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Sunday, March 5, 2017

True Comfort (Luke 6.20,24, Isaiah 40.1-7)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; March 5, 2017; Text: Luke 6:20,24; Isaiah 40:1-7

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: Scripture and Music ::
Singing Together: Bless the Lord/10,000 Reasons (Myrin, Redman)
Singing Together: In Christ Alone (Getty/Townend)
Offering of Music: (choir) Cry No More (Joncas)
Hymn of Sending: Be Thou My Vision (SLANE)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) ::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

Today we are starting a new series that will take us through Easter and a bit beyond. It is entitled, “What does it mean to be blessed?” I chose this question and topic for a couple of reasons. One is that I think the culture (Christian and otherwise) like to talk about being blessed, but doesn’t have a good handle on what it means. I decided to look at what Jesus had to say about being blessed. And part of what I found there is that Jesus often challenged his listeners pretty significantly when he talked about blessing. You may have heard of the Beatitudes, his teaching on blessing in Matthew 5 in what we call the “Sermon on the Mount.” In Luke’s version of that teaching, Jesus no only says things like “blessed are the poor” but also “woe to you who are rich.” In other words, he called for folks to repent around some of the topics he related to blessing. So that seemed like a fitting series for Lent, which is a season of turning from sin in repentance and humility. I also found Jesus using the word “blessing” in texts associated with Palm Sunday and Easter, so it seemed like a great place for us to focus as we move through Lent and come up to Easter.

My hope is not only that you will come to understand the biblical concept of “blessing” better, but that you will hear and respond to Jesus’ challenges to turn toward him and experience the blessings he describes. So with that, we will start in Luke 6 with the first of several pairs of blessing/woe starting with verses 20 and 24.

Blessed are the Poor

Jesus begins his teaching by saying, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” He goes on to pronounce blessing on several other groups of people – the hungry, the weeping, the hated, and more. It would be easy to miss the context and think there is some special blessing that directly correlates with being poor, but we can’t miss the obvious pairs that begin in verse 24. For each blessing Jesus offers a corresponding ‘woe.’ He mentions the poor in verse 20 and the rich in verse 24, so we must take that pair together to properly understand what he is teaching us. The second half of “blessed are the poor” is “But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full.” (v.24)

So, it is not the state of being poor or being rich that brings blessing or woe, but something having to do with how and where we find our “full comfort.” It is not too hard to tease that out. One of the commonly understood benefits of riches (across cultures) is that they provide comfort, security, and peace. And that is one of the promises of the prosperity theology and thinking prevalent in our own society, that blessing means riches resulting in comfort, security, and peace. And I can’t think of scripture that more directly contradicts that thinking than this pair of verses. Jesus not only said about riches and poverty that it is blessed to be poor, but said “woe” to those who are receiving their comfort in full. He flips the common understanding of riches and blessing on its head.

Why would he say that and what is wrong with receiving comfort in full? In a sentence, it is that true comfort, security, and peace cannot be found in anyone or anything less than God alone, so the so-called blessing of riches is at best an illusion. Why “woe?” – Because at worst that illusion becomes something that actually stands between a person and the true blessing of receiving God’s Comfort in full. Let’s look at the difference.

The Difference between Comfort and Blessing

There is nothing wrong with comfort in itself. A warm blanket is comfortable if you are cold. A friend’s caring concern and presence can be comforting. And one of the names for the Holy Spirit is “Comforter.” But those examples highlight part of the problem that can come with riches and the ‘stuff’ of this world. We can substitute lesser comforts for greater comforts and miss out on the True Comfort that comes from knowing and having a vital relationship with God. It’s that settling for less that is suggested in the phrase “in full” in verse 24. Woe to one who believes, seeks, or finds riches to be all the comfort they need. There is so much more!

So let me say that again. There’s nothing wrong with comfort. Jesus is not setting comfort off against blessing. You could take any of the blessings and woes he will visit and pair them as little ‘c’ comfort and big ‘C’ Comfort, false comfort and True Comfort, or so-called blessing and real blessing. So what he is warning against is buying into “the less-than” or “the lie.” Don’t settle; don’t be deceived – or woe unto you!

Now you may realize that the poor may also buy into the same lie; and some wealthy people may see through it. Both things can be true within the scope of Jesus’ teaching here because, again, he is not pronouncing blessing on poverty and woe on wealth, but is speaking to the dangers of seeking true comfort in anything or anyone other than God and His Kingdom. But I’d encourage you also to hear this message first to yourself rather than to others. Where do YOU seek and find comfort, security, and peace. Are you settling? Are you being deceived?

And that is going to be the basic template for the next few weeks. Jesus is going to call out various ways in which we and others are deceived or settle for less than what God has to offer us and invite us to see and experience more. That ‘more’ is God’s blessing and may or may not resemble the so-called blessings we often seek in place of God’s best.

What is Godly Comfort?

Lastly, I want to say something about God’s Word. When I realized that the focus of this first blessing/woe pair was comfort, I was drawn to Isaiah 40, which begins with God speaking through Isaiah, “Comfort, O comfort my people.” If we want to understand what big ‘C’ Comfort or blessing is in this arena, it makes sense to go look for an example of godly comfort to better understand it. Here, God’s people have endured suffering, displacement, and loss for generations; and God is speaking a word of hope to them to say that God is preparing to make a way of healing and rescue for them. In fact, these are the very promises that will be fulfilled in Christ, and John the Baptist is connected to these words from Isaiah by the Gospel writers. So in this instance, God’s Comfort and blessing are the healing and rescue for His people and for the world, through Jesus himself.

It was interesting to me to see where the Isaiah text went from there. It went to another familiar passage to me, one that many preachers quote before preaching: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever.” (v. 8) How similar to what Jesus was teaching in Luke. Riches may indeed buy a measure of comfort for a short time, but they are like the grass and the flower of the field, fading quickly with time. It is only the promises of God and the enacted Word and Will of God that endure and last. That is why true blessing is to be found in God alone, not in the stuff of this earth.

In today’s scripture, Jesus speaks of the godly blessing of True Comfort. In coming weeks we will look at True Satisfaction, True Joy, and True Reward and the ways we settle and are deceived by less.

May God bless you with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to follow His holy Word. Amen.

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