Luke 6: 17-26
When did a sermon last take you by surprise?
For most of us – when we’re sitting in the pews, anyway – it’s time to settle down, pop in a mint imperial, and wait to hear some interesting things about God, or the Bible, or the life of Jesus.
I wonder whether the crowd who first heard what we heard Jesus say today had similar expectations to us? Or has they seen enough of Jesus in action to feel that they might hear something amazingly radical?
Because actually that’s what they got.
“Blessed are you who are poor…
“Blessed are you who are hungry now …
“Blessed are you who weep now …
“Blessed are you when people hate you…"
All this preached to people who had been told that those who are blessed by God will be rich, and fed, and will laugh and be respected.
Their mindset was that surely God blesses and rewards his people with good things and punishes evildoers? People who are ill have been made that way by their sin or the sin of their parents; those whose lives are broken and filled with suffering should be treated with contempt, because they must be far from God’s love. This is Jesus reversing everything that his listeners thought they knew: the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated.. are blessed by God.
And just in case they think they have misheard or misunderstood, Jesus presents them with another reversal of fortunes:
"But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
"Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
"Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
"Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
Jesus isn’t cursing the people who are rich, full, laughing or praised by others – Jesus never cursed any of the people he met, he only blessed, cured or engaged with them. Jesus is stating the fact that those whose lives are good now are not specially blessed by God – they are just materially fortunate, and they run the risk of being complacent, or judgmental of others, and so finding themselves far from God.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus is recorded as saying this in Luke’s gospel – Luke has set his story out in a way which should make us expect something like this.
When Mary is told by Gabriel that she is going to give birth to Jesus, she responds with the words we know as the Magnificat, which declares the upside-down values of God’s kingdom “God has scattered the proud …He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.”.
When Jesus begins his ministry, as Luke has been telling us over the last few weeks, he is rejected in his home synagogue; he has faced conflict over his cleansing of a leper and his healing of a paralytic; he has called Levi the tax-collector to join his disciples; and he has been questioned about his approach to fasting and the Sabbath. The Pharisees are baffled by Jesus’ unconventional life and his lack of interest on all the things normally regarded as ‘good’ and ‘Holy’ as Jesus tries to move them from law to compassion to grace.
So I wonder what the crowd who had gathered to meet Jesus thought of this strange new teaching, where sinners and outcasts are the most welcomed in the kingdom of God?
We are told that many in the crowd have come to Jesus to be healed – they want to see what this Jesus can do. But Jesus wants them to know that God’s kingdom isn’t just about people being made to feel better – it is about what God wills, what God’s values are, how they can live their lives turning towards God.
The Good News that Jesus comes to proclaim is that life in all its fullness is not about how they feel now, or what they do now, or who they think we are – the Kingdom is open to them - all of them – God’s love is for them, whoever they are, whatever their lives are like, however they feel.
It was true for Jesus hearers that day, and it’s true for us:
If you’re poor – the kingdom is for you
If you’re hungry – God will fill you with good things
If you are weeping – God will wipe every tear from your eyes
If people hate you for what you do in God’s name – you will be rewarded.
And if you’re rich, full, laughing, spoken well of… if life is easy for you – watch out! These things won’t last forever, and they might blind you to what is important. But God’s love is still waiting for you to turn away from the shallow things of this life and see the reality of God’s kingdom where ALL will be welcomed.
Perhaps we’ve lost a sense of how surprising this Good News is. You probably don’t hear many sermons here based on a ‘prosperity gospel’, which teaches that worldly riches are a sign of God’s blessing. But I think we all need to stop and think every now and again that this Kingdom, where the lowest and the least are said to be the most blessed, is come among us in Jesus Christ.
I heard a fascinating conversation about 2 weeks ago about a church wondering whether they could accept help, to run a Food Bank, from non-Christians. They wondered if non-Christians would dilute the message of the Food Bank that the churches wished to bless the poor with this gift of food. Maybe they would be surprised to hear Jesus say “blessed are the non-Christians, who have an innate sense of what it means to love their neighbour”.
What could Jesus say that would surprise us?
“blessed are those who wonder if God exists”
“blessed are those who never go to church”
“blessed are those for whom life is a constant series of disasters”.
Jesus wants all his listeners to know that the good news is for them, that the Kingdom is open to them, that God loves them, us, all.
The blessing of God is for all and for each.
To God’s praise & glory.