a sermon on Matthew 5:13-20
There’s been a whole lot of talk about salt lately. With the persistent snow we’ve been getting this winter, it feels like we are going through more salt than ever before, and the statistics seem to be proving it. In the last week we’ve even heard about a looming shortage of salt, with public officials all across the country starting to fear that they will not have enough to make it through the winter safely. Salt—or some variation on it formulated for colder temperatures or different uses—seems to be an integral part of surviving the winter these days. Without it, our world would stop for wintry weather even more than it already does, and we would be far less likely to even be here today because of treacherous roads and sidewalks!
But I don’t think Jesus was thinking much about salting sidewalks when he offered these words about salt and light in the Sermon on the Mount. In Jesus’ time, the thought of tossing salt onto a walkway would have been a huge waste—it’s how they would have dealt with salt that had lost its saltiness! But I have to wonder if what he meant when he told his disciples and the gathering crowds that they were the salt of the earth is comparable to the importance of salt for us this winter. In Jesus’ time, salt was an extremely important commodity, used to fertilize and prepare the fields for crops before planting and then to help preserve the staples held over to get through the winter.
Even now, salt continues in these important roles in our world, but in the winter it seems more useful in dissolving the snow and ice that can so easily paralyze our world. We need only look at Atlanta a couple weeks to see what would happen to a modern city that isn’t able to use salt amidst snow and ice. Not only did gridlock reign and the city essentially shut down when too many cars attempted to drive at once, people were stranded for hours, even overnight, after just a two-inch snowfall. As much as any coordination from City Hall or the Department of Sanitation, the response of New York City in winter weather depends on salt just as much as salt was important in Jesus’ time.
So maybe we need to think about being the salt of the earth in this way this winter. Just as salt works to give us traction when things are slippery, as salt of the earth we can help others to regain their footing in times of uncertainty. Just as salt works to melt down the mounds of ice around us these days, we can be the salt of the earth to help melt the hardened hearts of our world. And just as salt takes a little bit of time to take effect and clear the path, so as salt of the earth we may need a little time and patience to join in God’s work of making a way amidst the challenges of this world.
In the same way, when Jesus proclaimed to the crowd that they were the light of the world, he gave them the inspiration to bear something new and different into the world. Just as salt transforms the world and makes new and different things possible, so light brings life to the darkness. The examples that Jesus gave to illustrate his point made this abundantly clear. This light is meant to shine—it is like a city on a hill, like a lamp on a lampstand, bringing light to everyone. This light is meant to bring light to all—not just a select few but to the whole house, to anyone who can see the city shining brightly at night. But ultimately this light of the world is less about the light itself and more about what the light does, about what the light enables others to see, about helping others to give glory to God.
And so in this day, when we too hear Jesus’ command to be the light of the world and to let that light shine before others, how do we let it shine? The light in us is not meant to be a blinding light, so bright that people cannot see anything else, but to be a guiding light that points the way to something and someone else brighter than ourselves. The light in us is not meant to be the only light, shutting out every other source of light everywhere, but to be light enough for the way today. And this light in us is ultimately not our own but rather a reflection of the light of Christ that we receive and share with the world, and so it must not be brighter than its source.
Ultimately, for Jesus the matter of being salt and light is about being part of the kingdom of heaven. To Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is not some far-off time and place, some distant enjoyment of God’s blessings to be inherited upon our death, some world yet to come that means nothing for our world today. To Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is a new way of life in the here and now, a promise of hope amidst the brokenness of this day and age, a different way to approach God and one another that sets aside the measures of the world and welcomes the gracious judgment of God, a way of joy and peace and promise that embodies the fullness of the fast described by the prophet Isaiah:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free…
to break every yoke…
to share your bread with the hungry,
[to] bring the homeless poor into your house…
to cover [the naked]
and not to hide yourself from your own kin.
This kingdom of heaven is the whole purpose of our being salt and light. The salt helps prepare the soil, clear the pathway, and slowly but surely get the gunk out of the way so that the kingdom of heaven can be real. And the light helps others see the way in the darkness, transforms uncertainty into hope, and gives the glory to God, the source of all light, so that the kingdom of heaven can be visible to all.
Even in our world that doesn’t have all that many kingdoms anymore, the kingdom of heaven is so very different from what is the norm for us. It is hard if not impossible to get in based on the usual measures—Jesus says that the righteousness we need to enter the kingdom of heaven must exceed that of the scribes and pharisees, so getting in must be about something more than righteousness. This kingdom of heaven is a place where the ways of the world matter immensely but not at all, where the law and prophets that have guided things for so long are not so much abolished as fulfilled. And it is the place where God’s full presence abides each and every day, where the prophet’s words become real:
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and [God] will say, Here I am.
This kingdom of heaven, then, is not something we achieve on our own or by any accomplishment of human merit—it is the gracious gift of God for all creation, and we have the privilege of being a part of it as salt and light to make way for others to join us.
So in these winter days, may God help us to be salt and light in this world, working always to help the kingdom of heaven to be be shown more fully in our world as we trust God’s work to make all things new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God for salt and light! Amen.