Sermon Notes: Salt and Light in the Sugar and Darkness

These are my sermon transcript from a 25-30 minute message delivered to the youth group at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, CA on January 22, 2017.

Have you heard of this film Silence? It is receiving a fair amount of recognition in the indie film world. Not really my scene, but it is a little hard to miss given that it is the long brewing project of directorial great Martin Scorsese. The film is a delve into the meaning and nature of faith, which is one of the reasons that it has received such attention. You see he has had a checkered and odd relationship with his own faith. Martin Scorsese refers to himself as “a lapsed Catholic, but a Roman Catholic. There is no way out of it.” An odd statement as it seems to imply a lack of participation in a religious tradition that he clings tightly to in belief. Another part of his checkered past with faith is his film The Last Temptation of Christ, which served as the artistic basis for Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code as it strongly implies that Jesus and Mary from Magdalene had a sexual relationship resulting in a pregnancy. With all this in the background, it is announced that Scorsese is diving into a new project, something he has been wanting to do for years, on faith.

A brief rundown of the plot is necessary. The new film, Silence, is based on the story penned by a Japanese Christian who was wrestling with his faith. The story follows the life and work of a Jesuit (that is a type of Catholic) missionary named Sebastian Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield. Now Rodrigues and his fellow priest Francisco Garupe (played by Adam Driver) hear that a mentor of theirs Father Cristóvão Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson)—whom they intended on following into missionary work in Japan—had been captured by Japanese military and under duress had renounced his faith. The two young priests decide that they must travel to Japan, minister to the group which Ferreira had been working with and seek to find Ferreira to dispel the rumor that he had apostatized. Long story short, Andrew Garfield’s character gets captured, the villagers that had become Christians are executed and he meets Neeson’s character in a Japanese prison. It turns out that Neeson’s Ferreira has renounced the faith in order to save the villagers he was ministering to. He encourages Garfield’s Rodrigues to do the same. After much contemplation, the endurance of torture, and prayer Rodrigues comes to the same decision. He renounces the faith and lives out his days in Japan in adherence to Japanese Buddhism. 

Now, have you guys ever read a book that has been turned into a movie, and they change something from the book? Not that they cut out something, good books are usually long and have significantly more detail and nuance than movies do. But I mean, where something is added or a character is played in a way that seems to bring out a different portrayal than the book did. Well this movie did something similar. You see the book ends with this somber note that presents a question—it is one thing to allow yourself to be killed for your faith, but it is another to allow others to die for your faith. Can someone renounce the faith and live as if they were not a Christian be honoring to God? That is the burden at the end of the book Silence. At the end of the film, however, the director, a Catholic who does not live as a Catholic, seeks to ease that tension with a final scene. In the Buddhist religion, after death, a body would be burned on a funeral pyre. The director adds a scene where we see Rodrigues, now deceased, laying on a funeral pyre and palmed in his hand, such that no-one but the viewers of the film can see, is a hand carved wooden cross. The message at the end of the film is not as it was at the end of the book, it has moved from this struggle with what is the right thing to do in a difficult situation to a kind of pat answer that seems to suggest “God will understand.”

Now I am not sure, what the right answer is in such a difficult situation. I do not want to speak for God on such an account, but the end of the film doesn’t sit well with me because of the text that we are going to look at this evening. So if you would open your Bibles to the gospel of Matthew 5:13-16:

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.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all inthe house. 16 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.

Now, you have been for the past two weeks in a series titled “I Am, You Are” exploring who Jesus says he is and in light of that who we are as Jesus’ followers. With that in mind I want to consider what it means that Jesus calls his followers, his disciples salt and light. 

Let’s start with salt. You may have heard this discussed before, after all this is part of one of the most well known texts in the Bible, usually called the Sermon on the Mount. But in case you have not heard it or are in need of a refresher, calling his followers salt implied several things about them. It can imply that they are a preservative of sorts. Salt was rubbed into meat in order to allow it to keep longer in days without refrigeration. This points to Christians’ role in cultural engagement for the resistance of corrupting forces. Another rendition of this passage might lead to the translation you are the salt of the soil referencing an ancient practice of using salt as a fertilizer in the ancient world. Apparently this practice has gone out of style as the sodium levels in the soil in many parts of the world have risen, but that was not an issue 2000 years ago. This would then allude to Jesus’ followers helping others to meet Jesus in evangelism and grow in Jesus in discipleship. Obviously salt is used to add flavor. We can say that Christians are suppose to make life more interesting and flavorful. Calling his disciples salt could also reference purification or cleansing. Salt has antiseptic qualities making it an important ancient world addition to a quality first aid kit. This then would lead us to believe that Christians are suppose to help the spiritually wounded by providing the means of spiritual healing in relationship to Jesus. Finally salt is often associated with references to wisdom in the Old Testament. For our purposes let’s just pick one of these to focus on, since we are most familiar with salt in terms of its uses on our dinner table, let’s consider the idea of flavor. 

Salt gives flavor by contrast. You know this if you have ever watched someone make good chocolate chip cookies. A little salt in the cookie mix goes along way as it draws out the sweetness of the sugar and chocolate. This is also true on a good stake, a bit of salt will draw out the flavor of the meat. Really the only time we use salt for the sake of its own flavor is on french fries, because they are made out of potatoes, which are boring and bland by themselves. Christians, the followers of Jesus are suppose to flavor the earth by living in a subtle contrast with the cultures of the world. It is in our differences that we are at our best. Here is why. The voices in our society—be they popular level voices in film, television, or music, political voices in office or activism, or academic voices in school now or if/when you go to college—will present to you a picture of what they believe it looks like to live the good life. They will present a picture of the life and the world in which meaning and joy and real living is wrapped up in something. Maybe it is sex, maybe it is career, maybe it is romantic interest, maybe it is fame, maybe it is obscurity and eccentricity, maybe it is in friendship, there are many things and ideas that people link their lives to asserting that the real of life resides. The Bible tells us otherwise though. The Bible tells us that these things are good and made for our participation and enjoyment, but that they are really made for participation in submission to Christ.

So many outside of the church have heard only restrictions from the church. They have been told what is off limits, rather than the joy available when participation is pursued in the manner and means that God has created. Many of your friends may think that pursuing Jesus means restraining their passions and living a life of blandness, but that is a misconception. Following Jesus requires restraining passions, but not simply to live a life of self denial, but to focus them from maximum joy. C.S. Lewis famously wrote:

The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

— from the Weight of Glory

I believe Lewis may have been thinking about one of my favorite verse when he penned this. John 10:10, which reads, “For the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but I [Jesus] have come that you may have life and have it to the full.”

So, how do we act as salt? We live lives of fullness in proper submission to Jesus. This means that we lay aside things that our non-Christian friends and family would expect us to take on as simply part of life’s enjoyment. We lay them aside for their proper use. And we do not take anything on such that it challenges our ability to faithfully follow Christ.

Let’s turn now to light. Unlike salt, which has many uses, light has one simple and yet profound use. Light reveals. It is light that reveals what it is that you stubbed your toe on walking blindly to the bathroom in the middle of the night. It is light that reveals the twists and turns of the road on a dark and rainy evening. It is the light of the disciples that will guide none believers toward Christ. Look again at the passage:

14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all inthe house. 16 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.

We are instructed here to let our light shine in such a way that the good works that we do, presumably the good works that we do as a result of our faith in Jesus and our desire to follow him, will draw the attention of others. They will stand out in contrast to the world. 

There are two reason I can think of that good works would standout in the world. There may be more reasons, but these are the two that I came up with. First, they stand out because those in the world are not used to seeing good works being done. Or, second, they stand out because they are not used to the manner or kind of the good works that the Christian does being done. Either way, I recall a passage of an ancient letter I read in seminary. 

The background is the Roman empire at the end of its great second installment known as the Constantinian dynasty. The final emperor or Caeser of the dynasty desired to move back to the glory of old Rome, and he thought Christianity was standing in the way. As he sent out investigators to figure out why he could not get Christians to change their religious allegiances, even under penalty of death he discovered the root was a wealth of good deeds that gave glory to God. Julian wrote in a letter to a friend and military leader:

Why do we not observe that it is their [the Christians’] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism [unbelief of the pagan gods]. For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort.

— Julian the Apostate (Roman Emperor, 361-363 AD)

Consider this, a Roman Emperor, who was disgusted by the Constantinian embrace of Christianity wanted to move back toward a pagan Rome, to embrace the gods of war and wine rejecting this crucified Godman called Jesus. Our good deeds draw the observance of the world around us, we then ought to turn their view from us to Christ by, in the words of Peter, 

but in [our] hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (ESV)

One more point I want to make here, something I just think is interesting and shows why I picked this passage given the series you have been in. Jesus states that his hearers, the disciples, ARE the salt of the earth and ARE the light of the world. Not that they would become salt and light. Not that they possess the salt and light, but that they ARE salt and light by virtue of the relationship with Christ.

Have you seen those commercials for GEICO? The its what you do commercials. They are pretty ridiculous, but they make an excellent point. Certain kinds of people or things have a standard MO. Mom’s call at bad times, parrots repeat things. Disciples of Jesus are similar. We have an MO. We follow Jesus, we do good, when we mess up we repent, when people notice our lives we point them to Christ—the founder and anchor of our faith. Its what we do because we are salt and light. 

Questions

  1. Can you think of any biblical stories where good deeds lead to public praise of God?
  2. Can you think of any personal anecdotes where you were able to direct others to Jesus after recognition of good deeds?
  3. Can you think of simple good deeds that you can do to give glory to God?
  4. Can you think of anything that keeps you from doing good deeds or directing people toward Jesus when your good deeds have been noticed? (It is good to pray about the issue that arise here)
  5. How does the realization that you (if you are a believer) are already salt and light strike you? (Does it make them feel relieved, burdened, etc.?)
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