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Out in the Open

A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on February 6, 2011.
Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 5:13-20

Because today is the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birthday, we’ve been hearing a lot these past few days about our 40th president.  Ronald Reagan is associated with so many actions and words, not the least of which is this powerful line delivered in Berlin:  “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” 

But President Reagan is also associated with the phrase, “shining city on a hill,” a word he repeated over and over again.  Three hundred and fifty years before Reagan’s term of office began, a Puritan named John Winthrop preached a famous sermon entitled, “A Model of Christian Charity” as he and other Pilgrims prepared to disembark from the ship Arbella to settle the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  “We must consider,” declared Winthrop, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and caused their prayers to be turned into curses…” 

Reagan loved the “city on a hill” image used in Winthrop’s sermon.  On one occasion he said, “America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.”  And twenty-two years ago last month when Reagan made his farewell speech to the country he said, “I’ve spoken of the Shining City all my political life…In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity.  And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.  That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”

What’s interesting is that politicians of both parties have borrowed this famous image.  Forty years ago last month, in an address made to the General Court of Massachusetts, President-Elect John F. Kennedy said: “…I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier.  ‘We must consider,’ Winthrop said, ‘that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us.’”  “Today,” Kennedy continued, “the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state, and local must be a city upon a hill…”

Now with all due respect to Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, and other politicians who have spoken of the “city on a hill,” I feel duty bound to remind us where this phrase came from.  Of course, it was not used first by Kennedy or Reagan to refer to America.  Nor it was invented by John Winthrop to describe the Massachusetts Bay Colony. 

Roughly two thousand years ago Jesus preached a sermon that outshines John Winthrop’s sermon and all other sermons ever preached in human history.  That sermon would eventually be titled, “The Sermon on the Mount.”  After delivering nine blessings or beatitudes to his disciples and the hundreds of other people who were eavesdropping, Jesus transitioned to a different subject, offering some of the most famous words ever spoken:  “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.”

“You are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In 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.”

So it needs to be said that the author of the phrase, “city on a hill,” is none other than Jesus.  His original audience was not citizens of a community or officials of a government.  His audience was his newly called disciples who would form the nucleus of his church.  The original city on a hill was not a colony or a government, but the church of Jesus Christ.  And like it or not, we Christ-followers are out in the open for all to see, and the eyes of all people are upon us.

By the way, these famous words ought to put to rest for all time the notion that the Christian faith is intended to be personal and private.  Jesus is saying that an invisible Christian is a contradiction in terms.  Salt, by definition, is salty—there is no denying it or covering it up.  Light, by its very nature, glows brightly in the dark.  And a city on a hill cannot be hidden.  To say, “I don’t talk about my faith because it’s personal,” or “I don’t practice my faith publicly because it’s a private is to demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a Christ-follower.  Invisible Christians and introverted churches are simply contradictions in terms.   

Notice that Jesus implies our saltiness and light don’t come from ourselves.   We get our distinctive flavor from the Bread of Life who satisfies all hunger.  We get our light from the Light of the World who saves the world from darkness.  Why is it important to be on the journey of spiritual transformations, to be in an intimate relationship with Christ so we can be formed into the very image of Christ?  Because apart from Christ we are stale salt and dim light, and we can do little or nothing to help ourselves, much less anybody else.

When Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world,” he’s not saying we should try harder to be something we’re not.  He’s saying, “Abide in me at a deep level so that you can be what you already are.”

So when people look at the church of Jesus Christ, what do they see?  And hear? 

Several years ago we hired a consultant to poll local citizens of our community to give us their impressions of our church and other downtown churches.  The results were sobering.  They saw large, expensive, foreboding buildings that appeared locked down six days out of seven.  Some knew we had a children’s center, and various and sundry ministries of other churches were mentioned.  But basically, they couldn’t see that we were doing much or mattered much. 

Today, when many people look at the church, they see people who are largely preoccupied with themselves and their own facilities.  That’s until some kind of controversy arises, and then they watch Christians beat up on each other in public, even in the press.  The other thing they notice is that Christians can sound awfully self- righteous when they condemn people for doing things they consider sinful.  In fact, some Christians come across more like red hot Tabasco sauce than salt, and can leave a bad taste in your mouth.

If the church is the city on a proverbial hill, and the eyes of the world are upon us, how are we doing?  If we’re honest, we’d have to admit we’re not doing terribly well.  Why are so many of our churches dying on the vine?  Because our members aren’t vitally connected to the lush Vine of Jesus Christ who gives us life and energy.  And when people far from God look our way, we either make no impression, or a bad impression.   

When people look at the church of Jesus Christ, what should they see?  They should see the body of Christ at work.  The mind and heart of Jesus being expressed.  The hands and feet of Jesus in action.  The presence of Christ so strong that it’s palpable. 

This is what Jesus is saying in a roundabout way in Matthew 5:17-20.  Jesus was getting a bum rap by some hyper-religious people of his day who accused him of ignoring the law and the prophets of the Old Testament.  For example, Jesus had the nerve to heal people on the Sabbath, a clear violation of the law. 

So Jesus responds to this charge of lawlessness with some of the most controversial and confusing verses in all of the Bible.  We don’t have time today to go over this material with a fine-tooth comb.  But what Jesus’ words mean at the end of the day is this—Jesus is the fulfillment of the law.  The essence of Jesus fulfills the essence of the law.  When you need to know what justice, mercy, and faith look like—what Jesus called the “weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23)—look at Jesus.    

Jewish laws regarding circumcision, clean foods, and daily sacrifices were valid in their day, but not now.  Stoning sinners may have made sense millennia ago, but not now.  Now, Jesus is the litmus test, Jesus is the standard for our behavior.  Which is why our judgment must always be seasoned with mercy.  And our charity complemented by justice.   Because we follow Jesus.   

Once Mother Teresa, surely the paragon of salt and light if there ever was one, was speaking to persons who had come to meet her from all over the world.  Among the people she spoke to was a group of nuns from many North American Catholic orders.  After her talk she asked if there were any questions. 

“Yes, I have one,” a woman sitting near the front said.  “As you know, most orders represented here have been losing members.  It seems that more and more women are leaving all the time.  And yet your order is attracting thousands upon thousands.  What do you do?’

Without hesitating Mother Teresa said, “I give them Jesus.”

“Yes, I know,” said the woman, “but take habits for example.  Do your women object to wearing habits?  And the rules of order, how do you do it?”

“I give them Jesus,” Mother Teresa replied. 

“Yes, I know Mother,” said the woman, “but can you be more specific?”

“I give them Jesus,” Mother Teresa repeated again.

“Mother, all of us are aware of your fine work.  I want to know something else.”

Mother Teresa said quietly, “I give them Jesus.  There is nothing else.” (Ernest Boyer, Jr., Finding God at Home, San Francisco : Harper 7 Row, 1988, pp. 73-74)

Friends, at the end of the day, all this church or any church has to give that you can’t find anywhere else is Jesus.  People can find nice auditoriums and gymnasiums and study programs and concerts and activities in lots of other places.  The only thing we have to give that’s unique is Jesus.  But then again, that’s who people are desperate for, even if they don’t know it.  

How do we give people Jesus?  How do we show them the Son of God, lead them to the one who offers abundant, eternal life?  

Most people who’ve read the Sermon on the Mount point to evangelism as the answer.  And make no mistake—the Sermon on the Mount calls us to get out of the saltshaker—the church building—and into the world.  We are to be like salt rather than hot sauce—not scalding people with our judgmental pronouncements but making people thirsty for the one who can change their lives and help them discover their true selves. 

We have talked often about loving people enough to “just walk across the room” to invite them to church, and more importantly, to invite them to sample life in Jesus.  Matthew 28 quotes Jesus as commanding us to go into the world and make disciples for him.  Our evangelistic mandate is clear.

But so is our justice mandate.  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that we project his light not just through our evangelistic efforts but though our good works.  And in Matthew 25, Jesus commands us to feed the hungry and house the homeless and clothe the naked and visit the prisoner in his name.  That’s surprising because that doesn’t sound all that spiritual.

Where did Jesus get such an idea?  From Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, who make it very clear that we can worship all day and fast all night.  But if our spiritual practices don’t translate into loosing the bonds of injustice and feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, we are making a mockery of the very Lord we serve.  If you want to rebuild your broken-down place of worship, Isaiah says, start adding works of social ministry and justice to your evangelism. 

Did you hear that First Baptist?  We won’t be God’s shining city on a hill until both works of evangelism and social justice are routine occurrences inside and outside this church.  If we drag our feet when it comes to being salt and light, to doing evangelism and social ministry, giving people the Jesus who not only fulfills the law but our deepest longings then like John Winthrop I fear God “May withdraw His present help from us.”

But if we are the salt and the light and the city set on the hill in the way Jesus intends, then all heaven will break loose.  And the eyes of all people will see what God can do!