In order to fulfill his own personal ambitions for power and glory, Julius Caesar led the Roman legions into Gaul and conquered it. After the Roman civil wars that followed Caesar’s assassination, Augustus began the process that would turn Gaul into three different provinces of the Roman empire. He sent his trusted friend Agrippa to set things in order.
Agrippa turned his attention to developing a road network in Gaul. Now there were already paths that people used to travel, but they were not anything like what we would call roads. Agrippa planned and organized the construction of a road system. The primary purpose of these roads was to enable the easy movement of troops and supplies as Rome looked toward future military operations on the east side of the Rhine river and in Britain.
Of course these roads also helped trade to develop and fostered the establishment of towns and cities at key junctions, river crossings and other sites. Where before there had been nothing, the arrival of roads spurred on the development of civilization.
Roads have always done this. For many of us, it’s hard to believe that there was a time when the interstate highway system didn’t exist. In many areas it has been in place for fifty or sixty years now. During that time, development has occurred along these highways at the exits. As you drive along at night, the trip is punctuated by the lights of towns, gas stations and fast food places.
However, those things weren’t always there. They had to develop over time. I was reminded about this fact on recent trips to visit my parents in Bloomington, IN. A new stretch of highway was recently built from Evansville, IN to just about twenty miles south of Bloomington. This new section of road has allowed us to take I-64 and has cut off almost forty-five minutes off from the trip.
While I appreciate this fact, I must say that driving this stretch of road at night is an eerie experience. Unlike established highways, there are not yet any businesses at the exits. The highway cuts through the country side and you are surrounded by pitch black. You don’t see the customary lights of towns, or even a gas station or a McDonalds.
In our text for tonight, Jesus talks about the light given off by a city. He says that the light of a city on a hill cannot be hidden. Instead it is seen by everyone. As we listen to our Lord tonight in our Lenten meditation, we find that he uses the metaphors of salt and light in order to describe the lives of Christians.
Our text tonight is found in the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew chapter 5. The sermon begins with the Beatitudes as Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Likewise, Jesus concludes the Beatitudes by saying, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus begins by declaring the blessing that is yours because of the reign of God that is present in him. The Son of God entered into the world in the incarnation in order to bring God’s reign to a world held captive by Satan and sin. Jesus says you are blessed – which in biblical language is the same thing as saying you are saved.
He describes you as the poor in spirit – the spiritually poor. And you know that is exactly what you are. You know that you have no spiritual resources of your own. Your natural tendency is not to think about God and instead to think about yourself and your desires. Your natural inclination is not to think about the welfare of others and instead to think about yourself and your wants. This is what comes naturally. You don’t have to work at it.
Because this is what sin had done to us, Jesus Christ came into the world. He came to bring God’s reign – to free us from the slavery of Satan and sin. During Lent we are following our Lord as he makes his way to Good Friday. There he will die on the cross. Normally, the death of a leader means defeat. But in this case, death was the means of victory as Jesus carried out the Father’s saving will to give us forgiveness. And then on Easter we will celebrate his resurrection from the dead by which he defeated death itself.
The celebration of our Lord’s resurrection will begin on Saturday night at the Vigil of Easter. Saturday is the day that Jesus was buried in the tomb. But in the Jewish reckoning of time used by the liturgy, sundown on Saturday is also the beginning of Sunday, and so it is the beginning of Easter.
This service that has one foot in Jesus’ burial and the other foot in Jesus’ resurrection has, from the early years of the Church, been focused upon Holy Baptism. For in baptism you have died and been buried with Jesus, and you also have the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit at work in you. Paul told the Romans: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
This is how you have received the reign of God. Through baptism you have received forgiveness and have been born again through the work of the Spirit. By this action, Jesus Christ has changed you. Forgiven and reborn, you are now salt and light in this world. Salt was associated with a whole range of important outcomes in the ancient world such as ritual purity, adding taste to food, and serving as a preservative. Yet note the question Jesus asks in our text: “You are the salt of the earth. But if that salt has become tasteless, by what means will the earth be salted? It is still good for nothing except, after it has been thrown out, to be trampled underfoot.” You are salt, but if you cease to act like salt in the world what use are you? You are not being what God has made you to be.
In a similar manner, Jesus goes on to say, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, 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 who is in heaven.”
Jesus says that you are the light of the world – the light that gives light to a world darkened by Satan and sin. Now remember, this is not something you are on your own. Of yourself you are poor in spirit – spiritually poor. But because of the reign of God that you have received in baptism you are now a light in the world. You are a light sharing what Jesus has done – what his salvation means for us in what we say and do.
And this Christian life that flows from baptism has a purpose. Jesus says, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” As those who live in Christ through baptism, the things you do aren’t about you. Instead they bear witness to what God is doing in and through you. And so they bring glory to God as they bear witness to the reign of God that has entered into the world in the person of Jesus Christ.
Now let’s be clear. If there weren’t forces opposed to this light shining in the darkness, we wouldn’t have to be here tonight talking about it. The sad truth is that the devil, the world and our own sinful nature seek to prevent us from being salt and light. And they do succeed.
Because this is the case, our Lord’s words call us back to the source of our new life. They call us back to the reign of God that we have received in Christ through Holy Baptism. They call us to forgiveness of sins that is ours and to the Spirit who is now at work in us, joining us to Christ’s death and resurrection. This alone is what makes it possible to let our light shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven.