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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 by men. 14"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Neither 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. 16In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
Good morning church! We have just started a series of sermons based on one of the greatest sermons ever preached - the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Last week, Rev Wong preached on what it looks like to be people living under the Kingdom or the Rule of God, to be a people who follow after Jesus as King. We found out that those who inherit the kingdom of heaven are the poor in spirit, meek, merciful, peacemakers, they thirst and hunger for righteousness, the pure in heart. Here Jesus is laying down what it means to be blessed under His Kingship and what this alternative way of being human looks like.
When Mahatma Gandhi was once asked about how to solve the problems between Great Britain and India, he picked up a Bible and opened it to the fifth chapter of Matthew and said: "When your country and mine shall get together on the teachings laid down by Christ in this Sermon on the Mount, we shall have solved the problems not only of our countries but those of the whole world."
He’s onto something there. When Gandhi put into action his non-violent struggle for the independence of India, it inspired civil rights movements all over the world. Yet the Sermon on the Mount is not just about Jesus telling people to be nice to each other. There’s a bit of that, of course, but you don’t need to go up the mountain to learn that. Some monks or spiritual gurus climb up the mountain to get away from the worries and problems of this world and devote themselves to a life of meditation. But others go up the mountain for less peaceful reasons.
Historian NT Wright gives us some background: “In the time of Jesus, the hills above the Sea of Galilee also used to be the hangout (or lepak place) for holy revolutionaries, for outlaws ready to fight the pagan Romans and bring in the kingdom of God - by force if necessary. Up in the hills there are caves; a generation before Jesus, some of the revolutionaries had been smoked out from these caves by King Herod”.
Many first-century Jews were expecting a Messiah who would pick up the sword and ride out to destroy their enemies like Aragorn in the movie LOTR. And there were many wanna-be messiahs like that … They usually ended up dead (crucified on a Roman cross). In any case, this kingdom of God business is really quite dangerous. It comes with a stern warning: Don’t try this at home.
Given this historical background, you can imagine when Jesus first gave the message we now call Sermon on the Mount, saying things like “Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand”, he would have looked like someone gathering followers for a new movement, inviting people to sign up for a great cause. He was calling his hearers to a new way of being Israel, a new way of living as God’s people for the world. It would have felt more like a political rally than a philosophical lecture today.
But how will this kingdom of God come about?
Try to imagine (if you can) just how radical Jesus’ message was to his original audience when He says: “Yes, the kingdom of God is here. Yes, the LORD YHWH Himself is come at last to usher in His divine rule over all the earth. But who are the blessed people entering into this Kingdom? They are the meek, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, the merciful, those who mourn, those persecuted for righteousness…”
You can almost hear His audience go: “Hello? What’s going on here? Are you sure Jesus didn’t say “Blessed are the war-mongers… Blessed are those who are strong, brave and violent for they will kick the Roman army out of Israel forever?! And what’s this business about turning the other cheek? No way. We should be the ones giving out persecution, not receiving it!”
But to Jesus, the way of the Kingdom is not through waving the sword (or waving the keris in our Malaysian context). The way of the kingdom is through bearing the cross. God’s kingdom turns the values of this world upside down and inside out. Yet it’s the only way to live. It’s the only way to be the people of God. The Sermon on the Mount is an exciting and yet dangerous manifesto for change in the world. Jesus did not go up the mountain to escape the world’s problems. Instead He is starting a revolution. But it’s a revolution of love. The Kingdom of God is here as a present reality today. And it’s subverting the world order as we know it.
In the Gospel passage we read just now, Jesus used two metaphors to describe the influence that His followers would have on society: "You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world." If we live our lives the Jesus way, according to the vision laid out in the Sermon on the Mount, we will make an impact in a spiritually decaying culture. If we become who we were meant to be, we cannot help but be shining light to a world surrounded by darkness.
Will you sign up for this movement? Will you be part of this revolution of love?
John Stott puts it this way: "Jesus calls his disciples to exert a double influence on the society - a negative influence by arresting its decay and a positive influence by bringing light into its darkness. For it is one thing to stop the spread of evil; it is another to promote the spread of truth, beauty and goodness." — John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on The Mount.
John Stott and Tim Keller are two Christian leaders who have reflected deeply on how the church can be salt and light in the world today so I’d like to draw out three implications from these metaphors based heavily on what they have written:
The First Implication is this: Be radically different, don’t compromise
In the old days, people do not have a fridge (or refrigerator) so salt was used primarily as a preservative. Salt prevents food from going bad or rotten and slows down the process of decay. But if salt is mixed with sand, for example, it is no longer effective as a preservative to delay corruption. It has become useless and gets thrown out on the streets.
In a similar way, as salt of the earth, the church has a preserving influence in a spiritually decaying society. Every day we read of depressing news in the papers, how crime rates, sex scandals, corruption cases and racial tensions have gone from bad to worse. The more rotten the world becomes, the more it stands in need of salt.
But to do that, the Church needs to maintain her integrity as salt of the earth. If it has compromised its purity or gets mixed up with worldly values, then it loses its saltiness and is no longer of any use.
In every culture, there are always areas where we would find tension or opposition against Kingdom values and also areas in culture where we would have find some common ground. For example, in the rural Muslim heartlands of Kelantan, what Jesus taught about sexual purity in the Sermon on the Mount would make a lot of sense. But they would find Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek and love your enemy quite hard to swallow.
In the more urban, more liberal places like Bangsar or Sri Hartamas, what Jesus taught about non-violence and forgiving your enemies may be easier to accept. But what He taught about sexual purity would seem strange, even offensive. “Wah! Look lustfully also cannot ah”. So they would have a problem there.
That tells us something important: The gospel (because it is God’s word) will never fit in perfectly well with any human culture including our own. And it is always tempting for us to downplay or ignore the offensive parts and harp on the bits we find easy to digest. So as we spend some time exploring the Sermon on the Mount in the next few weeks, we need to allow ourselves to be confronted again and again by the challenge of Jesus. There are some parts that are easy to accept – that’s great, but don’t stay there. Move on. You’d also find there will be parts, especially those parts of His teachings that are hard to accept – we need to slow down and let them challenge and transform us again.
Because if we just pick and choose what we like to hear and ignore those that challenge our lifestyles, we run the danger of domesticating the gospel. That means we water down the gospel to fit nicely into our own biased cultural baggage. Instead of being countercultural, we have compromised with the world. We have lost our saltiness. Our gospel has become too small and too tame. And too lame
Sometimes in our eagerness to be ‘relevant’ and ‘reach out’, it is tempting for us to be so attracted to the surrounding culture that we downplay the centrality of the gospel and stress more on an emotional fix or self-help advice. Some may even downgrade the importance of truth in the name of cultural engagement.
But to be salt of the earth, we must live as a radically different kind of community. Not just as individuals. Jesus says we are "a city on a hill" that reflects God's glory to the world. We are called to be a countercultural community within the earthly city of Kuala Lumpur. And the way we treat sex, money, success and power should point to an alternative (and more authentic) way of being human.
For example, when it comes to sex, our Malaysian culture either makes sex into an idol or we have a phobia of sex. I came across a local magazine slogan that says “In Lust, We Trust!” instead of “In God We Trust”. That’s making sex into an idol. Malaysian politicians say crazy things all the time but one f’ler said something like this: “Ladies, you must cover up your face or else the guys can’t control themselves! And it’s all your fault!” That’s phobia of sex. But the Kingdom people should be different. It avoids both extremes of hedonism and prudishness. It is a community that so loves and cares for its members that sexual purity makes sense. Because sex is so precious, we do not cheapen it but rather celebrate it in the context of an exclusive, self-giving commitment. That means abstinence outside of marriage and faithfulness within marriage.
Regarding money, the Kingdom people encourage a radically generous sharing of time, energy and resources to social justice and the needs of the poor, the immigrant, and the physically weak. Jesus’ Kingdom turns the world upside down: You must die to live. You must lose to gain. Weakness is strength. Joy in the midst of suffering. Love those who persecute you. Pray for those who hate you. It is not the strong or the violent who will inherit the earth, but the meek.
Which brings us to the question: Are we radically different like that? Or are we just the same? Are we worshipping a Jesus who only exists to provide us with health, wealth and comfort? Are we transforming culture or are we just conforming to culture?
If all the Christians in Malaysia were to suddenly disappear today, would anyone notice? Would it have big, small or no effect whatsoever on Malaysian society? What do you think? Are we salty enough? Am I?
The Second Implication is this: Be creatively engaging, don’t isolate
You know, darkness is not a thing. It has no force of its own. Darkness is simply the absence of light. When light is turned on, darkness is gone. The very presence of light dispels darkness. As light of the world, we reflect God’s truth to a world in darkness through word and deed. “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven”
So just being different is not enough, the kingdom community must also be in touch with the society at large. Salt does nothing good if it stays in the saltshaker. Light does no good if you hide it under a bowl. It has to permeate the darkness. If we isolate ourselves in our own little corner, separated from the rest of the world, our light won’t reach anyone else.
There’s a famous saying: “The only thing needed for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing.” All you need to do is to fold your arms and do nothing. And darkness will have its way.
But in the past, the church at her best has been a fine example of how the gospel can transform and reform a society like ours. During the Great Awakening revival under such men of God as George Whitefield, the Wesley brothers, William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury and others, the gospel was faithfully preached, churches were planted and people were inspired to take up social causes in the name of Christ. The proclamation of the gospel (in word) and the demonstration of the gospel (in deed) have always come naturally together.
Let me share a story how this can happen. You can watch it in action in a movie called “Amazing Grace”, based on the life of William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a Christian Member of Parliament in Great Britain who worked all his life to abolish slavery of African people. (By the way, human trafficking and modern-day slavery is not a thing of the past, it’s something happening at our own doorsteps. Even in Malaysia!)
Wilberforce first launched his campaign for abolition of slavery in 1787 and lived to see it finally succeed in 1833 (just three days before his death). That’s 46 years in total! His life reminds us that social justice is a long, painful marathon. It’s not a 100 meter sprint. For the first twenty years, he suffered nothing but defeats, rejection from friends, insults from enemies, physical illness and even threats to his life. And it’s so easy to burnout.
But social justice is a community project, not a solo effort.
Fortunately for him, William Wilberforce has a group of friends who work and walk together with him. This famous small group was nicknamed “The Clapham Sect” or “The Saints”. They shared a deep conviction in the evangelical Christian faith, a long-term commitment to a social cause and a lifelong spiritual friendship. Won’t you like to be part of a cell group like that?
What’s more amazing is that in their lifetime, this little platoon of committed believers managed to start a Missionary Society, a Bible Society, they promote agricultural reform to supply affordable food to the poor, prevent cruelty to animals (RSPCA), promote Sunday school education, prison reform, improve harsh child labor conditions and championed the freedom to preach the gospel in India! It’s simply amazing… It’s both word and deed. And the impact of their work can still be felt today. So don’t underestimate the power of small, committed groups to start social change.
It’s not necessary to use political power (we don’t need to start any “Christian Rights Action Force” movement called CHRISAF). We don’t need to wait until there’s a huge Christian population to make a positive influence in society. Small groups of committed people empowered by the gospel can make a significant difference where we are!
We may not do exactly what Wilberforce did but just imagine what we can do if each small group in church creatively commits ourselves long term to at least one social cause that we are passionate about? Be it Makasih, education for orang asli village, advocacy for environmental care, evangelism amongst the surrounding student population and so on.
Let’s continue to open up the windows and let the light out! If you are not part of this revolution yet, sign up today. Talk to the pastors how you also can help out.
The Final Implication is this: Be influencers for the common good, don’t be narrow
Being salt and light implies that Christians can and should influence the wider society. Salt hinders bacterial decay. Light dispels darkness. We cannot create a perfect society today as suggested by the “social gospel”. But we can improve it.
The moment we say that, however, some people will cringe with fear. “Uh-oh. Are you trying to impose your Christian values on everybody else? Please keep your faith private ok... Keep it at home. Don’t bring it out in public.”
Well, there are many public issues that call for our prayer and action today like the ban on the word Allah in our Malay language Bibles. That has serious impact on our bumiputra brothers and sisters in East Malaysia. And the famous Lina Joy case, church buildings being demolished and yes, we need to speak up on such issues. But if we only get worked up over ‘Christian’ issues and do not care or speak up for our fellow Malaysians who are not Christians, then our social agenda is too narrow and too inward looking. We need to be influencers for the common good of all, regardless of race, gender, social class or creed. This is very much in line with our CDPC anniversary theme last month - “Loving Our City”.
Tim Keller says it so well at this point I may as well quote him in full. He says: “Christians should be a community radically committed to the good of the city as a whole. We must move out to sacrificially serve the good of the whole human community, especially the poor… the ultimate purpose of redemption is not to escape the material world, but to renew it. God's purpose is not only saving individuals, but also inaugurating a new world based on justice, peace, and love, not power, strife, and selfishness.
So Christians work for the peace, security, justice, and prosperity of their city and their neighbors, loving them in word and in deed, whether they believe what we do or not. In Jeremiah 29:7, Israel's exiles were called not just to live in the city, but also to love it and work for its shalom—its economic, social, and spiritual flourishing. The citizens of God's city are the best possible citizens of their earthly cities.
(Listen to this, I love this part) This is the only kind of cultural engagement that will not corrupt us and conform us to the world's pattern of life. If Christians go to urban centers simply to acquire power, they will never achieve cultural influence and change that is deep, lasting, and embraced by the broader society. We must live in the city to serve all the peoples in it, not just our own tribe. We must lose our power to find our (true) power. Christianity will not be attractive enough to win influence except through sacrificial service to all people, regardless of their beliefs.”
Wow! In other words, our cultural engagement must be shaped by the cross. It is sacrificial giving in the service of others. With no strings attached.
Remember the movie Lord of the Rings? The Dark Lord Sauron puts his own evil power inside a magical Ring to rule over the world. Whoever has the Ring will have great power, so powerful he can even beat the Dark Lord. Many people want to use the Ring of power for good, but eventually they themselves become corrupted and wanted the Ring for themselves. Like Gollum who became a twisted, little dark lord himself: My precioussss… Those who keep the ring for themselves shall lose it.
So what’s the solution? The good guys got a peace-loving hobbit named Frodo to do the unthinkable. His mission: “Carry the ring of power to Mount Doom and destroy it.” By doing so, Frodo is saving the world through weakness. He’s not using the ring of power but destroying the ring of power. That’s the only way to beat Sauron.
The story reminds us of our Lord Jesus who instead of grabbing power with an army of angels chose instead to carry the cross for the sake of others. Those who lose their lives shall find it. He saved the world through weakness and self-sacrifice. In the same way, true spiritual power for the church comes when we renounce coercive power and bear our cross and follow Christ instead.
A few years ago, there was a flood in some parts of Johor and some Christian volunteers were helping to distribute food/clothing to flood victims still trapped in their homes. One Christian guy saw that there is a village that was not yet covered so he said: “Let’s go there!” To his shock, some other Christians told him, “No la, it’s a waste of our time. There’s no use going to that community because we are not allowed to preach the gospel to them. It’s better if we go to this other village (mostly Chinese) because after we distribute the food we can preach to them also”. In my personal view, that’s too narrow!
Yes, the good news is the power of God unto salvation. We should not be ashamed of the gospel. Although evangelism and social action belong together (hand-in-hand), neither is a means for the other. They are equal partners. Our good works should be an expression of genuine love for our neighbor who is in need. And love doesn’t need to justify itself. It is not a means to another hidden agenda. There is no string attached.
We share the good news because we love people. As we genuinely minister to physical needs, we will find opportunities to minister to their spiritual needs as well. But we don’t show love to people primarily as an excuse to evangelize. If they don’t respond or listen to the gospel, does that mean we stop loving them?
Our social agenda must not be narrowly defined, but broad and embracing enough to include the city as a whole. That’s why we should care for issues like environmental conservation, eradicating poverty, abolishing human trafficking, and defending the human rights of women and children and so on.
A friend Marvin Wong wrote: Christian involvement in society is therefore not a part time activity that we engage in after our main task of evangelism is done, but an integral part of our overall Gospel witness. It would be inconsistent for a Christian to claim to love one’s neighbor as oneself and yet remain passive and silent when the same neighbor is in need or treated unjustly.
So here’s the big story: The Creator God has created human beings in His own likeness but they have rebelled against His loving rule. As a result, our fellowship with God is broken. Then the Creator God sets in motion this plan to rescue these rebels by blessing Abraham as the father of a great nation so that they in turn will be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. The nation of Israel was born and then redeemed from slavery in Egypt. The creator God established a covenant with Israel and appointed Israel to be a light to the Gentiles so that through its witness, the surrounding nations will come to know God and His ways. But Israel has failed her calling again and again through disobedience and unfaithfulness.
Now enter the Messiah, the King Himself has come to usher in the Kingdom of God. He will renew, restore and transform the heaven and the earth so that every part of creation is filled with the glory of God. But His kingdom is also a present here-and-now reality. God’s redemptive, missional plan is still moving forward.
His redeemed people are to live today as if the future is already present. The way we live are to be signposts pointing forward to what God’s kingdom in its future fullness would look like. The church is like a movie preview: We are to display some teasers/highlights from the full movie so people go: “Wow I wanna go see the real show”. Coming soon to a planet near you!
Will you sign up for this movement of God for the world?
Will we choose to follow a safe Jesus who exists to provide us with health, wealth, comfort, and happiness? Or do we want the real thing even when it costs us a great deal?
Let us pray…