the light and be drawn to it by the power of God, and some people will hate the light and will mock us for not being enlightened. Not too different from what Jesus encountered - multitudes followed him, but multitudes hated him and John tells us why: he was the light of the world, but they loved the darkness because their deeds were evil. So the challenge that we need to wrestle with is this: if we are going to shine the light of Christ in order that some might come to a saving faith in him, we need to be willing to be mocked and disliked and rejected for that same light. That's why this section of being salt and light is closely connected with being persecuted. They go hand in hand.
The thing about salt and light is that, for them to do any good, they can't do it from a distance. They have to get close, permeate, and penetrate to do their job, and it's the same way for Christians. Jesus' call to us isn't to influence the world by isolating ourselves from the world - that's really not possible. His call is to permeate the world, to get close to the world, so that the salt can be rubbed into it, and the light can penetrate and illuminate the darkness.
Right around the same time that Jesus preached this message, less than a hundred miles south of the Sea of Galilee, lived a group called the Essenes. They had withdrawn from a wicked world and formed a monastic community on the western side of the Dead Sea. It was from this community that archeologists would later find the Dead Sea scrolls. They called themselves the "sons of light" but they never allowed their light to shine as they huddled in their little monastic cocoon on the coast of the Dead Sea. In many ways they were like the Dead Sea - so filled with salt that they couldn't produce life. Christians aren't meant to huddle together in one big salt deposit, or being sons of light that never allow our light to shine where it's needed. There was a book years ago called "Out of the Salt Shaker and into the World". That's exactly what Jesus has in mind for his disciples.
Jesus says that if the salt loses its saltiness, or the light is hidden under a bushel, it does no good. It's worthless. Church, if we become thermometers reflecting the world but not affecting the world, not preserving, not illuminating, then we have become worthless. I said that the question of the church's influence in the world is one of the greatest challenges we face today, but it's one we need to tackle, because I think there is evidence to say that the church is not influencing the world the way Jesus intended. At least not in the United States. Statistics show that the church is on the decline in this country. Even large churches are often large, not because they're winning souls to Christ, but because they're attracting people who are already Christians. It's a challenge we need to face!
But I also think we live in a challenging time to effect influence. People are less trusting and more cynical than they used to be. They are less likely to be affected by a program or a charismatic stranger preaching to them. They need to be convinced it's real, it's authentic - and that's where our being salt and light comes in. We need to get close, permeate, be a part of their lives. They need to see our Christian faith walked out in the trenches of life. And on a practical note, we need to remember that too much light can blind you and too much salt can choke you. Jesus isn't saying we should ram our faith down people's throats, or constantly be confronting people with biblical truth. We should permeate our community, our workplaces, our families, with a steady, respectful, winsome witness for Christ.
I was tremendously impressed with the testimony of the US men's syncronized diving team after they won the silver medal. One of them was a returning Olympic medalist, the other was a first timer in the Olympics. Both of them shared humbly and unapologetically that they knew coming in that their identity wasn't rooted in how well they did, but their identity was rooted in Christ, so they knew that even if they failed in diving, that wouldn't make them failures. Their identity was in Christ. It was a winsome, but powerful, witness for Christ. And their witness contains an important lesson for us: we need to be careful we don't try to choke society with our self-righteousness or blind society with a floodlight of declarative truth all the time. Jesus says it is to be our good works shining a light that others might see God's love and grace in action in us and through us - and they might give glory to our Father in heaven. We are to make society a better tasting, less decaying, and brighter place to live to the glory of Jesus.
The power for kingdom influence
As I said, I think this is one of the great challenges facing the church today: how do we more effectively influence this world for the kingdom? There are different ways churches can attempt to do this, and it won't look the same from one church to another, but one way that is the same for every church in every generation is by our being salt and light individually wherever we are. That we would ask the Lord to help us to be His salt and His light every day, in every place. That thought scares a lot of Christians - it scares me!
Final thought for this morning: we need the power of the Holy Spirit if we are to be witnesses for Christ and influence the world for the kingdom. Jesus taught his disciples perfectly - there was never a better teacher than Jesus. And yet, when it came time for him to leave his earthly ministry and hand over the ministry of being salt and light to his disciples, he said to them, "you aren't ready. You need to wait for the power of the Holy Spirit and He will give you power to be my witnesses." If they, with all the perfect teaching and modeling that they had in Jesus, needed the Holy Spirit to empower them for kingdom service, how much more do we need His power?
Maybe some of you are like me - the idea of standing out for Jesus when we really prefer blending in, or the thought of someone thinking badly of you, rejecting you, mocking you, maybe even persecuting you for Jesus' name makes you afraid. It has made me realize more than ever that I need the Holy Spirit to empower me beyond what I can personally do, beyond what I am personally capable of. Peter needed power beyond his own ability. So do we. And the Spirit is ready to impart that power as the church cries out to Him for it. I'm going to ask the band to come back up and let's pray together for a fresh touch from heaven.