Jeremiah 17:5-10, Luke 6:17-26
If Jesus was around today, speaking publicly and doing his stuff, you can bet that someone would have suggested he get some PR support. Someone would have pointed out to his people that, although he’s got some great stuff to say, and a very powerful message, sometimes, the way he says it just doesn’t come across that well.
Like in the reading today, when he says that it’s the poor, those who mourn, the hungry and the persecuted. who are blessed, and that things aren’t looking so good for the rich, the full up, the happy and the well thought of. Honestly Jesus, that is not a helpful way to win people round - ‘Come and join me if you’ve got nothing and are miserable, and if you’re doing ok, don’t bother’. It’s just not very appealing is it.
But that’s what he said - So let’s have a look at this passage, and let’s see it first of all in a bigger context - in the context of what Jesus thinks he has come to do.
One of the striking things about Jesus is how much he talks about another world that he knows. It’s just the same as this world - but it’s somehow different; it’s made up of the same stuff as this world, but it’s like the pieces have been put together in a different order.
And Jesus has a name for this other world. He calls it ‘The Kingdom of God’ or in Matthew’s gospel, ‘the Kingdom of heaven’.
And he tells punchy stories about this world; he calls them parables. Stories that are about this world that we live in, but with a sharp twist which open us up to the other world, the one in which God is really in charge - like one about a son who comes home after blowing his family inheritance and - bizarrely - is welcomed back by his Dad’s open arms; or one about a guy who crosses the road to help his sworn enemy who has been beaten up.
And he talks about this world, this Kingdom of God, a lot. And he also acts it out - it’s like he is living in it, right now. And so when he meets people who are ill, they very often get better, because nobody could be ill in the Kingdom of God, or when he comes across people who are really struggling with life - like a woman he meets at a well who has had 5 broken marriages - he listens and names their issues and they go away changed. Like they’re now living in a different world.
And the way he talks makes it clear that he hasn’t just made up this world - he finds evidence for it throughout the Scripture. He’s describing something that has always been there, and which God has always been pointing his people towards, but which they’ve never quite understood or got.
And this kingdom, the way Jesus describes it, is both fantastically attractive, but also profoundly challenging. It’s as if, for it to come about, things are going to have to change, including some things that seem really good. And sometimes Jesus talks as if there are powerful forces lined up against this kingdom, which will do everything they can to stop it coming into being. Powerful military forces; powerful economic forces; powerful spiritual forces too.
And, one day, Jesus went up a mountain, to pray, and then chose 12 people who are going to get an intense training in how to live in this kingdom; in this other world. He calls them his ‘disciples’, and they are going to have the privilege of living alongside Jesus so they can learn how to live like him. They are apprentices of this parallel world, in which things really are the way God wants them to be.
And immediately after choosing them - and this is where our gospel reading picks up the story - Jesus comes down the mountain and meets huge crowds of people who have come from all round Israel to listen and to be healed. People who have tasted this ‘kingdom of God’ and want more of it. Needy people, people who are ill or despairing, people who are hungry and desperate; people who have nothing left except the hope of a different kind of world.
And there, in this crazy, heaving mass of people, Jesus turns to his disciples and begins their training.
And the first thing they’re to notice is where Jesus is. He’s in the middle of the need. He’s not up a mountain any more - he isn’t going to give them the theory of the kingdom of God, he’s showing them where the kingdom is, right now. And it’s where people are. Where needy, desperate people are. Without any words at all, Jesus makes the point. Notice where I am. Notice where God’s kingdom happens. He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people.
And I love that little line in verse 20 - ‘he looked up at his disciples…’. Maybe the disciples have started to back away from all this need, slipping back up the slope away from all that begging and pleading, and Jesus has to look up at them to make his point. Or maybe, alternatively, Jesus is squatting down in the middle of everyone, so immersed in healing and listening, and so he has to look up at the disciples standing around him. Whatever it is, Jesus is clear - this is where you’ll find the kingdom. Not separate from the mess of the world, but in it.
And then he starts talking. And he lists 4 kinds of people who are blessed and 4 kinds of people who are not. Our translations uses the word ‘woe’ to describe the ones who are not blessed; we might equally well say sorrowful, or perhaps ‘gutted’! And both lists are surprising, shocking even.
Those who are blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who are weeping and those that people hate because of Jesus.
Those who are ‘gutted’ are the rich, those with plenty to eat, those who are laughing and those that people speak well of.
Now let’s be clear what Jesus is doing here. He is continuing to tell his disciples about the Kingdom of God. Just like all those parables and healing and stories, he is saying - if you want to know where to find God’s rule and reign, if you want to know what things are like when God is at work, this is what it will be like. The poor are the very definition of what things are like in the Kingdom of God. In the kingdom, people will not be hungry, and they will not be crying any more but laughing, and those left out because of their faith will be - already are - at the centre.
That’s just what the kingdom is like.
Jesus is not saying - if you want to get into the kingdom, you’d better start crying, or give up eating or whatever - these are not entrance requirements, they are a description of how things are. This is what the kingdom is like; this is where you will find God at work.
And conversely, the list of woes are a description of what things are like when the kingdom is far away. People are rich and well fed, they are so unaware of the needs of the world that they spend their time laughing and having fun and bigging each other up because ‘we’re all such good blokes, aren’t we’.
These two lists are like maps. If you want to know where to find the kingdom of God, follow the ‘blessing’ map - find the poor, the hungry, the grief stricken and the persecuted. Where you find those people, you will find the kingdom. If on the other hand you want to find places and people who are far from living kingdom lives, look for those who are comfortable and powerful, people who think they’ve got it all sorted and who are more interested in their own status than in God’s call. You choose.
So what does all that mean for us? Perhaps two things, two connected things.
On the one hand this is an invitation to us all - if you want to find this world, this kingdom, where God is alive and at work, where you will sense the crackle of God’s presence, where things are the way God wants them to be - make sure you’re looking for kingdom people; the poor, the hungry, the grief-stricken and the persecuted and go and join them.
So this is a call to get stuck in - it’s why the church is the biggest provider of Food Banks; it’s why Samaritans was set up, it’s what Street Pastors do, it’s what you do every time to take a meal to someone who has suffered a bereavement or you pray for persecuted Christians in the Middle East. When we do these things, when God’s church does these things, we are living in the kingdom. The kingdom has come.
And it is also a warning…if you don’t know anyone who is struggling for money, if you consider your wealth and possessions your own, and aren’t giving generously, if you never spend time with people whose lives are tough, if you’re more concerned with your own comfort than the wellbeing of others - chances are your off target, chances are you’re not living close to the kingdom. Chances are you’ve missed the point.
So that’s the question before us this week. Jesus came to show us what the kingdom looks like and to invite us to live kingdom lives. These two lists paint a pretty clear picture of what life is like in the kingdom, and what it’s like outside the kingdom.
Where are you living at the moment? What do you need to do next?
What do you think of when you hear the phrase 'Kingdom of heaven' or 'Kingdom of God' (which mean the same thing)?
Read Matthew 13:24-33 and 13:44-50 - what does this tell you the Kingdom of Heaven is like? What are the similarities and differences between your thoughts and Jesus' words?
Read Luke 6:17-26, commonly known as 'The beatitudes'
The sermon suggests that the lists in the beatitudes describe what the Kingdom of Heaven is like - if that's true, when have you been closest to the Kingdom of Heaven?
When you have you been furthest from the Kingdom of Heaven?
What do you need to do as a result of your conversation?