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Sermon by Revd Dr Andrew Warmback (Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; Luke 6:17-26)
Living God’s Way
Jesus taught the values of the kingdom or reign of God. We read in Mark’s gospel that Jesus began his teaching by announcing that the kingdom of God had come, or was at hand.
In his teaching Jesus explains how we should live. We know that these values that he taught were often very different from those in the society at the time, and now, for that matter.
The kingdom of God did not start with Jesus. The prophets and others before him set out what it is like live God’s way. Both our Old Testament reading from Jeremiah, chapter 17, and Psalm 1 contrast in vivid imagery the way of God that leads to life and flourishing and the way that is the opposite, that leads to worthlessness and destruction.
I quote briefly from these two readings:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals…
whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
They shall be like a shrub in the desert…
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord…
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream…
and its leaves shall stay green…
and it does not cease to bear fruit.
Similar imagery is picked up in Psalm 1
Happy are those… [whose]
delight is in the law of the Lord…,
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither….
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Jesus teaching and healing the crowd
In today’s gospel reading we again find Jesus teaching among the people. The large crowd comprises his disciples, people from Judea and Jerusalem as well as people from Tyre and Sidon, so called foreigners. They come to hear words that will help them, comfort them and makes them feel valued.
In the verses preceding today’s reading Jesus had spent a night in prayer on a mountain – a place of closeness to God – and had chosen twelve of his disciples whom he called apostles. Now he comes done the mountain and the people come to him to touch him to be healed. We read that power came out from him and they were healed.
Kingdom of God
Jesus says blessed are you who are poor, hungry, who weep and are hated and excluded. And then he says woe to you who are rich, fully fed, laughing and of whom people speak well.
Surprising words from Jesus, perhaps shocking to us.
But for those who are poor and hungry hearing these words – how wonderful, how comforting, how almost unbelievable. Imaging weeping – suffering – and hearing that God notices you, that God loves you, that you are blessed.
The teaching Jesus gives is similar to that which we find in Matthew’s gospel, in what we call the sermon on the mount. In today’s reading the teaching is given on a level ground.
Let us focus on the first phrase: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
While Luke records Jesus as saying blessed are the poor, Matthew, in his record of the beatitudes softens it by saying blessed are the poor in spirit. Matthew spiritualizes it, referring more to the spiritually hungry or religiously obedient rather than the economically poor.
A more accurate translation of this phrase would actually be blessed are the “destitute.” In that context it is not so much the situation of a peasant family just making a subsistence living each year but rather a family pushed by disease, debt or death off the land and into destitution and begging. In our urban context we could think of those who are homeless.
The focus should not be so much on individual poverty or destitution but on social, structural or systemic injustice: economic systems we see as normal or even necessary where those who are innocent or blessed are at the bottom of the pile, regarded as surplus, squeezed out of the system. It’s not surprising that Jesus said on another occasion “the poor will always be with you.”
He knew the economic systems we devise will do not lead to the flourishing of life, to God’s way. Rather they lead to false illusions of progress, development and sustainable living.
The struggle to know the truth
In listening to the State of the Nation address on Thursday evening this past week I was struck by some words towards the end of the President’s address. After going through the various problems the country faces and the plans to respond to them, he said: “A confluence of forces, many of them outside of our control, has brought us to where we are now. We face steep and daunting challenges. Indeed, we are engaged in a battle for the soul of this country.” A battle for the soul of this county. I would agree with him.
But we face a greater challenge. In a context of the increasing spread of fake news, of false conspiracy theories and a lack of trust in those in authority our understanding of reality can easily become distorted. And we can struggle to know what is true anymore.
Jesus came to speak the truth, to help people understand reality.
Knowing what is true and real helps us to understand better what the way of God is in our lives and in our communities.
What is the way of God?
So what is the way of God that Jesus teaches in today’s gospel, what is the truth?
Jesus is not saying that poverty and hunger and poor people are good and that the aristocrats are bad.
Those who are not poor, though, are challenged to share, to be generous. We are all challenged to love our neighbour.
With Valentine’s Day tomorrow and this month being the month of love we are all reminded to love our neighbour, that God is the one who simply loves.
A further challenge to those who are the “haves” is to not to build our lives around the search for riches, food, comfort, and being well spoken of by others.
Jesus challenges us to follow the way of God, to trust God. May our commitment to God lead us all to be like trees planted beside the river with deep roots that grow strong and last long.
Happy Valentine’s Day tomorrow. Amen
During this difficult time of the global pandemic, you are invited to make a contribution to the ministry and mission of our church by making a donation to the following account: Account Name: St Paul’s Church Account Number: 50854628623 Bank: First National Bank (FNB) Branch Code: 221426