"Watered-down Witness"

May 4, 2008 Mt.5:13-20

Gone Off, Good-for-nothing

This past week, Yvonne and I were over at Emily and Trenton's for supper one night. I'd brought along a 1-litre carton of chocolate milk. Yvonne had a glass; partway through the meal, Trenton had some too. But he commented on its strange texture, so I had to check it out too. Nothing around the Dow house gets declared unusable unless even Dad can't stomach it!

It was still 5 days ahead of the 'best before' date, so it should have been OK. The strange thing was, the chocolate milk didn't taste sour. It's just that it didn't taste at all! You couldn't tell there was any chocolate in it. And the consistency - it didn't exactly pour out of the carton into the cup; it sort of "glopped" out, or slid out - kind of semi-solid, somewhere between yogurt and thick soup in consistency.

I'm not one to throw out food unnecessarily; but I had to concur with the rest that, in this case, the nutritional value was indeed questionable. I would have choked the half-gelatinous substance down if it had been even remotely chocolatey - but even the flavour had disappeared. Alas, there was nothing left to do but feed it to the drain in the kitchen sink.

In today's lesson, our Lord Jesus challenges us not to be like salt that has lost its flavour, its saltiness. Perhaps that milk carton is a parable of our spiritual condition. Looks OK on the outside - date checks out fine - but inside something has definitely gone funny! What about you - would people around find your expression of Christianity flavourful, chocolatey? Or do they see the label there but what's inside is a different story? What about our church - are we genuinely alive, producing good fruit that makes others in our community take note of the ministry and light that's shining forth? Or are we hiding under a bushel, focusing on ourselves, running programs on OUR terms not God's?

As we begin a month-long series from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus encourages us to be the real thing - not watered-down witnesses that are only fit to be tossed out.

How do you make salt 'salty' again?

In Matthew 5:13 Jesus says, "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 three things: purity, preciousness, and preserving.

Salt (as we get it, refined for the table) is dazzlingly pure in its white crystalline cleanness. 100% sodium chloride. Purity was a concern for salt buyers in the ancient world because the means of obtaining and refining 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..." 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. Purity matters!

Second, salt was precious in the ancient world. It was so valuable it substituted as 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! Of course, a similar switch happens with what we hold so valuable today compared to the new creation after Jesus' return - we think gold's pretty pricey, but God uses it to pave the streets of heaven! (Rev 21:21) If Jesus says we're "the salt of the earth", that means we too are precious, costly, highly valued. The New Testament maintains believers are God's "dearly loved children" (Eph 5:1). John exclaims, "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!" (1Jn 3:1) We're precious to God, He loves us so much as to hold back nothing that would be for our ultimate good.

Recalling how precious and dear we are to our heavenly Father is an important starting point for us, especially when the Enemy may be trying to cause us to doubt or is whispering negative things in our ear. In John Regier's approach to personal renewal and countering negative thoughts, a typical prayer might start out, "I am a child of God, and I want all my thoughts and actions to be pleasing to Him." If you're in Christ, trusting in God's Son as Saviour, you're mega-precious to God! Don't let any double-talking demon try to persuade you otherwise. "God so loved the world that He gave His Son" - the blood of Jesus guarantees just how dearly the Father loves you.

And, salt was used as a preservative. Even today, if the power goes off or the fridge fails, the food spoils. Preserving perishables was more of a concern in the days before refrigeration; without salt, meat spoiled quickly. Thus Jesus calls 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. Holy living - our example in the community - puts the brakes on the moral slide to which society inclines.

I saw an ad in the paper for the May 16 release or the next movie in the Chronicles of Narnia series based on CS Lewis' children's books: Prince Caspian. Bravo! Christians should be making high-quality movies undergirded with Biblical values. Get that salt-seasoning into the movie theatres and onto our screens at home.

Lighten Up

Jesus said in v14, "You are the light of the world.A city on a hill cannot be hidden." In ancient times, mountains were ideal places for cities to be located because that was easier to defend from attack. So the word-picture is of a town or city resting on a slope or hillside, spread out where all approaching can see it. Around here, what comes to mind is approaching Kitchener on Highway 8 from the west at night; there's a glow in the sky ahead of you, then you top the rise just after Trussler Road and - wow! the whole town with thousands of lights is spread out suddenly in front of you.

This glow 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). As some lyrics-writer in the early church put it, "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 existence 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 [and daughters] of light." (Jn 12:36)

Of course, the light and joy and security of knowing Jesus may cause us to stick out in an uncertain, risky, hurting world. Paul advised the Philippians to do everything without complaining and arguing "so that you may become blameless and pure [there's that salt-purity again!], 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, Venus the morning and evening star over there near the horizon, the Big Dipper off to the north -- that's how unmistakably Christians are to show up and be noticed in contrast to the depravity that's too prevalent around them.

Jesus adds 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 home life: the whole cottage 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. Of course they wouldn't hide a lit lamp under a bowl or bushel - that would be nonsense and defeat the purpose. Lamps belong on lampstands. God's on-fire "lit ones" belong where they will be seen.

Lamps offer guidance, they're useful: so Jesus' followers transmitting His truth 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."

The lamp was usually installed in a prominent place to light up the one-room farmhouse. Jesus draws the parallel in v16, "In the same way, let your light shine before [people], 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) The impact of knowing Jesus in our lives is supposed to produce concrete action - real results, doing good others can see.

In a fallen and imperfect world, it would be easy for believers to create a sort of churchy 'ghetto' or faith-fort around themselves so they aren't so tempted, or don't have to deal with people whose values and beliefs are different than what the Bible teaches. That could produce a cliquey elitism; "we only hang around with respectable people like us!" Yet the Lord doesn't want His disciples to withdraw or be snobby, but be dispersed, out amongst the unsaved, interacting, loving them with genuine neighbour-love, putting His concern for them into action through good deeds. Are you hiding YOUR light under a bushel? How many non-Christians do you (or I) interact with in the course of a week? Christians shouldn't retreat from service clubs and community involvement, but be leading the way. (That was wonderful that the charity auction for the little girl with cancer in her eyes raised over $30,000!)

Kingdom, Commands, and Compliance

You ARE salt; you ARE light. See how positive Jesus' teaching is? The world needs you as His agents, else it sinks into darkness and decay! You have value to your heavenly Father - and He has meaningful projects for you to carry out as Jesus' hands and feet that others may be saved today.

Yet we don't just 'make it up as we go'. In the final section, vv17-20, Christ highlights the importance of God's revealed truth in actually living for Him.

First though a sidebar on "the kingdom of heaven" - a phrase that occurs 3 times in vv19-20. What is this 'kingdom' business? It seems essential to Jesus - a recurring theme throughout His teaching. His first words of His mission in 4:17 were "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." Matthew says in 4:23 Jesus went throughout Galilee "teaching in the synagogues preaching the good news of the kingdom." He taught His disciples to pray, "Your Kingdom come." What's this mean? Is it some kind of physical place?

Yes - and no. At the end of the New Testament, as the final judgment approaches, angelic voices declare, "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever." (Rev 11:15) And a chapter later (12:10), "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ..." The kingdom has to do with God's power and authority being in effect, His reign actualized. But we're not there yet. God's kingdom isn't here on earth in the complete way it will be then.

Here's a modern-day analogy. This past week as hospital chaplain I attended a pandemic planning exercise. All kinds of important agencies were represented - the hospital, the ambulance service, the police, the health unit, nursing homes, support services, the high school, and the county emergency services co-ordinator. Quite an impressive bunch! We were given scenarios of varying severity involving a theoretical flu pandemic affecting the population, making up to 30% of people sick, causing a sudden spike in mortality. Emergency measures could be invoked; fuel rationed; volunteers deputized because the local police might not have sufficient healthy staff to protect pharmacies and hospitals from people trying to break in to steal medicine. (All this is hypothetical, but in a true pandemic, could happen; note May 4-10 is 'Emergency Preparedness Week'! Check the middle pages of The Citizen for how you can be stocked up.)

We each had to tell how our organization would respond. Early on the hospital said they would invoke the "IMS" - Incident Management System. Probably an 'incident command post' would be set up, where representatives of key agencies would gather to receive information, make decisions, and issue directives that staff and volunteers would then carry out. The place where that is located isn't all that important, it could be anywhere with good communications; it may even change location as operations evolve. The function is the important thing - wisdom, planning, orders sent forth and carried out in order to cope with the crisis.

For Jesus, the 'kingdom of heaven' is like God's 'Incident Management System' battling the current epidemic of evil, and healing people into wholeness serving Him. It's not about a particular place; it's a system, a network of those who are responsive to divine command. It's about faithfully responding to the Lord's leading. Mt 7:21, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Interesting to note that under IMS radio codes such as 10-4 are taboo, but "Wilco" - short for "I understand and WILl COmply" - is allowed.) In Ephesians 5:10, those who 'are light in the Lord' are to live as 'children of light' by "find[ing] out what pleases the Lord."

The kingdom is all about pleasing the Father by loving Him and obeying His will. And how do we find out His will? Principally by heeding the directives He's already communicated to us by special revelation. So in vv17-20 Jesus emphasizes the importance of the Law and the Prophets (that is, the entirety of Scripture): He came not to abolish them but to fulfill them. In v18, the cosmos is more 'passing' and transitory than revelation: heaven and earth will disappear before the least pen-stroke disappears from the law; all will be accomplished.

Consequently, what respect and heed we should have for God's teaching! V19, how we view IT will determine how WE are viewed - if you break the least command and encourage others to do likewise, you will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but if you practice or obey and teach the commands, you'll be called great in the kingdom. Be a "wilco-er" - 'I will comply'. Then Jesus says something that must have knocked His listeners' socks off, v20: "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." Those were the religious professionals who painstakingly distinguished 613 different commandments, but forgot the main point in all their pickiness. They would tithe even minute amounts of spices but, Jesus says (Lk 11:42), they neglected justice and the love of God. In their emphasis on the letter of the law, they overlooked the spirit of it; they failed to determine what would really please God by big-picture obedience.

Bringing Light in Dark Circumstances

Jesus isn't interested in nominal followers. He's looking for hands-on doers who are pumped about carrying out God's plan in their setting. Being familiar with His teaching in the Bible, praying about specifics, then getting in gear with good deeds to address the needs around them - in such a way that the Father is praised.

John Niles is pastor of a large congregation in Markham, north of Toronto. For 15 years he and his wife Liane have provided an emergency foster home for preschoolers. ChristianWeek reports, "Police officers come knocking when social work offices are closed, often in the middle of the night, carrying children rescued from desperate situations. They're dropped off with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, sometimes dirty and hungry, some times with broken bones, and sometimes, in the case of newborns, in the throes of drug withdrawal...For a few days, until social workers decide where the child is to go, the Niles family has a chance to pour love into these children's lives...John has taken the experiences of fostering more than 1,000 children and turned them into books...How I Became a Father to 1,000 Children [and] a follow-up, TheArt of Sacred Parenting: No Ordinary Moments...His wisdom is interwoven with stories about the children he and his wife have cared for and the lessons they've learned along the way.His experiences have also made Niles a strong advocate for children's rights, earning him several awards, including the Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General and a nomination for the Order of Canada. Yet he won't mention those awards if you talk with him. Instead, he'll shift the conversation to the desperate need for families to open their homes to the 75,000 children in foster care and the 22,000 children who long for adoptive families--of which only 10 per cent will be adopted."

"...Niles longs to inspire people--particularly Christians--to become involved in caring for abandoned and orphaned children. [He points out] 'We ourselves are adopted by God, and as Christians, we have a biblical mandate to care for abandoned and orphaned children.' He's seen people in his congregation adopt and has helped dozens more begin the process. That, for him, is what it's all about."

Can you imagine - being a parent to more than a thousand children? What an impact at a time of stress in their young lives! Wouldn't you say Pastor Niles and his wife are examples of being salt and light, letting their good deeds of caring for kids shine in a way that honours God? That happens to be their immediate 'mission field' - what's yours? Let Jesus' yummy flavour flow out through you so others will come to know the Father's goodness. Let's pray.