An accomplished musician offered to teach a young man how to play the piano...for free. The young man was excited to learn.
For the first few sessions, the young man excitedly came to the lessons prepared and he did learn.
But then, something happened. The young man still wanted to receive the free gift he was receiving and still wanted to play like his mentor. But he didn’t want to practice. He liked the idea of being able to tell people that he was a musician. But he clearly wasn’t being one or becoming one.
Finally, his teacher said, “You’re not using this gift.” and he dropped the young man’s lessons.
What do we do with the free gifts that come to us in this life?
I’m not talking about the “free gifts” we receive from businesses trying to get us spend our money on their products. I’m talking about precious gifts given to us with love.
Of all the precious gifts that might come to us in this life, none is more spectacular than God’s gift of His Son, Jesus.
Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for our sin, the perfect bridge between a righteous God and you and me, who are born into a state of unrighteousness, of sin, of separation from God that can only lead to death. Jesus enacts and proves the powerful love of God for each one of us. In Romans 5:8, we read: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
And Jesus refers to the magnitude of this gift when He tells Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” [John 3:16]
All who repent and believe in Jesus Christ have a great gift. It cost Jesus a death of great suffering on the cross to secure it for us. As a friend of mine once told me, "Whenever I think of what Jesus did for me on the cross, I wonder why I sin." She values this incredible gift!
The question for all who confess Jesus as their God and King each day then is this:
What will we do with this gift?
Our first lesson from today reminds us of how ancient Israel was given great gifts like a relationship with God, a land of their own, and the promise of life with God for all who believed. But Israel seemed to think that God’s gift was their entitlement.
They turned their relationship with God into a business transaction. They thought that if they worshiped right, prayed right, sacrificed right, God would owe them what they wanted.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God told Israel: “...on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers...You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high...Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer [what we would today call immigrants or refugees] with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn…”
James delivers the same message to Christians in the New Testament when he succinctly writes, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” [James 2:17]
Are we using the gift of new life God grants to all who believe in Jesus, as intended?
Or are we forgetting the gift, living without the power of God in our lives, ignoring the needs of others?
This brings us to Jesus’ words for us in today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 5:13-20. Jesus’ words here continue His time of teaching disciples, believers like you and me, that we began to look at last week. So, please look at our lesson. Verse 13: “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 underfoot.”
In first century Judea, salt not only seasoned food, it was also widely used as a preservative.
Jesus’ disciples are people who change the flavor of this world. They’re not caught up in dog-eat-dog. They know they belong to the God Who has conquered sin, death, and darkness of this world and so, they pour themselves out in love for God, love for neighbor, and in sharing Christ with others.
Jesus’ disciples also preserve the message of the Gospel for the world to know. Someone has said that the Christian Church is always just one generation from extinction. Unless we pass the good news of Jesus onto our families, friends, co-workers, classmates, and disbelieving world, that good news might not be available to others.
They won’t know that God can save them from sin and death.
They won’t know that God can give their lives meaning and purpose.
They won’t know the freedom God gives to us to fight injustice, feed the hungry, and make disciples.
When salt loses its saltiness, it’s useless. When disciples no longer live out their faith, their faith is useless and they erect a wall between themselves and God.
Verse 14-16: “You are the light of the world. A town built 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 others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
When I was in the fifth and sixth grades, it was common for boys and girls who liked each other to say that they were "going steady." Going steady then basically meant that they held hands when they walked home from school and when their parents dropped them off at places like the movies or Fun Night. In the sixth grade, I couldn't figure out why any girl wouldn't go steady with me, because I was a charmer. Eventually, I asked a girl to go steady with me. She said yes. Then, I thought better of it. The girl wasn’t popular and I was afraid that people would make fun of me if they knew that I was seeing her. So I asked her if we could keep the whole thing our little secret. Not good.
Here’s the deal: When Jesus Christ is your God and Savior and King, you don’t ask Him to let you keep the whole thing your little secret.
When we push Jesus into the closet of our lives, we can’t fulfill our purpose in life of bringing His light to others.
We also plunge our own lives into darkness, snuffing out the flame of Christ’s grace that comes to those who believe.
Jesus says in Matthew 10:32-33: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.”
Do you own your relationship with Jesus before the world?
Do people know that the good you do in your daily life comes from Jesus Christ alone?
You and I were saved from sin and death so we could be free to live in the brightness of God’s grace, with Christ’s love at the center of everything. It's not a thing to be concealed, but shared!
In Matthew 5:17-20, the balance of our Gospel lesson, Jesus warns us not to forget God’s moral law. The moral law is summarized in the ten commandments. Jesus further distilled them in the great commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength sums of the first through third commandments; love your neighbor as you love yourself summarizes commandments four through ten.
Jesus came into our world not to abolish the moral law, but to fulfill it perfectly, so that a sinless Savior could take the death punishment He didn’t deserve on behalf of sinners, like you and me, who do deserve it. All who live a lifestyle of sustained repentance and belief in Jesus have the victory over death that He won on the cross.*
Some people see God’s forgiving grace as license to do whatever they want to do, to ignore God’s will for human beings as embodied in God’s moral law. Wrong!
That’s why Jesus says in verse 19: “...anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
A disciple would never presume to say things like: “Because I’ve been saved by grace, I can steal, I can take God’s name in vain, I can slander others, I can commit adultery.”
God’s grace isn’t permission to ignore the will of God.
God’s grace is the freedom to daily call out to God for help in the name of Jesus to seek to live a life lived in the power of God.
Christians see grace as their emancipation proclamation; in Christ, God sets us free to pursue being our best selves, our God selves. That’s what Christians seek to be with the gifts of grace--forgiveness, new and everlasting life with God--that come to us through faith in Jesus.
In the last verse of our lesson, Jesus says: “...unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The Pharisees of first century Judea, of course, were known as a straight-laced, judgmental bunch.
The Pharisees boiled down their faith to a contract with God: If I do good things, God is bound to recognize my righteousness.
But the Bible testifies that none of us has or can attain righteousness on the strength of our own good works.
You know, there are times when I do something good, that follows God's will, and I think to myself, ever so subtly, "I really am a good person." Even the good things I do in response to God's grace then, aren't free of the taint of my sin.
This what the prophet Isaiah was confessing when he said “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” [Isaiah 64:6]
And Paul reminds us in Romans 3: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.” [Romans 3:10-11]
But thank God, God seeks us!
God wants us.
He wants us with Him for eternity.
He loves us passionately.
And to everyone who daily surrenders to God’s grace, available in Christ, God gives what we can’t earn, manufacture, or pretend our way into having. God gives us His righteousness, a right relationship with Him, with others, with ourselves.
God covers us in the pure, perfect righteousness of Jesus that infinitely surpasses any righteousness that can be found or faked in this world.
The righteousness of Jesus given to those who believe is the greatest gift of all.
Use it well, disciples!
- Trust in Jesus.
- Then let Him use you to be salt and light, upholders of His law, bearers of His righteousness.
*It's important to remember that repentance isn't simply sorrow for one's sin. It's a sorrow that leads one to turn to Christ for forgiveness, for the granting of grace that covers our sins, and for the power of the Holy Spirit to lead new lives filled with peace with God.