Light of the world

One of the things the Pharisees couldn’t stand about Jesus was the crowd he hung around. They didn’t know what to do with someone who claimed to be a Rabbi yet spent his time with undesirables. Tax collectors. Drunks. Adulterers. Prostitutes.

How could he?

Here’s his answer: “I’m the light of the world” (John 8:12). Sorta hard for light to affect something it doesn’t touch. He came to call sinners to repentance, but they never would’ve heard it if he hadn’t walked the streets on their side of town.

We don’t have a problem with that, though, because we like the idea of Jesus associating with outcasts. After all, he’s the Son of God, so he’s perfect, blameless. Their sin couldn’t rub off on him.

But notice the huge change in pronoun here:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).

Sometimes he said, “I’m the light of the world,” but here he says “You” are.

As in me. As in you.

We are the light of the world.

It’s a reflected light, of course, because we can’t generate any on our own. We reflect his light to a dark world so that they may see it and glorify him.

But there’s an important point that we shouldn’t miss. In order for us to light up the world, we’ve got to be in the world. We’ve got to be intentional about spending time with people who don’t know Christ so that they might see him in us.

I might be tempted to schedule my days so that I spend time with people who look, think, and talk like me. You might be tempted just to go to work or school and do what you’ve got to do so you can get back home to your safe place.

But Jesus calls us to do more than that. He calls us to walk their streets. He asks us to get to know them, understand them, really see them.

Thousands of people in our communities live in a very dark world, and they might never see the light if you and I seclude ourselves—either physically or emotionally—and connect only with people just like us.

You are the light of the world.

To be honest, that scares me, because it pulls me out of my comfort zone, away from my safe place. But discipleship has never really been about being comfortable, has it? If we follow Jesus, we’ll go where he goes, and that means we’ll spend quite a bit of time with messed up people. They’re the ones who really need his light.

Salt of the earth

We’ve all probably engaged in a little hand-wringing about the future of our country. What will happen, we ask, if we continue heading down a path that ignores God, flaunts rebellion, and mocks righteousness? What will it look like when our kids or grandkids become adults? Will God turn his back on us?

Those questions, though unavoidable, do little good. What Jesus said about anxiety applies here—worrying about the future accomplishes nothing. But thankfully, there’s something we can do, and Jesus refers to it here:

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 (Matthew 5:13).

When we think of salt, we probably think of the flavor it adds to our meals, but in Jesus’ world its most basic function was to preserve food. And that seems to fit the context here best as well—Jesus is calling us to slow down the decay and corruption of the world around us.

Abraham once had a fascinating conversation with God about how many righteous people it would take to save Sodom. “Will you spare the city if it has 50 righteous souls living there?” Abraham asked. God said yes. “Forty-five?” Again, God said yes.

So Abraham asked about 40, 30, 20, and finally 10. God would withhold his destruction if only a handful of righteous people could be found.

I’ve often thought that God has blessed America because we’ve honored him in many ways. We’ve protected religious freedoms and maintained conservative morals. Our leaders have listened to Christian voices, and we’ve preserved many aspects of the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Isn’t there a connection between those facts and our country’s prosperity?

A strong argument could be made that those things are changing, of course. Recent trends seem to reflect an increasingly secular, anti-God mindset.

Even so, it still does no good to wring our hands and decry the loss of our country’s Christian foundation.

What Jesus tells us to do is keep being the salt. None of us have any idea how long God will spare our nation, but what we must do is to follow Jesus and model him to the people around us. We need to sanctify him in our homes. We need to teach our children and grandchildren to love him more than anything in the world. We need to adore him, worship him, serve him.

It was a tragedy that even 10 righteous souls couldn’t be found in Sodom, and God destroyed the city.

What about us? Is there enough righteousness for God to keep his protective arms around us?

That’s his decision, of course, but regardless, he’s challenged us to be those righteous souls, to be the preservative in our spheres of influence.

He’s calling us to be salt.

Peacemakers

You’ve probably been around a guy who brings strife when he walks into a room. He’s either in an argument with someone or trying to get one started. He’s also pretty good at getting people mad at one another. If you hear about a feud going on at work, you have a pretty good idea who’s in the middle of it. Know the guy?

Then there’s the girl whom everyone goes to when they’re having problems with someone. They know she’ll be fair, level-headed, sensible. If called on to arbitrate she won’t be ruled by anger or other emotions. She brings people together, settles disputes, helps people get along. She’s a peacemaker—have you met her?

It’s not hard to figure out which one the Lord favors: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

Think about that last statement—“they shall be called children of God.” In other words, they’re like God.

In fact, it might be said that we’re never more like God than when we’re bringing people together. After all, that’s pretty much what the whole Bible story is about—God, through Christ, brings us out of rebellion back into a relationship with him. As our Mediator, the God-Man, Jesus joins our hands with God’s hands, restoring the relationship that we broke.

Jesus, the greatest peacemaker ever.

Want to be like Jesus?

Help a couple of disgruntled friends get beyond whatever got between them. Build bridges. Mend fences.

Be a calming influence with the people around you. Break down prejudices of all kinds—whether racial, social, class, or whatever. Peacemakers break down obstacles and help people get along.

Better yet—and perhaps this is what Jesus ultimately had in mind—be a peacemaker between God and sinful humanity. The peace has been established through Jesus, but God might use you to help someone find his way back to him.

You might be the Andrew who brings Peter to Jesus (John 1:40-41).

You might be the Paul who helps two sisters to stop quarrelling (Philippians 4:2).

You might be the one God uses to bring peace between your spouse and God, or between your children and God, or between a co-worker, friend, uncle, or neighbor and God.

The most miserable person in the room is the one who’s at odds with the people around him, and with God.

The one who looks most like Jesus is the one who brings peace wherever he goes.

Pure in heart

Most of the time my mind is going in a million different directions. If you ask me something, and I request some time to think about it and get back with you, I’d better put it in my iPhone immediately and set a reminder. If not, I’ll forget about it within 30 seconds. I don’t know if it’s my hyper-dependence on electronic gadgetry, the inevitable effects of getting older, or just an easily distracted mind. Or maybe some combination of the three.

I suspect I’m not alone. If Satan can’t get us to abandon Christ, he’ll just make us so busy that the Lord is just another thing on our to-do list.

Bed made? Check. Exercise? Check. Kids up and dressed? Check (sorta). Quick prayer as I run out the door with a bagel in one hand and briefcase in the other? Check.

And so the day goes. Whisper a quick prayer before eating lunch at your desk, and an exhausted Thank-you-for-getting-me-through-this-day prayer before sinking into oblivion to prepare to rinse and repeat the next day.

To that kind of mind—my mind and yours—Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

Much of my life I’ve thought that meant that I need to keep my heart clean—keep the garbage and sinful thoughts out—but I’m not sure that’s exactly right, at least not here.

I think Jesus meant that my heart doesn’t need to get too full—full of distractions, to-do lists, chores, deadlines, stresses. As one commentator puts it, “The ‘pure in heart’ exhibit a single-minded devotion to God that stems from the internal cleansing created by following Jesus” (Craig Blomberg, p. 100).

A single-minded devotion. That’s what I need. It’s what you need.

Something that’s pure is unmixed, unadulterated. Pure water or pure gold or pure milk has nothing added to it to dilute its value.

Same with us. God wants to fill our hearts with him so that there’s no room for anything else. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we won’t have concerns about work or school or bills. But it does mean that we filter everything in our lives through him.

God doesn’t want just one part of our mind. He doesn’t want just a little slice of it, but he also doesn’t want the biggest slice. He’s not one of many jostling for a little bit of our time and attention.

He wants it all.

And once he’s got it, all those distractions and worries seem so much smaller.

Once he’s got it, then you and I will see God everywhere we look.

Mercy

When we were kids, my friends and I competed in a game we called Mercy. We’d clasp hands, then try to bend our opponent’s hands back far enough so that he’d cry out, “Mercy!” Whoever asked for mercy first lost the game.

You might say we had a poor understanding of mercy. In our game it demonstrated strength, power, and tenacity, almost exactly the opposite of what Jesus meant here: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). He didn’t mean we’re merciful when we withhold negative consequences from someone we’ve got control over. His idea of mercy was active, and it’s heavily tinged with compassion.

We see it all around us. I read yesterday about the wife of Tim Hudson, the professional baseball pitcher who fractured his ankle Wednesday night. She sent a message to the player who stepped on Tim’s ankle and thanked him for playing the game the right way. Some people might be bitter over such a gruesome injury and seek to lash out. Instead, she extended compassion to a guy who felt horrible about what he’d done.

Mercy takes all sorts of forms. It’s serving in the soup kitchen downtown or the food pantry at church. It’s dropping by the hospital to sit with a nervous family whose dad is having surgery. It’s reaching out to the young lady in your neighborhood whose husband just left her.

It’s loving your husband when he doesn’t deserve it, forgiving a child for breaking your window, or responding to your neighbor’s irritability with kindness.

It’s buying lunch for the guy behind you in the drive-thru lane and being patient with the new server who messed up your order.

It’s forgiving a person who’s hurt you and refusing to talk badly about someone who’s dragged your name through the mud. It’s caring about someone’s reputation like you do your own, shutting down rumors and gossip when they knock on your door.

Oh, it’s hard, very hard, probably one of the hardest things you’ll do today.

But of course, as with everything God asks of us, he did it first. He didn’t strike back when they hit him, nor did he spit in their faces or trade insults. He did for them what they were unwilling and unable to do for themselves. He offered them mercy.

As we sometimes sing, he could’ve called ten thousand angels . . . but he didn’t.

Why not?

Because we needed mercy, forgiveness, compassion, so he gave it to us.

In some small way, let’s do the same for the people in our world today.

No easy path

Following Jesus isn’t supposed to be easy, is it? That’s hard to remember, though, especially if you live in a part of the world where almost everybody is a Christian, or at least in some sense wears the name.

And yet Jesus consistently emphasized the difficulty of discipleship. At one point in his ministry he turned to the growing crowd and said they shouldn’t bother following him if they wanted an easy path (see Luke 14:25-33).

For some reason when I was a kid I liked singing the song, “All to Jesus I Surrender”—do you remember it? I sang every word of it, but I remember wondering if I really meant it.

Surrender everything? Really?

Turns out, Jesus did indeed call us to a difficult road, as implied in the way he ended his famous Beatitudes. Everything was relatively palatable—Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, and so on. Those require discipline, but at least they’re not painful.

Then he hurls this bombshell:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:10-12).

Happy are the harassed, as one person put it. The persecuted, the mocked, the ridiculed, the made fun of, the beaten.

Christians have always been persecuted in one way or another. It started early—with beatings, stonings, imprisonments. It got worse with emperors like Nero, Domitian, and Diocletian. We’ve all heard about Christians who were thrown to the lions or made to fight to please the crowds.

So maybe that’s why when we think of persecution, we normally think in terms of gladiators, lions, and arenas. We’re less likely to think of the ways that our culture makes it hard on Christians, but Jesus didn’t put any time limits on persecution. It changes forms, but it doesn’t stop.

Maybe for you it’s a spouse who makes it hard for you to follow Christ. Maybe it’s your parents or siblings. Perhaps you feel constant pressure at work from your co-workers to “stop being so ridiculously religious.” Or your boss keeps asking you to do things, sign things, say things that you can’t. It may not be a literal bloodletting, but it’s still tough.

What does Jesus say?

You’re blessed when things get tough because of your faith. It pleases him to see you stand against the crowd, to watch you take abuse that people of weaker character never could.

Happy are the harassed, indeed.

Are you struggling? Is it wearing you down?

Hang in there, Jesus says. If you’re persecuted for your faith, he mentions you in the same breath with those prophets who stood against unthinkable opposition. That’s pretty good company.