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Salt & Light: Reaching Our City for Christ

By Dr. Andy Bannister

   I don’t know if you know this, but the provincial government here in Ontario have recently gotten nervous that the rest of the world didn’t know much about Ontario, let alone Canada, so they set up a website to which people could email their questions about Canada. Great idea. However, some of the questions were so utterly bizarre that one employee collected his favourites and posted them anonymously on his blog, along with what he thought the answers should have been.

  Here’s a small selection:

  Q: I have never seen it warm on Canadian TV, so how do the plants grow? (England)

  A. We import all plants fully grown and then just sit around and watch the die

  Q: I want to walk from Edmonton to Toronto. Can I follow the Railroad tracks? (Sweden)

  A: Sure, it’s only 2,000 miles, take lots of water.

  Q: Which direction is north in Canada? (USA)

  A: Aim south, turn 180 degrees then keep walking. Phone when you arrive and we’ll give you the rest of the directions.

  Q: Are there supermarkets in Calgary and is milk available all year round? (Germany)

  A: No, we are a peaceful civilization of Vegan hunter/gathers. Milk is illegal.

  Although questions like that make us laugh, they also show how much it is possible for the rest of the world to entirely misunderstand us as Canadians. And that can be very frustrating.

  I think Christians often have similar feelings of frustration. That no matter how hard we try, that the culture outside these four walls entirely misunderstands what we believe and why we believe it. That most of the time, if we’re honest, we feel we’re talking past the culture.

  One problem is that we live in a culture that is torn in two directions. On the one hand, it’s rabidly secular. According to a recent Ipsus Survey, almost 50% of Canadians no longer believe in God. (That figure goes up in Toronto every time the Maple Leafs play.) Yet this atheism hasn’t necessarily produced a cold, hard rationalism. Everywhere I speak—from secular universities to business settings—I meet people who tell me they’re open to spiritual or religious things—provided that religion or that spirituality doesn’t make too many exclusive truth claims. “True for you, not true for me” is a mantra I hear again and again.

  So truth is under attack from both sides. From relativism: my truth is my truth, your truth is your truth. And on the other side, from secularism and atheism—those voices that shout that science and reason have disproven God.

  So, a question for you this morning. How do we connect the gospel to such a culture? How do we reach our mixed up city for Christ? Challenge it? Inform it, shape it, transform it with the love of Christ? Show people the beauty and the wonder and the joy that is to be found in Jesus. Is that even possible, or is our message doomed forever to be lost in translation?

  What might the Bible have to say to that question? Listen carefully to these words from 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 underfoot.”

  “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither 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.”

  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

  Most of us have probably heard this passage before. Perhaps you’ve heard sermons on it before—it’s an old preaching favourite. But I wonder, have you ever wondered what Jesus was actually doing in this parable? Salt and light? Aren’t these two very different metaphors?

  I don’t think Jesus was confusing two images here. I think he was quite deliberately using salt and light precisely because of the contrast between them. Salt and light are very different. The heart of the passage lies in the very contrast between them. I’d like to highlight three particular contrasts that can help us think through how we bring the gospel to bear on our culture.

  Distance

  First, distance. Light can operate at a distance, it can be broadcast, transmitted, seen from afar. And this is true of the gospel. There is part of the gospel that can be broadcast, spoken and proclaimed. We call this preaching — we call this evangelism. Yet I wonder sometimes if we’ve lost a bit of confidence in preaching. We live, I’m often told, in a culture in which people have short attention spans, don’t think, don’t read, aren’t interested in God — all these reasons and more why preaching and proclamation no longer work. We need to be culturally relevant, we’re told, we need to be popular.

  But here’s an interesting thought. Preaching has never been particularlypopular. It wasn’t in the book of Acts. In fact, it was so unpopular that it led to arrest, persecution and banning orders for the first Christians. Preaching is not popular in Iran, where the church has grown to over a million strong in the last few years. It’s not popular in China, where the church is now over 100 million. Preaching and proclamation have never been popular or fashionable. But it’s powerful. There is part of the gospel that when proclaimed is very powerful. It confronts, it afflicts the comfortable and it comforts the afflicted.

  Do we genuinely believe in the power of the gospel to change lives? Are we able to explain and articulate the good news? After all, good news that is not explained to people is neither good nor news.

  Salt, on the other hand, works differently. Unlike light, salt only works if it makes contact. And there’s part of the gospel that only works if we make contact with people. Through hospitality, through compassion, through discipleship and mentoring, through our character. When people come into contact with you, do they see a difference? Our world is crazy, mixed up, hurting and broken. Are you good news to those around?

  In the ancient world, salt was used for its medicinal and healing effects. Today we have more advanced medical techniques, for example, immunisation. Do you know how immunisation works? What you do is you expose a patient to a weak, watered down version of the virus and that allows the body to develop antibodies to fight it. I wonder if sometimes we’ve done the same with our culture. If too often people have been exposed to a weakened, diluted form of Christianity and so have developed an immunity to it. In such a case, the only solution is a potent form of the real thing. Are you being that radical disciple in the places where God has put you?

  Speed

  A second contrast between salt and light concerns speed. Light is quick, fast, sexy, travelling at 186,000 mph, even up hill. There’s an aspect of the gospel that can be quick and dramatic. When God shows up it, sometimes it can be exciting, dynamic, powerful. Do we believe this? Do we really believe it? Are we looking each day for the God opportunities, places and lives where God’s spirit is at work, where he’s calling us to step in?

  Salt, on the other, is pretty slow and undramatic. And there’s also a part of the gospel that is slow. God works at his own speed. Are we prepared to be patient? To hang in there, trusting patiently for God to work in the lives of our friends, family, colleagues. Are we praying, day in, day out, for the not-yet-Christians in our lives, believing that God can act?

  Often when God shows up, it is a combination of dramatic power and our patient obedience.

  Are we listening, praying, prepared to take risks, to look foolish for God? But at the same time, faithfully and expectantly believing that God will show up?

  Hiddenness

  One final contrast and that’s hiddenness. You can’t hide a city on a hill. It’s obvious, for miles around. There are parts of the Christian faith that cannot be hidden, it’s designed to be public. Other things can be hidden. You can be a secret Christian, the kind of person whose faith is rarely noticed. When you’re around unchurched friends, are you comfortable and relaxed? Are you able to talk about your faith, about your hope in Jesus in a natural way? Do you feel happy answering their questions?

  You see many of us I think have lost our public voice. We need to rediscover our boldness, our confidence.

  A light can always be relit. But salt, that’s a different matter. In the first century world of the New Testament, salt was a valuable commodity. But sometimes impurities got into it. And there would come a point when the impurities were so great, that the salt became worthless. In fact the Greek word here in Matthew 5 for “good for nothing” is the Greek word “moron”. From the Greek word “moron” we get the English word “moron” which means “moron”. Stupid, foolish, idiotic. The text literally says “if salt becomes stupid, how can it be made useful again?”

  The gospel never becomes irrelevant, it always has something to say to a culture. But sometimes our lives can become cluttered, the moral or intellectual impurities building up so that we become moronic.

  So, a challenge.

  What does your walk with Christ look like this morning? How do you stand before him? Is he the centre of everything, has he replaced every idol in your heart? Are you living for him with every fibre of your being? Are you living wisely, or are you becoming a moron?

  Many years ago, an old pastor and mentor said to me that there are two questions that every Christian should ask themselves on a regular basis — two questions your answer to which will determine how effect you will be in reaching your friends, your family, your workplace, your school, your neighbourhood, your city with the gospel. Two questions. First, how much time you invest with God and second how much you invest into the lives of others. Only that will determine the impact you make on those around you.

  In a city desperate for answers, we need Christian men and women prepared to commit to Christ wholeheartedly, live boldly, give dangerously, think deeply and speak and live authentically.

  The gospel is always relevant. But it is we, Christ’s ambassadors, who are called, every one of us, wherever Christ has placed us, to translate that gospel into the lives of our friends and family, into the worlds of education and business and art and politics and culture.

  Wherever God is calling you to be, I pray that your light might shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. Amen.