Jesus said: “You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world.Matthew 5:13&14
You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world … These expressions are so common that we can almost forget that they were first spoken by Jesus. But they were, in his most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount.
Last week, we heard the beginning of this famous sermon, when Jesus blessed us with the Beatitudes. It’s important to remember at least the first of these, because they set the tone for this whole amazing sermon of his. The first beatitude that Jesus spoke, and the very beginning of his sermon is this: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Discipleship begins with being poor in spirit – with knowing that we need Jesus; we cannot be a disciples without his help. When we know this, we are blessed by Jesus, and promised the very kingdom of heaven. It all starts there. But then, what’s next? To be salt and light.
Salt and light. Both of these famous expressions have something to teach us about following Jesus. But, first, we have to try and hear them as the first disciples did, 2,000 years ago. Because both salt and light meant something different back then.
The Value of Salt
Take the first expression, “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt is so common these days. When you go to a grocery store, chances are that salt will be one of the cheaper things that you buy. But that wasn’t the case in Jesus’ time. Salt was harder to obtain back then. And much more valuable. And it was more important back then, too, because of its value as a preservative.
In fact, salt was so valuable in Jesus’s time that Roman soldiers were sometimes paid with special salt rations. It turns out that our English word “salary” comes from this practice. It’s also why, when someone is not doing their job, we sometimes say “they are not worth their salt.”
Salt was often used in other religions in sacrifices to their gods, probably because of its value, and because it was considered very pure. There was even a common saying in Rome around Jesus’ time, that “there is nothing more useful than sun and salt.”
So, to be told that we are the salt of the earth is to be told that we are very valuable, and very useful. The world needs us. And for whatever mysterious reason, Jesus has decided that he needs us, too. As the salt of the earth, we are both valuable and useful.
But Salt Doesn’t Exist for Itself
But there is another important quality of salt. It is valuable and useful, yes. But not by itself. Salt is no good on its own. It doesn’t exist for itself.
It’s kind of obvious when you think about it, but salt is always used for something else. The salt shaker on the table is not the meal. It is simply there to help flavor the meal Salt doesn’t exist for itself.
And that’s true for us as Christians. Yes, we are valuable. We are important. But not for ourselves. As Christians, we are best serving our purpose when we are living for Jesus, and for others, not for ourselves.
Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once put it: “The church is only the church when it exists for others.” As Jesus’ disciples, we are very important to the kingdom, but only when we exist for more than ourselves. Only when we exist for Jesus.
John the Baptist
I love to think about John the Baptist as an example of this. He was a salty guy, to be sure. But he knew that he didn’t exist for himself. He existed to prepare the way for Jesus. And once Jesus came on the scene, John knew that ministry was complete. As he famously said in John 3, “[Jesus] must increase; I must decrease.” It was time for John to get out of the way.
And it’s true for us, too. Jesus must increase. We must decrease. We are the salt, not the food. Jesus is the food. We are just trying to preserve it and make it taste better. And if we are not doing that, then we have lost our saltiness. We have lost our mission. But when we devote our lives to Jesus, and to the world, then we are truly being the salt of the earth. And then, I suppose you might say, we are truly “worth our salt” as disciples.
The Light of the World
There is nothing more useful than sun and salt, the old Roman saying goes. And Jesus calls us the salt of the earth and the light of the world. It is quite a compliment, to be called the salt of the earth. But maybe even more of one to be called the light of the world.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that he himself is the light of the world. And yet, here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world. Think for a minute of how much more valuable light was in Jesus’s time. Before electricity. Because we could just walk into a room and flip a switch and there would be light. We almost take light for granted. (Except, of course, when we experience a power failure, as many of us did this week!) But to be told that we are the light of the world is to be told that we are extremely important, and very valuable.
Jesus calls us to let our light shine, both in the church and in the community. And he challenges us not to put our light under the bushel basket. So, it is worth our asking: what time or talent do you have that you might be hiding under the bushel basket? What light can you offer to the world that you are not doing so already?
You might not think that you have much to offer. You don’t have much time. No obvious talent. To say nothing of your treasure, or lack thereof. But the Bible is very clear about this: Every one of you has exactly enough to let your light shine. God has given to you exactly what God needs from you. Every light matters. Every person counts. And even the smallest light is a welcome sight in a dark place.
Can we agree that there is some darkness in the world today? Just as there has always been? We live in a broken and sinful world. It can be a fearful place. A discouraged place. A skeptical, angry, frustrated place. But the amazing thing about light, is that the darker a place is, the less light is needed!
The smallest candle can light up a dark room. No matter how small your light is, it is exactly what this world needs. So, Jesus says to us all, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. We use these well-known words at every baptism, to remind us that every baptized Christian can do this.
We can all bring glory to God simply by letting our light shine. The smallest act of kindness, the simplest gesture of hospitality and welcome, the humblest sharing of our time or talent – these all give glory to God. We don’t have to change the world to give glory to God. We don’t have to fix all the problems of our world. We just need to let our light shine. And that will bring glory to God.
I like how the great preacher, Charles Spurgeon put it, when he said:
The Bible is not the light of the world, it is the light of the Church. But the world does not read the Bible, the world reads Christians! “You are the light of the world.”Charles Spurgeon
The world reads Christians, not the Bible. So must be the light of the world. As Jesus tells us that we are.
Reflecting the Light
But can we admit that this can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming? We can feel like if we are the light of the world, the world’s not going to get very bright. Because our little light can seem, well, little. How can we be the light of the world? We’re not Jesus. He is the true light of the world. So how can we do that?
I find it encouraging, when I feel this way, to look at the moon. When the moon is full, and the sky is clear, and we are away from artificial light, it is absolutely amazing how bright the moon can be. A couple of weeks ago, right around when we had a full moon, I was lying in bed trying to go to sleep. But it was so bright, that I thought for sure I had left the outside light on. I got out of bed, only to discover that it was the moon causing all that brightness!
The moon can light up a dark night, that’s for sure. But the truth is that even when the moon is at its brightest, it is not providing any light of its own. All it’s really doing is reflecting the light of the sun. And I find that very encouraging. Because that is exactly what I believe we are doing when we are being the light of the world. We’re not actually providing any light of our own. We’re simply reflecting the light of the son. But when we are doing that well, it is amazing how much light we can offer to the world. And the darker the world around us, the more important the light.
Our world certainly needs a little light these days. And Jesus tells us that being a disciple means providing this light. You are the light of the world, he says. You and I are called to reflect his light into the darkness of the world. Called to let our light shine, but not our light at all – his light reflected through us; through our words, our deeds, our good works. Called to let his light shine through our lives, so that others may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.
You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world …
One last thought about this: Jesus doesn’t actually tell us to be salt and light. He says that we are. We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. Because we are his disciples.
All we have to do to be the salt and the light is to be followers of Jesus. He will do the rest. We don’t have to be the meal. We just have to preserve and season it. Jesus himself is the meal. The bread for the world, as he says. And we don’t have to be the light, either. We just have to reflect it. Jesus is the light of the world.
So, let’s not lose our saltiness. And let’s not hide our light. Because Jesus is counting on us to do both. To the glory of God. Amen