Epiphany 5 • 5 Feb 2017

Isaiah 58:1-9a
1 Corinthians 2:1-12
Matthew 5:13-20

Rev. Chris Udy

Last week we read
from the beginning
of the Sermon on the Mount.
We heard that Jesus gathered his disciples
and went up a mountain – like Moses –
and he delivered to them
a new Law – again, like Moses.
The Law Moses had delivered to God’s people
gave them a way to live
in the land God had promised to Abraham,
and in the passage we read today
Jesus – the new Moses –
said that the Law would remain
until heaven and earth passed away.
Not a jot or a tittle,
not a letter, not one stroke of a letter
would pass from the Law
until all is accomplished, he said.
A new President might think
he can re-write the rules
that define justice and lead to peace,
but Jesus insisted
that he had not come to abolish the law
or the teachings of the prophets –
he had not come to abolish, he said,
he had come to fulfil.

When Matthew was writing his Gospel
the world was slowly exploding.
Long-standing agreements, treaties and freedoms
were being trashed and rewritten.
Strong and stable leaders had gone
and those who had taken their place
were angry or crazy.
Jesus had been executed
around the year 30AD,
when Herod Antipas was the Jewish King,
Pilate was the Roman Governor,
and Tiberius was the Roman Emperor.
They all had their problems,
but over the 50 years after them
things had really been falling apart.
In 68AD the Emperor Nero committed suicide
and the entire Roman Empire shuddered
as a civil war broke out
between the 3 men who wanted to succeed him.
The year 69AD saw 4 Emperors,
(sounds almost like Australian politics)
and as chaos overwhelmed the heart of the empire,
Jewish people in Galilee and Judea revolted,
led by Zealots and other radical Jewish parties
who thought this conflict
was an opportunity sent by God
to remove the Romans from Israel.
But in December of that year
the new Emperor Vespasian
quickly took control,
and sent his son Titus
to ‘pacify’ – as they called it – Judea and Galilee.
Over the next few months
the Zealots and all the other Jewish rebels
retreated to Jerusalem,
and the Roman army waited outside
for the rebel groups
to do their worst to each other inside the walls,
while the Romans crucified,
on the ridges around the city,
hundreds who tried to escape the siege.
In 70AD Jerusalem was destroyed –
the temple was burnt to the ground,
and its stones were toppled and broken
until all that remained was the western wall –
now called the wailing wall.

It was 10 years after Jerusalem’s destruction
that Matthew wrote his Gospel,
and the memory of that chaos and horror
was etched into the hearts and minds
of the little communities of Jewish Christians
Matthew was writing for.
They were still living in Galilee,
still in the land God had promised Abraham,
they still understood themselves as Jewish –
and they called each other ‘followers of the Way’.
But living in the land was not enough
to fulfil the hope they lived by,
and while Jesus said
the Law would never be abolished,
the people of God would need something more
to guide them through
this time of violence and uncertainty
when everything they thought was firm,
the values and traditions
they believed they could rely on
to keep their families, and communities -
and the world itself – secure,
everything was fragmenting
and disappearing around them.

In the Sermon on the Mount,
Jesus gives his disciples
a new way to understand themselves
and their community.
Where Israel had hoped
that a land of their own,
and a king to rule and lead them
would lead to security and peace,
Jesus offered them something very different.
The vision he described was not a nation:
it wasn’t a place on a map
ruled from a palace and a temple.
Jesus offered them a new world:
the reign of God; the kingdom of heaven.
And for that new world to emerge
no conquering army was required,
no borders needed to be enforced,
and there was no need
for the institutions of government and control.
The followers of the Way were not required
to join an armed rebellion,
or to choose a hero and make him their king –
they already had their champion,
and his reign had already begun.

The reign of God – the kingdom of heaven –
would grow and live in women and men,
who gathered in communities
to work among their neighbours and in the world
like salt, and light, and yeast.

In the Sermon on the Mount,
Jesus says ‘you are the salt of the earth,
but if salt has lost its taste,
how can its saltiness be restored?’
You’ve probably heard that in Biblical times
salt was both precious and impure.
It was precious because
it stopped things from going bad –
meat and fruit especially
could be preserved and kept tasty
if it was well salted –
but in Palestine, most of their salt came
from the shores of the Dead Sea,
and it was a brownish mixture
of all sorts of minerals and silt.
So if the salt was stored incorrectly,
and water leached away the soluble salt,
you could be left with little more than dirt.

‘You are the salt of the earth’ Jesus says,
and he’s speaking directly
to his disciples,
the people there on the mountain side,
the people he’s already described as ‘blessed’
in the Beatitudes.
In Matthew’s Gospel,
Jesus is telling this small group of people –
the followers of the Way -
that they can work together
to keep things from going bad:
to counter the world’s corruption;
to preserve its goodness and value.
It doesn’t need a lot –
in fact too much salt can be a problem –
and they’re not just preserving themselves;
their role is to bring taste and protection
to the earth – to all God’s children.

It’s sad that in many places
Christians think that they can only be effective
if they achieve political weight and power –
if they can convince a majority of people
to act and think as they do –
but that’s not the way the reign of God will grow.
Unfortunately, in the deals and compromises
many think are essential to political life,
people who call themselves Christian
often lose their taste –
they start looking and acting
like all the other players in the game.
They grow cruel and hard;
they stop looking for justice
or for ways to make peace,
they forget that God is on the side
of the mourners, and the gentle folk,
and the poor and powerless people.
You wonder, in the end,
what they mean when they call themselves Christian,
because their taste is gone,
and they’ve become part of the problem.

And Jesus continued:
“You are the light of the world.” He said.
“A city built on a hill cannot be hid.
No-one lights a lamp
and then puts it under a basket –
the put it on a lampstand,
and it gives light to all in the house.”
A little bit of light goes a long way.
It doesn’t need to be brilliant –
in fact, too much light, like too much salt,
can get in the way.
But if light is going to work
it needs to be visible; out in the open.

It’s interesting that both light and salt
work on something else
to be effective.
We don’t thrive on salt,
and light, in itself, is not especially useful.
But when salt and light
work to show where good things are,
and then to enhance and preserve them,
then the world is a better place for everyone.

Light helps to locate things.
It shows us where they are and what they’re near.
It gives things line and colour,
shape and size.
In a home where there’s light
life and work don’t have to end at sunset,
and we can navigate our way
without doing damage to ourselves
or our surroundings.
Light gives us directions;
it reveals patterns and things of beauty;
it calls us out and brings us home,
and makes the garden grow.
Light’s good – but not everywhere, nor all the time.
We need enough,
and in the right place,
and if the world was nothing but light,
life wouldn’t be worth living.

Salt, and light … and yeast.
Yeast isn’t in our readings for today;
it’s mentioned in a parable
later in Matthew’s Gospel –
but it is another image Jesus uses
of the growing reign of God.
It’s a tiny parable.
Jesus said:
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast
that a woman took
and mixed in with three measures of flour
until all of it was leavened.”
The way it usually worked
was that a tiny piece of yesterday’s dough – a starter -
was kept aside, not put into the oven,
and kneaded into the flour, salt and water
of the following day.
The next day the same thing happened,
and the next, and the next, and the next,
and so a culture of yeast could live, and grow,
surviving in that little lump
sometimes for generations.
One woman in the USA
has a sourdough starter
that’s more than 100 years old -
but in Jewish households,
just before Passover each year,
all traces of yeast were thrown out
and a new culture was formed.
So in most other books of the Bible
yeast is viewed with suspicion
and associated with something wrong -
but for Jesus,
yeast is another symbol of God’s reign.
It’s interesting that in this case
the small amount of leaven
that works its way through the whole mixture
to make it rise and give it taste and texture
is especially associated with women’s work,
at a time when women were often seen
as powerless and ineffective in public life.
But yeast makes bread,
and it’s bread that brings us to the table,
where it’s broken to nourish life,
and shared to form a community
where stories of hope and grace are told
and where we find companions
to encourage and sustain us.

For Jesus, the reign of God will grow,
not in obvious movements of public power,
with their overtones of violence and bluster,
but the reign of God grows in and through
the actions and lives of ordinary people,
who live and work together in communities of grace.
The reign of God grows
like salt, and light, and yeast,
ordinary, domestic things,
staples of life and sources of energy,
where small amounts
can make a significant difference
and influence comes from character,
not from weight of numbers.

We seem to be facing a time
similar to the context of Matthew’s readers.
Their world and ours is similar,
with emperors in conflict
and the world in disarray –
so it’s good to be reminded
of the vision Jesus lived by,
and as we look at how we live,
together in community
and as individual members,
it’s good to be reminded
that the reign of God has begun
and it’s growing in the lives and work
of little communities
of ordinary people pretty much like us.