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Salt and Light

February 7, 2021 Speaker: Daniel Nelms Series: Jesus and Human Flourishing

Passage: Matthew 5:13–5:16

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 in the 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. (ESV)

          This sermon is going to be about mission – looking outside into the community, and understanding our roles as Christians in public life.  Jesus, the Master Teacher, give us some broad and kind of vague teachings in these verses – intentionally broad, I believe, but in order to understand them we need to see where they lay in the Sermon on the Mount – what comes before, and what comes after.

          This section of verses come right after the Beatitudes, which gave us a general summary of the kind of person that a Jesus follower should be.  Not so much what you do, but rather your disposition as a Jesus follower internally – which inevitably will lead to external actions.  We then can expect that Jesus is going to slowly point us towards how to live our lives as Jesus followers in what follows after the Beautitudes.

          However, here this section comes right before the real fun stuff, when Jesus goes into a true definition and application of the Law of Moses – he talks about hot button issues like anger, lust, divorce, revenge and more – he gets specific.  These verses, then, become a stepping stone of sorts between the two sections.  Beatitudes explaining our disposition as Jesus followers, and before specific moral situations that are tricky to navigate.  These verses today, then, shoot up 30,000 feet and tell us of the effect of being a Jesus follower to our community: we become its salt and its light through our following Jesus while rubbing shoulders with those in the community.

          The questions that will concern us this morning is this:

  • What does it mean to be salt and light to the world – living as missionaries for Jesus in our local communities?
  • Is it possible to think that we are being salt and light, when, in reality, we are shaking out useless salt that is really no salt at all?
  • And how do we do so without being unstained by the world?


Let’s dive in:


[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.

          Coming out of the Beatitudes, Jesus now shifts from the third person pronouns (blessed are) to now the second person perspective.  In other words, now he is talking to his followers directly.  We can safely say, then, if Jesus is addressing his followers – and you are a follower of Jesus in this room – these verses are also directly aimed at you.  So if you are asleep right now – wake up, Jesus is addressing you. 

          You are the salt of the earth.  But what does that mean?  After getting Covid, I still cannot taste anything, or salt, all of these weeks after, I do miss salt.  But think about what salt does to pretty much everything it touches.  Jesus here does not tell us exactly what he means – he is a masterful teacher, and he wants to stop and think and consider. 

To begin with, we must try and think like someone living in ancient Israel in the 1st century.  What did salt do for them?  Well thankfully much of salt’s use has not really changed much, but there are two things that need to be noted about Salt’s usage:

Salt preserves.  If you salt raw meat, it will help in is preservation, preventing it from rapid decay.

          Secondly, salt also brings out flavor to food.  Every morning we go through a dozen eggs in our family over breakfast, and I usually cook the breakfast.  If I forget to put the salt on the eggs, Lydia always lets me know, because salt makes a big difference with eggs. 

          Salt, therefore, brings out the best in our food.  And once you put salt on your food – there is no getting it back because it permeates your food.  It is tiny and it spreads out over those scrambled eggs and there is no getting it back. 

          You are that for the world.  Jesus followers preserve the word and bring out its best flavors as we permeate it. The next verse uses a similar metaphor to describe our work in this world:

[14] “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.

          Have you ever turned on a flashlight in a dark room?  What does that light do?  It gives off its glimmer throughout that whole room.  There is not a corner of the room that is unaffected by that light.  Just last night, we had a fire going in our fireplace, and we turned off the lights downstairs, and a few of the kids and I watched the light dance on and off the walls all throughout the living room.  It filled the room, and every corner was affected. 

          And a city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Jesus probably said this while standing on the shores of Galilee, where some large hills surrounding the area held small cities that were in very public view on the hillside – even to this day.  He probably just had to point his finger to these cities to make his point to his audience. 

Light cannot be hidden when it is thrust out into the open.  Thus, we have said that salt permeates and preserves our food and adds flavor, light permeates a dark room with its beams.  And you are to read yourself into these metaphors - YOU are the salt of the earth, and YOU are the light of the world.

          These two metaphors are alike.  The question now that tugs at us is this: what does it mean to be salt?  What does it mean to be light?   

          Let’s walk through this: our city needs ACTIVE Christians in its life.  It is a reference to a public life, a life lived out in the open.  The city of Wilmington and the surrounding areas needs active Christians participating in its life, in community organizations, sitting in coffee shops, walking in its parks and striking up a conversation, befriending people, the city of Wilmington needs Christians at open mic nights in coffee shops, to be regulars at restaurants, etc. – we need Christians to permeate the city, like salt permeates our eggs in the morning, like light fills that dark room.

          Now, you say, it’s a pandemic!  I do not feel comfortable going out in public much these days.  I know, trust me.  But it is a time of preparation, a time for you and I as a church to really develop a biblical understanding of what it means to flourish as a Christian, and especially how you and I are to seek to spread the message of the Kingdom of Jesus to this city.

          Now there are a series of careful questions I want to ask, because yes, I am calling us to permeate this city, I want Immanuel to be a salt shaker over Wilmington, just shaking the Gospel of Jesus all over this city through word and deed.  There will be a post-Covid world, however it will look.  And opportunities will present themselves – and even with creativity they do now.  And we need Jesus and his Scriptures and teachings to guide us along the way.

          The first question I want to ask is this: much of the Christian life is up and against the life of this world.  How do we go out there, be a part of it, while still remaining a Jesus follower and being unaffected by the world?  Let us turn to John chapter 17 in what is known as the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus as we try to answer this:

“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.  They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified.”  17:14-19

          Here is the deal: we are sent out into the world.  We are lights of the world.  We are salt to the earth.  However, we do so as a distinct people, in the world, but still separate from it.  There is not an easy playbook as to how to do this.  It’s tricky, and it takes wisdom, prayer, guidance on our end as Christians knowing what is wise for us to do, and what situations would be wise for us to be in as Immanuel exercises our duty to be a salt-shaker to Wilmington.

          There are two mistakes you can make here if you do not find the balance, and I want to walk through them:

The first mistake that can be made is to miss the call to be out there in the world, and fall into escapism. 

I’ve heard people say “well this world is just going to burn anyway!  So who cares?  Time to circle the wagons!” and they find the apocalyptic scriptures of the world burning and ending one day to justify their bleak cynicism. Then you read scripture like ours this morning, and you realize that no, it is not quite that simplistic. 

Escapism is escaping from obedience.  Jesus told you to go out there and to turn this church into a salt shaker over our community, and any excuse that says no means you are in disobedience.  We will end with the other portion of this passage, which I skipped earlier, but there is judgment that comes from the lack of obedience.

However, the second mistake we can make is a joining of ourselves to the world.  Yes, sometimes it is an obvious error when we engage in destructive behaviors towards ourselves and others that have nothing to do with Christ, but more often than not, I believe this error is done when we try and sync up Christianity with other systems of belief and other systems of living that have nothing to with Christ.  This is harder to navigate than you may realize. 

          You see how this is a difficult task, right?  There is no easy right or wrong answers or a very clear playbook in front of us.  We must walk carefully in this world and not be brought into its grip as we are sent out into it. 

          Now, let’s talk about salt’s role of preservation.  Salt not only adds flavor, but it preserves.  Light exposes falsehood and preserves truth, as Psalm 37:6 says very clearly. 

          We should expect in this generation to see our current society continue to destabilize.  I do not claim to be a prophet, but I can tell you with almost certainty that we will see some major collapses in society in one form or another. 

          If we are to be salt to the community, we also need, as Jesus followers, as Christians and as local Church, be body of people who are preserving our society.  This is what I mean: if you wanted to keep raw meat in Christ’s day, it would need salt to preserve it.  As our society continues to fall into more rawness, it is going to decay unless salt is found to preserve it.  Like the European monasteries of the 5th and 6th centuries, when society collapses it will be on the hunt for a fall back option that provides health, stability, beautiful culture and goodness of virtue, of familial love and strength, because all of that will soon be missing from American culture.  So this analogy by Christ of being salt means that you and I have a dual role to play: be agents of reconciliation, living as missionaries out in the community, but also be agents of preservation here, strengthening this church, strengthening our families, strengthening our own spiritual growth in Christ in order that we can bring the preserving salt of living in the name of Jesus to a world that desperately needs it.

          To get specific, there are elements of our basic human existence that Christians must preserve and live out as a stabilizing light to our communities.  Some of those things are:

  • Stable, Christ-centered, male and female marriages
  • Having children and training then up in Christ, and not complaining about children or pushing them to the periphery but enjoying them as the rewards and blessings that they are, not being afraid to have large families.
  • Continually becoming fluent in the Scriptures, and even in Church History, preserving the elements of our faith and belief that began in Christ, and that have continued unbroken for thousands of years
  • Learning to freely talk about Jesus as we serve our neighbors, living unashamedly as Christians
  • Creating things of true beauty for our culture – promoting stories and events of redemption, salvation, of goodness – things that point people to the Gospel story
  • Strengthening our own congregational life, learning to continually make this church family our own family
  • Being people of truth and grace, unleashing undeserved grace on those who need it, and preserving truth to a world of scattered and lost truth
  • Being a truly diverse group of people, cultivating a family of all nations, people, tribes and colors and languages that represent the community we are in
  • Not playing the us vs. them game of our current society – more on that in a minute
  • Learning to be a distinct people in the midst of the world, a stable and loving Jesus family of people that, when things continue to disintegrate around us culturally, we will not.
  • This is the kind of salt that the world needs

And now I want to go to the next question:  What are ways that we might be shaking out what we think is salt, but actually is no salt at all?  Things worthy to be tossed to the side and trampled on?  It is not only about us being out in the community, but also about ensuring that what salt and light we bring to the community is truly the salt and light of Christ, and not some muddled or polluted or weakened, worldly salt.  We must ensure that we are not dropping the salt of political partisanship around us, but rather the salt of the Gospel.  Our work is cut out for us.

          Our faith is to be taken with joy, but with the upmost seriousness in modern times.  We need prayer, more than every – we need to pray for a fresh filling of the Spirit, more than ever.  The salt and light of Christ is desperately needed to be shaken over our city and shined all around – the question is, then, twofold for you and I:  Are you going to be the salt and light for Wilmington and the surrounding area?  And is the salt and light you are spreading truly the salt and light of Christ?

          Here me out, and I know I have been preaching some hard things as of recent but hard times call for hard things: I do not want to see the American Church in judgement for losing its saltiness and for putting a bucket over the light of the Gospel that has been given to us.           Let’s read these verses one more time:


[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 in the 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. (ESV)


          Jesus is harsh here: if salt has lost its taste, what good is it?  To be thrown aside on the road, just like that piece of gum that you chewed into oblivion that you threw out of the out of the car window on the interstate.  There is no function for unsalty salt.  Throw it out: it’s only roadside garbage now.  One morning we were making oatmeal for breakfast, and I can’t remember if it was Alexandra or I who did it, definitely it was Alexandra though, but we enjoy putting a dash of cinnamon in our oatmeal.  Well, in our spice cabinet that morning the cumin was next to the cinnamon, and they are of a similar color. 

          Sure enough, as we were eating the food, we all noticed an interesting flavor.  Of course, being the veteran father I am, I didn’t want to say anything because if I complained about the food, the kids were all join in chorus and they would not touch it.  So Alexandra and I made eye contact and laughed at how bad it tasted, but to be a good example we gulped it down (I actually think I did complain out loud at one point).  Still, the kids didn’t eat it anyhow and much of the oatmeal was tossed.

           I want you to hear me out: this is not a time to be pro-Christian.  To be a salt-shaker and a light for Wilmington does not mean Immanuel becomes pro-Christian and goes to war to defend our Christian values and beliefs.  That will not taste good to Wilmington.  That is only playing the current game of our society.  That will be like shaking cumin in Wilmington’s oatmeal when they are expecting cinnamon from us. 

Everyone is pro-something like right now, and to be pro-something means you are ready to fight against whatever is “against” you.  Being pro-something means that you must define yourself usually by what you are NOT – it’s a posture of pure defense.  It is not a time to be pro-Christian.  It is a time to be Christlike.  I am going to say it again: it is not a time to be pro-Christian, but to be Christ like. 

One is a stance of defense, ready for a fight.  One is a mission-focused, evangelistic, community-active loving way of life – of loving God and neighbor, being truthful yet being full of grace according to each circumstance while sharing and showing the Good News of Jesus.  Being Pro-Christian is to take the Bible as a sword to dash your enemies to defend your ground.  Christlikeness is to shake out the salt of the Gospel through loving God and neighbor by going out into the community – just like Jesus did, while remaining unstained from the world. 

Being pro-Christian is like filling our salt shaker up with pepper.  People expect the preserving salt of love from Christians, but instead they get the harshness of pepper.

I could preach so much more, but Jesus ends in conclusion: as we do so, as we become that salt shaker and that lampstand for Wilmington, we need to do so in such a manner that GOD receives the glory, and not us. 

[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. (ESV)

It is not a sin for others to see your light shining for Jesus if they see Jesus working, and not you.  That is how we know we are “succeeding” if you will, of shaking out the salt of Christ and shining with his light in our community.  Who is getting the glory from our work?  Is it us?  Or is it Christ?  

          I will close here with four questions for application before we transition into communion:

  • More than ever, our nation needs the salt and light of stable families – stable marriages, stable parenting, Christ-centered homes. If you are a grandparent this morning – how are you investing the love of the Gospel into your family?  If you are a parent this morning – are you intentionally cultivating the aroma of Christ in your family?  If you are married this morning – are you spending time talking about Scripture together, praying together, being vulnerable with one another, cultivating Jesus to one another?
  • Jesus said not to hide your light underneath a basket. When is the last time you shared the Gospel with someone?  How can you let your light shine in such a way that, like Jesus said, it is not you who gets the glory, but rather God? 
  • Are you more Pro-Christian than Christlike? Are you more concerned about defending Christian values than living out Christian values?  How can we be sure that the salt we are spreading is actually the salt of Christ? 
  • Last, but not least: Jesus said he will bring judgment to those who have lost their saltiness. He told the churches in Revelation that he will remove their lampstand if they do not repent.  Immanuel, I don’t want to see our lampstand removed.  I don’t want to see us tossed to the side in God’s work here on earth.  I want to be in the middle of it.  May we in the coming days, weeks and months, learn how to be the salt and light of the Good News of Jesus Christ to our community.  Let us pray. 




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