Form or Content

Matthew 7:13-23

How many of you like to bowl? This summer the boys enrolled in a program that allowed them to bowl two games a day for free. So when we were home, we would go and spend an hour at the bowling lane every day. Now I’m not a great bowler but I love bowling. And I look good doing it, too. I hold the ball correctly. I have a strong, confident backswing. I release it with perfect timing. And the best part, my right leg kicks way over behind my left one just like the pros. I look like I know exactly what I’m doing. My form is perfect. The problem is, the ball always goes straight. It doesn’t do that neat curve thing that’s required to consistently knock down all the pins. It just goes right where I throw it and knocks down six or seven at a time usually leaving me with a nasty split.

I’m the same way with golf. People tell me all the time what a pretty swing I have. Then after I hit the ball they tell me, “Go ahead and tee up another one. Maybe this one won’t hit a passing car.” Put a bat in my hands, same story. I look like Josh Hamilton, but I hit like any one of a hundred American League pitchers. When it comes to athletics, I’m all form and no content.

We start talking about that this morning because I believe that there is a chance that some of our spiritual lives look like my bowling or golf or baseball game. It’s all packaging. No substance. In other words, we have religion, but we don’t have a relationship. There’s a difference, you know. Religion is good form. It looks good on the surface, but has no, depth. A relationship on the other hand, means having good content.

It’s pretty difficult in our culture to focus on the interior rather than the exterior. I mean we spend a lot of money dressing up the outside trying to get people’s attention. There are days that Trista get’s tired of sandwiches and she will take a microwaveable dinner for lunch.  Do you know that when you buy one of those you're paying more for the packaging that you are for the food? Manufacturers know that if the package isn’t pretty, people won’t buy it.

Every year People magazine publishes an issue dedicated to the fifty most beautiful people in the world. I was number 51 back in 1998, but they didn’t put me in there. This is one of their most popular issues because the people really are beautiful people. But when look beyond the perfect teeth and hair and bodies and examine the content of these people’s lives, they aren’t near as beautiful. They are just as messed up as anyone, maybe more so.

Their lives are lived in rehab centers and lawyers offices and filled with conflict, deceit and anger. They may be the fifty most beautiful people, but they’re not the fifty most put together people or the fifty most emotionally balanced people or the fifty godliest people.

The fact is good form is easier to maintain than good content when it comes to living. It’s easier to project an image than develop a character, and that’s an important lesson for us. We are part of a religious heritage that says, “form matters. How you baptize, how you worship, when you have the Lord’s Supper, how you organize the local congregation -- all of that matters.”

And I believe that we are right. Form does matter. But the danger for us is that once we get the form right we are tempted to think we’re done. When you put all or most of your energy into developing a good package, eventually that package gets opened.

As we end our discussion on evangelism this morning I wanted to spend some time looking at the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:13-16. If we are going to be serious about sharing our faith we need to develop the interior as well as the exterior, so look with me at our text and let’s see what Jesus has to say about how to have content to go along with the form. (Read Text)

The Salt of the Earth

If you’ve spent more than 20 minutes in church you’ve probably heard that you are the salt of the earth. And most of what you’ve heard has just made you feel guilty about not doing more evangelism. This “salt” Scripture is so familiar, so much a part of our evangelical vernacular, that it’s lost much of its power.

I want you to notice the second part of this verse where Jesus talks about form or content. You see form is looking like salt, while content is being salty. The question that needs to be raised is how can we make an impact for God? How can we maintain our Christian witness in a world where there is so much temptation and peer pressure and persecution? How can we live for Christ in the world without becoming like the world?

The problem comes when we lose our saltiness. Matthew 5:13 says “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” I struggled with this question for a while. After all, how can salt lose its saltiness and still be called salt?

Chuck Swindoll makes a very good observation. He says that when salt gets covered with mud and dirt, it loses its bite. It loses its impact. Sometimes we get so mixed up with the dirt of this world that we lose our bite. We lose our impact. We compromise our credibility as servants of Christ. And then the world looks at us and says, “Yawn, yawn, yawn! There goes another Christian who doesn’t practice what he preaches! There goes another hypocrite!”

But if we live lives of mercy and purity and righteousness, the world sits up and takes notice. They’ll say “What is this? How come they live in the same place I live, but they are able to live a different kind of life? How is it that I can’t conquer this habit, but they have? What is it that makes them love like I can’t love? Why are they so forgiving and I carry a grudge? What do they have that I don’t have?” The way we live our lives against the grain is what makes the world take notice!

One other thing we need to say about salt is that it’s one of the most useful domestic items God ever made. We use it to make our food taste better. You can sprinkle it on popcorn and mashed potatoes. You can gargle with it the next time you lose your voice at a football game.

I was even reading on the internet that you can use salt to clean pots and pans and sinks and tubs and drains. We take it for granted. But salt is one of the most useful blessings we have.

So when Jesus turned to the disciples and said, "You are the salt of the earth," He was saying, “You are one of the most useful blessings I have! In the same way salt can do a lot of different things to bless people’s lives, you can do a lot of different things to bless people’s lives.”

I read this week a story about Dr. James Dobson that I bet you didn’t know. He was a school teacher from 1960-1963. In June of his final year, he had to say goodbye to 25 teary eyed kids. One of those kids called him up 12 years later. Dr. Dobson remembered her as an overweight seventh grade girl with a low self esteem. She only had one friend in the whole school. She and Dr. Dobson talked on the phone about the good ole days. Then she asked him, "Where do you go to church?" He told her, and she asked if she could visit. He told her she could, and the next week she came. In the coming months, she became a vibrant Christian.

A few months after her initial visit, Dobson asked her, "Julie, I want to ask you a question. Will you tell me why you went to so much trouble to obtain my unlisted number and call me last fall?"

And she said, "Because when I was a seventh-grade student in junior high school, you were the only person in my life who treated me with respect and believed in me, and I wanted to know your God." That is the result on focusing on content over form.

A Visible Influence

Salt is a hidden but powerful influence. Light on the other hand, is a visible and revealing influence. In our text Jesus mentions two sources of light. The first is a “city on a hill.” Those listening to Jesus that day would have immediately thought of cities that were built on mountains. These towns glistened in the sun and could not be easily hidden.

Jesus is saying that if your life has depth, if you work on your content then your life will be as beautiful and visible as a city on a hill. And that cannot help but show itself every day in every situation. For example, let’s say your friends at work don’t like the boss. They take turns criticizing her and attack her behind her back.

But when they ask you what you think of her, you can say, “I’ve been praying for her, because it’s not easy to have that job. It’s got to be tough. Can you imagine the pressure of trying to make sure everyone else has what they need to get their jobs done?”

With those few words, you’re already shining for Jesus like a city on a hill. First, you’re demonstrating that you can be trusted, that even when you have a chance to take a pot shot at someone behind their back, you won’t do it.

Secondly, you’re showing the world that you live by a different set of values. You’re letting people know in a non-judgmental way that you’re living your life for an audience of one. 1 Peter 2:12 says “Live such good lives among the pagans that though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.

The second type of light source is in verse 15. Homes back then generally had just one room which served as a combination living and dining area. To one side would be a large chest containing pots and baskets and bowls. As evening drew near and darkness fell, the chest would be placed in the center of the room for use as a table for supper. A candle or lamp would be carefully lit and placed on the top. It was the only light in the room. As the family gathered for supper, they turned their backs to the darkness and the light illuminated their faces.

Those listening knew the importance of the single source of light in the center of the room. And when Jesus mentioned the idea of someone taking a bowl and putting it over the light, I picture them laughing at the very foolishness of the thought. I mean it is kind of funny when you think about it. When was the last time you heard someone say, “I just got this beautiful new lamp! It would look really good if I put it under a bowl, or a basket, or a blanket.

Jesus implies that no one in their right mind does that! “Instead, they put the lamp on a stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” In other words, “In the same way a lamp is meant to shine its light for all to see; you are meant to shine the light of God’s love for all to see. You are a lamp of God in a dark world that desperately needs the Savior!

In verse 16 we see why it is so important that we let our lights shine. Jesus says “Let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Did you see it?

I wonder if we got this figured out as much as we think we do. Why do you do good deeds? Well we have a laundry list of reasons. It makes us feel good, we like to be helpful, we want folks to do nice things for us, we want to be appreciated, and we want folks to say nice things about us. And while I believe that all of those are good reasons, if that is really why we do good deeds then at best we are merely working on the outside form.

Look again at what Jesus says in verse 16, “Let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” The reason that we do good deeds are so that God can receive praise. If that is our focus then it will be much easier to let our lights shine, because we will only be concerned with making sure God is glorified. If we are not appreciated, that’s OK because that was not the idea in the first place.

Jesus teaches that a person’s faith is to be openly shared and lived before the watching world. It is to shine forth for everyone to see, not so we can proclaim how good a person we are, but so that others can know there is a God who loves them and will act on their behalf. We are to influence others for God.

Proverbs 13:9 says that “the light of the righteous shines brightly, but the lamp of the wicked is snuffed out.” In other words “you don’t have to go out of your way to draw attention to yourself. You don’t have to go to your friend’s house and shout “Hey, look at how happy I am! I’m a Christian!” If you’re living the way Jesus wants you to live, everyone will be able to see the light.

Our lives should be lives that reflect something more than the world has, because we have more than they have, we have Jesus. He has saved us, forgiven us, changed our hearts, given us hope, put His love in us, given us joy, set our feet on the rock which cannot be shaken. Because of His involvement in our lives we just can’t live shallow lives.

If He does not make a difference in your life, then you either need to be born again or you need to repent of sin and allow Him to rekindle the fire of your first love.


Questions for You to Consider

What are some areas that we seem to prefer the packaging over the product?

How can merely focusing on the outside lead us into trouble?

What do you think Jesus meant about salt losing its flavor? How is it possible to become ‘unsalty’?

According to Romans 2:21-24, what does hypocrisy in the church cause unbelievers to do? Is this significant?

If we are living as ‘salt and light’, what impact should we be having in our community and church?

What is the result of people seeing our good deeds?

Is there a potential pitfall to avoid in boasting about good deeds and how can we address this? Look at Jeremiah 9: 23-24

What one thing in your life most undermines your ability to salt and light in the world? 

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