Sunday, February 11, 2006

Epiphany 6
Jeremiah 17:5-10
Psalm 1
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Luke 6:17-26

Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy: for behold, your reward is great in heaven…

I am not sure it is possible to choose one particular day that could be classified as my “happiest day on earth.” Of course it is easy to choose the standards – the day I graduated from high school, the day I got married, the days my children were born. It might be a more unique moment like when I had a particularly fun trip to a special place or when I enjoyed an event. If laughter is a determining factor, then I can think of a couple days when I laughed so hard that the tears were flowing. I might consider a quieter moment, such as when my family were simply together, enjoying one another’s company. I suppose my answer to the question, “describe your happiest day on earth” would depend on what it means to be happy.

Jesus was not referring to those special days when He said “Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy.” That day was not going to a happy moment, a moment of laughter or satisfaction. It won’t be a beautiful place or a special event. As a matter of fact, Jesus said to rejoice when our world is turned upside down. He told us to leap for joy when we were experiencing hardship, persecution. To Him, the reward will be great when people hate us, exclude us, revile us and defame us. Yet, He was not telling us to seek this persecution. He was telling us to trust in Him, for the hate, exclusion, revulsion and defamation will come on His account.

In Luke, Jesus had just called His closest disciples, twelve of them, to be apostles. This was a special designation and the decision did not come easy for Jesus. He spent a night in prayer, seeking God’s will in the matter so that He would make the right decision. Those twelve would become the center of Jesus’ ministry, the leaders to whom other disciples would look for inspiration and information. They would be with Jesus all the time, at His most personal moments and in the midst of great crowds. They would hear the stories, but also would be taught the deeper meaning. They would receive a special revelation from Jesus, not because they were special but because they were chosen to take the ministry of Jesus farther than He ever could take it.

Immediately following this commissioning, Jesus took them to a place where many people were gathering. They were coming to Jesus for His touch, for His healing. The crowds wanted Jesus to cast out their demons and cure their dis-ease. They wanted to hear what He had to say. It was a miraculous moment. Jesus was not even addressing each problem – the people were simply touching Him and they were being healed. It almost sounds as if the power were just leaving Jesus without any contact, as if being in Jesus’ presence was enough to bring transformation to a life and a body. The disciples were there in the midst of this and they were Jesus’ most important companions. They were the apostles.

It would have been very easy for them to find joy in that moment, to experience a sense of pride and haughtiness. Jesus had chosen them to carry this ministry to the world. They could have reveled in the attention and let it all go to their head. This was a very successful moment for Jesus’ ministry – everyone was happy and everyone was being changed. It is the kind of mountain top experience that we all want to experience, but even more so we want to continue. Every day should be like this, and if it was then the ministry would spread throughout the world. This would, perhaps, even lead to personal success and wealth for the apostles. We even see throughout the scriptures, moments when the Twelve think they might have some right to positions of power and authority in the new kingdom that is to come. They were probably very happy as they saw the possibilities of the future.

Jesus turned their world upside down. “Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep and those who are hated.” He told them to expect to be excluded, insulted and rejected. This was not the direction anyone wants to take with their life. I don’t think anyone would consider those days the times to rejoice and leap for joy. Persecution is frightening, disappointing and disheartening. Most people will react to rejection with a change of heart. We will do whatever is necessary to be accepted and loved. We will do whatever we can to be successful like they were on that day of healing on the plain, even if it means conforming to the expectations of those around us.

Yet Jesus said, “Happy are you when you are poor, hungry, weeping and hated.” Instead of conforming to the expectations of the world, the disciples would have to choose another way. They would have to trust in God, not man. In this scripture, blessedness or happiness has nothing to do with satisfaction. Instead, it is about contentment. We can be poor or hungry and blessed, not because we are satisfied but because we know that God will provide everything we need. We can weep and still be happy, not because we will laugh but because our joy is founded on something beyond our circumstances. We can be hated and still rejoice because we know that there is a love that conquers the world, and that love is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord.

We have to remember that Jesus didn’t tell the disciples to go out and be poor, hungry, weeping and hated. He told them that they would be all those things and more because of Him. Trusting in Jesus was not the way the world expects us to live. Men want men to trust them. Secular authorities want the people to trust them and do whatever they ask. Society expects us to conform.

The psalmist writes, “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of scoffers…” There are many things in this world that try to guide our path. We are tempted by people and their expectations for us. We are led by our desires and our lusts. The psalmist warns the reader to not walk, stand or sit in the ways of the wicked. He says, “Do not follow the advice of those who would set you on the wrong path. Do not conform to the ways of the world. Do not join in the wickedness of those who are traveling their own way.” The life Jesus was giving to the apostles was not going to be one of fame, authority or power – at least not in the ways of the world. Instead, it would be one of service, humility and trust in the power of God.

Jeremiah makes a similar point in today’s Old Testament lesson. “Cursed is the man that trusteth in man.” This seems very harsh, since we have to find some manner of trust in one another. As a matter of fact, trust between people is vital to strong relationships. However, Jeremiah here is talking about priorities. The Israelites had turned their back on God, they had stopped trusting Him to meet their needs. When they saw themselves in suffering or pain, or experienced persecution from their enemies, they decided to take matters into their own hands. They turned to neighbors for help. They turned to foreign nations for their protection. They turned to the strength of men to stand up against an enemy that only God could defeat.

Jeremiah makes another rather harsh point in this passage. He says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt: who can know it?” This is a particularly interesting topic to bring up just days before Valentine’s Day, when hearts rule. It is at this time of year that we focus on feelings. We follow our hearts. I don’t think this is limited to Valentine’s Day or the idea of romantic love, however. As a matter of fact, in our world today religious faith is often equated with feelings. Many churches focus on feelings, and even describe spiritual experiences in terms of emotions. A particularly moving service is said to have been powerful and Spirit-led because the music brought tears to the eyes of the worshippers. Happiness, or an unnatural sense of joy, must be the product of some spiritual encounter. After all, Jesus is all about love, and love is all about the heart, so our spiritual life must be ruled by the heart, right?

Jeremiah tells us, “No.” The heart is deceptive. Following our heart might just lead us on a path that does not go in the way God would have us go. The Corinthians followed their hearts, not the love of Christ. They fulfilled their wishes, satisfied their desires and sought after spiritual things, ignoring or even rejecting anything of the flesh. It was easier for salvation to be simply spiritual because it left the believer with no responsibilities in this world. If resurrection is only spiritual, then the work of the cross is finished and there is no need for the hope or the promise of faith. Everything we do in this world is meaningless – leaving us the freedom to do whatever we want, to follow our hearts. In this manner, the Corinthians were able to accept the new faith of Christ and benefit from whatever it was they thought they would get from believing, and they could continuing living in the ways of their pagan past. They had the best of both worlds.

Paul approached this problem from a very logical perspective. He found it odd that they would believe and proclaim the resurrection of Jesus and yet deny the resurrection of the dead. This makes no sense, for if there is no resurrection of the dead then even Jesus was not resurrected. If Jesus was not resurrected, then everything about the Christian faith is meaningless. Jesus was, indeed, a wonderful teacher and an excellent example of the way we should live in this world. However, it was the cross and the empty tomb that established the Christian faith as different. Pagans and people of every faith and creed can and do put their hearts and resources into service for those who suffer and for those who are poor. Many of the most successful community outreach programs are interfaith, gathering the gifts and resources of different people to do good in the world. If Christ was not raised from the dead, then Jesus was little more than another good teacher, perhaps even a great prophet.

Paul argues against this idea that Jesus was resurrected but that there is no resurrection of the dead, in very logical terms. “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, neither hath Christ been raised: and if Christ hath not been raised, then is our preaching vain, your faith also is vain.” He even stated that if Christ were not raised, then the preachers from whom they had received knowledge of Jesus Christ were liars, misrepresenting God. In other words, he was saying that if there was no resurrection of the dead, they might as well return to their old ways of life, for they were nothing but false prophets. Yet, the Corinthians claimed to believe in the resurrection of Jesus and the hope that comes from faith in Christ. Paul writes, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” If there is no resurrection, then our faith is null and our life is void of all hope.

Paul ends this passage with a firm statement of the Gospel. “But now hath Christ been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of them that are asleep.” The Revised Standard Version is a little stronger, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” In fact, Christ has risen, so our faith is more than just a thing of the heart or the emotions. It is more than something simply ‘spiritual.’

So, we are faced this day with a choice. Which way will we go? Will we trust in the ways of men and follow our hearts? Or will we trust in the Lord and live as He has called us to live. We, like the apostles, will not experience a life without difficulty. As a matter of fact, trusting in God will offend and disappoint the world around us. We may experience persecution at their hands. However, we are called to rejoice in their hatred and rejection, not to wallow in suffering but to be content in our knowledge that God is in control of our life. We need not be concerned that we find ourselves in poverty, hunger or mourning, for God has blessed us with all we need to overcome the sorrows of this world. Real joy is found in the hope that comes from knowing Christ and living in the life He has called us to live.

I received a story in my email this week which I think touches on the subjects found in our scriptures, particularly the Gospel lesson. The author is unknown, but I wanted to share it with you.

“A group of alumni, highly established in their careers, got together to visit their old university professor. Conversation soon turned into complaints about stress in work and life. Offering his guests coffee, the professor went to the kitchen and returned with a large pot of coffee and an assortment of cups - porcelain, plastic, glass, crystal, some plain looking, some expensive, some exquisite - telling them to help themselves to the coffee. When all the guests had a cup of coffee in hand, the professor said: "If you noticed, all the nice looking expensive cups were taken up, leaving behind the plain and cheap ones. While it is normal for you to want only the best for yourselves, that is the source of your problems and stress. Be assured that the cup itself adds no quality to the coffee. In most cases it is just more expensive and in some cases even hides what we drink. What all of you really wanted was coffee, not the cup, but you consciously went for the best cups... And then you began eying each other's cups.

“Now consider this: “Life is the coffee; the jobs, money and position in society are the cups. They are just tools to hold and contain Life, and the type of cup we have does not define, nor change the quality of Life we live. Sometimes, by concentrating only on the cup, we fail to enjoy the coffee God has provided us." God brews the coffee, not the cups..........

“Enjoy your coffee! The happiest people don't have the best of everything. They just make the best of everything. Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply. Speak kindly. Leave the rest to God.”

Jesus does not offer His disciples a very pleasant life. Jesus tells us what it means to be blessed – at times translated “happy.” Can we really say “happy are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, and the persecuted”? Can we really say we would be happy in any of those situations? Happiness – or blessedness – is not about having the fancy cup, a lot of money or the best home or material possessions. We are truly happen when we are content to live and serve God with our whole hearts no matter what ‘cup’ holds our life. It is hard to rejoice in suffering, and we should never seek suffering just so that we can appear to be one of those who are blessed. We are blessed when we are content and rejoice in the life which God has given to us, serving Him with our hearts, our hands and our voices. We know that there is more to our hope than happiness according to the ways of the world. Blessedness is found when we rest in God, when we trust in Him.

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