Download or listen to The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, “Salt and Light” (Matthew 5:13-21)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If God wants light in the darkness or salt on the earth, He doesn’t ask nicely, or invite us to come alongside Him, to work or cooperate with Him; He simply declares it. If God says, “Let there be light,” there is. If God says, “You are the light,” you are. There’s no doubt or question: if you are in Christ, who is the light of the world, if you are following Him, if you are in the light as He is in the light, then you must also be light. To doubt it or question whether Christians are light and salt is as absurd as saying salt is no longer salty. It’s as absurd as taking a lamp, the only light for a dark room, and putting it under a two-gallon basket. It’s as absurd as trying to cover up a city on a hill so that it cannot be seen, or using your hand to block out the light of the sun. It’s not up for discussion about whether Christians, joined to Jesus Christ by baptism, are light and salt. The problem is that sometimes the people of God begin to think that the light is meant to shine on them; they start to think that the salt is for them to consume. That the good works they are to do are meant to glorify them rather than their Father in heaven.
We know what good works we should do. The Law tells us what works are actually good, so that we don’t make up our own good works and do what we think is good and right. The Law, especially its summary in the Ten Commandments, tell us what is good and right for God’s people to do. But what is the goal of the Law? The scribes and Pharisees hear the Law and they think its goal is them: their righteousness, their holiness. That the Law is for them to get holier and holier, more and more righteous, shine brighter and brighter. So they do the Law and they do it well. But Jesus says that unless your righteousness exceeds, abounds, overflows that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Reign of Heaven. But the scribes and Pharisees are about as righteous as it gets. If you were to ask a first century Jew who is the holiest or most righteous person you know, it would probably be a scribe or Pharisee. They know the law inside and out, and they do it. They do it so well that they have laws to guard the Law. Oh, we shouldn’t misuse the Name of Yahweh? Well, then we’ll make a law that we can’t even say the Name. Oh, we should keep the Sabbath holy? Well, then we’ll make rules about how many steps you can take, how much work you can do, so that we don’t desecrate the Sabbath. Good luck trying to exceed their righteousness! If the goal of the Law is your righteousness, no one does it better than scribes and Pharisees.
But maybe your holiness, righteousness, brightness, is not the goal of the Law; maybe, as St. Paul says, the goal of the Law is not you but Jesus. The goal of the Law is Jesus Christ, unto righteousness, for those who believe (Romans 10:4). Righteousness is the goal, but it’s not the goal of the Law. Jesus is the goal of the Law; He is the one who fills up the Law and the Prophets, and He dies as their fulfillment. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is a righteousness prior to death; you get better and better until you die. Your righteousness is a righteousness after death—not yours, but Jesus’. He dies and then He rises again, and His righteousness overflows all the boundaries of the Law. It’s completely outside the Law; over and above; exceeding, abounding, overflowing. And that’s the righteousness that puts your righteousness in a completely different category from scribes and Pharisees. It is righteousness, and it does shine, but it doesn’t shine on you, and its purpose is not to make you better and better until you die. Our good works, salt and light for this world, are not for us at all. If we have Jesus, what need do we have of more righteousness? More righteous than Jesus? That’s absurd. We do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord—who bought and paid for you with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death; and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. We do not shine on ourselves or salt ourselves. We shine in the world, and for the earth. Because the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness” has shone into our hearts the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. That’s what we proclaim as often as we gather around the forgiveness of sins; as often as we eat the bread and body, and drink the cup and the blood: we proclaim Jesus Christ, crucified for sinners. We, like Paul, have resolved to know nothing in this world but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. That salvation is the only light there is for this world; a light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of His people Israel. So we are the slaves of the world, for Christ’s sake, both unbelievers and believers. We proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord for the sake of those who still dwell in the darkness, so that they will glorify God with us in the face of Jesus Christ. Like a lamp in our households, like a city on a hill for our communities, like the sun for the world. Living and serving those whom God has given us to serve. Edifying and building up the Church of God.
We do not lessen the Law at all. We refuse to relax even the least commandment. We will not say that it’s okay if we hate, or lust, or covet, or dishonor those in authority over us. We will not lessen our sin, as if grace were an excuse. We will not lessen the Law, not because it makes us holy, but because to lessen the Law is to blaspheme the cross of Christ. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, and if we lessen the Law then we lessen Jesus. No, we will proclaim the full judgment of the Law against sinners; but only because Jesus Christ died to save sinners. We will confess our own damnation because we know the fullness of God’s salvation for those the Law would damn. And because we know and proclaim that, the light of Christ will shine all the more brighter. Jesus is our righteousness, our holiness, our life; so we can work all the harder for the sake of our family and neighbors; we do what we will hear Jesus describe in our Gospel reading next week: be the best husbands, the best wives, the best children, the best citizens, because this world needs light and salt. And Jesus will continue to shine in the darkness and season the earth, until the day when we live in a creation where there is no need of lamp or sun, because the Lord God is its light, fully and finally. And then we will reign with Him forever, and we will shine like the stars.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/8/14