Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Salt and Light

Roland Clarke 

Intro: Here we are one year after the pandemic began: the global economy is struggling to recover from recession, having been shaken from the very foundations. The lockdown continues to cast dark shadows causing uncertainty and anxiety in our day to day routines. It is so easy to fall in line with the prevailing mindset, allowing ourselves to become insecure, afraid and timid. But God plainly says, “He has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity but of power, love, and self-discipline. So never be ashamed to tell others about our Lord.” (2 Timothy 1:7-8, NLT)

This bold declaration reminds me of the story of Gideon who faced widespread devastation caused by hordes of invading enemies. In Judges chapter 6 tells we read that these invaders

stayed until the land was stripped bare. So Israel was reduced to starvation by the Midianites. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help.

When they cried out to the Lord because of Midian, the Lord sent a prophet to the Israelites. He said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of slavery in Egypt. I rescued you from the Egyptians and from all who oppressed you. I drove out your enemies and gave you their land. I told you, ‘I am the Lord your God. You must not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you now live.’ But you have not listened to me.”

Then the angel of the Lord came and sat beneath the great tree at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash of the clan of Abiezer. Gideon son of Joash was threshing wheat at the bottom of a winepress to hide the grain from the Midianites. The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, “Mighty hero, the Lord is with you!”

“Sir,” Gideon replied, “if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? And where are all the miracles our ancestors told us about? Didn’t they say, ‘The Lord brought us up out of Egypt’? But now the Lord has abandoned us and handed us over to the Midianites.”

Then the Lord turned to him and said, “Go with the strength you have, and rescue Israel from the Midianites. I am sending you!”

“But Lord,” Gideon replied, “how can I rescue Israel? My clan is the weakest in the whole tribe of Manasseh, and I am the least in my entire family!”

The Lord said to him, “I will be with you. And you will destroy the Midianites as if you were fighting against one man.” (Judges 6:5-16, NLT)

Of course, God kept his promise, standing with Gideon, empowering and emboldening him to face an intimidating situation. Just as God commissioned Gideon, he also SENDS us out of our comfort zone into an intimidating world. Like Gideon we may respond by raising objections. Notice how God reacted to Gideon's excuses. He simply commanded him to go and rescue the Israelites. Interestingly, Gideon wasn't finished making excuses. He raised one last objection, “But Lord, I'm so weak and inadequate.”

Does this story sound familiar? Gideon finally did obey the Lord and vanquished the Midianites with a tiny army of 300. So what can we learn from this story? It's so easy to make excuses like Gideon did and underestimate what God can do in and through us if only we will take him at his word.

Can you think of one Christian who can honestly testify that its easy to share his faith whether it is with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues or strangers? Even the great missionary and apostle Paul admitted he was afraid,

I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Corinthians 2:3-5)

Another famous person in the Bible who felt daunted by the call to go and proclaim God's message was Jonah. In fact, he blatantly disobeyed the Lord. I think most believers want to witness. That's why we're here taking this workshop. The truth is, we're often tempted to feel timid or discouraged by responses we've received. Some people are polite but not really interested or they be negative. What holds you back or makes it difficult for you to witness?Do you struggle, not knowing how or where to start? Perhaps you feel daunted because you're afraid someone might ask a question that you can't answer.

The bottom line is: these inhibitions and barriers don't absolve us from our calling to be fishers of men. Jesus instructed all his followers – each and every one of us – to share the gospel with unbelievers. Jesus plainly commanded us in Acts 1:8 to be his witnesses.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8, NIV)

Along with the command comes an amazing promise. Just like the Lord said to Gideon. “I will be with you.” Jesus has given each one of us his powerful Spirit who empowers us to be his witnesses. Besides having the Holy Spirit can you suggest some ways that we can prepare ourselves to be better equipped to witness? Prayer, fasting, obedience, Bible reading, study, memorization are good ways to prepare us to share our faith. We can also read books explaining how to answer common questions unbelievers ask.

I had an interesting encounter with a stranger this week which illustrates how we can be light and salt. While waiting to pay for groceries, I noticed a lady standing next in line holding precariously balanced items in her hands. Suddenly one item fell so I quickly reached down and picked it up. I didn't hesitate because of Covid protocols, and of course, she was very thankful. I thought to myself, “She probably won't object if I give her something interesting to read.” So I plucked up courage and pulled an article out of my pocket, titled, Following the star. I offered it to her, saying, “Here's something interesting. I think you'll enjoy reading it.” She accepted it without hesitation.

By now the cashier was ringing up my groceries so I paid for them. Then another thought crossed my mind, “Perhaps I can tell her the back-story to this article.” I hesitated since she was busy putting her groceries on the conveyor belt. However, there was a pause after she made her payment, so I said to her, “There's an interesting back-story to this article which I wrote almost three years ago. A week after I finished writing it, a movie was released, titled, The star.

She replied, “I'll definitely read it.”

Here's a question to prayerfully think about: “Doesn't Jesus want us to be alert to such opportunities?” (Colossians 4:2-6) Here was a clear example of letting my light shine by doing something good. Most days as I leave home, I put one or two pamphlets in my pocket like the one mentioned above portraying Jesus as the Bright Morning Star. Notice: sharing the good news, regardless how small a seed it may be, is another aspect of shining the light. I ask God for opportunities to share the light. However, sometimes I've disappointed the Lord, for example, I remember times when I picked up a fallen grocery item for someone without giving a thought to how I might point a person to glorify my heavenly Father.

Recently I've been thinking a lot about Jesus words in Matthew 5:16 and a similar verse in Daniel 12; “You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. ... let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.” “Those who are wise will shine as bright as the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness will shine like the stars forever.” (NLT)

During Christmas season we often see lovely star decorations reminiscent of the Bethlehem star that guided the Magi to Jesus! The emblem of the star can afford us an opportunity to point people to Jesus, the Bright Morning Star. Check out the article, Following the star, online. 

It is important to prepared and prayerful, but of course, perfection is not a requirement for witness. This is vividly illustrated in the familiar story of Jonah. Have you had opportunities to share your faith, maybe even, opportunities you didn't realize until later or didn't act on?

Some local examples: One woman in our city saw an opportunity in June right in the middle of lockdown. The Holy Spirit ignited in Janice the idea of how to bring kindness and friendship to some of the 20,000 international students who've come to study in our city. She consulted with a couple who lead a local campus ministry and they resonated with her.

As a result they came up with a strategy for giving out care packages to foreign students. They recruited volunteers to pack and distribute care packages consisting of a variety of items to the 100 students who had already signed up as recipients online. Each volunteer agreed to be a channel of God's love to these, often lonely, young people, with the goal of forming an ongoing connection that could lead to sharing the gospel. Showing interest and concern, being a good listener, offering to assist with learning English, other kinds of practical help – all these things were encouraged.

As it happened, one of the students I met had a need for some furniture and the Lord provided a way to meet that need. Mary is another volunteer who delivered a care package to a young Vietnamese woman. She established good rapport and shared a wise saying of Solomon about God planting eternity in the human heart. The student appreciated it and passed it along to another friend. Mary's friendship with this student continued as they have subsequently met on many occasions.

Another volunteer named Marina was assigned a college student who, it turned out, was also Vietnamese. He was so deeply touched by the care package that he responded positively when Marina offered to pray for him. This was a new experience for Marina, herself, having never before prayed for a stranger in such circumstances. She was nervous but still obeyed the Spirit's prompting. We will see, as the workshop proceeds, how each of these stories unfold in terms of a deepening witness.

There is a foundational principle we must bear in mind as we explore what it means to be salt and light. Do you remember the phrase in John chapter one describing Jesus as “full of grace and truth”? (verse 18) What is your understanding of the need for BOTH grace and truth? Actually, these two ideas summarize nicely what the care package distribution initiative is all about. Moreover, grace and truth correlate beautifully with “light and salvation” as found in Isaiah 49:6 where God says of the Messiah: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob ... I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

As we continue exploring the theme of light, let's read three other Scripture passages. In Isaiah chapter 58:3-10 God rebukes the hypocrisy of the Israelites:

You do as you please when you fast ...

“You … exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.

Similar to how Isaiah rebuked God's people against quarreling, the apostle Paul admonished the church in Philippians against arguing;

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, 'children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.' Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. (Philippians 2:13-14, bold added)

Jesus also makes it clear to his followers that they must shine light through their behaviour; “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

“When unbelievers see our good deeds does this prompt them to give glory to God?” If so, how?

Try to think of an illustration from your own life to help formulate an answer. I recently witnessed a remarkable example while visiting a close friend, Kevin, who is a deeply committed Christian. His non-Christian neighbor dropped by unexpectedly for a visit and said something that I've never forgotten, “This is my favourite Christian neighbor.” I wondered to myself, what on earth Kevin could have done to deserve this remarkable accolade. When I asked, “What made your neighbor say that?” he struggled to find an answer. Eventually, his wife recalled an occasion when they gave their neighbor a home baked pie at Christmas. The bottom line, however, must have been that the neighbor was impressed at seeing how Kevin was raising a happy, peaceful, well disciplined family who regularly attended church and were deeply involved in reaching out to needy people. Undoubtedly, their neighbor realized Kevin's compassion toward the poor was nothing less than an outworking of his love for God. As it is written, “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” (Proverbs 14:31, bold added)

Is it enough to earn a good reputation by living an attractive life and never mention God or Jesus? We must also shine the light by preaching the message of Jesus. This is very clear in Acts 13:46-47 where Paul and Barnabas preached to the Jews in Antioch, Asia Minor. But when they turned against him, he boldly said: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider your-selves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” Earlier we saw Isaiah using these exact words with reference to the Messiah, but then Jesus passed the baton to his followers, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. '” (John 20:21) As messengers and ambassadors of Christ, we're called to bring true light and salvation to the ends of the earth.

Clearly Paul uses the term light almost synonymously with verbally proclaiming salvation through Jesus Christ. The expression “shed light” means to illuminate something as in Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Also God's word enhances understanding: “The unfolding of your words gives light, it gives understanding...” (Psalm 119:130, bold added)

So let me ask, “What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “preach the gospel”? Typically we think of an evangelist like Billy Graham or Barry Moore preaching before a large crowd. However, preaching does not necessarily mean speaking to a large audience. The word “preach” in Acts 8:4 has to do with ordinary Christians engaging in normal, every-day conversation with their neighbors. Here's the back-story. Shortly after Stephen was martyred a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem causing thousands of believers to flee into the neighboring provinces of Judea and Samaria. These were the very places where Jesus had earlier instructed them, “go and be my witnesses in Judea and Samaria.” Interestingly, all of the trained apostles stayed in Jerusalem.

So, those who went out and “preached” in these two provinces were “ordinary” believers. I'm convinced that these 'untrained' believers were not unlike the new believer we read about in Mark 5:19-20. Having just been released from bondage to demons, he asked the Lord if he could come along with him. But Jesus told him, “go home to your family, and tell them everything the Lord has done for you and how merciful he has been.” So the man started off to visit the Ten Towns of that region and began to proclaim the great things Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed at what he told them.” (NLT) Just as this man who Jesus delivered, shared with people the wonderful things God had done for him, so also the believers who fled from Jerusalem told their new neighbors, what great things God had done for them.

Notice, a painful crisis impacted the church in the first century, so also in 2020 we have been struck by a heavy blow, namely the Covid pandemic. On hindsight we can see how God sovereignly used painful persecution in the first century to accomplish his good purposes. How do you think God is working out things in our day for the good of his people and the salvation of the world? Perhaps God has allowed painful experiences in your life. How can they lead to witness?

Opening doors to testify

Earlier we raised a concern that Christians often struggle with: how to start a spiritual conversation. Let's consider the man in Mark 5 who was delivered from demons. Notice that his miraculous transformation afforded him the opportunity to share his story. It was natural, in a sense, for him to share his story with curious family and neighbors explaining how Jesus freed him and restored his mind. But what if your story is not so dramatic? Do you perhaps feel inadequate or inferior, underestimating what God has done in and through you?

Think about it: In one way or other, we all wrestle with various troubles and anxieties. I've had stressful experiences that made me very worried. I was reminded of this while hearing my friend, Ahmed, share his deep sense of anxiety and even panic as he was facing difficult assignments and tests in college. His struggle helped me to recall similar moments in my life and I was able to share a simple insight from Jesus' teaching which has helped me to face various kinds of worries. The key thing is not, “How dramatic or sudden was my transformation,” but rather, “How could I relate to and empathize with Ahmed?”

I was able to share some of my struggles along with practical wisdom from Jesus that helped me overcome anxiety. I showed him Matthew 6:25-33 where Jesus said; not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Have you had contact with any unbelievers who are depressed, worried, fearful, lonely, etc, because of the pandemic? Could such experiences help you relate to them and thus open a door to share about Jesus?

We are presently facing many troubles like the ongoing pandemic, the resulting economic recession and deep anxieties arising from reopening schools. However, as Christians we are not to grumble and complain, nor should we fear. We have peace that passes understanding as Jesus promised in John 16:33; “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” In fact, we have reason to hope.

Recently, I went grocery shopping. While paying the cashier, I handed him a short article, saying with a smile, “Here's a few thoughts that give a positive perspective on the pandemic. I think you'll like it.” He glanced at the first line, “The Corona pandemic has shaken the world. Could it be a Wake-up call?” He smiled and said, “Thanks a lot.”

“But,” you may ask, “How does a wake-up call imply a positive, hopeful perspective?” Think of what happens when you wake up in the morning. Sunrise! As believers in Jesus, we know that sunrise signals the dawning of a promising new day according to the prophets. Malachi said the Messiah is “the Sun of Righteousness (who) will rise with healing in his wings.” Similarly, Zechariah described Christ as “the rising sun from heaven” and Jesus called himself “the bright Morning Star.” (Malachi 4:2; NLT, Luke 1:78; Revelation 22:16, bold added) Ultimately, of course, Jesus is the light of the world which raises an interesting question; “Why did Jesus say to us as his followers, 'YOU are the light of the world?'”

In closing let me ask a thought provoking question to take home and prayerfully ponder. “Considering how Jesus performed so many kinds of good deeds, most notably, miraculous healings and exorcisms, why was it so important for him to keep reaching out to towns that had not heard the truth? (Compare Mark 1:38; 6:34; Luke 10:1ff)

Conclusion: God opens even small doors to shine the light

In closing let me encourage you to be prayerful and watchful, looking for opportunities to share the gospel with neighbors, not overlooking small ways to shine the light, even with a stranger, “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones.” (Luke 16:10, NLT)

Let me share how God answered my prayer to open a door of witness during the 'lockdown'. I was in a reception room waiting for the mechanic to swap-out my winter tires. There beside me was a newspaper on the coffee table, so I read the editorial, titled, “Ways to Look (on the) Bright Side.” Another customer was waiting for his car six feet away from me who looked rather bored, so I commented, “This editor sure knows what makes for a relevant read! She has some interesting thoughts on how to look on the bright side of this crisis.”

The man's ears perked up as he listened to me explain some “bright” ideas I had been thinking about, “There's been considerable interest pertaining to how sunlight, especially UV-C rays, have proved very useful in removing coronavirus from various surfaces such as face masks and cell phones.” I also told him that some researchers are even suggesting sunlight can destroy coronavirus. After a five
minute lull in our conversation he was called up to pay and collect his keys. Then he walked out.

My conscience was troubled knowing that somehow I'd missed a perfect opportunity to share a relevant article, “Wake-up call” which gives a positive perspective on the pandemic and also shares a glimpse of the gospel. Moments later, while I was moaning inwardly and regretting my failure to seize a perfect opportunity, the door opens and in walks the same guy looking for something he had left. God's Spirit prompted me inaudibly, yet clearly, “What better opportunity are you waiting for? ... When do you think you're going to see this guy again?”

I thanked the Lord for giving me another chance. I plucked up courage and walked over to the young man, saying, “I wrote some thoughts about looking on the bright side of the pandemic. I thought you might like to see them.” He gladly accepted it.

This guy happened to be from an ethnic minority, but of course, this is all the more reason why I should share the hope and light of Jesus. Moreover, the imagery of light appeals to people across a wide range of world-views whether, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yezidism, humanism, animism, agnosticism or wicca, etc. As it is written, “Light is sweet; how pleasant to see a new day dawning.” (Ecclesiastes 11:7, NLT)

Sowing and watering

You may recall Mary took a care package to a Vietnamese college student. On her second visit she shared a Bible verse saying that God has planted eternity in the human heart. A wide door has opened to share other Scriptures, notably the gospel of John, which the student is eagerly reading. These readings have stimulated many questions and meaningful conversations. As it is written, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” (Psalm 119:130)

All Bible quotations are from the New International Version unless otherwise indicated.

What's the follow up plan?

I want to encourage you to further explore the “light of the gospel” by reading several relevant articles:

If you enjoyed this workshop you may wish to participate in another discussion that delves further into the themes of light and salt, especially what it means to “season our conversation with salt.” (Colossians 4:2-6) Please contact me here. We will explore how to share our own personal story recounting our journey to Jesus.