Sunday Morning Sermon - Are we as a church what God wants us to be? - city on a hill, light of the world, salt of the earth

Growing up with the town ball diamonds in my back yard, I spent a lot of time playing and watching baseball games. One thing that you will notice if you ever spend much time at the ball diamond is that we're awfully hard on umpires. When it comes to professional sports, we say that it is our right since we paid to get into the ballgame. I cannot quite figure the logic out that says I can be mean to people because I have paid money, and I cannot quite figure out why people are sometimes so mean to little league umpires, in which nobody pays to get in. The ball diamond is supposed to be a pleasant setting where boys and girls have the opportunity to learn more about the game of life than the game of baseball. That point was driven home to me recently when I read the story of Donald Jensen. You might have heard this story since it took place in Terre Haute, IN. Donald was one of those guys who spent his summer standing behind the plate, umpiring down at the community ball diamond. During one game, Donald was struck in the head by a thrown bat. He continued to work the game, but later that evening was placed in the hospital by a physician. While being kept overnight for observation, Jensen wrote an eloquent letter to folks whose shenanigans make you cringe or bow your head in shame. At one point he said:

The purpose of Little League is to teach baseball skills to young men. Obviously, a team which does not play well in a given game, yet is given the opportunity to blame that loss on an umpire for one call or two, is being given the chance to take all responsibility for the loss from their shoulders. A parent or adult leader who permits the younger player to blame his failures on an doing the worst kind of injustice to that youngster...This irresponsibility is bound to carry over to future years.

What Donald Jensen wrote that night in Terre Haute is absolutely right. Next time you are tempted to insult or mistreat an umpire, remember him—the late Donald Jensen. The following morning he died of a brain concussion.

Our scripture today will be in Matthew 5, immediately following the beatitudes. In the beatitudes, Jesus shares how those that appear to be in dire straits are actually blessed because of their conditions. He follows that up with what we are going to read today. We will be starting at verse 13.

Matthew 5:13 - “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, 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 in heaven.

Before we deal directly with the Scripture today, there is a common scriptural misunderstanding that will prohibit us from proper understanding which we need to address. Later in the Sermon on the Mount which our passage is taken from, Jesus states (in 6:1) – Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, sot that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Jesus then goes on to teach the same concerning prayer and fasting. Our financial giving to the church, our prayer, and our fasting should not be done to bring glory to ourselves nor are they acts that would bring glory to God if they were done publicly. There is no benefit except personal glory for those acts to be public. Jesus was focusing on prohibiting people from doing spiritual actions for personal glory.

If we hold these passages as teachings against any public acts of charity, then we would have a tough time living out Jesus commands to us in 5:16 - “Let you light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Jesus tells us we are supposed to do our good works in such a way that others see them. Apparently, good works are not included in the right hand/left hand prohibition. It is necessary for them to be public to have the desired impact that Jesus wants them to have.

In one place he says to beware of practicing your piety before others and in another he says to do our good works so that others may see them. We see this contrast in the life of the early church with the giving of Barnabas compared to the giving of Ananias and Sapphira. Barnabas gave with a good heart to be a benefit to the church while Ananias and Sapphira gave for personal glory.

The key is that we are to do our good works so that our Father in heaven will receive the glory. What Jesus was teaching in the right hand/left hand passage is that we should not do pious acts or acts of personal faith so that we will receive glory. Proper giving is a matter of the heart. Good works are to be done publicly if they are to have any impact; however, the good doer's heart needs to be one of humility and submission to God. It is through our good works being seen by others that God will be glorified.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

We are the salt of the earth. Salt is a preservative and a seasoning. I bet most of our homes have salt in them. Chicken noodles can be very bland if you do not have salt in them, but if you add the right amount of salt into the broth, the flavor stands out. Salt has a little flavor, but mainly it brings out the flavors that were in there all along and magnifies them. This is what the people of God should be to the world.

I heard a story of a homeless man who was looking for a handout one day in a picturesque old English village. Hungry almost to the point of fainting, he stopped by a pub bearing the classic name, Inn of St. George and the Dragon.

“Please, ma'am, could you spare me a bite to eat?” he asked the lady who answered his knock at the kitchen door.

“A bite to eat?” she growled. “For a sorry, no-good bum—a foul-smelling beggar? No!” she snapped as she almost slammed the door on his hand. Halfway down the lane the homeless man stopped, turned around and eyed the words, St. George and the Dragon. He went back and knocked again on the kitchen door.

“Now what do you want?” the woman asked angrily.

“Well, ma'am, if St. George is in, may I speak with him this time?”

Too often people view the church as the homeless man viewed the innkeeper, as dragons rather than saints. For us, as a church, to be the salt of the world, we need to be in the world bringing the world to God's full purpose rather than allowing the world to devolve into the state of depravity it will naturally fall into.

There are four ways that Christians can interact with the society around them. (These are loosely based on Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture)

1. Christ outside of culture - We see this form with the Amish and other groups of Christians. They separate themselves from the world and ignore the world. I have never had an Amish try to share the message of Christ with me.
2. Christ against culture - The second form we see in the more legalistic branches of Christianity. This is where the people separate themselves from the world and view the world as an enemy to be squashed, attacked, and defeated. These groups seem to not be filled with love to the people in the world.
3. Christ the transformer of culture - The third approach is what I believe we have to take to be the salt of the world. This view holds that we are to be in the world but not of the world. In this view, Christians feel they must be among the lost in the world, share in the lives of those around them, and continue the mission Christ began in redeeming the world.
4. Christ in culture - The final view is one that is a church killer. It is the view that the people of God are no different than those in the world, nor should they try to change the people of the world into the life of Christ – being good is good enough.

Most Christians find themselves struggling to know which way to interact with the culture. We usually waver between all four. But we need to be the transformers of culture if we are to fulfill Jesus' commandment to be the salt of the earth. Sadly, this does not always happen.

In order to be the salt of the earth, we must retain our saltiness.

It is worthy to note that the salt of Palestine, which Jesus was probably referencing in this passage, gathered from the marshes is not pure. Because of the foreign substances in it, it loses its savor and becomes insipid and useless when exposed to the sun and air, or when permitted for any considerable time to come in contact with the ground; but pure salt does not lose its savor. This verse teaches that God's people are to keep the world from decay and from corruption. We should be a blessing to the world. There was not enough salt in the time of Noah to save humanity from the flood, nor in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to save those cities from the fire. We are to be the salt of this community, the salt of our nation, and the salt of this earth. Christians together can be used by God to bring the redemption of Christ to our society.

One historian says that the average age of the world's great civilizations is a duration of about two hundred years each. Almost without exception, each civilization passed through the same sequence. From bondage to spiritual faith, from spiritual faith to great courage, from great courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to leisure, from leisure to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence to weakness, from weakness back to bondage.

The church can play a role in redeeming society and prevent it from following the natural cycle of bondage. We do this by being the salt of the earth.

Salt is a remedy for unsavory meat, but there is no remedy for unsavory salt.

Christians can lose their saltiness in many ways. Two of the major ways I briefly touched on in talking about the methods of Christians interacting with society. One way is that they get so caught up in teaching that they do not live out the faith outside of the walls that they gather together in. This would be more of a case of stockpiling salt rather than losing saltiness, but the end result is still the same. The world is not being redeemed. The church is not the salt of the earth. All that would have to happen to change this is for the people of God to start living the life of Christ out in the world in order to start being the salt God intends for them to be.

Another way that people lose their saltiness is through immorality and/or false teaching. Both of these makes any of the good works they might do in the world to not have any impact and to be discarded easily.

Christ sends his disciples into the world to live their lives in such a way as to season the world with knowledge and grace. If his disciples are not as they should be, they are worthless and as salt that has lost its savor.

Now onto to second half of this Scripture: 5:14 – You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp, puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others.”

There is a difference between being a light and being salt, and I think Jesus had a purpose in using two separate analogies. Salt has to be mixed with what it is to preserve. As salt, we have to be in the world in order to restore it. As light, we will have to be outside of the world to guide it.

Bryce recently showed me a calendar he did for a African big game hunting business. It was disgusting and amazing, but that is besides the point.

Suppose you and I decided we were going to shell out the 1000s of dollars to go to Africa on a big-game hunt. Now I don't know much about Africa. I know Egypt is in the northeast and South Africa is at the south. Everything in the middle is a bungled mess. It is a great big continent. We would have to get there by boat or air, and once we landed, we would be lost. So what do we do? We hire a guide, a fellow who is a specialist at finding big game. So off we go on a safari with the guide. Sure enough, he does his job, and we come eyeball-to-eyeball with the target. Do we say to the guide, “Shoot him! Shoot him”? No. We say, “Get out of the way.” And then we load up and we aim and shoot.

You never take the guide to the taxidermist to have him stuffed. And nobody comes back from a safari with a huge picture of their guide to line the den walls. What does the guide become? Insignificant. You can't even remember his name. Whether you're fishing for bass in the lake or big game in Africa, the guide is a part of the trip, but only a transitory part. He works himself out of a job. He carries you from the unknown to the known and then backs off and says, “Now it's your turn.”

This is how our good works are to be a light to the world. We need to be to the people of this community what the guide is to the big-game hunters. Our loving actions should shine across our community and shine a light to Christ. But we are to be invisible. It is not about us. It is about God. We shine our good works so that God in heaven will receive all of the glory, but shine we must.

Isaiah 2:2-5 reads: In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

The “city on a hill” analogy that Jesus used in verse 14 comes from this passage of Scripture. In it we see that God is going to dwell among his people. The result of this dwelling is that other people will want to come to the place of the presence of God to learn what God wants to teach them and walk in the path God has planned for them. This dwelling of God should be among His people that are the church.

Being called the “light of the world” is no insignificant title. This is a title that we see given to Jesus in five different passages of Scripture. By being called the light as Jesus was called the light, we are invited to join in the ministry that Jesus desires to do through us. Without the people that are his followers standing up and living the life Jesus would live, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross will mean nothing to the world. It is only through us joining in on the sacrifice of Christ and surrendering our lives for others as Christ has done for us, that the world will come to know our savior.

The first requirement in evangelism is to have a church that is worth joining! If we are ever to be a city on the hill - If the world is ever to say what Isaiah says they will say - “Come, let us go up to the house of the Lord”, the Lord's people must first heed the call to “Come...let us walk in the light of the Lord”.

Ben Merold wrote in the November 2006 Restoration Herald in his section entitled Restore New Testament Evangelism: Our people will do very little in the way of inviting if they do not have something that makes them want to be inviters. They will do very little to invite people to dead services or to congregations that have no unity. I am not suggesting that that our church services must be an “entertainment blast” or a “great show” but I am suggesting two things.

First, our church services must be as good as we can possibly present them. Your “excellence” may not be as “excellent” as the “excellence” of some other church but you can do your best.

Second, preaching and teaching must be done without bitterness, sarcasm, and constant fault finding. I believe it can be strong in doctrine without these “downers.”

When we have good things taking place in the church, people will begin to invite and witness, and personal evangelism will take place.

So how are we doing as a church? If we were to examine ourselves, how would we measure up? Are we salt to our community? Are we the a shining light that people know is the dwelling place of God? Any church should be able to say, “We are not quite what God intends for us to be.” And then the healthier churches would learn how to change and become what God intends for them to be.

Many of you know that we recently spent a year trying to find a church home. During that search, this was the first church we visited and ended up being the last church. The reason this became the last one is that when I look at this church I see people who love the Lord, love His word, and have a desire to do His will. I don't see just 50 people and empty pews. I see a spark. I see a group of people on the verge of being the salt and the light that God intends for us to be. But that won't happen by accident.

Only through prayer, the grace of God, and openness to discuss where we need to improve. I started this sermon with the story about the umpire who was disappointed that parents blame umpires rather than encourage their children to train harder. Too often, I find churches do a similar thing. There are a multitude of excuses that I have heard for why churches are not healthier. We need to make sure that we focus on being complete disciples of Christ, that we are the salt that God intends for us to be. That we are the light of the world. That we are that city on the hill. And this will only happen if we fervently pray, rely on the grace of God, and begin a dialogue on how we should do that.

Watch out for the potholes.