Blessed are you . . .
A sermon for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany
Here we have a sermon from Jesus. It is not the sermon on the Mount although there are some similarities, but a sermon on “a level place”, sometimes called “on the plain”.
Now, perhaps a level place might be seen as an easy place with all the rough bits smoothed over but equally it is not the mountaintop and the translation of the meaning rather than the word is not necessarily clear.
We are used to thinking of plains as the rich fertile regions while the mountains are steep and rocky. In ancient times, the high places were the holy places. The word “level” often, but not always, referred to places that were not terrible places but places where circumstances could be terrible.
These things were not necessarily said explicitly but expressed by association. Sodom and Gomorrah were built on the plain of the Jordan. Jerusalem, the city of God, was built on a plateau in the mountains. In our culture, we also like to build churches on hills and we also do not necessarily see being levelled as a good thing. If a building is levelled, it is razed to the ground. If I am levelled, I am knocked to the ground. Jesus taught the way of the Kingdom in the midst of such level places in the world.
When Matthew told of the sermon on the Mount, the content was not the same but somewhat similar to what we heard today, but the mountain setting gave a sense that the message was one from God.
Luke’s depiction of the level place shows a world that has been broken down, a place where people sought healing. In such a place, things may look different from the view from the mountain, but Jesus preaches the Kingdom of God in the level place as well as on the mountain. The situations in which Jesus says the people are blessed, are not places you would seek to be – poor, hungry, weeping, hated . . .
The people who come to hear Jesus are seeking something. It may be healing or deliverance or just to hear him speak. But, we hear, all in the crowd were trying to touch him because power came out from him and healed all of them.
There was a power in Jesus that took away all that troubled or harmed them. After he spoke in this place, what was chiefly recorded was not specific individual healing but the words he spoke, this message of the Kingdom.
It was a message of being blessed. This was not a message about a trouble-free life but of the favour of God in spite of troubles.
Jesus said that even though the people had troubles or suffered, they were favoured by God and good things would come to them.
You have heard those who blame the poor for their poverty, the unemployed for their lack of work, the refugee for fleeing the violence in their country, the sick for their illness, or the person who is different for their difference. Surely, if you tried hard enough, you could be more like us! they declare.
The ancient culture of equating success with virtue, and wealth with character, is alive and well in our time and Jesus never said it and Jesus never supported it. He certainly had some friends who had money and resources but he never favoured them over the poor and the socially despised. He just reminded them of their obligations towards those who had less.
When Jesus spoke to the disadvantaged, his message to them was not Pull your socks up and do better but Others may despise you but God does not despise you. God favours you. God’s blessing is upon you and you will find rest for your weariness, God’s riches for your poverty, food for your hunger, healing for your pain, laughter for tears. Do others condemn you? If they always spoke well of you, if you were always pleasing to the rich and satisfied, those who laugh while others weep, then you would be doing something wrong, something worthy of condemnation!
Are we still tempted to believe in the prosperity Gospel instead of the Gospel of Christ? Of course we are! It is a mark of our culture as well as the message of the tele-evangelists who preach that wealth and health are a sign of God’s favour, that you can name it and claim it for any material good, and that sending them more money will make you prosperous.
We forget that suffering, taking up our cross, is a part of following Jesus.
Jesus asks no-one to seek riches or to seek poverty. We are to seek the kingdom and a good part of that is to seek the good of our brothers and sisters.
Right in between Jesus’ blessed are you words for the suffering and his woe to you words for the very comfortable is his reminder of what was done to the prophets.
Those people who hate you, and exclude you, revile you and defame you? That is just what their ancestors did to the prophets. And what the prophets preached was not the future, but the need to turn to God and to follow God’s will. Being rich was not the problem. It was ignoring the poor and the suffering.
Jesus said woe to the rich, the full, the laughing, and yet we know he loved to help and raise up the poor, to share food, to bring joy and laughter. These are good things. The problem was that these people had it all now when others did not. The tables, those tables laden with good things, will be turned.
Do you remember the rich young man who wanted to know what he must do to have eternal life? He was not just told to let go of his riches but to give that wealth to the poor. His problem was not that he was rich but that he held his great riches so tightly when those around him were in great need. The problem lay not in his treasure chamber but in his heart.
If you follow Jesus, you will be blessed. You are favoured by God. You are the treasure in the heart of God, the ones blessed by Jesus . . .
There is of course a temptation there to ask ourselves, Who is blessed or cursed, who is favoured or condemned? Whom should we idolise or despise? But Jesus’ teaching was never that simple. Immediately after this passage which ends in a woe to you list, Jesus teaches about loving our enemies and immediately after that, about not judging. Therefore, woe to you is not a condemnation or a damnation but an invitation to change, to repent of that sad and pitiable state of affairs.
When we turn to Christ we are no longer living as woe to you people who do not live in his ways, but blessed are you people who seek to live as his disciples even in difficult circumstances, even when we seem to be always on the plain and the mountaintop seems far away.
May the power and love of Jesus the Christ heal us as it healed the crowd on the plain. May we be healed of all that holds us back from living as his disciples and as a people blessed by God. Amen