The Power of Salt and Light

Matthew 5:13-16


I’ll bet we all know someone who is the salt of the earth. I meet these sorts of folks all the time. Its just that usually they’re already dead by the time I make their acquaintance. Perhaps you have to be dead before you can truly become the salt of the earth. Curiously, though, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered someone, dead or alive, who is described as the light of the world. I wonder why that is? I think maybe its safer to be the salt of the earth. Being the light of the world sounds a little dangerous. It sounds exactly like something that Jesus called himself. And isn’t it a little presumptuous, to be calling ourselves the same thing that Jesus called himself? Don’t we want to leave a little space between ourselves and Jesus, a little buffer zone of safety?

And yet, here they are, in adjoining verses, in perfect Hebrew parallelism, on the very lips of Jesus. And what is Jesus saying? Jesus is saying that we are both the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

Now light, we understand. Light has a single purpose. Light dispels the darkness. And it does a very good job at doing that; in fact, it never fails. No darkness of any kind, can ever resist the light. And if we are the light of the world, as Jesus says we are, we will always penetrate and abolish the darkness around us.

But salt, what about that? Unlike light, salt has a whole bunch of uses. We use it to flavor food and to preserve food. I’m a sauerkraut fan; I love the stuff. And so I often have jars of cabbage in the dining room or in the kitchen, fermenting away in a salt brine. The plan is always for that stuff to turn into sauerkraut. But without the salt it would be awful. Without the salt it would become just rotten cabbage, and I don’t think Meg would let me keep that in the dining room. Rotten cabbage has a fairly distinctive odor. But salt! Salt is used for lots of things. We could build a list. Salt fish…yum…Salt turns a regular steak into a kosher steak…Holy purposes, then. How about melting ice, so that roads and sidewalks are safer? Sometimes in the Bible, salt is used as a metaphor for wisdom. That’s interesting. I don’t understand it, but people put huge bags of salt into water softeners. Something good must happen there.

So what did Jesus mean when he said, “You are the salt of the earth?” Are we holy salt, flavoring salt, softening salt, preserving salt, safety salt, or any other useful purpose for salt that we can think of? Or do we really have to wait until we’re dead so that some other person can say we’d give the shirt off our backs and that we were the salt of the earth? Many years ago this passage gave me a cute little phrase for my obituary, if Meg ever writes one about me for for all of you. It goes like this: “He wanted it noted that he didn’t recall ever giving anyone the shirt off his back”.

Actually, I think that Jesus had something very specific in mind when he said, “You are the salt of the earth.” Jesus was a pretty specific kind of guy. I believe that Jesus would like for us to intuit that salt and light have something very much in common.

I mentioned earlier, that the statements, “You are the salt of the earth”, and “You are the light of the world,” are presented in perfect Hebrew parallelism. Perfect Hebrew parallelism usually shows up in poetry, and it is almost always two different phrases that mean exactly the same thing. Our call to worship this morning began with an example of perfect Hebrew parallelism. “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.” (Isaiah 58:1)

So, “You are the salt of the earth”, and “You are the light of the world”, mean exactly the same thing. We’ve just got to figure out what.

Light is always light. It always dispels the darkness, even if we do something so absurd and so foolish with it as to put it under a bushel basket to hide it. Even if we do put it under a bushel basket, the light is still there, always doing its thing. It is lighting the underneath of the basket. It hasn’t stopped being light. It is, by nature, consistent, no matter what we end up doing with it.

But salt, on the other hand, seems to be a little bit different, doesn’t it? Jesus seems to be saying that salt, unlike light, can stop being salt. Jesus says, “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” And here’s where the scientists, and especially the chemists, start to itch. It turns out that salt is very stable chemically. It doesn’t lose its taste. Salt is salt, and it sure looks like Jesus has failed his High School Chemistry.

And all of the Bible experts go crazy trying to defend Jesus on this one. They talk about salt getting impurities in it and not tasting like salt. They talk about salt from the dead sea and how gypsum deposits from the dead sea can look a lot like salt deposits, and how someone could spend all day gathering salt only to discover that they had been collecting up gypsum instead, and then foolishly having to dump the whole mess out.

But I don’t believe that Jesus flunked his High School Chemistry class. I believe that that Jesus knew that salt was salt in the same way that light is light. Jesus made this stuff, after all. Jesus knew that salt was chemically stable. He knew that salt is consistent, and that it is just as absurd and foolish to throw salt out as it is to try to hide light. That’s his whole point. salt and light have the same natures. They are both immutable, unchanging, and consistent. We can try to hide light, we can become comfortable with adulterated salt, but what we do to them doesn’t change their basic natures.

But with Jesus, chemistry lessons aside, there’s always a purpose. His purpose for us is that we should be so consistent in our lives of faith that others will see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven.

And the “others” that Jesus makes reference to here is really what its all about. You and I aren’t the “others” that Jesus is talking about. The “others” that Jesus has in mind aren’t here this morning. They’re someplace else. They’ve not yet tasted the glories of forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life.

Much of the church growth literature out there these days is all about providing a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere in our churches; an atmosphere that will entice people to start coming. And that’s just fine as far as it goes. We wouldn’t want someone to show up here some Sunday morning and have them be snubbed by all of us, and feel like they were intruding into our private space. And of course, that would never happen here, anyway, because we’ve got the friendly and welcoming part down pat.

But a big part of the reason that we come here Sunday after Sunday is so that we can leave again. We come to learn and to practice consistent lives of faith. We come to learn how to be salt and light in a world that is dark and tasteless in every sense of the word. We come here so that we can be equipped to shine light into the dark spaces of our world and to bring the pureness of salt to those who have only tasted miserable and unacceptable substitutes.

We come here to go back out there, not just so that we can survive in a dark and tasteless world, but so that we can bring that salt and light to others who’ve neither seen nor tasted its goodness. And doing that can sometimes be a scary thing. Sometimes just getting through the week in this dark and tasteless world is all that we can do. We need the love and support and prayers that we receive here every Sunday just to survive another week. But think of those folk who don’t even get what we get. Think of the folks who have to live their whole lives without any love and support and prayers from a caring and supportive community of faith like ours. These are the folks who need to experience our love and then the love that Jesus has for them.

But there’s a problem. These folks don’t know, and probably don’t care that they need the love and support from people like us, and ultimately from God. Going to church is the last thing on their minds.

Most people in this world today are at least two or three generations away from any experience of church at all. There are tons of reasons for that, but reasons aside, it’s still the situation. The call to proclaim the good news of the gospel hasn’t changed. Culture has changed, and it has changed dramatically. And so the ways that we proclaim the gospel have got to adapt. The most effective Evangelism takes place with our friends…people who already trust us. People who know us and who have seen the way that we live as salt and light in the world. These are the folks who will be the most receptive to the good news. Let’s always be in prayer for these folks, and let’s anticipate what God might do. We are, after all, the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Let’s not hide that light, and let’s not ruin the good taste that we bring to this world.

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