5 Epiphany proper A5
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 5:13-20 Sermon                                                                                            
February 5, 2017

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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
16  "Blessed Jesus, At Thy Word"
324  "Jesus Sinners Doth Receive"
241  "Father In Whom We Live"
47  "Saviour Again To Thy Dear Name We Raise"  


TEXT (vs. 13-16):  "You 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.  You are the light of the world. 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.”

            If you happened to pick up the Journal-Star this past month (January 16th to be exact), you might have noticed a rather small article about the city of Lincoln, and how they handle the preparations for impending winter weather; in this case it was an ice storm. 

            Here's a quote from the article:  "The city joined the ice fight at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, deploying 20 trucks full of brine and granular salt.  But mostly salt. The liquid brine works most effectively on dry, frozen streets and can get washed away in a steady rain....During other storms, the city has sprayed up to 60,000 gallons on its streets.  As of Monday afternoon, it had used only about 12,000 gallons, mostly to pre-treat the salt before it hits the ground.  The brine activates the salt so it begins melting immediately.... And the moistened salt doesn't bounce around as much when it hits the street.  In  the first 28 hours of this storm, the city had sprinkled and scattered about 1,000 tons of salt, or nearly one-sixth the amount the city would typically use in a winter.  The city’s trucks had already traveled about 12,000 miles since Sunday morning, and were likely keep working until Tuesday morning."   The humorous coincidence with this article is that it was written by a reporter by the name of Peter Salter.

            The fact that the city streets are salted in the winter time is not news to any of us.  That's something we expect living in Nebraska.  If you watch the TV news, they often show the trucks, the maintainers, and the snowplows at the beginning of the season, all in good working order and ready to go.

            And they also show the salt pile on the floor of a big metal shed.  They pile up about 6,000 tons of it to prepare for just one winter season.  They use it to mix the brine, and otherwise spread it on the streets.  Its use has been important in the prevention of accidents and otherwise useful for helping people get around.  And the pile of salt continues to dwindle with each successive storm threat.           

            I don’t know what that pile of salt looks like right now, but I do know that they have had to use it a number of times this winter because of the icy road conditions.  And I also know that its use has been important for the efficient dispatch of paramedics, ambulances, fire trucks, and police cruisers.  

            It is interesting to hear about this brine, or special liquid salt solution that they spray on bridges, viaducts, overpasses, and other places that freeze quickly in order to get a head start on things.  In Nebraska, they mix it with sugar beet juice.  In New Jersey, they mix it with pickle juice.  In Wisconsin, they mix it with juice produced from cheese making.  All of this helps the brine stick the surface so it won't quickly wash away.  Hopefully this "brine cocktail" will help to keep ice from forming where it would be a hazard.

            On a personal note, when we remove the snow from our rental properties, we have a yard maintenance man take care of this.  During the night, he will go and clear snow from the sidewalks.  After he is done, he will put salt over where he just removed the snow.  It doesn’t do a whole lot during the night, but when the sun hits it the next morning, the salt starts to work.  I’ve noticed that where other sidewalks have packed snow and ice, our sidewalks are down to bare cement.

            Yes, living in Nebraska, we have come to know and appreciate the importance of salt when it comes to battling winter snow and ice.  People living in other states who have to deal with similar or worse winter conditions would agree.  Granted it takes a bit more care to keep the salt washed off our cars, and we might grumble when we make the umpteenth trip to the car wash, but the benefits of salt are worth it.  When the salt and sunlight work together, then we can see just how powerful both of those elements are.

            Our Gospel lesson for today deals with those two things, namely salt and light.  Jesus is using these two metaphors to illustrate how a Christian is supposed to be in this world.  The Christian is to be both salt and light, which is a powerful force on this highway we call life.

            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.  As we perhaps learned in high school science, it's 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, and the salt basin in the area of Salt Lake City.  And in Nebraska, many of you probably know that Lincoln 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.

            Salt is used for so many things.  Food without it tastes bland.  Even a pinch is important in making a cake in order to bring out the flavor.  Salt is also a great preservative to keep meat from spoiling, such as in ham, bacon, and corned beef.  Besides melting ice, 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.

            As we examine this section of Scripture, we will note that it follows immediately after our Gospel lesson for last Sunday, which are the beatitudes.  I explained last week that what the beatitudes describe is what God does for us and within us.  The beatitudes are not a formula for us to follow in order to get God’s blessings.

            Jesus is gathering his disciples and teaching them.  As we begin this section, we need to see the way Jesus is speaking to them.  He says, “You ARE salt, you ARE light.”  He doesn’t say, “You need to be salt and light.”  That’s because he is talking to Christians, those who are already true believers.  He is describing what a Christian is in this world.  These are descriptions, and not commands.

            But people have this tendency to think of Christianity as some sort of self-improvement program.  And so people try to convince themselves that being salt and light means that they must live a perfect life, in order that everyone will want to be just like them.  They think that if they can convince others that the Christian life is really, really great, then others too might want to become Christians.  It's almost like they become hawkers on a bad infomercial.  They begin to think that the Christian faith is about an improved life with the Bible as a guidebook for living. 

            And you know, it almost seems like something we can accomplish ourselves.  It sounds like a really good idea to us.  But in reality, something like this is no different than what the Pharisees were trying to do.  They took God’s laws and created their own versions, so they could keep them in a sort of contest with each other as to who could keep the laws more perfectly.  It is an example of one person trying to “out salt” the other person.  And that can get us nowhere.

            We have to be realistic.  We live in a world that is full of sin and depressing things.  In our own lives, we have our share of heartaches, sicknesses, death, and things that adversely affect our deportment.  How in the world can we shove all of that into the closet when we walk out the door of our homes?  How can we be “salt and light” by our own volition with all that lurking in the background?

            People try doing that.  They will develop what I like to call a “plastic personality” where everything is just all hunky dory and smiles and laughter; that is, on the outside.  But on the inside, people are harboring an emotional disaster area, and are otherwise a complete mess. 

            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.”  

            Jesus 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.”

            Sin is frequently equated with darkness.  When Jesus calls the Apostle Paul to be a disciple, Jesus speaks to him directly in Acts chapter 26 verses 17-18:  “I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place amongst those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

            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.”

            At the beginning, I told you about what happens when you spread salt on an icy sidewalk while it’s dark.  The salt really doesn’t do much of anything.  But when the sun hits it, even though it still might be below freezing, the salt will work and the ice will melt, right down to the bare cement.

            We are salt and light in the world.  Just like that salt on the sidewalk, we would be of no use without the light of Jesus Christ in our lives.  He is the one who clears the darkness of sin from our souls, and gives us the light and salt that comes through faith alone.

            This is something that many of us learned as children too.  Remember the old Sunday School song?  “This little gospel light of mine, I’m going to let it shine; this little gospel light of mine, I’m going to let it shine; this little gospel light of mine, I’m going to let it shine, let it shine, all the time, let it shine.”   And the rest of the verses just keep reinforcing that:  “Hide it under a bushel?  No!  I’m going to let it shine…All around the neighborhood, I’m going to let it shine…Don’t let Satan blow it out, I’m going to let it shine…Let it shine ‘till Jesus comes, I’m going to let it shine.”

            We’re salt and light on the highway of life on this earth.  That’s what Jesus has done in our lives.  We're "salty Christians."  And with his help, we can let that Gospel light of ours shine in and through us to the world until he comes again in glory.