I'm not talking oxymora here, but things unlikely to be combined like peanut butter and bananas, chicken and waffles, beer and berries. Unlikely combinations when tried are often liked. Our text deals with unlikely combinations.
It begins with not just unlikely combinations but senseless ones: unsalty salt. Not unsalted food, not lightly salted, not a salt substitute, but salt that has lost its saltiness. Commentators speak of this being a real possibility in the first century. The salt took out of the ground was mixed with dirt. It was put in piles. Rain would melt the salt away leaving bits of sand that looked like salt but wasn't. Or storing the salt on the ground led to it leeching into the soil and the salt losing its saltiness.
But Jesus isn't talking about salt, is He? He's talking about us. Our text comes from the Sermon on the Mount which Scripture says was addressed to the disciples of Jesus. Salt that can lose its saltiness is the Christian who can lose his Christianity. But we think it's impossible for salt to lose its saltiness. Eatbydate.com says salt has no expiration date. But Christians can lose their Christianity. Christians can fall away from Christ and then far from preserving the world from judgment they make it all the riper for it.
If salt really can loose its saltiness the way I described earlier than it happens bit by bit. Christians seldom fall away; they go the way Paul Simons sings. They slip slide away. The Christian who every Sunday is in Bible class starts missing now and then. Then stops going altogether, but he is in church every Sunday and Wednesday too. Then Wednesdays go by the board; then Sundays, and you know what? That person still believes he's a Christian, but belief in Christ is not the same thing as believing you're a Christian. A person can no more make themselves a Christian by believing they are than salt-less salt can make itself salt by believing it is.
We're in the area of senseless combinations: salt-less salt and now a light under a bushel basket. The insert says bowl, but it's basket or a peck-measure which is a 1/4 of bushel. Every kid singing "This little Light of Mine" fairly shouts that in regard to hiding it under a bushel, "No, I'm going to let it shine!" Who would light a candle and put it under any sort of basket? The basket would either burn up or put it out. Combining any sort of flame with any sort of basket is as senseless as thinking that Christ lit the Christian faith in you so you could keep it hidden away in your heart.
Don't like where this is going, do you? But there's one more combination that doesn't make sense: An imperfect God. We sure couldn't have one in nature not for long. What if one day water froze at 50deg or the earth tilted at 24deg? What if air suddenly had 11% oxygen rather than 21%? We can't have an imprecise God in nature let a lone an imperfect one, but we think we do have one in life.
We think we have a God who accepts our best effort as if we're kids on a little league team with a coach saying "just do your best" rather than a God who demands perfection. We think fearing, loving, and trusting God above most things is good enough. We think our "O my Gods" are unheard, unjudged, and unpunished by God. We think sitting in a church pew when we feel like it is the same as holding preaching and God's Word sacred and gladly hearing and learning it. We think God's the teacher that doesn't take off for spelling mistakes when in reality He's the One that actively seeks every un-dotted i' and every uncrossed t' and gives not an "F" for failing but an "E" for excommunicated if He finds just one. That's right; combining your sin with God's holiness isn't a senseless combination; it's an impossible one.
Our text begins with combinations that don't make sense salt-less salt, a light lit to be hidden, and a God who is less than perfect. It moves on to combinations that only God can do. Who could combine the Perfect God who is Spirit with flesh and blood? God could and did. Scripture says that Jesus was made like us in everyway except without sin. When He dared His enemies to point out one sin of His, though they wanted to they couldn't because there was none. Even our friends would have no trouble at all pointing out our sins. And after they had stopped listing them 15 minutes later our own conscience would chime in and when it went silent the Devil himself would point to 10,000 more.
What's true of you and me is true of all people. No wonder this world is so dark, depressing, and disheartening. Where's the light? Certainly not in me! How about you? I see pin pricks of light here and there in my soul only to be quickly filled in by the sewage and filth that is my fallen life. Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus will say, "If the light in you is darkness, how deep is your darkness?" It's bottomless. It's the black hole in the ground that you throw a rock in and hear no splash, no thud, no hitting of the bottom.
While even our light is darkness, so devoid of light are we, Jesus is Light. He's the only Light in this world. The first thing God created was light. "Let there be light." The first thing man did when He fell was lose that light entirely. God sent His Light back into the world in the Person of God the Son. He lights the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He lights how life was meant to be lived. He lights what loving someone really means. His light exposes mercy that endures forever, love that believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
There He was the Perfect Light of God shining forth through a flesh and blood Man, but God had Him arrested. His shinning faith slapped, beaten, and spat upon. His shining body whipped, crowned with thorns, and nailed to a cross. What should happen to us salt-less salt happened to Jesus. He who was Goodness itself was cast out as good for nothing and trampled under the feet of men, devil, and God. He who was Light itself was treated as if He did what we do. Hide the Light of God under a bushel of filthy thoughts, gossipy words, and shameful deeds. "Damn You! Damn You! Damn You!" God declared in an infinitely potent rage till Jesus cried in victory, "It is finished."
From combinations that make no sense, we moved to combinations that only God can make, now we're left with astounding combinations. Jesus says not said as the insert always misreads. Jesus says today, here and now, to sinful, fallen, salt-less people like you: "You are the salt of the earth." He doesn't say you may be, can be, will be, or might be, but you ARE. What Jesus says is the truth. What Jesus says is reality. You ARE the salt of the earth no matter what you conscience says, the devil says, or others say. You are the salt of the earth because Jesus has carried away your dirt. He's strained your body, soul, and life through His nail pierced hands and caught all the impurities leaving nothing but pure salt.
You ARE the salt of the earth. For your sake this old world keeps on turning. For your sake this world doesn't decay into putrefaction more rapidly than it does. As evil Laban was blessed for Jacob's sake and pagan Potiphar was blessed for Joseph's sake, so the whole world is blessed by God for your sake. Anything in this fallen world that is palatable, tasteful, or tasty is because as Jesus says, "You are the salt of the earth."
Today, right now, Jesus says, to you dark, gloomy, disheartened sinners assembled here, that you ARE the light of the world. He doesn't say you might be, can be, should be, or will be, but you ARE. Through you God the Son brings the Light of God back into the deep darkness of this fallen world. In a group of people in a dark woods, the guy with the flashlight is king. Even a little light piercing the darkness is enlightening. The beacon of a light from a lighthouse lifts the gloom for miles. The one light on in the otherwise dark town you're driving through in the middle of a long night is somehow heartening. And doesn't Tom Bodett telling you, "We'll leave the light on for you" strike a note of comfort in a gloomy heart?
You ARE the light of the world because Jesus who is Light of Light declares you so. Having taken you to the font He washed you of your sins and painted you with His glow in the dark holiness. Having heard your confession of sins, He answered by sending them away from you and lighting up your life with forgiveness. And what do you think you eat and drink when you partake of the Body and Blood of the One who declared Himself to be the Light of the World? You eat and drink Light.
Jesus declares you to be salt and light today. Don't you dare contradict Him, disbelieve Him, dilute the salt or shade the light. Ah but you wonder, Do I have the righteousness that surpasses the Pharisees and Scribes that is necessary to be able to enter heaven? Of course you do! Jesus tells you today He fulfilled not only the Law but the Prophets. The prophets predicted that one day sins would be remembered no more; one day the dead would rise; one day the people who were not God's people would be called God's people; one day Sin, Death, and the Devil would be defeated, and God's righteousness would reign.
That day is today says Jesus. Today the prophets are fulfilled: Your sins are sent away, covered up, and forgotten by the righteousness Jesus gives you in Word and Sacrament. Death can swallow that fallen body of yours but your soul declared righteous by Jesus will enter heaven carried by an angel. The Devil who threatens, rages, and roars, is barred from reaching you by the righteousness of Jesus that is yours in every dot of an i' and in every cross of a t' found in Scripture.
You and everlasting life are an unlikely combination, but no more unlikely, than a Man who is God, Water that is life-giving, Words that's our forgiving, and Body that is Bread and Blood that is Wine. Unlikely combinations almost always surprise you, but they usually satisfy you. These most certainly do. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (20140209); Matthew 5: 13-20