Sermon - 6th Sunday After Epiphany (2/17/2019)
Jer. 17:5-10, Ps. 1; 1 Cor. 15:12-20; Lk. 6:17-26
In Luke’s gospel, we frequently see Jesus going up a mountain to pray. And usually these are the turning points in the story, because when Jesus comes back down the mountain to rejoin the people – which is itself the whole story of the gospel, of God coming down from heaven to take flesh and live among us – each time Jesus comes down the mountain after time in prayer with his Father, he takes his mission to a new level, a new depth of God living with us.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus has called twelve of his disciples to join him on the mountain, where he gives them a special mission. And then he comes down from the mountain with the Twelve, to join the rest of his disciples – his students, his followers – who have been waiting there for him. And not only his disciples. For the word has gotten out out that Jesus the wonder-working rabbi is here.
And so, a vast crowd of people have come from everywhere hoping to see Jesus and be healed. People suffering from physical illnesses. People troubled by unclean spirits. People in profound need, hoping to be touched by the divine power of Jesus. And not just people from the immediate area. Luke tells us this crowd of people comes from all over Judea, even from Jerusalem – a week’s journey to the south. And from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, a week’s journey to the north, in Lebanon. Gentile country, in other words, people who are not Jews, who still come to Jesus seeking healing and deliverance.
I would like to invite you to use your imagination and try to picture yourself in this scene. If it helps, close your eyes – don’t worry, I won’t think you’re falling asleep on me. Try to imagine what it would have been like to be there. See the disciples at the base of the mountain, waiting for Jesus to come back, waiting, waiting. See the growing crowd of sick and desperate people, traveling a long distance, people who worship the God of Israel and pagans, people of many races and nationalities, with broken bodies, broken spirits, broken relationships with their families and communities, hoping that the One who was announcing release to the captives would see and touch them too. And then, you can see them coming down the mountain! Jesus and the twelve. They are arriving now. What do you imagine yourself doing? What do you imagine yourself saying? What does Jesus do?
Well, Luke tells us what Jesus did: “Power came out from him and healed all of them. Then he looked up at his disciples and” spoke to them. But what did you say? What did you do? And, even more fundamentally, when you imagine yourself participating in this scene, in which group did you naturally assume that you belonged? Did you picture yourself as one of the Twelve who had been on the mountain with Jesus? Did you picture yourself as one of the disciples waiting for Jesus on the plain? Or did you imagine yourself as part of the crowd who had come hoping to be restored and healed by Jesus?
For me, there have been times in my life when I probably would have imagined myself in the crowd. Times when I felt trapped and powerless, when all I could say was, God, I need you to do something here, because I can’t. Times when I would go anywhere, do anything, ask anyone, because I didn’t feel that I had options. Now, to be honest, I’m the kind of person who, when I’m in those times, the last thing I can deal with is being with other people, so I don’t know that I’d have been actually ever gone to be in a huge big crowd of people trying to get a moment with Jesus. But, if somehow I had been there on the plain at the base of the mountain, in those times of my life I think would have imagined myself in the crowd. And maybe that’s where you see yourself today.
But most of the time, I imagine myself as one of the disciples of Jesus. Getting anxious waiting for him to come back, and seeing this gathering mass of broken humanity just growing and growing. I imagine feeling compassion for them: Oh, these poor people! Feeling helpless: Jesus, please come back and help these people, because I can’t. This is too much for me! I don’t know where to begin. And perhaps feeling that I should be thankful for the blessings I have in my life, and that I’m lucky enough not to be so desperate and needy as the people in the crowd.
Jesus came down with the Twelve and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all. Then Jesus looked up at his disciple and said, David, you have this completely wrong.
You feel sorry for these people? These people are lucky, they are blessed. They have no one to turn to in their brokenness and so they have turned to God, and good for them! Because God is faithful to the promise. The poor, the hungry, the weeping, the reviled – these are not pitiful creatures to be the object of God’s compassion, or yours. These are beloved children of God, and God is right now present in their midst. If you want to be my disciple, be like me: let yourself be a channel for the power of God to heal and lift them up as the blessed children of God that they are.
And David, don’t go thanking me for not making you like them. Do you think that God loves you more than God loves them, and that’s why you aren’t as needy as they are today? That’s not how this works. Yes, in a world where some have possessions and others don’t, some people will be doing well today – but what about tomorrow? I have told you that those who weep today are blessed because God cares for them and one day soon they will laugh – I have nothing against laughing, it’s good, I want joy and laughter for everyone and I am bringing God’s joy now to everyone who weeps. But if your joy comes from somewhere other than God, what’s going to happen when that runs out?
In Matthew’s gospel the Beatitudes are the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, but that’s not how Luke remembers them. Luke remembers these words of Jesus not as a philosophy of life spoken to us on high, but as words that Jesus spoke to his disciples while he was with them on the level plain, while the power of God was going out from him bringing healing and deliverence to the multitude.
Jesus spoke these words to his followers, his students, in order to teach them what he was doing. In fact, Luke says Jesus looked up at his disciples to speak to them: If you want to follow me, if you want to find the God whom I have come to reveal, you will find God down here with me: in the blessed poor, in the blessed hungry, in the blessed mourners, in the blessed ones people hate. This is where I am, says Jesus, this is where God is.
Martin Luther said that God likes to hide, and God hides from us so that we will find God only where God wants to be found. And so God therefore wants to come only where we will not expect to find God. If God were hidden in the clouds at the top of the mountain, we would not be surprised – we would expect to find God there. We might even go try to climb a mountain to find God there – what an achievement that would be! But that is not where Jesus shows God to us. Jesus shows us God in suffering, in weakness, in sickness and hunger and weeping. Until we have learned to see God there – until we have learned to see God in Jesus on the cross, taking on our sin and forgiving us, reviled and cursed, forsaken by God yet still having faith to call on God – only when we have learned this we will actually see the true God.
Please pray with me.
Lord God, we praise and thank you, for in Jesus Christ you have come down to be with us in our sickness, our confusion, and our pain. We have sought you in all of the things that this broken world calls blessings, but you have taught us that you are present in the poor, in the hungry, in those who weep, in those whom this world rejects. Show us to yourself again in the body of your Son broken for us, in the blood of your Son shed for us. May we always follow him down into the midst of those whom you call blessed, and there find our joy and riches in you. Amen.