The very beginning of this section may be the most important, Jesus says to the people who have gathered or to the entire crowd, “you are the salt of the earth.” Not, “you might be,” not, “you could be,” not, “you will be if you follow this multi-step formula, you ARE the salt of the earth, you ARE light of the world.” That present tense is not a mistake, it is intentional. What he’s saying is this: their saltiness and brightness doesn’t come from them, it isn’t a result of who they are or what they do, they are salt and light by virtue of the fact that they are there, and Jesus says so. They don’t really get a choice in the matter. This is early in Matthew’s gospel so it might be one of the first times they’ve been brought face to face with a reality that should be familiar to us if we’re familiar with the life of faith: there is no way to partially follow Jesus.
I’d guess most of us have heard the term “bandwagon fan” before? Bandwagon, fair-weather, it’s a way to describe people whose fandom doesn’t have any depth to it, who base their fandom around who is successful at the time or on particular players. Its people who buy a jersey to wear during good times and the give it to Goodwill when things aren’t so great. Its people who were fans of the Cleveland Cavilers until Lebron left and then became Miami Heat fans and now they’re Cavs fans again until next year when their loyalty will go to Houston or Los Angeles
What Jesus says with those two words at the beginning of this passage is “you don’t get to be a bandwagon fan. You don’t get to wear the t-shirt during the good years and then change the channel when things get rough. You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world right now and from here on out.” If we buy the jersey we’re all in. If we call ourselves Christians we’re in it completely, we take on these titles, we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
That should be both a comfort and a challenge to us. On the one hand, there are not levels of Christianity. Billy Graham is not more salt or light than any of us. We don’t have to look around and compare ourselves to other Christians and figure out some way to reach our next stage of saltiness and brightness. But on the other hand, there are not levels to Christianity. We are not less salt and light than Billy Graham, and we don’t get to put this salt and light thing aside until we reach some next stage. I’ve mentioned a pastor friend of mine before I think who talks about what he’ll do “in five years when he’s a good pastor.” A lot of do that, we assume that in x amount of time we’ll figure out our job or after x number of years of marriage we’ll know how to be good husbands and wives or on the next kid we’ll know how to be good parents (which I’m already going ahead and calling). There’s no interim training period for being salt and light, when we declare ourselves followers of Jesus we’re all in, so it would probably be helpful to know what in the world it means to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
“You are the salt of the earth.” Refrigerators have ruined the way we think of salt. Salt to us is like a set of Encyclopedias. We have Google now, no one under a certain age thinks of Encyclopedias as a necessity. They’re nice to have, they make you look smart, they fill up shelf space in a room, but very few of us are reaching for them if we need information fast. In Jesus’ day salt was one of, maybe even the, most important minerals people had access to. Salt was literally worth its weight in gold, because it was the only known preservative people had access to. Salt was the only way to keep meat long periods of time. It worked, and still does, by drying the meat out so that bacteria couldn’t grow. When it came in contact with the meat it prevented rot, and preserved what was good about it, in addition to adding flavor.
“You are the salt of the earth.” Salt preserves what’s good and prevents rot. Salt adds flavor and makes good things better. The salt of the earth preserves and emphasizes what’s good about creation and prevents rot from overtaking it. We have to be willing to embrace the good of creation and prevent rot from taking it over. We’ve got to be willing to confront rot when we see it. If you’ve been following the news about the cultures sexual harassment and assault in so many industries and the political world one of the things you might have noticed, I’ve certainly been struck by it, is how many of these things were open secrets. You can go back and watch tv shows from 5-10 years ago and hear them joke about figures in entertainment who have lost their jobs in the last few months. We have to be willing to confront the rot when we see it. Dismissing things as “just the way things are,” or labeling them “the price we pay for x, y, or z” is failing to live up to the task of being salt.
“You are the salt of the earth.” Salt only works as a preservative if it makes contact with the meat. It doesn’t work through osmosis, if you set a bag of salt beside your meat and leave it the meat is going to go bad. The salt has to make contact with the meat. The salt of the earth doesn’t do the earth any good from a distance. If we’re going to be the salt of the earth we have to make contact with the earth. A lot of times we avoid the hard work of being salt. We hope that bumpers stickers or bible verses as Facebook statuses or electing people who promote “Christian values” will do the job of preventing rot for us. Being the salt of the earth means we have to be willing to come in contact with the parts of the earth that need salt the most.
“You are the light of the world.” We’ve talked a lot about light over the last few weeks, you’re probably sick of hearing about it. What does light do? Light gives hope. Light drives away darkness. Light provides clarity about where we are and what we’re facing. Light guides us if we’re on a journey.
“You are the light of the world.” Light provides hope. Many of you probably saw the clip this week of John McCain’s daughter talking to Joe Biden about the cancer that Senator McCain has, the same cancer that killed Vice-President Biden’s son, and she got emotional and he went to comfort her and what he said over and over was to not give up hope. We’re the light of the world when we point the world toward the hope that is found and centered on Jesus Christ. We’re the light of the world when we’re willing to look into the face of despair and of hardship and declare that those things will not overcome us. We’re the light of the world when we remind the world of the hope of Christmas, that God will not abandon creation. That God will not leave us in despair. That Christ has come to offer us the hope of the Father, a hope that all the problems of the world and of our lives will not get the last word. A hope that the creator of the universe loves each and everyone of us to die that we might have life.
“You are the light of the world.” Light drives out darkness. Martin Luther King talked about that: “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” We drive out darkness by the way we choose to live. We drive out darkness by responding to hate with love. We drive out darkness by responding to despair with hope. We drive out darkness by refusing to let ourselves be overcome by it, by refusing to settle for what the world passes off as life and instead directing our sights one the promise of the kingdom. We drive the darkness out by rejecting hatred and bigotry and misogyny and inequality and all the trappings of a fallen world and embracing the fact that each and every one of us and each and every person out there is made in the image of God and deserves to be treated like God’s greatest and most prized possession. We drive out darkness by choosing to love as God loves, but putting others ahead of ourselves. We’re the light of the world by the things we choose to value and the ways we choose to live.
“You are the light of the world.” Light provides guidance and clarity. We are the light of the world when we show people the reason for our hope. A city on a hill can’t be hidden, people don’t light a lamp just to put it under a basket, we’re the light of the world when people see Christ in us. One of the only specific lessons I remember learning in school is that the moon doesn’t produce light. I don’t remember the moment I learned to read or add or when the Civil War was, but I remember being blown away by the fact the moon doesn’t make its own light, it just reflects light from the sun. We don’t make our own light to give to the world, we reflect to the world the light that comes to us from Christ. We show the world the reason for our hope, the reason that we don’t succumb to the darkness, we’re the light of the world when the thing that people see in us is not our job and not our status and not our politics and not anything that we do ourselves but instead what Christ does through us and for us. We’re the light of the world when people see Jesus in us.
Jesus ends this declaration and challenge to the crowd with these words, therefor let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” You are the light of the world. This Christmas season may that light shine through our homes and families and communities, and my others see the light of Christ all the more clearly. Amen, and amen.