The Salt and Light Brigade
November 19, 1989
The year was 1970, the tail end of the wild period of modern American history. Dr. E. Stanley Jones, the famous Methodist missionary/author/evangelist, was asked to name the number one problem of the church. He replied quickly that the number one problem was irrelevance. He went on to say that 3/4ths of the opposition to the church stems from disappointment. We promise to make men different, but the promise goes largely unfulfilled.
Dr. Jones went on to tell the story of a multimillionaire who said, “If brother Stanley cannot convert me, I will sue him.” He said it half in jest and half in truth. Dr. Jones said that this is in truth what the world is saying to us, “If you Christians cannot convert us, we will sue you for breach of promise. You promised this, now fulfill it. Show us that you can and will convert us. There is no hope from any other direction.”
Nineteen years have passed and I am sure that what Dr. Jones said is more true today than it was when he first said it. The number one problem of the church is irrelevance. Take a look around Oak Park this morning. Add up the attendance of all 47 churches in the village. Roughly 80% of the village won’t be in any church today. On a very good day—like Christmas or Easter—all the churches together will reach perhaps 25% of the village. On a normal day—like today—it will be closer to 20%.
Put simply, the church has lost its influence in the community. There are many reasons why this is so, but one reason stands out above the rest. The church has lost its influence because Christians have neglected their responsibility to be salt and light in the world. As we have neglected to be what God has called us to be, the world has decided to ignore us. And the flip side of that is also true. When Christians decide to be salt and light, the world pays close attention to what we say and do. Let me say it simply: When we are salt and light, the world listens to us. When we aren’t, they don’t.
The Salt Of The Earth
This is the Word of the Lord from the Gospel of Matthew. “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.” (Matthew 5:13) These words are so famous that they have become a proverb in the English language. If someone is genuine, useful, honest, straightforward, and without hypocrisy, we say he is a “salt of the earth” type person.
What did Jesus mean? Salt was one of the most common substances in the ancient world. It was so valuable that Roman soldiers were paid in salt and would revolt if they didn’t get their ration. Indeed, our English word “salary” comes from the Latin salarium which literally means “salt-money.” And our expression, “That man is not worth his salt,” is a reminder of the high value that salt had in biblical times.
Let’s go a step further. Salt has two primary uses. First, it is a seasoning. This is a good time of year to be reminded of that. Just pick up any modern cookbook and count how many recipes include salt. Almost everything you will eat on Thanksgiving Day will have some salt in it. Even the cakes and pies will use a pinch of salt. Second, it is a preservative. This is no doubt its main use. Salt retards spoilage. It doesn’t prevent the process of decay, but it slows it down and prevents its spread. Meat left to itself will spoil. Cure the meat with salt and it will last a long, long time.
Out Of The Salt Shaker And Into The Soup
In what sense does this apply to the followers of Jesus Christ? We are to be the salt that flavors a tasteless world and we are to be the salt that preserves a decaying world.
Jesus had no illusions about this world. He knew its true character. It is like a piece of rotten meat, putrefying more and more each day. On every hand we have the most advanced technology. Every day brings new breakthroughs in medicine, science, communications, and mass-production. And yet at the same time, the moral climate grows darker and darker.
Consider our situation in Oak Park. The Gay Rights forces have gained a foothold in our school system. I wish you could have been to the big hearing on Thursday evening. Our people were out in force, and yet I would guess the crowd was about evenly split. For every one who stood up and testified against Gay Rights, there was someone who stood up in favor of it. Not only did some people testify in favor of it, they argued that homosexuality is natural and normal.
One man said to me yesterday, “This would never have happened in Oak Park ten years ago. It would have been laughed out of court.” But we’re not living ten years ago; we’re living today and it has happened right here in Oak Park.
Ladies and gentlemen, let there be no mistake. We are living in a morally decadent society. It is like a piece of meat left all day in the sunshine. The decay is slow at first, and then suddenly the whole thing is rotten.
A Little Salt Is All You Need
What does it take to arrest the spread of evil? Salt. That’s what Jesus was talking about. Salt stops the spread of moral evil and preserves society from total corruption.
Here’s the exciting part. It’s doesn’t take much salt to do the job. Just a little bit in the right place will do the trick. Do you remember the story of Abraham praying for God to spare Sodom because his nephew Lot lived there? He said, “Lord, if I can find fifty righteous people, will you spare the city?” And the Lord said yes. So Abraham said, “Well, Lord, if I can find forty-five righteous people in the city, will you spare it?” The Lord said yes again. So, he tried forty, and the Lord said yes. Then he tried thirty, and the Lord said yes again. The problem was, Abraham didn’t think there were thirty righteous people in the whole city. So he tried again, “How about for twenty?” And God said, “I will spare it for twenty.” Then Abraham took a deep breath and said, “Lord, what if I can only find ten?” “I will spare it for the sake of ten righteous people.”
Think of it. A whole city saved because only ten people were righteous. Remember, Sodom was a thoroughly wicked place. It was evil through and through. Yet God would have spared it for ten righteous people. As it turned out, Abraham couldn’t even find ten people who were righteous.
So God prepared to destroy the city. But before He could do anything, Lot and his wife and his two daughters had to leave. Even God wouldn’t destroy the city while the righteous were still there.
I repeat. It doesn’t take much salt to do the job. Robert Bellah is a sociologist at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University. These are his words: “We should not underestimate the significance of the small group of people who have a vision of a just and gentle world… . The governing values of a whole culture may be changed when 2% of its people have a new vision.” Think of it. All you need is 2% and you can change an entire culture.
Here is a simple definition: Being the salt of the earth means acting as a purifying agent to hinder the spread of evil. We who follow Jesus Christ are to be a “moral disinfectant” stopping the spread of evil. We are to be the conscience of the community, speaking out for what it true and right.
On that basis, I congratulate everyone who attended the meeting last Thursday. And I congratulate everyone who put your name in that newspaper ad. And I congratulate everyone who spoke out on this issue privately or publicly. Oak Park is a better place because you are here. I am proud to be your pastor. You are indeed the salt of the earth.
The Light Of The World
But that is not the whole story. Listen to the next three verses from Matthew 5: “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 who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
What do these words mean? The dictionary defines light as “a source of illumination.” That provides the key to our definition. To be the light of the world means illuminating the darkness so that others may see reality.
One of the most frightening things in the world is to be alone in the darkness. You lie in bed trying to go to sleep when suddenly you hear a creak, a little odd sound in the darkness. You strain to see through the darkness but all you can see are vague shapes. Darkness distorts reality. Everything looks different. It is only when you turn on the light that you see things as they really are.
It happened this week at the high school. One of our young men was sitting in class when his teacher called his name and said, “I see that your parents signed that ad in the paper. Why don’t you tell us what your parents believe?” A lot of teenagers wouldn’t know what to say but that young man said, “Sure, I’ll be glad to tell you.” Which is exactly what he did. That’s turning on the light so people can see things as they really are.
This Little Light Of Mine
Notice the simple application in verse 16. “Let your light shine before men.” The key is in the little phrase “before men.” You can turn on a light in an empty room. It will dispel the darkness and no one will see it. Likewise you can live the Christian life in secret, but no one is going to be helped. If your light is going to shine, it’s going to shine before men. Somebody has to see it before it will do any good.
Jesus said two things would happen when you shine your light:
1. Men will see your good deeds. The word for “good” is kalos. It means attractive or beautiful or lovely. It is that which is pleasing to the eye. Jesus is saying that people will be attracted by the beauty of your life. Others will be drawn to you by the way you live. When you say a good word for Jesus, that is a good deed. When you stop and smile at a friend, that also is a good deed. When you bake a chocolate pie and give it to a neighbor, or when you stop by the hospital to see how a friend is getting along, or when you stop to help your supervisor get her car started, that too is a good deed. It is beautiful, attractive, lovely. It is evangelism backed up by a winsome personality.
Men will see the quality of your life. And if the light is shining brightly they are drawn to you and to your Lord.
This is the most important thing. Jesus said, “When they see your lovely ways.” He could have said, “When they hear your great preachers, or when they sit in your lovely sanctuaries, or when they hear your wonderful choirs, or when they read your Statements of Faith. He could have said that. But he didn’t. He simply said, “When they see the way you live.”
Perhaps you’ve heard this poem. It’s called “The Living Sermon.” (By Edgar Guest, Masterpieces of Religious Verse, p.361) It drives the point home with crystal-clarity.
I’d rather see a sermon
than hear one any day.
I’d rather one would walk with me
than merely tell the way.
The eye’s a better pupil
and more willing than the ear.
Fine counsel is confusing
but example’s always clear.
The best of all the preachers
are the men who live their creeds.
For to see good put in action
is what everybody needs.
I soon can learn to do it,
if you’ll let me see it done.
I can watch your hands in action,
your tongue too fast may run.
The lectures you deliver
may be very wise and true.
But I’d rather get my lessons
by observing what you do.
For I might misunderstand you
And the high advice you give.
But there’s no misunderstanding
how you act and how you live.
There’s a second thing that happens when you shine your light before men:
2. They give God the credit. Verse 16 says, “They praise your Father who is in heaven.” Did you notice that the word “your” is used three times in this verse? Your light … Your good deeds … Your Father in heaven. When you let your light shine before men, they glorify your Father in heaven. What begins on earth ends in heaven.
That’s how much influence we have. We can point men to God. We can lead them out of darkness into the light.
It is wonderfully simple. We do the shining and God gets the credit. And here’s why. Light does not call attention to itself. It provides illumination so that other things can be seen as they really are. When men see a beautifully lit city, they don’t discuss the lights; they talk of the genius of the architect. When men gather around a Thanksgiving table, they don’t praise the light by which they eat; instead, they give the credit to the one who prepared the meal.
So it is that when our light shines to those around us, they see the beauty of our good works, the darkness falls away, they see spiritual reality, and God gets the credit.
Knocking Holes In The Darkness
When Robert Louis Stevenson was a young child, he was sick much of the time. He couldn’t go out and play like the other children so he spent a lot of time watching at the window. One evening he sat and watched as the old-fashioned lamplighter came down the street lighting the lamps. His nurse said to him, “What are you doing?” To which he replied, “I’m watching the man knock holes in the darkness.”
Here at Calvary, we are facing a magnificent opportunity. I spoke earlier of the moral decay going on all around us. Let no one despair. The darker the night, the brighter the light shines. It is precisely when the world is at its worst that the people of God should be at their best. We were made for days like these. And this is our calling: We have been commissioned by Jesus Christ to go throughout Oak Park and River Forest and Forest Park and Cicero and Berwyn and Elmhurst and Chicago knocking holes in the darkness.
Wanted: The Salt And Light Brigade
I began by saying that the church has lost its influence in our society. That seems so obvious that it needs no further comment. But why has it happened and what can we do about it? It has happened as we have neglected to be salt and light in the world. This world has desperately needed light, but we have hidden under the bowl. In the meantime the world has gone from bad to worse.
What will have to happen for us to once again become salt and light in the world?
1. To become salt we must actively decide to become purifying agents who hinder the spread of evil.
2. To become light we must actively decide to illuminate the spiritual darkness around us by the boldness of our speech and by the beauty of our life.
Let no one be deceived. It will not be easy. The world doesn’t want salt and light, but it desperately needs it. The world won’t give you a Medal of Honor for joining the Salt and Light Brigade, but you ought to join up anyway.
Here are two simple commitments we can make this morning:
First of all is the Salt Commitment: I will be a purifying agent to hinder the spread of evil as God gives me the opportunity. That may mean speaking up at the office. It may mean refusing to get involved in certain holiday traditions. It may mean rocking the boat where you work. It may mean taking some criticism for your faith. It may mean taking an unpopular stand on public issues. Remember, salt stings and then it cleanses.
Second, there is the Light Commitment: I will illuminate the spiritual darkness around me by the boldness of my speech and the beauty of my life. That certainly involves deeds of everyday kindness. It may mean going out of your way to help a friend. It no doubt means openly identifying yourself as a Christian. It will probably cost you some money and some time. Remember, the primary function of light is to reveal things as they really are. When you’ve done your job, they won’t talk about you. They’ll talk about Jesus.
We aren’t called to save the world. But we are called to make a difference. We can’t do everything. But we can do something. And what we can do, we ought to do. That’s what being salt and light is all about.
Lord Jesus, grant that we would not be even slightly disappointed this morning. You have made us for times like these. Give us a new vision of the difference we can make in our world. Amen.