5 Epiphany proper A5
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 5:13-20 Sermon
February 9, 2013

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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal & With One Voice):
TLH 411 "From Eternity, O God"
TLH 365 "Jesus I Will Never Leave"
TLH 390 "Drawn To The Cross Which Thou Hast Blest"
WOV 734 "Softly & Tenderly Jesus Is Calling" 


TEXT (vs. 13-16):  “13You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. 14 You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

            Back when I was in my early teens in Junior High School (like Middle School today), we had a science teacher by the name of Mr. Lyberis, Mr. George Lyberis.  I've heard that he is still doing well at age 89.  But he was quite the science teacher, and his classes were always both fun and informative.  I remember him well.

            One day when I walked into the classroom, sitting on the table in the front of the room were two beakers of water, and some sort of contraption with a light bulb attached.  He held up two metal rods with wires attached.  He explained that if the electrical circuit was completed between these two rods, the light bulb would light up.  Then he took an insulated screwdriver and shorted between the two rods, and the light bulb lit up brightly.  Very simple science, indeed.

            Then he continued.  He said, "I'm sure that you've all heard that water and electricity don't mix because water is a great conductor of electricity.  I'm going to show you that this is not quite true."

            And with that, he went to the first beaker of water that contained ordinary tap water. He inserted the two rods (or electrodes as they're properly called) into the beaker of water, and the light came on, but only very dimly.

            Then he went to the second beaker of water that contained distilled water.  He inserted the two electrodes into that beaker, and the light didn't come on at all; in fact there wasn't even so much as a faint glimmer of light.

            But then he did something very interesting.  He reached down under the table and brought up a box of ordinary table salt.  With the electrodes still in the beaker of distilled water, he began to slowly pour salt into the beaker and stir it with a glass rod.  Almost immediately the light bulb started to light; and in no time at all, the bulb was shining with its full brilliance.  He probably didn't pour in any more than a teaspoon or two of salt, because that's all it took for the salt to do its work and make the light bulb come on.

            He then went on to explain what had happened.  He told us that the water itself wasn't the conductor of electricity; in fact, pure water alone is a very poor conductor of electricity.  It's what the water contains that conducts the electricity.  The distilled water was pure water with nothing else in it; and because of that, nothing happened.  But when he added the salt to the distilled water, that's all it took to make the proper formula so the light would come on.

            Salt is pretty incredible stuff.  I'd guess we all have salt in our homes; in fact, I'd be surprised if you didn't have at least a little on hand.  It's what we would consider a basic main staple in our diets.  And it is literally everywhere.

            In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus uses two metaphors to describe the Christian:  the salt metaphor, and the light metaphor.  And when he makes the comparison, he does so in the present active indicative sense.  He doesn't say that we should be, or that we need to be, but that we actually are salt and light to the world.  He's not setting a goal, and he's not telling us about something we only hope to become.  He's describing our present condition.

            Let's have a further look into the salt aspect. Salt has to be one of the most incredible and versatile substances we have on this earth, as well as being the most prolific.  It’s a mineral found in the earth, known as NaCl on the periodic table of the elements, or Sodium Chloride.  The oceans that cover the greatest percentage of the earth are all salt water.  Then there’s the Bonneville Salt Flats, that I saw driving to California last year.  I also drove past the Morton Salt factory just west ofSalt Lake City, north of Interstate 80.  You'd see a huge mountain of salt piled outside the factory that was harvested from the salt basin.  And in Nebraska, many of you probably know tha tLincoln also sits in a salt basin, where the pioneers and Indians used to come for their annual salt supply.  That’s also why the county just to the south of us is called “Saline County.”

             As human beings, we need a certain amount of salt in our diet.  Unfortunately with processed foods and other salty things we eat, we are in danger of getting too much of it.  But we need a certain amount anyway.  Iodized salt is important in various cultures to prevent people from developing goiters, where a person’s thyroid gland in their neck swells up like a big balloon.

            I remember watching my mother bake a cake when I was a boy.  I was horrified when I saw her reach for the box of salt and add it to the cake batter.  I protested, "But cake is supposed to be sweet, not salty!"  My mother explained to me that it was only a pinch of salt, only just enough to bring out the flavor.  She assured me that it wouldn't taste salty; and of course it didn't.  I was always sure to not forget it when I made something.

            It wasn't until years later that I discovered how important this was.  When I was making Christmas cookies, I had made some icing to put on them.  I iced one, and ate it.  It tasted horrible!  The cookies themselves tasted fine; it was the icing that was the problem.  It was only then I discovered I had used unsalted butter.  So I added a little bit of salt, and everything tasted just fine. 

            Salt is also a great preservative to keep meat from spoiling, such as in ham, bacon, and corned beef.  We use it to melt ice on our sidewalks in the winter.  We put it in our water softeners to create a chemical reaction.  People in hospital will have an IV bag of normal saline to keep them hydrated and to use as a method of giving other medications.  People who wear contact lenses buy saline solution by the bottle.  Salt is one very important mineral indeed.  

            In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus presents us with a “what if” sort of situation.  What if salt loses its saltiness?  What if salt has lost its important properties?  What good is it to anybody?  Salt that isn’t salty won’t improve the taste of food, or preserve anything.  Unsalty salt won’t melt ice or soften our water.  It is absolutely worthless.  It might as well be thrown out into the street.

            Just as salt is important as a basic staple in our lives, we can compare that to our Christian faith that is within us.  Faith is what happens when the Holy Spirit works in our lives.  Through faith, we are joined with our Saviour Jesus Christ in every way.  He lives within each and every Christian.  His will becomes our will, and his life gives our lives meaning and importance.  Because Jesus is the very salt of our souls, he influences all that we say and do. 

            But Jesus cannot sit in our souls like salt sitting in a saltshaker.  If salt is not used, it does no good.  It just sits there taking up space.  Like that mountain of salt outside of the Morton Salt factory in Salt Lake City, if it is not taken into the factory and processed, it is just a mountain of salt.

            So let's look at the other half of the metaphor in our Gospel lesson, the metaphor of light.  I can sit a light bulb out on the table, and it will just sit there.  Electricity can't magically flow to it and make it light up.  Something has to happen.

            If we go back to that science experiment I talked about in the beginning, you can have all of the components present to make the bulb light up.  You can have the electricity, the wire, the socket, the bulb and everything ready to go.  You can even stick the electrodes into distilled water.  But nothing will happen until you add the salt.  It's the salt that makes the bulb light up and scatter the darkness.

            It’s at this point where we need to see that the salt and light Jesus is talking about is what he turns us into through faith alone.  This is something the Holy Spirit works in us, and ultimately through us.  So it’s not Jesus commanding us to be salt and light, but rather a description of what the Christian faith has done and is doing in and through us.

            One commentator puts it well:  “Christianity is not about us.  Instead, it is about Jesus and what he did for us.  We do not earn God's blessings, but he gives them to us freely for Jesus sake.  We cannot become salt and light.  Instead, the word of Jesus makes us salt and light.  We are salt and light, not by what we do, but by what Jesus does in us.”  

            Perhaps you can see the pitfalls that people encounter with this.  People think that being salt and light is something they can accomplish all by themselves.  But it can never work that way.  Christianity is not something that comes out of a self-help manual, but something that is purely from God helping us.  God comes into our sin-filled lives and begins to clean house.  He brings us to the knowledge of our sin, and we sorrow because of it.  When the Holy Spirit enters our lives, he produces the salt of faith.  And when that faith is present, then the light of the Gospel shines in us and through us.  God has changed us into something that is suitable for he service in his kingdom.

            Jesus himself is called “the light” various times in Scripture.  In John chapter 1 verses 4 and 5 we read:  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  And in John chapter 8 verse 12 Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

            Everybody, including you and me, have been walking in darkness.  Without Jesus in our lives, our sins keep us groping in the dark.  But Jesus is the light that lights up our life.  The Holy Spirit comes in, cleans house, and opens the windows of our soul to Christ’s light.  When we come to faith in Jesus our Saviour, the darkness of sin cannot dominate our souls any longer.

            Satan would like nothing better than to extinguish that light in our lives.  He wants to clog up our spiritual saltshaker.  He wants to prevent us from being a Christian influence in this world, and in the lives of others.

            That’s where we can clearly see our role in all of this.  Even though Christ is the only one who can make us salt and light, we will sometimes be tempted to hide it from others and keep it to ourselves.  Our own efforts can extinguish that light and make the salt worthless. 

            That’s why Jesus tells us in verses 14-16 of our Gospel today:  “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

            The science experiment from my Junior High School days is a great example of what happens when the correct formula is applied, and the salt makes the bulb light up with its full brilliance.  Without the salt, the light won't work at all. 

            Without the salt of faith, we would have no light and we would have no hope.  But God has seen to it that we have the salt of faith in our lives that will light the path to our Saviour and the blessings he has for all people.  John 3:17says, "For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved."   

            That's the message of the light, the message of the Gospel.  Jesus came into the world to save sinners the likes of you and me through faith alone.  He has lit that lamp in our lives as a guide for us and for others.  We take him at his word, knowing that the Holy Spirit will continue to work in us, so that we can be the salt of the earth and the light of the world out of love for our Saviour.