The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany is sort of like leap year — it doesn’t come around all that often. Far more infrequent than leap year, actually — the last time we saw the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany was in 2000, and it won’t come along again until 2038. The reason we don’t always have a Fifth Sunday after Epiphany is that the number of Sundays in Epiphanytide can vary, depending on whether or not Easter is early or late that year. This year Easter is quite late, just about as late as it can be, so we have more Sundays in Epiphany.
This was a fun text and a challenging one. The temptation is to preach law — “you didn’t do it! you’re not the light of the world like you should be!” etc. — and then preach more law — “now here’s what you need to do! go out and do it!” That may work in the business world or in the sales force, but that’s not how the Christian church works. The law motivates in the same way that a whip motivates a horse. It may work for a while, but eventually its effect will wear off, the old Adam will assert himself, and people will grow apathetic and resentful. And they won’t do what you want anyway. Far better to preach the gospel and let God grow what He will. It’s His Word and He gives the increase. I can’t possibly imagine what God will produce with His Word, and I don’t intend to program my peoples’ sanctification. The Spirit knows just how to use them and their witness in the world. All I can do is point out what that might look like, based on that week’s text.
The picture is of a sunrise at Haleakala National Park, in Maui. I didn’t take the picture but I’ve witnessed the sun come up there…it’s fantastic. Definitely one of those things I’m glad I’ve done before I’m gone. I think of the sun rising on Haleakala every Christmas, because Christ, the true Light, has come into the world, as John tells us. Epiphany is when Christ begins to manifest His glory, by His deeds and by His teaching, and to make Himself known as Savior to the world. He does this through the exercise of our faith in purely confessing His name and in deeds of mercy and love for those around us.
I pray “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him: the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints….” (eph 1.17-18 kjv) May God bless your meditation on His holy Word.
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
17 “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. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (matt 5.13-20 niv)
Do you ever walk into a room, stop, and go, “Hmm, now why am I in here?” This happens to me with distressing frequency. I need to stop, stand there for a moment, and think. Usually I remember why I came in, though not always. Some people attribute that to old age, but I’m not sure what it is in my case. Maybe I’m old before my time. The same thing is true in life. We don’t always remember why we’re here, on this earth. We can get so busy with the things of everyday life that we don’t always remember the reason we have life and breath in the first place. So it’s good for us today to come into God’s house, to stand before Him, and to hear from the words of the holy Gospel for today why we’re here. Let’s let Jesus, our Creator and Redeemer, teach us. We’ll see what Jesus wants us to do. We’ll see what He gives us to help us in our task. Jesus will remind us of our Purpose for Living.
Jesus begins His teaching of our purpose in life with this: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” Right away the chemistry-minded among us might raise an objection: how can salt possibly become unsalty? It’s salt. If it’s not salt anymore, it’s not itself. This doesn’t make sense at first. In Jesus’ day the salt that people used often had other minerals or impurities mixed in with it. Sometimes the salt would leach out or go away in humid weather, leaving only a lump of useless slag in its place. That residue was useless and good for nothing, so all you could do was throw it outside on the ground. Pure salt can’t become unsalty, but salt mixed with other minerals can.
Salt that’s not salty doesn’t make sense, but that’s Jesus’ point. Salt is only useful because it is salt. You don’t put anything else on your food when you want salt. You don’t use something else in a recipe when salt is called for because it won’t work. Salt has to be salty to be any good. Jesus calls us the salt of the earth. We have to be salty, we have to have salt in ourselves, in order to do any good. We need to be what we are. We need to be what God has made us. God has made us Christians who have His Word. He has made us His children who know right and wrong, who know what pleases Him and what is good or not good. We know what God’s will is – His good, pleasing, and perfect will, which most of the world doesn’t know or doesn’t care about.
So how do we function as the salt of the earth? Think about what salt is used for. It’s used to preserve things. Salt fights decay and prevents spoilage. We do the same thing for this world. We fight the decay of this world by rebuking sin. When we’re confronted by sin around us, whether in our jobs or in our families or in society, we open our mouths and say, “That’s not right. This should not be happening. Don’t do that, because it’s wrong.” If we open our mouths when we see something wrong going on, people have the chance to repent, to abandon their sin, and perhaps to be saved. Pointing out other peoples’ sins and mistakes will not make us popular. Salt stings when it gets in an open wound. The message that God does not approve of someone’s sinful choices or sinful lifestyle will not always go over well. Don’t let that stop you. Jesus says, “You are salt.” Not, “you have the option of being salt,” or “you might be salt on occasion.” You are salt. It’s what you are – you can’t help being salt because that’s what God has made you.
It’s awfully tempting not to speak up about someone else’s sin at times. We think, why should I be the one to tell this person that what they’re doing or saying is wrong? All I’ll get is spit in the face. They probably won’t listen anyway! Why should I have to say something? If you have thoughts like those, remember these words of Jesus. You are salt! If we lose our ability to rebuke sin, we’ve lost the one essential thing that saves us. If we no longer know or believe God’s Word to the point that we are willing to speak up when faced with sin, we’re no longer Christians. We’ve lost God’s Word, in essence, if we cannot communicate what it says to people who are heading the wrong way deeper into sin. That’s part of our purpose in life, to rebuke sin – to be salt on the earth. A thankless task at times, to be sure, but it’s one that our Lord has called us to.
The second picture Jesus uses is like it: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Lights aren’t good for anything unless they shine. If you’re under the hood of a car and you’re trying to see into a dark corner, the lights on the ceiling of the garage won’t do you any good. The light has to be pointed right where it’s darkest, right where you need to see. Likewise, you need to be able to find your flashlight when the power’s out. If you can’t find your light, you can’t see.
God has made us light. We who were once darkness are now light in the Lord. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made His light to shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. We were lost in the darkness of sin, but Christ the light of the world has given us His light, so that we are saved. We are children of the light and children of the day. We live according to God’s will now, because we are His. We walk in the light, as He is in the light. We get to reflect Jesus’ light to a world sunk in night and lost in the darkness of sin.
Sometimes we feel uncomfortable shining Jesus’ light. We think, “Why can’t someone else do this? Why do I have to be the one to shine the light? Why do these same chances to rebuke sin or these same chances to talk about Jesus keep coming up?” Sometimes it feels awkward or out of place to talk about God or what He says. We’re not always sure it’s the right time to say something. Have you ever considered that God has put you right where you are, with the people that you have around you, precisely so that you will say something? A city on a hill cannot be hidden. A lamp is supposed to sit out in the open and shine. God has chosen the exact time and place in history that you will live. He’s chosen the individual people that you see and talk to every day. He’s chosen you to be a child of the light. So just shine! Don’t worry about how the darkness will take it. Just shine Jesus’ light to those around you. Jesus has made you different. Don’t shy away from that. Embrace it.
You don’t need to abandon your family and move to Africa and become a missionary to let your light shine. You don’t need to quit your job and immediately enroll at Martin Luther College to be a pastor or a teacher to do this. You don’t have to be employed by a church or a synod to carry out Jesus’ command here. Sometimes people think that talking to others about God is something only for the professionals. Not true! It’s for Christians. It’s for you! You have been baptized. You know God’s Word. You are the light of the world. Yes, you! Jesus has put you where you are, with who you’re with, so that you will shine for Him.
I can see someone thinking to themselves, “Okay, I’m supposed to rebuke other peoples’ sins…I’m supposed to talk to people about Jesus…I see what you’re saying, but how do I know they’re going to listen? How do I know this is going to work?” Jesus knew you would say that. That’s why He says what He does in v.18: “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” Jesus says it’s easier for the sky and the earth to disappear than for one little letter to drop out of God’s Word. When Jesus talks about the least stroke of a pen, He’s referring to the part of a letter that looks like the hook on the bottom of a lowercase t or a j. In Hebrew, little lines like those could be the difference between different letters and even different words. It’s the same way in English. If you’ve ever tried to read someone else’s handwriting, you know how important those little strokes are. Is that an e or an r? Is that a t or an l? I’ve heard the same thing about my handwriting, but it’s not that bad…I can usually read what I’ve written.
So what’s Jesus’ point here? We’re not perfect, but God’s Word is! Everything that it promises will happen – no ifs, ands, or buts. When you share God’s Word, people will listen. Sinners will be turned from the error of their ways. Some of them will be saved. God will be glorified. We will be saved if we stand firm to the end. God promises that none of the things He says in His Word will ever fall to the ground. They will all happen just as He wants them to, in His time. He promises to work through His Word to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant, as He told Jeremiah. God will rebuke sinners’ hearts and will give them the light of Christ through His Word, and we are the ones that He’s given to speak it.
Jesus says that His Word lasts even longer than the heavens and the earth. That means it lasts longer than we do. We live on this earth for a short while, and it’s still here after we’re gone. Then someone throws a handful of earth on us, and we go home to be with God. But through His Word, God gives us life that endures forever. His Word is our salt. It is our light. It leads us to speak up before men and it grants us eternal life. Believe in that Word, and let your light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. That’s your purpose for living. Amen.