Salt and Light

Salt and Light

Theme: Salt and Light
Series: Sermon on the Mount
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
Date: 17 February, 2020 (preached at the 9am worship service)
Bible Reading: Matthew 5:13-16

Once again, very familiar words from Jesus from the very familiar Sermon on the Mount.  You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.  As I said last week, you have heard many sermons on this before … to the point that these words are so familiar that we sometimes don’t appreciate the profoundness of them.

So, just like last week, as we break open these familiar words today I am going to bias my words to not only helping understand what these words mean … but how to live them out.  The Sermon on the Mount is about helping us to see things differently and to influence all that we say and do.  The Sermon on the Mount in a practical sermon.

I also have taken the personal challenge to find some insight into these familiar words that you may not have heard before.  So let’s jump in by first turning to the Old Testament book of Isaiah (you were not expecting that, were you).  Isaiah 9:1

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past God humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honour Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

Who are the people that Isaiah is talking about?  It’s the people in the region of Galilee in the northern part of Israel.  The same place where Jesus is when he is giving the sermon on the mount.  Isaiah goes on…

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

Traditionally in the Jewish culture, the Rabbis and the teachers of the law were sometimes referred to as the “light” or the “light bearers” because they would bring insight and revelation from God and from the scriptures.  But now, to the people of Galilee, Isaiah is giving this prophecy that a time is coming when they will see a great light … a person who will bring great insight and revelation from God. 

Who is this person?  Keep reading Isaiah chapter 9 and we find out “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” … but if we jump to Matthew chapter 4 (the chapter before the SOTM), in verse 13 Matthew makes this perfectly clear to his Jewish audience…

Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
    the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
    Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
    a light has dawned.”

17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Jesus is the great light that has dawned.  Jesus has come to bring great insight and revelation from God … and in Matthew chapter 5 verse 1,2, Jesus went up onto a mountainside and BEGAN TO TEACH THEM. 

Are you getting this … Jesus is THE LIGHT and the sermon on the mount is the revelation or great teaching from God.

We get to today’s passage… you are the salt of the earth.  Just as salt can flavour and protect and preserve … you are like salt and are called to be a positive influence in the world.  We are called to make a difference in the world.

And you are the light of the world!  …  Just wait …

Didn’t we just learn that the Rabbis and the teachers of the law were referred to as the “light” because they would bring forth the insight and truth from God and scripture?  And didn’t we just have the epiphany that actually JESUS is the light of the world … the great light to bring the ultimate truth and insight and revelation from God.  Then … what is Jesus trying to say here?  That now we … the ordinary followers of Jesus are … the light of the world?  Really?

YES.  Jesus is empowering all followers to be the light bearers.  We all are supposed to reflect the truth of God in what we say and do.  We all are supposed to be a light that shines out God’s love and grace to the world.  To those who are living in darkness … Jesus is inviting us to be the new light that is dawning.  We are the light of the world.

Are you getting this?  Can you see how these familiar words are deeply profound.  That prophecy from Isaiah is not only referring to Jesus … it is also referring to us!

So what does this look like in practice?  How do we not only understand these words of Jesus but live them out?  For the rest of the sermon, I would like to share you the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – the great theologian of the 20th century whom I introduced you to in my sermon last week.  

If you remember, Bonhoeffer loved the Sermon on the Mount and tried in all that he did and said to live out the principles of the Sermon on the Mount.  Let me flesh out the story for you…

Bonhoeffer was born in Germany in 1906, the sixth of eight children.  His father was a professor of psychology and his childhood was full of privilege and intellectual and political conversations.  His family were not overly religious and were quite surprised that at the end of schooling, Bonhoeffer decided to study theology in Berlin. 

Bonhoeffer was a person a strong opinion and yet understood that he needed to have an open mind when it came to theology.  He was not be afraid to question things; tried to always consider both sides of an issue and was willing to think things through rigorously and never reject anything out of hand.  This openness was reflected in his study.  Despite being a German protestant, he studied a term with the Catholic church in Rome, did assistant ministry in Spain and further studied in both New York and London.  Later he was also planning to go to India to learn from Gandhi when … well, we will get to that part of the story.  But can you see this openness to listening, learning and engaging with all sides of an issue.  He felt that this was the best way to make sure that he was following in the way of Jesus. 

At the age of 24, when in was studying the USA, one of his professors was Reinhold Niebuhr who was known for his social ethics.  This developed within Bonhoeffer that purpose of theology and faith was to make this world better.  If he was not working to make the world a better place he was not being Salt and Light in the world.

Also during his study in the US he met a french student called Lassere.  Lassere was a pacifist who said that he could not support war because he trying to live out Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount … blessed are the peacemakers.  It was through these conversations that Bonhoeffer concluded
“I would only achieve true inner clarity and honesty by really starting to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously”

It was in this context that Bonhoeffer returned to German in 1931 – in the era of the rise of the Third Reich.  Bonhoeffer would listen to this new ideology but struggled because the idea of being superior to others and therefore justifying your actions to others … did not alight with the words of Jesus. 

Bonhoeffer was trying to work out what does it mean to live out the SOTM in this different world he had come back to.  How do you be salt and light in a world that he saw as getting darker and less godly?  At the age of 27, he decided that he could not stay quiet.  He could not hide his light.  So, three days after the election of Hitler to chancellor, Bonhoeffer made a public radio address speaking against the new ideology and leadership.  The broadcast was cut off before he finished his speech.

This was a difficult time for Christians in Germany as they all struggled with how to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus in society where the government could weld such power.  When the Jewish boycott and persecution started in Germany, Bonhoeffers grandmother asked him, “What is the church going to do?  The church has to do something.”

But it is not that easy, is it.   In big things like standing up to Nazi Germany or in little things like speaking out knowing that people will hassle you for your stand.

The church in America right now are struggling with this.  How do you respond to a president who seemingly has no regard to the rule of law but at the same time is being helpful is some of the things that you value?  Do you turn a blind eye to some things so that you get the outcome you want in others?

It is not easy to be salt and light in the world.

Bonhoeffer did not find it easy to be salt and light in the world.

In response to the Jewish persecution in Germany Bonhoeffer wrote a paper – in which I can see the influence of Jesus words from the SOTM.  Bonhoeffer made three significant points or wisdom for any Christian struggling to work out what it means to stand against injustice.

  1. The Church (or a follower of Jesus) must constantly question or critic the actions of a government to see whether they align with what is right and just in the eyes of God and speak up if they are not.
  • The Church (or a follower of Jesus) must aid the victim of any injustice
  • Not only should the church (or a follower of Jesus) aid those injured by the wheel of injustice … we also need to be willing to jam a stick into the spokes of such wheel.

What do you think?  Is this what it means to be light and salt in the world?

Back to Bonheoffer story.  It was a heartbreaking time for the German church as many of the church’s key leaders – out of fear of losing their freedoms; made a pact with the regime not to resist, protest or speak out.

Bonhoeffer and a number of pastors could not go along with this and formed an underground church called “The confessing church” – a broad church of differing view and denominations all focused on being the light of Christ in the world … even if it leads to persecution, suffering or death,

In 1935, Bonhoeffer was asked to lead the theological college of this underground church and not surprisingly he directed the students to the words of Jesus in these difficult times, especially the words of the SOTM.  He believed that in dark times the Church need to declare its beliefs more with its actions than its words.

In 1939 just before the start of WW2, it was so bad in Germany that Bonhoeffer sailed to America … partly to get out but the official reason was for more study.   But after a month in the US, Bonhoeffer knew that this was not right and feels that God is calling him back to Germany.  A person who lives out the sermon on the mount should be standing side by side with those who are suffering, not hiding on the other side of the world.  Colleagues tried to stop him, arguing that the world needs his theological intellect … but Bonhoeffer returned to Germany as Germany went to war.

On his return Bonhoeffer still trying to be light and salt in a very dark place, got involved in the resistance.  Skipping a chunk of the story … including Bonhoeffer struggling with the moral question of whether it was ok for a Christian to kill Hitler … in 1943 Bonhoeffer was ultimately arrested and put in Tegel prison.  For two years he ministered and wrote books from prison, and in April 8, 1945 – not long before the end of the war, he was taken to a concentration camp and was killed for trying to stand up for what is right. 

In the Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls someone to follow, one must realise that this might mean following Jesus to death.”   Throughout his life, Bonhoeffer tried his best to follow Jesus and to enact the words of Jesus from the sermon on the Mount in all that he did.

In the words of the Beatitudes from last week, Bonhoeffer discovered the blessings of God because of he strived for peace, he was persecuted because of righteousness and insulted and accused because of his stance for Jesus.

[Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven]

I said at the beginning that Isaiah declared to those walking in darkness a great light was coming.  Jesus – THE light of the world – challenges us in the SOTM to a new way of thinking, of living, of dying … but encourages us that this way also brings a Blessed life.  And then Jesus declares that WE are the light of the world, we are the salt of the earth … it is now up to us to continue to bring that light, that life, that love and influence and change to the dark places of the world.  We are to follow in the footsteps of Jesus – not to put our light under cover but to hold it up high for everyone to see.

We are a lighthouse church, we are the light of the world.  May  our light shine before others, that they may see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven.  Amen.