Discipleship amidst the desolation

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Discipleship amidst the desolation, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday February 24, 2019. The Reading was Luke 6:17-26.

Placing us – Have you ever?

I want to start by playing a little game. I’m going to ask a question, and if it applies to you, I want you to raise your hand.

I want you to think back over the last week. Has anybody paid you a compliment? If someone has spoken some kind words about you in the last week, please raise your hands. (For those with their hands up, you might like to look to those with their hands down and see if you can repay that compliment).

Again, over the last week, if you can think of a time where you have laughed – either a little chuckle, or a full bellied guffaw, then raise your hands.

If you have food in your fridge, which is in a house that you are able to live in and gives you a safe place to sleep and to store the clothes that you are wearing, please raise your hands.

If you have money in your bank, some in your purse or wallet (either actual cash or accessible through a debit card), and some loose change in a dish at home somewhere, raise your hand.

Let me read this passage again.

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.

Luke 6:20-26 (NRSV)

Did you know that if you have food in the fridge, clothes on your back, and a roof over your head with a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of the world.

If you have money in the bank, in your purse or wallet, and spare change in a dish somewhere, you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthiest people.

In response to those statistics, how do you feel about this reading?

How to interpret a harsh passage

If it makes you uncomfortable, then that’s a good thing. However, I don’t believe that Jesus is saying that our ideal state of living is to be poor, hungry, sad and hated. Therefore, we need to be able to look into this passage – sitting in the uncomfortableness that it is possibly the woes that apply to us more than the blessings. And so, I’m going to give you a bit of information about this passage, and then look at how we can apply that to our own lives.

Settings can be really interesting places. Where a scene is set can give it a slightly different meaning. For example, we all know that the famous Romeo and Juliet scene “Romeo, Romeo, Whereforeart thou Romeo” was set in the rose garden, with Juliet up on her balcony, and Romeo listening on down below. The scene probably wouldn’t have the same impact were it set on an inner city balcony, with Juliet 10 floors up, and Romeo struggling to hear above the passing traffic.

You may recognise this reading as being very similar to Matthew’s sermon on the Mount. In Matthew, being on a mountain was a significant tie to stories such as Moses, Elijah and others, who saw the mountains as a place where they were close to God. For Matthew, the sermon being on the mount signified that this teaching was coming from God. Luke however sets it differently. Just prior to this passage, Jesus heads up to a mountain to pray, chooses his twelve apostles, and then comes down and stands in a level place. It’s interesting that it is a level place, and not a flat place for example. Because in the prophets, a level place was often referring to it being a place of corpses, disgrace, idolatry, suffering, misery, hunger, annihilation, and mourning.

Isn’t that interesting. Jesus comes down from the holy place, steps into the muck, steps into the mourning and says “blessed are those who mourn”. Steps into the hunger and says “blessed are those who hunger”. Steps into the poor and says “blessed are the poor. Steps into the disgraced and suffering and says “blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you.” In the midst of this desolation, Jesus brings hope.

It’s also interesting that Jesus comes down from that holy place, with his band of brothers around him, and first ministers to the people around him. Those who are sick are healed, those with unclean spirits are cured. And then after that, Jesus speaks not to the crowd, not to those who were healed, but to his disciples. In the midst of that desolation, Jesus choses to teach his disciples. Discipleship amidst the desolation.

We can move towards the kingdom of God

The words Blessing and Woe are also interesting. We often think of blessings as tangible things that we will get. That’s a dangerous theology, one called prosperity gospel, that says that if you have enough faith, God will give you more money, bigger houses, even aeroplanes, and it’s a theology that has absolutely no backing in scripture.

Jesus’ words don’t indicate an immediacy of the reward. They are all fulfilled in the future – you will be filled, you will laugh, your reward is great in heaven. Therefore, it is better to think of the blessings and woes as directional words. Jesus is encouraging his disciples to live in a way that is moving towards the kingdom of God.

Jesus is speaking on two levels. On one level, he is talking to the poor. There would have been those among his disciples who were poor – Jesus spent time with the poor, and attracted the poor, and so it was likely that a large number of his disciples were poor. But on the second level, Jesus is also talking to the church. The church that Jesus wants to leave behind is one that will have rich and poor people. But in order to move towards the kingdom of God, the rich people need to be generous with what they have, and support those who have nothing. IN the book of Acts, they did this literally, putting everything into an account owned by the church, and then the church would ensure that everyone received enough. There are still some communities around the world where that is put into practice. But the direction that Jesus wants his church to take is one of generosity.

On one level, Jesus is talking to the hungry, those who hadn’t eaten. But on another level, Jesus is telling his church that he wants them to move towards hungering for the kingdom of God. To desire it so much that it is all that you desire. There is a sense that it is a hungering for Righteousness (as Matthew uses), or a hungering for justice, which would bring about the kingdom of God.

On one level, Jesus is speaking in that desolate place of misery to those who are weeping, and saying that things will get better. On the other level, Jesus is calling on the qualities of life in the old age, and calling his church to move away from that and into the new life found in the Kingdom of God.

On one level, Jesus is speaking to the people that have been oppressed, reviled, hated, and excluded. But on the other hand, Jesus is foreshadowing that being a part of his church will include oppression, hatred, and exclusion, even to the point where he died on the cross. Jesus is calling his church to move into this space, to embrace it, as that is what happened to the prophets when they tried to upend society so that it was more reflective of the kingdom of God.

We will be blessed

Luke frames his version of the beatitudes in a way of having blessings and woes. The idea of this is to encourage those who are doing it tough, and to call into repentance those who aren’t. To encourage those who are moving in the direction of the kingdom of God, and for those who are moving away from the kingdom of God, they are hopefully shocked into repentance – to repent is to literally turn around, to about face, to go in the opposite direction. Woe to you who are rich – repent, and live generously, moving towards the kingdom of God. Woe to those who are full – repent, and desire justice and righteousness for all as if you have never had a meal. Woe to you who are laughing, repent from the ways of the old kingdom and move into the new Kingdom of God. Woe to you when all speak well of you, repent, and be willing to risk it all – even your good reputation – in order to bring about the kingdom of God.

Jesus certainly isn’t saying that there is no hope for those who received woes. But he is saying that something needs to be done. If we are willng and able to change our ways, to welcome in the kingdom of God, then we will be blessed. We will discover those blessings through the reality of seeing God’s kingdom at work in the world. It calls to mind our vision as The Salvation Army – Wherever there is hardship or injustice, Salvos will live, love and fight alongside others to transform Australia one life at a time with the love of Jesus.

Go and move towards the Kingdom of God

That’s what Jesus is calling us to. A well lived life, that is generous, that hungers for justice, and is full of joy. We are called to be a church that is moving towards that – not just as a church but as individual followers of Christ. This is Christ’s discipleship amongst the desolation. Because through the transforming movement towards the kingdom of God, the desolate places will be renewed, so that it is desolate no longer, but a place of salvation.

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