Feb 17th – 6th Sunday after Epiphany – Facing Adversity in the Power of the Spirit – Pt. 1

 

Part 1

Luke 6: 17-26 NIV

17 He went down with them and stood on a level place.

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, is situated, obviously, on a hillside. The mountains were symbolic of the presence of God. Jesus, preaching a similar but shorter sermon in Luke’s gospel is doing so from a plane or ‘level place’. Level places in the O.T. are associated with the corpses of war, hunger, suffering and desolation all of which was understood to be the outcome of idolatry. So, this is going to be a serious sermon from the outset.

As serious as the setting is for this serious sermon, please note that Jesus went down with them. This is a reflection on Jesus descent from heaven to earth. He is with his disciples, they are not going to the place of death and suffering alone. The one with whom God is clearly present, in teaching and in miraculous acts of mercy, is going with them.

 

A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, 18 who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, 19 and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.

The news was out as to Jesus current location. It’s amazing to we 21C people, as to how the news could spread so fast about Jesus location at any given time. The Gospels however, make it quite clear that the ancient ‘bush telegraph’ worked exceedingly well. Jesus was rarely able to be alone. Human need is so great and its desperation drives people to travel great distances and suffer much hardship if they believe a cure for their ills is at hand. Most of us have our own stories of desperate need or know of people who have crossed the planet to find a cure. There have been regular public appeals for funding for terminally ill people who cannot afford to make that journey out of their own finances. We are all aware of the need.

Urgent Reminder: Why does Luke mention Tyre and Sidon? While in Nazareth Jesus compared his own family and friends to ancient Israel, who had failed to support the prophet Elijah in time of famine.  God appointed a woman of Zarephath in the area of Sidon to help him. A woman of mixed race, and foreign religion. In chapter 10, Luke will compare Jewish towns with these idolatrous, foreign cities of Tyre and Sidon and tell Israel that Tyre and Sidon are better off. He will say that those outside of Israel are more likely to show faithfulness. Here in chapter 6, it is to remind us that gentiles had the same needs and desires as God’s own people Israel, and that they were responding to the Gospel too and early on.

[NOTE: Remember, Luke trained under St. Paul. Luke is fully aware of Paul’s struggles with Jerusalem on behalf of the new gentile Christians]

In our context we may paraphrase Jesus and say, ‘Those who do not know Jesus are more likely to respond positively to his presence than those within his church’. Not a pleasant thought and, I hope, a salient reminder of our constant need to be reminded not to take Jesus and his Kingdom for granted.

In last week’s text, Jesus was teaching the crowd that had assembled beside lake Galilee and we were told that they were pressing against him. Here again the crowd is pressing into him and seeking to touch him and benefit from the power of God flowing from him. Perhaps when you read this you may be feeling for Jesus who is caught in this claustrophobic throng. But Jesus is willing. He came down to this level place, the place of death and suffering of his own free will and expressly for the purpose of healing by touch and through teaching.

Here’s a thought: Would it change the way we read Scripture and listen to a preacher’s sermon if we considered the possibility that healing for our souls may come through those words? That is what God intended through the proclamation of the Gospel; the Good News of Jesus.

We westerners too often approach a sermon as if it was merely a lecture. Some Christian traditions refer to the sermon as a ‘monologue’, some scripted exposition presented or performed for mere intellectual consumption. If Jesus is the Word of God, as John says in his Gospel, then shouldn’t the sermon be words of life? If faith comes by hearing through the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17), and faith is the ultimate healing for today and into eternity, then maybe we should pay attention to the words God is speaking into each of our hearts.

Preachers need to learn that the lives of their listeners are no theirs to save and that the theological brilliance of their presentation and the superiority of their prose can save no one. Engage yes, but save no. It is that word of God that falls on the heart of the hearer that saves and heals and grows each listener’s soul as they hear a word tailored particularly for them; from the lips of God to their ears. God speaks most clearly through a preacher that is mindful of this, but it is the Word that falls upon each heart that saves.

How powerful is touch?! Anyone deprived of human touch over an extended period of time risks insanity. You may remember the children raised in Romanian orphanages under the leadership of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Many of these children developed physical and mental disabilities because they were trapped in their beds for years at a time. Elderly people who are isolated and without touch can suffer depression and worse as well. Touch is proving to be so important for dementia patients. Human touch is vital to life for all of us, how much more the touch of God.

We can and do experience God’s touch when our family and friends are intentional about being God’s presence with us. We are also God’s touch when we are intentional. Jesus too can still be touched, spirit to spirit, in the quietness of prayer and meditation. Jesus is still willing.

20 Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. 23 ‘Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets. 24 ‘But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. 25 Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. 
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

 Now for that serious sermon from Jesus.

Life is unfair but help is on the way. Struggles, traumas, suffering of all kinds and the deathliness that seems to surround us so much of the time, are all part of the plane we all live on. For the Christian, standing up for Jesus among our peers can also be an added suffering, for our faithfulness. These sufferings because of faith can come from within the church as well as from without. The ‘They’ in the they who mistreated the prophets were, in fact, Israel: God’s own people to whom he had constantly revealed himself over thousands of years.

Q Can God’s people today be in such danger of forgetting?

In Matthew’s sermon Jesus refers to the ‘poor in spirit’, Luke refers only to the ‘poor’. I believe that Luke expects us to pick up on a double entendre. Financially poor and spiritually poor, because we have both going on here and the spiritual poverty transcends both financial wealth and the empty pockets of pecuniary poverty.

Many of the listeners in this ancient context were financially poor, neglected and forgotten, Luke touched on this back in chapter four. There are many associated problems that come with financial poverty, probably the most important to address is the idolatry of misery. The ‘woe is me’ mentality that can come from suffering and deprivation made exponentially worse by an empty stomach, no work and no place nice to put your head at night; a fixation on our problems as we remain bogged down in our personal misery. In this place we may have no eyes to see or ears to hear the coming of help, and so miss it when it appears. Just so you know, my family and I understand financial poverty first hand. We raised three children after going bankrupt and while studying for seven years, all the time living mostly on charity. But how good is God? He always turned up. So, I speak from firsthand knowledge and not merely from a privileged first world position.

Qs

1. Are our eyes and ears always prepared for Jesus or are we spiritually asleep much of the time?

2. What are your riches? How are you currently impoverished?

Some, in our text, are the financially well-off. The suggestion is that some of the rich are holding on to the blessing of wealth so tightly that it has become an idol to them and as a consequence, the financially poor are financially poor unnecessarily. When the fear of losing our accumulated wealth is greater than our fear of God, then we are idolaters and so, poor in spirit. There is a severe warning from Jesus here, not because he is in a belligerent mood but because he loves the rich and wants to have compassion on them just as he wants the rich to have compassion for the poor, whom Jesus also loves. The ‘woe’ in the ‘woe to you who are rich’ part of the text, is the warning of curse rather than blessing. If we hoard our blessings from God, thinking of them only as the fairly earned wages of our personal hard work and not the daily provision of our needs from God and an extra abundance for our service to others then we risk cursing ourselves by withholding God’s gifts intended for others through us.

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Reflection: Riches and wealth, of course, are not restricted to financial reserves and property only. What are your natural talents? What skills have you developed? What godly wisdom and understanding have you gained? What are your spiritual gifts? Our wealth, in Christ Jesus, is far greater than any of us can imagine because God is, by nature, a giver of great, powerful and beneficial gifts.

He continues to give according to our (plural) need and he gives through individuals for the benefit of others.

  1. The wealth we have is ours: God gave it to us. What purpose has God in mind for you with the gifts he has given you, financial or otherwise?

Point of Interest: The Greek and Hebrew languages of the New and Old Testaments have plural forms of ‘you’ and ‘our’. Because we read as the individuals produced by our culture, we may think that God is often speaking to me on my lonesome. The ‘you’ is, more often than not, directed at community and so a gift for all.

Since becoming a pastor, we haven’t known real poverty again. We could easily have called ourselves part of the ‘working poor’ in Australia at times, but we haven’t suffered homelessness and endless hunger. We don’t own our own home but I suppose, financially speaking, we are mostly satisfied and content with being at the lower end of that middle-class spectrum, having gained some modest superannuation for retirement, money for occasional holidays and some immediate homely comforts. Like many Australians, we are not blessed with an overabundance but with more than sufficient. Regardless of our various levels of wealth, the comfort and false sense of security that it can give may easily keep us spiritually asleep around Jesus and unable to perceive his presence for us and his call into Christian service for others.

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Reflection: Through the presesnce of Jesus in the Holy Spirit, giving, doing, loving, being are all gifts we are able to offer others and it is in all of these things, and more, that we receive the truest of all blessings for ourselves; the expansion of our soul, the growth of our knowledge of God, our true self and of others and the development of our intellect and skills and the ability to understand and do love. The old saying is absolutely true, ‘It is better to give than to receive’. God gives to us because we are blessed through it and in loving others in this same way, so too are we blessed.

Rich or poor, we are all beggars before God who loves us. We are all poor in spirit until we step aside from our idols that have their origins in our ignorance of God’s love for us. Idols will have power over us in the times of lack, that we often blame others and God for or in the wealth that deceives us and lulls us into complacency. St. Paul reminds us, ‘Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ This is the baptised Christian life; staying spiritually awake long enough each day to hear and see that our help has arrived.

 Next Sunday: Part 2

Feb 25th – 7th Sun. after Epiph. – Living Together Well in the Power of the Spirit

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