"Making Light of Good Deeds"

Matthew 5:13-16 August 18, 2005

And Now the News - in 3-D

"Who am I? What difference can I make in the world?" These are differences that everyone asks themselves. Deep down inside, people have an urge to know how we come across to others, and that we matter. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus uses a couple of ordinary things from everyday life to picture the impact those who follow Him can have in society, and assures them their lives are having a dramatic effect on their situation and those who know them. He says His disciples are influencing their world as salt preserves, or as light chases away the darkness.

We need to hear this today just as much as during the darkest days of the Roman empire, or Palestinian poverty. The news comes to us in 3-D, brimming with death, decay, and darkness. Tuesday's Free Press front page features, for instance, the escape from a halfway house of the youth who killed Dale Lang's son at a school in Taber Alberta; a report that a Canadian businessman visiting Iraq was kidnapped and killed; and the question why a two-time killer, Alan MacDonald, was allowed to roam free after a dozen years and in 1990 kill a 21-year-old UWO student. Thankfully, the Taber murderer has since been returned to custody.

Our society is experiencing moral decay. REALity magazine (published by Real Women of Canada) carries an article reprinted from the Ottawa homosexual rag Capital Xtra, in which author Gareth Kirkby bemoans the new activism of Christians sparked by the same-sex marriage issue. It hints where society could be headed if moral brakes are removed. He offers his gay audience this "glimpse of the future": "Just imagine how hard it will be to get through future legislation on issues important to gays and lesbians, bisexuals and trans people. How much harder will we have to work to put shackles on Customs to stop them from targeting our books and book-stores? how much more difficult will it be to amend the sex laws to fully legalize bathhouses and ensure our youth have the right to choose how and when they express their sexuality? ...Can you imagine the battle about to take shape over allowing prostitutes to safely practice their trade? Imagine how these people will react to the idea of trans rights and a discussion about the artificial gender lines that our society has drawn and policed. How about marijuana laws? ...And just imagine the rhetoric we'll encounter as we try and get gay curriculum content and anti-homophobia education in the public school system." Through quoting its opponents, REALity magazine has pulled back the curtain on immoral plans to resculpt the landscape, continuing the decay represented by homosexual victories to date.

And there is darkness swamping people's vision. The same newspaper announces Bill Clinton, former disgraced US president, will be a keynote speaker in London and other venues for a hundred dollars a ticket and more. The front page also announces the death of a Lucan man named Adam Dow (actually my father's first cousin's grandson), a father of baby twins, electrocuted when wind blew a flag pole he was putting up into nearby power lines. Such senseless accidents (like lightning demolishing a new house up the road) are harbingers of darkness, making us question "why?" and feel such tragedies ought not happen.

The news comes in 3-D: death, decay, and darkness. Dwell on it a lot and it can become oppressive. But Jesus offers hope that God's waiting to counter-act such negativity through people who trust Him and yield to His purposes for their lives.

Saltier Salt

Jesus says in Matthew 5:13, "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 by men." Salt in the ancient world stood for at least four things: purity, preciousness, potency, and preserving.

Salt is pure white, even dazzlingly pure in its crystalline cleanness. Purity was a concern for salt buyers in the ancient world because the means of obtaining it were fairly primitive, such as allowing sun to evaporate sea water. Some salt wasn't as good a grade because it was imperfectly refined, thus impure, less salty. The apostles reminded early Christians that we have been purified in God's sight, so need to live a pure life. Paul wrote to Titus (2:14) that Jesus "gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own..." Peter reminded the Jerusalem Council that God accepted the Gentiles at Cornelius house and gave them the Holy Spirit "for He purified their hearts through faith" (Ac 15:9). John states that if we walk in the light as God is in the light, "the blood of Jesus His Son purifies us from all sin" (1Jn 1:7). God's continually refining and upgrading us.

Salt was precious in the ancient world. It was cash; Roman soldiers were paid in salt, hence the word "sal-ary". Refrigeration has allowed a considerable change in values - now we spread salt on the road! What if a poor Roman soldier were transported forward in time and saw a salt truck go by, or saw the open doors on our domes, or stood in the great salt caverns in the mines by Goderich below Lake Huron! He'd think he was right inside Fort Knox! If Jesus says we're "the salt of the earth", we're also precious, costly, highly valued. The New Testament maintains believers are God's "dearly loved children" (Eph 5:1). John exclaims (1Jn 3:1), "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!" We're precious to God, He loves us so much as to hold back nothing that would help us.

Salt is also potent, it definitely flavours food. I always reach for it when having tomatoes. When I was growing up, Stacey Bros in Mitchell made a "Willowgrove" brand of butter that was always seemed to taste especially good - perhaps a different salt content, someone once told me. So Jesus' followers "flavour" or bring out the best in what's around them. Myron Augsburger comments, "Salt loses itself in service to the object that is being salted...When salt is applied to food properly, it is not so that one can taste the salt, but so that the food itself tastes more authentically as it should. As salt makes the food more 'foodier', the disciple as the salt of the earth makes the earth more authentically as it should be." Salt makes tomatoes 'tomato-ier'; those who are in Christ can be real and genuine, dispensing with phoniness, so people feel they can trust us, drop their deceptions and defences, and be their true selves with us as they sense and relax in God's unconditional love flowing through us.

And, salt was used as a preservative. Even today, if the power goes off or the fridge fails, the food spoils. Much more common in the days before refrigeration; without salt, meat spoiled quickly. Thus Jesus expects us to affect our surroundings in a positive, preserving way, stopping it from going 'off'. Paul told the Colossians (4:6), "Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone." Our words, and actions, preserve when full of grace, kindness, when we're considerate of others. And holy living puts the brakes on the moral slide to which society inclines; we saw earlier how the Capital Xtra article foresees and acknowledges resistance from Christians to increasing immorality - legalization of prostitution and acceptance of deviant lifestyles.

If we're truly "the salt of the earth" as Jesus says, let's guard against activities or exposures that would diminish our effectiveness, degrading or diluting our purity and potency. There are certain places or situations that can make you feel kind of scummy when you come out of them, or realize you've been a bit loose and uncareful in what you said. When tired or socializing, it's easy to let slip some off-colour talk that's not gracious, 'seasoned with salt', or that's less than uplifting and doesn't honour God. Stay salty, keep praying to flavour your surroundings in such a way that people want more of a taste of God.

Night-lights Protect from Stumbling

When I was in the cabin at Stayner family camp, it was pretty dark at night. But I'd brought along a battery charger for my camera and plugged it into the outlet at night. The charger had two tiny LEDs (light-emitting diodes) that showed the progress of charging. Normally in daylight you would scarcely notice them. But once at night from my bunk I opened my eyes and realized I could see where everything was in the room, thanks to those dim little diodes. Only a little light, but it made such a difference to the darkness!

Jesus said in v14, "You are the light of the world.A city on a hill cannot be hidden." The word "hill" isn't actually in the Greek text, but the idea is of a town or city resting on a slope or hillside, spread out where all can see.

Sometimes in younger days on the farm I would look out toward the horizon at night and see the glow in the sky of cities, with their street-lights reflecting up into the atmosphere. Stratford was over there; London was down there. You could tell where the cities were because of their lights, even though they weren't in direct view. Like the light coming from the North Star, they gave a sense of direction, a definite point of reference. Jesus says we're like that for people when we're shining for Him; in a society swamped with relativism, we reflect some unchanging absolutes.

This GPS-like referencing doesn't originate with us. Jesus is the real "Light of the World" (Jn 8:12). John begins his gospel saying in Jesus was life, "and that life was the light of men; the light shines in the darkness...The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world." (Jn 1:4f,9) Receiving Jesus as Lord, our Centre, our key authority in life, allows to pour into our being the light of God "in whom there is no darkness at all" (1Jn 1:5). The early church used to say, "Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." (Eph 5:14) We receive Jesus' light into all the dark corners of our person when we commit our lives to Him. In His earthly life Jesus urged, "Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light." (Jn 12:36)

Of course, the light and joy and security of knowing Jesus causes us to stick out in an uncertain, risky, hurting world. Amidst the world's darkness, those hoping in God stand out unmistakably. Paul advised the Philippians to do everything without complaining and arguing "so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe" (Php 2:15). When you look out on the night sky and see the moon there, Mars there, Venus over there, Orion's belt overhead -- that's how unmistakably Christians are to show up and be noticed in contrast to the depravity that's too prevalent around them.

Jesus says in v15, "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." The imagery comes from Palestinian cottage life: the whole house was one room. From one wall projected a ledge. A lamp was a specially-shaped clay saucer with some olive oil and a wick in it. When the lamp was lit, it was put on the ledge that jutted out, and the whole house (one room) was lit. A 'bushel' or 'bowl' was an earthenware pot for holding grain, about the size of a bucket (9 litres). Of course they wouldn't hide a lit lamp under such a container - that would be nonsense and defeat the purpose. Lamps belong on lampstands. God's little "lit ones" belong where they will be seen.

Have you ever got up in the dark in the middle of the night and stubbed your toe on the way to the bathroom? Even a little night-light saves you that hurt - such a little light that you hardly notice if it gets left on during the daytime. Lamps offer guidance, they're useful: so Jesus' followers provide help and direction to those around. Paul tells the Ephesians (5:8ff), "For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth)...Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them."

We can share Christ's truth with those struggling to find meaning and relevance in daily life. Much healthier than the lies of the enemy. Free Press reporter Randy Richmond found out what some of the books were that 3-time killer Alan MacDonald read and re-read. One was The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation or The Method of Realizing Nirvana through Knowing the Mind; it's described online as a scripture of Tibetan Buddhism that tries to prepare one for death. Richmond reports, "MacDonald also pored through books on Carl Jung, Plato and the I Ching, a book of Chinese philosophy and divination." People have spiritual needs, from convent to convict. Let's be Jesus' agents in communicating His life-giving truth, as we've experienced, to folks so they're not waylaid by destruction.

Commentator Robinson notes, "Light shines to see others by, not to call attention to itself." It's a real ministry to share with another individual the message of hope and purpose in Christianity. Augsburger comments, "While a light is to be seen, serving as a guide for travellers, it is basically to be of service. The disciples are lights in the world, not calling attention to themselves but pointing the way of God. They obtain their light from the One who is the Light of the World."

God's Glory Shines through Good Deeds

Referring to the way the lamp is installed in a prominent place to light up the one-room farmhouse, Jesus concluded in v16, "In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." This is echoed later by Peter who told the church, "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us." (1 Peter 2:12) While you can't touch light, the impact of knowing Jesus in our lives is obviously supposed to produce concrete action - real results, doing good others can see.

Note the role of good deeds: they're a WITNESS not working our way to heaven. They're a result of being saved, not the way we get saved. Being "in Christ" by grace and faith comes first. "We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10)

The New Testament highlights the priority of good deeds: Paul tells Timothy to command people to "be rich in good deeds" (1Tim 6:18). Jesus gave Himself for us so we would be "eager to do what is good" (Titus 2:14). Those who've trusted in God are to be "careful to devote themselves to doing what is good" (Titus 3:8). The author of Hebrews tells us to "spur one another on toward love and good deeds" (Heb 10:24). Goad ourselves to good!

Dorcas (or Tabitha) in Acts 9(36ff) was an example of a woman who "was always doing good and helping the poor". She put her needle to good use, making robes and other clothing for widows and others in need. Paul in a general way gives examples of good deeds as "bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting [one]self to all kinds of good deeds." (1 Timothy 5:10)

What are some examples you can think of that would classify as "good deeds" reflecting God's goodness in our communities today? Wednesday night there was another meeting to investigate a skateboard park for young people that had representatives from churches, parents, and service clubs. It's 'struck out' in some other nearby communities but this group is still seeking a way ahead that will be a positive alternative for local youth. People treat others out to lunch (after the leadership Summit in London, someone in the largely CRC group treated the whole dozen or so of us at Swiss Chalet and remained anonymous!). A Christian-based camp for the disabled provides fun for guests and respite for caregivers, while counsellors make a sacrifice of forgoing higher-paying jobs elsewhere. Someone started a trust fund for the widow and twin baby sons of the electrocuted Lucan man at a nearby bank. Through kindness and thoughtfulness, suffering is minimized and God's mercy tasted afresh.

At the leadership Summit we watched Bill Hybels interview Eleanor Josaitis, CEO for Focus: Hope, a ministry based on 40 acres in downtown Detroit. She co-founded it with a priest following the 1967 Detroit riots. Its mission statement is to use "intelligent and practical action to overcome racism, poverty and justice." The program provides supplemental food for mothers, children, and senior citizens. Focus: Hope's education programs have enabled thousands of men and women to get jobs, through machinist training and an information technology program. The ministry employs some 500 people and 51,000 volunteers. The Ford Motor Company has "adopted" 11 high-rise apartment buildings through the program.

It hasn't always been easy for Mrs Josaitis. Bill asked what she did when she received letters of criticism. She said they make her work twice as hard; then added, "You can deck 'em or you can outclass 'em -- I choose to outclass 'em."

Once a hurricane went through, destroyed two buildings, and caused a lot of damage. Eleanor's practical faith shows in her response. She said/prayed, "God, get in the car with me, we're going over to the riverside to have a little talk." Though she's been inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame, she also modestly says, "I have something of value; God has asked me to use it." She's a great proponent of volunteerism, stating that there are many "people of good will" just waiting to do something, such as delivering food to seniors. Bill remarked one of her volunteers is a former CEO of General Motors; her attitude for recruiting such people was, "Just ask him."

Such good deeds are glorifying God and making a tremendous difference in people's lives. Though there is much death, decay, and darkness around, Jesus' followers shine His light and spread His preservation when they trust Him to lead. There's the saying, "It's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness." He's our spark! Let's pray.