Seventh Sunday of Epiphany - Sermon on the Plain, part 1

17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Blessings and Woes

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
    “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

Eye to Eye with Jesus

Luke’s version of Jesus’ Beatitudes has several similarities and some interesting differences with Matthew’s version, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). While much of the sermon material is similar, the setting itself differs, highlighting Luke’s emphasis on the poor, sick, and outcast. Luke, unlike Matthew, offers a contrast between the poor and the dangers of riches with the Old-Testament formula of declaring woes (curses) to correspond with the four blessings. In Luke, we see Jesus addressing three audiences: the newly appointed 12 Apostles, the larger group of disciples (at least 72 as seen in Luke 10), and the multitude; yes, there is an implicit fourth group: you and me.

From the start, the reader knows this sermon is going to be different from Matthew’s presentation. In Matthew 5:1, Jesus goes up the mountain to teach as the great rabbi, the divine teacher. Unlike Matthew, Jesus in Luke goes up the mountain to pray all night and choose his 12 Apostles. While Jesus teaches on the mount in Matthew, he comes down from the mountain the next morning in Luke as the caring, human Son of Man to a level place or plain, eye to eye with the people, not to teach but to minister to them first—touching them, healing them, loving them. In v. 19 we read: “for power came out from him and healed all of them.” (NRSV)

Only after engaging with the people through these compassionate acts does Jesus teach them, still on their level. His identification with the people in their struggles and his deliverance from both their diseases and unclean spirits (v. 18) granted him both authority and receptivity with the people. Jesus grants his followers, including us, authority to share God’s Good News message, and models for us the offering of compassionate, loving deeds first in order to gain credibility and receptivity among the people with whom we minister. Both James 2:16 and I John 3:17-18 build upon this approach of caring for the needs of others first before we share the message. The old adage is true: “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Having tilled the soil with loving deeds, Jesus plants the seeds of his message into receptive hearts. Jesus begins all four Beatitudes with the word, “blessed.” The word translated blessed in all four cases in Luke is the Greek markarioi (pl.). Markarios (sing.) means blessed or happy, literally to extend favor. It is derived from the Greek word that means “happy,” and many translators use the word happy instead of blessed (e.g. the CEB version).

Jesus starts with “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (v. 20). Notice there is not the spiritualization as in Matthew’s “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3) but rather attention to the physical needs and suffering of the people. Luke’s account is more personal with the use of “for yours is the kingdom” rather than Matthew’s “for theirs.” The blessing of the poor is contrast with the woe to the rich. How blessed are the ones who trust in the Lord to sustain them, for they know his presence and faithfulness. Woe to the ones who look to riches to sustain them, which cannot last or be kept. They miss out on knowing and experiencing the goodness of God as the Good Provider.

Similarly in v. 21, Jesus in Luke addresses those who are hungry without Matthew’s “for righteousness.” Jesus identifies with and addresses the painful, physical realities of so many people, such as poverty, illness, and food. His deeds show God’s presence and the reality of the Kingdom in meeting both physical and spiritual needs. The word “now” is hopeful, implying that hunger will not last, and they will be satisfied. Jesus cares about the whole person.

Jesus continues with “Blessed are those who weep now, for you will laugh” in v. 21. Suffering is temporary and will pale in comparison to the joy and laughter of the coming kingdom. There is no joy in poverty or weeping, but the presence and joy of Jesus will fill and sustain his followers (John 15:11). With pain and sorrow defeated at the cross, Jesus gives his followers the “last laugh.”

In vss. 22-23, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.” Persecution was a present reality for Luke’s readers. Yes, faithful followers will experience the same rejection as Jesus when confronting injustice and corrupt power structures opposed to God’s justice and righteousness. Such rejection is no reason to rejoice but can unite us with Jesus in his sufferings for the sake of the kingdom; followers are united with Jesus’ resurrection power and victory, and they will be vindicated; therein is the reason to rejoice as Paul declares in Romans 8:17. (See also Romans 5:3-5)

But woe to the ones who are indifferent to or rejects Jesus, the needs of others, and the ways of the kingdom. The riches, things, pleasures, and approval of this world are all they will get. They will miss out on the happiness and blessing that cannot be extinguished by suffering or experiencing hate from others. The happiness and blessing offered by Jesus are unlimited, eternal, and not dependent on circumstances.

Luke offers us a pattern or rhythm of incarnational ministry modeled after the ways of Jesus: 1) begin with prayer; 2) relate to people on their level; 3) minister to their needs first—physical, emotional, and spiritual; and 4) share the Good News through a convincing, loving, and joyous witness. When we reach out and minister to others in these ways, we help them to see Jesus, eye to eye.

Rev. Ford Price
Epworth UMC
Ripley, WV

A mature message

Most all of you are familiar with movie ratings, intended to determine primarily who is mature enough to see the movie.

“G” rating is for all audiences.

“PG ” recommends parental review before taking younger children.

“PG-13” means the themes are o.k. for children, but brief non-sexual nudity or violence without gore may be included.

“R” are those movies for mature audiences which contain adult themes in abundance

“NC-17” (the replacement rating for “X”) indicates that there are several adult themes being portrayed beyond an “R” rating.

Sometimes when we are reading scripture to ourselves or others, we might want to think about the content before presenting to the listeners. We know that there are passages of scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, that might best be reserved for a more mature crowd.

I would rate this passage of scripture to be “R”—suitable for mature audiences, but, of course, the definition of adult themes would be entirely different.

Understanding what Luke is saying and the ability to take action on the text determines my rating.

A piece of advice that I offer: do not be lured into replacing this ‘Sermon on the Plain” by the ‘Sermon on the Mount.”

When there are passages in the synoptic Gospels that address what appears to be the same thing, sometimes we choose the one that is most familiar. While the Beatitudes in Matthew are very spiritual and comforting and heaven-focused, these beatitudes in Luke are much more about discipleship and guidelines to live by today in our lives. We are hearing the God-inspired Words by the God of Isaiah, God of the prophets.

As we are hearing about discipleship in our scripture readings recently, this week continues to move forward on what a mature Christian should understand and implement in their life.

I once knew a pastor who chose to offer me some "words of wisdom." His stance was that people did not come to church to be held accountable, but rather to just feel God’s love. After all, who wants to be challenged or leave worship feeling inadequate?

Now that is not an opinion held by that pastor alone, for we have televangelists that provide us with only success-and-blessing theology. We need to understand, however, that according to one writer, “The fulfillment of the demands of this sermon will not be the outcome of personal effort and resources, but of divine grace.”

The Sermon on the Plain by Luke is a call to action—a call to a life of discipleship. In Matthew’s Beatitudes, Jesus is speaking from atop a mountain … speaking down for all to hear and be comforted.

In Luke’s Beatitudes, Jesus speaks from the same level as the people. Jesus is speaking from a place where poverty and hunger and sadness is real.

It is hard for us sitting here today to truly understand what is meant by “the poor” in this scripture. As little as we may have (as it may seem to us), it does not compare to those who live in complete devastation, without housing or clean water or uncontaminated food.

In those countries where poor is the way of life, Jesus is all that they have.

Jesus is their celebration and hope!

Rev. Beth Peters
Cedar Grove UMC
Parkersburg, WV

Wilderness Journey

We started out before dawn and planned to break our morning fast by stopping at a well-known local restaurant just up the road.  But soon we were driving thru the countryside, a wilderness of few exits and no eating places. We were becoming famished, empty, but we went on and on, hoping to find it.

We were in a veritable hospitality desert with no relief in sight. More hungry than we imagined, we finally had to stop for fuel for the car.

Hopefully we whined to the cashier in the pay booth: “Isn’t there a Mickey D’s or at least a QuickStop close by?” “You’re not from these parts, are you?” he quipped with a knowing smile . . . . “The best home cookin’ in the state is just two exits ahead, right off the ramp. Well known for years!”

Immediately our hunger turned to full-blown hope, and we rolled back up onto the highway with a new attitude.  One exit . . . two exits . . .  Oh, my gosh! you couldn’t miss it! The parking lot was more than full, and folks were waiting outside the door, sitting on short benches and talking in little groups. We slipped into a narrow parking space and drooled our way to the hostess stand. “Two for Fizer, please. . . . “  In the crowd of patrons were smiling faces, excited voices, and pleasant aromas wafting thru  . . .

Our hope was warmed by the reassuring atmosphere  . . .  “Oh, no . . .  we don’t mind the wait!”

They had come from all around, that multitude from Jerusalem, from the coast of Tyre and Sidon . . .  from all of Judea. It wasn’t because they were hopeless and full of despair.  On the contrary, they were hope-full and hungry for reassurance.  And there he was, standing on the level place on the mountainside! It was Joseph’s son from Nazareth! Rabbi Jesus had come with his disciples to teach and to heal, to drive out unclean spirits, to give the multitudes hope and reassurance. Can you see the expectant faces? Can you hear the excited voices? Can you sense the air of their anticipation?

Across the sands, thru the wilderness . . .  above the waters, in villages and byways, the word had spread in his wake  . . .  Jesus of Nazareth was making waves. His was a ministry, a message, that disputed the religious wisdom of the time.  And as they listened intently on that plain, the crowd heard from the Master that the wealthy and influential would not blessed by God any more than the poor and powerless would be.  Jesus’ message brought seeds of hope to each and every person with ears to hear and a heart for living in God’s Kingdom. Their hopes for spiritual wealth were lifted by the Master’s teaching. Their hunger for the assurance of abundant life was satisfied by his healing presence and power.

Who in our communities are hopeful and hungry? Who in Christ’s church is seeking the Word and assurance of abundant life in the Kingdom of God? How will they hear the Word? Who will stand with the crowd on the plain to share Jesus’ compassion, justice and wisdom?

Rev. Claudia A Krebs Fizer
Robinson UMC
St. Albans