I Literally Can't Even
In case you missed it, here is the first sermon in our new series "I literally can't even." In the weeks to come we will be looking at the impossible things Jesus tells us to do and relying on Jesus to help us do impossible things.
Happy Easter everyone! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! No, I’m not a week late on that. Easter was last Sunday. And Easter is this Sunday. Because, and you could have never guessed I was going to do this, Easter is a season in the church. Easter isn’t just one day, but it’s a fifty day season.
I say that to you this morning, and every year, not just to be annoying. We need Easter to be more than one day. We need Easter to be a season. We need Easter to be a season because the Easter message, the Easter story, the Easter gospel is something we need time with. Something we need to think on and meditate and ponder. Something we need to marinate in so it can become part of the fabric of our lives and the fabric of our souls.
You see, the Easter gospel, the Easter message, the Easter story is not something we hear once and then go on with our lives. This story is earth shattering and world changing. This story calls us to base our lives on something completely different. This story reframes everything we know about ourselves and our world. This story is a game changer.
The Easter gospel, the Easter message, the Easter story calls us to become Easter people. And in order to become Easter people, we need Easter to be not just one day but a whole season in which we contemplate, think about, and are reminded to be people who live in light of the resurrection of Jesus. Because Easter people live a different life, Easter people live an Easter life. Easter people live according to Easter logic. We live according to the logic that says God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, God intends to do the same with all of us, and we can live fully committed and faithful lives before God because God is on the side of the righteous. We live according to the logic that says God is not our enemy but is with us and for us. We live according to the logic that says we don’t need to fear God, but we can love and serve God. We live according to the logic that we can and ought to and are called to follow the words and teachings of Jesus Christ.
But this doesn’t happen overnight. This doesn’t happen in one worship service. This happens daily as we live in the light of the resurrection. So every year we take fifty days, not one but fifty, to tell the Easter stories again and again in order to be transformed by them to become Easter people. To become people who follow the words and teachings of Jesus.
That said, if you read some of the teachings of Jesus, if you read the gospels, you might quickly wonder how it is that we actually follow some of these words. Jesus calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Jesus calls us to sell all we have and give our money to the poor. Jesus tells parables about leaving behind family and career and possessions in order to find the Kingdom of God. Jesus tells us not to worry about what we are going to wear or what we are going to eat. Jesus tells us to be perfect as God is perfect. Jesus tells us to do all that and then Jesus tells a parable about workers who worked all day and workers who worked an hour getting paid the same amount and says that’s what the Kingdom of God is like. How are we to do all this?
Danish theologian Soren Kirekegaard wrote about this problem. He said: “The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?…Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”
We are called to be Easter people. We are called to live our lives anew in light of the Easter gospel, the Easter story, the Easter message. We are called to follow the words and teachings of Jesus in our lives in this world. And yet, we might read those teachings, read those words and think I literally can’t even.
The young people these days, when they face something that they know they have to do but just don’t want to do will say I literally can’t even right now. When we have to prepare our taxes, I literally can’t even right now. When we have a flat tire, I literally can’t even right now. When we have to do anything requiring mental energy before we have our coffee, I literally can’t even right now. When Pastor is doubling and tripling down on a joke that’s not funny, I literally can’t even right now. Can I get a witness from the people?
We read the teachings of Jesus and we might rightly say I literally can’t even. Jesus is asking us to do impossible things. Jesus is asking more of us than we can realistically accomplish. And yet, because of Easter, Jesus has made the impossible possible. So in light of the Easter gospel, for the next few weeks we are going to look at some impossible things Jesus told us to do. And we are going to talk about how we can make those impossible things possible. We’re going to look at passages that would make us say I literally can’t even and were going to literally can even. And these passages are going to come from the Sermon on the Mount because that is where we find some of Jesus’ most difficult teachings. The first piece of Scripture we’re going to look at comes from early in the sermon.
Matthew 5:13-20 “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 underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 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. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. “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. For truly I tell you, 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. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For 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.
This passage can be pretty straightforwardly divided up into smaller sections. There’s the two metaphors section and the section that introduces Jesus’ teachings on the Torah. Within the first section there are the two metaphors themselves and within the second longer section there’s an endorsement of the law and then an acknowledgement that Jesus’ interpretation of the law will represent a new teaching. Let’s go section by section.
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 underfoot.
Who here has ever had bad French fries? Now there are a lot of things that go into making a really good French fry. It’s gotta be crisp, its gotta be hot, its gotta be a perfect golden yellow, and it has to be, I mean it has to be the right amount of salty. Now that I’ve got you all hungry…but I think the main part in a good French fry is the saltiness. I have had some fries that looked perfect and then you took one bite and there was no salt. And here’s what I learned a few years ago, you can’t just sprinkle the salt on unsalty fries after they've been done cooking for a few minutes. Because the salt won’t melt in or do whatever salt is supposed to do to make fries delicious. If they’re cooked and they come out to you and there isn’t salt on them, there’s nothing you can do!
We all know that salt is meant to be a flavoring agent. It’s meant to add taste, it’s meant to add that final missing element to our food. And so its easy for us to say that the church, Christians, followers of Jesus are meant to add that something extra to the world. We’re meant to add a little goodness, add a little love, to the world to make it just a bit better. And that’s a fine metaphor. But its not the whole story.
You see, we use salt today primarily as a flavoring agent. But that wasn’t its primary purpose in Jesus’ day. Salt in ancient times was primarily a preservative. You salt meat to keep it from going bad. And that was incredibly necessary because no one had invented a refrigerator. So when Jesus tells ancient listeners you are the salt of the earth he is telling his followers, he is telling his disciples, he is telling us the church that we are the preservative that guards the earth from decay.
We aren’t the salt of the earth to add just a pinch of goodness into the mix. We are the salt of the earth because there is something that is going to cause the earth to spoil and we are the ones that keep that from happening. Doesn’t that sound impossible.
So how do we do this? How do we preserve the earth from decay? By proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus. By living the resurrection of Jesus. By being people who live according to a different logic, not a death logic, not a foundation that says everything will one day pass away so we should get ours and do whatever we can to keep death from touching us, but instead an Easter logic. One that says our eternal God will keep us eternally in his love and grace and life. One that says God raised Jesus from the dead defeating sin and defeating death and we can live fully in the hope that Jesus’ victory is our victory. We can do the impossible because the Easter gospel makes the impossible possible.
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 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. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
The next image Jesus uses for the church and for his followers is that we are the light of the world. And Jesus uses two different images for what it means for the church to be the light of the world. We first are compared to a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. Because if you are traveling at night, in the dark, before streetlights and light pollution ruined the beauty of night, if you are in near total darkness, any small speck of light, like a city set up on a hill, could not be hidden. Even the smallest amount of light shines bright in the darkness. And what that means is that even if there is only one follower of Jesus in a world full of darkness, even if there is just one, the light will still shine. The light cannot be hidden. The light cannot be snuffed out.
But then Jesus says we are like a lamp that is put on a stand. In this case we aren’t talking about a little bit of light standing defiantly against the overall darkness, but we are talking about a massive amount of light overwhelming the darkness. Because one overhead lamp is enough to light an entire room. One lamp is enough to drive out the darkness from an entire room. So too is the church called to drive out the darkness from our world.
It's not enough to be salt and preserve the earth from decay. Preservation is a passive activity. We are to be light, we are to be a lamp, and actively drive out the darkness. And we do this by boldly declaring to the world the Easter Gospel, the Easter story, the Easter message. We do this by telling the story, the news of Jesus Christ who was crucified and is now raised from the dead. We do this by driving out hate through love. We do this by driving out despair through joy. We do this by driving out grief with hope. We do this by driving out despair through happiness.
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. For truly I tell you, 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.
Now what we have to know about this section of the sermon is that Jesus is speaking to Israelites, Jews who already thought they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Israel already thought they were God’s hope for the world and the world’s hope for God. They were God’s chosen, they were God’s own special people. And the sign of that was the covenant, the sign of that was the law, the sign of that was Torah. Israel being the salt of the earth, the light of the world…not earth shattering to Jesus’ hearers. This being accomplished through fulfilling Torah…not earth shattering to Jesus’ hearers. They’d have said, yep we knew that. But the problem was that no one could fulfill Torah. They literally couldn’t even. Yeah, I did that. But here Jesus is saying that he will fulfill Torah. Which is a bold claim. An impossible claim. Potentially even a blasphemous claim.
Jesus is claiming to do something impossible.
When we might balk at the impossible things Jesus tells us to do. When we might balk at being the salt of the earth and the light of the world we need to remember that Jesus claimed he would do something impossible. And then Jesus did it. He called his shot and he knocked it out of the park. Jesus claims he will fulfill Torah, something we believe to be impossible, and then he does it. And because Jesus fulfilled Torah, we can do the impossible things Jesus asks us to do.
Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For 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.
We conclude with a bit about the righteousness of the Pharisees. It comes right after Jesus says he wasn’t going to abolish Torah but was going to fulfill Torah. And here’s the thing. Jesus wasn’t the only person bent on fulfilling Torah. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were committed to fulfilling Torah. The Pharisees get a bad rap in modern sermons but they were a group of highly respected devotees to fulfilling the Law. Jesus says that his followers righteousness must surpass even the Pharisees if they are going to be a part of the kingdom of heaven. And to his followers that would have sounded impossible.
Because the Pharisees weren’t necessarily hated. Or derided. Or terrible. They were people who were earnestly trying to fulfill Torah. And failing miserably.
I can’t claim to know exactly why they failed. Mainly because I’m a church person. And chances are apart from Jesus, I might have wound up a Pharisee too. But what I can say is they were a group of people trying to do something impossible apart from Jesus. And as people who are called to do impossible things, the only way I know how to succeed is to do them with Jesus.
Which brings me ultimately to how we live this out. How we live as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And wouldn’t you know, its right where we started: by following Jesus. By doing the things he’s told us to do. They might sound impossible. They might seem impossible. They might make us think I literally can’t even. But we can. We can do them. Because Jesus has made a way. The same Jesus who fulfilled Torah, the same Jesus who overcame the grave has made a way for us to be the salt of the earth and to be the light of the world.
This week I want you to be the salt of the earth. This week I want you to be the light of the world. This week I want you to tell someone the Easter gospel. I want you to tell someone the Easter message. This week I want you to tell someone that Jesus rose from the grave and because of that we can have hope, we can have faith, we can have joy, and we can have salvation. And if we all tell one person that message, that story, that news we will have driven out more darkness from our world and we will have preserved more of our world from decay. Let us pray.