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Read Matthew 5:11-20.

Sometimes, I miss the coast. Among the wonderful novelties of coastal living are lighthouses. On my visits to the Oregon Coast I visited three lighthouses and took photos of a fourth that stands on a rock in the bay. I wanted so badly to hop in a boat and make an adventure to the lighthouse.

Lighthouses are adventurous icons after all. They represent rescue and protection from danger. The stories of lighthouses speak of mystery, bravery, and dedication. Lighthouses are also symbols of hope. They are the light that pierces through the stormy darkness.

Although lighthouses seem artistic and majestic, their form follows function. They stand tall and are painted with contrasting colors. They are built on prominent points along a seacoast. The logic to their architecture is this: They are very visible.

Point Bolivar Lighthouse in Texas Lighthouses are antiquities these days. Some are still in service and guard the rocky shores and keep the beaches shipwreck-free. But mostly, lighthouses are part of tours. Along the Texas Gulf Coast, one of the lighthouses on the tour is the Point Bolivar Lighthouse. When I learned that I lived very near the Point Bolivar light I went to see it. It is the saddest lighthouse I have ever visited. I wonder if it should even be called a lighthouse.

The Point Bolivar light looks like a lighthouse. It stands tall and can be seen from the east side of Galveston on a sunny day. But at night it is not visible because the lighthouse has corroded and it is nothing more than a black column; quite a change from its glory days when it sported red and white stripes. But saddest of all revelations was that the Point Bolivar Lighthouse has no light. It is an empty shell. It is a dead husk. At night, the black pillar is totally invisible.

Recall what Jesus is teaching us: "No one lights a lamp and places it beneath a basket." "A city on a hill cannot be hidden." Well, of course. Just as lighthouse is meant to be highly visible, so also a lamp and a city on a hill are visible – one is built on high and the other is placed on a lamp stand to light the house. What good is a lighthouse with no light? What use is a lamp burning beneath the shade of a basket? Even the saying about salt appeals to everyday experience: What good is salt without its saltiness? It might as well be thrown out.

But there’s more to this teaching than how to light a lamp and how to keep salt fresh, right? Just as there is more to the tale of the lighthouse, yes? Well, of course. Jesus is trying to grab the attention of the crowds because he is going to confront some misunderstandings. For example, he doesn’t want anyone to assume that his teaching is somehow an annulment of God’s law. As Christ teaches us today there are other typical misunderstanding that must be confronted. And maybe the best way to hear what Christ is really teaching rather than walk away with household hints from Savior is to acknowledge some of these assumptions:

  1. Christ did not teach us that we should be salt and light. He said you ARE the salt of the earth and light of the world. If we are his disciples it is our nature to shine. It is our nature to be a preserving and saving influence. It is the property of salt to be salty. It is the property of light to shine. That’s why the Point Bolivar light is so disappointing – A lighthouse isn’t a lighthouse because of its shape and form. A lighthouse isn’t a lighthouse because of a historical marker or someone’s desire to restore it. The nature of a lighthouse is to give light!
  2. Christ did not teach that we “have the salt and light.” The salt and light are not a commodity or instrument that we use or dispense. We are the salt – NOT salt shakers. We are the light – not lighthouse keepers.
  3. The salt and light label is for a collective, not just individuals. The "YE" in the KJV is plural. This isn’t just about individual character. This isn’t about your own personal moral accomplishment. It is about US. This little light of OURS, we’re gonna let it shine. Doesn’t rhyme, but it is a little closer to the teaching of Jesus. This becomes important when we understand that we as a community of believers are salt and light FOR the world. We are living out the law and prophets; we are teaching and doing the commandments of Jesus not just for ourselves, but FOR the world. We are striving to be disciples not just for our own sake, but the sake of the world.
  4. Most importantly, when Jesus describes the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he is not speaking about the gospel. This is too common a misunderstanding. And even if we don’t say it, this assumption runs deeply in our practice. Too often we treat the gospel as if it is a product – a good or service – that we need to sell. So we become vendors of the gospel. The problem with vendors of a product is that they can sell a product, but they don’t have to use it themselves. There is a gap in the relationship between vendor and product that Jesus’ teaching will not allow.

Setting aside the misunderstandings, what is Jesus teaching us?

Jesus is labeling his disciples as salt and light in order to show that the gospel is to be so ingrained in us that we cannot separate it from who we are. Our righteousness has to surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. If we want to be great in the kingdom of heaven we not only teach the commandments of Jesus – we do them!

Our righteousness and good works are not an attempt to win God’s favor so that we will make it to heaven rather than hell. That’s too small a view of what is going on. Recall that Jesus has just put us on notice: The kingdom rule of God is breaking into our world.

Recall, that these words are addressed to the same crowd that heard the Beatitudes. So, the blessed are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Holding this teaching together does away with any thought the “blessed ones” are too good for this world. Those who are blessed by God are not taken out of the world or sheltered in a “Holy Tank” like delicate and expensive exotic fish. This does away with the assumption that the salt of the earth are those who’ve achieved a higher degree of moral life – some sort of advanced Christianity.

After all, Jesus is not speaking about individuals, he is speaking about a people. And this fits in very well with the preaching of the prophets that Jesus upheld. Isaiah 60 would have been a text very familiar to our Lord. God describes his vision for Jerusalem – that the people of God would be the focal point of a great homecoming when all nations see the visible glory of God shining out from Jerusalem ... 1"Arise, Jerusalem! Let your light shine for all the nations to see! For the glory of the LORD is shining upon you. 2Darkness as black as night will cover all the nations of the earth, but the glory of the LORD will shine over you. 3All nations will come to your light. Mighty kings will come to see your radiance."

This is Jesus’ vision for his disciples. We ARE salt for the earth. We are light for the world. Jesus is calling us to be at the forefront of this in-breaking Kingdom of God not simply for our own personal good, but for the good of all creation. Don’t the most important human endeavors have more at stake than personal gain? Why then have we assumed that being a Christian is simply personal. This is about nothing less than saving the world! And our mission is to live out a righteousness much greater than the anxiety-driven rule keeping of the scribes and Pharisees. A righteousness that is so infused with the spirit of God that what we do as a people results in good works that glorify God.

And just in case that presents a stumbling block to our appropriate sense of modesty, be assured that it isn’t us as salesman of the gospel that glorifies God – It is our good works that glorify God in heaven. People aren’t paying attention to us; they are paying attention to what we do.

The first verse I ever memorized was Matthew 5:16 – “Let your light so shine before all people that they will see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.” The first sermon I ever preached at West-Ark was from this teaching of Jesus. It is my hope and vision that this congregation will live out the teaching of Jesus and be the light that is needed right here.

Before we get to the invitation we need to issue the warnings: Did you notice what Jesus declared just before Jesus teaches us that we are salt for the earth and light for the world? He said, “"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Warning: There are powers at work in our corrupt and fallen world that have invested in the darkness and decay. They aren’t going to be very happy when we set out to make things bright and clean through our good works. Not everyone welcomes the salt or the light. So understand that when people lie about us or misunderstand us simply because we take the teaching of Jesus seriously and want to make a difference – just understand that we are blessed by God even if we are cursed by others.

Warning: The grace of God that is pouring the kingdom into our world doesn’t contradict the need to live out the kingdom life. Jesus makes it clear that if we are not interested in pursuing a righteousness that is greater than the righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes, then we are not entering into the kingdom.

With warnings issued, Christ invites you to follow him, and not just follow the rules. With warnings issued, Christ invites you to overcome the powers and principalities of this dark age and share in the blessings of the kingdom. Christ invites you to join him in his mission to save the world and be a part of his church that is salt for the earth and light for the world.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 20 August 2006

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