A sermon preached by Graham Low at St Mary’s, Iffley on the Third Sunday before Lent – 5th February 2023
We have been very strongly challenged in the last few minutes. Isaiah is at his fiercest at a time when Israel was expecting deliverance from exile in Babylon. Here he interrupts his messages of hope with stark warnings. If the people of Israel’s desire for God’s promised blessing is to be fulfilled, then they must live in the same way as all creation. Only then may they receive God’s promises of loosing the bonds of injustice, of freeing the oppressed, and of light rising out of darkness. God’s good purposes are for the whole world, and remain so. Even if the people of Israel are God’s chosen people, they are called to be agents of, and not just recipients of God’s blessing. We too are called to be agents of the blessings we receive from God to those around us.
In the same way, Jesus tells his disciples that they are to keep the law more fully than the Pharisees, who proudly see their observance of the law as superior to that of others. Later in the gospel Jesus says to the Pharisees: “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, and mercy and faith. It is these that you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others”. Jesus is confident that his followers in faith will do their best to keep to the weightier aspects of the Law as well as to its details.
Jesus then reminds us that the kingdom of God has already come near. Those who enter it are those who have a righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. And elsewhere we are reminded that these are people who obey the will of the Father (7.21). The Kingdom is not, as the Pharisees taught, in the future: emphatically, it is now. Then as now Jesus’ followers are to live in a way that is not about following particular legal requirements, but is a direct response to being in the world of God’s righteousness and with the assurance of God’s grace.
While we may accept and seek to follow these very broad approaches about how to live our lives, we can easily feel a need for some practical and imaginative help in doing so. And so, Jesus gives us two practical illustrations. He says that the disciples are to see themselves as salt and light in the world. Though salt is potentially dangerous on its own, it is an essential nutrient for the function of all living cells, and at tightly regulated concentrations. Furthermore, while we all know that salt is a means of enhancing the taste and preservation of foods, we may also be reminded that in priestly ministry in Old Testament times it was used for sealing covenants, and it was sprinkled on sacrifices.
The salt of Biblical times came from large deposits near the Dead Sea. The word salt also included Gypsum, which looks like salt, and which was called salt that had lost its flavour. “Lost its flavour” could also mean “become foolish”. In Psalm 14.1 we read that “Fools say in their hearts “there is no God”. By not recognising God’s kingdom they bring judgement upon themselves. Isaiah also notes that salt that has lost its flavour is trampled underfoot, which is an image of God’s judgement (14.19). Later in Matthew’s gospel we find parables of judgement on people who do not seek to bring God’s kingdom about. So being salt carries essential, practical, and important responsibilities for each of us, as we share God’s love, joy and peace with those around us. And we have to be careful to use the right amount of salt in our care and encouragement of people: as with food, too much or too little can make matters much worse.
In speaking to the disciples about light Jesus says that they are to be light both in and of the world. In Genesis we read that light enables the world to be seen, as it emerges from chaos. And later Isaiah speaks of God’s light for Israel, a light to the nations, a light to the world.
Here Jesus says that a city built on a hill cannot be hidden. I am reminded of many towns in Tuscany which are built sometimes quite precariously on hills. By day they shine prominently in the sun but by night their medieval churches and houses are lit and can be seen from afar.
Our gospel reading is one of encouragement. In a sense Jesus wishes us to be like a hill-top town that cannot be hidden or ignored. We are to illuminate those around us with a generous and unmistakeable light. So, it is good to ask ourselves the question: how obviously do we shine as lights to those around us?
The more we may think about this the more we realise that we need strength and courage to shine. We have to accept that our beliefs are counter to the greed, selfishness, inequality and pride which are prominent in today’s world. If we let ourselves run with the crowd, then our integrity is diminished. Today we are being encouraged not to follow the easy way, but to be open to God’s way, and to follow it closely.
Michael Ramsey once wrote that “Openness to heaven is necessary for a Christian, which is realised in every act of selflessness, humility or compassion; for such acts are already anticipation of heaven in the here and now”.
Our readings challenge us to reflect on the extent to which we have been open in the last year to the joy, love and peace of heaven. Perhaps this can be a preparation for the season of Lent, which begins in just over two weeks’ time. Amen.