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Sunday, March 26, 2017

True Rewards (Luke 6.22-23,26, Colossians 3.23-25)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; March 26, 2017; Luke 6:22-23,26; Colossians 3:23-25

:: 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 ::
Gathering Music: Thrive (Casting Crowns)
Singing Together: Enough (Tomlin, Giglio)
Singing Together: My Soul Finds Rest/Psalm 62 (Keyes, Townend)
The Word in Music: Blest Are They (Haas, Joncas)
Hymn of Sending: Jesus Calls Us (GALILEE)

:: 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.

I’m not sure there is more provocative pair of statements than those we are looking at today:

Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy… Woe to you when all men speak well of you…” (Luke 6:22,26)

We are continuing in a series entitled, “What does it mean to be blessed?” And today’s text serves as a reminder: it may not mean what you think it means! In today’s text Jesus brings up the topic of ‘reward’ and challenges us on why we say the things we say and do the things we do.

Little Rewards

I don’t know why this particular blessing/woe pairing grabs my attention harder than some of the others. Maybe it is because I do so much like affirmation and praise. Yet here Jesus warns me, pronouncing ‘woe’ when everyone starts speaking well. At least I need to ask myself some hard questions: “Why all the praise? Is this empty flattery?” Now, as with all these teachings, there are exceptions to what Jesus is saying. There are certainly times when we receive or give praise for something done truly and well and in a godly way. But that’s not what Jesus is getting at here. He’s talking about that dynamic when we say or do things for the sake of human approval alone, and particularly when those things are in contrast to the will or way of Christ. Right? He’s set up a contrast with doing things “for the sake of the Son of Man.” He specifically mentions false prophets, those who spoke words to please others rather than speaking truth. We might extend that specific warning to any example of seeking human approval but NOT serving Christ.

The flip side of that is when we do or say the right thing, or specifically the godly Christ-thing, and take heat for it. There’s a simple enough example of this: have you ever told a child or a teenager something true, even motivated by love for them, and it not been met with hugs and thanks? The temptation is to say what they want to hear and be “the greatest parent ever” but that’s not truly loving them. Or with a friend who is getting themselves in trouble. If you have a good enough relationship with them you might risk speaking the loving truth to them. I’ve been in that position as a friend as well as a pastor. I can tell you that sometimes – maybe even most times – that truth is hard for them to receive. I’ve also yielded to the temptation just to dodge the hard truth instead. How about you? Ever been in any of those situations?

Let me offer two reasons (besides doing the right thing) that Jesus gives us to live “for His sake.”

Two Reasons to Live for His Sake

He Did it For Us

One compelling reason to risk rejection for the sake of Christ is that he did it for us. I can’t help but think of Jesus when I read that list: hate, ostracize, insult, scorn as evil. Those were the things done to Jesus while he was teaching us about God and giving his life sacrificially for us. While he had followers, he had many opponents who tried to trip him up, trap him. And eventually they arrested him, beat and mocked him, and killed him. It was all while he was about His Father’s business, bringing light into the darkness and making a way for us to be restored to God.

So it is no wonder that when we, in turn, follow after his teaching and his way, we experience some of the same things he did. That’s the response of the darkness and often the response of the world. But that’s just the point where Jesus tries to encourage those who would follow him. Don’t look for immediate reward for your reward is in Heaven.

Heavenly Rewards

He doesn’t spell out for us what those heavenly rewards are. And I’ll admit that it’s something I struggle to understand. Heaven is as good as it gets already, right? It’s not like there’s a better view for some, or that such a thing would matter to us anymore. Probably closer to what he is saying is that the reward of trusting and following him IS Heaven. While we don’t want to misread that as a kind of salvation by works, I think it does remind us that a saving faith is not a comfortable or sheltered thing. It stirs us to action, following the teaching and example of Christ; and that, says Jesus, will stir up some trouble and resistance. That may even serve, then, as encouragement that our faith is alive and well. Jesus even says that it can be a source of joy in the present.

What Does that Look Like for Us

I remember a number of years ago when we first started talking about being a church beyond our walls. In addition to encouraging you to not just keep “church” contained to meetings in rooms here on certain days of the week, but embodying “church” in every moment and every place “out there” (beyond the walls). One of the things I remember saying over and over is that it would get messy. The carpet might get dirty; there might be babies and children making noise in worship (praise the Lord!); there might be people that look different from you (again, praise the Lord!). That’s when we met our friends across the street in the group home. That’s when we welcomed multiple Girl Scout groups into the church. That’s when we connected with homeowners associations and, in many new ways, to the elementary school. And I’ll tell you something: that’s also when we saw a noticeable uptick in vandalism, some minor stuff and some not so minor, including one incident of spray-painted hate speech. (Didn’t see it? We painted over it pretty quick!) But here’s what I think happened: we started making a difference for Christ in the neighborhood and got noticed. Jesus says that faithful public obedience not gets messy, but sometimes there is trouble. It gets noticed and sometimes pushed against.

As I tried to say often back then, if you see those things – whether signs of life like babies and carpet spills and people that look and act different or unpleasant things like vandalism – don’t take it as a sign to back off or slow down. Realize that it may be a sign of faithfulness and be encouraged.

I’d lift that back up as we re-engage the world after some time focusing on renovations and repairs. There is a new vision and energy around things like men’s ministry, racial reconciliation, youth and children, drama, the community garden, and more! It might get messy again. Lord Jesus, I pray that it will get messy again! And when it does, don’t back away; press in! If we do these things for the sake of Jesus, we can expect some pushback, some resistance, and perhaps even some trouble. Be glad in that day!

Whatever You Do… (Colossians 3:23-25)

I chose the Colossians text because it also mentioned “reward” and it expands a bit on Jesus’ words in Luke. In Colossians, the scope of serving Christ is as wide as could be: “WHATEVER you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for people.” (v. 23) In other words, serve Christ in all things and do so HEARTILY, with passion and energy. Here the Apostle Paul simplifies the contrast for us: “for the Lord rather than for people.” And Paul is a bit clearer about the nature of the reward: it is the “reward of the inheritance” (v. 24) – scripture talks in several places about this inheritance being the salvation that God has secured for us in Christ. (cf. 1 Peter 1)  So it’s not a special seat in Heaven, but salvation itself. Again, we can get twisted around thinking that we earn this salvation, but ‘inheritance’ immediately sets that notion aside. You don’t earn or deserve an inheritance; it is a gift. And while that may have slightly negative connotations for us, in scripture it is a powerful and positive image: that the ‘inheritance’ of salvation is lovingly given by God to each one – adopted children at that – who trust in God’s covenant promises to rescue and redeem, finally fulfilled perfectly in Christ.

Paul also expands helpfully on what “for the sake of the Son of Man” means: he says outright, “It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.” So that is what I would lift up before us as a challenge and charge as God’s people in this place. Come, let us serve Christ HEARTILY, not only within these walls, but out in the world, where we live and work and move. Let us seek God’s approval, not that of people. It may get messy; there may be push-back. But take heart; that is an indication that it’s working! And that’s what it means to be blessed. Amen!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

True Joy (Luke 21b,25b, Psalm 126, Revelation 21.1-5)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; March 12, 2017; Text: Luke 6:21a,25a; John 6:25-35

:: 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: Trading My Sorrow (Evans)
Singing Together: Bless the Lord/10,000 Reasons (Myrin, Redman)
Offering of Music: O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus - Bobby White, piano; Linda Jenkins, organ
Hymn of Sending: Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts (QUEBEC)

:: 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.

“What does it mean to be blessed?” Specifically, what does Jesus and the scripture say that it means? And what should we do if we want to know and experience God’s blessing?

Today we are going to talk about True Joy as one of God’s blessings. It is not something easily understood, but it is one of God’s great gifts to us in a world that is full of suffering and sorrow. We will look first at Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6, then consider several biblical texts that expand on his teaching.

The Now and the New (Luke 6:21b,25b)

Let’s start with Jesus’ words in Luke: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh… woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” As we noted last week, the word ‘now’ is critical to beginning to understand what Jesus is saying here. He is not saying that weeping makes you blessed or laughing makes you cursed. There is a here and now that is full of sorrow and suffering and sin. It is worth weeping over! But there is a future coming – God’s future and God’s Kingdom – and those things will be set right. Those who laugh now are, perhaps, those who cause or rejoice at the suffering of others; something about God’s future setting right of things reveals that group’s laughter to be temporary, replaced later with sorrow.

Said another way: what Jesus holds up as blessed is sorrow over the brokenness of this world and joy that God will set things right. That promise has consoled many in this world in the midst of pain, suffering, and sorrow.  The passage we heard from Revelation 21 is one of the classic descriptions of what that future will be like. We often read it at funerals, to remind grieving family and friends that this is not all there is. In his vision, John sees a new heaven and earth, a new Jerusalem, and hears a loud voice from the throne, saying: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them…” (v. 3) God is with us, in our midst. And it’s this next part that speaks to our sorrow: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things [the NOW things!] have passed away.” (v. 4) And Jesus then declares, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (v. 5)

That is lovely and comforting, isn’t it? And yet, it seems so far off. Is all we are to know in this world, in the now, various sorrows and losses? No, there is more to say.

Tasting the ‘Not Yet’

Jesus often speaks of “now and not yet” when he talks about the Kingdom of God. When he does, he isn’t just contrasting this world’s woes and eternity’s joys. A key part of his message about God’s Kingdom is that it is breaking into this world even now: “The Kingdom of God is already in your midst!” (Luke 17:21) While God’s perfect future is still “not yet,” we can know something of it in the here and now. Let me point to two scriptures to illustrate that.

Psalm 126

A significant part of the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament, records the story of God’s people when they were in Exile, far from home, friends, and (they thought) from God. There are Psalms that record the great sorrow of that period in Israel’s history, like Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” (v. 1)

Psalm 126 records what it was like when those Exiles finally got to come back home. It had been so long and so prayed-for, it was like a dream, but it was real: “Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with joyful shouting!” (v. 2) Later in the Psalm comes a sentence much like Jesus’ teaching in Luke, followed by the line that inspired the old gospel hymn, “Bringing in the Sheaves”: “Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” Note that laughter here is a good thing, precisely because it is rooted in God’s setting right of things.

And that’s the image held out in Psalms: that trusting in God is like planting seeds. There is often a difficult period of “sowing” and often also a period of waiting, but in faith we look forward to the joyful harvest that awaits us. But note that as powerful as that freedom and return from Exile was, it was not God’s eternal justice or Kingdom, it was just a picture or taste of what was yet to come. And indeed, the Psalm says that this picture served as a witness to the nations that the “Lord has done great things for them.” (v. 2)

John 11

I am reminded of a similar picture during Jesus’ ministry. In John 11, we can read the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus’ dear friend, Lazarus. While Jesus was a way, Lazarus grew sick and died. When Jesus came to Bethany to the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, he found the women and townspeople grieving over the death of Lazarus. Jesus spoke to both sisters about the future resurrection – the hopeful “not yet” of what God would do. And they agreed, but continue to weep. In fact, even Jesus wept with them. Weeping over the sorrows of this world is natural and legitimate; it can even reflect our recognition that things are broken and not as God intended.

But do you know the story? After weeping with the women, Jesus went to the tomb where Lazarus had been dead four days. And Jesus commanded him to come out. And he did, much to the amazement of all those around. There is much more that could be said about that miracle, but I want to focus on this: it WAS amazing and was God’s power breaking into the ultimate brokenness of the ‘now’: death. But Lazarus would die again. Like God returning the Exiles home, it was just a taste of the future that one day would see Lazarus raised forever.

A Deeper Well

With all of that as context, here’s what I want to hold out as the takeaway from the two verses in Luke. Jesus sets weeping and laughter off against each other, as he does with other contrasting words. But what he really seems to be describing here is the legitimate response to the broken world we live in: tears and sorrow. And he is pointing us beyond laughter to something deeper: True Joy. I would even go so far as to say that authentic laughter (as opposed to mockery) is itself is a human glimpse of that deeper joy. But as he has done previously, Jesus is inviting us to plunge our hope and faith into the deeper well that is joy, for it is joy that will be our experience of God’s presence in eternity.

And here’s the takeaway point: joy is not reserved for a future eternity. Joy is the present experience of our future hope! There is more we can experience in the ‘now’ than tears and sorrow. Faith helps us to trust in what God is going to do. But God also grants us small tastes of that future, even as He did for Israel and for the family of Lazarus. It is not required for God to do this, but don’t miss it when it does happen. Has God ever answered your prayers for help or healing? Have you ever glimpsed God’s presence, power, or Kingdom? Joy is not a “buck up and stop crying”; it is knowing, hoping, and trusting in God’s future setting right of things in the midst of the sorrow, the fear, and the upheaval.

I believe one of the most powerful experiences of God we can have in this life is JOY IN SORROW. And I believe that is what Jesus speaks of in these verses in Luke. It is my prayer that you will know some measure of that joy, particularly as you live life in this hurting world. Amen.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

True Satisfaction (Luke 6.21a,25a, John 6.25-35)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; March 12, 2017; Text: Luke 6:21a,25a; John 6:25-35

:: 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: Blessed Be Your Name (Redman)
Singing Together: All in All (Jernigan)
Offering of Music: (worship team; Karla Katibah, vocalist) Hungry (Scott)
Our Song of Praise: Hungry (refrain) (Scott)
Hymn of Sending: More Love to Thee (MORE LOVE TO THEE)

:: 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.

“What does it mean to be blessed?” Today we are continuing a series by that name which will run to just the other side of Easter. In a culture (Christian and otherwise) that doesn’t have a good handle on what it means to be blessed, we are looking at what Jesus had to say about it. Also, Jesus called for folks to repent around some of the topics related to blessing, so it seemed fitting to look at this during Lent, which is a season of turning from sin in repentance and humility. Last week we looked at the two phrases, “Blessed are the poor” and “woe to you who are rich,” hearing Jesus’ challenge to find true comfort and security in God’s healing and salvation rather than the stuff of this world we so often pursue.

Today we are going to look at the next pairing of blessing and woe in Luke 6: “Blessed are you who hunger now” and “woe to you who are well-fed now.” Jesus speaks here of satisfaction and where we seek True Satisfaction. As we will do each week in this series, we will also turn to other scripture that speaks to the particular theme at hand to better understand the teaching. Today, we will also look at John 6, where Jesus teaches about the True Bread that satisfies our deepest hungers.

Blessed are You Who Hunger Now (v. 21a)

As with rich and poor last week, it sounds like Jesus is saying there is an inherent blessing in being hungry and a corresponding curse to being well-fed. But also like last week, it is important to take note of the qualifiers in his teaching. He didn’t just say, “Blessed are the hungry. Period.” He said, “Blessed are you who hunger now.” And he didn’t just way, “Woe to the well-fed” but “Woe to you who are well-fed now.” So that NOW is important. He also said to the hungry, “You shall be satisfied” and to the well-fed, “You shall be hungry.” So the SHALL BE (future) and the theme of satisfaction are important. Let’s look at each.

First let’s look at the word satisfied. There is the literal surface-level meaning of hunger and satisfaction. If you haven’t eaten in a while, you begin to get hungry and what you want is food to satisfy that hunger. And there’s even a couple of layers there. There is enough food to stave off the hunger, to get by for a little while longer. And then there is enough food to leave you truly satisfied, not stuffed, but more than the bare minimum to survive. That describes literal hunger and satisfaction. Then there is a metaphorical meaning of hunger and satisfaction, right? We hunger for all kind of things other than food. We talk about success and getting ahead in school or sports or life and as the question, “Are you hungry for that success or that win?” And there is a corresponding satisfaction: achieving whatever it was that you were hungry for. Finally there is a third meaning of hunger and satisfaction. It is perhaps a subset of metaphor, but based on what Jesus says, I’ll say it is a deeper or higher meaning yet, because most of our metaphorical hungers are for stuff of this world, human achievements and the like. There is a spiritual meaning to hunger and satisfaction. When Jesus speaks of “hungering and thirsting for righteousness” in Matthews account of this same sermon (Mt 5:6), we hear that spiritual meaning, connecting hunger with a desire for right-standing before God.

Noting that spiritual meaning also underscores how the words now and shall are used in Luke 6. Jesus uses the two words to contrast what is now the case, in the time and context of this world, and what will be the case. We might simply read that as “in the future” except that Jesus spent so much time announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God. In the context of his frequent “now and not yet” language, it is clear that he is describing a future and a reality that is not just coming soon, but is rooted in God’s Kingdom and God’s will.

Real Food and a Loaf of Bread (John 6)

Except for a brief interlude to cross the water, the whole sixth chapter of John is about hunger and satisfaction. It is as if Jesus took these two short phrases from Luke and spent a whole day unpacking it for anyone with ears to hear. We only heard part of his explanation about spiritual food, but it comes in the midst of one of the most thorough teachings Jesus gave. The beginning of John 6 describes what we often call “The Feeding of the 5,000.” Jesus went out of the city and up to a mountain with his disciples and a large crowd followed him because they had seen some of his miracles. Jesus asks the disciples how the crowd will eat and proceeds to do a miracle, receiving one boy’s lunch of bread and fish and blessing and multiplying it such that the disciples were able to distribute it to the entire crowd. And it wasn’t just a bit to stave off hunger; it was as much as anyone wanted and there were twelve baskets left over. Literal hunger, solved. Blessed are you who hunger now; for you shall be satisfied. And the people experienced this and believed he was sent from God.

But there’s more. The Jewish people of that time were also hungry for freedom. They had been brought into the Roman Empire and were suffering under heavy taxation and Roman rule. They read the old promises of a Messiah like King David and believed and hoped God would send someone to take on and overthrow Rome, that Israel would once again be great as in the time of David. And right at the end of the account of the miraculous feeding, we read: “So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take him by force to make him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone.” (John 6:15) They were hungry for a hero and wanted Jesus to be that hero NOW. Metaphorical hunger, named and declined by Jesus.

Jesus withdraws and the story picks back up with the text we heard read today (John 6:25-35). He is on the other side of the lake (he walked over it!) and the crowd has followed him back to Capernaum for more. In v. 26, Jesus pegs them as wanting, hungering, for more signs and wonders. But he takes things up a notch, to the spiritual level, challenging them in this way: “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life…” (v. 27) This is really the verse that unlocks what he is talking about over in Luke. No contest that we need to eat, even to survive physically; but he says here there is a greater food, a spiritual food, that is also necessary; and it is necessary to survive spiritually and eternally. He goes on to say that eating THAT food, pursuing THAT spiritual food, is the work God has given us to do. (v. 29) So they ask, What work is that? What does it mean to eat THAT spiritual food? And Jesus replies, “This is the work (or the food) of God, that you believe in Him whom God has sent.” (v. 29)

Have some questions about that? Well so did those in the crowd. They go on to press him on that, and on him being “the one God has sent.” The most godly or spiritual food they can imagine or point to was the miraculous manna God sent to Moses after the Exodus. Jesus replies that manna was literal bread from Heaven, but he is True Bread from Heaven because He gives life to the world. (vv. 32-33) He becomes increasingly explicit, saying, “I AM the bread of life; he who comes to me will not hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst.” (v. 35) Do you hear the shift to that future language? He will go on through the end of John 6 to become more and more explicit that he himself is Real True Spiritual Food. The life and light that he brings the world is the very thing we need the most, and is what ultimately can not only meet, but satisfy, our deepest hungers and needs. He is still unpacking “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.”

What Does it Mean to Be Blessed?

I want to come back then to our foundational question: What does it mean to be blessed? In terms of hunger and satisfaction, it is more than meeting our immediate physical needs. Meeting those needs is not to be downplayed; we must eat or we will die! And Jesus teaches us to care for those who are hungry, to show compassion and to feed them. If anything, acknowledging how necessary food is to our physical survival highlights how important spiritual food is to our spiritual survival. And here’s the implicit warning in Jesus warning to those who are well-fed NOW: don’t think that the things that satisfy you in this world NOW will provide True Satisfaction.

True Satisfaction is only found in Jesus, the Bread of Life, the one God has sent that we might truly live. It is through believing in him that we WILL be blessed. And if we do not know him or believe in him, or if we get distracted or deceived by the so-called satisfactions of this world, we will miss out on what God desires for us.

Do you need help bringing that point to bear on your life? Let me ask these questions, then:

What are you hungry for? What do you need? What do you want? What do you pursue? What would satisfy you?

I have a lot of answers to those questions: affirmation, success, independence, recognition, and more. All of those are made of the stuff of this world and none of them will truly satisfy me. None of them are true “blessing” from God. True Blessing and True Satisfaction are hungering (and thirsting) for Jesus, believing in the one God has sent, who is the Bread of Life and as necessary to me spiritually as food is to my physical existence.

What does it mean to be blessed? I’d ask if you know Jesus. And here’s the good news – he wants to be known! If you want to know more about what that means, don’t let it go. Talk to me or someone you trust about it. And I’ll tell you this: God delights in providing this kind of food to those who are spiritually hungry! Amen.

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.