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Reversal

A sermon delivered by Rand Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on October 31, 2010.                                  
Psalm 149:1-9; Luke 6:20-31

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The reading from Luke’s gospel, I mean. Where have we heard this before? Oh yes, don’t you find Jesus saying the same things in the Gospel of Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount? Well, sort of. Similar things, but not exactly.

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus begins his sermon by listing what we have come to know as the Beatitudes, or blessings. They’ve become quite familiar to us…

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…

“Blessed are those who mourn…

“Blessed are the meek…

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted…”

The blessings we read from Luke’s gospel are much like the ones we find in Matthew. But they’re not exactly the same, though they are recording the same event. It’s just that they are done so a bit differently.

There’s a reason for that. Matthew had a particular context, a purpose for his writing of the gospel, and Luke did as well. It could have something to do with the fact that Matthew was a Jew and Luke a Gentile. That would mean they had different kinds of audiences, not to mention dissimilar perspectives from which to tell their stories about Jesus.

So what you find in Luke’s gospel is indeed similar to Matthew’s version of the beatitudes, but – as we said – not exactly. For one thing, Luke has Jesus preaching on a plain and not a mountain or hillside. For Luke, the mountain is a place for solitude, to be alone with one’s thoughts and prayers, to spend time with God. The way he tells the story, that is exactly what Jesus has been doing (v. 12).

It is only after his time on the mountain, according to Luke, that Jesus comes down and, as Luke puts it, stands “on a level place.” A level place, in Luke’s perspective, is where people gather in large numbers, so he says that “a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon” (v. 17) have come to hear what Jesus has to say, to see what he plans to do. Luke wants to reinforce for his readers that the people – all kinds of people – have come to Jesus from everywhere.

Remember that Luke is a Gentile, and one of his major points is that Jesus’ ministry is for everyone, that good news will be brought to all the poor, release will be proclaimed to all the captives. All the blind will receive their sight and all the oppressed will go free. The year of the Lord’s favor will be proclaimed to all (4:18-19). Not just to the Jews but to the Gentiles as well.

That is the heart of Luke’s gospel, a theme that is also central to his second volume, The Acts of the Apostles. And for that reason, he tells us that “a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon” had come to hear Jesus and be blessed by means of his great and wonderful power. Tyre and Sidon, especially, were where Gentiles lived.

Matthew puts Jesus on the mountain so his readers will see him as something of a new Moses, who will lead his people from the captivity of sin and to the freedom of grace. Luke, by having Jesus come down to the people, wants us to see his accessibility to all people everywhere, regardless of race or creed. So, geography becomes theology, doesn’t it? I find this very interesting and hope you do too.

They had come from just about everywhere, Luke tells us, “to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured” (v. 18). They were all trying to touch him, to get a piece of him, to get their share of his power. Jesus was a rock star, the MVP of the league, and more popular than anybody else around.

Popular, that is, until he opens his mouth. And then, when he starts offering his beatitudes, Jesus has his congregation shaking their heads and wondering if he had been dipping just a bit too much in the communion wine.

“Blessed are you who are poor,” he says. “Blessed are you who are hungry…” he says. “Blessed are you who weep… Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man…”

Why, these are the very kinds of things they worked so hard to avoid, and now the Carpenter is telling them to be grateful for such terrible realities. As one commentator has put it, “Hearing this is like drinking from a glass of what looked like lemonade and finding out it was bug spray instead.”1

Take the first beatitude, for example: “Blessed are you who are poor.” Have you ever been around poor people? I mean really poor people? I have on occasion. They sure don’t look all that happy to me. Nor have I ever talked with a truly poor person who considered himself to be blessed. No, as far as I could tell, they acted like they’d been drinking bug spray, not lemonade.

I guess one’s perspective on this is determined by one’s lot in life. If you’re rich, and the idea of having that reversed in heaven is a foreboding one to you, then you might want to consider what you’re doing with your wealth… whether you’re keeping it all for yourself and not sharing with the ones Jesus referred to as “the least of these.” I don’t know if that is their motivation, but think of people like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, for example. They’re using much of their wealth to help the less fortunate of our world.

If you’re poor, you might think that just because you have little now you will have much when the time comes for you to leave this earthly abode and find your diamond-studded mansion in the afterlife. If you’re hungry now, a heavenly banquet sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? It all depends on your perspective, I suppose… your lot in life.

And it’s hard for us to get a sense of the original shock factor involved in what Jesus had to say.2 These people who have come from all over to be with Jesus have not come to sing “In the Sweet By and By.” They want their blessings now, not later. The poor want to be raised up now, the crippled want to walk now, and the down-and-out want to be up-and-in. Jesus is supposed to be giving them good things and delivering them from bad things. Instead what he offers them is some pie-in-the-sky future blessing that sounds good in a sermon, whether it’s preached on a mountain or on the plain, but won’t put food on the table today.

What Jesus calls blessings are the things they are trying to get away from… poverty, hunger, sorrow, hatred. How can you make virtues out of life’s deepest problems? And what kind of theology is that?

I wonder if, as Jesus begins talking this way, a number of the people who have come to hear him begin slowly drifting away. This isn’t at all what they expected of the Nazarene, so they leave disappointed, if not disillusioned. I wonder if, by the time Jesus is through with his sermon, his congregation is much smaller than when he began. If so, that would be consistent with the rest of his ministry. As I have suggested to you before, when Jesus died on the cross he had one less disciple than he had before. It was the nature of his ministry.

Jesus’ words would have struck them right between the eyes. After all, they knew hunger. They knew sorrow. They knew hatred. These kinds of things were everyday realities, no doubt about it. We are fortunate to live in a day and time, and a part of the world, where we can fairly easily avoid these things. So where do you think that puts us in the eyes of Jesus?

Listen again to what Jesus says…

“Blessed are you who are poor…

“Blessed are you who are hungry…

“Blessed are you who weep…

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man…”

“Blessed.” You call these blessings? Do any of those describe us? Poor, hungry, weeping, hated, excluded, reviled, defamed? No, not really. I guess, in the eyes of Jesus, we just aren’t blessed people.

In Luke, as opposed to Matthew, Jesus offers a counterpoint woe or curse for every blessing. Listen again to what Jesus says…

“Woe to you who are rich…

“Woe to you who are full…

“Woe to you who are laughing…

“Woe to you when all speak well of you…”

Do any of these describe us? Uh oh. We don’t like where this is going, do we? Are we supposed to give away all we have, dispose of our food, walk around weeping all the time looking for those who despise us? Or should we just chalk this up as a portion of the Bible that has little or nothing to say to us, and then move on to something that is a bit more positive in its message? Allow me to offer a response, if you will.

Jesus isn’t telling us what we need to do. He and his kingdom are not necessarily served by our going out and getting rid of everything we own. He’s not offering advice. He is informing us of how things are in the sight of God. We live in a world in which what you see is not what you will get when it comes time for us to meet God. In fact, we live in a mirror-image world where what is now is the reversal of the way it is in the kingdom of heaven. Everything here is the opposite of how it is in God’s eyes. What is important to us now may not be important at all in the kingdom.

And it doesn’t have to do with just poverty and such things. Jesus also calls on us to live counter-intuitively. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” He says that if anyone strikes us we are to turn the other cheek, give up our shirt to those who would rip our coat from off our backs. “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Counter-intuitive, the opposite of what we think is important or valued.

There, do you feel better now? I didn’t think so. Let me try again. The Hebrew word for blessing means to bow down before another… that God, the high and exalted One, in order to bless us, has bowed down before us by becoming one of us. What does that tell you? It says to me that God is in the business of reversing things, that what is important to us carries little weight in the Kingdom. What we would consider to be servitude, in God’s eyes, is to be exalted. What is exalted now will be brought low.

Jesus says something else that is very easy for us to overlook. After offering the blessings and woes, and before he gets into the turning-the-other-cheek thing, he says, “But I say to you who listen…” He knows, doesn’t he, that there are some listening to him who aren’t really hearing it, who just don’t get it.

There are basically two kinds of people with Jesus that day. There are those who have come to take from Jesus whatever they can get, and those who have committed themselves as disciples to following him. It is to these disciples that Jesus now speaks. I can almost see him leaning over (remember that in those days a teacher sits when he is speaking), I can see him leaning over and dropping his voice, perhaps knowing that those who are really and truly interested in his way of life are going to be the ones who are closest to him.  “But I say to you who listen…” Listen to what?

Well, how about a blessing? Our tradition as Baptists, when it comes to the final prayer in worship, is to do just that: say a prayer. There are other traditions, however, that offer a blessing. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to do that now…

May God give you the grace to loosen your grip on what you think it is that makes you happy, in order that you might let your joy come from God and not yourselves or your possessions.

Maybe, just maybe, that comes fairly close to what Jesus meant. If not, let’s keep trying, shall we? Let’s keep trying.

Lord, may we accept your blessings whether we think of them as such or not. Help us to examine our lives, and seek to do your will rather than our own. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.

Notes

1Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1999), p. 53.

2Ibid, p. 54.