Archive for January, 2017

Salt and Light

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Matthew 5:13–16 (NLT)

“You are the salt of the earth…”  “You are the light of the world…”  (Matt. 5:13a, 14a)

 

In Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus continues teaching about life in the Kingdom of God.  This is the second passage in the Sermon on the Mount.  In the first passage, known as the Beatitudes, Jesus gave us lifestyle and character of a follower of Jesus.

In this passage, Jesus uses the metaphors of salt and light.  “You are the salt of the earth.”  In the ancient world, salt was a valuable commodity.  In fact, Roman soldiers received salt as part of their payment, their salarium from which we get our word salary.  Salt is one of the oldest and most ubiquitous food seasonings.  Salt was useful as a condiment as it is today, but also useful as a food preservative.  In the Jewish religion, salt was also used for cleansing rituals.  In Leviticus, salt represents the relationship between God and Israel in the grain offering.  (Lev. 2:13)  Salt is a mineral that is essential for life.  And saltiness is one of the basic human tastes.  In fact, salt was so important to the economy of the ancient world that it was used as a medium of exchange throughout the Ancient Near East.  It is likely that Jesus does not have one of these particular properties in mind, but rather saltiness in general.

How can salt lose its saltiness?  In our modern society, we are used to pure salt, but in the ancient world, pure salt was not so easy to come by. Perhaps Jesus had in mind, impure salty rock which was used as a preservative could have the salt leached out of it after a period of time and then it was good for nothing.  Whatever the meaning of salt losing its saltiness, the next statement is clear.  Salt that is not salty is worthless and thrown out into the street.

In the next verse, Jesus uses the metaphor of “the light of the world” for this disciples, “like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden.”  The light metaphor continues the salt metaphor and takes it one step further.

“Light” is an important theme in Scripture.  In John 1, Jesus is “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it.”  (John 1:5)  The physical contrast between the light and the darkness provides a metaphor for the contrast between good and evil, God and the spiritual forces of evil, the Kingdom of God and the world, believers and unbelievers.  Jesus later declared that he is “the light of the world.”  (John 8:12; 9:5)

Jesus’ life and the Good News of salvation bring light to those in darkness (Matt. 4:15-16).  In the same way, his disciples demonstrate the coming of the Kingdom of God and bring light into a world of darkness.  Just as a city on a hill cannot be hidden.  You can see the city lights from far away.

In the same way, you wouldn’t hide a lamp under a basket.  Common sense tells you that you put a lamp up where it can be seen and where it can best shed light to the whole room.  In the ANE, the kind of lamp that was used was a small clay pot with a hole at one end, and a hole in the top to fill it.  It looks like a small tea pot.  The wick would come out of the spout.  Since these were very small, they would only give off a modest light.  To best use it, one would place it on a lamp stand, so it would give light to everyone in the house.

Jesus’ disciples are called to be the light of the world.  We cannot be hidden, because the very nature of the eternal life within us is a living testimony to the darkness around us.  Even one candle seems bright in a dark room.  Likewise the church is to be like a city set on a hill.  I like the way that Eugene Petersen puts it, “God is not a secret to be kept.  We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill.  If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you?  I’m putting you on a light stand.  Now that  I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – shine!”

The passage ends with an admonition, “In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”  The good deeds of the follower of Christ will draw other people to live similarly and to glorify God.

When we share food with the hungry, we are the light of the world!

When we care for those who are homeless, we are the light of the world!

When we offer companionship to the lonely, we are the light of the world!

When we clothe the poor, we are the light of the world!

When we speak up for justice, we are the light of the world!

When we do such things in a weary world, we are the light of the world!

(Laura Jaquith Bartlett, The Abingdon Worship Annual 2017, Feb. 5, 2017)

 

The Beatitudes: Blessed Are the Poor

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Matthew 5:3 God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

Matthew 5 through 7 is the first of five long discourses in Matthew.  This first one is famously called the Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew has introduced his theme with his preaching, “Repent of your sins and turn to God for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”  (Matt. 4:17), and the calling of the first disciples (Matt. 4:18-22).  The Sermon on the Mount answers the question, what does life look like in the Kingdom of Heaven?

Ch. 5:1-12 is a passage called the Beatitudes (a word that means “Blessed” in Latin for the first word in each verse).  “Blessed are those who are…”  What does a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven – a follower of Christ – look like?  This is the specific question addressed in the Beatitudes.

Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes is usually translated, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Luke has simply, “Blessed are the poor….”  So what does Jesus mean by the phrase “poor in spirit”?  The poor are certainly not those whom the world would consider blessed, and in fact, the world often has considered the poor to be poor as a result of their own lack of character, for example, because they are lazy.

In the OT, the poor are often depicted as especially pious because oppression by the wealthy leads them to trust in the Lord for salvation and deliverance rather than relying on the power of wealth.  (Ps. 37:14-15; 40:17; 68:28-33; Isa. 61:1; 66:2)  And this is still true today.  The poor are often kept poor because of the oppression of the wealthy and powerful, and oppressive systems and governments.  The wealthy often turn their faces from the poor in order to deny their role in causing this suffering, and the Bible is clear that God will judge the rich for this.  (Matt. 25:31-46; Luke 1:46-56)

In both Matthew and Luke, the poor are really poor materially, but it is their faith in God, not their poverty, is what makes them blessed.  The poor are often lifted up in the Bible as examples of faith toward God.  Poor people, precisely because of their lack of resources, are often humble in their nature and demeanor.  And the poor are most often those who must, because they have no material resources upon which to depend, must depend on God.

The word translated as “Blessed are…” is makarioi.  This is sometimes translated as “Happy are…”  But happiness in our modern culture is such an ephemeral concept it is subject to the vagaries of everyday life.

The blessed one is the one possesses the favor of God.  So Mary is called “highly favored.”  Blessedness differs from the happy person in that a person may be happy as a result of favorable circumstances.  The blessed one is blessed because his satisfaction comes from God despite circumstance.  So the poor are blessed because they have received the favor of God despite their poverty.

God of the poor, from the riches of your grace you share your riches with all who are in need.   Provide for the hungry and th e homeless and teach us to do likewise.  So also provide for all who spirits suffer from poverty, that none may doubt your goodness or overlook your faithfulness.  Above all, prevent us from thinking that we are rich, when we are really poor, blind, and naked – lest our self-deception separate us from you.  We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, who, though he was rich, became poor for our sake, so that by his poverty, we might become rich.  Amen.

New Year’s Resolutions

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Luke 9:23-25 Then Jesus said to the crowd, “If any of your wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily and follow me.  If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it.  But if you give up your life for my sake you will save it.  And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?”

Happy New Year!  At the beginning of the new year, it’s customary for people to make resolutions for the new year.  Usually these resolutions take the form of making a positive change in one’s life.  According to Bing, the top three resolutions for 2016 were:

to go back to school

to get a better job

to lose weight/get in shape

All of these resolutions are good, but almost all are doomed to failure.  The problem is that there is something called ‘immunity to change.’  According to Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change:  How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential In Yourself and Your Organization, immunity to change is the internal barrier to change in people in organizations.  In order to change, people and organizations must recognize and overcome the hidden barriers.  In their book, they outline a tool (The Immunity to Change Map) to discover through experimentation these hidden barriers and strategies to overcome these barriers.

Every year, I begin with good intentions.  This year, I have the same goal that I have had for the past several years, to lose weight and get back in shape.  I recognize that part of my weight loss problem is genetics (70% of weight gain is based on my genetics).  To overcome those genetics there are no shortcuts, the answer is the same as it has always been:  Diet and exercise.  To lose weight, you have to use more calories than you take in.  It’s simple math.

So why is it so hard?  My body is pre-programmed genetically to return to my highest weight.  In addition, I have to overcome the emotional barriers to change in my life.  I eat when I am anxious, stressed, bored, or tired.  I have to overcome the immunity to change in these areas, the way in which I sabotage my own success.

It’s the same for our spiritual goals.  In 2017, I have a spiritual goal of being a better pastor and leader.  How do I do that?  By following Jesus Christ, the model servant leader for all pastors and leaders in the church.  So as I study the Bible this year, I will be focusing on Jesus as servant leader.  What are the characteristics of Christ as servant leader that I should demonstrate in my life.

What is your spiritual goal for 2017?  To be a better disciple of Jesus Christ?  That should be the goal for every believer in every year.  In Luke 9:23, Jesus gives us a three-fold call to discipleship.

  1.  Give up your own way
  2. Take up your cross daily
  3. Follow Jesus

Giving up our own way is the hard part of discipleship, the part that we as Americans have a difficult time with in our consumer culture.  Taking up our cross implies a willingness to die to self and to live for God, even at the cost of our lives.  And following Jesus means not just saying a prayer for salvation.

Following Jesus means a daily giving up of oneself and following him.  The basis for this following or discipleship is our relationship with our Lord.  And the quality of our relationship will be determined by how much time we spend with him.  They knew that the disciples had been with Jesus when they saw them, because they were becoming like him.  They were becoming like him, because they had spent every day for three years with him – literally following him, watching him, and doing as he did.  This is discipleship:  Following Jesus, watching Jesus, and doing what Jesus did.  We can only do this as we spend time with our Lord.  The basic Christian practice is daily Bible study and prayer – spending time with Jesus.

In 2017, this is my prayer, it’s a prayer that you may know from the famous musical Godspell and the song “Day by Day.”  But the words of that song were originally a prayer of St. Richard of Chichester.

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which you have given us, all the pains and insults which you have borne for us.  Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day.  Amen.