Jesus preaches a word that seems contradictory: we can be happy in situations that aren’t perfect?

Lectionary passages: Luke 6:17-26; Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20As I read this passage, I realized I had a few questions, especially in regards to the word blessed, which in Greek is makarios (happy). I try to be aware of how this passage sounds to those who are hearing it for the first time. I can easily see someone ask, Why would Jesus call someone happy who is poor, hungry, or hurting? Doesn’t this just buttress the idea that Christianity focuses too much on heaven and not enough on the real systemic evils of the here and now?

Why am I blessed because I’m poor? Are Abraham, David, Solomon, Hezekiah, and others who lived in opulence summarily cursed? Theophilus likely bankrolled Luke’s efforts to write down an orderly account of the ministry of Jesus and the first years of the early church, so it is likely this passage itself exists only because of the riches of someone. Are the rich cursed? Doomed?

I believe Jesus is not cursing anyone. As a matter of fact, I hope to convince my listeners that this is a blessing, a help for us. I want to say that, but I also think Jesus is being realistic. Hey, you who are poor and hungry and hurting, your situation will change. It’s not permanent. Hey, you who are rich, be aware that riches will go away; they are not your God or savior. Hey, you who laugh, be aware that hard times come. The message to both: you need an identity and stability beyond what you have and what you do in your life. You need to have your identity anchored in the reality of God.

At one point in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus wants to ensure the disciples “get it.” So he asks them after a busy foray into ministry with ever-growing crowds: who do people say I am? The disciples answer that some say Jesus is actually Elijah or one of the prophets. Some say he is somehow John the Baptist. Then Jesus, fully aware of his own identity and his own mission, asks, “Well, who do you say I am?” It’s fine for other people to have their ideas and say, but what say you?

Likewise, it is with our process of becoming an individual. There is a lot of messaging that tries to bind our identity to brands and it is tempting to have our identity be associated with our business and work-life success. If people love us and shower us with praise, it is really easy to have our identity tied to the opinions of others. Yet, we need something beyond what we have, what we do, and the opinions of others.

The passage is actually not a curse, it is a blessing. Jesus, knowing the desires of hearts that clamor for meaning amidst the mystery, says, “You are not what you have or don’t have. You are not what you’ve achieved or not achieved. You are not what people say about you.”

A person moved by the stirrings of their own soul and by the Spirit, wisely comes to Jesus and says, “They all say this about me, but whom do you say I am?”

And Jesus offers the upside nature of the kingdom, “You, O Mortal, are a beloved child of God and God cares about you.” I can say that because in chapter 7, Jesus heals both a Centurion’s servant and raises a boy from the dead and sticks up for the woman who is on the edge of society.

There’s more. Jesus embodied this message well in the wilderness temptations. He did not base his mood at the moment on what he had, for he had only his clothes. He did not want the adulation of the crowds (Just knell before me, Satan said, and I’ll give you all the kingdoms!). Do something with your life! Jump down off this cliff and let people see that it didn’t hurt you. Make a name for yourself, Jesus!

There is messaging in the world that might tempt us to think our life only matters if we succeed; if we are the best in our field. And along with that our car, office, and living spaces must also reflect our burgeoning identity with trophies, accolades, titles before and after our name, and the top of the line house and home. Often this is projection of a persona.

Yet, Jesus did not let what he had, what he did, or what others said be the determining word over his life or how he viewed himself. He was able to say no to the diseased thoughts and values that exist in the world by understanding the treasure he had already received with God.

We see this in his baptism, when upon coming out of the water the Spirit descended like a dove and a voice came from the heavens and said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus let that judgment of God be over him – I am the beloved. By the way, so are you! God has judged you in Jesus Christ and has declared you, “beloved.”

I will preach this sermon and tie in the fact that we are “united with Christ,” what God says about Jesus, God also says about us, for Jesus is our judgment/justification (1 Corinthians 1:30). This is the best news the preacher can give the listeners, “Your identity is firmly fixed in Christ Jesus and will never change. God looks at you with tender mercy and not eyes of shame and judgment.”

The work, then, is to live into the identity of being the beloved of God and to turn away from lesser labels and loves. Our situation, good or ill, may change, and one day all of our strivings will cease. Only what God says about us will last! God in God’s peace, Beloved.

Jeremiah 17:5-10The great prophet offers some contemporary commentary on how Psalm 1 applies to his audience. This passage is much the same as Psalm 1, but offers a critique of the human heart: it is deceptive and perverse. This is a clear warning: be aware of yourself. God knows us and knows the truth, so even when we deceive ourselves, we do not deceive God. The passage seems to indicate that the results will do the talking.

What I’m not sure about is why those who trust in mere mortals are cursed. Are relationships not built on trust? Does this have to do with treaties and alliances between nations? And if these treaties are made, does that mean we are turning away from the LORD? Is this something context-specific?

I would add, with charity, that the heart is deceptive, but that is not the only thing the heart is. Motives can confound us. However, we need not take this one phrase in this passage and make an overriding theology of it. Peter (1:3:3-4) tells us that from our heart, our inner self, we can show an unfading “beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” And, the heart can desire good things, otherwise, the Psalmist would not say in Psalm 20:4, “May God give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed.” Was not shepherd boy David chosen not by external appearances but because of the disposition of his heart (1 Samuel 16:7)? The heart is capable of trust (Proverbs 3:5-6) and is also where we bind the love and faithfulness of God. And with the heart do we not treasure the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:21)?

Psalm 1I was very pleased to see this passage in the lectionary, as its vivid nature allows the preacher to draw off of the many images present. When I first read this chapter, I felt something stir within me, a hesitancy. I was finally able to pinpoint my hesitancy, I like this passage but I also do not want to slip into a fundamentalist’s style of us versus them sermon. The passage sees only two ways (as does a lot of the Scriptures): there is the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked.

However, I wonder if hearing “righteous” is off-putting to many hearers. After all, we hear every week in liturgical and non-liturgical churches of our inability to attain perfection and our daily need of grace. The preacher would have to explain that the way of the righteous would be the ordinary and expected path of a common Israelite. They are the ones who want to be taught the teachings of YWHW.

The overriding truth, for me, is that what shapes our mind does shape our life. If we are not captivated by the teachings of God, then who or what is teaching us? What is forming us, if not the preaching of Christ and him crucified? Yes, blessed and happy is the one who meditates upon the Word of God, but this truth is not about monks or those especially devout. What shapes our mind deeply influences our outlook on life and faith.

This is packaged differently in Proverbs, which can be used to augment the sermon. “As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart.” (27:19).

What I like about this passage is the subtle truth: the righteous person is like a tree planted by the streams of water, they will bear fruit. When, though? In due season. It takes time to take the water and the nutrients and the sunlight and to transform those to leaves and buds and flowers and fruit. It will happen. This is the truth – moral and spiritual formation take time and sometimes it takes years!

The alternative is to go on the path of ruin. Jesus spoke of this in Matthew 7:13-14: broad is the way that leads to ruin and narrow is the path of life. Jeremiah seems to provide commentary on this passage in our Old Testament reading of Jeremiah 17:5-8.

Additionally, the righteous person who is willing to be educated by God through Scripture and prayer is rooted. However, those not rooted in God are weightless, like the wheat chaff that is tossed into the air and scattered.

A point I would likely take up with this passage is that it is one thing to know and another to be only informed. Walking the path of the righteous God is one that takes commitment and often calls us to walk against the wishes and advice of the crowd. Over time, with grace at work, we learn to love God’s law because it tells us what is pleasing to God and helpful to us. 1 Corinthians 15:12-15Similar to last week, I will forego preaching from this chapter this time around and continue to work with it for All Saints Sunday.

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