Epiphany 5a

Preached: February 6, 2011

Why Am I a Christian?
Matthew 5:13-20

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The Word from God through which Jesus speaks to us is Matthew 5.

You're the ones who are the salt of the earth. If the salt becomes dull, how can it be made salty again? It's no longer good for anything except for being thrown out for people to trample on.

You're the ones who are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and places it under a bowl but on a lampstand. And it shines for all in the house. Let your light so shine before people that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

Don't think that I've come to do away with the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to do away with them but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter or mark will ever pass away from the Law until all has come about. So whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches people the same, he will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever does them and teaches them, he will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness overflows more than that of the law-experts and Pharisees, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:13-20)

This is the word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

Many people have heard of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. His vivid expressions engrave his words on our hearts and minds. He speaks of salt and light today. Later he speaks of birds and lilies, of a narrow gate, trees bearing fruit, wolves in sheep's clothing, a house built on a rock. No wonder people say good things about it.

But Jesus did not speak these words to people in general. In fact, the world loves to take words and expressions from Jesus' message here and use them for other purposes, often in ways that contradict Jesus. They spin his words to advance their own agendas, dressing up their schemes in pious, Christian-looking costumes.

For whom, then, did Jesus speak this sermon? The Bible clearly tells us. At the beginning of Matthew 5 as the Sermon on the Mount starts, Scripture says, “His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying ...” (Matthew 5:1, 2 NIV1984). He's speaking to his disciples, his followers who listen to his voice, learn from him, believe in him, imitate him. He's speaking to you and me, dear Christian.

So the Sermon on the Mount assumes the hearers already know God's plan of salvation and believe in Jesus as their Savior from sin and death. It does not describe God's saving plan or Jesus' mission in any detail, although it does allude to it as we'll see later today. If you want to know the details of that plan, look at Matthew 26-28 or John 19, 20 or Romans 1-5 or Isaiah 53 to list a few. But that's not the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount.

Then what is its purpose? Jesus speaks these words to his disciples in order to describe the life of a disciple, your life as a Christian, a follower of Jesus, an imitator of him, a little Christ, if you will. It answers questions like these: Now that Jesus has saved me from death, how am I to live? Now that he has freed me from slavery to sin, how do I serve him? Now that he has graciously given me God's forgiveness and eternal life, how can I thank him rightly? Answers to these and similar questions fill the Sermon on the Mount, much more than we can cover in a series of four sermons.

But today we want to start with a very basic question for each one of us to ask ourselves: Why am I a Christian? Yes, dear friends, why are you his disciples? Why are we to listen to his words and put them into practice just as his first disciples did? Why am I a Christian?

A. Because Christ fulfilled his mission

1. What's the wrong reason to think you're a Christian?

Now, some people have a hard time turning down a good deal. Buy one jar of jelly and get the second free. Hey, if I buy ten, I get ten free. If I buy twenty, I'll get twenty free. And soon a lifetime supply of jelly fills the pantry.

Some people think that's the reason to be a Christian. If I sin once, Jesus forgives me. If I sin ten times or twenty times, Jesus forgives me. So why not fill up the pantry of my life with sinning? Who cares if I do right or wrong? I'm forgiven.

Even though such a blatant rejection for God's law strikes us as wrong, how often aren't we tempted to neglect God's law, at least a part of it, especially if we convince ourselves it's a minor part, one of the least of the commandments? “Why keep struggling against this sin? Jesus will forgive me anyway. Why try to love my enemies or make sacrifices for others? Jesus forgives my failures. Why pursue growing in spiritual knowledge and fanning the flame of my faith with God's word and sacraments? That's hard work! There's so many other things in life that keep me busy or have fun with. Besides even the tiniest faith has forgiveness.” It's so tempting to use Jesus' forgiveness and that title of Christian as a license for spiritual laziness and indifference toward God's law.

I pray that is not why you are a Christian. If that kind of character controls your heart and mind, you are an enemy of Christ not a disciple. For Jesus upholds all of God's law -- yes, all of God's Word both the Law and the Prophets, God's recorded Scriptures. He did not come to do away with the law or push it aside so that we can do our own thing. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17 NIV1984), Jesus says.

Jesus does correct the false interpretations of God's law taught by many of the religious leaders of his time, but he wasn't at all abolishing the law. He isn't adding to it either. His mission was not to change old rules or make new ones.

2. What was Jesus' mission?

What, then dear friends, was Jesus' mission? He tells us, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17 NIV1984).

Yes! Jesus fulfilled the law. He kept every legal requirement that God's holy justice rightly demands from all people. He dotted every “i” and crossing every “t” of the law. And he fulfilled the prophets. Every prophecy concerning the Messiah and pictured in the Old Testament ceremonies finds fulfillment in Jesus, every “i” dotted, every “t” crossed. Every detail foretold about his first coming -- his birth, life, ministry, miracles, suffering, sacrifice, death, resurrection, ascension -- every detail was completed. And what's still to be fulfilled concerning his Second Coming and that Last Judgment, that to he will fully accomplish when the sky above and earth below pass away. “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18 NIV1984).

3. What kind of righteousness do we need to be a Christian?

That was his mission: to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. And that's why you, dear friend, are a Christian, because Jesus has fulfilled his mission. If Jesus had broken even one of the least of the commandments, you and I would be damned. For our righteousness cannot stand before the holy God. Jesus brings that home as he parades out the model citizens and religious leaders of his day and says, “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 NIV1984). And you know what the alternative is. Only if your better than the best, only if you have a spotless record before God who exposes the thoughts and attitudes of the heart, only if your righteousness is flawless as perfect and holy as God himself -- only then are you part of God's kingdom, only then are you a Christian.

We don't find that righteousness in ourselves, do we? We confess with Isaiah, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NIV1984). We cannot stand before the holy God. How we hunger and thirst for a righteousness that comes from outside of ourselves, which only God can give. How our soul pants for a perfect righteousness that stands before God's judgment seat and hears the verdict: “Not guilty!” How our hearts yearn for that righteousness, which all our labors, all our efforts, all the riches and advancements of the world cannot gain for us.

4. How does Jesus' mission make us righteous?

That's the righteousness that only Jesus has attained, for he alone has fulfilled the Law, dotting every “i” and crossing every “t.” Not the smallest letter not the least stroke of a pen, has been missed. His righteousness stands before God holy, spotless, blameless, perfect. His righteousness already has God's verdict of not guilty. For that is what his' resurrection from the dead declares. How precious is Christ's righteousness!

And he gives it to you. He doesn't sell it or lend it, he freely gives you his perfect, complete righteousness. That's his promises. Believe it, dear friend, believe it. Christ's righteousness is yours. The Scriptures declare it. Jesus' promised it to you in Baptism as he clothed you with his white gown. He promies it to you in the Lord's Supper. His righteousness is yours for you eat his body and drink his blood. Believe, dear friend, believe.

Christ's righteousness is yours. That's why you are a Christian. That's the only way anyone could ever truly be a Christian: only because Jesus has fulfilled his mission. He has kept the law for you. He alone covers you with his flawless righteousness, so that through faith in Jesus, and only through faith, you stand before God as holy and blameless as Christ. You stand as a little Christ.

B. In order to carry out my mission

1. How are we salt?

How that changes our purpose and mission here on this earth! Our purpose is not to live it up until we're laid down in the ground and slide into the afterlife. Our purpose is not to pile up points hoping God might let us into heaven. No, our purpose as Christians is to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. What a mission to carry out! That's why you're a Christian. That's your purpose.

“You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13, 14 NIV1984), Jesus say. Remember who Jesus is talking too -- not to people in general but to his disciples. You, as a Christian, are salt. You, as a Christian, are light. This is what you are, if you believe in Jesus and follow him. Notice he doesn't say, “You're suppose to be salt.” or “You should try hard to be light.” Rather, this is what you are. This is what faith in Jesus makes us. When faith burns in your heart, you are salt and you are light.

We live on a dead and decaying planet, that's corrupted by sin and foul with its stench. But you, dear Christian, are the salt of the earth. What a mission you have! Just as salt slows the decay of dead meat, so also as we speak and live our faith in Jesus, we slow the decay of the sin-dead society around us.

The world does not like your testimony, for salt has a bite. But we dare not blend in, compromising the testimony of Jesus. When salt blends in, it's no longer salty. Then what's it good for? It would have been better if we had never been a Christian. Last week we talked about the danger of fitting in with the world as it bows down to its idols. That's salt having lost its saltiness. “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men” (Matthew 5:13 NIV1984). If you are not salt, you are not a Christian. If you are a Christian, you are salt.

So remember who and what you are. You are salt. That's why you continue to live on this earth. That's your mission to carry out. That's why you're a Christian. And when you stumble and blending in seems the best course of action and don't feel like being salt anymore, remember who made you salt. Jesus, who is your righteousness, who rose from the dead, who has conquered sin and Satan, who has given you the victory. Jesus, who brings you his real body and blood in the Lord's Supper feeding your hungry faith, filling you with his righteousness. What strength you have in Jesus to carry out your mission as salt no matter what the opposition, and not only as salt but also as light!

2. How are we light?

“You are light of the world” (Matthew 5:14 NIV1984). Like everyone else we too once lived in darkness under the shadow of death, shrouded in deep darkness. But the one, genuine Light came into the world. He shown into our dark hearts, and through the water and word of baptism he ignited the lamp of your heart. Yes, water lit the light in you. What a miracle! Together with our fellow Christians in the Church we shine out into this dark world like a city on a hill, inviting in those who are still lost in the darkness of unbelief and spiritual ignorance. “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14 NIV1984), Jesus says.

Dear Christians, let your light shine. “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house” (Matthew 5:15 NIV1984). Yes, let your light shine. But understand what that means. This is not some sort of inborn or natural light that people imagine. So many think they let their light shine by spotlighting their talents, accomplishments, successes. Others put a humbler spin on it, thinking it simply means to do good whether you're thanked for it or not. None of this is listening to all that Jesus says here. They're still lost in the darkness.

Let your light shine. This is the light that Jesus lit in you through his Word and Sacraments. It's like the moon which has no light by of its own but reflects the one, true Light. It's the light that shines out by doing those good things that lead others to praise the Father who gave us his Son. Remember the whole passage, not just the opening words. “[L]et your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16 NIV1984). Don't forget those last words: “may . . . praise your Father in heaven.” That's the goal.

Love and kindness certainly is part of that light. But kind, loving actions by themselves don't lead others to praise the Father, do they? Many who follow false religions or even no religion at all display a natural love and kindness toward others, but that leads no one to the Father.

As you let your light shine, think especially of doing those things which will lead others to praise your Father in heaven who gave his Son as the Savior for the world. What kind of life shines like that? A life that trusts Jesus more than the promises of money, medicine, or technology. A life that loves God above our family, friends, and fun. A life that commits your cares and worries to him and that tell others of the great things he's done to save us. A life that places his word and worship at the top of our priorities so that others can see where our hope and strength comes from. And a life that supports the spreading of his word because Jesus is the only Savior for sinners. As you shine out with those kinds of good deeds, then others will realize that your acts of kindness and love are also reflecting the light of Jesus. And only his light shining through you can bring them to praise your Father in heaven. What a mission for you and me to carry out! What an answer to the question: Why am I a Christian!

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313