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One Truth at a Time, Pt. 6: Fulfiller of the Law
The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
February 9, 2014

Matthew 5:13-20 [link]


We are still opening the gift of Christmas one truth at a time, and that seems a little odd, doesn’t it?  Christmas was way back in December and here we are in February; the next big holiday on the Hallmark calendar is Valentine’s Day.  But on the church calendar these are the Sundays after Epiphany, when the light around Jesus gets brighter and brighter, and we see him more clearly for who he really is: the Savior of the World, the King of Kings, the Beloved Son, the Lamb of God, the Proclaimer of the Kingdom, the Prophet like Moses, and in today’s passage we will discover that he is also the Fulfiller of the Law.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Do you remember from last week how Jesus went up on the mountain, sat down, and began to bless the people?  Do you remember how he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, and those who mourn, and the meek”?  I often picture that crowd as the most ragtag gathering you could possibly imagine—poor, mournful,  meek, pitiful, and persecuted—and yet there is Jesus, blessing them and telling them they are precious in the sight of God, lifting them up, ennobling them, making something out of them when most of the world probably thought of them as nothing.  Because who follows a man who is known as a healer except for those who are sick?  And who follows a man who wants to turn the world upside down except for those at the bottom?  But Jesus sits down, looks around, and then begins to hand out blessings in huge, heaping handfuls, to people who had probably never been blessed before.  And just when they begin to think it can’t get any better he says:

“You are the salt of the earth!”

I want you to hear Jesus saying that, and I want you to hear him saying it to you, because if those other people were worthy of his blessing, then certainly you are too.  “You are the salt of the earth,” he says, “the substance that brings out all the earth’s best flavors.”  And I wish we could hear the tone of his voice, because I think he says it as if it were really true.  He’s not saying, “You people ought to be the salt of the earth.”  He’s not saying, “Someday, if you really work at it, you will be the salt of the earth.”  He’s saying, “Right here, right now, I’m telling you: you are the salt of the earth!”  Now, it’s true that he goes on from there to say that if salt has lost its taste it’s no good anymore, that you might as well throw it out and let it be trampled underfoot, but I don’t think that’s a threat so much as it is a statement of fact.  Who wants unsalty salt?  It’s like unsugary sugar, unpeppery pepper, unchocolatey chocolate.  Maybe what he’s saying is that you are what you are, and that what you are is good, and that if you will simply be the “you” God made you to be the world will be a better place.  “You’re the salt of the earth!” he says.  “You are what gives the world its flavor!” 

And not only that:

“You are the light of the world!” he says.  I want you to hear Jesus saying that, and I want you to hear him saying it to you.  Because again, if those other people were worthy of his blessing then certainly you are, too.  “You are the light of the world,” he insists.  “You make it a brighter and better place.”  And again, I wish we could hear the tone of his voice, because I think he means it.  You know how some people make the room brighter just by walking into it?  Jesus is saying that you are that kind of people.  And he’s saying the world needs that kind of light.  “You don’t light a lamp and then hide it under a bushel,” he says.  “No, you put it up on a lampstand, where it can give light to the whole house.  You people are like a city on a hill, shining in the darkness, so that your light is visible miles and miles away.  Don’t cover it up.  Shine!  So that people can see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.”

And that may be a clue.

It hasn’t ever struck me quite this way before, but when Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” part of what he means is that you are not only the salt of your own supper table.  And when he says, “You are the light of the world,” part of what he means is that you are not only the light of your own living room.  “You don’t light a lamp to put it under a bushel,” he says, which may be a subtle way of saying that God didn’t make you the light of the world so he could shut you up inside a church.  And he didn’t make you the salt of the earth so you could sit inside a saltbox. You’ve got to get out there, and scatter the salt you are, and bring out the flavors of the earth.  You’ve got to get out there, and shine, so that people can see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven.  And please don’t misunderstand: Jesus isn’t saying you’ve got to be something you’re not; he’s saying you’ve got to be something you are.  But you’ve got to be it out there, in the world, where the need is greatest.

As I was studying this passage last week I had this feeling that Jesus might be disappointed in the way his church has evolved.  I was thinking how, in that moment, on that hillside, he may have seen the potential of those people to “bring out all the God-flavors of the earth” (as Eugene Peterson puts it), and to “bring out all the God-colors of the world.” He may have pictured those who were poor, and mournful, and meek transformed by the coming of God’s Kingdom into a great force for good in the world, and spreading out over the face of the earth in a way that would bless, and help, and heal.  And although there’s been some of that in the last two thousand years—no, actually, a lot of that—there’s also been a lot of building up of our own little kingdoms, creating these beautiful boxes called churches where we can come on Sunday morning to sing hymns and say prayers and hear a sermon and then go home again.  And I can’t imagine that that’s what Jesus—this Jesus, anyway—had in mind. 

In the very next verse he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill.”  And then he says, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”  And finally he says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  I’ve got to say, that sounds pretty heavy.  It sounds like we’re never going to get into heaven unless we are more righteous than the most righteous people who ever lived—the scribes and the Pharisees.  But let’s take a closer look.

Jesus says he hasn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.  Maybe the scribes and Pharisees had already begun to whisper behind his back that he didn’t seem nearly concerned enough with keeping the Law, that maybe he was a little “soft on sin.”  But Jesus hears their whispers and confronts them head on: “You think I’ve come to do away with the Law?  Not for a second!  I’ve come to fill it full.”  And even as he says it you get the idea that someone has emptied it out, and maybe it’s those very scribes and Pharisees who have been whispering behind his back.  Do you remember that time one of them asked him which of the commandments was the greatest?  Matthew says he was trying to trip Jesus up, but I like to give him the benefit of the doubt.  I like to believe his question was sincere, that he had tried to keep all 613 of the rules and regulations religious people tried to follow in those days and failed.  And so he wanted to know: if I could only keep one of them, which one should I keep? 

And you know what Jesus said: he said that loving God was the most important commandment, and that loving your neighbor was so close to that one you really couldn’t separate the two.  And then he said, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:40).  If you can picture two pegs on the wall with 613 rules and regulations hanging from them, I think you can get what Jesus is saying here.  He’s saying that all the commandments originate in love for God and neighbor, and I think he might say that if you forget that—if you focus so much on the law that you forget the love—then you empty the commandments of their power.  And I think that’s what was happening.  The scribes and Pharisees had become so concerned about not working on the Sabbath, for example, that they forgot the reason that rule was given: so that they could rest on the Sabbath, and spend some time with God, and tell him how much they loved him, and feel his love in return.

So, Jesus says, “Don’t think I’ve come to abolish the law and the prophets.  On the contrary!  I’ve come to fill them full, and what I’ve come to fill them full of is the love that brought them into existence in the first place!”  The scribes and Pharisees had forgotten about that.  They had reduced the law to its letter, and left behind its lively, loving spirit.  As I was thinking about this last week I thought about how religion can easily turn inward, how it can become a matter of personal morality.  “Am I doing all the things a good Christian is supposed to do?  Am I saying all the things a good Christian is supposed to say?”  But I get the feeling from Jesus here that religion is supposed to turn outward, toward God and neighbor—and that if you keep it all to yourself, love can become toxic.  It’s like taking the big bag of lawn fertilizer you were supposed to scatter all over the yard and dumping it in one place: it doesn’t make the grass in that spot greener—it kills it.

Is that what happens when religion turns inward, when it becomes all about personal piety?  In today’s reading from Isaiah 58 the prophet says, “[the kind of religion that pleases God is] 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.”  If you do that, he says, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn” (vss. 7-8).  It makes me wonder if Jesus had that passage in mind when he talked about a righteousness that exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees, a love that was focused outward—on God and others—and not only on ourselves.  Maybe that’s when the light we are really begins to shine, when the salt we are really begins to bring out the flavors. 

“If your righteousness doesn’t exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven,” Jesus concludes.  And as I said before, that sounds heavy.  It sounds as if someone will be standing at the gate of the Kingdom checking our credentials, measuring out righteousness against that of the scribes and Pharisees.  But what if Jesus is saying, “Unless your righteousness expands that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never experience the Kingdom of heaven”?  In other words, if you don’t fill your religion full of love, and if you don’t turn that love outward, toward God and others, and if you don’t take it into the world, you will never experience the joy of that moment when heaven comes to earth.

But if you do, well…that’s another story.

It was in staff meeting last Tuesday that I heard someone talk about going out to Essex Village the week before.  You’ve heard about Essex Village enough to know that it’s one of the poorest neighborhoods in our city.  But these people didn’t go out there with food or clothing: they went out there with music.  They started a six-week music camp for kids and at the end of it they hope to put on a musical.  So they rounded up as many kids as they could find and got them singing and you know how it is when the magic happens and the voices begin to blend and you feel like you are part of something bigger and more beautiful than yourself—heaven comes to earth.  That’s what happened out there that day, and it happened because six people from this church took the salt and light that they are to a place that needed it.  And when they were finished one little boy (who was just five years old—really too young to participate) said, “Can you come back tomorrow?” 

Because that’s what can happen when you take what you are to the places that need it most: heaven can come to earth.  That’s what can happen when you realize that Jesus was right:

You are the salt of the earth!

You are the light of the world!
Jim Somerville 2014
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