"Knowing the Bible comes in handy sometimes."
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 under foot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Every time I preach on the sermon on the mount, I remember a member of the first church I served in Stephenville, Texas, starting in 1984. His name was Henry. At the first Bible study I ever led as the pastor of a church, I wanted to get a sense of where the participants were in their knowledge of the Bible.
I was fresh out of seminary, 25 years old, and this lunch time Bible study group was comprised of about six or seven retired folks, including Henry, a veteran medic of World War I, born in 1899. He had been a dairy farmer and a member of the volunteer fire department and rescue squad, but by the time I knew him he mostly volunteered at the church and the food pantry.
When I asked the group, “Which parts of the Bible are you most familiar with?” Henry said, “Well, I know the psalms and the sermon on the mount.”
“Know them?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’ve read all the rest of it, but other than a few verses here and there, that’s all I reckon I could recite from memory.”
“You memorized all the psalms and the sermon on the mount?”
“Yeah, but from the King James Version. It kinda throws me off when I hear it from one of these new-fangled versions.”
Now, whenever I hear that metaphor Jesus used, “salt of the earth,” I think of Henry.
It turned out that everyone in that Bible study had memorized enough Scripture that they often didn’t need to open their Bibles when we studied the Gospels; they just reeled it off by heart.
There I was, fresh out of seminary, full of theological understanding, ready to teach these country folk everything I had learned, and God called me to a place where I would have finished dead last in a Bible content contest.
Quite humbling, to say the least.
It’s that kind of experience that helps us remember the context when Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.”
What can you say to Jesus’ generous declaration? Nothing but “Aw, shucks.”
What surprises us about Jesus’ words is that they are not addressed, in the Gospel, to the silver-tongued, the wealthy and generous, or the good and gracious community leader.
They are addressed to a rag-tag group of disciples he has gathered, and the crowds, the ha-‘arretz, the people of the land, the day laborers, the fishermen, the tax collectors, and shepherds.
These are the people for whom living the letter of the law was impossible. For the wealthy class, the Pharisees and Sadducees, every part of life, from waking to eating to praying to working, speaking, reading and retiring to bed, they performed according to the letter of the law.
For the people of the land, the crowds, the working people, they had no such luxury. Shepherds had to trespass every day to retrieve a lost sheep; fishermen ate at a campsite on the beach – no kosher kitchen for them; tax collectors handled Roman coins with graven images.
Another layer of this passage reveals even more surprises. Whenever we read the Gospel according to Matthew, it helps to remember that it was written, or at least compiled, by the light of the burning Temple, destroyed by the Romans around the year 70, about 40 years after Jesus actually delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
While the Temple existed, the Jews, including those who believed Jesus to be the Messiah, went to the Temple as the place where they encountered the presence of God, the Hebrew word in the Bible for the light that symbolized God’s presence is shekinah.
After the Temple was destroyed, both Jews and Christians reformed their understanding of the Shekinah. For traditional Jews, the study of Scripture in the synagogue and the home, or anywhere, became the place where God’s presence unfolded. Lighting the Sabbath candles in the home became a ritual of gratitude for the Shekinah right at home. The age of Temple sacrifice came to a close, and the age of Rabbinic Judaism began to flourish.
For the early church, a band of mostly Jewish people who believed in Jesus as the Messiah, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple devastated them, too.
But, in the Gospels, we read how they began to rethink their experience of the presence of God. When the Temple no longer stood, the Gospel writers lifted up not only the Sabbath candles, but the community of believers, the body of Christ, as the Shekinah, the new Temple.
Matthew remembers the words of Jesus in a new way. “You are the salt of the earth,” and “you are the light of the world” made sense now as the church, (the people, not the building,) came to understand their role in the world.
The temple stood on a hill where its light could guide and attract people coming into Jerusalem. When the light of the temple appeared to night travelers up on the hill, they perhaps remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.”
These words of Jesus raised the stakes for those who could still smell the ashes of the temple the Romans had destroyed.
It’s not just that Jesus’ body was the new and improved Temple, the light of the world, the Shekinah, but You, the community of faith, the church, are the light, the body of Christ in the world.
So, how do you hear it? This is the declaration across the centuries, from Jesus’ lips to your ears: “You are the light of the world.”
It’s not that you can be, that you might be, that you should be. You are.
To Jesus’ first disciples who heard the Sermon on the Mount, to the first readers of Matthew’s gospel, and to us, Jesus says we are who God has made us, people who reflect the light of God to the world around us, whether we realize it or not.
The exhortation of Jesus is not to cover it up.
That Bible study group in the first church I served lifted up for me the difference between my generation and theirs. All of them had spent their childhood and most of their adulthood with no television. They remembered when going into town meant putting a saddle or harness on a horse. Most of them had attended a one-room school for at least part of their childhood education. All of them had memorized a significant number of poems and Scripture.
I asked one time, “How do you think it has helped you to have learned these Scriptures by heart?”
They all turned to Henry: “Henry, tell him about that car wreck.”
Henry told me, “I was driving back out to the farm on Highway 377 when I came up on a bad wreck, a head-on collision. One of the men was dead. The man in the other car was bleeding bad.
“I served on the rescue squad, but I didn’t have any equipment with me and I didn’t have a radio to call for help.” (There were no cell phones in those days.)
“I just had to put pressure on his wounds to try to stop or slow down the bleeding until somebody else drove by who could go back to town and summon an ambulance.
“He was in pretty bad shape and I reckon he thought he was gonna die. I told him I would stay right there with him until the ambulance came, but he was panicked. He thought the car was gonna blow up or something because we could smell the gasoline leaking from the tank.
“He prayed and prayed out loud until he was all prayed out, then he asked me, ‘do you know any scriptures?’ and I allowed as to how, as a matter of fact, I did.
I started with “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” made it all the way to the man who built his house on a rock, and I was about halfway through the psalms before an ambulance arrived.
“I saw him later in the hospital and he was mighty grateful for the first aid and for the Word. He asked me, “Are you a preacher?”
I said, “Nah, I just learned a lot of verses in Sunday school.”
Henry told us, “I guess I always knew what I was preparing for when I trained as a medic for the army. But I just learned all those verses in Sunday School because my teacher was the prettiest lady I had ever known. I wanted to impress her.
“But, knowing the Bible comes in handy sometimes.”
We never know when or how the Kingdom of Heaven will draw near; whether in a moment of joy or a time of great tragedy. We never know when the skills and knowledge we have amassed may be just what is needed, as though God sorts through all humanity looking for one who is prepared for this moment and points to you.
And God calls out, “You, yes you. Today is your day. You are the light of the world. Now, go and shine.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.