Being Salt and Light
Dr. David Zietsma's chapel message on Matthew 5:13-16.

The following is a transcript of Dr. David Zietsma’s September 27 chapel message. As such, it is written in a conversational tone. The scripture accompanying the address is from Matthew 5:13-16.


This year is a significant year for anniversary celebrations. It’s the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. There’s been 150 years of Canadian Confederation. And, Redeemer itself is 35 years old. There is one commemoration, though, that I think will actually come to an end this year — that is the Stanley Cup drought of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It has been 50 years since the Leafs won the Cup but this is the year that will end. As a life-long Leafs fan I can’t help but thinking that every year!

As the season is about to get underway, I have been reading about the Leafs. One story that caught my eye was that the head coach, Mike Babcock, did something unusual this summer. He regularly called his players throughout the summer, not to chat about hockey but to talk about daily life. How did the move go? How is life with a young child? Are the wedding plans going well? Only rarely, according to the players, did he actually talk hockey.

Babcock was intentionally building relationships with his players. He was trying to be a presence in their lives, setting up a foundation of trust that would draw his players into his vision for what it would take to be a championship team.

That sense of being a faithful presence — I think that is what Jesus is calling us to in the Sermon on the Mount. To being a presence that gives people a glimpse of the Coming Kingdom and a Holy King. To being the very presence of Christ wherever we are. We can see this especially in Matthew 5:13-16:

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 underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built 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 others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Our presence, Jesus tells us, is to be salt and light. For those hearing this in Jesus’s day, salt and light would be important aspects of daily life. Both were certainly available and widely used. But they would not have been taken for granted.

“In Jesus’s day, salt and light were critical elements to making life more livable, more full, more complete.”

Today, we scarcely give second thought to our use of salt and light. In fact, we spend time being concerned about too much salt in our diets, too much salt on the roads and salt getting into the water system and corroding our vehicles. We also try to minimize the amount of light energy we use. We replace still working bulbs with more energy efficient ones. We get reminded to turn off lights when we leave a room, or we are constantly reminding our children to do so. Today salt and light enter our lives and consciousness most often as things that we must be cautious not to overuse.

In Jesus’s day, however, both salt and light were critical elements to making life more livable, more full, more complete. Salt would be used over and over until it lost its saltiness. Salt was necessary to preserve food, and it was one of few seasonings used to make food flavourful.

And as soon as the sun disappeared from the sky, precious fuels would be used to create light. People would not “forget” to turn lights off, for the cost and preciousness of light was too great. It would never be lit to be hidden under a bushel. Light gave warmth, gave security, allowed for life indoors and after sunset. Travellers at night, for example, might see the collective lights of city, glowing in the distance against the sky, and feel that safety and rest and welcome was within reach.

Salt and light were two critical elements to daily life. Can you hear the crowds at mumbling to each other at Jesus words? “Really? Us? We have to be that present to others, we have to be that critical to the world around us? How can we be salt and light to the world? How can we have that kind of impact?”

We should be left with the same feeling, the same question. But perhaps we often aren’t because salt and light don’t mean to us today what they meant to Jesus’s audience. If Jesus were preaching today, the verses might put it this way:

You are the oil of the earth. But if the oil loses its fuel burning and plastic forming abilities, how can it be made into oil again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out or left in the ground underfoot. You are the mobile communications signal of the world. A large network of cell towers and satellites cannot have their signals blocked. Neither do people buy a smart phone and lock it in the trunk of their car. Instead they carry it with them, and stay connected to everyone in their social networks. In the same way, let your mobile signal connect with others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Be as present and as impactful in the lives of others as oil and mobile communications signals. Think about our lives today without those two things.

And perhaps our lack of fully appreciating the context has led to some confusion about what it means to be salt and light.

Some would have us believe that acting as salt and light means confronting things around us which are opposed to God. It means that we take up the light of Jesus in our hand and shine it at the darkness, exposing the evil of others and of our culture and of our society. Or that being salt means sometimes stinging others with the truth of the gospel and their need for forgiveness through Christ — just as salt can be used to help in the healing of a wound, producing discomfort and even pain. They point to Jesus’s words in the following verses that not a letter of the law will ever pass away. In this view, uplifting the moral standing of others is a significant goal.

Some of this can be seen in the moral outrage common in Christian culture today. A world filled with self-righteous social media posts and endless loops of replies and comments. Others have understood salt and light to mean taking action to help others: giving to the poor, feeding the hungry or giving water to the thirsty. Like Jesus says later in Matthew, whoever does to one of the least of these does so also to me. Salt and light are the actions we undertake to bring about justice, healing, compassion.

And while Christians should understand the moral challenges of our culture, and must look to needs of others in compassion, I think these verses are pointing to something different than either of these approaches. Being salt and light is foundational to who we are. These verses point us to a way of being in relation to God and others. A way of being that gives others a glimpse, a brief experience of the Kingdom, and draws them in to want more, to seek more of the King.

When I was a kid we lived on a country road. There were no streetlights and a rather long driveway. I can remember on cold nights, during winter storms, shovelling that driveway. I would get to the end and look out into what seemed like endless dark, and cold, and blowing snow. And turn back on look at the house with warm lights beckoning from the inside. It would always strike me how awful it would be to have to spend a night out in that dark and cold, and I was supremely thankful for that warm, secure presence that drew me back inside.

“Growing up, I used to believe the beatitudes were about people other than me. Now I think the beatitudes are about the person God wants me to be.”

How can we be salt and light? How can we be a presence that makes life flavourful for others? That brings warmth, and security, and welcome? How can we be a presence that draws people in to seek after the King?

It seems to me that the rest of the sermon on the Mount, the rest of chapters 5-7 is the way of pointing us back to how to be salt and light, how to be an impactful presence in this world.

Do not murder? Don’t even be angry. Do not commit adultery? Don’t even lust but sacrifice your self-interest for those closest to you. Do you love your friends? Try loving your enemies more. Are you giving to the poor? Don’t do it to gain earthly approval, because that won’t help you, and never forget that your generosity is nothing compared to God’s. Are you praying as hard as you can publicly? There’s no need to show others what a great job you’re doing because without God making his relationship right with you, you couldn’t have repaired anything. Do you have lots of money and privileges? Just know that you’re still in abject poverty with respect to eternity and your salvation. Understand your need and seek Him. Understand your need and knock on His door. Understand your need and ask Him. When you live like this, those around you might insult you, call you foolish, and even abuse you.

But persevere in all these things and you will be salt and light. And many will glimpse in you the presence of Jesus. Poor in spirit, mourning the pain of brokenness, meek, gentle and humble, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful to others, pure in motivation and purpose, and making peace with and for others. Blessed are those people for their reward shall be great in heaven.

Growing up, I used to believe the beatitudes were about people other than me. Now I think the beatitudes are about the person God wants me to be. They are about a way of being that can be salt and light to those around us, that can be a critical presence that draws people to the healing power of Jesus Christ.

It is this same fundamental purpose that lies at the heart of Redeemer’s mission — shaping students to have a critical Kingdom presence in our culture and communities. That means learning and preparing for successful careers and callings in all sorts of fields and in many areas of life. You don’t have to scan your Facebook feed for more than five seconds to know how messed up, and how hurting our world is. You don’t need to look far to see the pain of disease, of natural disaster, of bombastic pride, of racial injustice, of moralizing judgment, of a broken world.

The world needs Christians who reflect a different Kingdom and a different King. The world needs Christians who will do amazing things in law and in medicine, in music and in environmental science, in business and in education, at home and in the community, and in many other areas. In my travels on behalf of Redeemer I constantly am encountering grads that are doing some awesome, impactful things. And our hope for the students today is that we are preparing them to do some pretty amazing things as they serve in God’s Kingdom.

But Redeemer is about more than just preparing people to do great deeds. It is about preparing students for what kind of people they will be when they do those things. Look at the words of Jesus at the very end of these verses. “ . . . let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Redeemer’s mission is to prepare students who can make a difference wherever they land. But it is equally part of the mission that students learn what kind of person they will be when they get there. Action alone – no matter how compassionate, no matter how just, no matter how successful, no matter how inclusive, no matter how generous – action alone is not enough. Action ultimately must point to the King and His Kingdom. And so Jesus tells us to be a critical salt and light presence, to be Beatitude people, so that the world might capture a glimpse of Him, and be drawn to His healing power.

Paul gives us what I feel is the most beautiful summary of the Sermon on the Mount ever written in 1 Corinthians 13.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

This is what Jesus is calling us to in the Sermon on the Mount. To BE salt and light. To be an attractive presence that draws people to us and then points beyond us to the Coming King. May His Kingdom come.

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