The Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
St Paul Lutheran Church, Manito, IL
Rev. James T. Batchelor
This morning’s Gospel picks up where last week’s Gospel left off. We are still in the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount. To more fully understand the teachings of Jesus that we heard this morning, it is important for us to review the context of these teachings.
Matthew sets the stage for the Sermon on the Mount with these words: Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them … (Matthew 5:1-2) Sometimes that word crowds diverts our attention away from the word disciples. Matthew has begun to record the time of Jesus ministry when He is very popular. So, there are crowds. Never the less, Matthew also informs us that it was His disciples who came to listen to this sermon. It is not clear from the context whether this is just the twelve disciples He has called to be His apostles or whether this is all His disciples. What we do know is that Jesus is speaking to people who believe in Him. While it is always good for believers and unbelievers to hear the Word of God, we should understand that the words in this sermon are primarily for believers.
Jesus began His sermon with the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. And so forth. (Matthew 5:3–11) With these words, Jesus comforted His hearers with the gifts that God gives to those who are utterly helpless. God reigns for those who understand that they are “poor in spirit.” God gives comfort to those who mourn over spiritual poverty. God will give the earth to those who understand that they don’t deserve it. And so forth. Martin Luther give an excellent summary of these teachings in his explanation of the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace …” Within the Beatitudes, Jesus reminds us that while we have nothing, God, by His grace, blesses us with everything.
Jesus has taught us that although we have nothing in ourselves, we have everything in Him. In the section of the sermon that we heard a few minutes ago, Jesus continued by telling us the effect His people will have on the world. “You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:13–14) Notice that Jesus did not say, “You should be the salt of the earth,” or “You should be the light of the world.” Instead, He said, “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.” Too often, we take these words as commands instead of descriptions. We start beating up on ourselves because we are not salty enough or we are not shining our light. We make it all about ourselves instead of about Jesus. We want to be responsible for making ourselves salty and full of light. But Jesus makes it very clear that saltiness and light are already ours in Him.
So, Jesus has said that we are “poor in spirit.” When we stand before God, we’ve got nothing. Then He told us that, although we are “poor in spirit,” He has blessed us with the reign of Heaven and all the other gifts of the Beatitudes. Now we hear that, because of these blessings that He gives, we are salt and light to the earth. What does it mean that we are salt and light?
Although doctors warn us about too much salt in our diets, it does have many good qualities. For example: salt is a preservative. Humanity has long known that food packed in salt will not spoil nearly as fast as usual. Before refrigeration came along, salt was essential as a preservative.
Salt is also a disinfectant McDonalds used to make its own French Fries directly from raw potatoes. They didn’t come frozen in boxes. Making French fries was a full-time job. That meant the cooks were being exposed to hot shortening and salt all the time. Every so often the melted shortening would splash on one of them and create a burn, and it didn’t take long for salt to work its way into the burn. They quickly learned two things about salt. Salt really stings when it gets into a burn, but the salt causes the burn to heal very quickly, and they never had a burn get infected. So, although the salt stung like gangbusters, it also promoted the healing of the burn.
When Jesus said that we are salt, He was thinking of the rotten corruption of evil in this world. Just as salt disinfects and preserves, so also Jesus sends His people into the world to disinfect and preserve the world from sin.
Light is, more or less, the same thing. When Jesus said that we are light, He was thinking of the darkness of sin. Just as light dispels darkness and reveals the truth, so also Christ’s church is to dispel the deception of sin and reveal the truth of Christ’s salvation. Certain frequencies of light also have disinfecting properties. So, like the salt, this can also stand for disinfecting the world from sin.
I don’t think we truly appreciate how strange this is. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16) … But, wait a minute. Didn’t Jesus just remind us that we are “poor in spirit?” Didn’t He just tell us that we come before God with nothing? How, then, are we to bring glory to our Father who is in heaven? How are we supposed to salt and light the world?
The evil threesome of the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature want us to believe that the primary goal of Christianity is self-improvement – the focus being on the self. That evil trio wants us to think that being salt and light means living such a perfect life that everyone will want to be just like us. If we can convince others that the Christian life is really, really great, then they too might want to become Christians. Our evil foes want us to believe that the Christian faith is about an improved life with the Bible as a guide book for living. They want us to believe that this is the faith that will be salt and light to others.
The Bible, on the other hand, tells us that this salt and light are in Jesus. The salt and light are in the Kingdom of Heaven that He gives to those who are “poor in spirit.” The salt and light begin in Jesus Christ as the Holy Spirit inspired John to write: 4In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4–5) From these words we learn that Jesus is the light of the world that no darkness can overcome. The Holy Spirit also inspired John to write these words: 23And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. (Revelation 21:23) From these words we learn that Jesus is the light of the next world as well.
Jesus is the light of the world because He is its salvation. Jesus works salvation by fulfilling the law and the prophets just as He says in the second half of today’s Gospel: “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. (Matthew 5:17) These words tell us that Jesus placed himself under the law. As Paul told the Galatians: When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4–5) In this way, Jesus fulfilled the law for us.
Jesus, the light of the world, triumphed over darkness on the cross and three days later He confirmed that triumph as He rose from the dead. With His resurrection, He demonstrated that He really is the light of the world. All His promises will come true, especially the promise that all who believe in Him have everlasting life.
Jesus is the light of the world and by His suffering, death, and resurrection; He has made us the light of the world. All who believe in Him have forgiveness, life, and salvation. We regularly confess that we are poor, miserable, sinners who have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed. As we confess our sin, He absolves us, He gives us His light. We regularly come forward to His altar, and He gives us Himself as we receive his body and blood in the bread and wine.
Our good works have nothing whatsoever to do with our salvation. Jesus Christ, with His perfect life, His suffering and death, and His resurrection has already done everything. Our salvation is a done deal in Him. There is nothing left to do as far as our salvation is concerned. Instead, our good works are the result of salvation at work in us.
Jesus does not ask us to be salt and light for our salvation. Instead, He asks us to be salt and light for the sake of our neighbor. This is what Jesus meant when He taught, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) Jesus commissions us to be salt and light so that our neighbor will come to know who God is so that the Holy Spirit may convert our neighbor to faith and discipleship. He also commissions us to be salt and light for the edification of our brothers and sisters in Christ so that we may encourage each other to grow in faith.
This is done as we live out our vocations as fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, teachers and students, employers and employees … that we work, play, and worship in a way that causes people to ask what makes us different. Why do we strive for excellence in what we think, say, and do? In this way, we will salt and light the world.
The devil, the world, and our own sinful nature will always accuse us of not being salt and light. They will try to convince us that when we fail to be salt and light that we need to try harder. We need to work on our saltiness. We need to work at shining. That is their constant lie: You need to try harder. You need to work smarter. You are the one who is responsible. They know that no matter how hard we try or how smart we work, it will never be enough. We are always doomed to failure.
Jesus says, “You are salt. You are light. It is not your work, but mine.” Don’t listen to your heart. Jesus says it is full of evil. Don’t listen to the world for the world hates both you and God. Don’t listen to the devil for he is the enemy of God. Listen instead to the simple promise of Jesus Christ. You are salt. You are light. Amen