Topic: Biblical Verse: Luke 6:17–6:26
The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
February 16-17, 2019
What does it mean to be blessed? We hear that word and we use that word in conversation, probably more than we think. “That was a blessing for me.” I have been richly blessed.” Blessed or blesséd – we hear that word a number of times in the Scripture readings for today. The Old Testament lesson from the prophet Jeremiah has this to say: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that send out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:7-8). I love that image! I think each of us can recall a tree somewhere that fits this very description. And that, we are told, is what the child of God is like. The psalm for today echoes what Jeremiah has to say, almost word for word. The very first psalm begins with that word: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalm 1:1-3). And in the Gospel lesson, Jesus also talks about what it means to be blessed in his Sermon on the Plain. It is this word “Blessed” that becomes the theme for preaching this day. May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
In Luke’s Gospel, after Jesus had called twelve individuals from the larger group of disciples to be his chosen apostles, literally “one who is sent,” (Luke 6:12-16), he came down from the mountain. Jesus stood on a level place and began to teach and heal those who came to him. We’re more used to hearing about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), but before us today is Luke’s version of this, and because it takes place not on the mount, but below on the level place, it is called Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. People from all over had come to Jesus to hear his teaching and to receive his healing. It is then that Jesus begins with “Blessed are you who are poor… Blessed are you who are hungry… Blessed are you who weep… Blessed are you when people hate… and exclude… and revile you…” (Luke 6:20-22). That word “blessed” (μακάριοι) here means to be fortunate, filled with bliss, happy. But how can you be poor, hungry, weeping, and hated and be blessed? That doesn’t make sense to us. What is Jesus teaching us here?
So often in life, we equate outward prosperity with what it means to be blessed. If I have all of my needs and wants fulfilled, then God has blessed me, right? What often lurks in the shadows here is the mistaken idea that I have somehow deserved all of this, and God is rewarding me. Conversely, if I do not have all of my needs and wants fulfilled, if I am lacking, then I am not blessed. And what often lurks in the shadows here is the mistaken idea that I have angered God and I am being punished by him. Sound familiar? Sure, the Lord God may indeed choose to bestow outward blessings of success, but what happens when the Lord God may choose to withdraw these? What then? In Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, where the last are first and the first are last, where the mighty are brought low and the humble are exalted, where the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty (Matthew 19:30; Mark 10:31; Luke 1:52-53), things are different. To be blessed in Jesus’ upside-down kingdom does not mean outward prosperity, of having all of my needs fulfilled. Jesus does not teach that all poor people are automatically blessed because they are poor. Nor does Jesus teach that all rich people are automatically cursed because they are rich. So often we see only what is on the surface, but it is not what is on the outside that counts, but what is on the inside. God tells us: “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks upon the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). To be poor means that I recognize there is nothing in me that merits God’s grace and favor. I have no claim on God except through the cleansing blood of Jesus! This calls me to a heart that is not proud, but humble and penitent. On February 18, 1546, Luther the Reformer died. His last recorded words, said on his death bed, were: “We are beggars. This is true” (https://www.ligonier.org/blog/martin-luthers-last-words). That is what it means to be poor in the kingdom of God. We are, all of us, beggars before God. It is only in Jesus, who became poor, taking our sin upon himself, that we become rich (2 Corinthians 5:21).
To be hungry in Jesus’ upside-down kingdom means much more than physical hunger; to have an empty stomach. The love of Christ absolutely calls us to help those who are lacking in life – the poor and the hungry. But here, Jesus means to be hungry for the kingdom of God. Matthew’s version here says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6). We can eat the finest food and drink the best wine, but we’ll soon be hungry and thirsty again. Although we certainly need food and drink for this body and life, what is going to ultimately satisfy us is not physical food and drink, but Jesus the Bread of Life and the Living Water, as he tells us: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35), and “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). He calls us to eat and drink of him in faith without limit, and we will be satisfied as nothing else can do. Where this hunger is found, coupled together with trust in Jesus the Bread of Life and the Living Water, our need is more than satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep…” Jesus tells us. What he means here is lamenting and weeping over our weaknesses, our imperfections, and our shortcomings in faith. This side of heaven, we are never “there,” but we always have so much more growing in faith to do. When we recognize this in ourselves, and our hearts break and our eyes weep because of the sin that clings so closely to us throughout our journey of faith, Jesus pronounces us blessed. The Word of the Lord tells us: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). All of this points us to the source of healing, forgiveness, life, and salvation. This is found not in ourselves, but in Jesus, who is the atoning sacrifice for all our sin. Even now, in the midst of our weaknesses, imperfections, and shortcomings, God is at work shaping and molding us for his kingdom purposes.
What is perhaps the most upside-down aspect of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom is how he calls us to rejoice and leap for joy when we are hated, excluded, reviled, and spurned because of Jesus. We are blessed in Jesus and by Jesus even in the midst of nasty stuff like this. Persecution for Jesus’ sake can take many forms. For our brothers and sisters in faith who have experienced this first-hand, they know the cost of discipleship, and they have much to teach us. Although they have suffered much, their testimony is always this: this suffering and persecution for Jesus’ sake served to be a blessing because it purified and strengthened the Church. Some may say we do not know what this means here in this land, and although there is no official, legally-sanctioned persecution of Jesus’ followers at this time, to be hated, excluded, reviled and spurned for Jesus’ sake is very real. Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, that we may be strengthened and built up in our faith in the midst of such things, and so “…let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, scorning the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1b-2).
“Blessed are you who are poor… Blessed are you who are hungry… Blessed are you who weep… Blessed are you when people hate… and exclude… and revile you…” (Luke 6:20-22). In Jesus, how blessed we are! Amen.