By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
Luke 9:28–36(ESV): The Transfiguration
Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.
Do we ever get used to the narrative of scripture? Where we hear the story so much that we forget the power the words really have? This Sunday we read about the transfiguration of Christ. I have heard about this many times. I have been impressed with the unique ability that Jesus has, he glows when he is on the mountaintops praying. Which might explain why he withdraws to the wilderness when he prays. Imagine his mother yelling at him when he was growing up. “shut off the light Jesus we are trying to sleep.” Mary might say. Only to hear, “but mom I was only praying!”
Yes, I joke a bit about this passage because for many if us it seems almost fantastic. People do not glow, their clothes do not turn dazzling white without great work, and people just dI not appear out of nowhere.
The fact is that these things do not normally occur and that is why this story is included in the gospel. There is something special going on. Something out of the ordinary. Something that no one really understands, and they simply try to explain something without an explanation.
I have dwelled on this passage this week. I have reflected on it from different perspectives hoping to bring something today that might speak to our condition. I listen and read the news and all I hear is extreme division. What is it that we need to hear?
That is when I began to just sit with this passage. Sometimes when we simply let the scripture be, the spirit speaks the loudest. At times we want to know so much about scripture we spend vast amounts of time in study. We look for that nugget of truth that will be the key to life. Jesus spoke about how the religious leaders pour over scripture looking for life only to miss it. The study of scripture is important, I spend a great deal of time doing it but at times we can get so deep into the grammar and spelling that we miss what is said.
Jesus, as was his custom, withdrew to an isolated place to pray. I think we often forget how often Jesus did this. We get distracted by the miracles and the healings that we miss the life he lived. Jesus made a point to withdraw from what was going on all around him to pray. He cleared a place in his life to simply pray.
Do we understand how important this is? Jesus was a very busy person. People were constantly demanding his time and attention. They would follow him from one town to the next. When he went home to visit his family so many crowded into the house that people could not even eat. Jesus was in demand, he did have the luxury of privacy. So, he would go to places difficult for others to follow to pray. He would even send his disciples away as a distraction so that he could withdraw in a time of solitude to commune with his father. Prayer is important to Jesus.
At times, I feel we do not understand how important prayer is. We often have a skewed idea of prayer. We pray for others in need, we pray for our own needs, we pray before a meal and offer Thanksgiving, but do we pray for commonality with God? Do we make space to just be with God? Not just to read scripture or read devotionals to increase our knowledge but to just let God move and speak to us?
Jesus and his three closest friends went up the mountain. We are never really told why it was the three. I say his closest friends, only because they are the ones that are spoken of most often. He might have taken them because they were the ones most likely to cause trouble. James and John were the sons of thunder and Peter seemed to like to swing a sword around, so maybe Jesus kept them close to prevent bad press. But more than likely they were the most eager to learn. He left the others down below, he most likely did this to ensure that he would not be disturbed. If we read the gospels, we find that this is a formation that occurs often. This is how important prayer is to Jesus. It is as if he places guards at the trail head and then places more guards just outside his sanctuary.
Is our prayer time guarded like this? How often are our prayers interrupted by our busy schedules? How many times are they cut short because of ringing phone or a chiming notification? Do we defend our time with God or is it something that we just squeeze in between appointments? Yes, we should pray without ceasing. Yes, we should live in constant communion with God, but if we do not make time from the start do, we participate, or is prayer just good luck charm we rub before we do what we want?
Jesus went up to the mountain to pray. The disciples marveled at his joy at prayer. They once begged him to teach them to pray. Pleading with them to teach them to pray, like John taught his disciples to pray. We are not told exactly how John taught his disciples. He may have given them a set format or words to say. But the mention of this tells us that he did teach them to pray. And some of Jesus’s disciples were once disciples of John. They knew what John taught but there was something different about the joy Jesus had and the discipline of John. They wanted to know. They watched Jesus pray, we are told that they were heavy with sleep as they watched. Initially we might think that they were bored, but do we get bored watching the people we love? How many hours do parents watch their children do common things? Parents will watch their babies sleep. They look at the creases in their skin and examine the swirls of their hair. They are exhausted yet they watch until their bodies force them to sleep. The disciples watched Jesus pray. They marveled and wished that they could have the joy of prayer as Jesus did.
They watched and saw before them something amazing. As Jesus prayed, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothes became a dazzling white. Imagine if you were one of those three disciples looking at your beloved teacher and seeing this. The awe that must have filled their souls. One of the books I read while I was studying for my master’s degree at Friends was about an Orthodox priest in Soviet Russia. This priest was sent to the gulag because he was a threat to their government. This book was written not by the priest, but it contained the stories of those people this priest encouraged during his life. There was one story that I will never forget, it was in the deepest coldest part of winter and the prison camp they were in was in Siberia. The priest and one other prisoner were being disciplined so they were locked in a metal room out in the weather. The cold was unbearable, it would kill them within hours, yet the priest was excited to go to the room. He was excited because he would have the opportunity to pray undisturbed for hours. His companion was frightened because of the cold but the priest encouraged him to pray with him, so they prayed. They were in this room for over twenty-four hours, yet they survived. The companion said that while the priest was praying, he was no longer aware of the metal room they were in. He said that as the priest prayed it began to get warmer and then he opened his eyes and the priest was standing not in the clothes of a prisoner but in the robes of a priest and they were standing within a church. They prayed all night and when the doors were opened, the guards were amazed when they walked out alive.
I have never seen someone transfigured in such a manner. But I have been transported by prayer. In some of my prayers I have reflected on various aspects of scripture and it has been so real around me that the odors around me were not what they should have been. There was one times while I was contemplating the crucifixion of Christ that I could literally smell the coppery sent of blood as I cried over the sacrifice that Jesus made to bring me back to God. I can tell you after that time in prayer I was not the same. Just as the companion of the priest was not the same, nor the disciples. Each of us got a glimpse of something beyond.
What is prayer? It is a question we all ask as we enter a lifestyle of faith. As our faith deepens our life of prayer changes as well. When we are young it is a list of all the things, we are thankful for, with a few pleas for new toys. As we grow, we are exposed to the suffering of life, we begin to pray for loved ones who are sick, or we ask God for guidance through a difficult situation. But prayer is something far more. Prayer is the single most fundamental discipline of our lifestyle of faith. When we pray, we enter communion with God? Our spirit meets with God in a realm beyond our physical comprehension. We enter a place where there is no time; no past, present or future a place that just is. This is why the spiritual lives of our grandparents have lasting affects on the lives of our grandchildren. When they pray their prayers are carried by the Spirit and they can flow and spill over into the lives of generations. Because when we pray, we are not in this world, our spirit has joined with the Holy Spirit in the realms of God. Peter, John, and James saw this when they were on that mountain. They saw Jesus, not as the teacher but as source of light, and they saw with him the law giver and the prophet. Moses and Elijah were standing there with Jesus, the two greatest personalities of their religion were standing right by their teacher. We do not know how they knew who they were, but they knew. They knew because they were with Jesus in this spiritual realm of prayer on a mountain. They knew that Moses and Elijah had also prayed on mountains and stories were told of those experiences. And while they were sitting there in awe, they heard the voice of Moses, the voice of Elijah, and of Jesus. They heard their spiritual heroes speaking the words they had heard for so long. They heard them spoken not as cold text from a scroll but as real conversation as they, Moses and Elijah, looked forward to the glory of Israel. They were sitting on that mountain hearing the conversations that lead to the formation of their scripture. They were heavy with sleep but all at once they were fully awake.
Imagine if your life of prayer were like that? I am often asked why we do not see God working like he does in scripture today. I am asked these things while those that speak express their concerns with the direction various aspects of our world are going. Why do we not see God working? The one answer I can give is that we do not fully release ourselves to prayer.
We let ourselves be distracted by the various struggles of this world, and we let fear creep into our lives. Instead of praying we begin to make plans. We start to use our wisdom which we gather from our various life experiences and we apply them to what we face. At times this is good and even honorable, but have we prayed? As campaigns rage, as war drum seem to beat just over the horizon we turn to the powers of the world, when our finances become tight or our health becomes questionable, we seek answers, but have we prayed? Have we really prayed? When we read the testimonies of the disciples and the prophets from ancient days and we marvel at how they were able to live through the struggles they faced, do we look at their lives of prayer? When we read the stories of those ancient martyrs that faced the violence of Rome do, we look at their life of prayer? When we read of Stephen seeing the heavens open before his eyes as stones are hitting his body, do we ever think that maybe his life of prayer was what allowed him to see the hope instead of experiencing the pain? When we read the stories of the persecuted church throughout Asia and the world have, we considered how they pray?
If God is our refuge, if God is our strength and our shield. If his word is our protecting sword how are we connecting to that power? If Jesus said to his disciples that they will see greater things than the feeding of the five thousand, the healing of a leper, the release of souls from the grip of demonic bondage, or the raising of the dead, how do we see that if we do not make a place for prayer in our lives? We do not see God working in many areas because we are not allowing God to work. We have place guards keeping the Spirit out instead of circling around Him. I say this because I am just as guilty. I say this because I like Peter do not always know what I say. I so often stand before you, encouraging you to do something more, yet I am the one most convicted because I have failed. I like Paul cry out “I want to know Christ – yes to know the power of his resurrection and participate in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” To know in this way begins with prayer, and through prayer we are guided into the ministry He has set before us. And when we pray and minister under his guidance, we will see his hand working in the lives around us. But do we pray?
So often we like Peter enjoy amazing mountain top experienced and we wish to stay and build a tent. We want to preserve what we once knew. But we cannot stay on the mountain. If Jesus stayed on that mountain, the wages of sin would not have been paid. If Jesus stayed on that mountain we would still be held in bondage. We are called to walk with Christ, walk to the mountain to pray and to walk back down to serve. But we are not called to make the world in our image, but the image of God. We are called to Love our enemies, to do good for those that abuse us, to pray for those that persecute us. We are called to will the good of all those people around us. How can we even begin to do such a task if we do not pray? How can we even consider it without seeing the face of Christ shining in our lives?
Let us now enter a time of open worship and communion as Friends and as we do, I ask that we each read these verses again to ourselves and sit with them. (Luke 9:28-36). As you reflect on those verses watch Jesus pray and join him in that joy.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
February 24, 2019
Luke 6:27–38 (ESV)
Love Your Enemies
27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
37 “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”
When we approach scripture, it is important to remember that each of us bring something with us. We each have lenses or some sort of perspective that we interpreted life through. Although we attempt to read scripture for what it is, we often find our perspective coming through. There are people that believe that the God of the Old Testament and that of the New are different, this difference is largely perspective, because everything taught in the New Testament is found in the Old. Jesus did not teach anything new, even though he said he is giving his disciples a new commandment near the end of his ministry, that new commandment was not necessarily new, but was new to their thinking.
I will continue to mention we each read our own lives into scripture, because it is true. We cannot help it, because we live and experience life. Each of our life experiences give us a perspective that is different. When I read a passage, different words attract my attention than the words that attract yours. Those words are what I meditate on, those are the ones that water and feed my soul, but for you they might carry no meaning at all. I will give you an example. My son, James and I, are reading doing a reading plan together. We are using the YouVersion Bible App, which is free if you have a smart phone. In this app you can add friends and read together and share your thoughts. A couple of weeks ago as I was reading a verse just seemed to grip my attention and would not let it go. I found the verse funny and challenging, it has caused me to stop and rethink many things. The verse was Matthew 15:16, “’Are you still so dull?’ Jesus asked them.”
I told you that Jesus had a sense of humor. I think Jesus had an amazing grasp of sarcasm. He basically called his disciples stupid and guess what I am one of those disciples. Those words that were written are just as much for me as they were for the disciples that walked with Jesus. But why would he call his disciples dull? Because, they like each of us look at scripture from their perspective and were not willing to accept an alternative interpretation. They thought they were right and everyone else was wrong. And the problem with this way of thinking is we will often miss the point.
Today’s passage is a continuation of the sermon on the plain. Which is very similar to the sermon on the mount which is found in the gospel written by Matthew. Jesus had just come down from the mountains, where he withdrew for a time to pray, and when he neared the shore of the sea, he found a crowd had gathered. This crowd was filled with people Jerusalem and all over Judea, it even had people that had come from the lands north of Israel in Lebanon. They had heard about Jesus, that had witnessed some of his feats and they had hope that maybe he might be able to change their life as well. We are not really told exactly where this plain was located, and I mentioned last week that it was likely the same plain outside of Capernaum where the fishermen would gather together to lay their nets out to dry while they separated their produce and made repairs. It is likely the same area where Andrew, Peter, James and John were working when Jesus told Peter to go back out into the waters to cast the nets one more time. Peter, of course thought this was stupid because he was a master of his trade and Jesus was a carpenter. What did a man that worked with stone and wood know about fish? Peter decided to humor Jesus and he took the boat back out and the catch was so great that it nearly sank his boat and that of his friends.
The people came out there because Jesus had power. He could heal, he could provide for a family’s lifestyle, and he taught things that made them think differently about life. Jesus came down from the mountain and he looked at the crowd, they brought people with illnesses to him and he provided them with relief. There were some that we in the bondage of spirits and they were released. There were Jews and Gentiles, there were people accepted and rejected by society, there were people considered rich and others who were dependent on others for their survival. Basically, the entire spectrum of human experience was represented on that plain, and Jesus lifted his eyes to them.
“Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” he began, “Woe to you who are rich for you have received your consolation.” We struggle with these words. We struggle because our perspective, our life experiences may not resemble those of the people who originally heard those words. Yet those words, cause us to think. They cause us to stop for a moment and consider what is going on around us.
I mentioned last week that many have taken those words and have encouraged people to engage in the work of social justice. I think that this is not enough, because when Jesus speaks of these blessings and woes he is speaking of the extremes of society. Everyone on that social continuum has needs and all are needed. And when Jesus pronounced those words, he was encouraging us to consider where we are and who is around us.
Today we meet again on that plain, we continue to hear the teachings of Jesus as he look up to this crowd, and today he says, “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Do we hear or were our ears shut off at the mention of social justice?
Jesus’s ministry was not in a vacuum. He was ministering to people that lived in a very real place, a place that had been on the crossroads of empires for its entire history. There were those in that crowd that had the idea that the messiah of God would be a conquering king that would throw the chains of bondage off Israel and drive Rome to the sea. There were those in the crowd that had a completely different view. There might have even been some in the crowd that anticipated not one messiah but three. The ideas in ancient Israel were diverse, and often we neglect to consider that these people of ancient eras had ideas, ideologies, and opinions just like us. Even among Jesus’s disciples there were different opinions. When this diverse group of people heard the words of Jesus that day, they cringed just as much as we do today.
Love your enemies. This one statement turns many away from Christ. It is twisted and turned, it is justified and butchered trying to make it fit nicely into our ideologies, yet it still plagues our thinking. What does love your enemies mean? Does Jesus really mean enemies or does he simply mean people we do not get along with? Is there any way that we can get out of this and still be considered a follower of Christ?
We love and hate this passage. We love it because it sounds like a utopia, we hate it because we understand that life is filled with pain and struggle. We know that if we were to live this out, we would get hurt in some way. Why would Jesus say such a thing? We need to begin with love.
Most of us know that in the Greek language, the language that the gospels were originally written in, there are several words that we translate as love. Each of those words represent a different type of love. One is philia, or friendship, which is where the name of the city Philadelphia comes from. Another is eros, which is usually used for intimate love. Then there is empathy and tenderness like we have for children or kittens. And pragma which is the love that endures in relationships when eros has lost the fire. There is also philautia, the love of one’s self. Several words that were used to speak of vastly different forms of love, but each we translate simply as love. This is why we struggle with this verse. But none of those words for love are the type of love that is used here, agape.
Agape is the word that is used when the ancients referred to mercy, charity, the love of God to man and of man to for the good of God. We often refer to this type of love as unconditional love, or as one scholar explained it, “to will the good of another.” This is the word that is used in this verse. I want us to consider that meaning as we consider the verse. “But I say to you who hear, will the good of your enemies, do good to those who hate you…”
To love an enemy is to hope for mutual good. The past few weeks I have been reading and listening to a book series that speaks about the history of the establishment of England. It takes place in ancient times when there were wars between the Danes and the Saxons, and Alfred is the last of the Saxon kings, yet he has a vision of a united kingdom of England. Prior to this the lands of Briton were divided into several small areas, some of the areas were predominately influenced by the Danes and other Norse groups, others were settled by Saxons, and then there were the Britons and Scotland. There was peace between some and war between others. Alfred was a Christian, and the Danes were pagan. The pagan religion of the Norsemen honored the warrior, and to get the greatest blessing in the after life they needed to die with a sword in their hand. Alfred and the Christians had a different view, they wanted peace. Yes, they participated in great battles, but Alfred often offered them mercy, an alternative way to exit the battle without a fight. In the stories I have been reading this irritated the Danes because it completely opposed everything about their world view. It did not make worldly sense yet as the Danes plundered the churches and monasteries some wondered why people would live such a life. They would continue to plunder and wonder. They would listen to the priests and some converted.
I do not mention this because I think we should glorify the life of the Saxon King Alfred, but I mention it because he according to the story, tried to live a devout life of faith. He willed the good of another, he offered a different option even for his enemies. And at times it cost him a great deal, it nearly cost the kingdom.
When Jesus says love your enemies, he is encouraging us to find other ways to change the direction of life. He is encouraging us to stop looking at those around us as enemies but to look at them as human beings loved by God.
I remember when I was preparing to go to Ukraine, my grandpa told me that he would pray for me. He was going to pray because I was going to go to the land of the enemy. I love my grandpa. I have learned a great deal from him and he one of the people who has encouraged my faith the most. Yet I remember him saying that. I remember even thinking that myself. When I began to talk to the students in Ukraine, I found out something different. The stories they were told of us were very similar to the stories we were told of them. They feared the nuclear winter brought on by America just as we feared the nuclear holocaust perpetrated by the Soviets. They wanted their children to go to school and to get a good job, just like we want ours to do the same. They wanted the same things, they just had a different idea as to how those things would happen. Once I heard about the life of those students, I realized that we really were not enemies, we were just people. People with hopes and dreams. People that wanted a better life for ourselves and our children.
Love your enemies, Jesus says, will their good, “and as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” Jesus did not really teach anything new. Everything that he taught was grounded in the teachings of the law. It was required in Torah to treat even the aliens that lived in their land as they would treat their fellow Israelites. The Golden rule was taught by all the great rabbis, because to treat others as you would like to be treated is nearly a universal law. The idea behind all of this is, if you do not start peace who will? If you do not start living your life willing the good of anther who will? If every moment of our lives is dedicated to only getting the best only for yourself, where does that leave the rest of the world?
The blessings and the woes, and the loving your enemy go hand in hand. They speak of the same things. We need and we are needed. Each of us are important not only to God but to each other. When we begin to think that we are more important than another, we begin to participate in that continuous cycle that leads to death and destruction. Yes, some have different abilities, and yes some have different gifts, but we all need and are needed. We are commanded to will the good to them, to live our lives in such a manner that all around us are better off because we are here. If you own a business you direct that business in such a way that it benefits all involved: the customer, labor, and management. If one aspect suffers the entire relationship suffers. And when the relationship suffers eventually it will fail. This applies in every relationship. To encourage our children, we do not simply give them gifts, but we train them and teach them so that they will know how to survive. When they turn from the ways of God, do we stop? No, we continue to encourage, and will the good, but we may have to adjust how we do it. Marriages also must be lived in such a way that we will the good to the other. We do everything for our mutual benefit, not just self. This is what agape is all about. To love other, to love our enemies is doing all we can to find an alternative direction where we can walk together.
How do we do this? How can we love when they continue to do the very things that infuriate us? How can we encourage when we have tried everything we can possibly think of? This is why the lifestyle Jesus taught is so important. We need and are needed. We do not have everything we need in ourselves, we need others to help us get to the places we need to go. This is why Jesus made it his custom to go to worship with the community, why he withdrew often to pray, and then engaged in ministry. We need others to encourage and to listen to us as we gather to worship, we need time in prayer where we can release our frustrations and petition God for direction, so that we can enter our relationships again. We need and are needed. We are poor and we are rich. We are the friend and the enemy, but what will we do? Will we hope and strive for the good or sit back and complain? Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those that curse you, pray for those who abuse you. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
Luke 6:17–26 (ESV)
Jesus Ministers to a Great Multitude
17 And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, 18 who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all.
20 And he lifted up his eyes on 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 shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! 23 Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
Jesus Pronounces Woes
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
There is something about the lifestyle of Jesus that always seems to surprise me. When we consider his life, we often think that his audience was always Jewish. This is common since he did speak in the lands of Israel. But in this passage, we get a glimpse into something more. People from all over Judea and Jerusalem and the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon came to listen to him. This struck me this week as I was contemplating this passage, so I got out a map. The lands of Tyre and Sidon are north west of Israel. Tyre was an ancient Phoenician city which is now located in Lebanon. Sidon is further north along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, also in Lebanon. These cities currently are currently the third and fourth largest cities in Lebanon. Israel has a long history with the area of Lebanon. At times they were allies and at other times enemies. And between these two cities was Zarephath the city Elijah went during the great famine and was fed by the widow. These were not Jewish people they were of Phoenician ancestry, they were Gentiles, but they were Gentiles whose history had witnessed the power of the God of Israel. Jesus is attracting a following of people that stretches throughout Israel and out into neighboring provinces. Which should remind us that the gospel is not confined to nations of men, that God’s grace and love is for all people.
I wonder if it surprised the people of the first century to find such a diverse gathering listening to Jesus. In places like Jerusalem it was more likely because Jerusalem was a religious magnet. People would travel to Jerusalem just to see the magnificent temple built to the God of the Hebrews. It was a city filled with wealth. The wealth and beauty of this temple eventually filled the rulers of Rome with envy. And when Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, the wealth of the temple was used to build many of the iconic structures throughout the city of Rome that still attract tourist today. But this is not that city, this is the Judean countryside. Although people loved Jerusalem, the rest of Israel was not as attractive. Sure, it had some vineyards and olive groves that could turn a nice profit, but it was not a center of culture. It had a few cities that made life bearable for the Gentiles, but to be stationed in Judea was to be forgotten. Jerusalem was this jewel in the wilderness. Yet a teacher from rural parts of Palestine was drawing people to the wilderness.
I think it is important to acknowledge this before we dive into the verses that follow. This crowd was filled with Jews and Gentiles. All were coming to listen to the teachings of Jesus. All were coming to have an opportunity merely touch Jesus to have their illnesses healed. Those that were struggling with unclean spirits were coming to be released from that bondage and Jesus did not make any distinction as to who they were. In other passages people from these northern regions were mentioned and, in those passages, we hear Jesus making seemingly rude comments like calling a Syrophoenician woman a dog, that woman was from this same area. Why was Jesus rude to her when he openly welcomed this crowd? The answer lies with the context, when that woman came to Jesus there was greater tension among the Jewish people that he was speaking to the Gentiles, and she was experiencing the discrimination of the crowd because of their nationalistic fervor surrounding Jesus and the Messiah. Jesus, if you did not know was a man that was filled with a sense of humor, and the exchange with her was poking fun at those that misunderstood his calling. Basically, Jesus is telling us all that to exclude people from the kingdom because of heritage, nationality, race, or any other characteristic that is out of the control of an individual has no place in the church. Jesus taught them all, and Jesus healed them all.
But what did he teach? The crowd was gathered there in the wilderness. Jesus was just prior to this up in the mountains praying, and he came down from that mountain to a level area. We are not told exactly where this area is, but it is likely the same plain where the fishermen dry their nets after their time at sea. Outside but near the city of Capernaum. Jesus comes down from the mountain and there is a crowd gathered, he turns around and he sees them all around up along the hillsides and on the plain. He greets them and he lifts his eyes. They had crowded around for the healing and now as they are astonished, and he basically has their attention secured he speaks what scholars call the Sermon on the plain.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” The first thing that we should recognized in this exchange is that there is a comparison. The blessed and those who receiving the woe are the opposite ends of a continuum. But what does it mean to be poor? I have struggled with these blessing and woes, because for most of my life I realized that I was not rich nor poor, I had been solidly in the middle somewhere. Meaning I never went hungry, but I also did not get what I wanted all the time. With this knowledge where do I fit? I would not be blessed nor would I be in the woe category. We struggle with really understanding these passages largely because we live in a culture where we have freedom. We live in a place where we have opportunities to make a living to some degree and if we need something, we can usually obtain it if we are willing to work for it. We live in a culture where there is a continuum of wealth. This was not always the case in ancient cultures. There were those that were dependent on others for their lives and those who had means. This is what poor and rich mean, dependent on others for your sustenance or having the resources available to you to survive on your own.
Where do you fall on this continuum? We can really look at it in various ways. Jesus is looking out at the crowd gathered along this plain and he can see all types of people. There are pharisees, fishermen, fellow carpenters, people from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, there are tax collectors, and maybe even a few soldiers sent to see why such a large crowd has gathered out in this rural part of the province. Jesus looks at them and he begins with blessed are the poor, the dependent and often exploited for theirs is the kingdom. In one-word Jesus has caused everyone to tense. In two paragraphs Jesus has challenged the entire worldview of the systems of mankind.
It is easy for us to look at these verses and say that Jesus is commanding us to become activists for social justice, but I think that is missing the point. When Jesus says these words, he is telling us that there are those that live dependent on the graces of others and there are those who have the means to provide. What he is wanting us to recognize is where we are. The poor are blessed because they are aware that they have needs, and the rich have pity because they are unaware. Does this mean that Jesus hates the rich? No, it means that it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom because it is difficult for them to see that they are not self-sufficient.
When we are poor, when we are dependent on others for our welfare, we recognize that everything we have could be lost. If we were to lose our job how long would it take for us to lose the house, we are living in? If we are disabled what would happen if the generosity of our society were to evaporate? If we are retired how comfortable would we be without social security? If we work for others or receive our sustenance from some other entity other than ourselves, we are poor. Our livelihood depends on the means of others. The less income we have the more we recognize.
But what is often overlooked in this relationship is that there are people in the world who could probably survive for quite some time if they lost a job or retired from their labors. Many would say that those individuals would be rich. Those with means often forget something very important, they too are dependent. How did Bill Gates accumulate his wealth? How do the corporate executives acquire their salaries? How do those small business owners survive? Each of these in most cultures including our own would be seen as rich by many. They are rich because they seemingly do not depend on others. But if Microsoft did not sell a product to customers would we speak about Bill Gates? Bill Gates is dependent on his customers for his lifestyle. Just as every business owner is. Jesus says woe to the rich because often the rich do not recognize that they are just as dependent on others as the poor.
Blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are those that weep, blessed are those who are reviled. Woe to the rich, woe to the full, woe to those that laugh, and woe to those who are spoken well of. What is Jesus telling us? We need each other. Those that weep need others to mourn with them, to walk with them through the shadows. Those that laugh need others to help them realize that life is not always easy. Those that are hungry need others to share a meal with them and those that are full need other to share with, so they are aware that life is not always easy. Those that are reviled need others to encourage them, and those that are spoken well of need others to show them that life is not always easy. Those that are poor need others to help them provide for their families, and those that are rich need others to show them that life is not always easy. Jesus is telling us that we need each other.
The only way we can see the kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven is if we open our eyes and see those around us. The only way we can see the kingdom of God is if we are willing to look at the world around us from the perspective of someone else. The only time we can see the kingdom is if we take the time to see that of God in everyone and live the love that God has for them with them.
Jesus looked up at that crowd gathered on the plain and he saw just what we see today. He saw tax collectors taking more than required. He saw people engaged in business exploiting others. He saw people that lived off the generosity of others because of a disability. He saw fathers and mothers with hollow eyes because all they had went to feed their children. He saw Jews and Gentiles. He saw the accepted and the oppressed. He saw suffering and he saw plenty. He saw everyone on that hillside totally unaware of their true value, and everyone gathered on that hill was unable to see their true need, community.
Everyone has value because everyone is loved by God. God so loved the world that he sent his only son not to condemn the world but to save it. God loved each person to such a degree that he does not wish that anyone should perish but that all would have life everlasting with him. We have value. We have such value to God that Jesus chose to leave heaven to live among people like us, to teach us the ways of God, to show us how to participate in life with God, and he provided the means to that life through his death and resurrection. We all have value, yet we are all dependent.
Scripture tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We look at sin and we consider it to be a transgression of the law. But in reality, it is not recognizing the value we and others have to God. We all sin because we believe that we are more important than another. We all sin because we disregard our value to God. We all sin because we do not acknowledge our dependence on God and others. Every law in scripture revolves around the core principle that God loves us and we should love him and those that he loves. Every law, all ten or 613 however you look at it deal with how we love God, or how we regard ourselves of others. And Jesus says that all sin is forgiven, except one. That one sin that is not forgiven is the grieving of the holy spirit. What is that grief but rejecting to see that God loves all and we all are loved.
Jesus lifted his eyes to the crowd pronouncing his blessings and woes not because either end of the spectrum has more value than another. He pronounced those blessings and woes to open our eyes so we would be able to see that we need each other, and we need God to help us see the value of those around us. Do we see our value to God? Do those of us who weep at night because our lives seem so hard realize just how much God loves us and wants us to share our story to others so they can weep with us as well. Not for pity but for the simple fact that we need to realize that life is hard. Do those of us that cannot see how we will survive another month living in our current financial situation realize that God loves us and wants us to share our story, not for pity of others but so others can recognize that there is a need and we should all help each other. Do we realize that those that are spoke against and those that are speaking against them are equally valued by God and therefore welcome in any place that claims to honor him? Blessed are you and woe to you. And as we enter this time of open worship and communion as Friends, let us pray that as we lift our eyes today and throughout this next week that we will be able to see through the lifted eyes of Jesus. Our ever-present teacher and guide, the one who brings God to humankind and lifts humankind up to God through his life, death and resurrection. And let us turn to him and begin to walk again following his life and lifestyle of loving God, embracing the holy spirit and living his love with others.