Sunday, October 8, 2017
Scripture: Luke 13:22-30 & Matthew 5:3-12
Divine Conspiracy, Week 4
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

First/Last
I’ve been roaming God’s green earth for over 39 years now, and I have been a part of the church for basically all of those years. From a very young age, I have read the words of Jesus, and despite my study and familiarity, I can tell you that there are still plenty of things that Jesus says that raise lots of questions for me. One of those common sayings of Jesus that falls into this camp comes at the end of our Luke reading today, “Indeed some who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last” (13:30). It raises all sorts of questions. Who is in first? Who is last? When will this happen? Where am I? What about others? And so on.

I can recall being a part of youth group when I was in high school. Our group was fairly large – often more than fifty high schoolers would show up on Sunday evening. As Pastor Jill said last week, the way to the youths’ hearts is through their stomach, so we would often get pizza as part of our evening together. When dinner arrived, most of us would run as fast as we could to get in line for the food. We were teens. We were hungry. And it was pizza.

Our youth leaders were always on the lookout for how to teach us Scripture. So one night when we had rushed to get in line for pizza they taught us this maddening saying of Jesus – the first shall be last, and the last shall be first – and they made us flip the line around. Few things in life have made me madder than the injustice of winning the race to get pizza only to end up at the end of the line! I earned that first slice of pizza!

Well, lesson learned, I guess because, first of all, I still remember it today, and, second, it was a pretty interesting glimpse into the upside down kingdom that God was bringing to bear in Jesus. I didn’t get what I worked to get. I ended up in the loser’s position. But I did still get to come to the table. Sometimes I have to turn off my brain that is so trained by growing up in America to hear the shocking words of Jesus – it’s grace and not what I’ve earned through my efforts.

Two Questions
About a month ago, Jill and I preached Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I’m guessing for many of us, that was the first time we’ve heard Jesus’ words in order and in their entirety. They’re familiar, but they’re still shocking, particularly as we wrestle with how much is in these 111 verses. While we, too, are Jesus’ audience, it is important to remember who heard his words originally. At the end of Matthew 4 we read that people from throughout the Ancient Near East came to hear Jesus, particularly those who were afflicted with disease, pain, demons, epilepsy, and paralysis. Jesus’ own disciples are also in this original audience. None of them were from the upper crust of society; none of them were religious elites. So, when Jesus delivers this incredible word, he’s doing so to the spiritual zeroes, to those beaten down by life, and to those who thought they had no place at God’s table. Two thousand years later as Christianity has formalized and achieved some acceptance and as really none of us gathered here today had to worry about persecution or threat to attend today, I think it’s hard for us to hear how shocking and challenging Jesus’ words were and are.

Like many great thinkers in history, Jesus seeks to answer two questions in his sermon. First, which is the good life?

A recent survey of Millennials revealed that over 80% of them believed that an important life goal for them was to get rich. 50% of them believed that fame is a key goal in life. [1]

Second, who is truly a good person?

We can set our imagination to some people who might make the grade for us, but this list is inadequate, according to Jesus.

He goes an entirely different direction with things. He gives us the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with what we call the Beatitudes. Dallas Willard tells us the key to understanding these nine sayings is that, “They serve to clarify Jesus’ fundamental message: the free availability of God’s rule and righteousness to all of humanity through reliance upon Jesus himself, the person now loose in the world among us.”[2] This is a very different answer than others have offered before or since. The good life is for anyone who would receive it from God – anyone! – not just the religious, not just the rich, not just those with time on their hands to think about life – anyone!

Upside Down
With her fertile imagination, Barbara Brown Taylor offers us this, “I think Jesus should have asked the crowd to stand on their heads when he taught them the Beatitudes, because that is what he was doing. He was turning the known world upside down, so that those who had been fighting for breath at the bottom of the human heap suddenly found themselves closest to heaven, while those who thought they were on top of things found themselves flat on their backs looking up.”[3]

Jesus begins this famous teaching with the shocking news that things are upside down in our world. Or in the words of Dallas Willard, people were “unaware that they had been flying upside down.” We’d been getting it backwards. The last really were first and the first last in the kingdom. How strange and difficult this teaching is!

With this strangeness and difficulty it is tempting to write Jesus’ words off as intended for another time or place – for then and there, not for here and now. Historically, the church has done this with frequency. Even translators of the Bible have mistranslated the words of Jesus to spiritualize them, no doubt wanting to be faithful to what Jesus said but entirely missing the connection between the world and the word. For it is a world filled with very real tragedies and difficulties.

Spiritual/Real
“The world turns and conflict flares up like a struck match,” muses Barbara Brown Taylor. “A soccer field fills with fresh graves. Believers are shot dead at their prayers. A thin buzzard waits three yards from a thinner child. {And with the mass shooting in Las Vegas, the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the desolation from hurricanes and typhoons, the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, I might add, that these real life tragedies must always cause us to remember that the spiritual is present in the material.} Every tragedy deepens the question: what is the good news, exactly? Is anyone still listening?

“All it takes is one day’s headlines to make me wish I had gone into a more practical line of work. I would like to know how to close a wound or set a bone. I would like to land an airplane full of rice and chickens in the middle of the Sudan. I would settle for knowing how to fix a broken well pump. But no, I am a preacher – a public speaker of the gospel – and the story is all I have.”[4]

Faced with such tragedy and evil in the world, I know that the church has a good word to bring to bear on things. Belief matters in our expressions of grief. Belief matters in how we live day by day because it shapes how we understand the good life and what it means to be good. Apart from belief, we build our convictions on sand, which will get eroded over time and everything you worked so hard to build will come crashing down.

Beatitudes
So, in this upside down world, Jesus speaks to all who would hear these words. Jesus offers us nine blessings. Beatitude is the Latin word for the Greek makarios. Both declare certain people to be in a privileged, fortunate circumstance. They mean “fortunate,” “happy,” or “well-off” in secular circumstances. In a religious context we add “blessed” to the list.[5] But each of these sayings is shocking, for who among us considers those who mourn to be fortunate? Yet, that’s Jesus purpose in speaking in this way. Jesus did not invent this type of saying. They are found in the Hebrew Bible. They’re found in secular Greco-Roman literature. But until Jesus they were never reversed in this manner.

Notice that these are descriptions, not transactions. Jesus is not telling people to be poor in spirit so that they can inherit the kingdom of heaven. Don’t make that mistake! Jesus is not giving a new law! He is telling us what the innermost being of those who receive this kingdom will be like. Also, this is not a list like the 10 Commandments. These sayings describe those who are in the faith community. They are the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted. They are those who mourn, those who desire things to be made right, and those who are merciful. They are peacemakers, those who are attacked because of their stand for what is right, and those insulted and lied about because they have taken up this strange way of Jesus – this way that seems upside down! They are the happy. They are the blessed.

Narrow
But be careful because it’s sometimes easy to say, “That’s me! I’m blessed! But that person over there – surely they’re not in God’s camp. Surely the kingdom cannot include them!” As Willard challenges and confesses in this chapter, “Even the moral disasters will be received by God as they come to rely on Jesus, count on him, and make him their companion in the kingdom. Murderers….The brutal and bigoted. Drug lords and pornographers. War criminals and sadists. Terrorists….Can’t we feel some sympathy for Jesus’ contemporaries, who huffed at him, ‘This man is cordial to sinners, and even eats with them!’ Sometimes I feel I don’t want the kingdom to be open to such people. But it is. That is the heart of God.”[6]

In my ten years of ordained ministry, I have met so many fascinating people. I can recall vividly a conversation I had at a wedding reception on Sea Island in Georgia. Let me tell you that it’s always awkward to seat the pastor at a wedding reception, which is part of the reason I’ve opted out of most receptions at this point! This family put me at a table with some family friends, one of whom was a retired safety from the Atlanta Falcons. As happens after a couple of glasses of wine, this football player started asking me deep theological questions, which ultimately led him to ask me this startling questions, “So, do you really believe that God can forgive anybody? Even a mass murderer?” And I said, “Yes, I believe that. If God’s grace can be sufficient for me, then it is sufficient for anyone open to receiving it.” The conversation stuck with me because he just couldn’t handle a God whose kingdom is that big, whose forgiveness is that big, and whose love is that big. It was upside down for him.

But, we’ll let Taylor send us out with her incisive words, “Upside down, you begin to see God’s blessed ones in places it would never have occurred to you to look. You begin to see that the poor in spirit, the meek and those who mourn are not just people you can help but people who can help you, if you will let them, and that their hunger and thirst for God are not voids to be filled but appetites to be envied.

“Upside down, you begin to see that the peacemakers are not flower children but physicians, prescribing God’s own tranquility, and that the pure in heart have just never gotten the knack of locking their doors. Upside down, you begin to see that those who have been bruised for their faith are not the sad ones but the happy ones because they have found something worth being bruised for, and that those who are merciful are just handing out what they have already received in abundance.

“The world looks funny upside down, but maybe that is just how it looks when you have got your feet planted in heaven.”[7]

[1]https://www.ted.com/talks/robert_waldinger_what_makes_a_good_life_lessons_from_the_longest_study_on_happiness?language=en

[2] Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy, 116.

[3] Taylor, Barbara Brown, Gospel Medicine, 159-160.

[4] Taylor, Barbara Brown. Gospel Medicine,  ix.

[5] NIB, Matthew, 176.

[6] Willard, 124.

[7] Taylor, 162-163.