Salt and Light as Means of God’s Goodness | Matthew 5:13-16

As Jesus continues teaching his disciples what it means to follow him, he uses two essential earthy pictures to illustrate their witness of kingdom reality—salt and light.  In both pictures, Jesus uses the word good to convey the essence his disciples must both protect and project in being salt and light.

“You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again?  It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.”

Salt is used for both preserving food and flavoring it.  But salt used in this region, often taken from the Dead Sea, risked containing different impurities that could render the salt tasteless and useless for anything but gravel to trample on.  Jesus’ statement intimates part of their role is to preserve what is good in the world and to draw out its good flavors while not being diluted by its impurities.

There is much good in this world and it is worth respecting, holding onto, and cherishing.  I believe one significant way Christians can do this is to actively connect with their local communities and individuals, get to know their towns and cities and neighborhoods.  Visit your neighbors, farmers markets, attend local activities, take an interest in local businesses, meet the owners and employees simply because you can.  I can understand when some activities are avoided for moral reasons, but avoiding the community is much like a farmer avoiding his field because there are weeds.  You don’t have to become impure, but participate and celebrate what is good.  I believe being a disciple in the context of Jesus’ comment here means purposing to have a positive impact on your local culture.  Look for the good; flavor that good with celebration.  Preserve that good with contribution.  You don’t have to be of the impurities, but you do have to be in your community.

Jesus then amplifies the disciples’ kingdom witness with his usage of light.

“You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.  Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Oil lamps were lit to give light, not just for the occupants of a house or individuals on the street, but also so travelers on a distant dark road could see the city they were approaching.  The very nature of light is to illumine.  As disciples, we are to live lives that illuminate.  Jesus’ statement clarifies, however, that the goodness which emanates from our lives must radiate the Father’s worth and result in the Father’s adoration.  Just as these lamps were sustained by the oil, the good works we do must be based in the goodness of God.  Who gets the glory often depends on how the works are done.  Since the purpose of our work is to display God’s kingdom reality, it is the infinite goodness and holy worth of God that must emanate from the work we do and how we do it.

How we do this is often circumstantial, but what shapes those circumstances is the content of our character and how that character propels our commitment to good works within the community.  The content of our character must first be grounded in the illuminating character of Jesus.  It must be maintained with integrity, carried with care, guarded with firmness, conveyed with gentleness.  Our commitment to the community must consequently be sincere, genuinely loving, permeated with patience, willing to step into the chaos to bring calm, to make visible the hope that illuminates the shadows.

The question we now need to ask ourselves is not what do people see when they look at our lives, but are our lives giving people a reason to adore God and rejoice in his goodness?  Please think and pray on that very carefully.

Salt and light are helpful pictures in clarifying our role as disciple.  We are to preserve and flavor our culture, celebrating and contributing to what is good.  We are also to actively work and give witness to the redemptive goodness which reflects our Father’s holy infinite worth.  By embracing these roles we emanate a reality that allows the world around us to “taste and see that the LORD is good.”

Guardian of Goodness in an Unsafe World | Matthew 2:13-14

Joseph, Mary, and toddler Jesus had just received a visit from some eastern astrologers hailing him as “king of the Jews”, expressing wonder and worship as they bowed down and brought him gifts.  It was a remarkable moment, probably giving everyone pause to ponder what God was doing behind the scenes.  But soon after they departed, Joseph had a dream in which an angel warned “Get up!  Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.”

Awake and alert, Joseph gets up, readies Mary and the child, and flees to Egypt in the night as Herod’s rage violently descends upon male toddlers of Bethlehem.

It’s a quick story, but poignant.  Jesus’ birth narratives are often read with a “Silent Night” sense of peace and otherworldly wonder; so saturated with serene surreality, we can’t help but hope the story remains so forever.  But like Joseph’s startling dream, we are given a rude awakening here as a very real and actual danger is inserted into the story.

As discussed in the previous post, the incarnation of Jesus is incendiary.  As a toddler, Jesus was no threat, but as an idea, he ignites all manner of reactions in the human heart.  The idea of a new king on the block provoked Herod so sharply, he reacted with mass slaughter.

It’s a moment that adjusts our perceptions of what life with Jesus can be like.  The Jesus story is truly one of joy and peace, but it often plays out in settings of uncertainty, risk, danger, sorrow.

Though a saving story, his is not a safe story.  But it must be this way, for only in distressing settings can Jesus be contrastingly seen as the “Prince of Peace”.

What this new perception does is prevent us from elevating the way of Jesus to some fantastical journey lived for idealism or adventure.  It guards us against perceiving Christian spirituality as something lived out on some higher plane, far above the noise of everyday life.  Christianity must be lived out in the world as it actually is.  As seen in Herod “and all Jerusalem with him”, the way of Jesus is lived out in neighborhoods of apathy, hostility, chaos, uncertainty, suffering, sorrow.

But it is also lived out by neighbors of faith, hope, and love.  Again the text presents us with Joseph who embodies faith, hope, and love by throwing himself into his duty as husband and guardian, packing up his family, and getting them to safety, preserving for all humanity the hope who would save the world.  It’s not sexy work, but its goodness at work.

As I drove into town this morning, I heard a story on the radio of how local preachers were attempting to calm the rioters in Baltimore by linking arms and marching through streets covered with glass and debris, discouraging violence and calling for peace as they go.  I don’t know what became of their efforts, but I’m thankful efforts were made.

Whether in faraway lands or local neighborhoods, wherever injustice, anger, violence, and suffering are present, goodness needs witnesses—men and woman of faith, hope, and love who will step into the uncertainty or danger in order to preserve hope and heal the wounds human horror has waged upon human hearts.  Just as toddler Jesus needed Joseph, hope needs good guardians.

As one trying to walk the way of Jesus, you are one of those good guardians, preserving hope today in the hearts afraid of tomorrow.

Reacting to the Idea of Jesus | Matthew 2:1-12

Some time after Jesus’ birth, 1-2 years possibly, a star or comet appeared in the sky; interpreting it as the birth of a king, pagan astrologers followed it from the east until they came to Jerusalem where they inquired “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” 

Considering the political tension permeating Jerusalem, the notion these magi raised was troubling for Herod “and all Jerusalem”. When Herod inquired of Messiah’s birthplace, the chief priests and scribes cited Micah’s prophecy: “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of you shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel”.

The unmistakable Davidic imagery of ruler and shepherd are at the heart of the promised Messiah, and were the very concepts startling those hearing the magi’s inquiry. As a toddler, Jesus was no threat; but as an idea, he was like gasoline on a great fire. The incarnation was an incendiary idea; it still is. Consider the reactions we observe in the text.

Upon learning of Messiah’s birth, King Herod the Great is alarmed, presuming he could soon be deposed. Paranoid and provoked by such an idea, his response was to conspire and manipulate the magi, telling them to return and report to him once they had located the child so he, too, could worship him. When they did not return, however, having been warned by God in a dream, we later learn Herod vented his rage and fear with horrific hubris, ordering all Bethlehem males two and under to be mass slaughtered. The ruler/shepherd idea stoked his fear, pricked his pride, and suffering flowed.

When the chief priests and scribes heard Messiah may have just been born, their reaction seems practically nothing. If they were included in Matthew’s v4 comment of how all Jerusalem was troubled with Herod, they also would be stunned. If these chief priests were members of the Sadducees, they would have considered the Messiah role metaphorical; the birth of an actual child would therefore trouble their minds. The most Matthew mentions of them is providing Herod with the Scripture text referencing Messiah’s birth, but overall the text reveals no eagerness on the Jewish leaders’ part to search out this Chosen One for whom the Jews have spent much of their lives prayerfully waiting. While this text portrays them as fairly neutral, we know from Matthew’s later texts, however, the Jewish leaders switched out of neutral and chose to react to Jesus similar to how Herod once violently did. Eventually there is no neutrality when reacting to Jesus.

The reaction of the magi is perhaps the most interesting. These are Gentile pagans with no covenant relationship to the LORD, studying their zodiacs and scanning the sky; and while a lofty idea has captured their attention, they are allowed to see there is so much more to this idea, and this is what sets the magi apart from the others. “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

The magi were not satisfied with the idea of Jesus; they needed to pursue that star until they encountered Jesus.  Finally beholding boy Jesus as he actually was, their idea of him took on flesh.

One of our most common struggles in the faith concerns Jesus as idea versus Jesus as person. With Jesus as idea we can dissect him, rationalize, shrug him off, mold him in our image, use him as a good luck charm. With Jesus as person we have to deal with him as he actually is. We prefer Jesus as idea because we can control it. Jesus as person we have to follow. Jesus himself is like an incarnate crossroad who calls us to choose.

Like the chief priests and scribes, we can seem interested, speak “Christianese” or project a generalized spirituality, but ultimately go silent, until, that is, the person of Jesus becomes unavoidable.

Like Herod, misconceptions or hard-heartedness may cause us to perceive Jesus as a threat and reject him outright with hostility and derision or snubbing.

Or like the magi, wonder and contemplation fills our imaginations to overflow in a faith that will follow after the person Jesus.

Wonder and worship. This is how the pursuit of Jesus starts and is sustained. It captures our attention, inviting us to step off the sidelines to participate in how God’s salvation plays out in the person of Jesus. Wonder and worship calm our reactionary rage to receive him who gives what is far greater than what we were trying to keep for ourselves. As Matthew reveals how God’s salvation is beginning to bring in the Gentiles, these magi teach us something important about how discipleship plays out: wonder brings us to Jesus, and worship forms Jesus in us. As these magi returned to their eastern lands, salvation as person went with them.