First Reading Jeremiah 17:5-10
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Gospel Reading: Luke 6:17-26
Sermon: “Depends on how you look at things”
Blessed are the poor, hungry and sad?? Blessed are the hated and the outcast??Really? How can this be Jesus? Well… it all depends on how you look at things. Jesus says a lot of things that are crafted to grab our attention and encourage us to wrestle with ourselves, our outlook and with the way things are. From his mother’s Magnificat to his teaching his disciples that the greatest of them must be the servant of all, The New Testament constantly seeks to engage us and shake us from life as usual. So hang on and prepare to be challenged to look at things from a different point of view.
Today, we come to a lesser known section of Luke’s gospel known as the “Sermon on the Plain”. Matthew’s much better known “Sermon on the Mount” contains a similar, yet different collection of Jesus’s teachings. Luke’s version is much shorter and emphasizes some different points. Firstly, there is the difference in timing and location. Luke recalls Jesus down on a level place – among, not above, a great crowd of people. Matthew recalls his teaching a session on a mountain, recalling Moses giving the Law from God. Jesus taught in many settings. These two serve the emphasis of each of the authors.
Luke tells us Jesus has been up on a mountain to pray and to select twelve Apostles, chosen from among a larger group of disciples. But now he has come back down and is surrounded by this needy crowd, full of those needing to hear him, to be healed by him and to by freed from impure spirits. Power flowed freely from him and all who touched him where cured. Grace is on full display here as we will see. Did Luke perhaps have those verses from Isaiah in mind in choosing this setting from amongst the many places where Jesus taught and healed? You likely recall them: Isaiah 40:4-5 NIV  Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.  And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
The people around Jesus are somewhat different as well. As we mentioned, Luke’s setting is later in Jesus ministry. All the apostles have been designated whereas in Matthew only the first few have been called. Luke is also careful to point out that the religious officials and some of the Pharisees have already turned hostile to Jesus. They are probably out there in the back of the crowd as well. Luke even goes so far as to say that some of the people there with Jesus where from as far away as the region up north, around Tyre and Sidon (gentile territory). Luke would have his own gentile audience know that Jesus spoke to gentiles too, not just his Jewish countrymen alone. Again grace abounds, the “glory of the Lord” is indeed revealed, and all people are seeing it together! Jesus is the Savior of all who will accept him.
Matthew begins his account with a series of eight blessings we call the Beatitudes. Luke instead begins with a balanced set of four blessings paired with four woes for each topic – Being rich versus poor, Being satisfied versus being hungry, laughing versus weeping and concluding with being well regarded versus being excluded, insulted, rejected and hated. The shocking thing is that all of those things which we normally strive for are in the list of woes and those things we seek to avoid are called blessed!!
If you are having a conversation with a friend and they ask you “how are you doing?” And you say “Well, I’m comfortably well off, not missing many meals, pretty happy most of the time and well regarded by my friends and acquaintances.” They will undoubtedly say “Great! Sounds like you are very blessed.” If you say instead “Well, I’m dead broke, can’t get enough food, I cry a lot and folks just can’t seem to stand to be around me.” We would all uniformly say something like “Oh dear, That’s terrible! What can we do to help?”
So what are we to do when Jesus says things like this: (Luke 6:20-26 NIV)
 Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  Blessed 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.  “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.  “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.  Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
I can’t and I won’t even try to take the sting and shock out of those words, because that’s part of why Jesus said them that way. What I can, and will try to do is direct our attention to the context and to other relevant teachings in scripture to help us begin to understand what Jesus meant. First, we need to go no further than the words of Jesus’ own Mother in Luke’s gospel to find the first use of this sort of reversal of normal expectations. At the very beginning, In her song of praise at bearing the Son of God which we call the Magnificat, we hear these words: (Luke 1:49-53 NIV)  for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.  His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.  He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.  He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.  He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
Let me ask you some questions to turn your thoughts to a different way of looking at these uncomfortable lists of blessing and woes:
• When do you best appreciate a good meal – When you are stuffed full of junk food, or when you are hungry?
• When are you best able to accept help – when you are pridefully full of self assurance or when you know you can’t do it by yourself, perhaps because you have failed repeatedly?
• When do you appreciate generosity, grace, forgiveness and mercy?? – isn’t it when you are poor, undeserving, guilty and vulnerable?
• What does Jesus mean when he says blessed are you when…? Is he talking about being materially fat, dumb and happy? Is it simply as old Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 8:15 NIV “ I commend the enjoyment of life , because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad.” ? I see some doubt on you faces. Perhaps you have come to understand that there is more to a Godly life than that. Knowing who was in that crowd – the desperately ill, the guilty, the lame, those seeking answers to hard questions they could not answer – perhaps a better understanding of Blessed is not merely happy, but at peace; not rich but satisfied with what you have and what you have been given; not carefree, but unburdened.
• What does Jesus mean when he says “Woe to you who…”? Is this final destination stuff? Saved vs damned? Or is it a word of warning and caution, maybe even an instruction – as in what you say to a horse when you want it to stop!
Lets work on that last one a bit shall we? First of all, we have to admit that Jesus is absolutely worried about the dangers of wealth. Its in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount That Jesus warns us that we cannot serve both wealth and God, we have to decide which one gets priority. There are a number of wealthy people in the scriptures that might be looked at as “success stories”: Zacchaeus, the Tax collector for example, Even Matthew himself, who was also a tax collector. Barnabas, Paul’s first mission companion, was noted as one who supported the early church with the sale of some property. and Lydia, a merchant from Thyatira, who believed and hosted Paul in Phillipi. Also let’s not forget Cornelius and even Joseph of Arimathea. All of them not withstanding, Jesus warns that it is humanly impossible for a rich person to be dependent on God, yet with God all things are possible.
Let’s talk honestly now for a moment. Life is really never simply black or white, fully righteous or totally evil. We are a fallen race. Not since Eden have our choices been so clear. We are so far down the trail of sin that most all of our choices are contaminated- trying to pick between the better of poor choices. Our perceptions and our values are suspect. We look at the poor and assume that they are so because of laziness or bad choices. We look with admiration at the wealthy and assume they are smart and diligent. Doesn’t God materially bless the faithful and punish the evil doer? Haven’t we heard a hundred TV evangelists promise Christian discipleship bringing constant “blessing”, respect and material prosperity? And yet, we know better. Scripture teaches us better than that. Still we desperately want it to be true and so we let the lie pass.
The ways of God are not “normal” as the world understands “normal”. That is why when we allow the Holy Spirit to orient us in that way, we might begin to understand why Jesus would say (Luke 6:22 NIV) “Blessed 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.” He goes on to warn that if you never come into conflict with the world, if you’re always popular and well thought of, you might want to wonder why the disciples were so persecuted and Jesus was crucified.
One final comment before I close. The christian life calls us – all of us – everything we are and the use of everything we have. Does that sound expensive? burdensome? Well… it depends on how you look at things. How do we respond to the one who has given his own life, that we might live in eternal fellowship with God? How are we to live when we have been accepted and forgiven through the grace given us by the very son of God? When seen in the light of such riches and blessings, the things that normally hold such attraction for us seem to lose their luster don’t they? The disciples left their nets and boats and followed Jesus.P. Yet Jesus makes it plain that we are not to withdraw from those around us, rather we are to welcome, embrace and serve others as God has gracefully accepted us. Jesus calls us, all of us – Rich and poor – popular and shunned – hungry and over fed – and most of us somewhere in between – sinners one and all – to follow him and accept no substitutes. We have claimed that Jesus is our Lord and Savior, now we are called to follow, knowing that road leads to the cross and to life abundant and eternal.