Become Who You Are

Matthew 5:13-20

A friend of mine the other day was complaining that he was feeling more and more powerless every day. He had no sway with his wife. His daughter pretty much ignored anything he asked her to do. His job was not going all that well. And he was just feeling a little discouraged with life – powerless, if you will.

I don’t think he’s alone. I think a lot of people can feel a little powerless over their lives from time to time.

Politicians pick up on that. Look how often many of them run the theme: “Fighting for You.” The unstated message is that you can’t make it on your own. The powers-that-be are lined up against you. The system is rigged. But if you elect me, I will fight for you.

Now, we live in the richest country in the world. We live in the freest country in the world. And we live in a time of history where we enjoy the benefits of technology for health and quality of life.

If people living in this time and this society can feel powerless, imagine what a group of Jewish fishermen living under Roman rule in 1st century Palestine felt like when it came to having power over their own lives.

In this morning’s Gospel passage, Jesus takes his boys up on the side of a mountain. These are not remarkable guys – just a handful of fishermen. They’re living under Roman rule. They have no political connections, No connections to the religious hierarchy. They’re everyday people just trying to make a living.

You think these guys feel very powerful? Yet, Jesus looks at them and tells them: You are the light of the world.

That’s a remarkable statement for Jesus to make on two accounts. Jesus is saying: YOU GUYS – not Caesar in Rome, not Herod in Jerusalem, not anyone else, but YOU GUYS – are the light of the WHOLE world!

And second, Jesus is putting these guys on a level with God himself. Every good Jew knew the OT scriptures. In the OT, God alone is the one who is always associated with light. Psalms tells us that “the Lord is my light.” Serving God was described as “walking in HIS light.” Later on, Jesus would tell the Pharisees, “I am the Light of the World.” But here, Jesus tells his disciples, “YOU are the light of the world.”

Then Jesus goes on to tell them, You are the salt of the earth.

It’s a common idiom you hear today. We use it to refer to a thoroughly decent person. But that’s not how those disciples heard it. What the disciples heard was, You are of infinite value!

In Jesus day, salt was so valuable that it was sometimes used for money. The Roman soldiers were at times paid with it. Our word “salary” comes from the Latin word salarium which referred to those salt payments. We still use the phrase saying that someone either is, or is not, “worth their salt.”

When Jesus says, “you are the salt of the earth,” he tells his church that they are of infinite value to the world.

Let me ask you: Do you feel that you are infinitely valuable to the world this morning? Do you feel that you bring light to the whole world? My powerless friend didn’t think he brought any light to his own family. And he’s a church-going Christian!

I think a lot of us can sell ourselves short because we suffer from an identity problem. Let me illustrate.

Last year, the Kendrick brothers released their latest film called Overcomer. It’s a story about a small-town, high school basketball coach who’s got an up and coming team. They are all looking forward to winning next year’s championship. But then the town’s biggest employer relocates and takes with it pretty much all of Coach Harrison’s team.

He ends up coaching the school’s cross country team that has one member – an asthmatic girl being raised by her grandmother. He also gets a 10% pay cut. Coach Harrison is feeling pretty bummed out and powerless.

The coach joins his pastor to make some hospital visits. At the hospital, he happens to engage with a patient and shares his frustration with life. The patient is also a Christian and challenges the coach with this question: “Who are you?”

The coach replies, “I’m a basketball coach.” “But you’ve pretty much lost you team now,” says the patient. The coach answers, “Well, I’m a history teacher too.” “But you could lose your job, then who would you be?” “Well, I’m a husband and a father.” “Yes, but life is not always predictable and certain. And if it happened that you were to lose your wife and children, then what would you be?” The coach paused for a moment to consider his answer and then said, “Well, I’m a Christian.” The patient pointed out to him how far down the list he had placed his Christian identity.

It’s a great movie and you all should see it. But that little conversation was the memorable part for me. Because is caused me to ask myself, “Who am I? Where do I find my identity?” If we look to other people for our identity, say our family or our friends, then that will change as people come in and out of our lives, won’t it?
I remember a scene in Funny Girl where Barbra Streisand plays the role of Fanny Brice. Fanny is a gifted singer who struggles to break into Broadway. When she gets a part in the Ziegfeld Follies, she stands a little straighter and announces to the others trying out, “I’m a Ziegfeld Girl.”

Fanny Brice, the Ziegfield Girl, becomes the hit of Broadway. Later in the movie she marries a high stakes gambler named Nicky Arnstein. But then Nicky is arrested for criminal financial dealings.

Fanny leaves the theater to go and bail him out of jail. A gaggle of reporters catches her leaving when one of them shouts out, “Miss Brice, is your husband guilty?” She turns and, glaring back at the reporter, Fanny says, “It’s Mrs. Arnstein.”

You see, her identity has changed from “Fanny Brice Successful Show
Girl” to “Nicky Arnstein’s Wife.” She finds her identity no longer in her vocation, but in her husband. And that will change again when they divorce.

Who are you? Where do you find your identity? You can pin your identity on a person. And as that person changes the way he or she relates to you, your self-identity changes, doesn’t it?

If your identity is found in a vocation, you yield you life to circumstances. Because vocations change, don’t they?

John Hamer played Danny Thomas’ son, Rusty, on Make Room for Daddy. After the show ended, John was never able to transition into new roles in Hollywood. He identified as an actor. But because he could never find work as an actor, he remained bitter about that all his life. In 1990, he shot himself. When your identity is you vocation, and you lose your vocation, you’re nobody.

Who are you? Where do you find your identity?

When Jesus met with his disciples, he gave them their identity. He told them, You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth.

Their identity did not hinge on people who might come and go in their lives. Over the course of their lives, they would each make new friends. They would each lose close friends and family. But they would still be salt and light in the world.

Their identity did not hinge on their vocations, their occupation. Because they would be salt and light in whatever vocation they would pursue.

Their identities were God-given and God-ordained. And when your identity is rooted in Christ, no one can rob you of your power. Because you are empowered by God himself.

As apostle Paul said, “Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword. No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Now those disciples must have felt pretty pumped up. They must have felt pretty empowered. But that identity came with a charge.

We are to live into our God-given identities. You are light. And a light is meant to be seen.

The houses in ancient Palestine were dark with maybe just one little window. The lamp they used was like an oil-filled gravy boat with a wick floating on top of it. In the days before matches existed, it wasn’t easy to relight a lamp. So when the family left the house, they would store the burning lamp under an earthenware pot for safety.

But you wouldn’t think of keeping that lamp covered when you were in the house. Because the purpose of the lamp was to be seen.

Our faith is meant to be seen. There is no such thing as secret discipleship. There is no such thing as a Stealth Christian. I’m often struck by the question someone once posed: “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

Jesus also told them You are the salt of the earth. But if that salt that loses its saltiness is useless.

Now, technically speaking, sodium chloride is a stable compound. So salt cannot lose its saltiness. But where Jesus lived, salt was collected from deposits around the edge of the Dead Sea. These deposits also included impurities which looks a lot like salt. Since the actual salt was more soluble than the impurities, the rain could wash out the salt. What was left looked like salt, but without its saltiness

The essential difference in a Christian’s life can be leached out by the constant flow of the world’s values through our lives. When God’s church loses its saltiness and no longer blesses the world, then it will be trampled by the world.

Salt does not exist for itself. Salt’s main purpose is to penetrate food. Salt a half inch away from food is useless. Christians are meant to penetrate the world. And Christians who do not live and work for people outside themselves are useless.

The world tells us that we should strive to become all that we should be. Jesus has a different message for us. He doesn’t say you should be light to the world. He doesn’t command us to be the salt of the earth. Instead he says right now, today: You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. Now become what you already are.