Salt and Light

Sermon for 2/5/2011
Text: Matthew 5:13-16

My son Matthew has given each member of our family “train names” from the Thomas the Train video series. His little brother Isaiah is Thomas’ best friend “Percy”; Mommy is “Emily,” a main female steam engine; and I’m “Salty,” an old diesel engine who works down at the docks and has a thick blue-collar British accent. I guess I can be a bit salty at times, but probably not in the way that Jesus had in mind. As for being a light to others, my former high school students might say that I was, but again not in the way Jesus was talking. They used to say, “Mr. Guyton! You should let us wear sunglasses ‘cause the way that light reflects off your head, it’s brighter than the sun in here!”

Salt and light. That’s what Jesus says that we are. But what did he have in mind? In our world of fast food French fries and electricity, there are few things that we take for granted more than salt and light. In fact, we’ve got too much salt and light. Doctors tell us to take the salt out of our diets to get our blood pressure down. We take camping trips to get out of the city where it’s dark enough to actually see the stars. Back in Jesus’ day, they didn’t have refrigerators, so one of the few ways they could keep their food from going bad was to cover it in salt. And they didn’t have light-switches, so you had to keep a steady supply of oil for your lamp or you wouldn’t be able to see what you were doing.

So what did salt and light represent to Jesus? Nobody can say for sure because Jesus never explained these symbols like he did with some of his parables. We do know that Jesus is telling His disciples that we have been given something to share with the world. I think that salt and light describe two ways that the gospel of God’s loving mercy transforms our lives. Just like salt gives food flavor and had the original purpose of preserving food in the time before refrigerators, salt can describe the meaning that our lives receive from the gospel, without which they go bad like a slab of meat covered in flies. Just like light shines in the darkness to show us our true surroundings, light could describe the truth revealed to us by the gospel, without which we remain lost in the darkness of sin.

Jesus lived in a simpler time, without the same kinds of distractions of our over-salted world. The world throws plenty of salt at us through the many options we are given to pack meaning into our lives. We have self-help books, yoga classes, and motivational speakers. We can sign our kids up for karate, sports teams, or art programs, all of which are supposed to help build their character. Of course, none of these activities are harmful unless we see them as a substitute for the flavor that God has given to our lives through the salt of His gospel.

How many of you are cooks? One of the errors that I always make as a cook is to add too many spices thinking that more is always better. The irony of flavoring food is that more is often less. If you put cumin and thyme and dill and rosemary and saffron and coriander and cilantro and basil all into the same dish in heaping amounts, you’re not going to end up with something very edible. Our lives lose God’s “saltiness” when the seasoning of His Word is overwhelmed by the clumps of worldly spices that we think we need to give our lives meaning. Salt is supposed to be the one ingredient that gives flavor to all the other flavors. If you make a soup or a dip of some kind and put all sorts of herbs into it but leave out the salt completely, it’s going to be bland.

God’s Word plays the same central role in our lives that salt plays in food. If our weekly routines and activities are rooted in a life of Christian discipleship shaped by God’s Word, then God will use even the most trivial parts of our daily routines to teach us lessons and give our lives meaning. If God’s salt is there, even something like washing dishes can become a prayerful activity rich in flavor. The way to stay “salty” means is to spend enough time in God’s Word that we recognize when God speaks to us in everyday moments.

When we are well-salted, then what would otherwise be unmeaningful, unrelated daily experiences are woven together into an ongoing conversation with God. Without God’s salt, we quickly overwhelm ourselves in a sea of busy-ness, adding events and commitments to compensate for a fundamental absence of flavor to our lives that we don’t recognize. Stepping out of the world’s confusing clutter of meanings and into the meaningful rhythm of God-centeredness is what the journey of Christian discipleship is about. God is not stingy with His salt but we’ve got to ask Him for it and keep on coming back for more!

As with salt, the world confuses us with a variety of lights that compete with the light of Christ. Some people get taken in by the neon lights like the rapper Jay-Z sings about in his song “New York.” They think that life’s truth is measured in the bling and extravagance of big city life. Other people take pleasure in the light that exposes hypocrisy and scandal among our society’s public figures. They think that the only purpose of bringing things into the light is to revel in the cynicism that nobody lives up to their ideals.

We live in a world where light is the default. We’ve got electricity in our houses (usually). Our cars have headlights. Places where people walk have streetlights. In this kind of world, darkness is something we choose when it’s time to sleep or watch a movie. If light is the norm, the only type of light we really notice is a spotlight, which highlights one person to the exclusion of others. The spotlight is good when you feel like you’re special and other people need to know about it; and it’s bad when you’ve got something shameful to hide. When we understand God’s light to be a spotlight, we either run away from it, fearing its judgment, or we run into it for the wrong reason, thinking that Jesus’ command to “let your light shine before others” is his invitation to be a diva superstar.

For Jesus’ audience, stepping into the light would have meant neither being the center of attention nor facing public embarrassment. They lived in a time when darkness was the default. How often have you had to walk through a place that was pitch black in which you feared for your safety? Some of us have been in neighborhoods where safety was a legitimate fear, but I imagine for most of us, this experience is the exception rather than the norm. In places and times where darkness is a real danger, light means safety. Ironically, in our time, the bright lights that our world offers are themselves the place of danger. Stepping into the light of Jesus’ safety means stepping out of the world’s spotlights where we hide our shame and put on our best smiles for the cameras.

There are painful truths about our lives that can make us fear God’s light. As John 3:19 says, “[God’s] light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” But the primary truth that Jesus’ light exists to reveal is not the ugliness about ourselves that we try to hide but the beauty of God’s infinitely merciful love for us. It is through the light of that beautiful mercy that we are made into the light of the world, the fires in our hearts lit by the heart of the One who gave up His body to the world’s cross to make the world safe for us. When Jesus calls us the “light of the world,” he is not telling us to be bright or flashy. We are simply the windows through which Jesus can shine in what we do and how we love so that others will find their way to safety in God’s holy sanctuary. Letting our light shine is not about jumping into the spotlight but simply remembering that everything we do either invites other people into the light of God’s safety or pushes them away.

As metaphors, salt and light share one important thing in common – they exist for the sake of others. We don’t eat salt by itself any more than we stare at fluorescent light bulbs. Salt flavors other food; light helps us to see other things. In the same way, as salt and light, we do not exist to bring attention to ourselves. We point the way to the One who has seasoned our souls and fired up our hearts for the sake of sharing His mercy with the world, so that all might live in the intimacy with God that fills our lives with meaning and truth.

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