To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Monday, September 06, 2004

Salt and Light Anyway

Sermon on Matthew 5:13-16
New York Avenue Church of Christ, Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Sunday, September 5, 2004

Geoff McKee, principle of Boca Raton High School in Florida, doesn't mind letting people know he's a man of faith. But Mr. McKee is attracting criticism for talking about God on the job. According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, McKee "has spoken of God at staff meetings at least three times since he became Boca Raton High School's principal a year ago."

"Earlier this month," according to the Sun-Sentinel, "McKee told teachers he asked God to help him find a foreign-language instructor and, sure enough, she appeared. He knew the story might offend some on the staff. But he said he feels compelled to present himself honestly."

"'I don't think there's anything wrong or unconstitutional with acknowledging God in public,' he said. 'The President talks about God frequently. I believe it is appropriate for public officials to make reference to God as long as a particular church is not being promoted or put down.'"

That sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Yet some teachers and parents are complaining because McKee called public teaching "God's work" and referred to the Bible as "the greatest book ever written." An art teacher at the high school complained, "There should be freedom from religion in the workplace."

Now let's stop and think for a minute what's happening here. Mr. McKee has not used his position as a public-school principal to pressure staff members or children to agree with him. He has not made any effort to convert them or even invite them to church. All he has done is mentioned the God who sustains him without insisting or even urging that anyone else agree with him. But he's being accused of infringing on someone's freedom from religion.

It really shouldn't be surprising that something as harmless as the mere mention of God should bring a public outcry. Our culture, after all, tells us that religion is strictly a "personal matter." In one sense, that's true. Each of us alone is answerable to God for our life and our obedience (or disobedience). But increasingly, that's not what people mean when they call religion a private matter. To many Americans, it means "Don't mention God in public at all." Although we are used to being bombarded by hundreds of advertisements each day urging us to buy things, many Americans get upset at the mere mention of God.

We can see fear of mentioning religion in public life even from those who claim a faith in God. For example, we have candidates for public office who take the puzzling position that they believe in God yet don't think their faith should affect any of their political views. This kind of attitude is not limited to public officials. Several years ago I discussed having a lunchtime Bible study with several Christian co-workers. The plan fell through because the only one of us with a private office didn't feel it was "appropriate" to have a Bible study as a private gathering, on our own time, behind closed doors because we would be meeting on government property.

In reality, our faith is not a private thing just between us and God. It is a public, world-wide movement in which each Christian is blessed to be a part. Christ Jesus is the head of the church and savior of the body (Eph. 5:23). We are saved not as disjointed Christians but as living members of that body. The Apostle Paul told the Colossians, "For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross" (Col. 1:19, 20). In fact, our faith is supposed to be so public that we shine like a beacon on a hill (Isaiah 30:17).

In our passage for today Jesus tells Christians that we are to preserve and enlighten the world. Jesus certainly did this. And if you know the rest of the story of Jesus, you know that the world didn't appreciate the favor.

In fact, the world will oppose us hate us, even precisely because we belong to Jesus Christ. We're not talking here about being hated because we spout poison or nag at the world over petty things. We all know Christians (preachers can be some of the worst) who major in the minors. They tell the world, "Don't go to movies. Don't wear bathing suits. Don't smoke. Don't drink one sip of champagne at a wedding reception. Don't buy this or that. Don't shop here or there." Some Christians, even though their doctrine is good, are arrogant and pushy. Of course people in the world don't want to see those kinds of people coming.

But we're not talking about the world hating Christians who get it wrong. We're talking about the world hating Christians who get it right. God doesn't call us to go down the Righteous Living Checklist and make sure every box is checked. God calls us to be changed by the blood of Christ from the inside out. He calls us to be transformed by the Holy Spirit through repentance and baptism. He calls us to proclaim Christ to the world in word, deed, and lifestyle. Of course, if we're living that way, we should be changing in all those little, outward ways, too.

And if we're living right, abiding in Christ, we should expect something else as well. We should expect to be hated. Jesus said, "If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own, but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (John 15:18). In short, the world hates Christians who live like Christians because we are like Jesus and not like everyone else. The world hates Christians because "the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should not dawn upon them" (2 Cor 4:4).

The world will hate us in proportion to how much we bear and proclaim the Word of God. The writer of Hebrews tells us that "the word of God is living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Heb. 4:12). I've always read that passage and thought that the Word, the Bible, helps me to know the difference between truth and error. I still think that's true. But even more than that inward work, the Word has an outward work of dividing the faithful from the unbelieving, the sheep from the goats. Whenever the Word of God goes out into the world in preaching, teaching, good works, or worship it divides God's obedient children from those in rebellion. We've seen that very thing happen during the life of Jesus as we've been studying John's Gospel on Wednesday evenings.

The world is just waiting for Christians to mess up. You may have heard the story about the preacher who was building a trellis on the back of his house. As the preacher worked, a neighborhood boy came over and watched him for a long time. The preacher thought for sure the boy must be admiring his work. Finally, the preacher, proud of his craftsmanship, asked the boy, "Well, son, are you trying to pick up some pointers on carpentry?"

"No," the boy said, "I just want to find out what a preacher says when he hits his thumb with a hammer" (Hoke).

That story may be a preacher's tale, but the main idea is true. A few months ago I slipped on the hill in my front yard while mowing the lawn and cut off three and a half toes. Can you guess the most popular questions people outside the church ask me about the accident? I'll tell you: "What were the first words out of your mouth when you did it?"

Preachers aren't the only Christians who find themselves being scrutinized. This past week a friend asked me to help him understand a couple of his bluegrass buddies. Both of his buddies are members of churches of Christ. They don't believe in playing guitar along with gospel songs, not only during worship, but even during lunch and on the front porch. "How can these guys refuse to play 'Amazing Grace,'" my friend asked me, "when they don't mind playing 'Whisky Before Breakfast.'" My friend's not the only one who wonders.

The world is watching us! What do they see? People living like everyone around them, or someone taking on the shape of Jesus Christ more and more every day? If we're abiding in Christ, we'll become more and more like him. And the world will hate us more and more, too.

Still, we're called to be salt and light to the very world that hates us. To be salt that means to preserve the world. Today salt is mostly a seasoning. But to people in Jesus' day, before there were refrigerators or freezers, salt kept meat and other foods from spoiling. Some of you may remember doing this yourself preserving ham and other meat with salt. In many ways, some of which we don't even comprehend, Christians are called to keep the world from spoiling worse than it already has.

One example of Christians being salt is the Predisan work in Honduras. Predisan provides free and low-cost medical care in the name of Christ to those who can't afford treatment otherwise. When I was down in Honduras last year for the new clinic dedication in Catacamas, I climbed to the top of a mountain north of town. From there I could look down and see all of Catacamas a town with about the same number of people as Oak Ridge. Do you know what the most prominent building in town was? The Predisan clinic, right in the center of downtown Catacamas. The building was large, and clean, and its roof literally shone in the Central American sunlight. The workers at Predisan, and the Christians who support the work with their money and time, are a powerful force at preserving and healing the people of Catacamas and surrounding villages. And all their work is done in the name of Jesus Christ.

Not all of us will be involved in foreign or medical missions. But every one of us can be salt in any of a thousand ways baby sitting for our neighbors, inviting friends to church, volunteering in the community, doing chores for the elderly and shut-in, joining in the many works of God's people and in all things telling the wonderful good news of our redemption in Jesus Christ.

If we are living by faith in Christ we are also light that illuminates the world. Through faith in Jesus Christ we have the Word of truth that enlightens the mind. We shine the light of Jesus to show the lost the way out of death and confusion. We shine light on how to rear healthy children, build healthy families, and find meaning in our lives. We shine the light on how to prosper and bear fruit in our lives. And that light shines forth from God's people in proportion to our willingness to submit to God and do his will. Isaiah talked about how brightly God's people shine when we live the way God creates us to live:

Is not this the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to give your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor that are cast out to your house? when you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you don't hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth as the morning, and your healing shall spring forth speedily; and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of Jehovah shall by your rear guard (Isaiah 58:6-8).

When we live lives of mercy and compassion, our light will shine like the morning sun, and the Lord will take care of us.

But the catch is that to serve the world as God expects of us, we have to live differently from the world. It's impossible to preserve or shine if we're as rotten and dark as the world around us. As Paul told the Philippians, Christians are to be "children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation; among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life."

The preacher Campbell Morgan once heard a man in his congregation tell him that he and a co-worker had worked side-by-side for five years before they each found out that the other was a Christian. "Isn't that funny," the man said to Morgan.

"Funny? No, it's not funny at all," Morgan said. "You both need to be born again" (Hoke). These men knew each other well, but nothing in either of their lives showed they were any different from the unbelievers around them.

In this passage in Matthew 5 Jesus tells us what happens when Christians don't live any differently from unbelievers. It's like putting a lamp under a basket you might as well not have the light (or the basket, for that matter). Taking the name of Christ and not reaching out to a lost world is like salt that becomes so polluted and dirty it's no good anymore for salt only for being thrown on the ground and trampled. Remember that these words are addressed to God's people at that time, the Jews. After the Jews refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah they were indeed trampled by God in the form of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and Judea in A. D. 70.

One more thing. God's people aren't salt and light in order to make the world happier or more comfortable. God is merciful, but the world is still lost, and doomed to destruction because of sin. We are to be salt and light so that the world may see our good works and glorify the Father in heaven (Mt. 5:16). It's important to understand why we are salt and light not to please the world but to glorify God. That's because it's not our power that does the preserving it's God's. We may be the salt, but God gives the saltiness. It's also not our light it's Jesus, and he makes our light shine. We have the light not because our own best efforts are bright and shining, but because we have the grace of God. If we try to rely on our own saltiness and light we're in bad shape. But when we rely on God's power, we will prosper and the world will be blessed through us.

Years ago the German professor Joachim Jeremias said, "The law leaves man to rely upon his own strength and challenges him to do his utmost. The gospel, on the other hand, brings man before the gift of God and challenges him really to make the inexpressible gift of God the basis for his life."

Only when we give God the glory do we share in his glory, in his light. Only when we fall at the feet of Jesus to acknowledge our sin and weakness, his righteousness, salvation through his blood, the wonderful salvation in his church only then are we lifted up to preserve the world, and to shine.


Hoke, J. David. "Salt and Light: Matthew 5:13-16." On-line sermon text at

Jeremias, Joachim. "Chapter 5: Not Law, but Gospel." From The Sermon on the Mount. On-line copy at

Solomon, Lois K. "Boca principal under fire for making references to God," Sun-Sentinel, August 25, 2004. On-line copy at,0,3216178.story?coll=sfla-news-palm

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ


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