Here is the sermon for this coming Sunday, the second in our series from the Sermon on the Mount. Those who have read my sermons here in recent years may recognise one or two things I’ve quoted before, but they get a repeat here for a new church!
Salt and light. The salt of the earth and the light of the world. If the Sermon on the Mount is where we learn to be disciples before the watching world, as I argued in my introduction last week, then salt and light are prime examples of this. Not only do we live our faith while the world is watching – as if we were actors in a TV show being viewed by others – we live our faith with those people and towards the world. That is, when Jesus calls us the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he is telling us we live as disciples for the blessing of the world.
There you are, done. In one minute.
But I’m going to say more, because this is so important. And while we might think we affirm the importance of being salt and light, I want to say this morning that we pay lip service to it, and the way we run our churches often undermines this essential Christian task.
How am I going to do it? Firstly by thinking about salt and secondly about – you guessed it – light.
So we begin with salt.
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Verse 13)
I am sure you have heard several preachers expound on why Jesus describes as salt, and what our saltiness is meant to achieve. Some will tell you that salt is a preservative, and so Christian involvement in the world is about preventing moral degradation in society. More positively, others will say that salt is for seasoning or purifying, so Christian disciples have a rôle in improving the moral and ethical life of our culture. Another positive image of salt is to see it as fertiliser, stimulating the growth of righteousness, justice and spirituality in the world. Others interpret salt as a metaphor for wisdom, and therefore Christians provide acute moral insight to help society. This might be an argument for Christian involvement in politics, even for having bishops in the House of Lords. Then there are those who point to the use of salt in Old Testament texts about sacrifice or about God’s covenant.
There’s just one problem with all these views. Jesus doesn’t ascribe to any of them.
In other words, Jesus doesn’t take his simple analogy of us as the salt of the earth and extend it into some great allegory. He just says we are the salt of the earth, full stop. We have to seek his meaning not in ancient uses of salt nor in Old Testament verses, but in what he says about the image.
And the point Jesus wants to make about being the salt of the earth is a negative one. He is concerned about his disciples not being the salt of the earth, not influencing society for good – whatever that entails:
But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Verse 13b)
So let’s pause and consider the problems here. I read an article on Friday by Krish Kandiah, who holds a senior position with the Evangelical Alliance. He asked, what do churches have to do in order to reach the missing young adults in their twenties and thirties? One of the problems he cited as making the church unattractive to people in that age range was the disconnect between Sunday and Monday. In your twenties and thirties, he said, you are faced with a lot of life changes. You may go through university, leave home, start a job, begin paying a mortgage, get married, have children and so on. To face such major challenges requires a lot of energy, and this shows itself in other ways. Often such people are ones who want to see the world changed for the better.
Unfortunately [says Kandiah] what 20-30s often hear in church is not encouragement to take huge steps in their faith, but to take on huge responsibilities within the church.
He quotes American pastor Tim Keller, who says that
as a pastor he was taught how to make people busy working in the churches.
What a tragedy this is! We are more concerned with filling church jobs than with encouraging people into character-building witness opportunities where they are the salt of the earth. Jesus says that salt without the saltiness, disciples who don’t influence the world for good, is
no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Verse 13b)
And the word translated ‘no longer good for anything’ is a word that means ‘to become or to make foolish’. Not being the salt of the earth, not making it a priority for Christians to influence the world for good, is foolishness in the eyes of Jesus. We are quick to condemn when people in politics, the media or popular arts take stances that are ignorant of Christianity or hostile to it. Yet how often is it the case that Christians have vacated these areas, seeing involvement there as inferior to church work?
Indeed, we institutionalise such an approach. Kandiah reminds me in his article of a story I have heard several times before. It was told by Mark Greene, the Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. He speaks of a teacher who was being prayed for in church, in support of his rôle in the congregation teaching Sunday School. The man broke down in tears. Why did he only receive prayer for the one hour a week he had contact with Christian children, but no prayer at all for the forty hours a week he devoted to contact with non-church children.
Wasn’t Jesus right? Are we not fools when we give no priority to influencing the world for good as the salt of the earth?
By way of transition to talking secondly about light, let me tell you about a circuit steward from one of my previous appointments. It was always hard to get hold of him by phone or email, because he was so busy. Not only was he a circuit steward, his day job was a responsible managerial one for an international shipping company and he was also a governor at his daughter’s school. One day, I was talking with his wife about the pressures he was under.
“Yes,” she said, “we’ve had some conversations about that. He’s decided he’s going to give up his post as a school governor in order to concentrate on the more important things – like his church work.”
She was surprised when I suggested that his church work might not be the most important thing he did. Because, I argued, it meant losing another person from the front line of Christian witness in the world.
And that, positively, is Jesus’ point when he goes on to describe Christians as the light of the world:
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Verses 14-16)
What we say and do is seen by the world. It is our witness, whether good or bad. But we can take this positively. We can see this as a wonderful opportunity for witness in the world. It isn’t that shining our light before others so that they see our good deeds is about us boasting or acting as if we are superior. Jesus says we can do it for a different motive: ‘that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.’ Isn’t that what we want? Don’t we want our witness to attract other people to Jesus and his Father?
So what might we do about it? Our witness is about both our words and our deeds. It isn’t that we speak about our faith and don’t match it with our actions. Nor is it that we engage in worthy deeds as a reason to avoid talking about Christ. I suggest that one thing implied here is that we so live lives of love and concern for the people in our world that it leads to questions and opportunities, so that then we can tell people the Gospel of the Saviour and Lord in whom we believe.
One of my favourite examples of this was told by the American pastor and sociologist Tony Campolo. Over the years, he has had a special concern for some of the impoverished nations in the Caribbean, such as Haïti and the Dominican Republic. He has campaigned against multinational companies that have exploited their workers in these lands, and he has taken groups of Christians from the United States on mission trips there.
In particular, he tells a story about a Christian doctor who went out to one of these nations – I think it was the Dominican Republic. That doctor set up a surgery in a poor village. By day he gave himself to providing medical care for people who otherwise would not be able to access it. By evening he would drive around the area, preaching the Gospel. People listened. With a touch of grudging admiration, a local Communist Party official said, “He has earned the right to speak.”
I believe Jesus calls us to earn the right to speak. He calls us to stop treating the church as our one-stop provider of religious services and our social life, and to get our hands dirty in the world. The moment we start treating the church as the provider of our religious services we start asking the wrong questions about whether the church is meeting our needs, and then walking out when the preaching, the music, the small groups or the children’s ministry doesn’t reach the standards we set in our minds. And when we think that our social lives should revolve around the church, we cut ourselves off from the world where we are meant to shine our light, by reflecting Christ.
No: Jesus calls us to see the church as the people of God gathering to edify one another and strengthen each other for witness in the world. We have neighbours whom we can love in the name of Christ. We have neighbourhoods, villages, towns and institutions that need the love of Christ. We are part of a world that needs to see the love of Christ demonstrated and explained.
And although some will mock, many will ‘glorify [our] Father in heaven.’ That might simply be we’ve done a good bit of PR for the faith. But it might well be part of their journey to faith in Christ themselves.
In short, cutting some ties from the institutional church and simplifying some of the ways we do church in order to release ourselves to spend more time blessing people in our communities with the love of God in word and deed is absolutely critical to our sharing in the mission of God.
Or, to put it another way, someone has put it like this. The test of a church is whether the local community would miss it if it shut.
So a good test of whether we are salt and light is whether Knaphill and the neighbouring villages would be upset if KMC closed.
What do you think?
I wonder whether you recognise this person? Those of you who remember news stories from the 1960s may do so. This is Archbishop Makarios III, a key figure in the Cypriot campaign for independence from Britain. He was well-known in my native north London, which had heavy pockets of Greek Cypriot communities. We had consecutive Greek Cypriot next-door neighbours. One family set up a thriving dry-cleaning business near Tottenham Hotspur’s football ground. They promised that if you brought your suit in before the match, it would be ready by the time you came out.
Makarios. I wonder whether you know what his name means? Blessèd. I don’t think the British authorities considered him blessèd or a blessing.
But ‘makarios’ is the word Matthew uses in the Beatitudes for the blessedness Jesus pronounces on God’s behalf here. ‘Makarios’ are the poor in spirit, the pure in heart and so on. What do we understand Jesus to mean when Jesus says that these disciples whose characteristics are so far from what many say are the priorities of life are ‘blessèd’?
Infamously, the Good News Bible translates ‘makarios’, ‘blessèd’, as ‘happy’. So the poor in spirit, the pure in heart and the persecuted are all happy. Hmm. Maybe sometimes, but it’s not guaranteed. Take those who are persecuted for their faith. On occasion they will feel it is an honour to suffer for Christ, but at other times they will cry out for relief from that suffering. Does ‘happy’ cover it? I’m not convinced.
I think the point may not be that the disciples are happy, but that God is happy – he is happy with what they are doing. The Beatitudes describe attitudes, actions and priorities in our lives that bring joy to the heart of God. The Christian rock band Delirious had a song called ‘God is smiling’, and I think the ‘Blessèd’ of the Beatitudes may indicate that God is smiling when this is how we choose to live for him.
So the Beatitudes becomes a text for learning how we please God. There is a text in Ephesians where Paul urges his readers to ‘find out what pleases the Lord’. Well, the Beatitudes would be a good place to stop by and discover what pleases the Lord.
But before we plunge into them, there is one thing to remember about pleasing God in the Beatitudes, and it’s this. Jesus’ statement that God blesses certain things is followed by a reward. For example, ‘Blessèd are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ What are we to make of this reward? How are we to understand the idea that God rewards us when we do what pleases him?
As a father, I’m delighted when my children do something particular in order to please me. But it’s not as though I wasn’t pleased with them before they did it. I can just go into their bedrooms at night and look at them sleeping to feel my heart leap with joy at the sight of them. When they deliberately set out to please me, it’s from an existing relationship of mutual love. It doesn’t earn my love, it simply brings my existing love for them to the surface.
It’s similar when thinking of our relationship with God. If we set out to make God smile by following the Beatitudes, it won’t earn us his love. We have his love already. He has offered it to us in Christ, and we have responded in repentance, faith and a commitment to following Jesus. If we embrace the Beatitudes, let’s do so because God already looks upon us in love, and we simply want to draw that to the surface with a heavenly smile.
Overall, then, the movement is something like this: God calls us – we respond – God rewards us.
Right – enough with the preliminaries. Let’s ask two questions about each Beatitude, then: firstly, what makes God smile? Then, secondly, how does he reward?
God smiles on ‘the poor in spirit’ (verse 3). When we so lack things that – rather than simply desire what the rest of the world lusts after – we throw ourselves upon him in dependence and faith, then God smiles. His heart aches when he sees people in poverty, but he rejoices when those who lack what is needed trust him to provide what they need. When we are in desperate straits but we trust him, God smiles.
And it is that complete dependence upon God that means the kingdom of heaven is our reward. Faith in God through Christ is what brings us into God’s kingdom. We are in that kingdom now, because when we trust ourselves to Christ we place ourselves under his reign. That kingdom has not yet come fully, because people, institutions and other forces still oppose God’s rule. But one day God will put every enemy under his feet. In the meantime, all those whose hopeless condition causes them to put their trust in God find themselves already in the kingdom. That is the reward as God smiles on their faith, even in terrible circumstances.
The second Beatitude we often quote at funerals, usually when the minister is walking in with the coffin. Those who mourn are blessèd, because they will be comforted (verse 4) – presumably by God. I wouldn’t want to deny that our God blesses those who grieve, but I would want to expand how we traditionally understand this particular Beatitude.
How? There is a clear link in the language with Isaiah 61, the passage Jesus read out in his home synagogue at Nazareth to describe his mission. In that chapter, God promises ‘to comfort all who mourn’ (Isaiah 61:2). Why are people mourning? Because the world is not the way God wants it to be. They are mourning not merely for themselves, but for a society where things are not as God would have them be. To those who grieve that the world is not as God wants it to be, Jesus promises comfort. ‘One day,’ he says, ‘it will not be like this. Your grief and anguish in prayer will be rewarded when the Father makes all things new in heaven and upon earth.’ So do not be afraid to keep weeping and praying for the world – God is pleased that you do, and your reward will be to see the coming of his kingdom.
Then we move to the London Underground, to the famous graffiti: ‘The meek will inherit the earth – so long as the rest of you don’t mind.’ The meek ‘are not persons who are submissive, mild and unassertive’, but those who have been humbled. Psalm 37 promised that such people would ‘inherit the land’, and the inheritance of the land was of course a powerful thought for Jewish people. (It still is, with arguments over territories and one state or two with the Palestinians.) But Jesus doesn’t limit this to the land of Israel: the whole land, the earth itself, is for those who have been humbled. God does not grant his new creation to the powerful, the wealthy or the violent, but to those of no account, those disregarded and trampled upon in the world. And many of the early disciples were just that. Beaten down, because they confessed Christ as Lord. To such people, and not to the emperors and armies, Jesus ‘promised the earth’. God would be pleased with their courageous, sacrificial witness, and he would reward their humble bravery at the end.
When we come to God’s delight in ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’, we are into the area of multiple meanings. You will know the old saying, ‘The Greeks had a word for it,’ meaning that the Greek language had many words to encompass different shades of meaning – for example, the several different words for the various kinds of love. However, it’s also true that individual words also carried a range of meanings, just as we look up a word in a dictionary and see several varying definitions.
That is true of the word ‘righteousness’ here. When we hear ‘righteousness’ in English, we tend to think of personal, individual qualities of right living. But the Greek word Matthew uses is one that has not only an individual meaning, it also has a social meaning – that is, ‘justice’. Jesus says that God delights in those who care so much for justice that they are hungry and thirsty (literally). They may be hungry and thirsty for justice, because they themselves have been denied it. But they will not keep quiet, they will not be denied, even at the cost of diet, nutrition and hydration.
Yet they will not be empty always, ‘they will be filled’ – that will be God’s reward. God is pleased when people do not sit down, lie back and accept injustice. He is thrilled by people who make his justice their mission in life, even at great cost.
But the ‘righteousness’ element isn’t lost in the concentration on justice. It is those who are righteous in God’s sight – vindicated by him through Christ – who will enjoy the justice of God’s kingdom rule. The person who pleases God and calls forth his reward is the one who wants to be right with him in Christ and who also then is restless for justice, to the point of personal sacrifice.
The fifth Beatitude is where we learn of God’s pleasure in the merciful, who themselves will be shown mercy. In a world which all too routinely says that certain things are ‘unforgivable’, and which calls for ‘no mercy’ to be shown to undesirables, Jesus extols mercy. Mercy isn’t the province of do-gooders, of bleeding-heart liberals who excuse the inexcusable. Mercy knows that sin is always unjustified, but it forgivers.
The other day, a friend of mine from Essex put these slogans about mercy from the American pastor Rob Bell on his Facebook wall:
Revenge doesn’t work
Bitterness is Unfulfilled Revenge
To forgive is to set someone free and then find out it’s you.
To not forgive is to let someone rent free space in your head.
Why let the wrong they did determine your joy?
When we show mercy, we not only set the sinner free, we set ourselves free – free from the chains of bitterness. The God of mercy looks with delight on those who have learned mercy from him. To understand the forgiveness of God is so to receive it that when we consider how much we have been forgiven, we have to extend that to others. God blesses that.
What, next, of the way God smiles on ‘the pure in heart’ who ‘will see God’ as their reward? I once had a conversation with a Muslim imam about this. He said that the inner person, the heart and the motives, didn’t matter. All that mattered was outward action. I don’t know how representative his view would be of Islamic teaching, but I beg to differ. Jesus knew that our inner life affected our outward action, hence his stress on the pure in heart. It was something the psalmists had proclaimed, too. According to Psalm 24, only those with clean hands and pure hearts (outward and inward life) would see God.
Of course, who can be completely sure of their motives and their integrity? But it is critical that we pay attention to them. I once read the testimony of a minister who had become enslaved to pornography. He tried various strategies to get free of his addiction. Eventually, it was this verse that set him free. The knowledge that he wanted to see God one day led him to purify his heart. When his heart was pure, he lost his desire for porn. The reward drove him to seek God’s pleasure.
The peacemakers bring pleasure to the Father, and will be called sons of God. Now that’s polemical in Jesus’ day. Who called themselves the sons of God in those times? The Zealots, the political terrorists who wanted to bring God’s kingdom by violence. But the kingdom comes not by causing violence but by suffering to bring peace – supremely in the Cross of Christ. It is the way of the Cross that God blesses – not only so that we may be forgiven, it is also the shape of our discipleship. Later, Jesus would say that his followers needed to take up their cross.
We’re near the end now. The last two beatitudes have similar themes. Both express God’s pleasure at those who bear persecution, the first group ‘because of righteousness’ (verse 10), the second ‘because of [Jesus]’ (verse 11). Is God sadistic in wanting to see people suffer? No: he is heartened by those who are brave to stand for what is right and for his Son, even when it costs them. He will not let their persecutors have the final say. So the kingdom of heaven is theirs (verse 10), and their reward will be great in heaven (verse 12).
Why? These are people who will not fight on the world’s terms, but in kingdom ways, and so they are rewarded according to God’s kingdom. Their attitude could be encapsulated in some words of Martin Luther King that an American friend of mine posted on Facebook in response to yesterday’s assassination attempt on an Arizona politician:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
How, then, might we conclude these reflections on the Beatitudes? They show God’s pleasure when the disciples of Christ follow him radically, even at the risk of sacrifice, because they go against the grain of the world. This brings such joy to his heart that it overflows in reward – not always in the here and now; sometimes it is a promise for the future.
But this joy of God – the smile on his face that says ‘Blessèd’ – comes from the fact that he already loves us unconditionally as his children. We take these brave actions of discipleship not in order to win his love but because we are loved.
So let God’s love for us draw out courageous discipleship from us in response. And may that lead to his blessing and reward – which leads us to further joyful service. May our life of love with Christ, therefore, be not a vicious circle but a virtuous circle.
We’re starting a sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount at Knaphill in the morning. During the service, I’m giving a five-minute introduction to the whole ‘sermon’, which I reproduce below. The next post on the blog will be the initial sermon from the series, which is on the Beatitudes.
Before we get into today’s first sermon in the new series in a few minutes’ time, I want to offer a brief introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not a complete explanation of it, and the themes, but I hope what I can do in this little slot is a modest amount of scene-setting for the next few weeks, without stealing the thunder of any other preacher.
I want to do this by looking at those introductory two verses that come before the Beatitudes, which we’ll think about in the sermon proper later. Here are verses 1 and 2 again:
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.
Did you notice that contrast between the disciples and the crowds? Jesus sees the crowds, but tries to get his disciples away from them for some teaching. However, if you were to skip to the end of Matthew 5-7, you will find the crowds still there, roaring their approval of Jesus’ teaching.
So who is this teaching for – the disciples or the crowds? I think it is for the disciples, but Matthew reminds us that we shall always have to live out Jesus’ teaching before the crowds. The Sermon on the Mount is instruction for Christian disciples, but however much we may want to do things in quiet isolation, the world will always be watching us. As we ‘come apart from the crowds’ on a Sunday morning, then, we are doing so to ready ourselves for living out the teaching of Jesus in full view of the world.
Next, I invite you to notice the mountain. Jesus goes up a mountainside – hence ‘the Sermon on the Mount’. Whenever Jesus goes up a mountain in Matthew’s Gospel, something important happens. There is a revelation of Jesus. The climax of the temptations is when the devil takes Jesus up a high mountain (4:8). On another occasion, he heals people (15:29). The Transfiguration happens on a mountain (17:1ff). And after the Resurrection, Jesus gives the Great Commission on a mountain (28:16ff). So when we read here that Jesus went up a mountainside, we should be ready for something important, something close to the heart of Jesus. We are not about something incidental or trivial here. What Jesus is about to teach is serious and important.
Don’t forget too that Moses was known for receiving revelation on a mountain – Sinai. But here, Jesus gives revelation on a mountainside. This is one hint about the stature of Jesus, particularly that he is the ‘one greater than Moses’ who was prophesied in Deuteronomy to come. Another hint of this comes in the fact that the Sermon on the Mount is the first of five big blocks of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. This is all building up Jesus’ authority. He’s more important than the person who shaped the Israelite nation. No wonder there will be passages in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, ‘You have heard it said … but I say to you.’ He is outranking Moses and all the teachers of his day. He is claiming a higher authority than all of them.
And then he sits down to teach. This was the posture of an authoritative rabbi. In our culture, someone stands to deliver important teaching. Not in first century Judaism. Everything here is screaming that we had better take notice of this man and what he is going to teach.
So I invite you to embrace these coming weeks in this spirit. Anything Jesus teaches is important, but this seems to hold a special status, even among his teaching. He is telling us how to be disciples in the sight of a watching world.
That has to be important, doesn’t it?