Matthew 5:13-20 / 9 February 2014 (Epiphany 5)

You are salt and light. You, baptized believer, disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ-you are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.

Salt seasons and preserves. It works hiddenly, and you don’t need terribly much of it to make a big difference. Just a bit sprinkled here and there, and the whole dish is seasoned. You are not the main dish. That’s Jesus. You’re salt. The seasoning, scattered as Jesus’ priesthood throughout the earth, seasoning your little corner of it by the death and resurrection of Jesus which is what makes you salty. Lose that, and you lose your saltiness, which makes you pretty much useless except to be packed as pavement under people’s feet. Lose the Gospel, the death and resurrection of Jesus for the justification of the sinner, and you are left with nothing more than bland religion. No salt.

The apostle Paul knew that he could pack them in with either displays of power or with impressive displays of wisdom. He knew what his audience wanted. Jews wanted miraculous signs, the Greeks impressive rhetoric and wisdom. Paul delivered neither. To do so would be to lose the salty edge that sets the Christian faith apart from the world of religion. “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Salty speech.

Paul’s speech was not impressive – it was in weakness and in fear with much trembling – hardly the picture of the impressive orator who holds his hearers captive to his every word. Paul would not have been very impressive on TV or in today’s pulpit. He wasn’t impressive back then in his day. He was an educated man, well-schooled and learned. He could have dazzled the Greeks with his knowledge of philosophy, his brilliant rhetoric, his air-tight logic. Instead, he preached Christ crucified, a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. Why? “That your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” Salt never takes over from the main dish.

When you draw attention to yourself instead of to Jesus Christ and Him crucified, you are not being the salt of the earth that you are. The same goes for the church and her ministry. When the church draws attention to herself, when pastors become the center of attention, when church buildings and institutions are the main thing, then the church has lost its saltiness and is fit to be trampled. I suspect that’s why much of the church is in decline these days. It has lost its saltiness. The death and resurrection of Jesus for the justification of the sinner has taken a back seat to the program du jour.

You are the light of the world: you, baptized believer, disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. You are light shining in the darkness. You are light not like the sun or a star but like the moon. You are a reflected light. The light does not originate with you. You, in yourself, are not the light of the world. But you reflect the One who is the Light of the world.

You don’t hide light. You don’t light a lamp and then put a basket over it. You put it up on a stand so it can be seen and the light can fill the darkness. You can’t hide a city on a hill. You can’t hide a baptized believer in Jesus. You are light for the world. Faith is known only to God but works can be seen by men, as James reminds us. God doesn’t want to see our works. Faith in Christ is all that matters to Him. And the world doesn’t want to hear about your faith. It wants to see your works. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Notice who gets the glory here. Not you but the Father. Father presupposes Son. Your light is not you shining but Christ who is your light. Let your light shine before others. Let your Jesus shine before others so that in His light, in the light of His death and resurrection, in the light of His life, others may see your good works and in the light of Christ give glory to your Father in heaven.

This is sometimes hard for us Lutherans to understand. We are “faith alone” people. Sola people. Grace alone. Faith alone. Christ alone. We believe, teach, and confess that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone for Christ’s sake alone. And rightly so! That is the heart and core of the Christian faith. But we dare not forget that these “solas” are all before God not before men. We live by grace alone, faith alone in Christ alone before God. But before men, before family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, classmates, the light of Christ shines on the breath of faith – our works of mercy and witness – so that others may see them and recognize where they come from, not you, but your Father in heaven.

It’s faith alone before God, and works alone before others. Works are the breath of faith, faith’s exhalation in the direction of the neighbor. Works are faith’s faithfulness. We love because we are loved in God’s beloved Son. We forgive because we have been forgiven in Christ. We have mercy because Christ first had mercy upon us and laid down His life as a sacrifice for our Sin. When we don’t love, when faith doesn’t breathe, when we fail to do the mercy that our neighbor needs, we are putting a basket over the light of Christ, hiding what Christ has done and is doing in and through us.

Christ fulfills the Law. Love is the fulfilling of the Law and Christ’s love perfectly fulfills that Law. He did not come to abolish Moses and the prophets but to fulfill them. He didn’t come to set aside the commandments but to keep them, and in keeping them, to fill them up with Himself and bring them to their desired end. Our love is in the freedom of Christ’s love. Our love fulfills the Law only because Christ’s love has already fulfilled it.

And that leads us to a somewhat more subtle way by which we hide the light of Christ or lose our distinctive saltiness. It doesn’t have to do with the Gospel but with the Law. Yet it has everything to do with the Gospel since Law and Gospel can’t be separated. The words of Jesus summarize it: “Therefore, whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”
To relax the Law, to ease the burden of the Law, may seem like a “Gospel” thing to do. It eases the pressure on a guilty conscience. It seems so inclusive to say to someone, “God loves you regardless of what you think, do, and say.” It sounds so Gospel to say, “Let us sin so that grace may abound” and “Who cares about sin since we are under grace and not under law?” The Corinthian congregation seemed so enlightened, so radically “gospel oriented” in their tolerance of just about anything, including a man having an affair with his step-mother. They could boast “all things are lawful to me” and “food for the stomach and the stomach for food” and what does it matter because I’m forgiven anyway. You sometimes hear Lutherans quote Father Luther out of context and say, “Sin boldly,” as if bold sinning were the mark of a Christian. What Luther said was “Sin boldly and trust Christ yet more boldly” and he was writing it to a man who was so fearful of sinning he couldn’t move out of fear.

Jesus warns that whoever relaxes the commandments and their demands will be called least in the kingdom. Jesus didn’t relax the commandments, He amplified them. The Law said, “Do not kill,” and Jesus said, “Don’t even hate.” The Law said, “Do not commit adultery,” and Jesus said, “Don’t even think about it.” The Law said, “Love your neighbor,” and Jesus said, “Love your enemy.” The Pharisees taught, “Try hard and God will reward you,” and Jesus said, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees (and they were doing remarkably well for sinners), you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.

To diminish the Law, to lighten the load of the commandments, is to diminish the work of Christ who came to fulfill the Law with His obedience. It’s to say, “Jesus didn’t have to do that. God didn’t really mean that. He’s our permissive parent in heaven who takes us out for ice cream after threatening to ground us for a year.” When we write off the commandments, we are, in effect, writing off the work of Jesus. If you make the commandments light enough, if you wipe them out iota by dot, sooner or later you won’t need Jesus at all. Why do you need a Savior if you have no sin? Why do you need a Redeemer if the Law doesn’t mean what it says?

That’s the great lie of “antinomianism.” It sounds so loving, so enlightened, so gospel. “God accepts everyone, come as you are, forget the commandments, that was then, this is now. God is love.” No! God justifies sinners. That’s what He does. He doesn’t accept everyone “as they are,” He doesn’t love them “for who they are,” God justifies sinners by the perfect life and blood of His Son Jesus. You must be a sinner to be justified, and the Law ensures that you are just that. A sinner. You may not always be poor. And you may not always feel miserable. But you are a sinner. And if you’re a sinner, then you can be certain that Christ died for you, because that’s who He came to save.

This is why I rarely, if ever, answer the question, “Is this a sin or is that sin? The question already diminishes the Law into some sort of rule book of dos and don’ts. The rabbinic Pharisees already tried that trick and fell far short. My answer to that question is to say, “Yes, it’s all sin. Let’s talk about Christ.” It’s very tempting to want to file off this iota of the Law or wipe out this little dot, especially the one that nails me as a sinner. The conscience constantly accuses or makes excuses and we’d like to shut it off and get some peace, so we start tinkering with the Law so we can say to ourselves, “Oh, you’re not so bad.” But we quickly learn that there is no peace that way. The Law can’t be tamed. The Law amplifies sin and accuses and kills the sinner. There is no way under the Law to shut the Law up.

There is only Christ. Christ is the end of the Law for all who believe. The Law, when it has done its work, will drop you dead at the feet of Jesus. That’s all the Law can do for you. It can deliver you dead on arrival to Jesus so that He can raise you. But it’s only the dead He raises.

So let the Law do what it’s intended to do. Kill. Let it judge your every act, every word, every thought and desire. Don’t try to ease it. Don’t make excuses and by no means attempt to justify yourself with the Law. The Law is like quicksand. The harder you struggle with it, the deeper you’re going to sink. The wages of Sin is death. The Law will kill you. Every iota and dot of it will kill you. That’s what it’s supposed to do. You can’t fix a sinner. You can’t make a child of Adam fit for eternal life. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. You must die and rise. You must be born anew from above. The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.

The Law says, “Be holy as the Lord your God is holy.” And in Christ Jesus, baptized and believing, you are holy in His holiness. The Law says, “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven in perfect.” And in Christ Jesus, baptized and believing, you are perfect in His perfection. The Law says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And in Christ Jesus, you are covered with a righteousness not your own, but of Him who came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.

That’s what makes you salt. That’s what makes you light.

In the Name of Jesus,
Amen.

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