Sermon: Plain Talk
Scripture: Luke 6:17-26
Date: Luke 6:17-26
The next leg of our journey with Jesus doesn’t take us very far. Luke tells us that Jesus leaves Capernaum to go up a mountain to pray. And He spends the whole night in prayer. Now up to this point in relating this particular story Matthew and Luke are pretty much in agreement, but then their memories differ on what happened next. Matthew identifies the mountain as the mountain of the Beatitudes and invokes images of Moses on Sinai when God delivered the Ten Commandments, by telling us that Jesus delivered a sermon which contained the Beatitudes from the mountain. In Matthew’s telling Jesus is the new Moses delivering the law after a night of prayer for all to hear and heed. The only thing that was missing were the stone tablets. The difference of course, was that Moses received the word, but Jesus was the Word. By his telling, Matthew associates the Sermon on the Mount with the history of the Jewish people and the words of the prophets. Luke on the other hand tells it very differently. First, of all Luke says that Jesus came down from the mountain and spoke on a level place or in some translations a “plain”. Luke wanted us to understand Jesus as a man of the people who rather than stand above them on the mountain to teach them, came down among them and taught in the midst of them. Luke’s memory is of a Jesus that is much more accessible to people. The people sought to touch Him and be touched by Him because the power of the Word came through personal interaction. When Matthew talks about Jesus’s words that day, he remembers Jesus speaking in more impersonal terms. Blessed are “they”. Luke, however, remembered it in a much more personal way. Blessed are “you”. And a major difference emerges in the understanding of how the Disciples were called and chosen. Though both Matthew and Luke are in agreement that this sermon was delivered in the immediate aftermath of the calling of the Disciples, Matthew tells us that Jesus had specifically called the 12 Disciples to leave their professions and possessions (cast down your nets) and family, and follow Him. And Matthew is very specific about there being just 12 who were called. But Luke presents the call as a two step process. The initial call is to join a larger group of Disciples who are traveling with Jesus. Elsewhere in Luke we’ll learn that that group numbered at least 70. But Luke says that when Jesus came down from that mountain, God had placed into his heart the names of 12 whom He called out from that larger group. This is the way that Luke describes it:
Read Luke 6:12-16.
Now I’m sure that when I started talking about moving from membership to discipleship a few weeks ago, there were some of you who thought, “but they are the same thing. There’s no difference.” But the clear implication from Luke’s telling of this story is that Jesus called the 12 out from the midst of a larger group of Disciples. And so Luke presents the words that we just read more in terms of beginning the training of those 12 then he does as a sermon to all that gathered that day. In a sense He is explaining why those twelve were “chosen” from among all those who were called. And so I think in Jesus words here we can understand what it will take for us to be chosen to follow Him on this journey of Discipleship. Now don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that from this point on that only these 12 followed Christ. The others from whom they were chosen certainly continued to follow Him but from more of a distance. These 12 were the ones who entered into a close personal relationship with Christ. Later Jesus would say to the 12, “I have called you friends, because that’s who you have become.” Perhaps the difference between members and disciples is the difference between those who are acquaintances and those who are friends of Christ. Now that may seem harsh but the Beatitudes in Luke’s telling become the conditions of being a friend of Christ rather than merely acquainted with Him. And in Luke’s telling these are words that are directed more towards the 12 then they are to the rest of the church that has gathered that day. Now that’s a lot of background, but I think it’s essential to know the background, the context if you will, if we are going to understand what will be expected of us if we continue on this discipleship journey. In a very real sense, these statements call us to emerge from the crowd and take on the mantle of disciple. In Luke’s telling these Beatitudes are not mountaintop pronouncements about the nature (even consequences) of faith. Not directions about who we are to become as a result of our belief. They do not anticipate the end of the journey but rather these statements are plain talk about how we are to live as we journey with Jesus. They do not foreshadow a future Kingdom of God on earth, but rather imply that the Kingdom is here and this is how we live who are part of that Kingdom right now. Jesus is telling us that the journey of discipleship is not towards a destination but that the journey itself is the destination. And that Jesus call is not to follow Him and become a Disciple, but rather follow Him and be a Disciple.
And so with all that as context, Jesus lays out the conditions of Discipleship which lead to the blessings of God. First He says, you have been blessed because you are poor. Now poverty seems like an odd place to start. In an attempt to clarify, Matthew indicates that Jesus said “poor in spirit”.because to understand what Jesus is saying here we have to get out of our heads a definition of poor that is purely economic in nature. Jesus is not saying that those who have no money will be blessed while those who have wealth can not receive the blessings of God. He is not saying to the 12 I have chosen you because you are the poorest in the crowd. No, Jesus understanding of “poor” is rooted in the Old Testament. So first we need to know that the writers of the Old Testament saw poverty as both a blessing and a curse. The writer of Proverbs for instance said: Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ The blessing of the Lord makes us rich, and He adds no sorrow with it”.
In general then wealth was defined, not in economic terms, but in terms of God’s blessings. Now certainly there were times when economic wealth was equated with being blessed by God. But that wealth was more of a consequence of being blessed rather than a sign of being blessed. For instance, in the story of the Exodus we are told that God “blessed” the people as they left Egypt with some of the riches of the Egyptians, gold and jewels. But that was not the true blessing. The true blessing was that God had heard their cries (the cries of the poor) and sent Moses to lead them out and to the promised land. The greater blessing would come in the wilderness wanderings when God provided the Manna – enough to meet their needs – but not greater than their needs. And so Disciples are blessed because God provides enough to satisfy our needs though maybe not satisfy our wants.
But there is more to this concept of the poor that Jesus has in mind here. Remember when we went to Nazareth two weeks ago and heard Jesus’ first sermon. He began by quoting the prophet Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” To understand what Jesus meant we need to understand that Isaiah’s understanding of “poor” was not economic. Isaiah most often identified the poor as those Jews who had been taken captive in the war and were now living in exile in Babylon. Their poverty was rooted in their separation from God and the Temple. In Jesus day, the term “poor” was often used to describe those who lived on the outside of the walls of the city, those whom Jesus called the daughters of Jerusalem. They were the exiles even though they lived right in the midst of the nation. The wealthy, the priests who lived in excess and luxury, denied them access to God by denying them access to the Temple. And so Jesus, from the very beginning of His ministry, makes it clear that it is to those, the exiles, the marginalized, the outcasts, that He came. I believe that Paul had this teaching in mind when he wrote this to the Corinthians about Jesus: Though he was rich, for our sakes He became poor, so that through His poverty we might become rich. The call to Discipleship is a call to live on the margins, to be outcasts in this world for His sake.
And then there is one more thing we need to know about Isaiah’s understanding of the poor. The poor were those who refused to compromise on their faith in order to escape their poverty. There were those Jews who were taken into exile and ended up prospering in Babylon. They did so because they were willing to compromise, even deny, their faith, and adopt the ways of their captors. The same was true in Jesus day. There were those who compromised their faith in order to appease the Romans and were granted privileged status. And so Jesus was saying that Disciples will be blessed because they stand strong in their faith no matter what poverty they may face in their lives. Blessed are you who are considered poor in this world because you have remained faithful. Our wealth is rooted in God’s Kingdom, not in the riches of the world. God will provide all that we need if we follow Him on this journey.
And then, if that wasn’t enough for them to chew on, Jesus goes on to say, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.” I think the key to understanding this one as it applies to Discipleship, to following Him, is that little word “now”. Matthew talks about seeking, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. You see the Jewish understanding of faith was always expressed in terms of seeking. Always future oriented. For centuries their faith had been stuck in the future. Someday the Messiah would come. Someday they would throw off their oppressors. Someday God would restore the Temple. And really Christianity has fallen into that same understanding. We live in anticipation of the second coming of Christ. The restoration of God’s Kingdom. We try to live a good life so that someday we can go to Heaven. We long for the righteousness that will one day completely satisfy the hungering and thirsting of our souls. But Jesus came and said, Your hungering and thirsting for the Messiah has been fulfilled now. One writer says simply: With His coming, Christ became the source of all satisfaction. What a great description of this beatitude. Jesus is all about “now.” Remember what He said to the Samaritan woman who came to the well seeking water. Everyone who drinks of the water from this well will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty again. The water I give will become in you a spring welling up to eternal life. And to His disciples He said: I am the Bread of Life; whoever follows me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. Too often the church gets caught with it’s head in the clouds, peering towards tomorrow when God will satisfy every hunger and thirst. And so often we fail to see God present now. Disciples are those who focus on the present nature of faith, on the now, and whose hungers and thirsts are satisfied now, and who are intent on offering the bread of life, the living water now. For Disciples the journey itself is what’s important because if we are faithful on the journey, then the ultimate destination will take care of itself. In thinking about this journey from membership to discipleship, I think that this beatitude can be explained in this way. When we join the church, we say that we “will” support the church with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. That word “will” implies the future. In good time, we “will” achieve this level of faithful expression. By contrast the Disciple says, I “do” support the church with my prayers, presence, gifts and service and witness right “now”. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you are satisfied now. Disciples are not resigned to the idea that their hungers and thirsts will be satisfied someday. Disciples are those who are satisfied with Jesus now.
But that phrase “hunger now” also establishes a paradox in our understanding. Because while our hungers are satisfied now, Disciples never stop hungering for more. We long not just to be satisfied but to be filled to overflowing. Paul writes about this paradox of our faith a great deal. To the Romans he writes: May The God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you walk with Him, so that you may overflow by the power of the Holy Spirit. As Disciples follow Jesus, not only does He satisfy our hungers now but He continues to fill us so that His blessings overflow into the world around us and in the words of Paul to the Colossians we never become so well fed that we no longer hunger for the things that are above. A pastor describes this faith paradox this way.
Someone left a plate of brownies in my office. I resisted temptation for a minute or two and then poured myself a cup of coffee and retreated to my desk, brownie in hand. When I bit in, I tasted an exquisite brownie and was completely satisfied – for about ten minutes. And then I began to hunger for more. So I ate another, with the same effect. It was a sublime cycle: hunger – satisfaction – hunger satisfaction. It is the cycle of faith for Disciples = for those who hunger now and having been satisfied – hunger for more and more and more – of Jesus. Until in the words of Paul: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives through me.
And then the third thing He says to the chosen 12 disciples is: Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Let me confess up front that I really struggled with this one at first glance. Because I tend to think that Christians, as a general principal are at least perceived to be too solemn, too grim, too negative. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon once said that “some preachers he had known appeared to have their neckties twisted around their souls.” Author Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote in his diary, “I’ve been to church today and am not depressed.” Of course, the prophet Isaiah had said that the Messiah would be “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” So it would be easy to interpret this statement by Jesus to mean that Disciples are to be solemn and grim. But Jesus also talked a lot about joy. The Apostle Paul after listing all of the trials that he had had to endure in his journey with Christ concludes, I count it all as joy. Rejoice in the Lord, always. With this statement Jesus is telling the Disciples that following Him means living with one foot in this world and one foot in the Kingdom of God. That in this world there is much to weep over. Jesus Himself wept over the condition of Jerusalem. His heart was broken by the plight and often unbelief of God’s children. The writer of Ecclesiastes had said long before Jesus came to earth that for God’s people there was a time to mourn. There is much in our world that should break the heart of the Disciple, that we should mourn. Blessed are you that weep NOW, Jesus says. There’s that little word “now” again. Disciples live in this world with hearts that are broken now. But the Messiah comes to usher in a world that is new. A world where there is no more sorrow, no more tears, no more pain. Weep now, but find joy in my presence. The Messiah has come to change hate into love. Pain into healing. Weakness into strength. Sorrow into joy. And because you are my Disciples, my chosen ones who follow me, you will experience all of that in your life and witness to it in the lives of others.
A few weeks ago we talked about the two elderly Jews, Simeon and Anna, who had more or less taken up residence in the Temple until they could see the Messiah for themselves. Luke says of Anna that “she did not depart from the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day.” Well that is a pretty common expression of the process of mourning in New Testament times. Anna and Simeon are in the Temple mourning for their people – not for themselves but for the Jews. Simeon, Luke says, is waiting for Israel to be consoled. That word consoled is also a term of mourning. But when they see the Messiah, it all changes. “I can depart in peace now. I can stop mourning my people now, because in the Messiah I have seen the consolation, the salvation, of my people.” Disciples are those who mourn the world as it is, but rejoice in the world as it will now be through Jesus. Blessed are you Disciples who weep now, for you will find joy in the presence of the Lord. Following Jesus changes our perception from hopelessness and sorrow, to hope and joy. Disciples are those who witness to the joy that is available through Christ in all circumstances.
And then the last bit of Plain Talk that Jesus offers to the newly chosen Disciples is: You are blessed when people hate and exclude you because you are my Disciple. Now we talked about this in relation to the temptations in the wilderness as well as the rejection Jesus experienced in Nazareth. The path of Discipleship is not a path to great popularity and acclaim. It is often a difficult path for Disciples to walk. Paul told his young protégé Timothy who was just beginning to walk a Disciple’s path, Indeed all who desire to live a Godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. And at the Last Supper, Jesus would tell these same men, now 11 after the defection and betrayal of Judas: Remember this: A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecute me, they will persecute you. In reflecting on the suffering that he had endured for Christ, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
Suffering, then is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his master . . . Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer. In fact, it is a joy and token of His grace.
So then, as we think about moving from Church membership to Discipleship, in plain terms, it is often the suffering, this sacrificial, component that creates the distinction. When we join the church we are asked to do very little in the way of real commitment. Very few of us can say that we have truly suffered in relationship to being a member of the church. In fact in an effort to attract more members the church in general has often conformed to the changing tides of culture rather than require it’s members to be counter cultural. And it was the same in Jesus day. In fact, Jesus loudest critics were from inside the church not outside the church. Everywhere he went from this point on there would be priests and Pharisees who could challenge Him on issues of law and practices of the faith. And it was His refusal to conform that led Him ultimately to the cross. And because His Disciples, the chosen 12 turned 11, also refused to conform, they too suffered because of their faith. And in fact, Jesus was telling them that just the fact that they had chosen to follow Him, they were already experiencing the scorn and ridicule of friends and family much like he had experienced in his home town of Nazareth just days before. The path of discipleship runs counter to the ways of the world. To truly live, Disciples must die to themselves and the world. We need to be clear about how difficult this path will be. And though Luke implies that there were many who started on this journey with Him on the plains near Capernum, by the time the journey took them to Jerusalem most had fallen away. Only 11 were still with Him when He left the Upper Room after the Last Supper. And only 1 was there the next day with Him on Calvary. R. Kent Hughes summarizes the Sermon on the Plain this way:
A person who is persecuted because of Christ is truly alive. There is an old saying: Even a dead dog can swim with the tide. But to swim against the tide you must be alive and kicking. Being yes-men and yes-women of ungodly culture means drifting with the dead. Are we hated for Christ? Have we been excluded for Christ? Do we suffer insult for Christ? Are we rejected because of Christ? If so, then we are blessed.
True Disciples, though poor, hungry, weeping and rejected are blessed.
Are we His followers?
Are we His disciples?
Or are we just a part of the crowd?
And so with these words of the beatitudes ringing in our ears, hear again His invitation to come and follow. From the plains of Capernaum to a hill called Calvary to eternity.