Sermon for Feb. 17, 2019, Epiphany 6C. The audio can be found here for several weeks.
The Message (MSG)
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.
One of the things I have been so blessed by is the experience of living in other countries. And one of the ways it is so enriching to live in other countries long term, is that you get to see how people look at things differently than we do here.
So, I was in Romania, and was surprised to hear that the general opinion of policemen is very low. My friends there told me that if you could do anything productive, you did it. If you couldn’t, you could at least work in a factory. But if that was beyond your ability, you could be a policeman. (I don’t know if that opinion is still true — I was there in the early 1990s.)
They resented policemen too. In those days it was not uncommon for a traffic stop to turn into a minor shakedown.
But, what was even more surprising to me, was that policemen would not shakedown Orthodox priests. Why not? Not out of respect, but because they feared being put under a curse. Apparently being cursed by a priest was a real thing.
Now, that just sounded bizarre to me. Priests are supposed to bless, not curse, right? In fact, God is all about blessing, not cursing, according to my theology.
But the truth is, God has not always been thought of in exclusively positive terms. I remember being quite surprised when I learned that in the story of Moses’ farewell speech to the Israelites — which is what the book of Deuteronomy is — Moses details both the blessings and the curses of the covenant.
This is called the doctrine of divine retribution — you get what’s coming to you. You get blessed if you obey, and cursed if you disobey.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you had never heard of this; Deuteronomy 28 never comes up in the Revised Common Lectionary texts for Sundays.
But the blessings and curses are quite detailed and parallel in structure. For example, in the story, Moses says,
“If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments…Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field….Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground…But if you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments…Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. …Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground.…” — and on and on.
I saw a cartoon in a magazine that pictured God, up in the clouds in heaven, sitting in front of a computer. On the keyboard were only two keys. One said “bless” and the other said, “smite.” That captures the ancient doctrine of retribution clearly.
That set of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy may not be familiar to us, but I’m sure it was well known by Jewish people who heard “Moses” being read at the synagogue gathering every Sabbath.
The reason I told you that is because here in Luke’s gospel, we see Jesus using that same structure of parallel blessings and curses. It would have been a familiar structure to his mostly-Jewish audience.
But Jesus made some major changes that have great significance for us, so we will look at this text together.
Mountain vs. Plain
Some of this may sound familiar to you. Matthew records what we call the Beatitudes in his gospel too, although he does not include the parallel curses. Matthew wants to show that Jesus is like the new Moses, so he sets Jesus’ sermon on a Mountain — which is why we call it the Sermon on the Mount.
But Luke has another agenda, and so Jesus gives this teaching down on a plain, literally a “level place.” (BTW, it was common for the gospel writers to shift the settings of teachings of Jesus for their own editorial purposes).
In the Message version, it said “a plain.” The point is that Jesus was intentionally with the people, on their level, among them, literally being touched by them.
As we said last week, when people were around Jesus, they sensed that they were in the presence of a Spirit-person. They experienced healing in his presence. (That must have been amazing to be a part of!).
One of the powerful ways in which Jesus revolutionized our understanding of God was to bring him down the mountain, out of the smokey clouds of Sinai, down on our level where he could touch us, and we could connect with the Divine, without fear. We take that for granted now: that was a huge shift. (
God is with us, we believe, at every moment of our lives, in every breath, luring us by the Spirit to the next right thing; coaxing us towards the next moment of love, of compassion, of understanding and of forgiveness. Jesus was demonstrating that by coming down onto the level ground where he could be touched and where he could touch people.
Who were the people there? Luke specifically tells us. They were:
“from all over Judea and Jerusalem, even from the seaside towns of Tyre and Sidon.”
The ones from Judea were, of course, Jewish, but the people of Tyre and Sidon were Gentiles. Again and again, we see Jesus’ inclusion of outsiders and enemies. Everyone was welcome; no one was shamed or denied access.
This too is a huge and revolutionary perspective. In the Hebrew Bible, Gentiles were not allowed into the part of the temple where sacrifices were made.
But for Jesus, there were no distinctions that mattered, and therefore no barriers. You could not be a nationalist and a follower of Jesus. The two are simply and utterly contradictory. That is still true today.(pause)
Blessing and Curses
So now let us look at the blessings and curses. First, I purposefully read this text from the Message Version because of the way those words “blessed” and “cursed” are translated. You heard the word “blessed” by you did not hear the word “cursed” today. In the NRSV which I normally read from, you would have heard this:
“Blessed are you who are poor… But woe to you who are rich….”
Woe is a denunciation, a curse. But the Message translates it “There’s trouble ahead” and that is also an important point. “Trouble ahead” is a natural consequence, not something from the sky.
In other words, Jesus is not saying that God is going to smite people or curse them, but that their own way of living could end up producing disastrous results.
People can, and do, end up living in a hell of their own making. (pause)
It is like when doctor Phil hears someone describing their lifestyle and asks them, “So, how is that working out for you?” knowing full well that their answer is going to reveal that what they had been trying to justify to themselves was hurting them and others. At some level, they already know it.
So this is another revolutionary change, by Jesus. God is not up there waiting for people to smite. Jesus rejected the doctrine of divine retribution.
Back in the 1990s, a travel guide for Romania described the completely disorganized process they had for buying a train ticket; there were no lines, you just had to elbow and shove your way up to the window. The guide said that buying a train ticket there made you feel like you were being punished by God.
But God doesn’t curse people. Jesus said that God’s sun shines, and rain falls on the fields of the righteous and the unrighteous equally. But, people can and do live in unproductive and even destructive ways. Or alternatively, we can live in ways that lead to blessing for ourselves and for others. So let’s look at those ways.
Here in this text, all the blessings are listed together, followed by the “trouble ahead” lines, but because they are parallel, I want us to hear them together:
“You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all, God’s kingdom is there for the finding… But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made. What you have is all you’ll ever get.
“You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry. Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal…. [but] it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself. Your self will not satisfy you for long.
“You’re blessed when the tears flow freely. Joy comes with the morning…. [but] 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.
“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… [but] “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.”
Two Alternative Ways of Being
I wish we had time to take them line by line; we don’t. But together they present two alternative ways to live; two alternative perspectives on the meaning of life; two different ways of being in the world.
One is for the here and now, for the self, for maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain. There is only trouble ahead for that way of living.
The other way is the embrace of pain and suffering because death always comes before resurrection.
As Jesus said, a seed has to be buried to produce new life.
So whether the suffering is from literal poverty, even hunger — which would have been the case for most of Jesus’ followers, the peasants of Galilee — or whether the suffering is social disapproval (or worse), or any other cause of tears in the present, the fact is that God is with you in your suffering.
In fact, God is on a level with you, being touched by the things that touch you, literally feeling your pain.
Which is why you, then, know how to be there for others in their pain. You respond to poverty and hunger with compassion. You open your heart and your church and your home to those who have been despised, marginalized, and discriminated against.
There is a circular motion here, which is what true spirituality looks like: from our own deep connection with God, involving the cycles of deaths and resurrections throughout life, around to our relationship to the people of the world; the cycle goes round and round.
But it not automatic. There are ways of living that only lead to “trouble ahead.” It is like what I just heard on the news, there is a condition they call “pre-diabetic”. It means that if the person continues to live the same way, diabetes is likely in their future. There’s trouble ahead, unless intentional changes are made.
The selfish life, I believe, is not worth living. But the life lived with intentional spiritual practices leads to blessing, and, in the end, deep joy. That is why we so often talk about the importance of regular spiritual practices like meditation. We long for one of the alternative way of being in the world, and not the other.
I love the way the Message version translates the last line:
“Your task is to be true”
Yes, I think we all affirm that. Our task is to be true, to be authentic, to be congruent followers of Jesus, walking on that level plain, with God, and with all of those other people whom God is not ashamed to be touched by.