I have a little oil lamp I bought when I was in Israel. It is supposed to be a replica of a Herodian oil lamp found on an archeological dig. The lamp is clay and looks like a small shoe. On the back end is a handle where you can hold it with your finger, in the center is a reservoir you can fill with oil, and then at the front is a little hole where you can place a wick. When you light the lamp, it hardly puts off any light, just a small little flame. Portable but not very practical.
I thought of that lamp when I read the words of Jesus in this section from His sermon on the mount. “You are the light of the world,” He says. Later, He pictures a person lighting an oil lamp and setting it on a lampstand in the house. The contrast between the oil lamp which gives light and the world which needs light is startling to me.
When I think of the light of the world, I think of something huge, like the sun. According to a NASA astrophysicist, the sun’s nuclear fusion produces enough energy that if there were a bridge of ice which went from the earth to the sun and that bridge of ice was two miles wide and one mile thick, the sun could melt the bridge in one second. That is what I think of when I consider the light of the world: A massive amount of energy putting off a massive amount of light to illumine a very dark world.
But Jesus takes something much smaller. He takes a little, oil lamp and promises this is enough to illumine the world.
He did the same thing earlier with salt. Salt is something we learn to use in small quantities. It functions to enhance flavor. But salt is also a preservative. You can use a thin layer of salt to preserve a large quantity of meat. Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.” Something small, like salt, is again used to preserve something large, like the earth.
Jesus shocks us into attention with His contrasts. Your little light can illumine the world. Your little bit of salt can preserve the earth.
Your little light can illumine the world. Your little bit of salt can preserve the earth.
At the heart of these images is something wonderful: God’s grace. God has the power to take that which is small, that which is overlooked, that which is despised, and use it to create something wonderful.
As the apostle Paul says, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Jesus Christ humbled Himself under His Father’s judgment, took upon Himself the wrath of God, was despised by the world and abandoned by His Father, so He might reveal the mystery of salvation, the powerful grace of God. Because of His death, all sin has been brought to an end in Him. Because of His resurrection, all life now begins in Him.
No one is ever too small for Jesus’ saving. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, “For consider your calling, brothers: Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:26-28).
In the Kingdom of God, even the smallest action is filled with His powerful grace. Just as a tiny seed produces a tree overflowing with fruit, just as a small river carves out the Grand Canyon, so too, a word, a glance, a touch can be used by God to change the world.
I think of Naaman, a powerful military commander in Syria. He found himself fighting against leprosy, a disease no military power could cure. But then he overhears from his wife that she overheard from her servant girl there is a God in Israel who does wonders through his prophet and could bring about healing. Like a little oil lamp, this little word from a little girl living as a captive in a strange land lights up the world and brings to a military commander in Syria the wonderful work of God’s healing (2 Kings 5).
It is so easy for us as Christians to wonder about the value of our lives in the world. To live as a Christian is becoming more and more difficult. We find our conversations about God stifled at work and frowned on by friends. Our understanding of marriage, of sexuality, of honesty, of self-sacrifice, of community, all seems so foreign to the world around us. We feel like we are on the edge of society, on the margins of what is really happening. Yet, like the small portion of salt that covers the meat, our lives are preserving the world. Like the little oil lamp lit in the darkness, our lives are the light God uses to illumine His world.
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Matthew 5:13-20.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 5:13-20.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 5:13-20.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. David Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 5:13-20.