The New Righteousness

Text: Matthew 5:13-20
Date: Epiphany V + 2/6/11
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

Today we continue on in our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. But because not everyone is necessarily with us from the beginning, each Sunday we need to back up and reiterate how these words are only for those who have already entered the Kingdom of heaven by way of the door called the Beatitudes. That is, a person can enter the Kingdom only as God’s Word has begun to work that humble attitude of true repentance of the heart and conscience over sin and true faith that looks to God alone for salvation and life. Those who approach the kingdom through the door of the blessings of the Beatitudes become the “poor in spirit,” that is, they know and confess always their need of God’s help. They “mourn” as they continually see all around them what sin has done and is doing to the world. They know they are “meek,” powerless apart from God and are constantly hungering and thirsting for righteousness, that is, forgiveness of their sins and faith in and love for God as their only salvation.

Now as children and citizens of the Kingdom of heaven, today Jesus tells us how the purpose of our life in this world has changed with a new calling and new identity. Christians no longer live only for themselves in this world but to be a blessing to others. It is quite an interesting coincidence that today we should hear Jesus speak in these two metaphors of salt and light. First, because it was only this week that the nutrition know-it-alls in government said, “cut down on the fries; you shouldn’t have more than an half-teaspoon of salt a day.” Nevertheless, you are the salt of the earth. So is the wonderful coincidence that today happens to be the 100th birthday of the great 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, who famously used Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:14 to describe our country as a “city set on a hill” that cannot be hidden. You are the light of the world. After telling us of our new calling and identity as Christians as salt and light, the second half of today’s Gospel prepares us for what follows with a very important question. Has Jesus come to do away with the Old Testament scriptures, indeed, even to contradict the age-old teaching of the Bible? So there is one more wonderful coincidence that this year we celebrate the 200th birthday of the first President of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, C. F. W. Walther. For the first lesson Jesus says that we need to learn is, as Walther famously preached, “The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel.” Jesus declares how the Law of God and everything in the Old Testament scriptures is not thrown out, done away with, abolished, but rather “fulfilled” in the coming of the Messiah. So, for those who are blessed to be poor in spirit, in the humility of true repentance and faith, let us hear this morning of our new calling and identity and life in Christ.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” When He says “you,” it is true that He is speaking especially to those who are to become His apostles, His pastors, preachers, missionaries. So these words do have an important meaning for them and for pastors and preachers of every age. However, these words are also for every Christian in so far as clergy and laity are not two distinct and opposing groups but are together Jesus’ disciples in His mission each according to our own vocation or station in life.

So what does He mean that we are the salt of the earth? Well, you may have heard of someone called an “old salt,” meaning usually an “old sailor,” a lover of the sea and a teller of tales of the sea. We say someone is “salty” especially when they “tell things like they are,” or at least as they see them, with no spin, no cover up, just the raw truth with little regard for whether the hearers are offended or believe everything they say. Salt burns when you put it on a bloody wound. But it also purifies. Salt seasons and makes palatable what otherwise is bland and tasteless. When Jesus says you are the salt of the earth, He means that, without you and your confession of the truth, the Word, the Law and Gospel of God, the earth is bland and tasteless, worse, it is impure, decaying and dying. That, of course, is because of sin, ultimately. That’s the word of Law that stings. Ever since sin entered the world everything falls apart, grows sick, separates into enemy camps and dies. Even the very creation, St. Paul tells us, “was subjected to futility…in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20-21), I assume that means things like “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat” (Is. 11:6). But in the mercy of God He has sent His Son to fulfill the Law, to forgive and take away your sin and to restore eternal life. That’s the word of Gospel that soothes and saves.

This is also what it means to be called the light of the world. Darkness is the result of sin, death and the devil. The mercy of God has come into the world as the light of Christ. Jesus Christ is the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome. And so we carry that light in our confession of pure doctrine, the Word of God’s mercy, both Law and Gospel, giving light to all, as the psalm says, “in your light do we see light” (Ps. 36:9). You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. By your Christian confession you “tell things like they are” from God’s revealed point of view; you may (probably will) cause offense to unbelief; but you also purify by speaking and bringing the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins to others; and you make the life of faith in this world a pleasing, even joyful thing.

It is exciting to see these days a certain movement, if you will, to get back to the basics, to re-emphasize fundamental truths in a world where things have become so complex or so political as to lose the clarity of our identity. In the world and in our country specifically it is the so-called “Tea Party” movement, calling people back to the original intention and vision of the founders of the country and the Constitution of the United States as originally written. In a parallel sort of way is the confessional movement among the people of The Lutheran Church and the group called the Brothers of John the Steadfast. To be a “confessional Lutheran” is to be an informed Lutheran, one who sees the clear, Biblical and pure doctrine, especially as it is confessed in the Book of Concord of 1580, as of ultimate importance to the faith.

But now it is not only the clear proclamation, confession, preaching and teaching of the pure doctrine of Law and Gospel, but it is also our lives and works that make us salt and light. And this is an aspect that we Lutherans, with our firm stance against salvation or justification by works of the Law, maybe tend to be at least a little guilty of going too far the other way.

God gave to His people Israel His inspired Word in the Law and the Prophets, what we call the Old Testament scriptures, the only “Bible” God’s people had ever heard or read at that time. The powerful preaching of Jesus raises the question of how what He says relates to God’s Old Testament Word and will. The second half of today’s Gospel then answers that question and sets us up to rightly hear the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.

How are we Christians to view the Old Testament? Jesus answers, first, by saying He has not come to abolish or do away with the Law and the Prophets. Neither has He come only to repeat it or “fill out” the Law with more Law. No, he has come “to fulfill” the Old Testament scriptures. This takes some faithful understanding; and that is that the Law’s condemnation and judgment of sin has been satisfied for us by the blood of Christ crucified. But that does not negate the heart of God’s Word and will revealed in the Old Testament. In a sense that means that the Old Testament revealed will of God has been freed from its condemnation and judgment of those who have heard and believe in Jesus, freed now to make of us brand new people after the heart of God’s original intent.

St. Matthew is especially sensitive to this as he includes in the early chapters of his Gospel seven examples of how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. For instance, of Jesus’ conception and birth of a virgin he writes, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,’” Isaiah 7:14 (Mt. 1:22-23). Of the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt he writes, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son,’” Hosea 11:1 (Mt. 2:15). Herod’s murder of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem Matthew says happened to “fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah,” 31:15 (Mt. 2:17). Probably the hardest one was that, when Joseph took Mary and Jesus to live in Nazareth, Matthew says this happened to fulfill “what was spoken by the prophets” (plural!), “He shall be called a Nazarene,” a passage not to be found anywhere in the Old Testament, but only implied by a few passages, and here written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

So there are others. Think especially of the amazing words of Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 that we hear during Holy Week so clearly proclaiming our Lord’s innocent, bitter suffering, death and resurrection. And maybe it is especially now the fact of the resurrection that shows how fulfillment also brings a brand new situation into the world. Hence, for instance, Christians’ “Sabbath” or day of worship having moved from Saturday to Sunday proclaiming the fulfillment of the Old and unveiling of the new, eternal day on what has been transformed to be not only the first day of the week but now also the eighth day.

It is in this way that, until that Last Day for this heaven and earth, “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” The Old Testament and the Law remain important and relevant to Christians, but only as understood in its fulfillment in Jesus Christ who is the last and authoritative Word of God. So we are to continue to do and to teach the Ten Commandments. Moreover, when Jesus concludes by talking about “your righteousness” exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees, He’s talking about the good deeds of Christians that flow from their relationship with Christ. Never, we must clearly say, as in any way causing faith or salvation, but as the fruit, activity or evidence of faith. This is how even just the way or the manner in which we live life and interact with people acts as salt and light.

This is the New Righteousness in Christ—not “new” in the sense of in any way contradicting the old, but as fulfillment and completion of that which has so far only been partial. So we continue to look forward to the “complete completion” of the Last Day, the day of resurrection:

From death to life eternal,
From sin’s dominion free,
Our Christ has brought us over
With hymns of victory.

Let all the ransomed number
Fall down before the throne
And honor, pow’r, and glory
Ascribe to God alone! [LSB 478:1b, 4b]