Do you ever wonder what it would take to make the world a better place. Less rotten? Less foolish? Less stupid? Less tasteless? Less dark? Less base?
I do. People at large would come up with a range of suggestions. Some people put their confidence in the political system. The government is there to improve things, and once a decade we change who is in power because we’re not convinced the current lot are fixing things well enough, so we try somebody else.
Others would say that capitalism is the answer. A video was put on the internet in November. It starts with a picture of a girl running in a field. The voiceover runs like this. “This child was born in the past year. She is expected to live to at least the age of 70. If she had been born just two centuries earlier, she would not have been expected to survive beyond her 30th birthday. The almost miraculous increase in life expectancy of the past two centuries is mainly the result of capitalism. By making life healthier, easier and better, capitalism has made life longer for billions of people around the world. Capitalism has given each of us a future, the chance to experience all that life offers. To defend and advance capitalism is to defend and advance our lives and those of our loved ones. What could be more important?” Get the world to embrace capitalism, things will improve further.
Others don’t like that, so they protest against capitalism, as if anti-capitalism were the answer.
Christians by and large reach for some better answers. Some would say that society will improve if we go back to the traditional values that we’ve lost. If the next generation can grow up once again knowing the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments, things might be a little less hopeless. Others would say that religion in general holds the key. Others would say that God can make things better. Others would be more precise still, and say that the answer is Jesus.
Jesus tells us in these verses from Matthew’s gospel what it will take to make the world a better place. The answer is surprising. It’s not God, or Jesus. It’s the Christian church. It’s groups of disciples. It’s ordinary Christians. It’s you, and it’s me.
But it’s not automatic. If the Christian church is to be God’s answer to improve a world that is frequently dark, rotten and lacking taste, two things must happen.
We must not lose our distinctiveness.
The first thing that needs to happen is this: We must not lose our distinctiveness. We must not lose our distinctiveness.
Verse 13: “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.”
Jesus compares us to salt. He says we are like salt. You are the salt of the earth. What point is he making?
In the ancient world, there were two main uses for salt. It was used as a preservative. People didn’t have fridges, so they would put salt on meat to stop it from going bad. If that is what Jesus means, he is saying that the world will go rotten all by itself, just as surely as a sirloin steak won’t smell or taste good after a day in the hot sun. We are the salt that stops the rot. Today, he might have said (although there’d be problems with saying it): You are the deep freeze of the earth. When society goes rotten, we shouldn’t criticise society in pious “letters to the editor”, but ask why the salt was not applied. It’s not the meat’s fault if it goes bad if nobody put it back in the fridge.
The other use for salt was to flavour things, a use it still has today. If that is what Jesus means, he is saying that we are in society to make it a better place, to give the place a little more taste.
Jesus doesn’t tell us which he means. Perhaps he’s being deliberately ambiguous, so that we think of it from both angles. In any case, the exact way in which the salt helps isn’t his point. He tells us that we are like salt so that he can say one thing: The salt must not lose its saltiness. Literally, it must not lose its taste, or it must not become foolish.
How does salt lose its saltiness? Like this. In the ancient world, they didn’t have beautifully white refined table salt. They used something a bit like rock-salt. You remember the recent snow? There were footpaths that looked like they were gritted but the snow was still settling. That was salt that had lost its saltiness. The water and snow had leached the actual salt out of it. What you had left you might still call salt, but it had no actual salt in it.
So that is what he is saying. We are here to have an influence on the world of some kind. There’s some positive influence involved, as we improve the flavour of the world. There’s some negative influence involved, as we stop the rot. But we can’t do either of those things if we have lost the distinctive thing that we are supposed to contribute to society. And without that, there is no hope. The word “You” at the start of this is emphatic. “You are the salt of the earth”, and I mean “only you”.
So we must not lose our distinctiveness. Those qualities we thought about last time, Jesus’ portrait of what makes the follower of his different from other people: They really matter.
Sadly, though, the salt often loses its saltiness. The history of the Christian church contains many episodes where Christians compromised. Where they looked little to no different to the world around them.
Instead of being a source of influence, preventing decay and working for good, the church merely adopts the world around. It takes its culture, its morals and its values from the world. Sometimes this has been so much so, that the church has actually promoted the world’s values, when in fact it should have been standing against them.
It’s not just the church, considered corporately, that can lose its saltiness. Which of us does not feel this pressure individually as well. We feel the pressure to have the same standards of living as those around us, to drink the same amount at a party, to have the same standard of truthfulness when it comes to our expenses claims or our taxes, to have the same casual attitude to the speed limit, and so on. And then we adopt the world’s standards rather than living the way Jesus set out last time: We too quickly become proud, self-satisfied, glib, brutal and self-indulgent.
The pressure is on for us to lose our saltiness, to lose it as a church, and to lose it individually. But we must not. Because we are the salt of the earth. We must not lose our distinctiveness.
We must not hide our discipleship
The second thing that must happen if we are to be God’s agent to improve the world, is that we must not hide our discipleship. We must not hide our discipleship.
Verse 14: “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.”
Jesus has changed his picture. He’s no longer comparing us to salt. Now we are light.
Light is a big Old Testament image. We remember it from those readings we get at Christmas time from Isaiah. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. In the Old Testament, darkness is frequently an expression of God’s judgement, whereas light is an expression of his favour and blessing.
Jesus came to fulfil those Old Testament promises. He came to bring the light of God’s blessing. He even said: “I am the light of the world”. And so it is that those who follow him live in the light of God’s favour. They are blessed by God. The start of this chapter, remember, told us again and again how blessed we are to follow Jesus.
What Jesus is saying in these verses is that the light that we have been given needs to shine, so that others can see that we are in Jesus’ kingdom, and that we are amongst those God is blessing. And the reason we are to shine in this way is so that God gets the glory.
We must not hide our discipleship.
One detail we must notice is that the light here is corporate. Jesus is saying “We must not hide our discipleship”, not “I must not hide my discipleship”. The “you” is plural.
Jesus develops this picture of a city on a hill. That seems like an abrupt change of subject. One minute, he’s talking about us being lights, and then he takes about a prominent city. It stands out like a sore thumb… until you see that what he’s talking about is the visibility of a city on a hill at night, in a country with no electric lighting. Here’s the point: The city is so bright, because it is a beacon made up of lots and lots of little lights.
The church is made up of many lights. We are that city. When people look at our church, they will see the brightness that is the cumulative shine of all of our lights. We must not hide our discipleship.
You may know the old chorus – I won’t sing it! The first verse goes like this: Jesus bids us shine with a pure, clear light, like a little candle burning in the night in this world of darkness So let us shine— You in your small corner, and I in mine.
That is not what Jesus is saying here. He’s not saying we’ll all stay in our own small corners, and shine into the dark world. He’s saying that each of us has experienced God’s blessing individually. And when we come together, we are the light of the world. We must not hide our discipleship.
You’ve doubtless heard of sea pollution, and you’re used to the idea that beaches can be polluted or clean. Well until recently, I hadn’t heard of light pollution. There’s an organisation called the International Dark Sky Association that aims to reduce light pollution. And just as the EU can declare a beach to be clean, so they can designate a place a “Dark Sky Park”, meaning it’s free of artificial light – you can see the stars at night. There is currently one of these in the UK, its Galloway Forest Park in South-West Scotland. Exmoor National Park is working to get its recognition.
In the South-East we have no chance. Kemsing has no street lights, but we’re too near to Sevenoaks and to London. Go to Galloway, and on a cloudy, moonless night, you can’t see your own hand. But all you need is one major town with electric light, and it bounces off the clouds, and for tens or hundreds of miles the night sky is no longer black.
That is what the Christian church is. It’s that city on the hill. But we must let the light shine. We must not hide our discipleship.
We mustn’t hide it as individuals. Jesus has already said that we will fail to influence the world around us or to spread the kingdom if there is nothing distinctive about us. But we will also fail if we are distinctive, but that is so hidden that nobody would ever know!
Here are some of the questions we could ask ourselves: So when you’re at work, are you a Christian? Or is it too well hidden for anyone to know? Do you talk about your faith, or does shame or the fear of rejection mean that you stay quiet? How about at home: Are you a Christian? Do people know that the reason you are distinctive is because you are a follower of Jesus Christ, or is that detail buried?
We mustn’t hide it as individuals, but we also mustn’t hide it corporately. Remember the city on the hill. Just as our life together must be salty and distinctive, so it needs to shine out. It’s no use keeping it hidden.
It’s no use expecting people to come to us to hear the good news of the kingdom; we need to take it to them. That is one reason why I’m so keen that we have at least one, if not several, open-air services during the Festival in September. Recently, someone in the church said to me, “Where else in the village can we take the church?”
You probably know that the basket Jesus refers to in verse 15 is called a “bushel”. It was a measure, used for measuring grain. We could paraphrase Jesus: “Don’t light a lamp, and put it under a measuring jug”. Now, this building makes an excellent bushel. It’s no use reforming our worship to make it God-honouring in every way we can, it’s no use having excellent relationships with each other, being supportive, and living the life Christ called us to, if we then place this bushel of a church building over the top, and contain it and hide it away.
When we meet here, we look at the face of God in Jesus Christ. We confess our failures, and we find forgiveness. We hear God’s word, that is an active, shaping word, and we get brighter. But it’s when we go out of here that the light can shine.
So if you, like me, long to see this world a better place, a brighter place, a wiser place, a less rotten place, then we need Jesus to point us in the right direction. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. God wants us to be the means he uses to brighten this world with his kingdom. To be that, Jesus calls us to follow him. Then he tells us that as salt, we must not lose our saltiness, and, as light, we must not be hidden.