I’ve only preached on next Sunday’s gospel (Luke 6:17-26) twice in 33 years. (No doubt shorter Epiphany seasons and 20 years of professor-ing have played into that reality.) As I looked back, both times I preached on this text I dropped verses 17-19 and made a leap to Jesus’ blessings and woes.
I’m convinced that was a mistake! If I really want to understand why Jesus spoke what he did that day to his newly minted apostles, and what he has to say to me still today, it is critical to grasp the context from which his words sprung!
Jesus has just spent the entire night on a mountainside in prayer with his Father. As morning dawns, he calls his disciples to himself and appoints twelve as his apostles. And then (where Sunday’s gospel begins), as he descends further to a level place, a firestorm of activity ensues. A large crowd of disciples encircles him, and a much larger crowd from all over Israel and beyond gathers to hear him and to be healed of diseases and cleansed of demons. As Jesus’ divine power went out from him, people were straining just to touch him in hope of being healed – and many were!
What might have been the thoughts of his apostles? “So, this is what it’s going to be like to be apostles of the glorious Messiah! What an awesome day! Surely this is a foretaste of many more such days for Jesus and for us too!” Was their favorite question already beginning to dance in their heads: “Lord, I hope you don’t mind if I might ask for the prime place by your side when even more glory comes your way! After all, this is clearly what our best days are going to look like!”
Well, no matter what specifically was running through their grey matter that day, I know how I picture the best days of my life and ministry. “Blessed am I when my Shepherd Plan contributions are being multiplied by a bull market, for mine is the kingdom of retirement dreams! Blessed am I when my strengths become evident to all in my ministry, for such power coming from me proves how thankful they should be to enjoy my presence! Blessed am I when my ministry and family plans all come to fruition, for then I can tick off as completed one goal after another. Blessed am I when I have maintained peace in the congregation, for then nothing makes me uncomfortable.” Surely that must be what our best days look like?
Sorry, no. Not for the Apostles…and not for us either. Jesus never speaks in a vacuum, never addresses challenges that don’t exist. Jesus addresses himself to just such misguided thinking about what our best days look like. He stuns us by revealing that just how we might picture our best days – rich in what makes us comfortable, satisfied with what is filling tummy and life, laughing our way from one success to another, praised and respected by all – all fall under “woe” not “blessed”! It is a foretaste of what Jesus would later say to the Laodiceans: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17).
So, OK Jesus, how would you define our best days?
“Blessed are you who are poor….” Honestly? When I recognize myself as a beggar – when I look within and without in my life and find myself pitifully short of what I need to be rich toward God – those are my best and most blessed days? Yes, it’s true. For God longs for me to recognize how empty and poor I am by myself because into that void he pours the riches of his forgiving grace! Yes, “…for…” in the midst of such personal beggarliness, “…yours is the kingdom of heaven”!
“Blessed are you who hunger now….” Say what? When I find myself curiously hungry even when I have once again tried to fill my stomach and life with all the husks the world assures me will give me a full and satisfying life – that’s when I’m blessed? Yes, true again. For when such hunger pangs strike body and soul, Jesus steps forward as the only one “who satisfies [our] desires with good things” (Psalm 103:5)! Yes, “…for…” all who find how hungry this fleeting world and everything in it leaves them are invited to find that in Jesus “…you will be satisfied”!
“Blessed are you who weep now….” Come again? When I find myself mourning that 59 years into this “believer-thing” that battling my sinful nature has still not caused him to turn tail and run, when I find myself grieving how a world of human sin like mine has decimated God’s once perfect world as it lurches towards its doom – that’s when I am blessed? Yes, also true. For then steals on my ear the distant triumph song of heaven that resounds with the laughter of a God who will never let his already victorious Messiah be dethroned. Then I slowly learn to laugh through the tears with the realization that nothing “in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39)! Yes, “…for…” all whose cheeks are wet with such tears, “…you will laugh.”
“Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.” Really? When those I love and serve revile me – not because I’ve been a proud know-your-sin-but-not-mine candidate for best supporting actor in a hypocritical play since then I’ve earned rebuke – but because I have loved them enough to speak the truth they did not want to hear, then I am blessed? Yes, true yet again. For in a world in which there will always be those willing to tell others whatever it is they wanted to hear, God has enabled you to love your flock or your family or your friends enough to imitate his messengers of old who grieved over the destruction of Israel. Yes, “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.”
No, Jesus is not saying that we are wrong to enjoy any earthly blessings God sends our way. He isn’t hinting that finding joy in anything of this world is intrinsically un-Christian. He is not declaring that we must wipe any smile off our faces and act as if we are at a wake even when God uses the strengths he’s graciously given us to be a blessing to his people. He is not seeking to hinder us from finding joy where God has used us “to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
But he is saying this. Those can be good days when God grants just such things, but they are not our most blessed days! Our best blessings are not even remotely dependent on any of those outcomes! Our best blessings, as we live under his saving grace, go on when all of those “good day” elements are missing. In fact, on the very days we are ready to label as our “worst,” our Lord Jesus asks us to pause and see things as they really are. Paul said it so eloquently in the alternate second lesson for this Sunday. “For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
So, teach me, dear Jesus, to thank you for days – beggarly, hungry, weeping, and rejected! – that send me running to you! That’s when you are hardest at work in your love to teach me that my greatest blessings don’t come from within me nor are they dependent on my earthly circumstances. Though my reason will never fully understand, those days that send me running to you, Jesus, are my best days!