I wrote this sermon in the cosy warm snug at some friends’ house. I had fled there for peace and quiet – to get away from the tree surgeons, their chainsaws and grinder. Once upon a time when our house was built, somebody who liked privacy planted a little hedge.
Several decades later a monstrous row of Leylandii towered above our vicarage, looming over the kitchen window. I last saw them on a dark grey rainy day – a grim hedge taking up half the garden, sucking up nutrients, confining, depressing, shading. As I wrote this sermon, the trees came down, the sun came out and I returned to a glorious blaze of light – a kitchen totally transformed, where you don’t need to switch the light on at midday. Light where there had been dark lifted the spirits of everyone at home.
In our gospel reading Jesus says that faith in him is like light shining in darkness. That the presence of Christians should transform society like a blaze of light. In verses 14-15 ‘You are the light of the world – put a light on a stand and it gives light to all in the house.’ As we talk with people around us we’re aware of so many who live in darkness, and the lack of hope that there is in the world, but we know that faith in Jesus Christ brings light. Like light, knowing Jesus brings clarity of understanding so you can see the way, warmth and comfort, hope and joy. Even when life is hard the light of Christ shines in the dark, giving hope and directing us.
For the best way of getting rid of the dark is shining a light. Faced with what’s wrong in the world it can be tempting to complain, but that achieves little and makes us look like whingers. I saw a news article about Facebook. The social media giant is planning a new feature on its websites. Apparently there will be a function where, if someone sadly dies, their relative will be able to press a button and the computer will take the dead person’s most popular posts and pictures, and convert them into a short personalised video. It will create a tribute, a virtual summary of their on-line life for friends to see.
You may think that’s amazing, a creative response to grief in an electronic world. You might think it’s dreadful. Or you might not have the foggiest idea what any of that meant – and if so please don’t worry about it! Because the point I took away wasn’t so much about the content of the article. It was about people’s responses. Members of the public had the chance to comment on the news item and other people could then rate their comments. You could give it a thumbs up if you thought the comment was good, or a thumbs down if you thought it was rubbish.
What really struck me was one of the most negatively rated comments. This is a comment that lots of people didn’t like. Somebody wrote: ‘Life was so much better when people used the phone to talk to each other and went to church.’ Now that may be true, I personally think it is! Yet it was one of the worst received comments. I wonder why?
I think it was because that person was railing against the darkness. They saw something they didn’t like and complained about it. They were looking back to a lost world and were still grieving. For them life was much better in the past and they said so – negatively. ‘I don’t like that… How dreadful…Life was so much better when… ‘ Unfortunately that’s an unappealing way of trying to change what’s wrong. Being Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells writing to the Daily Mail may make us feel better, but it doesn’t get anything done. In fact, it often turns people away from the point you’re trying to make. If you want to get rid of darkness there’s only one solution: turn on the light.
Light gets rid of darkness. A positive suggestion is more appealing than a complaint. So next time we see something we don’t like, and are tempted to bewail it, let’s bite our tongues. Is there a good alternative, a light we can shine? Is there a way we can make the Christian path attractive, something people want to explore? Instead of criticising and grieving can we instead winsomely encourage the good?
We as Christians need to show the world how Christ’s way is good! Not hiding our light under a bushel so it cannot be seen, but letting it shine out like a city on a hill. Light can be seen from afar – at the moment you can get a great view of the planet Jupiter in the night sky – it’s hundreds of millions of miles away but incredibly clear and bright. And of course Jupiter doesn’t make its own light – it reflects the light of the sun. Likewise Christians reflect the light of God and point to him. As it says in v.16 ‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’. We should let Jesus transform us and, through us, society.
Jesus makes a similar point in v 13 ‘You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored. It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled underfoot’. Like salt, Christians can add flavour and interest to society, they can help preserve it from going rotten. A little salt can go a long way, and statistics show that Christians, although few in number, are much more likely to be involved in their communities and act as volunteers.
But in those days salt was not refined. You picked it up as big lumps from the edge of the Dead Sea, mixed in with all sorts of other things. So if it got wet, the salt could be washed out, and you’d end up with tasteless rock, useful only as aggregate on the roads.
Jesus says, don’t lose your saltiness. Keep making a difference. Don’t stop trying. Yes you will meet setbacks and sometimes you may seem to be going it alone. But don’t be disheartened, don’t throw in the towel. Keep being salt in the world. Don’t fall into the negativity trap, but fight darkness with light.
Having said all that, Jesus is keen to point out that he’s not throwing out the old ways. In v.17. ‘Do not think I have come to abolish the law’. At the time, people lived by the laws we find in the Old Testament. The religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees, had worked hard on interpreting the rules.
So for instance, when it said ‘Do not work on the Sabbath’, they defined work. They said: Lighting a fire is work. So then cooking is work. It’s not work if you rescue someone in mortal danger – but if they can wait until the next day then making them better would be work.
Jesus cut through all this legalism. He healed people on the Sabbath. He let his disciples pick ears of corn. So did that mean he was going to get rid of rules and there would be a free for all? No, in v. 18 ‘Truly I tell you, not one letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished’. Jesus affirms that God’s law is good, because God made us and knows what is best for us.
Sometimes people say that rules are constraining, they stop us. My car is a Skoda. It’s quite old but it can go anywhere. It can go up hills, across marshes, it could go all the way to China. It can do anything, go anywhere as long as there is a road. What it can’t do is go offroad. It’s not built for it. And if I disobey the rules I won’t get anywhere. Is my car more free being offroad and stuck in the mud? Or is it more free going anywhere as long as it’s on a road? God’s law works because it is good for us, he made us that way.
What Jesus did do, is point to the true meaning of the law. He removed the legalism and the quibbles and instead pointed to the spiritual heart. We’ll hear more about that next week, but essentially Jesus said: the law against murder, it’s about more than murder. It’s against anger, violence, insults too.
Jesus gives us a more challenging, deeper meaning. That’s what he means by saying in verse 20 ‘for I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’
But Christians don’t keep the Old Testament law, do we? Sometimes we’re put off reading the Old Testament because of all those obscure rules that we no longer keep. What do we do about them?
When St Peter, St Paul and the other apostles took the gospel’s light across the world, people who weren’t Jewish started becoming Christians. They began to realise that much of the Old Testament had been fulfilled in Jesus and didn’t need to be kept by Gentiles.
So for instance, the rules about not eating pork, and circumcision, and the clothes you wear, they were all about keeping the Jewish people distinctive. So they don’t apply to Gentiles.
Many of the rules in the Old Testament were about worship in the temple. They symbolically prepared the way for Jesus and what he would do. As an example the laws about animal sacrifice no longer apply because Jesus is the true Lamb of God who has taken away the sins of the world once and for all.
But other laws contained moral principles which do still apply. Do not steal, do not lie, honour your father and mother. If we remember these three principles: that some rules are about being distinctively Jewish, some are about the temple but some contain an important moral principle, then that will give us a reasonably straightforward way of making sense of it. Christians need not be afraid of reading the Old Testament.
When we do so we should also remember that our attitude is different to that of the Scribes and Pharisees.
Those religious leaders tended to think that obeying the law kept them in a right relationship with God. They tried to make themselves good so they could be close to God. But Jesus preached forgiveness. We are righteous, not because of the good we try, and so often fail to do. No, we are righteous because God forgives us, through Jesus’ death on the cross his righteousness becomes ours. So our righteousness does exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, because it comes from Jesus. And for Christians, keeping God’s law is not a way to ingratiate ourselves with the Almighty, but instead the right way to live, an offering of thanks to our loving heavenly Father.
Jesus therefore frees us from the burdens of legalism. He liberates us from guilty darkness into a joy giving light. May we let that light shine so the world may give glory to God!