[This was the sermon prepared for worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this past Sunday, February 9.]
Three years ago, we all watched the news with amazement at the beginning of what came to be called The Arab Spring. Peoples long oppressed by dictatorial regimes in places like Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria began to stand up, seeking freedom.
Today, Egypt is an uproar after its popularly elected president was ousted by the military and Syria is immersed in civil war. As happens in the wake of all revolutions, including the one that birthed the United States, a kind of chaos is unleashed. And people are forced to answer questions like, “What now?” “How do we go forward?”
Last Sunday’s Gospel lesson, taken from the opening verses of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, was a place where Jesus laid down an absolutely revolutionary kind of life, one that puts the world’s standard operating procedures on their heads.
In it, Jesus said things like: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed when we are persecuted for His Name’s sake.
Jesus, it turns out, wasn’t laying down God’s law in the Beatitudes, but describing a way of life that seeps into the minds, hearts, and wills of those who cultivate daily closeness to Jesus Christ.
Even if we have questions about all that though, because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross, because of His resurrection, and because of the new life we know He offers to all who repent and believe in Him, we hear the Beatitudes and we want to sign up for the Kingdom of heaven.
In our heart of hearts, we want to live the lifestyle of the Beatitudes!
But after Jesus, through His death and resurrection, works His revolution of transforming us from the enemies of God we were when we were born into the friends of God we become when we are born from above, we have the same kinds of questions that always arise after revolutions: What now? How do we go forward? Jesus starts to answer those questions in today’s lesson. Please look at today’s Gospel lesson.
As we read the opening verses of the lesson, you’ll have to keep the Beatitudes in mind. In verses 13 and 14, Jesus is saying, “You blessed ones are the salt of the earth. You blessed ones are the light of the world.” With that in mind, look at verse 13, please: “You are the salt of the earth. 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.”
Most of us love salt, even though some of us have learned to limit our intake of it. Salt enhances the flavor of food. But salt is also a great preservative. Those who walk with Jesus preserve what is true and godly. Without moralizing or judging, true followers of Jesus remind us all of God’s will, God’s love, and God’s ability to express His power through weak people surrendered to Him. As Christians turn back to Jesus each day, they become salt of the earth.
Look at what Jesus says in the next three verses: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
Epiphany, you know, is the season of light and throughout these weeks after Christmas, we’ve repeatedly read Bible lessons in which light has been mentioned.
In the Old Testament lessons, we’re told how God called the people of Israel into being to be a light to the nations, showing the world the one true God of the universe, preparing for the arrival of the Messiah.
Jesus comes and we’re told in the New Testament that He is the light of the world.
In today's lesson, Jesus is saying that those who follow Him—you and me—are to give light to the world. His fellow Jews would have found Jesus’ imagery unmistakably clear. The temple in Jerusalem was built on a high mount. From it, God’s people exalted God before the world. It shone forth the power of God’s light for all to see.
Now, we Gentile Christians who, the New Testament says, have been grafted into the people of God by the grace given in Jesus and our faith in Him, are to lift Jesus up before all the world.
Faith in Jesus Christ is not a private matter.
Faith in Jesus is a very public thing.
Jesus commands us to be lights in this darkened world; we’re to let everyone know about the new life that only comes through Jesus. I like the way lyrics written by Steve Taylor for the band, the Newsboys, put it a number of years ago:
Make ‘em wonder what you got.
Make ‘em wish that they were not on the outside looking bored.
Though the entrance fee into the Kingdom of God is free (this is what the Bible calls justification), living the Christian life (this is what the Bible calls sanctification) is also free, a gift from God. But it can be awfully hard to take hold of that gift.
That’s because as we seek to live the Christian life, we constantly face the temptation to blend in with the rest of the world, bland and tasteless, dim and lifeless.
But if we submit to daily repentance and renewal, which is how Lutherans describe the process of sanctification--being made holy or set apart for God--and we let Jesus Christ show us our sins to forgive them and then empower us to live like salt and light, you know that following Christ is never boring.
We may find ourselves doing crazy things that may cause people of the world--even our friends and relatives--to shake their heads.
Things like feeding the hungry through Saint Vincent de Paul, going on mission trips to the Navajo Reservation, Haiti, and Memphis, spending hours on Upward Sports, washing toilets or picking up trash so that the church building is hospitable for visitors who enter this place all week long, taking time to pray for others and listening to their hurts, forgiving others who have hurt us, seeking God’s direction in our decision making, and, maybe most outrageous of all, obeying God’s commands even when every fiber of our minds and bodies and wills scream that they want to do something different!
“Don’t keep your relationship with Me hidden,” Jesus is saying today. “Let it inform everything about the way you live. Live your faith out loud! Don’t be afraid to let others see you trusting in Me and so growing in that trust that you live a life others consider outrageous, but I call blessed!”
If we keep our faith in Christ a personal thing, doesn’t Jesus have every right to think that we’re ashamed of Him?
And friends, Jesus warns us against being ashamed of Him. In Matthew 10:32-33, He says: “"Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.”
Our call is to turn to Jesus again each day so that we can say with the apostle Paul, who writes in Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” The more you can subscribe to that statement, the greater your sanctification, the saltier you become, the more of God’s light you exude!
In what Jesus has said so far, we see that we are blessed—saved by the undeserved, unearned grace of God—in order to be blessings to others.
But the blessing of this amazing grace does not bring an end to the commands— laws—of God given in the Old Testament. Read what Jesus says next, starting at verse 17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
So, what law is Jesus talking about?
We know that the Old Testament contains dietary laws that God rescinded in the New Testament.
We know that ritual laws revolving around sacrifices are no longer needed because Jesus is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world, once and for all.
We know that the Old Testament civil laws--those governing people’s everyday interactions like those passed today by our township trustees, city councils, county commissions, state legislatures, and the US Congress--no longer apply because God’s people no longer live in theocracies.
Surely Jesus isn’t telling us we have to keep all those laws. No, He isn’t.
Jesus here is referring to the moral laws in the Ten Commandments. These laws are inviolable for all time.
Want to know the will of God for your wallet, your mouth, your sex life, your soul?
It’s all there in the Ten Commandments and they haven’t changed in 3500 years.
Jesus says they won’t change until heaven and earth pass away.
They remain as protective fences meant to steer us always toward life at its best.
But you and I know that we can’t successfully obey these laws. The law can’t save us from sin and death. Only Jesus can do that.
So why does Jesus still say the law is important? Lutheran Christians have considered this question and said that there are three purposes that the Law still has.
First, the law acts as a curb on the sinful impulses of all people, even before they know Jesus Christ.
Second, the law drives us to Jesus for grace and forgiveness. When we’re honest, we acknowledge that while we understand God’s commands, we don’t keep them. Our inborn sin prevents us from keeping them. Desperate, we turn to Jesus, seeking the same mercy He showed to the repentant thief who hung on a cross next to Jesus and to whom Jesus promised, “Today, you will be with Me in paradise.”
For the followers of Jesus, there is a third use of the Law. It’s a guide for us. Having been freed by grace from sin and death, the Ten
Commandments become a road map for us. God told the prophet Jeremiah to tell His people centuries ago: “stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies…[to] walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” God was telling the people to remember His commands for them and so be led back to Him when they wandered.
When the realization that we can’t keep God’s law and our helplessness drives us to Jesus for forgiveness and new life, the law leads us to the place where life is found, where rightness with God, with our neighbors, and with ourselves is found.
Now, look at the last verse of our lesson. Jesus says, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
This passage used to trouble me a lot! The Pharisees were scrupulous in keeping God’s law, or at least their version of it. The Pharisees were righteous in their own eyes, but not in God’s. They thought that they were great people who had conquered their own sin. But, in their arrogance, they completely lacked the love for God and neighbor that the Law commands. So, what, I wondered, did Jesus mean by seeming to tell all His followers to try to out-righteous the spiritual snobs He called hypocrites and whitewashed tombs?
Then I realized something: We will be more righteous than the Pharisees—we are more righteous than the Pharisees—when we are humble enough to let the shed blood of Jesus cover our sins and wash us clean.
We will be righteous, meaning completely right with God, when we rely completely on the God we know in Jesus Christ, and not our own wisdom, not our own pretended goodness.
For years, I did my taxes using the TurboTax computer program. And every year, I made the same mistake. I’d be working on some part of my return and figure that I knew something the program didn’t. I input data where I thought it should go and totally messed things up. If I could get back all the hours I’ve spent on the unnecessary, grief-inducing side roads I’ve created for myself, rather than simply following the prompts the program gives, I probably could have done something productive with my life.
God’s moral law is still important, impossible though it is to keep perfectly.
It contains prompts from God, pointing us not only to the right way to live, but also to the One Who wants to lead us into His Kingdom.
Scripture is clear: Unless we let the law lead us each day to Jesus, it will condemn us. Our hearts won’t lead us to Jesus. Nor are our intellects. Nor our good works.
But if we let God’s moral law point us to our desperate need of the grace of Jesus whenever our lives go off course, we will be right with God, in sync with His purposes for our lives.
We will be the salt of the earth who preserve what is godly and good.
We will be the light of the world who show others the way to Jesus.
We will be graced.
We will be blessed.
The Kingdom of heaven will be ours. Amen