Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
February 17, 2019
Luke 6: 17-26 (NIV)
He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, 18who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, 19and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.
20Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
23“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. 25Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. 26Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
Have you ever been listening to someone talk, or maybe reading something that someone wrote…the person is going along and everything is just fine. But then things kind of take a turn and begin to digress a little bit. Maybe you bow your head in shame or embarrassment because you feel bad for the person. Or maybe they’re meddling a little bit and you start feeling uncomfortable. You might start shaking your head as you ask yourself, “What is he thinking?” Or perhaps you try to silently will the person to cease from this reckless path, to not say anything more about the subject, to just stop talking. You might say to yourself, or even out loud, “Don’t go there, don’t go there, please don’t go there.” But the person just keeps talking, and then it happens. You drop your head into your hands and say, “Ugh, he went there!” He dropped the bomb you were hoping he wouldn’t drop. He said what you were hoping he wouldn’t say. You heard what you were hoping you wouldn’t hear.
Well, friends, that’s Jesus’ words for us today. He went there. He. Went. There. “This is the raw, unvarnished, faith-rattling declaration of the realm of God.” And if it doesn’t feel like a bomb dropping right into the middle of our lives and blowing everything up, then we have not heard what Jesus is saying! So let’s just sit with this for a little while. We really need to hear and understand the significance of these words that Jesus speaks as he preaches to the crowds here in Luke’s gospel. But before I really dig into Jesus’ words, I want to give a little context.
We know these lists of blessings that Jesus offers as “The Beatitudes.” The Beatitudes are found in both Matthew’s gospel and Luke’s gospel. Most likely, you have heard the Beatitudes from Matthew’s gospel many more times in your life than the Beatitudes from Luke’s gospel. The Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel, as it turns out, consist only of blessings. In other words, it’s “all good.” You’re blessed if your poor, meek, mourning, persecuted, and so on; nine blessings to be exact. But in Luke’s gospel, the Beatitudes aren’t just about the blessings, there are also woes. Again, Luke’s Jesus offers blessings for the poor, the persecuted, and so on. There are four blessings, but there are also four curses, or four “woes,” which just happen to be a direct antithesis to the blessings. Jesus is really working to make his point!
So, there’s this big difference between the Beatitudes in Matthew and the Beatitudes in Luke, but there is also a more subtle, but very significant difference. That is, the Beatitudes in Matthew are a part of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” Matthew 5 begins, “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.” In other words, when Jesus delivers the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, he is separate from the people. The crowds are down below and he is up on a mountainside. Jesus is elevated, apart. Now that’s not a bad thing, but just keep that in mind for a minute while we hear again the opening of Luke’s Beatitudes, which come as a part of what is called “The Sermon on the Plain.” “[Jesus] went DOWN with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from ALL OVER Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing THEM ALL….” Standing there, on a level plain, among people from ALL OVER, who were crowded in trying to touch him, Jesus began to speak. As he delivers the Beatitudes, he is among the people.
The Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel are like the higher ideal we should be striving for—more righteous living as Christ’s disciples. But the Beatitudes in Luke’s gospel are like the words of comfort for now—inseparable from the joys and sorrows of life. The “Sermon on the Plain” is Jesus at our level, looking us in the eye, or maybe even looking up at us because he has knelt to touch the sick or the lame. And he speaks to us in the harsh realities of our lives, but especially to those who are suffering the most. That’s what we need to understand above all else. There are words of comfort here for all who are feeling “down and out,” for every person who is tired, and beat-down, and ostracized, and cast-off; for everyone who stands at the margins looking woefully on as the world passes them by, ignoring them. Jesus steps into the presence of these people, looks right at them, touches them, even, and says to them, in essence, “Here is God’s kingdom. You are a part of it. You are loved. You have a place here.”
But just as there are words of comfort, there are also words of challenge for any who experience even an ounce of privilege in their lives. So, let me be very clear this morning: that’s every single one of us here. And we need to take these warnings from Jesus seriously. Yes, maybe some of us have less privilege than others, but there’s not a single one of us in this room who should not be feeling pretty uncomfortable as we reflect on Jesus’ words from the “Sermon on the Plain.”
See, here’s the problem… Jesus speaks unequivocally here. He lays out in no uncertain terms God’s blessing on the poor, the hungry, the reviled. But he also lays out in no uncertain terms God’s judgment on the rich, the filled, the comfortable. We need to feel the depth and impact of this new order that Jesus is announcing; this proclamation of the realm of God. It’s so difficult to imagine, and so what we tend to do is to try and neutralize it. We try to soften the passage so it’s not so harsh. Our inclination is to domesticate the radical message so that it comfortably fits “us,” even though WE by no means fit the criteria! The problem, you see, is that if we want to identify with the categories of people who are blessed, then we have to come up with evidence that we are the oppressed—the poor, the hungry, the mourning, the hated. THEN, when we can’t do that, we begin to rationalize that “those people” surely aren’t actually blessed by God because they’re lazy, or their drug addicts, or their irresponsible. By categorizing “the other” in such a way, we eliminate the threat in our minds and tell ourselves that Jesus actually meant that we are blessed because we work hard for the money we have and the food we put on our table.
So, let’s hear this truth again. Jesus really was talking about “those people.” Jesus really did go there. Jesus really is announcing that those who will be blessed by God are the ones that society, that you and I, want to cast out.
You know, nearly every single day, I drive along I-75 North between the I-24 split and East Brainerd Road. I know many of you drive that same stretch of road on a regular basis. How many of you have noticed off in the woods to the right just before you get to the E Brainerd Road exit that, sitting up on that little rise overlooking the Concord golf course, is a tent? If you look closely, it’s easy to see that tent is someone’s home. Their only shelter. I’m pretty sure I’ve noticed that tent every winter since I came to this church over three years ago. Yes, it will disappear from time to time, but it has always come back.
Friends, that is the person Jesus is blessing as he speaks his “Sermon on the Plain.” Not us, we’re the cursed on this day—the woeful Christian who thinks we’re a lot better than we really are. Shame on us. But imagine for just a minute driving over there to the Concord Golf Course this afternoon, getting out of your car, and walking up that little hill to the tent in the woods. Think about saying to the person there, “You are blessed. Jesus loves you, and so do I.” You wouldn’t even have to take anything with you. Think about what it would mean to just sit with that person for a while, to talk with him, to get to know her, to share a bit about yourself.
My friends, that is good news. That is the kingdom of God. To do something like that would be to experience God’s kingdom in the most real ways imaginable. It would be a blessing; the greatest blessing we could ever experience. Our status and privilege in society may very well be a woe to us in the eyes of God. “No matter who we are—how rich or poor or successful or oppressed—we cannot be confident that our worth or the meaning of our lives depends on our position in society. We cannot claim that either our prosperity or our poverty is a reward or a curse from God…we are both sinners and the saved.” But what if we were to start living with those claimed by the kingdom, the downtrodden and outcast that Jesus declares to be blessed? What if we, like Jesus, took “good news” to all the places where there never seems to be any good news? And what if we did that not with any agenda, not so that we can get a jewel in our crown, but just because those are the places where the door to God’s kingdom is the widest? Perhaps then we, too could know the greatest blessing there has ever been; perhaps then we would be truly blessed!