The Third Sunday before Lent
Readings: Isaiah 58. 1-9a; Psalm 112.1-9; 1 Corinthians 2.1-12; Matthew 5.13-20 (view all)
When I first looked at today’s readings, I was reminded of much of my upbringing in the Church, of vicars and youth workers passionately encouraging myself and my peers in our church youth group to live courageously as salt and light in the world. And extolling us not to, under any circumstances, be ashamed of our faith.
But what about when we simply can’t face another awkward conversation with a friend or acquaintance? What if we don’t feel any good at talking about our faith, or struggle finding the words to say to others?
How can God use us as salt and light, especially in a modern world, where any conversation about faith with others often feels strained and difficult?
Salt and light.
Salt, which was used in the ancient world to preserve meats and other foods, and is still used today as a flavouring in almost every meal. For my church youth group, this meant being distinctive, living a different way to the world around us, acting as the preservative in a society which was in the process of ‘going bad’ or ‘going off’.
And light — being a ‘light for Jesus’, not hidden under a bucket, but a shining city on a hill. A bold champion of the faith who will inspire others to come and see for themselves.
As a teenager this message was exciting and inspiring, but there was always a nagging doubt in my mind that this was something I would just never be able to actually live up to. On top of that, as I grew in my understanding of the world, I came to realise that many people would find this, at times, triumphalist approach to faith worrying, even disturbing.
So you can imagine that as I was contemplating my sermon for today, this reading posed a problem. Should I repeat the same message from my youth, even though it now feels distinctly foreign to today’s world?
Is it that the Church isn’t a strong, shining beam of light in our world today simply because we just aren’t trying hard enough? Is God really like a school teacher or coach scolding us that we should just apply ourselves more to the task at hand, in order to achieve our full potential?
And then I read the courageously honest words of Paul in today’s epistle. Words which reveal something of the true nature of the gospel we see revealed in Jesus Christ. Words which open up a new way of seeing how we might be God’s people in our world today.
Paul describes to the members of the Corinthian church, who were first introduced to the faith by him, exactly the approach he took to evangelising them. And his words are not at all what you’d expect.
He tells them, ‘When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom…’ Instead, he tells them, ‘I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.’
The secret to Paul’s way of being salt and light to the Corinthians was not strength, or inspiration, or intellectual arguments — but weakness, fear and trembling!
You see the beauty of the gospel of Christ, and the wonder of our God, is that God comes to us, not in our strength but in our weakness. And God uses us, not through infectious personality and God-like wisdom, but through our vulnerability and our humanity.
And this is not a strategic approach, it is God’s very character. The God revealed in Jesus Christ, is the God who makes himself weak, who allows his own body to be broken. The God who seems to always choose to arrive in weakness and vulnerability and darkness, in order to bring healing and wholeness and light. The God who brings in the dawn, echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah, at the darkness point in the night.
So when Jesus tells us to be salt and light, we must understand his instruction in light of the very character of the one doing the instructing. This isn’t the triumphalist command of a crusading knight, it is the invitation of the one who makes himself weak for our sake.
Bringing the first part of Jesus’ words together with the second part of Paul’s, you could put it like this:
‘Let your light shine before others…’
‘…in weakness and in fear and in much trembling… that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.’
I wonder, what this might look like in practice in our lives today?
It looks like choosing to be open with others in sharing our brokenness and our vulnerability, even our questions and our doubts. Not being strong and stoic in the face of difficult times, but sharing our pain with others, in order that they too might seek God’s intervention with us.
It looks like being open to the suffering of others, not trying to fix things for them with easy advice or avoid them because they make us uneasy. But instead choosing to sit with them, inviting God to be present in us and through us, even in our wordlessness and our weakness.
I wonder, might we truly become salt and light in a world which so often doesn’t feel the need for God, by allowing God to use not in our strength, but in our weakness? And in our fear and trembling, to minister to others through us?
There is a wonderful Japanese art form called ‘Kintsugi’ — I wonder if you’ve ever heard of it?
It is the art of taking broken pottery, and binding together the broken pieces using a lacquer sprinkled with gold powder. So that, rather than hiding or covering up a piece’s history, instead the lines of breakage literally shine out as beautiful golden scars.
The result is often more beautiful, and more meaningful than perhaps the piece ever looked, even before it became broken. These wounds, these marks of brokenness become the very thing which shine out the brightest.
So may we, as Christ’s followers, be salt and light in our world today, showing our faith not by our strength, but in our weakness and brokenness, in order that God’s light might shine through our wounds even more beautifully. Amen.