Sermon: The Great Reversal as Epiphany
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Jeremiah 17.5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15.12-20; Luke 6.17-26
Instances of epiphany we have considered thus far include the visit of the Magi, Jesus’ baptism accompanied by a voice from heaven, the miracle of turning water into wine, reading scripture, and scientific discoveries which reveal the inner workings of our universe. In today’s readings, we find two epiphanies: The Great Reversal and the Resurrection. Today we will examine the Great Reversal. Next week we will consider the Resurrection.
Today’s bulletin features clip art that sets forth a part of the Great Reversal: To be excluded is to be blessed; to be spoken well of is to experience woe.
Let’s look into the background of this reversal. Why are these beatitudes referred to as the Great Reversal?
In Jeremiah we read that those who trust in the Lord are blessed; they are like trees planted by water sending out their roots to the stream which do not fear when heat or drought comes. In contrast, those who trust in “mere mortals” are cursed; they are like shrubs in the desert, living in parched places. In Jeremiah 17.10, we read: “I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings” (NRSV). Here we are assured that the Lord knows our thoughts and our actions; the Lord blesses us accordingly.
Psalm 1 reiterates the passage from Jeremiah. The righteous, those who do not walk in the counsel of the wicked or linger in the way of sinners, find delight in the law of the Lord; “they are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season . . . everything they do shall prosper” (Psalm 1.3; NRSV). In contrast, the wicked are like chaff that is blown away. The psalmist closes with these words of assurance: “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish”(Psalm 1.6; NRSV).
Beatitudes typically begin with “Blessed…” The word “beatitude’ comes from the Latin ‘beātitūdō,’ with the root ‘beātus’ meaning “happy, fortunate”; beatitude is defined as “a state of utmost bliss” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/beatitude).
John Foley, S. J., reminds us that beatitudes occur quite frequently in the Old Testament; the beatitudes “were an ancient formula for encouraging people to do good”; they were words of consolation which conveyed a message: “If you do thus and so, you will be blessed, you will experience a state of utmost bliss” (http://liturgy.slu.edu/6OrdC021719/reflections_foley.html). Thus, the beginning of the book of Psalms assures us if we do not walk in the way of the wicked, we will be blessed. And Jeremiah assures us, if we trust in the Lord, we will be blessed.
But here comes Jesus with some “good news” for his disciples – yes, although the multitudes are present, Luke tells us, “Then he looked up at his disciples and said” (Luke 6.20a; NRSV). These words are meant for Jesus’ disciples, and that includes us who follow Jesus. Jesus set forth four blessings and four corresponding woes. Let’s examine them in pairs.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6.20, 24; NRSV). The poor, the spiritually humble, recognize their reliance on God; the rich are puffed up with their own sense of worth; they are prideful and vain; they have no need of and no room for God; in their minds, they owe God nothing. The spiritually poor can say with sincerity, “All that we have, O Lord, is a gift from thee, and of thine own have we given thee.” Jesus does not say, “Blessed are you who are poor, for you will have the kingdom of God”; to the contrary, Jesus says “for yours is the kingdom of God.” The spiritually poor have room for God; they already possess the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled . . . Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (Luke 6.21a, 25a; NRSV). Matthew’s rendition of this beatitude gives us a clearer sense of what Jesus intends for the disciples to understand: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5.6; NRSV). As Jesus disciples, we hunger for, yearn for, long for the fulfillment of the word of God. Oh that there would be love, justice, righteousness and peace. Note the future tense of this beatitude. Although we hunger now, we will be filled; if we do not hunger, we are presently full but full of the wrong things, which shows we fail to understand God’s will and grace. Woe be unto us!
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh . . . Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6.21b, 25b; NRSV). Again, Matthew’s rendition may give us a fuller sense of what Jesus intends here: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5.4; NRSV). One who understands how God would have us live as opposed to how we live, one who recognizes the depth and extent of the cosmic sense of sadness cannot help but weep and mourn, but such an one is promised there will come a time when they will laugh, when they will be comforted, and filled with joy. Disciples who laugh now fail to understand how far we live from the kingdom of God, but they will ultimately come to mourn and weep.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets . . . Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (Luke 6.22-23, 26; NRSV). Disciples who walk the talk will be persecuted for they are living a life that is counter-cultural; their life calls those who serve the false gods of wealth, power, and prestige to account. In contrast, Jesus says, “Woe to you when all speak well of you . . .” When a true disciple lives in a predominantly Christian community, it is reasonable that many will speak well of him or her; cause for concern exists when all speak well – when no one is offended by your life in Christ, or the lack thereof.
Poverty, hunger, weeping, and persecution were not perceived as blessings! To the contrary, by Old Testament standards, one who experienced these things lacked the blessings of God. Here is the Great Reversal. Jesus wants his disciples, and us, to understand those who are blessed in God’s Kingdom are the spiritually poor and hungry, those who weep for righteousness, and those who are reviled and persecuted for Jesus’ sake. Jesus invites us to follow him. When we follow Jesus, we participate in the life of Christ; we will experience the things that Christ experienced; we come to participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Amen