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There is an ancient legend first told by Christians living in the catacombs under the streets of Rome which pictures the day when Jesus went back to glory after finishing all his work on earth. The angel Gabriel meets Jesus in heaven and welcomes Him home. “Lord,” he says, “Who have You left behind to carry on Your work?”
Jesus tells him about the disciples, the little band of fishermen and farmers and housewives.
“But Lord,” says Gabriel, “what if they fail You? What if they lose heart, or drop out? What if things get too rough for them, and they let you down?”
Well, says Jesus, then all I’ve done will come to nothing!
“But don’t You have a backup plan?” Gabriel asks. “Isn’t there something else to keep it going, to finish Your work?”
No, says Jesus, there’s no backup plan. The Church is it. There’s nothing else.
“Nothing else?” says Gabriel. “But what if they fail?”
And the early Christians knew Jesus’ answer. “They won’t fail, Gabriel,” He said. “They won’t fail!”
Isn’t that a marvelous thing? Here are the Christians of Rome, dug into the earth like gophers, tunneling out of sight because of the terrors of Nero up above. They’re nothing in that world! They’re poor and despised and insignificant! Yet they know the promise of Jesus: “You won’t fail! You’re My people, and you won’t fail!”
That’s what Jesus tells us in these verses, doesn’t He? “You are the salt of the earth!” He says. “You are the light of the world! You are My witnesses!”
There are four things that Jesus says to us when He gives us that testimony.
I. You Can Make a Difference
The first is this: “You can make a difference!” You can make a difference in the world around you!
Think of the crowd to which Jesus was speaking. It wasn’t a gathering of the United Nations. It wasn’t a conference of the superpowers. It wasn’t a sitting of Congress or Parliament, or even an assembly at City Hall. It was a crowd on a hillside in a tiny spot of land called Palestine. It was a group of common people with no high ambitions or positions. In fact, they were under occupation! They couldn’t make their own laws! They couldn’t plan their own futures! They couldn’t determine their own destinies! Yet Jesus says to them: “You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world! You make a difference in this society!” It’s an amazing assertion, isn’t it?
I remember the story Tony Campolo told about a friend of his who was walking through the midway at a county fair when he met a tiny girl. She was carrying a great big fluff of cotton candy on a stick, almost as large as her! He said to her, “How can a little girl like you eat all that cotton candy?”
“Well,” she said to him, “I’m really much bigger on the inside than I am on the outside!”
That’s essentially what Jesus is saying here. “You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world!” Why? Because of your great power? Because of your positions in government? Because you are so smart or so strong or so gifted? “No!” Jesus would say. “It’s because you belong to Me!” On the outside you may seem to be nothing, but on the inside you’re as big as the kingdom and the power and the glory of your God! You can make a difference!
There’s a marvelous little story tucked away in the pages of Edward Gibbon’s seven-volume work: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It tells of a humble little monk named Telemachus living out in the farming regions of Asia.
Telemachus had no great ambitions in life. He loved his little garden, and tilled it through the changing seasons. But one day in the year 391 he felt a sense of urgency, a call of God’s direction in his life. He didn’t know why, he felt that God wanted him to go to Rome, the heart and soul of the empire. In fact, the feelings of such a call frightened him, hut he went anyway, praying along the way for God’s direction.
When he finally got to the city it was in an uproar! The armies of Rome had just come home from the battlefield in victory, and the crowds were turning out for a great celebration. They flowed through the streets like a tidal wave, and Telemachus was caught in their frenzy and carried into the Coliseum.
He had never seen a gladiator contest before, but now his heart sickened. Down in the arena men hacked at each other with swords and clubs. The crowds roared at the sight of blood, and urged their favorites on to the death.
Telemachus couldn’t stand it. He knew it was wrong; this wasn’t the way God wanted people to live or to die. So little Telemachus worked his way through the crowds to the wall down by the arena. “In the name of Christ, forbear!” he shouted.
Nobody heard him, so he crawled up onto the wall and shouted again: “In the name of Christ, forbear!” This time the few who heard him only laughed. But Telemachus was not to be ignored. He jumped into the arena, and ran through the sands toward the gladiators. “In the name of Christ, forbear!”
The crowds laughed at the silly little man, and threw stones at him. Telemachus, however, was on a mission. He threw himself between two gladiators to stop their fighting. “In the name of Christ, forbear!” he cried.
They hacked him apart! They cut his body from shoulder to stomach, and he fell onto the sand with the blood running out of his life.
The gladiators were stunned, and stopped to watch him die. Then the crowds fell back in silence, and, for a moment, no one in the coliseum moved. Telemachus’ final words rang in their memories: “In the name of Christ, forbear!” At last they moved, slowly at first, but growing in numbers. The masses of Rome filed out of the coliseum that day, and the historian Theodoret reports that never again was a gladiator contest held there! All because of the witness and the testimony of a single Christian!
“You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world!” You can make a difference in life! That’s what Jesus says.
II. You Can Make a Difference Together
But he adds a second thing to it. “You can make a difference,” He says, “together.”
“If the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” asks Jesus. “It’s good for nothing, and you throw it out into the streets.”
Yet can salt lose its saltiness? Is it really possible for salt to become unsalty?
Not really. Any chemistry teacher will tell you that. Sodium chloride is one of the most stable compounds in the whole universe. It doesn’t change. It doesn’t lose its character.
Still, there is truth to what Jesus is saying. Much of the salt used in Palestine came from the area around the Dead Sea, which, at more than a mile-and-a-half below sea-level, is the lowest land area in the world. The waters of the Sea of Galilee flow into the Jordan river and run down there to the bottom of the earth. Once they get there, it’s the end of the line. There’s no place to go. The hot desert sun evaporates the water, and leaves behind a chunky white powder made up of a combination of salts and minerals.
That powder contains enough salt to season meat or to add a little flavor to soup. For that reason the people of Palestine have always scooped it up to use in trade and in cooking. But the salt is mixed with minerals. It’s not pure sodium chloride. Indeed, it is possible, under certain circumstances, with a little dampness in the air, for the salts to be dissolved first and leached away.
You may not notice it. What you have left looks the same, yet the taste is gone, and people throw it out. There may be a little salt left, but it isn’t enough to make a difference, so the whole batch is chucked out into the street.
The comparison point Jesus makes, in essence, is that strength is found in community. A single grain of salt may make a slight difference, but it takes the concentration of a cluster of them to make a real impact. Similarly, one disciple with a sense of purpose may make a statement in the world, but it’s the community of Christians that turns the world upside down.
We saw that in Romania during the days when Communism was coming undone. One Christian preacher spoke to his congregation, giving testimony to the grace of God that had changed their lives. He told them of the witness they could make together in their country. Then he was shot, struck down by the powers of the governing authority. But his people became a community of salt and light. They flowed from the doors of that church building and carried the crusade into the streets. They challenged the powers that oppressed them, and demanded freedoms for decent living.
The community made an impact. Others felt the leavening influence of that community in the streets. The community of the church salted Romanian society, and produced a fresh taste, a different outlook, and a brand new character.
“You, together, are the salt of the earth!” says Jesus. “You, together, are the light of the world!” Not just a lonely grain of sodium chloride, but the tablespoon of granules that spreads its essence through the whole pot of soup.
It’s hard sometimes to imagine just how important community is. We like to think of ourselves as independent and strong, full of personal vitality. Still, the first thing we hear from the lips of someone experiencing problems is often, “Nobody cares! I’m all alone!”
Some time ago I sat at a table with old friends. Years ago they were the strongest Christians you could meet. They loved the Lord. They loved their church. They were full of enthusiasm.
But this night they were different. They were hurting. They were confused. They felt weak and tired, spiritually. Why? Their congregation was torn apart, they said, and the people they sat next to in church were fighting one another. Their community had become a battleground.
My friends are still Christians, but their oldest son has stopped going to church with them. They have to drag the younger ones along, and they’ve backed out of a lot of the ministry commitments that meant so much to them in the past.
The community is gone, and with it went the power. The strength of their Christianity in testimony and witness, has disappeared. When they talk about it they sound tired. They can’t be salt anymore. They can’t light up their world. They’re alone, and slowly dying, spiritually.
“You can make a difference!” says Jesus. “But you can do that best together, as a community, like the flicker of a thousand lights in the city on the hill, or the powerful taste of a spoonful of salt in the potatoes. You can make a difference together!”
III. You Can Make a Difference Together In The World
There’s a third thing that Jesus tells us in these words. He tells us, “You can make a difference together in the world!”
I am always intrigued by the events which surrounded the start of our own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church. Here is a paragraph from a letter that was written by one of our first pastors, the Rev. H. G. Kleijn. He sent this letter to a meeting of Classis Holland on April 8, 1857, telling the other church leaders that he was pulling out to start a new denomination. The church they are a part of, he says, has too many contacts with the world around it. The church should be off by itself, separated from the rest of society, living it’s own little life in it’s own little corner. Here are his words: “The Church, the Bride of Christ, is a garden enclosed, a well shut up, and a fountain sealed.”
Do you get the picture? The Church is a nice little community off by itself, doing it’s own thing, untouched by the world. It’s as pretty as a garden full of flowers, but it puts a high wall around itself so nobody else can get in. It’s a well of refreshing water, but stopped up so nobody will get it dirty by taking a drink. It’s a fountain of surging excitement, albeit sealed within concrete barriers so it’s power won’t slip away.
That’s the church, he says. That’s the church I want to belong to!
But that doesn’t seem to be the church that Jesus envisions. Besides the power of flavor there was an even greater strength of salt in the world of Jesus’ day. Salt was used to confirm agreements, to seal treaties and establish covenants. If you ate salt with someone, you became blood relatives. You had a stake in each other’s lives. You were part of the same family.
King Abijah, in the Old Testament, reminds the people that they made a “treaty of salt” with David, and therefore they can’t break it. The enemies of the Jews, in the book of Ezra, write a letter to King Artaxerxes of Persia, telling him that they will be his servants forever because they have eaten salt from his treasuries. They are his servants, confirmed by eating his salt.
In Arabic, the word for “salt” is the same word as the word for “treaty”. Similarly, in Persian, the word for “traitor” means “someone who is faithless to salt.” Not that many years ago this was all proved again in the modern state of Jordan. Informants for the King uncovered an assassination plot, and discovering and reporting to the King the name of the man who was supposed to kill him.
In response, the King devised an ingenious plan. Rather than sending his soldiers out to arrest the man, foiling the plot with guns and weapons, he invited the traitor to the royal palaces for a dinner! Since it is impossible to refuse a royal invitation, the man was obligated to enter the territory of his mark. The King made certain that the meal was heavily salted. At that point things changed, because once they had eaten salt together there was a bond between them. The assassin became a brother, and he couldn’t kill the King! They had eaten salt together!
Such a picture resonates with what Jesus gives us here. “You are the salt of the earth!” he says. You are the essence of God’s relationship with the world around you. The Church isn’t just a little community off by itself somewhere. It is the confirmation that God still has an interest in our world!
The Old Testament story of Lot and his family is instructive. Sodom was a wicked place; so wicked, in fact, that God had to destroy it.
But before He destroyed Sodom, He came down to earth and talked to Abraham about His plans. Lot was Abraham’s nephew, and God wanted to make certain that Abraham understood what was going on. After they talked about it for awhile, Abraham said to God: “I hear what you’re saying. I know it’s a wicked place. I agree, something’s got to be done. But what if there are 50 good people there? Would you still destroy it, even with 50 good people living there?”
“No,” said God, “I wouldn’t. If there are only 50 good people living in Sodom, I’ll spare the whole city.”
Abraham got his courage up. “But what if there aren’t quite 50 good people there? What if you go down and count them, and you find only 45? Would you still destroy the city?”
“No,” said God, “I reckon not. If there are only 45 good people there, I won’t bring down my judgment on the place.”
Abraham was on a roll now. He decided to press his luck. “How about 30?” he asked. “Would you spare it for the sake of 30 righteous people?”
God probably sighed, but then he said, “I guess I’d go that far.”
In the end Abraham asked again about 20, and about 10, and God agreed to his terms. If only 10 righteous people live in Sodom, God will spare the whole city. The meaning is clear: the viability of a neighborhood is somehow tied to the residual influence of those who have a meaningful connection with God.
In the New Testament the Apostle Peter picks up that same theme. He says there is enough evil in society, enough wickedness in our world, for God to let loose the fires of His judgment. But He’s not going to do that yet, says Peter, because He has people living throughout the whole wide world, and they make a difference. They confirm His relationship with the world. They are the salt of the earth!
What would this city be without us? What would this region be like without the Church of Jesus Christ? Where would our nation be without the conscience of the people of God? “You are the salt of the earth!” says Jesus. “You are the light of the world!” You don’t hide off in a corner. You don’t hug yourself within the walls of your pretty little garden. You don’t keep off by yourself, hoping nobody notices you.
“You are the light of the earth!” It’s not enough to be anti-abortion; you must be pro-life, and remind your community what real life, God’s life, is all about! It’s not enough to be against immorality; you have to be the conscience of society, turning its thoughts toward love and laughter and life! It’s not enough to protect your own interests; you have to speak out for the welfare of the poor and the disabled and the oppressed!
You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world! You are the conscience of your society! God has placed us here as a symbol of His continuing relationship with the world. We are the extension of His personality in this society. What difference does it make that we’re here? Does anybody notice?
IV. You Can Make a Difference Together In The World For God
And, of course, that brings us to the last thing that Jesus says to us here. “You can make a difference together in the world for God!”
It’s not enough to be socially active, socially responsible, socially concerned. “Let your light shine before men,” says Jesus here, “that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven!” Turn people’s thoughts toward God, says Jesus. No mind is truly enlightened until it is flooded with the glory of heaven. No body is truly healed until it is touched by the power of the Creator. No person is truly set free until there is freedom of the Spirit of Christ.
William Carey was a pastor of a small congregation in Leiceter, England. In 1792 he preached a powerful sermon called “Expect Great Things from God; Attempt Great Things for God!” People would remember it for years. His message not only moved hearts in his congregation, it also came home to challenge Pastor Carey’s own soul. The next year he set sail for India, and what he did in that country was simply astounding. He began a manufacturing plant to employ jobless workers. He translated the scriptures, and set up shops to print them. He established schools for all ages, helping people find a better place in society. He provided medical assistance for the diseased and the troubled and the ailing. He was nothing short of a miracle for the people of India.
Why did he do it? Because Jesus told him: “You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world!” And when he lay dying, these were his last words: “When I have gone, speak not of Carey but of Carey’s Savior.”
There was only one reason for it all: “… that they may see your good deeds, and glorify your Father in heaven!” You can make a difference in the world for God!
During the time of the Reformation John Foxe of England was impressed by the testimony of the early Christians. He gleaned the pages of early historical writings, and wrote a book that has become a classic in the church: Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
One story he tells is about an early church leader named Lawrence. Lawrence acted as a pastor for a church community. He also collected the offerings for the poor each week, and that led to his death.
A band of thieves found out that Lawrence received the offerings of the people from Sunday to Sunday, so one night, as he was out taking a stroll, they grabbed him and demanded the money. He told them that he didn’t have it, that he had already given it all to the poor. They didn’t believe him, and told him they would give him a chance to find it. In three days they would come to his house, and take from him the treasures of the church.
Three days later they did come. But Lawrence wasn’t alone. The house was filled with the people of his congregation. When the thieves demanded the treasures of the church, Lawrence smiled. He opened wide his arms, and gestured to those who sat around him. “Here’s the treasure of the church!” he said. “Here’s the treasure of God that shines in the world!”
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You can make a difference together in the world for God!

Matthew 5:13-16

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