Pulpit Resource: February 17, 2019

January 4th, 2019

This is a free selection from Will Willimon's Pulpit Resource. This resource is available through a print or digital subscription.

Selected Reading

Luke 6:17-26

Theme

Jesus Christ, as God’s Son, speaks God’s word to us. Jesus is a preacher. Sometimes the sermons that Jesus preaches are a blessing to us, and sometimes his sermons are judgment against us. Are we able to receive his judgment as well as we receive his blessing? Sometimes the test of our faith is how well we are able to listen to and take to heart the hard sermons of Jesus.

Introduction to the Readings

Jeremiah 17:5-10

Jeremiah the prophet pronounces a series of blessings and curses upon the people of Israel.

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Paul speaks of the reality of the resurrection to the Corinthians. He connects the resurrection of Christ with the resurrection hope that is held by all those who live and die in Christ.

Luke 6:17-26

On a level place, Jesus preaches to his disciples, pronouncing God’s blessing upon some and the woes that are to come upon others.

Prayer

Jesus, during this hour of worship, we pray that you would speak to us the words that you think we need to hear. Cut through our defenses, and tell us that truth we have been avoiding all week long. Find a way to make us hear what you have to say, even if what we hear causes us discomfort. 

We confess that we often come to worship seeking comfort, consolation, and affirmation. By the power of your Holy Spirit, overwhelm our need for self-protection and our craving for self-­affirmation.

Thereby we might go forth from this time of worship knowing that we have been encountered by a God who is not only loving but also truthful. We thank you that you had enough faith in our ability to receive a truthful word that you called us to be your disciples. Now enable us to truly be your disciples by hearing your truthful, challenging, discomforting word. Amen.

Encountering the text:

Jesus has become a big hit with the crowds (6:17ff). Multitudes are clamoring after him. It’s good to see that Jesus has found a way to heal and work deeds of power so that many follow him. And now Jesus begins to preach. He comes down to a level place, as if to get down on their level. Do we really wonder, after hearing this Sermon on the Plain with its series of blessings and curses, why the crowds got smaller?

The sermon begins well enough, with a series of blessings upon those whom the world often curses. But then the sermon goes negative with a series of curses and warnings to those whom the world considers to be most blessed.

In the Gospel reading from Luke 6, Jesus speaks of those who are blessed, identifying them in specific ways. These statements by Jesus sound familiar, of course, because these blessings are found at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (5:1–7:29). We now find these blessings in Luke’s less catchy version: Jesus’s “Sermon on the Plain” (6:17-49). In comparing these two versions of the sermon, we note that Luke’s rendition is briefer, edgier, with a sharp contrasting of the “you” who are blessed and “you” who are cursed. In Luke, Jesus addresses his followers. In Matthew, Jesus appears to address the “multitudes,” and his disciples listen in on his words to the crowd. Matthew’s sermon is noted for its abstract, bordering on sublime language: “Blessed are poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3 NRSV); by contrast, Luke’s version of the sermon is a straightforward announcement of the nature of Jesus’s reign: “Blessed are you who are poor. . . .Woe to you who are rich.” The Sermon on the Plain is a forceful prophetic statement. (Compare with the announcement of the kingdom in Luke 4:14-30.)

Surely Jesus means for his listeners to ask themselves, “Where do I fit in? Am I among the blessed or the cursed?” First Jesus speaks directly to his disciples (6:20), who are among “a huge crowd of people from all around Judea and Jerusalem and the area around Tyre and Sidon” (6:17). There’s always been quite a debate over whether these words were meant for the crowds or just for the inner circle, the twelve. However, by the point we get to verse 27, we find ourselves among “you who are willing to hear.” All who attend to Jesus’s words, all who really attempt to listen, are being invited to join up, join in, and become agents, here and now, of the coming reign of God that Jesus inaugurates in this sermon.

Proclaiming the text:

A couple of Sundays ago, we watched Jesus preach his inaugural sermon at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. If you remember that sermon, you know that things did not go well. Perhaps things went well in Jesus’s estimation—he clearly and forcefully spoke the truth about God’s coming kingdom. 

But the congregational reaction to Jesus’s sermon did not go well at all. In fact, at the conclusion of his sermon, the entire congregation rose up and tried to kill him!

This Sunday, Jesus is again in the pulpit preaching. Again, a stirring sermon. Well, to be honest, Jesus preaches a couple of sermons. Let’s go through the two sermons that Jesus preaches in his Sermon on the Plain. And why don’t you decide which of these two sermons is preached to you?

I remember being taught in our first-year preaching class in seminary, “Every sermon ought to be aimed. Have some listener or group of listeners in mind as you preach. Only then will people receive your sermon as a word addressed to them.”

All right, you listen to Jesus preach and decide which sermon is the sermon that Jesus meant for you. (All scripture quotations taken from The New Testament: A Translation, by David Bentley Hart.)

Jesus raised his eyes to his disciples and said:

How blissful the destitute, for yours is God’s kingdom.

Bless you, all you poor. Most of the kingdoms of this world function for the rich, helping the rich get richer and forcing the poor into even greater poverty. Good news! In God’s kingdom, those whom the world—through its taxes, its legal structures, its systems of punishment, its racism, prejudices, and put-downs—makes poor will be made rich.

How blissful those who are now hungry, for you will feast.

Oh, how fortunate are those of you who are hungry. I know there is not much greater misfortune than hunger, but in God’s kingdom that’s coming, there will be more than enough for you. There will be more than enough food, more than enough opportunity, a plentiful future rather than the broken tomorrow that the world offers you. Nobody will be forced to go to bed hungry. You, the hungry, are about to be filled. Because God has a special place in God’s kingdom for those of you who the world sends away empty.

How blissful those now weeping, for you will laugh.

Oh, you lucky ones who are now weeping. Your tears will turn to laughter. Those of you who have received so much bad news will be the recipients of good news. God’s kingdom’s coming, and in that kingdom, those who mourn because of the losses they have suffered in this world will receive a new world in which laughter will be the order of the day.

How blissful you when men hate you and when they exclude you and reproach you and reject your name as something wicked, for the Son of Man’s sake: on that day, rejoice and leap about; for look: your reward in heaven is great; for their fathers accordingly did the same thing to the prophets.

If you’ve ever been put down, left out, shunned, or disrespected because of Jesus, rejoice! If you have been punished because of your faith in Jesus, you are about to receive your reward. That’s the way the world has always treated people who tell the truth, serve the truth, and try to be obedient and faithful to Jesus. God loves you as much as God loves all of the great but persecuted prophets of old.

End of the first sermon. Did you feel that the preacher was talking directly to you? Did you hear this sermon as good news—good news for you?

 

Sermon number two. The preacher’s voice changes from a tone of compassion and reassurance to one that we don’t often hear in sermons around our church. His voice sounds accusatory, judgmental, even harsh. Is he talking to you?

But alas for you who are rich, for you have your comfort.

Bad news for those of you who have lots of stuff. Your day is coming. You have had the best that this world has to offer, the finest quality of everything your hearts desired. You took great joy in your possessions, feeling that they secured you and your family from misfortune, seeing your possessions as your just deserts for your hard work and prudence. You have already received the best that this world has to offer. And now that’s over.

Alas for you who are now replete, for you will be hungry.

Those of you who have fat pension plans, big houses, three-car garages, big cars, and plenty of opportunities, now is your time to have less. You are about to feel, for the first time in your life, emptiness, knowing hunger, and a sense of the void inside of you. Sorry.

Alas for those now laughing, for you will mourn and lament.

Bad luck for those of you who are happy, joyful with the way that life has treated you, content and well satisfied. Unfortunately for you, it’s your turn to mourn and weep. You who have experienced the world as a joyful and pleasant place will now get to see the other side of the story. Terrible.

Alas for you when all men speak well of you, for in like fashion their fathers did the same things to the false prophets.

Bad times ahead for those of you for whom everybody is your friend and nobody is your enemy. Unfortunately, for you who have received so much praise and adulation in this world, you are about to see how the other half lives. You shouldn’t have believed your good press. The world’s praise, you’re about to find, is a testimony to all the ways you have compromised and sold out.

End of sermon number two. Which of Jesus’s two sermons do you like? No, that’s not exactly the right question. In which of the two sermons did you find Jesus speaking directly to you? Which sermon did you hear with a great sense of relief? On the other hand, which sermon made you squirm?

Of course, we would all prefer to receive blessing rather than condemnation. But this sermon, much like its counterpart in Matthew, the more familiar Sermon on the Mount, is not so much blessing and condemning as it is painting a picture of the shape of God’s coming reign. You remember how Jesus began his first sermon in Nazareth? He said that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to preach good news to the poor, good news that God is coming. This Sermon on the Plain announces the news that God’s promises are being fulfilled, that God is coming into the world. The one who preaches, Jesus, is the one who not only announces but also embodies that new world order: God’s kingdom.

We pray the Lord’s Prayer here most every Sunday. In that prayer, we always say, “thy kingdom come, thy will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain—or maybe more accurately, his two Sermons on the Plain—make me wonder if we really mean what we pray. Do we really want God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done on earth, even as it is done in heaven? Do we want that will to be done when Jesus gives specificity and content to God’s will?

Jesus says he is preaching good news. And at least one of these sermons sounds like really good news—for some of us. And yet, the other sermon sounds like rather bad news—for some of us. Perhaps you’ve heard me say before that sometimes the difference between good news and bad news is where you happen to be when you get the news. Where do these two sermons find you this Sunday? If you are feeling rather content, accomplished, and satisfied, then I would suppose this sermon is not one of your favorites.

On the other hand, if this Sunday should find you feeling empty, mourning a great loss, overwhelmed by the lack of opportunity and hope in your life, then maybe Jesus’s sermon is good news for you. Rejoice, God’s kingdom is for you.

Two sermons delivered by the same Jesus. How do you hear them?

Just one more word. If you are among those who reacted negatively to Jesus’s second sermon—if you felt that Jesus was bearing down on you in an accusatory, judgmental way—is there not part of you that at least admits that, though Jesus’s sermon was hard to hear, unpleasant to sit through, it might be true? Even the most financially successful among us, even those who have experienced much happiness and contentment in this life, know that it’s possible to feel loss, emptiness, mourning, even amid our satisfaction and contentment. So maybe what the world might consider to be Jesus’s bad news, when heard in faith, can be good news.

The great theologian Karl Barth said that many times we discover that the grace of God is also the judgment of God. God’s graciousness to us often judges our ingratitude, our gracelessness.

At the same time, said Barth, the judgments of God, because they are true, because they are made by the God of love and pronounced for our good, can also be the grace of God.

Judgment or grace? Grace and judgment? How do you hear today’s sermon from Jesus?

Relating the text:

Jesus says, “Happy are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is yours” (Luke 6:20). If there’s not someone in your church who would hear that blessing as personally addressed to them in their great need, then maybe you need to do a critical examination of your church’s program of evangelism! 

On the other hand, when Jesus says, “How terrible for you who are rich, because you have already received your comfort. How terrible for you who have plenty now, because you will be hungry” (6:24-25), if there are not some in your congregation who would be cut to the heart, deeply disturbed by Jesus’s words, then maybe you need to do a critical examination of your church’s program of evangelism.

 

The Sermon on the Plain contains blessings and woes by Jesus, portrayals of what God is up to in the world, not prescriptions for human behavior or exhortations for us to obey. Thus the Sermon on the Plain, or sermons one and two, are a challenge for church people who have been conditioned to think that the purpose of a sermon is to talk about them rather than to talk about God. The sermon depicts who God is (the one who blesses the poor and the mourning) and what God is up to in the world (preaching blessed good news to the poor and the sorrowful). 

Yet there is even in the blessings of this sermon the implication that those of us who profit from the world’s abundance, and who are trying to be Jesus’s disciples, have a responsibility to be poor. If, as the baptized, we presume to hitch on to what God is up to in the world, then we’ll have to connect with what God says to the poor. We cannot close our hearts to the poor and worship a savior who begins one of his most important sermons by blessing the poor and ends it by pronouncing doom upon the rich.

 

In spite of lots of sermons I’ve heard and many that I’ve preached, the Christian faith is not a self-improvement program, not a technique for getting ourselves close to God, not a religion among other pathways up to God. The faith in and of the preacher of the Sermon on the Plain is about allowing ourselves to be loved by the God we didn’t ask for, much less love—the God who blesses the poor and promises woe to the rich. 

Note that Jesus seems to address the Sermon on the Plain to “his disciples.” Jesus does some of his best work through those whom the world considers to be stupid, inept, refuse (1 Cor 1:27).

 

Sadly, most of my ministry has been among the rich. Most of my people have not had to work two jobs just to put bread on the table. Most of my congregations have been #blessed in the ways promised by the American dream, with white picket fences and two-car garages. The people I’ve served are the people who generally have enough resources to pay for lots of people to serve them, to wait on their needs and to run their errands.

It’s these materially wealthy people who have the luxury of being spiritual consumers—meaning I’ve spent much of my time around people who are good at being in church, who eagerly lap up all things spiritual, who pay the bills for me to lead them in their spiritual self-­aggrandizement, who install prayer labyrinths in their backyards, who go on meditation retreats in exotic locales, who only burn organic incense. But Jesus blesses the poor, materially and spiritually.

“You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Although he was rich, he became poor for our sakes, so that you could become rich through his poverty” (2 Cor 8:9).

 

By implication, this sermon from Luke 6 shows that the church does not honor the rich or owe them our respect, because in this sermon we have learned the truth about who God is and what God is up to in the world. As Stanley Hauerwas says of Matthew’s version of this sermon, “The sermon, therefore, is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of the people gathered by and around Jesus. To be saved is to be so gathered.” But most of us don’t want to be poor in spirit or anything else, much less to have to put up with the poor at the Lord’s Table, realizing that the world appears to be run by and to reward winners rather than losers.

In one of his sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, Luther said that this first beatitude slams “the greatest and most universal belief or religion on earth”—the world’s honoring of those who are great and successful. 

A former student, who now serves a little church in the mountains of North Carolina, noted the ravages of the materialism of some of his church members—the ceaseless treadmill of getting and grabbing for more stuff, even in his modestly affluent blue-collar congregation—the way in which everything in the US today teaches them that a high income is a sign of divine blessedness. 

“You are old,” he said to me, rather uncharitably. “Tell me, was there a time when the church questioned if material success is true success?” 

“I think that America elected Franklin Roosevelt in spite of his money. Alas, many voted for and defended Donald Trump because of his money.” No better time to begin a sermon with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, God’s kingdom is theirs.” 

Whoever the God of Donald Trump is, that God can’t be the one who is self-revealed in the Sermon on the Plain.

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