Sixth Sunday After Epiphany
The Sermon on the Plain
TEXT: Luke 6:17-26
In the classic Monty Python movie, “Life of Brian,” Jesus goes up on the mountain side to teach the people. There’s a huge crowd gathered around him—so vast that some of the people who are on the outer edge of the crowd cannot hear his words and must ask others what the master has said.
As Jesus pronounces what have become known as the Beatitudes, one of the characters in the movie—desperate to know what Jesus is saying—asks a man who is ahead of him in the crowd, “What is he saying? What is he saying?”
The man checks with a person in front of him, who in turn checks with someone else, who checks with someone else … and then the message is relayed back. The Master says, “Blessed are the cheese makers!”
I thought that would make a good sermon title: “Blessed Are the Cheese Makers”. It reminds us how often we confuse what Jesus has said, and it makes us think about who is blessed and who is not.
Who are the blessed ones anyway? Who is it that God favours? And who does God not favour? Who is it that God warns with troubles and woes?
The author of the third gospel—the Physician we know as Luke—clearly thought a fair bit about that. His account of Jesus’ sermon—which we like to call the “Sermon on the Mount”—is different than Matthew’s version. Now, Luke does not contradict what Matthew had to say—but he does give us an alternate view of Jesus’ sermon. And in some ways, Luke’s version is clearer—and perhaps more useful.
In Luke, the sermon is not preached from a hillside, where Jesus can look over the top of the crowd and hand down the Word from on high to those who are beneath him. No. Luke’s account is set on a plain—on a level place where a large crowd has gathered and pressed in upon Jesus; where he has been walking amongst them, healing their diseases and curing their afflictions.
Also, in Luke, Jesus not only announces who is blessed by God—but also who is not! As Luke recounts the story, Jesus enunciates a series of curses or woes to match the blessings:
- “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
- “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled … Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”
- “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh … Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”
- “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on the account of the Son of Man … Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
Think about it. What does this list say about our aspirations? About our dreams? About our rushing out to buy lottery tickets in hopes of winning a jackpot? What does it say about our attempts to fill our days with mindless diversions and endless entertainments? And what does it say about the value of our sorrow, our pain, and our hunger? What does this list of blessings and woes say about what God is about? About where God is? About who God is for?
God reverses all our expectations—the expectations that we learn from the world—and I, for one, am glad of it! You see, I need to know that God understands my pain, my poverty, my despair, my sin, my fear. I need to know that God is with me the way that I really am. I need to know that the image of joy and success and happiness and prosperity that is portrayed 24 hours a day on television—that image that I cannot make real for myself no matter how hard I work—is a false image! It is a false image of blessedness.
I need to know that God is beside me where I live: on the plain, on the level; where I am sick and in need; where I struggle to do what is right; where I fight to keep hold of my faith. I need to know that I can touch Jesus—and be touched by him—right here and right now; that I don’t have to have all the answers—or understand all the mysteries, or be perpetually, joyfully confident—in order for him to care about me.
The promise of Christ—in both the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel and in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s—is that there is joy on the other side of grief, laughter on the other side of tears, fulfillment on the other side of hunger, and joyful reward on the other side of the abuse and the ridicule we receive because we cling to him.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good time. I like a good joke. I’m happy when I can forget my problems. I feel good when I can shut out the troubles of the world around me and just relax. But I feel God’s presence and God’s power most intensely not in the good times—the easy times, the times when I am blind to the pain within me and the pain around me—but in times of need, and challenge, and hurt. As someone once put it, “God can work with us in our best worst moments.” God can accomplish something for us—and in us, and through us—when we are open to him in our need. In those “best worst moments,” we realize that God understands; that Jesus was where we are; that he had doubts and uncertainties and fears; that he had no home to call his own, no friends that he could really count on when times got tough; that he wept and he cried—and he got angry, too!
And we realize that God was with him in all those times; and God strengthened him, and gave him the victory.
Happiness—blessedness—is not found in wealth, in three square meals a day, in mindless laughter, or in the good opinions that others may have of us. Blessedness is found in surrendering. Blessedness is found in knowing our need—and the need of the world around us—and in discovering that God really cares, that God is really present with us even in the worst of times, and that God will vindicate all those who cling to him in the midst of trouble. Yes Cling to him, and not to the god of material success, or the god of self-reliance, or the god of blind happiness.
Blessedness is found in trusting God and in doing the works of God—the works of loving, and caring, and healing, and sharing, and forgiving.
“Blessed are the cheese-makers—for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Perhaps there is more wisdom in this mishearing of Jesus’ words than in the popular distortions we see in the world around us:
- Blessed are the cheese-makers who do their best for one one-hundredth of what hockey players receive.
- Blessed are the factory workers who share their jobs rather than hoarding overtime.
- Blessed are the single moms who struggle to feed and clothe their children and to teach them self-respect.
- Blessed are the lonely widowers who make time to visit those who have suffered the same kind of loss as they.
- Blessed are those who are rooted in faith and who share what they have, materially and spiritually, with others.
Blessed are those who know their need, and who trust in God, and follow in God’s way; they are like trees planted by streams of water. Their leaves do not wither. In all that they do they prosper.
Thanks be to God for such as these.