A Sermon preached on Epiphany VI, Feb. 17, at St. Augustine’s WiesbadenJeremiah 17:5-10, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, Luke 6:17-26
I subscribe to a quarterly publication called “The Anglican Theological Review.” The last edition was all about preaching and one of the articles, entitled “Two Thousand Years of Great Sermons,” looked at 10 examples of great sermons. The first one in that list was Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, the extract from Luke’s Gospel we just heard this morning.
Why is this sermon great? Apart of course from the fact that our Lord and Savior Jesus preached it! According to the author of the article, one thing that makes it effective is its structure. “The parallel structure (four “Blessed are the”; four contrasting “Alas for you”) make it easy to understand when heard, easy to remember.” Sound advice, I shall try and remember it myself.
The other great sermon element Jesus uses is paradox, which means “an idea contrary to common opinions and popular belief, and Jesus first words are precisely that,” contrary to popular belief. Now there’s a lot of paradox in Christianity. Death is new life. The last shall be first. Jesus is fully divine and fully human. From Arianism onwards, the belief that Jesus was just another created being, albeit the first one, heresy always arises from the refusal of paradox, and from the desire for simple, black and white answers.
Where is the paradox in Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain? Well surely, Jesus’ listeners will have thought, and most people still think today, that it is the rich, the well-regarded, the well fed, and those who have reason to laugh who are blessed or we could just say happy, because that is what the original word also means. After all, is not prosperity also a sign of God’s favor, perhaps even of God’s election or selection? That is certainly what the rich and powerful have always liked to think. But Jesus turns this logic on its head. It is the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and those who are hated on account of the Son of Man who are blessed and have reason to be happy. And instead the rich, the full, those who are spoken well of who need to worry.
Jesus is not saying that poverty is a good thing or that the poor should just suffer in silence, and simply look forward to some future reward: that would be religion as the opium of the masses as Karl Mark once described it. In his view, religion reduced people's immediate suffering and provided them with pleasant illusions, while preventing them from seeing the oppression around them, and the need for radical change. No, when Jesus says that you are blessed when people “hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man,” (Luke 6:22) he is issuing a call to speak up for change in his name, just as the prophets of old spoke of for change and for justice, and were persecuted for it. And that change and his agenda of the kingdom of God is not meant for the hereafter but starts in the here and now.
That is why Jesus goes on to warn the rich and the powerful and the complacent that they are in trouble with God, unless they change. He wants change, he wants everyone to love God and their neighbor. You do not love your neighbor if your wealth comes from his or her poverty, and on a global scale that is really where much of our prosperity comes from today. And you do not love your neighbor if you make no effort to change this situation, to fill the hungry and to give them a reason to laugh.
That has not changed at all in the last two thousand years. Recently, we and our societies seem to have become more selfish, ever more unwilling to share our abundance with others. Take the issue of refugees for example. It sometimes seems as if our discussions are now only about how to keep those who flee from war and poverty out or send them back as quickly as possible. And in some countries, most recently the UK, International Aid is being redefined simply as a policy or business promotion tool: In a recent paper from a Conservative Party think-tank, the authors argue the UK “should be freed to define its aid spending unconstrained by criteria set by external organizations,” (by which they mean not keeping to the already pitiful and minuscule 0.7% spending goal on aid), and the purpose of such aid should be expanded from poverty reduction include “the nation’s overall strategic goals.” So we won’t help poor people where they, and we won’t let them in to our countries either. Woe indeed to us all!
But this passage is not just about morals and ethics, important as they are. There is another layer of meaning, another reason for the paradox of upside-down blessings and woes, and it is spiritual. In the Old Testament passage we heard first, from Jeremiah, that prophet talks about just one woe or curse and one blessing, not four of each. Being Jeremiah, he starts with the bad news. “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” (Jeremiah 17:5) That was how he felt most of the people of Jerusalem and Judah were thinking and acting. That they could rely on their own strength and might, and on clever political alliances to keep them safe. They still went to the Temple and made sacrifices, but that was just lip-service. In their hearts they did not think they needed God. But the Lord tests the mind and searches the heart and can see through such an outward show of devotion. Only those “who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord” (17:7) are blessed, Jeremiah says.
Jesus calls the poor blessed, because they knew they had nothing to expect from the world, but everything to expect from God, and from the kingdom of God that Jesus promises. He holds them up as an example, nor for their poverty, but for their attitude, and their willingness to look to God, and to turn to God for help. Those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord, are the ones who are also willing to undergo the spiritual transformation God offers, making us the fully human beings we are intended to be as creatures made in God’s image.
When Jesus issues his four woes, his four warnings to the rich and the powerful he is also warning them against relying completely on themselves and on their material possessions. Later in Luke’s Gospel (12:13-21) Jesus will use the parable of the rich fool to give us the same message: This was the man who pulled down all his barns to build larger ones. “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”
Watch out, Jesus warns. Your seeming blessedness is actually a great danger. It won’t save you. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that material wealth is all you need. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that you do not need the other. And don’t fall into the trap of believing that you do not need God. It will come back to haunt you, in this life and in the next.
Jesus wants everyone, rich and poor alike, Jew and Gentile, man and woman to return to a right relationship with God. The beatitudes, especially the teachings that follow this passage that focus on unconditional, sacrificial love are how God wants us to behave in the kingdom Jesus inaugurates. Put simply, loving God and our neighbor. According to today’s Collect, God is the strength of all who put their trust in him. With the help of God’s grace, and only with that help, not on our own, not with our own power, we can overcome our weakness and our brokenness, keep the commandments, especially the great commandment of love, and will please God both in will and deed. Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.