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Come, Light serene and still,
Our darkened spirits fill
With thy clear day.
Guide of the feeble sight,
Star of grief's darkest night,
Reveal the path of Right;
Show us thy way.
--Traditional 11th century French prayer
Lamplight vs Starlight
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 5 and follow along as I read verses 13-20. Hear what the Spirirt says to us.
13 Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
14 Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
15 Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
A classic Peanuts cartoon showed Peppermint Patty talking to Charlie Brown. She said, “Guess what, Chuck? The first day of school, and I got sent to the principal’s office. It was your fault, Chuck.” Charlie Brown responds, “My fault? How could it be my fault? Why do you say everything is my fault?” To which she declares, “You’re my friend, aren’t you, Chuck? You should have been a better influence on me.” Now, I know that Peppermint Patty was trying to pass the buck. She was trying to blame Charlie Brown for her own bad acts, but in a way, she was telling the truth. We do have an influence on people around us, and as Christians we are called to be a good influence.
People know this, and, rightly or wrongly, they hold us to a higher standard. A minister was making a wooden trellis to support a climbing vine. As he was pounding away, he noticed that a little boy was watching him. The youngster said not a word, so the preacher kept on working, thinking the lad would leave, but he did not. Pleased at the thought that his work was being admired, the pastor finally said, “Are you trying to pick up some pointers on gardening?” “No,” replied the boy, “I’m waiting to hear what a preacher says when he hits his thumb with a hammer.”
People are watching us. Jesus says that when they watch us, they should see something good. He calls us to be lamps to the world. Unfortunately, most of us would rather be stars. We want to be the center of attention. We want to dazzle. We want to be above the common crowd.
Jesus encountered the "star syndrome" among his own disciples. In Matthew 20:20ff, the sons of Zebedee and their equally ambitious mother petition Jesus, begging him to "save them seats" in heaven. James and John do not want just any old seat. They specifically ask Jesus for the "star" seats, those immediately at his right and left hands. James and John are looking for stellar status, a place where they may shine down on others.
Jesus tries to teach these two star-seekers that their request is wrong- headed for two reasons. First, Jesus says that heaven's seating order is his Father's domain, not his. More importantly, Jesus patiently reminds James and John that the way they may emulate him and be "first" in the kingdom is through selfless service to others. In other words, Jesus says, Do not be stars, be lamps. Do not try to out shine other people. Try to help other people.
Matthew 5:13-20 is about helping others. Jesus says that his disciples are salt and light.
Salt, in the first century, was far more than a flavor enhancer; salt was the prime means of preserving food. Meat and fish depended upon salt to keep them fresh and palatable. Without salt-preserved foods, the days between harvests would have been lean indeed. Among the ancient Romans, it was sometimes the custom to pay soldiers in salt. That is where the phrase “not worth his salt” comes from
But salt is an element that must be scattered over or spread about in order to be effective. Salt stored up by itself is not useful to preserve or give flavor. Salt must be sprinkled around. As a metaphor of discipleship, "salt" suggests that Jesus' followers are also to be out and scattered about. To be "salt" is not a static identity; it is our evangelical mission into the world.
Notice that Jesus does not say that you are like salt, or that you are like light. He says, “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” This is what we are called to be. This is who we are; this is why we live in this world.
But then Jesus says in the second part of Matthew 5:13,“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.” During the time of Jesus, most salt of the salt in Palestine came from the Dead Sea and contained many impurities. Sometimes the salt was so contaminated with foreign substances, that it was good for nothing and had to be thrown out. In other words, it was such poor salt, it was useless.
The application to us is all too pertinent. We are called to live pure lives and to be devoted to Christ, but we allow ourselves to be contaminated by the world. We allow our discipleship to be so polluted by other things, other causes, other factors, that we become useless as far as any actual work for Christ is concerned. In effect, we are good for nothing Christians.
The question then becomes, How do we act as salt? How can we be salty disciples?
First of all, salt gives taste. I like food. I like eating. But I have occasionally tasted some meat or vegetable dishes that had no salt in them. Yuck. Half the taste is missing. Now salt by itself does not taste very good but in food salt unleashes the flavor. As Christians, we are God’s seasoning in the world. Just as salt adds zest and fires up the taste buds, so too we should be making life more “tasty” for others. Christians should be making the world a better place.
Then, salt is a preservative. Before the invention of the refrigerator in the late nineteenth century, the major way that people preserved meat was with salt. Used in this way, salt does not make something good; it keeps it from going bad. Even so, we are a preservative in our culture. There is much that is good in our society, in western culture. We should always work to preserve the good. For example, western ideas of freedom, of the rights of the individual, of the value of human life—these are great ideas that Christians ought to preserve.
Thirdly, salt creates thirst. You have heard the old saying that you can lead a horse to water but you can not make him drink. Actually you can. If you put salt in his mouth, he will drink. There is an urban legend that some restaurant buffets serve salty food, so that customers will drink more water and eat less. I do not know if that is true, but it certainly is true that salt makes you drink.
By the same token, Christians should make people thirsty for Jesus. Colossians 4:6: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Christians are to be gentle and respectful people so that people will look upon us and desire Christ. That is our saltiness. Unfortunately, some Christians lose their saltiness, and try to save the world with pepper spray—which never works.
Salt is a seasoning, a preservative, a thirst producer. In all three cases, salt must be brought into contact with its object in order for its power to be released. Salt that just sits in the shaker does no good for anyone. It might just as well be thrown out.
Some Christians seem to say:
In the card game of life, we are a pair
But I’d rather be playing solitaire
But Jesus teaches the opposite. Keeping Christ bottled up inside, as if he were our personal possession, is not an option for salty Christians. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “A flight into the invisible is a denial of the call. A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow Him.”
If we are serious about obeying the command of Christ then we need to penetrate lives with the message of the gospel. Salt must not just be sprinkled on meat to preserve it. It must be blended into the food. As God’s people, we need to be with people. Above all, we need to be with those who need us. They may just need someone to talk to, but we need to be there for them.
Secondly, Jesus says, "You are the light." Jesus himself is also described as the "light of the world" (John 8:12), but while the light that was Jesus stands on its own, the light of his disciples is described corporate terms. While salt must be scattered about to enhance its effectiveness, the light of discipleship must be gathered together into a "city built on a hill" in order to light the way. Within the communal, cooperative life of a city, the small flame of each disciple is magnified to create a powerful beacon in the night. Just as a city on a hill "cannot be hid," neither can the brilliance of the light produced by a community of true disciples. The church, it would seem, is to be the hill-top night light for the world.
But the corporate light of this image in no way suggests that our individual lights are unimportant. Verse 15 continues this "light" image by focusing on the illuminating quality in each lamp. The ludicrous notion of lighting a lamp and then hiding it under a basket is ridiculous on two counts. First, light is useless as light when it is covered up. Second, as any householder would know, the light could not even continue to burn underneath such a smothering cover. The flame would quickly use up all the oxygen and go out of its own accord. Once lit, a lamp's proper place is high on a lamp stand - where it can throw its light in the widest possible directions. It is the combined power of all these brightly burning lamps that creates the long-distance glow of a city on a hill.
Light gives guidance. When we live out our faith in the midst of our family, friends, and neighbors, our life can guide people to the right path. Our life can help them see where they ought to go and what obstacles they ought to avoid.
There is a story about an old farmer who was hassling his hired hand for carrying a lantern when he went to call on his girlfriend: “When I went a-courtin’ I never carried one of them things,” said the farmer. “I always went in the dark.” To which the young man replied, “Yeah, and look what you got!” Perhaps we should not explore that story any further.
But certainly, it is our job as Christians to show the way. John Ruskin lived in the days when English villages were lighted by lamps along the street. One evening, he watched with a friend as a lamplighter moved slowly on a distant hill, lighting the lamps along the street. Ruskin said, "There is what I mean by being a real Christian. You can trace his course by the lights that he leaves burning." Jesus said that people should be able to trace your life by the lights you leave burning.
Verse 16 focuses further on light as the mark of a true disciple. This "light" is now defined more specifically as "your good works," which should "shine before others." Notice that we are not to do good works, we are not to help other people, in order to gain some sort of fame or reputation. In the next chapter, Jesus said, "Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:2). And again, here in Matt. 5:16, he tells us that we do not help others as a way of blowing our own trumpet, but as a way of glorifying God. That is our purpose—to glorify God. If any praise is given for anything we do, the praise should be given to God, not to us.
What Jesus is saying is that the only Star is God. The rest of us are called to be lamps. Lamp-Christians are those who willingly burn out in service - as both disciples and mentors for others. Hebrews 10:24 defines the glowing value of being a lamp-Christian - "Let us consider and give attentive, continuous care to watching over one another, studying how we may stir up (stimulate and incite) to love and helpful deeds and noble activities" (AMP).
Today we often hear about the need for models and mentors. We are told that our society needs role models. Jesus agrees with that, and he says to you and me, you do it.
Now we might think of a mentor as someone who is in an elevated, "upfront" position, but, in fact, genuine mentors do not try to be "stars." The role of the Christian mentor is that of a lamp, helping light the pathway that lies directly at feet of others. The role of a Christian mentor is to offer guidance and service in indirect, even ordinary ways.
And remember this: There are no lamps that cannot throw some light on some darkened portion of a fellow-traveler's pathway. Do not say, “Poor little me, I am so ordinary, I cannot do anything for God.” Take confidence in the potential power of your lamp, because the source for your lamp is the source of all light. "In your light we see light" (Psalm 36:9). Don't make the mistake of thinking that you are somehow not "mentor-material." In Luke 6:40, Jesus reminds his disciples that while "A disciple is not above the teacher, ... everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher." As disciples of Christ, "lights of the world," we have been "fully qualified." We need only let our lamps shine, that others may see and find the way, the truth and the life.
Robert Noel Test (1926-1994), during his lunch break, wrote a great short essay entitled "To Remember Me." It has been widely reprinted. Let me conclude then with his essay.
At a certain moment, a doctor will determine that my brain has ceased to function and that, for all intents and purposes, my life has stopped.
When that happens, do not attempt to instill artificial life into my body by the use of a machine. And don't call this my "deathbed." Call it my "bed of life," and let my body be taken from it to help others lead fuller lives.
Give my sight to someone who has never seen a sunrise, a baby's face or love in the eyes of another.
Give my heart to a person whose own heart has caused nothing but endless days of pain.
Give my blood to the teenager who has been pulled from the wreckage of his car, so that he might live to see his grandchildren play.
Give my kidneys to one who depends on a machine to exist from week to week.
Take my bones, every muscle, every fiber and nerve so that someday a speechless boy will shout at the crack of a bat and a deaf girl will hear the sound of rain against her windows.
Burn what is left of me and scatter the ashes to the winds to help the flowers grow.
If you must bury something, let it be my faults, my weaknesses and all my prejudice against my other humans.
Give my sins to the Devil. Give my soul to God. If, by chance, you wish to remember me, do it with a kind deed or word to someone who needs you. If you do all I have asked, I will live forever.
May the Father keep you in all your days.
May the Son bring you healing and peace.
May the Spirit shield you in all your ways.
May God the Holy Trinity drive all darkness from you and pour light upon you. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 11/12/04