Sunday, January 29, 2017

Standing on the Same Side as God

January 29, 2017 – The 4th Sunday after the Epiphany
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Do you ever feel like whatever line you choose at the grocery store is certain to be the slowest line? I don’t believe in luck, but I do believe that God has a way of teaching me patience by making sure that whoever is in front of me needs to get a price checked on some salad dressing or has a file-folder full of coupons or feels the need to argue with the cashier about whether the broccoli crowns are $1.39/lb. or $1.49/lb.. I am so bad at choosing the right line that I’ll make my decision and then, when I discover that the person in front of me wants to by a dozen gifts cards and make each one a separate purchase, I’ll switch to another line only to have that register freeze up so that I can watch the gift-card guy and the two people behind him finish their transaction while we’re still waiting for a manager. Sound familiar? It happens to everyone. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone who thinks that he or she is consistently good at picking the right line.

Some of us were brought up here in Alabama or were born with ties to the state. The rest of us moved here and had to make a choice: Alabama or Auburn? If you moved here in the 1970s and picked Alabama when they were on a roll, you might have been disappointed when Auburn won six of eight to close out the 1980s. Likewise, if you arrived in the early 2000s and jumped on Auburn’s bandwagon when they won six in a row, you might have regretted missing out on Alabama’s recent success. When it comes to grocery stores or college football, however, it doesn’t really matter all that much if you make a bad choice. But, when it comes to deciding which team you’ll be on when Jesus comes back, you might want to choose carefully. I don’t know about you, but, when everything comes to an end, I want to be on the right side—on God’s side.

Over and over again in the gospel, Jesus shows us whose side God is on. When he welcomes outcasts, breaks bread with sinners, touches the unclean, comforts the mentally disturbed, shows respect for women, and celebrates with the poor, Jesus is showing us whose side God is on. In Matthew 5, when Jesus offers the Sermon on the Mount, again, he is telling us what side of history God is on. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” This is Jesus’ way of telling us where to look for God and the fulfillment of God’s work. And he’s asking us to search for him in the last places the world would ever think to look.

A long time ago, hundreds of years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah foretold this kind of blessedness. In Isaiah 61, the prophet wrote,

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit (Isaiah 61:1-3a).

Poor, meek, mournful, oppressed, and persecuted—those are the people to whom God speaks good news. The prophet proclaimed those words to a nation in distress—a people who had been defeated and imprisoned in exile, a people who were desperate for the hope of redemption. Jesus came and once again declared that hope to those in distress, but, this time, instead of speaking those words to a nation, he spoke them to the ones whom a nation had forgotten—to the ones on whom the world had turned its back. Has there ever been a more important moment for us to hear these words of Jesus?

Who are the blessed ones? “Oh, you’re so blessed,” we might say to the parents of successful children or the owner of a successful business or the pastor of a successful church. But they aren’t the ones to whom Jesus is speaking. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he says. In other words, blessed are those whose esteem is run down, whose heart and soul have been trampled on by life. “Blessed are those who mourn,” he says, offering blessedness not to those with large families but to those who weep at the graves of their loved ones. “Blessed are the meek,” he declares, not honoring success but honoring those whom success has left behind. In what way could these people ever possibly be blessed? In what strange universe would anyone say to a grieving widow or an impoverished beggar, “You are the blessed ones?”

In what universe? In God’s universe. In God’s kingdom. In Christ we see most fully that God is on the side of the disadvantaged. The rich and proud do not need God’s vindication. The successful are never the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Those who have been denied even the comforts of a modest life are the ones who eagerly wait for the day of the Lord—for God and the justice and righteousness that he brings. And where do we see them? In the Beatitudes, we discover that true blessedness is found in the kingdom of God. Leonhard Goppelt, a German theologian from the middle of the twentieth century, wrote, “As a single ray of light passing through a prism is broken into the colourful spectrum of the rainbow, so too what the kingdom brings finds colourful development in the promises of the Beatitudes.”[1] Do you want to know what side God is on? Listen to what Jesus says, and discover where true blessedness is to be found.

But what are we supposed to do about that? I don’t want to be on the wrong side when Jesus comes back, but what am I willing to do to make sure that I’m not? Should I sell all that I have and become poor? Maybe, but what about the other identities of blessedness. Is God asking me to become mournful? Should I look for opportunities to be persecuted? Perhaps all of us could stand to be a bit more merciful or pure in heart, but I don’t think that’s the point. The Beatitudes aren’t prescriptive; they’re descriptive. Jesus isn’t telling us to seek out opportunities to be miserable, but he is commanding us to look at the world through a new lens. By identifying true blessedness, he is telling us to search for God in new places—not among the successes of this world but among those who face the world’s deepest challenges.

Maybe it’s time for us to stop looking at the world the way the world sees it and pray that God would give us eyes to see the world the way that God sees it. Jesus does not say that the poor and meek and mournful will be blessed. He declares them blessed here and now. Yes, the fulfillment of that promise is still ahead of us, and the world cannot see it now, but, with God’s help, we can see that blessedness. We can see it because Jesus has shown it to us. But are we willing to see what he sees? Will we let the story of the poor and the oppressed and the marginalized teach us about God? Will we recognize the blessedness that God has given them, or will we be blind to God’s preference for the disadvantaged? Jesus tells us whose side God is on. Will we be on that side, too?

[1] In Theology of the New Testament (trans. Of Theologie des Neuen Testaments 1975, Vol. 1, p. 68), Grand Rapids, 1981; qtd in W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Vol. 1, p. 446.

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