Monday, February 7, 2011

Epiphany 5 of Series A (Matthew 5:13-20)

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, [later this morning at Saint John’s we are going to have a confirmation] today you are going to witness a confirmation. Alice is going to come forward after the offering and make solemn vows, a confession before God and the world as to what she believes. Confirmation isn’t something commanded in Scripture, but the Church in her wisdom has established it as a time for one who has been baptized and instructed in the faith to confess Christ before others. Confirmation is not graduation; instead it is more like a beginning, the beginning of a lifetime of learning more and more about God, a lifetime of confessing Him before men. Jesus promises in Matthew chapter ten: “Whoever confesses me before men, I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven.” Friends in Christ, at your confirmation you made the same solemn vows that Alice will make. You confessed the triune God, you declared your allegiance to the teachings of the Lutheran Church, and you promised with the help of God to live according to the Word of God. In the words of Jesus in our text for today, you promised to be salt and light.

“You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Notice how Jesus says it; He doesn’t say ‘make yourself salt and light,’ but instead He says, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.” This is your identity, your baptismal identity. When God made you His child in the washing of the water with the Word, He made you salt and light. That is simply what a Christian is, and as Jesus says, a Christian that refuses to be what God has made him or her in Baptism is as ridiculous as unseasoned salt or hidden light.

Salt seasons; light shines. That is simply what they do, and that is what we are called on to do. We are to salt the earth and give light to the world. All creation has been corrupted by sin, and so people need to be called to repentance, they need to hear the Gospel. That is what it means to be salt and light in this world; to speak the Word of God to those around us, to confess Jesus before men. It means living a life that declares to the world that we Christians are different, that we refuse to participate in the corruption of this world, but instead that we call on this world to repent. In our Old Testament lesson for today, God is fed up with the empty fasting of His people. He doesn’t need them to stay at home trying to impress Him, but instead He wants them to go out and be salt and light. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps 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 him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” Being salt and light in this world is nothing else than serving our neighbor in his physical and spiritual needs. It is showing the love of Christ to those around us. Salt and light should make an impression on an unseasoned and dark world. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” That is the object of our lives in this world; we are salt and light in order that others may glorify God and come to faith.

Someone who claims to be a Christian and yet refuses to proclaim Christ by word and deed is like unseasoned salt or hidden light. “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… 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.” Unseasoned salt? Hidden light? A Christian that has no effect on the world around him, who lives a life indistinguishable from his atheist neighbor is just as absurd, just as crazy. Christ hasn’t delivered you from sin, death, and hell so that you can continue living like the world, but instead He has claimed you as His own so that you are salt and light. That is what Baptism makes us, that is what we confess in Confirmation. I will ask Alice, “Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death?” Only through the power of the Holy Spirit, Alice will answer, “I do, by the grace of God.” That promise, or one like it, is what you said on your confirmation day. You promised to live different than the world, for Christ’s coming didn’t destroy God’s holy Law. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

The Law tells us how to live as salt and light, and therefore cannot be abolished. But the Law cannot make us salt and light. Only the one who has fulfilled the Law can do that. We are salt and light because Jesus has first salted and enlightened us. He came as the fulfillment of the Old Testament, to complete God’s revelation by bringing the promised salvation to us. He is the true light that has come to shine in the darkness of this corrupted world, to shine in the darkness of corrupted hearts. Saint Paul said in second Corinthians chapter four: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” We were in darkness, the darkness of sin, the darkness of death, but the same God who created light from darkness on the first day of creation sent the Light into our dark world. Saint John writes in the first chapter of his Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” But the darkness sure tried. The crown of God’s creation, humanity, tried to snuff out this light; the prince of darkness, Satan, incited them to nail the Light of the world to the cross. There the sun refused to shine, there darkness covered the earth, the darkness of sin and death. The Light of the world was placed under a basket, and to the world it seemed that it had been smothered.

But the darkness could not extinguish this light. On Easter Sunday, the Light shone in all of its brilliance, all of its glory, out of the open tomb. Jesus has risen! The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it! The powers of darkness thought that they had snuffed out the Light on that Good Friday, but instead it was the darkness that was defeated. The darkness of sin and death will no longer have a hold on God’s beloved people, for the Light has conquered the darkness in victory. His resurrection is the declaration of that victory, the assurance that just as He conquered death, so you will too. The Light of Christ then goes out to illuminate dark hearts, to bring the victory of the cross to you and me. We give those whom we baptize a candle, signifying to them that through the washing of the water with the Word the Light has illuminated their hearts. On the day you were baptized, the Lord shined His Light in your darkened heart, removing the power of sin and death from you.

It is only because Christ hasfirst shone His Light in our hearts that we then have the privilege of shining that same Light before others. We do not shine our light in order to earn heaven, but we shine our light because we have been given heaven. Jesus said, “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 don’t need our good works, because our salvation has already been accomplished by the death and resurrection of Jesus, but our neighbors need them. Our neighbors needs the Light that we shine forth in word and deed, because they are hungry, they are poor, they are naked, they are sick. But most of all, our neighbors need the Light because they are sinful. They need Christ and His forgiveness just as much as you and I, they need the Light to illuminate their darkened heart. Our good works are directed toward our neighbors because they have need of them, and we pray that through our good works they give glory to our Father in heaven.

Only good works done in faith are righteous, and as Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees had outward righteousness. They looked good to the world, but their righteousness counted as nothing, for they weren’t joined with Christ. Any good deed done outside of faith in Christ is not a good deed at all. Only when we are joined to Christ through Baptism are our works righteous; our good works are righteous in the sight of God only because Jesus is righteous. They flow from His righteousness given to us, they come naturally through the relationship that He has established with us. Our righteousness abounds and brings us into the kingdom of heaven because it is His righteousness, won for us through the cross and empty tomb.

It is Christ’s righteousness that we cling to as we salt and enlighten the world. We do this imperfectly, we stumble and fall, we often are unseasoned salt and hidden light. And so we are in constant need of Christ’s righteousness applied to us, we daily require the Light of Christ to be shone into our hearts, we need His forgiveness. That is why we study His Word, that is why we hear the beautiful words of the Absolution at the beginning of the service, that is why we partake of His Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper. Through those means, Christ forgives us, He makes us righteous by giving us His righteousness, He shines the light that chases the darkness away. This same Light will characterize eternity, as we hear in Revelation chapter twenty-one: “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day- and there will be no night there.” In the name of the Light of the World, our Lord, our Savior, our righteousness, Jesus Christ, Amen.

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