Isaiah 58.1-9a / Matthew 5.13-20
A story is told about a church that was having a special Saturday night service.
Towards the end of the service a thunderstorm unleashed a bolt of lightning that plunged the building into darkness.
So, the minister carefully felt his way through the church to find some candles and then handed them out.
Everyone lit their candles, passing the light from one to another.
Then, when all the candles were lit, the congregation made their way to the door of the church.
Looking out, they could see rain coming down in sheets. All the traffic had stopped, and people were running for shelter.
Looking around, the congregation could see that the whole city was in darkness.
So, there they stood, a little band of Christians, each clutching a light, not sure whether to venture out into the storm or stay inside the church in the hope that the storm would soon blow over.
A disciple in the world
Today’s gospel reading is part of the Sermon on the Mount, where we learn what it means to be a disciple in the world.
We learn that being a disciple is not an easy ride.
We may be poor in spirit, we may mourn, we may long to see a righteousness that seems far off, and we may feel unimportant – yet we are blessed.
And in the light of that blessing we are charged to be merciful, to be pure, to work for peace, and to stay faithful whatever the consequences.
Now, continuing the theme of what it means to be disciples in the world, Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and so I want to talk about each of these things in turn this morning.
Salt of the earth
This has different uses.
It can be a preservative, it can purify by killing off bacteria, it can be used as a fertiliser, it has a vital role in keeping us healthy, and it makes our food taste better.
But when Jesus described us as the salt of the earth he focused on its taste; pushing the point home by talking about the uselessness of salt that loses its saltiness.
This reference to salt losing its saltiness can be puzzling because modern table salt doesn’t ever do this, but in the ancient world salt was a slightly different thing.
The salt that Jesus was talking about was collected from the shores of the Dead Sea and could contain many impurities that looked like salt but weren’t.
As salt dissolves in water it was quite common for it all to be washed away and for only the impurities to remain, leaving behind something that looked like the real thing but wasn’t.
So, it’s important for us to be true salt, not just an imitation that looks real but is actually not doing anything.
But how can we do this?
Well we can find an answer if we go back to our first reading, from Isaiah.
Here, the prophet describes a people who are very outwardly religious, who observe all the feasts and fasts and say the right words, but as soon as they get out of the temple, they’re fighting with one another because it only goes skin-deep.
God rejects this empty ritual in favour of making a positive difference in the world, saying,
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin.
God doesn’t reject religious observance per se but he’s not in favour of religious observance that doesn’t go hand-in-hand with making a positive difference to the world around us.
And we’re all called to make a difference – whoever we are, if we have a paid job or not, if we’re at school or retired, if we’re a parent or grandparent or neither, and in line with our gifts, talents, strengths and weakness.
We’re called to flavour the world – to make it better, richer, deeper, through our presence, our actions and our words, and not to huddle together out of the storm keeping our blessings to ourselves and reluctant to be involved in everyday life.
We’re called to season and transform human activity in a way that reveals God in the world.
This might sound a bit beyond us, but all it really means is living faithfully in accordance with our faith and what we believe God wants us to do.
In my own small way, I try to do this kind of thing at work.
When I do my proofreading job, which often involves working with people who are worried and vulnerable because of a learning disability, I try to make sure I treat people with care, compassion and respect, as well as working hard and honestly for them.
I’m not saying I’m perfect at all this, but I try because to me this is part of living out my calling as a Christian, and at least as important as dressing up and preaching on a Sunday.
Light of the world
Then, secondly, we’re described as the light of the world.
When I hear the phrase “light of the world” I immediately imagine the famous painting of Jesus by Holman Hunt.
I don’t generally think of myself as the light of the world, and indeed in the Bible it’s usually God who’s described in such terms.
But we’ve been given God’s light and now we’re called to share it with others, to help spread God’s truth, goodness and holiness in the world.
We are to help people see God’s life in theirs by showing them how God is working in our lives.
We are to enlighten the dark places of the world with the light we’ve received.
We are to let people see hope where there seemed no hope, and a new path when they feel all is lost.
We’re called to reveal truth, mercy, justice and love by displaying them in our own lives.
The light of God that fills us is meant to shine out to others as well.
After all, light is meant to be shared, it’s meant to have an effect; it’s not meant to hide away when people are in need out there in the dark and the storm, and what we do and say is seen by the world.
It’s our witness, whether good or bad.
And it’s a wonderful opportunity to show God to the world by shining our light in a way that isn’t about us boasting or feeling superior or coming across as holier than thou, but which is instead about glorifying him.
So, my prayer today is that God will give us all grace to step out with confidence, faith and love into the world to serve him in others. May we be light and salt in all the places we go, the words we say and the things we do, so that we may give glory to our Father in heaven.