A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
The Third Sunday before Lent
Sunday 10th February 2019
We’re all familiar with what is perhaps the most famous piece of Jesus’ teaching – the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. But, we’re less familiar with Luke’s similar teaching – the Sermon on the Plain as it’s called. It doesn’t come round in the pattern of readings we have very often; in fact the last time in did was 12 years ago. I’ve never preached on this passage.
Preachers of course, have a back catalogue and it’s not easy to know whether this is the same sermon described in two different ways by Matthew and Luke or whether this was a sermon that Jesus preached on numerous occasions. If it’s good one, it bears multiple hearings! So, if this was a sermon Jesus preached more than once—if he once preached it on a mountain and on another occasion presented it on a plain—then that might also explain the addition in Luke of some woes that correspond to the Beatitudes, something Matthew doesn’t include.
So, because it’s not a regular occurrence to preach on the Sermon on the Plain, let’s just have a look at the backround. The immediate setting in Luke is a flurry of activity. People are coming to Jesus in significant numbers and everyone is trying to touch him with the hopes they could tap some of the energy flowing out of him. There’s a scene in The West Wing where one of the candidates for the presidency is out campaigning and, as soon as he gets back in his limousine, he screams in agony because his hand has been squeezed so many times. From time immemorial, leaders have been greeted by a small sea of outstretched hands.
In Jesus’ day it was healing everyone seemed to want. Everyone wanted a better life. Everyone wanted a piece of the man who held out the promise of a better tomorrow. The Gospels tell us that many were healed. But not all. Many were changed. But not all. Whatever the kingdom of God is, then and now, it was not and is not now a ticket to a charmed life in which every believer will be kept free of pain, disease, disappointment, and even persecution.
Perhaps that is why, in the middle of it all, Jesus turns to this disciples and begins to speak a series of Beatitudes or blessings that point to a way of life and a mindset that was all-but completely at odds with what most people were, at that very moment, seeking to get from Jesus.
It’s hard to imagine a Prime Minister or President winning a General Election, riding high on the hopes and dreams and expectations of the millions of people who voted for them, who would then use his victory speech to say, “But you know, I want to congratulate the unemployed in this nation. Some day in heaven you will have it better. And I want to reach out to the malnourished children of our land and bless you for your hunger. And I want to say a word to the hated masses, to minorities and others who feel the sting of racism: some day you will receive a reward.”
We cannot imagine such a thing. A victory speech is the moment for the big statement, to poetic promise, to tell all the people that you will not let them down and tomorrow will be a brighter day for all.
But not Jesus. He uses a moment in which people are looking to him and expecting the world of him to say, in complete candour, that the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, and the hated are better off than the rich, the satisfied, the happy, and the well-liked. In saying all this, Jesus is at once talking about what the future will be like and giving jus a pattern of how our present lives should be shaped.
The rich cannot hear that they will be sent away empty without receiving the message that they need to share their riches already now, in this present age. We may bless the poor and the hungry and celebrate that in the kingdom they will be taken care of and fed but as disciples, we cannot hear about that future provision without recognizing its present-tense implication for how we live right now. We don’t ignore the poor and hungry now on account of their being taken care of later. Rather, in Jesus’ name we begin to care for them already now, living as best we can kingdom patterns in this present moment. Unlike the Sermon on the Mount, in the Sermon on the Plain, blessings and curses aren’t just about the future. They impinge directly on today as well.
I don’t know if you noticed that Jesus here seems to speak not to the whole crowd, but to his disciples. And I wonder why that is? It’s the same in Matthew by the way. Jesus turns away from the crowds to just his disciples when he begins speaking his beatitudes. Now I’m sure the crowds overheard these things (remember “Blessed are the cheesemakers” in The Life of Brian). Clearly these words had implications for those crowds as well—but there must be something significant here about Jesus’ addressing his disciples so specifically. What might that significance be?
One particular reason stands out for me. In his turn to the disciples, Jesus signals that what he is going to go on to describe is not the kind of person you need to be in order to enter God’s kingdom. Nor is he saying that once you enter the kingdom, these are rules you need to follow, as though you need to make yourself poor in spirit and mournful so that you’ll fit in. Nor is Jesus saying that if you should happen to find yourself experiencing one of the less happy emotions described here, God will swoop in with some kind of quick-fix solution and turn things around for you. These are not entrance requirements, rules to follow, or a prelude to receiving a reward from God in this life. That’s not what Jesus says. Instead he says that if you are a citizen of the kingdom, if you’re one of those who follow him, then being poor in spirit or mournful or meek or hungry for the things of God are going to be the natural result of your kingdom membership. And the reason this will be the result is because commitment to that whole new world of God is always going to clash with the powers that be and the authority structures of this present world.
This is the real thing to notice today. Jesus is not saying that if you are mournful or persecuted or poor in spirit for any reason, then you will automatically receive blessing and consolation. After all, there are lots of reasons why people might be sad or downtrodden. Someone might be very mournful that his stock market portfolio is not performing as well as he had hoped, but that hardly qualifies this person for the comfort Jesus talks about! Someone might be very meek, but maybe in some cases it’s sheer sentimentality. The person next door might feel persecuted and disliked, but maybe that’s the result of his being an unpleasant guy who has a personality that could curdle milk.
The point is that the ways of being Jesus blesses in the Beatitudes are not free-floating but are kingdom-rooted. If you are mournful, then what makes you mourn is the sin you see around you, the disjointedness of life in a world that has fallen so far from God’s loving hopes and intentions. If you are merciful and meek, then it’s not because you’re just an old softy by nature but because the Spirit of God has given you the heart of Jesus. If you are persecuted, then it’s not because you’re an oaf of a person but because you won’t compromise your belief in Christ as Saviour. You will live out what you believe the gospel reveals as God’s way, even if that pits you against the “business as usual” practices of others. The Beatitudes aren’t a guide to how best to get on in the world; they are the consequence of being faithful to God in the world.
To make sense of the Beatitudes you need to remember that Jesus is talking about what the world is like when God’s kingdom, God’s reign is coming about. Otherwise his words make no sense. From the vantage point of just this life and this world, there’s nothing good about persecution, about being a nobody, about being sad. No one in his or her right mind wants to experience any of that. Also, if the kingdom is not real and not true, then being persecuted for it is like going to prison because you got convicted on a false charge. If God is not real and his new world not true, then there is nothing to hunger or thirst for, nothing to desire, nothing to pursue. If we are mournful, it’s because we’ve seen the moral beauty of God’s new world and, compared to that, we find much to lament in this present world. Again, however, take away that kingdom, and there’s nothing actual to compare this world TO.
The kingdom of God becomes the way we see things, the lens through which we view life. It’s a gift to be able, already now, to see into God’s world. Blessed are you if you can see the world just this way.