Reasons for rejoicing - Luke 6:20-23
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Reasons for Rejoicing- SJN MP. 23.2.20
Search #blessed on Instagram, and you will find more than 100 million posts-apparently. The hashtag highlights pictures of beautiful places, toned bodies, new babies, graduations, successes, and material abundance. Scrolling down, you’ll see recent business startups, wonderful technology, new marriages, and fancy cars. I would imagine that if you were to ask most people what they would consider to be being blessed or fortunate, some of those pictures might readily come to mind. The blessed life is the healthy life, the happy life.
But according to the ‘Plain’ teaching of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel his Instagram #blessed would be quite different. Instead of pictures of rich film stars in the sun, you would see beggars desperate for food. In the place of the beautiful people partying, there would be funeral people crying. Rather than people being praised for their achievements you would have people being pilloried for their faith. Jesus, it seems, has a very different understanding of what it means to be a ‘fortunate one’ which is what the word ‘blessed’ (makarios) means. But what makes these people fortunate is not their condition per se, so they are fortunate because they are poor or hungry or weeping, but rather because of what comes about as a result-these are the ones who are given God’s kingdom, who will be satisfied and who one day will laugh- finding themselves in a state of unimaginable delight. Those are the things which make these people really fortunate, blessed and so enviable-which is another way the word ‘blessed’ can be translated-the ‘enviable ones.’
The first question we need to ask is: are all people who find themselves in such a state to be thought of as enviable? Does Jesus mean that anyone by virtue of being poor or hungry, for example, is blessed, especially favoured by God? Some come close to saying that. But clearly that is not what Jesus is saying. Verse 20 makes it quite clear who these fortunate ones are- ‘Looking up at his disciples, he said….’ So Jesus is talking about discipleship, what it means to be his follower. He is specifically addressing the newly selected twelve (v13ff) and the wider group from which they have come. But he is also aware of the larger crowd of would-be disciples. And so Jesus is saying to be his follower means you are amongst the most enviable people in the world. Sure, being poor, hungry and mourning seems far from being fortunate, but what these people receive, which no one else will receive, you can’t attach a price tag to- having God’s kingdom- his loving, saving rule, which results in eternal life, as well as having a deep satisfaction that no amount of ‘stuff’ can give with a joy which bubbles up from deep within. Also notice, he says ‘blessed are you’, looking at his disciples. Jesus is not addressing the poor in general, but these people in particular.
But you may say, ‘Wait a minute’, these disciples weren’t that poor. They had a money bag, which Judas Iscariot kept and from this they had enough to give away to those who were poor. They always seemed to be well fed, occasionally calling in at the home of Martha and Mary for a good meal. And given all the people that were crowding around Jesus representing the whole of Israelite society, they are hardly going to be weeping about that, on the contrary it looks like they had hitched their wagon to a star. Jesus is the most popular person around and the disciples can bask in his reflected glory- that is bound to make you smile if not laugh out loud. Of course all that is true, but it won’t necessarily be the case for very long. Jesus is not saying that his followers will always be in a state of poverty or grieving, but that it comes with the territory of being a disciple- at some time or other this is a condition you can expect to find yourself one day if you are going to follow in the footsteps of the Master.
The reason for any poverty or crying or hunger which may well come the way of a disciples is given in verse 22 which is not simply the climax but the key to these beatitudes in Luke, ‘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.’
When people are hated and ostracised, treated as social pariahs, that can lead to losing your job or people refusing to trade with you. And the result? You become poor and you and your family may become hungry. When you are thought to be ‘evil’ because you won’t go along with the so called moral values of the day- such that now in the West being virtuous is defined by your stance on a few key issues-the gay issue, the ‘trans’ issue, the environmental issue, the inclusivity issue- then the bashing you might well receive through twitter and the ‘unfriending’ on face book if you go against them, because you will be considered ‘evil’ if you do, could understandably result in weeping. But if we are to be true to Jesus, the ‘Son of Man’, and his teaching and way of life, such treatment and states of affairs which result will be inevitable at some time or another. In fact, it is so certain that Jesus can speak of the disciples as being in that position ‘now’, ‘Blessed are you who are poor ‘, even though literally at this moment in time they are not.
But this was not the first time that faithful followers of God would have experienced such pain, although with the coming of Christ it was going to become even more intense and widespread. You see, the Biblical background to what Jesus is teaching is the Book of the prophet Isaiah and especially the central sections which are to do with a mysterious figure called the Lord’s Servant. For example, Isaiah 61:1-2, here is the Lord’s Servant speaking, ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted.’
In the first instance when that prophecy was applied to God’s people it was while they were in Exile in Babylon. They certainly felt a spiritual poverty with the temple destroyed and God’s blessing removed as they had been taken away from the land of blessing. That is when they wept by the Rivers of Babylon unable to sing the Lord’ song in a strange land (Psalm 137:4). And God comforted them with this prophesy that one day he would send his special servant, a suffering servant, full of the Spirit who would turn their spiritual poverty into riches, their mourning into laughter, their hunger into feasting for God himself will be amongst them in the form of his Servant.
And of course this literally happened. Just turn over the page a couple of chapters earlier and read how Jesus unashamedly applied this prophecy to himself at his home town in Nazareth, Lk 4:14: ‘Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”’ That is Isaiah 61, which also lies behind these beatitudes.
The Good news that Jesus proclaimed was that the kingdom of God, his saving rule, had come and he was the King who offered it to those who recognised their spiritual poverty. Those who were spiritually blind, could now see if they came to him. And his authority was confirmed by his miracles, the blind literally did receive their sight, underscoring that Jesus was who he claimed to be- God’s Servant King in the flesh. That is why the crowds were swarming around him on that day on the Plain to hear his teaching ‘proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour’ and to receive his healing touch- 6:18.
But he was not well received by everyone. Jesus was never impressed with initial responses, look at Lk 4:22, ‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words that came from his lips.’ So far so good, but then the sneering question, ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ they asked. ‘How on earth can the boy we saw grow up working in a carpenter’s shop, make such a grand claim, who on earth does he think he is?’ Doubt you see, maybe tinged with cynicism. And Jesus detected this, pointing out this was nothing new. Prophets have never been well received by those who should have embraced them. In Elijah’s day it was a pagan widow who was blessed- a poor one if ever there was. And in Elisha’s day it was a pagan army commander who was blessed, who in his need of leprosy humbled himself to carry out the prophet’s commands (vv 24-27). And just to emphasise the fact that nothing has changed in the human heart when it comes to God’s grace, the crowd turned on Jesus in order to kill him by throwing him off a cliff (vv 28-29). And so Jesus’ own ministry, maybe a few weeks before, illustrates what he says to his followers and would-be followers in 6:22-23, ‘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. “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.’
And so while it is the case that when Jesus teaches that his followers are blessed because they are poor, hungry and mourning- there is a spiritual dimension to these things, the emphasis in the Sermon on the Plain is their literal interpretation. Those those who follow Jesus will inevitably come up against material hardship and broken heartedness on account of the hatred and opposition they will encounter because of their commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. But when they do there are these promises bound up with them- these are the ones who will receive the kingdom, who will be satisfied, who will laugh and leap for joy because their reward is great in heaven. That eternal perspective makes all the difference. These disciples are to be envied in their battered state, derided by the world, because they have things in store for them which unbelievers could not even dream of.
Some of what is to come in heaven can be experienced in some measure here on earth. Is Jesus serious when he says on the day disciples are hated and excluded because of their commitment to him they will leap for joy? Yes he is. Think of Paul and Silas in jail in Philippi which we read of in Acts 16. While they had their feet in chains, locked away in a dark dank cell, we are told that they were singing hymns to God (Acts 16:25). Earlier in the Book of Acts we read of the apostles being dragged before the Jewish council, and under threats told to stop preaching about Jesus. They were flogged for their troubles. We then read, ‘The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.’ There we have a literal working out of what Jesus is teaching in these beatitudes. What is the reason for rejoicing? Having suffered for Jesus, that’s why.
I remember as a student reading the Romanian Pastor, Richard Wurmbrand’s book, ‘Tortured for Christ’ and the brutal communist regime which many Christians had to endure at that time. In story after story the harsh reality of genuine discipleship- Luke 6 style- was laid out. He gives an account of what happened to one young Christian girl worker in the Underground Church. He writes, ‘The Communist police discovered that she secretly spread Gospels and taught children about Christ. They decided to arrest her. But to make the arrest as agonizing and painful as they could, they decided to delay her arrest a few weeks, until the day she was to be married. On her wedding day, the girl was dressed as a bride-the most wonderful, joyous day in a girl's life! Suddenly, the door burst open and the secret police rushed in.
When the bride saw the secret police, she held out her arms toward them to be handcuffed. They roughly put the manacles on her wrists. She looked toward her beloved, then kissed the chains and said, "I thank my heavenly Bridegroom for this jewel He has presented to me on my marriage day. I thank Him that I am worthy to suffer for Him." She was dragged off, with weeping Christians and a weeping bridegroom left behind. They knew what happens to young Christian girls in the hands of Communist guards. Her bridegroom faithfully waited for her. After five years she was released-a destroyed, broken woman, looking thirty years older. She said it was the least she could do for her Christ. Such beautiful Christians are in the Underground Church.’
She became poor, hungry and wept-but she also rejoiced.
I can’t even begin to imagine that kind of thing happening to me or those I love and perhaps that is a good thing because our imagination soon becomes our greatest enemy. But whilst I am neither a prophet nor a son of a prophet, looking at the present trends in the West we do need to be preparing ourselves and our children and grandchildren for persecution. The price for being a follower of Jesus Christ is going to rise considerably over the next few years and we need to be ready.
After all, who could have imagined, even a decade ago, that the son of Billy Graham- Franklin Graham, would be banned from speaking in this country not because he is going to speak on issues such as homosexuality or Islam, but because he simply believes certain things about them- biblical things. And when Bishop David Urquhart on behalf of Bishops in the Church of England criticise him and supports the non-platforming of him, we can see what a serious situation we are in for now we have the established Church openly opposing the proclamation of the Gospel, denying thousands who would have come to those events of hearing the saving message of Jesus Christ. In other words, as in the past, persecution is going to come not simply from the state, but a state supported religion doing these things in the name of Christ.
The noose is going to be slowly tightened as our children are targeted in schools in the name of inclusivity and so called ‘British values’, when church ministers will come under increasing pressure to perform so called gay marriages, when students who will not buy into a neo-Marxist take on things will be failed in their exams in the social sciences. Much of this is already with us, but will only increase unless Christians and people of good will stand up and speak out- knowing where true blessedness is to be found in following so great a Saviour.
And lest anyone thinks that Christians hold any ill will towards anyone, let me close by reading something of Richard Wurmbrand’s own experience as he was tortured for Christ which brings home the literal fulfilment of Christ’s promise that such followers will leap for joy, ‘In solitary confinement, we could not pray as before. We were unimaginably hungry; we had been drugged until we acted like idiots. We were as weak as skeletons. The Lord's Prayer was much too long for us-we could not concentrate enough to say it. My only prayer repeated again and again was, "Jesus, I love You." And then, one glorious day I got the answer from Jesus: "You love me? Now I will show you how I love you." At once, I felt a flame in my heart, which burned like the coronal streamers of the sun. The disciples on the way to Emmaus said that their hearts burned when Jesus spoke with them. So it was with me. I knew the love of the One who gave His life on the cross for us all. Such love cannot exclude the Communists, however grave their sins.’ We might wish to add, such love cannot exclude anyone, however grave their sins. Let us pray.
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