Psalm 1, Jeremiah 17:5-10, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, Luke 6:17-26
Jesus’ sermon on the plain – wondrous, stark, daunting – jars us out of any complacency we might feel about our own faith.
Central to this passage are the ‘blessings’ or beatitudes with their corresponding woes, which are organized in order to emphasize their importance in the kingdom of God. The poor are contrasted with the rich. The hungry are contrasted with the full. The weeping with the laughing, and the hated and marginalized with the venerated. “Blessed” doesn’t simply mean a state of happiness or good fortune, it refers to our standing before God. It is the hungry, destitute and marginalised who have the greater standing in God’s eyes.
What is daunting is the realisation that probably many of us are on the receiving end of the woes –being comfortable, accepted, well provided for. This is difficult scripture for us to hear. Despite its unsettling challenge, there is comfort to be had in the knowledge that responding to Jesus’ words is possible through the outpouring of God’s gift of grace, the gift of the Spirit.
Jesus’ sermon is the fulfilment of the mission statement we talked about in our Gospel a few weeks ago. - it is the realisation of the words of Isaiah whose prophecy Jesus read aloud in the Nazareth synagogue announcing that he had been sent by God to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind. Now Jesus lays out what the fulfilment of that text means.
The sermon on the plain is often overshadowed by the longer sermon on the mount in the gospel of Matthew, but Luke’s account contains significant details which are helpful in understanding Jesus’ meaning.
In Luke’s account Jesus comes down from the mountain with his disciples to the plain, to the level ground, where he finds a great multitude of people who had come to hear him and be healed of their disease, and those troubled with unclean spirits. After healing them Jesus ‘looked up at his disciples’ but also presumably on all who had gathered on the plain before him. In Matthew at this point Jesus is described as opening his mouth to speak but Luke’s focus here on the raising of Jesus’ eyes is subtle but significant. Jesus’ healing is often connected with sight and seeing – such as in an earlier healing story in Luke where demons retreated and fell down when they saw Jesus. In this instance, it is Jesus seeing others - the raising of the eyes signifies how the disciples and all those others gathered are seen by God. It is a metaphor for the watchful eyes of God, from whom comes the blessings and the woes in this passage.
Jesus stands on a level place and that is significant too. He is on the same level with the disciples and the multitude, not on a mountain above them. He tells all who love him and follow him, who forsake all material things - that theirs is the kingdom of God, no matter how reviled or destitute they may be. God is turning the world upside down and is no longer simply saying ‘follow me’ but asking for complete focus on Him.
This sermon is stark and challenging for us to hear, but it is Jesus speaking God’s truth. God “sees” us for who we are - utterly and completely- and that is the great leveller. Our God is the God of those who have nothing, and that includes us to, stripped bare of our worldly things. There are times in all our lives when this sort of truth is the only truth that’s worth hearing.
The truth of this Gospel is that God does not bless us as we maintain the status quo. God does not bless us as we bathe in respectability. God does not bless us as we gloss over or ignore the challenging and unsettling calls of God regarding injustice and poverty.
Jesus blesses those who value love over hate. Who value calling out injustice over silence.
God is calling us back, reminding us that we must empty ourselves, turn away from things that distract us from God, and then – and only then only by God’s grace – receive the fullness of blessings offered to the utterly destitute, the marginalised, the expendable.
How can we begin to do this? Well, lent is just around the corner. A time to challenge ourselves with a sharpening of our focus, emptying ourselves of the things that cloud it, and allowing ourselves to be filled with God’s grace.
The sermon on the plain is a direct pressing challenges for all of us – the followers of Jesus both then and now – to re-orient relationships and reverse social, economic, racial and political injustices.
Today is Racial Justice Sunday, and our Gospel reading speaks eloquently into that. It is very much a call for all Christians to engage in the struggle for racial justice because racial justice is all of our business. Racism and racial discrimination are justice issues because they deny basic justice and human dignity to women, children and men who are made in the image of God. They assume all are not equal before God and are not part of God’s family, they run counter to what Jesus is calling us to realise in his Sermon on the Plain. If God’s eyes were to be raised on us today, I pray God would see a community hungry for God’s grace and courageous in speaking out against injustice.
I leave you with this question on which to reflect this week. What does your voice have the power to save and what does your silence have the power to enable?
Rev Melanie Harrington