This week I’ve been posting some thoughts about our Christian influence by way of Jesus’ metaphors of salt and light. Today I want to offer three brief summary thoughts to wrap up this thread.
1. Our Christian influence (salt and light) is driven by our Christian character (the Beattitudes).
A friend recently reminded me that every fairy tale has a villain, and in those fairy tales the villains never give gifts. The reason is that nobody wants a gift from a villain. Our influence will only be palatable if it is offered from a place of character. I believe that Jesus offers to us the Beattitudes before the metaphors on influence for that reason.
2. There is an inference in the text that cannot be overlooked.
The reason we are salt is because we live in a world of decay, and the reason we are light is because the world is dark. Jesus doesn’t call that truth out, but it is there by inference. I think its positive and helpful to pause every now and then and see the world through the lens of the cross.
3. Jesus’ call is as common as the metaphors themselves.
Every home has salt and light. This call to be salt and light is not for the spiritually elite. Jesus is addressing everyone within sound of his voice. Jesus assumes our discipleship, and he assumes our participation in mission.
“You are the light of the world–like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:14-16, NLT).
Sometimes I hear people say that their Christian witness is the good deeds they perform for others, as though those deeds are a suitable substitution for a verbal witness. More often than not, the people we serve see our good deeds and praise us for being good people. Good works are certainly a part of light bearing, but I believe the purpose of those deeds is to provide us a platform, or lamp stand if you will, for our verbal Christian witness. We cannot bear the influence we need to bear in the world in total silence. In order to clearly point people to Christ there comes a moment when we must confess that our good works are not offered because we are good. We do them because God is good. To silently perform our good deeds without a verbal testimony is like hiding our lights under a basket.
“You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless” (Matthew 5:13, NLT).
My grandfather has been gone for over 20 years, so my memories of him are diminishing. One thing I do remember is that when he sat down to eat a meal he salted his food before he tried it. Even as a child I thought this was a little absurd, given the fact that he used so much salt you could see it glisten. When we think of salt we usually think of using it to season food. But in Jesus’ context salt was more frequently associated with preserving meat given their lack of refrigeration. Granted, salt would have been used for flavoring in Bible times, but it was first and foremost a preservative.
Scholars believe salt was mined from the Dead Sea. Several years ago I participated on a mission trip to Haiti. As we travelled up the Caribbean coast our guide pointed out a section of the beach where Haitians would dam up water from the rising tide and then let it evaporate so they could mine the salt from the ocean water. It seemed like a primitive practice, but it does speak to our multicultural value of the product.
Jesus indicated that salt’s effectiveness is conditioned by its purity. I am told that sodium chloride is a fairly stable chemical compound. But even table salt can become contaminated or diluted. Jesus’ point is well taken. As salt of the earth we must make sure that we remain free from contamination so that we may bear our influence well. We have a responsibility to act as a preservative in a world that is decaying. If we don’t, our influence will be diminished and ultimately without value.
Tomorrow I’ll turn my attention to the second metaphor, light.
If you think about your life, you can count on several fingers the names of those who have made an impact or continue to bear influence. These are the people who have spoken the words into your life that you replay over and over in your mind. Maybe that impact came from a parent or a grandparent. Or perhaps a coach or a teacher. Maybe you have been blessed to have a mentor or a close peer relationship that has been beneficial. My guess is that there have been many more than one, and that you even have one or more people today that you turn to for wise counsel or sage advice.
But did you ever stop to think about who you are influencing? Have you considered that your words or actions are making an impact on someone else? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus invited his hearers to push past the humility of this consideration and to take seriously his challenge to bear influence on those around us. He did it through two common household items: salt and light. This week I’m going to post some highlights from this weekend’s sermon, titled “Influence.” I hope you’ll stay tuned.
Yesterday I posted concerning the first four Beattitudes, which deal primarily with our direct response to God’s work in our lives as we strive to enter the Kingdom. Today I want to share some brief reflections on the last four Beattitudes which relate to our response to others.
“God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7, NLT).
When we recognize our spiritual bankruptcy, we mourn. When we mourn over that bankruptcy, we enter into deep humility, which causes us to trust. In the midst of that trust our desires and appetites change and we exchange our desires for what God desires, creating satisfaction. And when we desire what God wants we realize that its not just about us. There are others in this world for whom God has a plan. When we receive mercy, we should become merciful as well. Perhaps this is why children share more easily than adults. Children share because they realize everything they have comes as a gift from someone else. We adults tend to think we have to keep what we have because we have earned it. So it is with mercy. We didn’t earn it or deserve it. But we have it and should be quite willing to share it. As we share mercy God’s mercy is even more available to us.
“God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8, NLT).
When my son interned for a local Division I football program he quickly learned that he could not wear any article of clothing in the football facility that was as black. The reason? Black was the school color of the in state rival. Purity of heart has to do with a heart that is undivided. To be pure in heart is to be free from alloy or duplicity. It means to be single minded. The single minded are those who see God.
“God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9, NLT).
When we desire what God desires and our hearts are undivided, we will work for what God works for, which is peace. Notice that the Beattitude does not say, “blessed are the peace keepers.” Peacekeepers have the goal of finding quiet. Peacemakers, however, work toward reconciliation. The peacemakers are those who will be reminiscent of God’s likeness.
“God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:10, NLT).
Anytime we roll up our sleeves and work for reconciliation and redemption someone is going to be unhappy. It was true in Jesus’ day, and perhaps is more true today. I recently read that there are approximately 180 Christians per month in the world today who die because of their faith. These are those who work to bring reconciliation between God and human kind in places where Christianity is illegal.
Over these past two posts I’ve focused quite a bit on the progression to the neglect of the promised reward that accompanies each “blessing.” That doesn’t diminish the promises that Jesus offers. As we grown in our Christian character we can see what we attain with each step. But I am of the mind that the progression itself is worth it, with or without the reward.
As I study this progression I can’t help but ask myself the question, “So where am I in process? Perhaps that’s the takeaway. To understand the Beattitudes to the extent that we not only see how far we’ve come, but to see how far we still have to go.
My best understanding of The Beattitudes is to view them as building blocks. Certainly one could let each stand alone on its own merit, however there seems to be a logical progression not unlike links in a chain. I prefer to take them in order and attempt to understand those correlations.
“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:3, NLT).
The Beattitudes begin with our realization that we are poor in spirit. Or more pointedly, spiritually bankrupt. Like you, I’ve written a resume or two during my career in preparation for a job interview. Resumes are tricky documents, because you have to assert yourself and commend your work in such a way that the employer can see the benefit you will bring to the organization. Poverty in spirit is the realization that we have nothing we can commend to God. We are broken and broke, unable to offer God anything to pay our own way. We stand before God empty handed.
“God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4, NLT).
When we recognize that we are spiritually bankrupt, that realization brings with it a profound sense of loss. We mourn over our sin and the roots of our sin in the fall. We understand that our loss is not just individual, its also corporate.
“God blesses those who are humble (meek), for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5, NLT).
As we mourn over our bankruptcy, we become humble, and that humility is the gateway to trust. For years I have assisted people who have walked into the Church Office asking for assistance. Most who ask for help with rent, utilities or food make their request from a posture of humility. The proud do not ask. The proud have difficulty letting someone help them. The humble, however, are willing to ask and trust that their needs will be met.
“God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice (righteousness), for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6, NLT).
Another turning point in the progression is the fact that our appetites change. Hunger and thirst are desire words. In God’s economy the desire doesn’t change. The object of our desire changes. Prior to Christ, we had desires that we felt would satisfy the so called “God sized hole in our hearts.” Christians aren’t people void of desire. Christians are people with renewed desire for justice and righteousness. We want what God wants.
Tomorrow I’ll finish up the last four Beattitudes and see how our right standing with God leads us to desire the same for others. Thanks for checking in today.
Years ago I served a church in St. Louis. Following one particular Sunday morning service I was approached by a distinguished looking man who asked for an appointment. We quickly set up a time to meet. When we met for our appointment, I began the conversation like I begin most. “Tell me your story,” I asked. Over the course of the next several minutes he gave me his background. He shared experiences of pain and loss, of grief and sorrow. He concluded his story by saying, “Pastor, I’ve broken all ten commandments. Is there anyway I can be good enough to be accepted by God? Am I beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness?”
Over the course of thousands of years many have wondered and wrestled with those same questions. When Jesus came and spoke the words we now call the Sermon on the Mount, he was announcing the present availability of God’s Kingdom. This sermon begins with a very familiar section commonly called The Beattitudes. With these eight simple sayings, Jesus answers two questions. First, who is eligible to participate in the present Kingdom?
The late Dallas Willard, author of The Divine Conspiracy, believed that The Beattitudes are important in helping us understand the availability of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is available to those we would least suspect. Of them Willard wrote,
“Blessed are the physically repulsive,
Blessed are those who smell bad,
The twisted, misshapen, deformed,
The too tall, to little, too loud,
The bald, the fat and the old-
For they are all riotously celebrated in the party of Jesus.” (p. 123)
The Kingdom is available to everyone. No one is too far from God’s reach, even those who have broken all ten commandments.
I am a part of a congregational church. With the exception of one Elder led congregation, I have always been a part of a congregational church. A congregational church government means that the membership sits atop the organizational chart, providing the final thumbs up or thumbs down to initiatives from subsets of the church. A congregational church may delegate some of the day to day decisions to the church staff or to a board, but reserve the “big” decisions for church wide business sessions.
A couple of things about that fact strike me as strange. For example, voting on issues always creates winners and losers. All in favor say “aye,” and all opposed say “nay.” Let’s count the votes and see which side has won and which side has lost. American politics reminds us that we have winners and losers every two years.
A second thing that is striking is that all votes are equal and count the same. The wealthiest member of the congregation gets one vote. The oldest member gets one, as do the youngest and newest members. Every member gets one vote. Just one. They’re not weighted, which is appropriate. Every time I step into a voting booth I am reminded of the fact that any other number of registered voters can cancel my vote. While this is striking, it works for America and it works for congregational forms of church government.
There is one more thing about voting that I find interesting. Voting is based on a model of approval and disapproval. If I approve of an initiative or a candidate, I can vote “yes.” If is disapprove, I can vote “no.”
So what happens if I “lose” the vote? What do I do if I find myself in the minority of the will of the people?
Whenever I am in the minority, I move from approval to acceptance. I don’t have to approve of the action of the majority to find a position of acceptance as a minority voice. You see, I am troubled when I see a celebrity look into a television camera and say, “If so and so is elected then I’m moving to (fill in the blank some other nation).” There have been plenty of elections when I didn’t “approve” of the majority opinion and my horse didn’t win, but I didn’t move to another nation. I remained a good citizen of my community, state, and nation. I paid my bills and my taxes. I exercised my right to vote in the next election. I didn’t approve, but I accepted the outcome.
One of the things those of us in congregational churches need to remember is that sometimes things are going to happen when we don’t “approve.” But for the sake of the whole, we can come to a point of acceptance. We can continue to faithfully serve, continue to give as instructed by Scripture, and continue to work to advance the cause of Christ by serving our community and living as a faithful witness. We don’t have to always “approve.” But we can learn to “accept,” for the sake of something bigger than our one vote.
I’ve preached some pretty bad sermons. When I think of some of the worst, I cringe in disbelief that anyone would even return the following Sunday. There have been moments during sermons when I silently prayed that the earth would open and swallow me up! Yeah, that bad. One thing that may be helpful to you, as a consumer of sermons, is to know that when you hear a bad one, the preacher already knows it. And he or she is probably as anxious as you are for it to end.
Jesus didn’t ever have a bad sermon. All we can do is marvel at his clarity. He spoke as no one had ever spoken before, and those who heard him either found resonance or dissonance with his words. In my opinion, the most influential words he spoke are found in the Sermon on the Mount.
Some will say the Sermon on the Mount constitutes the core of Jesus’ ethical teachings. A sort of manifesto for proper behavior in the new covenant. The problem of evaluating to Sermon on the basis of ethical practice is that we may be tempted to lean into some of the Sermon to the exclusion of other parts. One could easily pick and choose the parts that are most comfortable, or worse, the parts that defend their positions.
Others invest a lot of energy into broader interpretive models, such as viewing Jesus as the new Moses teaching the new Torah. Therefore the Sermon is the new moral vision for God’s new people. That works, but is not how I’m approaching this.
Considering Jesus first and ongoing message of, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17), I believe Jesus is using the Sermon to explain the present availability of God’s Kingdom and how we are to live in the present Kingdom. Is some of the Kingdom future? Yes, but not all of it. Much of the Sermon is present and should be understood in the present tense. Who is truly a good person? What does it mean to live the good life? Those are the kinds of questions Jesus answers.
So here are three thoughts about the Sermon on the Mount that I shared with my congregation last Sunday.
1. The Sermon on the Mount describes normative Christian behavior. Its not just for the spiritually elite, the Sermon represents a new normal. The Sermon on the Mount is a benchmark. A standard for those who submit to the loving and gracious rule of the King.
2. The expectation of Jesus is obedience. If you flip to the end of chapter 7, you’ll find Jesus’ conclusion to the Sermon. Those who listen to the words and obey them will find their lives built on solid rock, able to withstand the winds and floods of life. To disobey is to live in instability, like a house on sand, only to be destroyed by those same winds and floods.
3. You can’t do it on your own. The Holy Spirit enables and empowers us to put these attitudes and actions into practice. The Holy Spirit is both our comforter and disturber. He comforts us and encourages us in our appropriate application of these words, and disturbs us when we come a little too close to the guardrails.
Dallas Willard said that Jesus is the most intelligent person who ever lived. Therefore he assumes to have the best information on life and how to live it. He also assumes our obedience to his commands. By God’s grace, may we be both hearers and doers of the word, for the glory of God and the good of others.
Who is a good person? How does someone learn to become a good person? These were the kind of questions Jesus addressed in The Sermon on the Mount. This weekend in worship I’m beginning a new series out of the Gospel of Matthew based on this epic text. Check out the artwork for the series provided by our very own Pete Cornell.