Pastor Johnold J. Strey
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church; Belmont, CA
Sermon on Matthew 5:13-16
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Year A)
Sunday, February 6, 2011
I WANT TO WALK AS A CHILD OF THE LIGHT
- ...who doesn’t neglect his character
- ...whose faith shines in the world
“The family that prays together, stays together” – so the saying goes. It is popular belief among Christians that the bond of faith between a husband and wife will keep them together “till death do us part.” But statistics suggest otherwise. The Barna Research Group conducted a study just over a decade ago, revealing that 25% of United States adults had gone through at least one divorce in their lifetime. That’s half then the commonly reported 50% statistic often stated by the mainstream media, but that’s still pretty high. Under the adage that “the family that prays together, stays together,” one would assume those rates would be lower for Christians. But that’s not what Barna discovered. The divorce rate among non-denominational Christians was 34% in Barna’s research. Baptists were at 29%, mainline Protestants at 25%, Mormons at 24%. At the bottom of the list were Lutherans and Catholics at 21%, which was a tie with atheists and agnostics.
Statistics always carry a caveat. For example, Christians with a traditional view of sexual morality might have higher divorce rates because they reserve sex for marriage, and so they are inclined to marry at a younger age than their non-believing counterparts, whose breakups in younger, unmarried relationships don’t show up in these statistics. It is also important to remember that one spouse in a divorce situation may not have wanted to end the marriage, or may have been the innocent party who was wronged by adultery or abandonment. But even with those considerations, a skeptic could easily look at these statistics and say, “Christians don’t practice what they preach.”
The historical events of the Christian faith remain true whether or not believers behave like they ought to behave. The facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection are not overturned by Christians failing to live up to their faith, but Christians failing to live up to their faith may detract people from investigating the Christian message. That is Jesus’ “pull-no-punches” message in the opening verses of today’s Gospel. And this is an important message for confessional Lutherans to hear. While we rightly credit our salvation to Christ alone and receive his forgiveness through faith alone, we dare not think that the way we live our lives is irrelevant. Rather, let’s take Jesus’ words to heart, and strive to let our faith shine to the world around us. Let’s take the encouragement in today’s opening hymn to heart and make this our prayer: I want to walk as a child of the light! I want to walk as a child of the light who does not neglect his character, but whose faith shines in the world.
Last Sunday was the first of five Gospel readings in a row from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Today’s excerpt is still early in the sermon, and Jesus begins to introduce the topic that will dominate much of his sermon. His topic is the Christian life. Jesus introduces this focus with two simple illustrations that will discuss the Christian’s daily life. Those illustrations are simply salt and light. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
Jesus’ first illustration of the Christian life was salt. Salt had two purposes: it was a preservative, and it was a seasoning. Jesus focuses on the second with his illustration. The low-quality salt of Jesus’ day could actually lose its saltiness—and without its flavor, it really lost its character. It wasn’t good for seasoning, and it wasn’t good for preserving, and you couldn’t even throw away in a field because it would kill vegetation. About all it was good for was to be thrown along a well worn path where nothing would be planted or grow.
Jesus’ second illustration of the Christian life was light. It goes without saying that light’s character is to make things visible. The light of the sun makes a city on a hillside visible to everyone who looks up during the day, and the light of a lamp makes a room visible to everyone who occupies it at night. To light an oil lamp in Jesus’ day and then hide it under a basket would defeat the purpose of the lamp. Its character is to shine, not to hide.
Salt and light both have a particular character. To ignore their character makes them useless. Salt without flavor is useless, and a hidden light is useless. Jesus uses these pictures as illustrations of the Christian life. Christians are salt in the world. They “season” the world by their good works done in faith and by their verbal expressions of faith. To fail to live up to this purpose would make such a Christian useless for the world as far as God is concerned. And Christians are light in the world. They “enlighten” the world by their public confession of faith and by godly lives that reveal hearts of faith. To fail to live up to this purpose would also make such a Christian useless.
It is important that we correctly understand the relationship between a Christian’s faith, and the good works that a Christian does in life. As the saying goes: Faith alone saves, but faith is never alone. The way we live our life does not contribute one iota to our forgiveness, but the way we live our lives ought to be a reflection of faith in Christ and his gift of forgiveness. Jesus doesn’t consider this to be optional equipment for the Christian. This is who we are: “You are the salt of the earth. … You are the light of the world.”
Perhaps this begs some searching questions. Are we being who we are when gossip, rumors, and backbiting infiltrate our congregation? Are we being who we are when our conversations are so filled with four-letter words that even non-Christians are prone to blush at our words? Are we neglecting our character when talk about the news, sports, or family – perfectly fine by itself – comes naturally but a confession of faith is never publicly heard from our lips? Are we neglecting our character are as a congregation when one of our most important tasks, evangelism, always seems like it gets the short stick when it comes to energy and interest?
If our faith in Jesus is never verbalized, aren’t we neglecting our character, hiding the light of Christ that alone saves lost souls and enlightens hearts with faith? If our deeds detract from our confession, aren’t we neglecting our character, proving ourselves to be good only for being thrown out of God's presence and trampled underfoot by his judgment?
Two sermons ago, I mentioned a recent night when I returned home late from the office after everyone was asleep and the lights were off, and I tripped and fell over some toys in the living room as I tried to walk through the dark room. With any luck, that’s not going to happen again. There is now a little nightlight in the living room that should provide enough light for me to see in the darkened room. That, after all, is the purpose of light – to make something visible.
Jesus calls us “the light of the world” in this reading. That should catch our attention, because elsewhere in the Bible, Jesus is described as the light of the world (for example, the first chapter of John’s Gospel). Jesus takes a title that belongs to him and applies it to his believers. Like a mirror, believers now shine the light of faith into the world, reflecting the light of faith that his Spirit has placed in their hearts.
Jesus wants faith’s light to shine in the world. He wants godly lives to be seen by the world. That almost sounds like a contradiction of something Jesus is going to say later in this Sermon on the Mount. In chapter six, Jesus says, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. … But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” This sounds like a contradiction at first until we dig deeper and see Jesus’ unique point in each section. In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ point is that our good works should be seen by the world to bring glory to God. One chapter later, Jesus makes a related but different point that our good works should not be done to bring glory or praise to ourselves. Jesus reminds us about the real purpose of our good works in today’s Gospel: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Godly actions that come from hearts of faith may very well be seen by the world and may very well lead someone to glorify God for those actions.
If a young athlete is talented, someone might compare him to a successful professional athlete. Someone might say that a talented young high school quarterback will be “the next Aaron Rodgers.” To apply the name of the best starting quarterback in today’s Super Bowl (yes, I’m biased!) to a young athlete is to imply that the young athlete has similar talents and perhaps a future in college or even professional sports.
Jesus does something similar with us. The One whom the Bible describes as the world’s light says that we are “the light of the world.” Jesus takes one of his titles and applies it to us, his believers. He is not only suggesting but actually giving us his attributes! So what does that mean?
Because of our God-given faith in Jesus, his holiness now shines into our hearts, filling us with the bright white light of his perfection that replaces our sinfulness and now makes us righteous in his Father’s eyes. Because of our faith in Jesus, his sacrifice and death on the cross have removed the sinful darkness that once filled our hearts, and so God the Father no longer sees our gossip, foul language, lovelessness, or failure to confess his name, for every last dark stain of sin has been cleansed by his precious blood. Because of our faith in Jesus, his resurrection dispels what would have otherwise been a dark and gloomy future in hell and replaces it with the bright light of his resurrection promise that we, too, will rise from death at his return and enter into eternal life and light.
And now, with sins forgiven and the light of the gospel filling our souls with faith, Jesus calls us to be who he has made us to be. As oil fills an oil lamp with the fuel to burn brightly, Jesus’ forgiveness fills our hearts with the fuel that not only makes us right with God but that enables us to shine our faith to the world. We can all confess, “I want to walk as a child of the light!” I want to walk as a child of the light who fills his lips with kind words and encouragement to others. I want to walk as a child of the light who fills his actions with love for the loveless. I want to walk as a child of the light whose heart has been filled with such love and grace that it cannot help but shine in the world with words that convey the light of Jesus to souls still lost in sin’s darkness.
In 1986, Christian Apologist John Warwick Montgomery debated Mark Plummer, president of the Atheists and Skeptics Society of Australia. During this now famous debate, Plummer repeatedly referred to unethical televangelists as proof that Christianity wasn’t reliable and Christians were not to be trusted. After a few of these statements from Plummer, Montgomery responded with a brilliant point. “If Einstein was caught shoplifting, does that means that 'E' no longer equals 'MC2'?” Of course not! The Christians in the audience laughed out loud and applauded. Facts are facts, regardless of the character of the person presenting the facts. Jesus’ death and resurrection are true whether or not Christians live up to their high calling.
We don’t make our break the facts of our faith, but character still matters! Jesus tells us so! He has made us salt and light to the world. The bright, warm sunshine of his forgiving grace shines in our hearts and makes us mirrors who reflect his light into the world. With Christ’s light shining into your hearts, be the person he has called you to be. Reflect his love and grace with every step as you walk through life as a child of the light! Amen.