Isaiah 58:1-8 | Matthew 5:13-20
It’s a sad truth – but the Bible doesn’t always say what we want it to say, what we think it ought to say, what it would say if we wrote it. And that is certainly the case when it comes to Jesus’ words about the Old Testament law in our gospel reading today.
With the Old Testament law being, as it seems, an ad-hoc mixture of the most profound, fundamental wisdom: “I am the Lord your God, and you shall have no other Gods before me”, the most specific detail “anything upon which an unclean creature falls when it is dead shall be dipped into water, and it shall be unclean until the evening, and then it shall be clean”, and the most unpleasant rituals of sacrifice: “The sin-offering shall be slaughtered before the Lord; it is most holy”, surely it would not have been too much to ask that Jesus make it abundantly clear what aspects of the law apply to us, and which do not?
Which is why Jesus’ words about the law in today’s gospel reading are difficult for us. They start well enough: “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it”. If only he’d stopped there, it would have been easy enough to make sense of. But the quote continues: “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law… whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven”.
The words sound to be about as absolute a ringing endorsement of the law of Moses, literally, the letter of the law, as you could imagine, straight from the mouth of Jesus. And yet we do not feel bound to follow the law. Why?
Perhaps we think these words only apply to Jewish followers of Jesus – who were, as far as we can tell, Matthew’s audience. Perhaps we feel that despite the detail implied in Jesus’ words, he only meant obedience to the spirit of the law. Perhaps we just conclude that Matthew got it wrong.
Whatever our reasoning, when we weigh these words in the wider context of our faith, our tradition, and the rest of the New Testament, we conclude that we simply cannot take these words at face value. And I am sure that is the right conclusion. But let us be honest enough to admit it; to admit that when we read these words of Jesus, we want to make them mean something different to face value. We have good reason to do so, but let’s admit that this is what we are doing.
Of course, one comfort that we have in reading these words ‘creatively’ is that there is good Biblical precedence for doing so. Last week in our Old Testament reading the prophet Micah effectively set aside the whole sacrificial system in favour of his simple formula: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. And this week the prophet Isaiah does much the same with the whole idea of fasting.
In each case, the prophetic voice takes something that is essentially negative – a sacrifice, an abstinence from food – and replaces it with something essentially positive. These are Isaiah’s words:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
The consistent message of the prophetic voice in the Old Testament is this: God is not interested in a faith whose visible manifestation is negative, one of self denial, of petty rule keeping, but in a faith whose visible manifestation is something powerful and positive, something that will show the world what the God you serve is like. For, as Isaiah continues,
“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn”
Live the law of God as a positive, creative, life affirming creed, and it will shine out like the dawn – something no one could ever miss.
Or, as Jesus put it, “You are the light of the world… let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven”.
In our gospel reading, Jesus also offered us another metaphor, another way of thinking about our role as the people of God in God’s world.
You are the salt of the earth.
Now if you walk up and down the aisles at Woolworths, you’d be forgiven for thinking that salt isn’t something special. You can buy it by the kilo bag, it’s found in almost all of the foods we buy. In fact, you might, looking at all the labels boasting that a product is ‘low salt’ or ‘salt free’ reasonably come to the conclusion that salt is something necessary but undesirable.
But for most of human history, salt has been a precious commodity, something nations have gone to war over. Without it, food could not be transported without ruin, long journeys by land or sea were impractical, large empire could not be sustained. Salt has even been used as currency, so precious was it.
How great a compliment, then, were Jesus’ words: You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.
But why these two metaphors? Why these two images – salt and light – to speak of what it means to be God’s people? I’d suggest there are at least two themes that these images share.
The first, is that both salt and light are desirable not so much for what they are in themselves, but for the way they influence their environment. Salt, of course, is a preservative – it prevents food from going to ruin. I remember a preacher many years ago saying that if we believed that the world was going wrong, if we believed society was becoming less caring, more selfish, less moral, then it was like a piece of meat going bad. It makes, he said, no sense to blame the meat. Meat left unsalted goes bad. When the meat rots, you don’t blame the meat – you wonder what happened to the salt.
And light – why do you turn on a light in your house at night? Not to gaze adoringly at your new low energy compact fluoro, but because it allows you to see things, find things, to move about standing on sharp small toys. C.S. Lewis captured this idea beautifully when he wrote “I believe in God as I believe the sun has risen: not just because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”
So salt and light are both of value for the effect they have on the world around them. But there’s something else about them: a little goes a long way. You don’t need a kilogram of salt for a kilogram of meat; you don’t need to fill a room with light-bulbs. The salt of the earth and the light of the world are images of a people who have an impact far beyond their numbers, far beyond their statistical significance.
But perhaps the most significant thing about Jesus’ words in this passage is that he did not say “you must be light, so you can shine”. He said “You are light, and the light must shine”. He didn’t call us to become salt, he told us we are salt. In a way, his words are not demanding: the people of God are not called to be something beyond them, something out of imagination.
The people of God are called simply to be what we are.
You are salt of the earth – be salty.
You are light of the world – shine.
We are salt and light not by virtue of our goodness, but by virtue of our calling. Not by our skills or abilities, but by whose we are. We are salt and light because we are God’s people; not the other way around.
Jesus doesn’t say that if we are good enough we will be salt, if we are good enough we will be light. He says that we are those things, because are his.
You are salt – don’t lose your saltiness.
You are light – don’t hide your brightness.
For if we will simply be the people God has made us, a people reconciled, a people at peace, a people of love; then we will be a preservative for the world around us; we will be a light by which all may see good works and give glory to our Father, the one who calls us, who makes us salt, who gives us light to shine.
Micah 6:1-8 | Matthew 5:1-12
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ three years or so of ministry is bookended by the word disciples. It begins, with the calling of disciples, and ends with the great commission, to go and make disciples of all nations.
The fact that we have four different accounts of Jesus’ life, recorded in the four gospels, is both a great blessing and a potential problem.
One of the major themes of John’s gospel, perhaps his most striking imagery, is that of light and darkness.
One thing that has really stuck me over the weeks of advent, as we’ve taken as our theme Isaiah’s words that “he shall be called the Prince of Peace” – and that, judging by the comments I’ve heard from others, has struck more than just me, is how powerful an idea, and how deeply desired, peace is.
Isaiah 7:10-16 | Matthew 1:18-25
I think it’s fair to say that it’s because of the author of Matthew’s gospel that we know so much about the writings of the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah 11:1-10 | Matthew 3:1-8
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
How timely an image is this for us in New South Wales at the moment, as we watch the news of bushfires and breath the smoke blanketing the city.
And so today we begin that journey of getting ready for Christmas, the journey of advent.
Genesis 1:31 | Psalm 24:1-2 | John 3:11-17
So over these few weeks before we move into advent we’ve been exploring what it means to be part of a bigger Church – part of a Church which is more than just Roseville, more than just Uniting, more than just early twenty-first century.
I doubt that there has ever been a society in which being a tax collector was a profession which would make you automatically popular amongst your peers. Even in a stable democracy like Australia, in which we have a say in the government that spends our tax dollars, and in which, for all the genuine disagreements in our political system, there is actually broad agreement on the vast majority of our spending, most people still resent paying tax, and would choose to pay less if they had that choice.
Chapter 15 of John’s gospel begins with the image of the vine – “I am the vine,” Jesus declares, you are the branches; abide in me and I will abide in you, and then you will bear much fruit.
Here, in the second half of that saying, Jesus takes that phrase, “abide in me”, and gives it meaning. He’s used the word ‘abide’ 8 times in the first few verses of the chapter; “abide in me, abide in my love” over and again, until finally, as if in answer to the unspoken question, he tells us what he means.
If you keep my commands, you will abide in my love
Psalm 46:1-5 | Isaiah 40:28-31
When I was a kid, I lived in what I thought at the time was a small village in England, a long way away from the city. Well, it was in England, so I got that bit right, and technically it was a village, although Woodstock was big enough to have a primary school of two or three hundred children and its own high school. And that distant city was only eight miles down the road – a long walk, but easy on a bike or fifteen minutes in the car.
Right back at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel the author gives us a one sentence summary of Jesus’ preaching: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”. When you read through Mark’s gospel there’s a sense in which the whole thing is just an exposition of those words: the time is now; the Kingdom is near; repent and believe.
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Today’s reading from Paul’s second letter to Timothy gave me the perfect excuse to indulge in one of my favourite sermon-procrastinating pastimes – searching the internet for interesting quotes.
Don’t you just love it when Jesus praises dishonest behaviour?
I particularly like the way that many Bibles, choose to spin this as the ‘parable of the shrewd manager’. Yeah, ok, the guy acted shrewdly, but I wonder what you would call a man who, afraid he was going to be sacked for squandering resources, used his final day at work to abuse his position, and rip off his boss in order to buy himself friends for the future? Shrewd? Maybe. Dishonest crook, more likely.