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
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
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
You are the light of the