Sermon for Epiphany VI
Jeremiah 17:5-10 Psalms 1 I Corinthians 15:12-20 Luke 6:17-26
It is well known that there are two kinds of people in the world. Those are those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don’t. There are always those who fall on opposite sides of any spectrum. The interesting thing about this story and Luke’s Gospel is that expectation plays a large role. When we expect one thing, but receive the exact opposite, we perk up and pay attention. This is the contrary nature of Luke’s narrative that helps teach us about the Kingdom of God.
This is the beginning of the Sermon on the Plain. It contains only a fraction of the number of verses as the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew. It contains only four Beatitudes instead of the eight found in Matthew. And in true Luke fashion, its uniqueness revolves around the woes that are found after the Beatitudes.
It is a trademark of Luke to focus on the reversal of the world through Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Everything is upside down, and Jesus comes to turn it right side up. So, the poor are fed and the rich turned away. Those who weep now will laugh, and those who laugh now will weep. The Kingdom of God is near, and a change of heart and behavior needs to happen immediately for those in danger of worshipping power and wealth over God. Those without the means to care for themselves will always be cared for in the Kingdom. The Old Testament often focuses on this part of Israelite practice. Loans without interest, the forgiveness of debts every fifty years, and the laws allowing gleaning and harvesting of other’s fields for those who cannot grow food on their own speak to Israel’s commitment to each person of society, regardless of status. This is consistent with the Beatitudes and woes found in this passage.
You’re Blessed from The Message
Coming down off the mountain with them, he stood on a plain surrounded by disciples, and was soon joined by a huge congregation from all over Judea and Jerusalem, even from the seaside towns of Tyre and Sidon. They had come both to hear him and to be cured of their ailments. Those disturbed by evil spirits were healed. Everyone was trying to touch him—so much energy surging from him, so many people healed! Then he spoke: You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all. God’s kingdom is there for the finding. You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry. Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal. You’re blessed when the tears flow freely. Joy comes with the morning.
“Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this. But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made. What you have is all you’ll ever get. And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself. Your self will not satisfy you for long. And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games. There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it. “There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests—look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular.
Once word of Jesus’ healing power spread, crowds gathered just to touch him. For many, he had become a symbol of good fortune, a lucky charm, or a magician. Instead of desiring God’s pardon and love, they only wanted physical healing or a chance to see spectacular events. Some people still see God as a cosmic magician and consider prayer as a way to get God to do his tricks, or to do what we want God to do for us. God is not a magician – God is the Master. Prayer is not a way for us to control God. It is a way for us to put ourselves under God’s control.
These verses are called the Beatitudes, from the Latin word meaning “blessing”. They describe what it means to be Christ’s follower, to give standards of conduct and contrast kingdom values with worldly values, and by showing what Christ’s followers can expect from the world and what God will give them. In addition, they contrast fake piety with true humility. They also show how Old Testament expectations are fulfilled in God’s kingdom.
Some believe that the hunger Jesus is speaking of is the hunger for righteousness – to be in right relationship with God. Others say this is physical hunger. In any case, in a nation where riches were seen as a sign of God’s favor, Jesus startled his hearers by pronouncing blessings on the hungry. In doing so, he was in line with the ancient tradition. The Old Testament is filled with passages proclaiming God’s concern for the poor and needy.
If we are trying to find fulfillment only through riches, wealth may be the only reward we will ever get – and it does not last. We should not seek comfort now at the expense of eternal life. Many false prophets lived during Old Testament times. They were praised by kings and crowds because their predictions – prosperity and victory in war – were exactly what the people wanted to hear. But popularity is no guarantee of truth, and human flattery does not bring God’s approval. Sadness and disappointment lies ahead for those who chase after the crowd’s praise, after popularity, rather than God’s truth.
The texts for today join in describing the conditions of those living under God’s favor (blessing) and those under God’s disfavor (curse or woe). On the lips of members of the faith community addressing one another, a blessing is a celebration of someone’s pleasant and happy circumstance, and a curse or woe is a lament over someone’s plight. However, when spoken by God or by one who speaks for God, blessings and woes are more than descriptive; they are pronouncements that declare that those conditions will prevail. On the lips of Jesus Christ, the blessings and the woes of today’s Gospel can be taken as the “official” proclamation of the way life will be among the people of God. In other words, Luke doesn’t suggest how to be happy, not sad. Blessings and woes are to be heard with the assurance that they are God’s word to us, and God will implement them.
The Sermon on the Plain turns the way of the world upside down. Those who are willing to suffer so that the will of God may be accomplished are blessed. To these people Jesus offers the assurance that the rule of God will come and the things for which they have longed, the hope they have nurtured, will be realized. We all have people in our lives who live with great suffering; we hear daily of the displacement and uprooting caused by war and famine. The civilians who suffer – millions who have been displaced in their countries’ borders and millions more who become refugees in other countries. These are people who know what it is to be poor, to hunger, to weep, to be excluded, and to look to God for vindication.
The poor and the hungry know the reality of their situation. They are totally dependent on God and therefore, are disposed to entrust themselves to God’s care and mercy, which is the foundation of grace, and a right relationship with God. The rich, on the other hand, are disposed to take comfort in themselves and their resources – finding it more difficult to trust themselves to the mercy and grace of God.
Here, at Grace, we have many opportunities to feed people. We feed twenty kids each week from Ruskin. We gather food for the Salvation Army food bank. We eat together each Sunday after the service when we visit and share our stories – the stories of God working in and through our lives. We feed each other when we acknowledge that we are on this journey together. We are fed by the weekly Eucharist connecting us to Christ, our rich tradition and the greater Christian community. We are fed spiritually when we take advantage of classes offered on Sundays and Wednesdays during Lent. Lots of opportunities to be God’s hands, hearts and feet.
The “blessings” remind us of what we are to do and be to become better followers of Christ. The “woes” deal with those who are preoccupied with how they look in the eyes of others. Jesus says in this sermon that how we look in the eyes of people and how they speak of us are not important considerations. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what our ancestors did to the false prophets.” This truly challenges us to discover and appreciate what is important in our lives. It is one thing to try to look good to honor God and quite another to obsess on our looks and what people think of us. God measures our hearts, not our heads.
Our God is the God of those who have nothing, but God. That actually includes us too, even if our need for God is masked by all that we have. In the final analysis, we are as naked as the poorest of the poor, and our possessions don’t ensure everlasting life. To paraphrase the great theologian, Johnny Cash, “we must not be so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly use”; but conversely, we must not be of such earthly use that we are no longer heavenly minded. At the beginning of the journey of discipleship, Jesus tells us the truth, plainly, of what faithful living is going to be like. We can’t say after today that we don’t know.
Our human inclination is to fit God into our own small definitions, cultures and places. We can’t put God in a box. God is always breaking down barriers we construct to keep God in or out. God is calling us back. God is always reminding us that we must empty ourselves, turn away from the ways of the world, and then – and only then only by God’s grace – receive the fullness of blessings God offers to the utterly destitute, the marginalized, the expendable. That blessing is offered to us – we can use it to build up the kingdom of God with and among the blessed. Amen.