When you come to the reading we had today it’s easy to have what I call a ‘Topgear’ moment. The presenters of topgear would usually finish the show by saying something controversial and then Jeremy Clarkson will turn and look down the camera lens and say “and on that bomb shell Good night.”
It’s not that Jesus finishes with a bombshell, but rather he starts with one. John Blanchard says “together Jesus list of blessings and woes form a collection of moral and spiritual bombshells which challenged so many of the accepted teaching of the time.” Both Jesus time and if we are honest our own times as well. We live in a world and society where people are considered blessed and happy if they are rich, or at least well off, we use that word comfortable, they have enough to eat, where they can laugh, they are amused and free from sorrow and hardship in life, and where they are popular. You just have to look at the messages we tell ourselves in adverts, the way the life styles of the rich and famous fill TV screens, magazine pages and newspaper columns. The way in which we couch our dreams and aspirations, in terms of what we own and can have, the way we wonder and say ‘it’s not fair, why is this happening to me when we do face suffering, hardship and reverse… and Jesus turns that all on its head. When it comes to who is blessed with Jesus revolution of grace it’s not so much about how much we have the good life but rather our experience of the God life, God’s grace and mercy.
We are working our way through Luke’s gospel and we’ve come to what people call the sermon on the plain where Jesus does some plain talking with his disciples as to what it means to follow his footsteps… A call to exceptional love in light of God’s gracious blessing: It starts with Luke’s list of Jesus beatitudes. It provides us again with an understanding of what his revolution of grace is all about, it gives hope as we face the realities and injustices of life that the Kingdom of God bringing’s justice and renewal, reverses and rights in justice through mercy and grace, it gives us the assurance we need to be willing to love exceptionally and outrageously and sacrificially knowing we can trust the outrageous over the top sovereign goodness of God.
We are more used to the beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel, you can tell that by the fact that the two musical expressions of the beatitudes we used in today’s service reflect the wording of Matthew not Luke. The two lists are very different; Matthew has eight different beatitudes, whereas Luke has four. Matthew doesn’t have a corresponding list of woes or warning, whereas we find Luke’s woes extremely challenging, hard-hitting and in you face. In Matthew the Sermon on the Mount is focused more on our spiritual condition and the difference between external law observance and heart attitudes whereas Luke is very much about the real physical conditions we find ourselves in.: Matthew says poor of spirit and hunger and thirst for righteousness’ whereas Luke just says poor and hungry.
People have wondered about these differences, there is a whole raft of different theories: The gospel writers used different oral traditions about what Jesus said, we have two different sermons; I’ve preached on the same passages at different churches and often my sermon changes to fit the situation. I wonder if Matthew aware of a gentile audience who may not be aware of the short hand in Jewish though that poor means the pious poor, those who trust in God, has emphasised that by adding 'in spirit' and 'for righteousness'. In the end we don’t know but I think they reflect the different emphasis and of the gospels.
You may remember that when we looked at John that one of the motifs that flows through John gospel is the idea of new creation… it starts in the beginning and it resurrection narrative starts in the garden on the first day, with Jesus breathing his spirt on the disciples, giving them new life just as God had breathed life into humans in genesis narrative. Matthew has a focus on the priestly understanding of Jesus ministry and mission, the gospel we are probably more used to Jesus came to die for our sins, to put us right with God, and our receiving that calls us to know our spiritual poverty, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to desire peace with God and with each other. It’s important for us to understand that for our salvation and relationship with God. Luke’s emphasis comes from the passage that Jesus read from the book of Isaiah the spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed, to declare the acceptable year of the Lord… It’s about the restoration of God’s people from exile and the focus is on liberation and restoration, God’s salvation shown in the establishment of justice in the world, the focus is shown in Lukes beatitudes that speak of God blessing and caring for the poor and hungry, sorrow filled and those who are oppressed and rejected by society because they are about Jesus revolution of grace. We need all these different understanding of the gospel to grasp the true dimensions of what the mission of Jesus and the Kingdom of God is like.
There are four parallel blessings and woes.
The first is that the poor are blessed because there’s is the kingdom of God, and woe to the rich for they have already received their comfort. In Jesus ministry we have seen what he means that God makes happy the poor. Jesus had reached into the lives of the sick, the marginalised, lepers, demonised, stigmatised, tax collectors and sinners, widows and women all people who were considered to be poor, to have low or no status in their society and bought God’s help, God’s healing and God’s mercy and restored them to wholeness. He had invited them to follow him and they had left everything to do so. We saw also that the people who have so much invested in the world as it is rejected Jesus message. They are happy and satisfied with social status, seeing material blessing as a sign of God’s favour that they were missing God’s revolution of Grace. We can focus on those same things in our lives and miss the goodness and the blessing of God gives when we are willing to give it all up for him, we can miss God’s compassion for the poor the hungry the sorrowful and the oppressed and focus on what we have and can get and we miss God’s grace and mercy.
Those who are hungry may not receive food now but looking forward with hope to the love of God’s new people and the consummation of God’s Kingdom they will be satisfied. Be it a physical hunger or a spiritual one, God will meet their needs. Whereas those who are satisfied now, who simply focus on their own needs for food now will find themselves going hungry when God’s kingdom is consummated. They’ve already had their full.
The third one is those who weep will laugh later, once again it is a future fulfilment. Those facing difficulty and suffering know by looking to God’s grace and trusting in him will know joy in God’s presence and care. Those who are prepared to be broken and weep for the pain and suffering in the world now and let it move them to action will see joy as God moves and when God brings all injustice to an end. Those who laugh now who focus on their own empty amusement their own comfort avoiding life’s difficulties and the sorrow of others will find in the end that they will mourn and weep. They will realise they have missed God’s revolution of love and grace.
Finally there is the parallel between suffering and being rejected and slandered because of the son of man, and a woe that we should be careful when everyone thinks well of us. The example that is given is the prophets in the Old Testament. The prophets were persecuted and rejected and even killed because they were determined to stick with God’s truth and proclaim God’s truth and live it out in their lives. The false prophets simply said what people wanted to hear, they wanted status and acceptance. Jesus says we should rejoice if we are mistreated and ostracised because we hold to the gospel because our reward will be in heaven… Paul sums it up well in 1 Thessalonians when he talks about his ministry and mission being about pleasing God not simply pleasing human beings.
How does this apply to us today…Three things.
The first is once again Jesus shows us his revolution of Grace. The radical nature of his mission and the love of God. God’s heart is for the poor, the hungry, the sorrow filled and those who suffer for righteousness. God is just and righteous and his kingdom is about the great reversal turning the order and realms of this world on their heads, calling for the poor and the low of status to be cared for, the broken to find healing and wholeness, the ostracised to be welcomed in, to know God’s goodness and God’s grace. Like with the focus of Matthews gospel a central part of that is the restoration of relationship with God, our need to have our sins forgiven and know the new life and new creation that John speaks of, but also that it breaks into the realm of humanity in God’s love and mercy and compassion being shown by his disciples and people. The warning for us is that we do not find ourselves fulfilled and satisfied and amused by this world and its things but rather we look to God’s kingdom, god’s revolution coming into our place and space. As Jesus says in Matthew’s sermon on the mount…” we put first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
The second thing is hear today amidst your own poverty and hunger and suffering and oppression that God cares, that God blesses and makes happy. We can face these things in life, the storms, the reversals the suffering, the hunger, and the back turning against us because God can be trusted , because God will act, God has acted in Jesus Christ, because God is sovereign and moving in history our personal history and world history to establish his kingdom. Two of the blessings have a now component in their fulfilment, the kingdom of God is theres, rejoice in that day and leap, because great is your reward in heaven, they speak to the fact we can know God’s mercy and ministry and mission in our lives now, and two of them look to the future, that there will be a time when God sets all things right. We can know God moving know and trust him that he will bless us in the future. I think if we long for the things we see in our society now as blessings we will be disappointed, now because that good life is beyond most of us and in the future when it will dissolve into insignificance with the surpassing greatness of knowing and being known by Jesus Christ.
Lastly, Jesus now turns to his disciples to talk about being a people who will love exceptionally, sacrificially, love as Jesus loves, to leave it all behind to follow Jesus. In the beatitudes we see that Jesus gives his disciples, then and now the, confidence and the hope that they are able to do that because of God’s great grace and love. We can be generous without thought of receiving anything back because God blesses the poor and the hungry. We can enter into people’s sorrow and pain because it is God who brings joy and laughter. We can speak truth because while we may face rejection and persecution, we rejoice because of God’s acceptance and love.