Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, (Year A), February 9, 2014
Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112, 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” And later, “You are the light of the world.” They’re very pretty sayings, two of Jesus’ most often-quoted verses. But I don’t think we really get what Jesus is saying. How often do we really think about light, or salt? Light and salt are too common, in our world. They’re too easy to get, too easy to control, and too cheap. If we want salt, we can always get some from the grocery store. And we can get hundreds of other food flavorings and spices, too, both natural and artificial. Anything we want, any time we want. And when was the last time you salted something to preserve it? Nowadays, we can or freeze most things. There are easier and cheaper ways to preserve food. Salt is everywhere, but we take it for granted.
In Jesus day, that wasn’t the case. Salt was incredibly important. There weren’t many other spices available, and most of them were so expensive that only the rich could afford them. Salt wasn’t cheap, but ordinary people could afford it. They had to; you’ll die if you don’t get enough salt. You know all those sports drinks that advertise they have electrolytes? Electrolytes are basically just salt dissolved in water. And if you wanted to preserve food for later, well, you had two choices: you could salt it or you could dry it. Salt was a daily necessity. And, when used as a seasoning, it was a tiny luxury, too.
But you know, the thing about salt is that it seasons food differently than any other flavoring. Most flavorings work by adding their own flavor to something. And, if you add a lot of salt, that happens. But if you add just a little, what happens is something different. The flavor of the food itself becomes deeper, richer. Tastier. In other words, salt helps whatever it’s added to become more like itself. Which is, when you think about it, kind of like what Jesus does: Jesus was sent to save the world from sin, to help break the chains of brokenness and death so that God’s good creation might be born again. God created the world to be good. When God created humans, the first thing God did was say that we were “very good.” That’s the core of who we are. That’s the essence of our being, but it’s been marred by sin and brokenness. By saving us, Jesus helps us be reborn as children of God. Jesus helps us become the people we were always meant to be, just like a dash of salt helps the flavors of a piece of food be more intense. And Jesus wants us to be salt for the world. Jesus wants us to be out there participating in God’s work in the world, by being salt: helping God’s good creation shine through, even in the midst of its brokenness.
Jesus said “You are the light of the world,” but most of us don’t understand light any more, either. If it’s getting dark, we can just flip a switch and have it be as bright as day. When I wake up in the middle of the night, it’s never completely dark. Because, of course, I have night-lights scattered throughout the house, so that if I have to get up I’ll be able to see enough to go get myself a glass of water or whatever I need. If I need to do something in a cramped space where there isn’t enough light, I can grab a flashlight. And if I’m walking from the church to the parsonage after dark, there’s a streetlight on the corner, and floodlights on a motion sensor at both the church, so that the lights come on as I get close.
I never have to be in the dark if I don’t want to—in fact, I’d have to actively try to escape light. In cities, there is so much light that astronomers talk about “light pollution,” which means that the lights are so bright you can’t see the stars very well. When I was a kid, my Dad and I built our own telescope one summer, ground the mirrors and everything. For years after that, our family would take a vacation and go camp out with other astronomers to watch the stars. Because there is so much artificial light, these star parties took place in the middle of nowhere, on a mountain in the Oregon desert, hours away from the nearest town. To see the gift of light given by God, we had to go away from all the artificial light and focus on the light given by God.
In Jesus’ day, things were different. The main source of light was natural light. The kind that comes from the sun, moon, and stars. The kind that human beings can’t control. Light from the sun is a gift from God, and people were almost totally dependent on it. After the sun set, they could light a fire or a lamp, but there isn’t much firewood in Palestine, and oil for lamps was a lot more expensive then than electricity is for us now today. Even with lamps lit, they could not create the kind of brightness indoors or at night that we take for granted. When the sun was up, there was abundant light for all. When the sun went down, things got dark. Very dark. So light was something to be treasured, something that they paid an awful lot of attention to. And it wasn’t something they controlled.
In the same way, we don’t control whether or not we are the light of the world. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “You should be the light of the world” or “you’ll be the light of the world if you shape up” or “you have the potential to be the light of the world.” No. Jesus says “You are the light of the world.” You already are the light of the world. That’s not something you choose, or something you have to earn. You are the light of the world because God has chosen to make you the light of the world. It’s kind of like forgiveness: it isn’t up to you. God forgives us because he loves us, not because we earn it; God makes us the light of the world because he loves us and he loves the world, not because we earn it. The light is a free gift, to us and to the world. Our only choice is what we’re going to do with that light we’ve been given. We can put it out in public to give light to the world, or we can try to hide it away. We don’t even get to control who gets it and who doesn’t. Light shines. Just as the sun shines on all people, good and bad alike, so too does the light of Christ shine on all people.
Jesus talks about entering the Kingdom of Heaven in our Gospel reading, too. When we hear that, we think about “getting into heaven.” And, yes, Jesus meant that; but that’s only a small part of what Jesus meant when he talked about the Kingdom of Heaven. He talked about the kingdom of heaven a lot. But the thing is, the word we translate “kingdom” meant a lot more than the English word. You could translate it “reign” or “rule” or “dominion.” And Jesus sometimes used “heaven” rather than say “God,” because in his day pious people often avoided using God’s name. The Kingdom of Heaven is the place where God rules. The kingdom of heaven is anywhere God’s will is done. The kingdom of heaven will be most fully realized when Christ comes again, and the dead are raised, and all the world will be judged. But let’s not forget that Jesus began his ministry by preaching that the kingdom of heaven is here. Not somewhere far away, not some future time yet to come, but here, now. It may not be fully present, and we may not always be able to see or feel or hear it, but it’s here. Whenever the light of Christ shines forth, the kingdom of heaven is there.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we’ve been called to enter into the kingdom. We have been called to be salt and light for the world. We’ve been called to season the world so that the goodness of God’s creation can be fully tasted. We’ve been called to let God’s light shine through us for all the world to see. We’ve been called to participate in God’s work.
We’ve been called to righteousness, but that righteousness isn’t the kind of nit-picking and finger-pointing that is all too common today when people talk about God’s law. It isn’t the kind of “I’m better than you, so there!” that gives Christians a bad name. We are called to the kind of righteousness that glorifies God by shining the light of God’s love throughout the world, on everyone whether they deserve it or not. We are called to be the kind of righteousness that glorifies God by helping the goodness that God has created be most fully known. We are called to live as Christ taught, spreading healing and forgiveness to everyone. We are called to enter into and participate in the reign of God. We have been given the gift of light. We are the light. We are the salt. May we live lives that enter into the reign of God that surrounds us.