Receiving Blessings or Woes? (Luke 6:17-26)

Ethiopian artist depiction of Jesus teaching

He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.

Looking at his disciples, he said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
    for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
    when they exclude you and insult you
    and reject your name as evil,
        because of the Son of Man.

“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
    for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (New International Version)

There are double meanings throughout these words of Christ for us today; the expressions used by Jesus are specifically meant to be understood in two ways.

In order to speak to the people, Jesus went down with them and stood on a level place. In other words, the actual act of doing this is also to be understood as a means of identifying with others and getting on their level. The Lord intends not to speak down to people but to relate with folks alongside them.

The blessing of God is provided, up close and personal, not from afar. The word “blessed” is much more than a reference to physical health and wealth; it also refers to enjoying God’s stamp of approval on the whole of your life – body, mind, emotions, and spirit. And that is also what healing does for us; it effects the entirety of our being and not just one dimension of it.

To be “blessed” does not mean an absence of struggle. Indeed, blessings can and do rest upon us, even though we may be on the unfortunate end of someone’s hatred, exclusion, and defamation. It is to live through opposition, aware that our struggles are temporary and that our reward is great in heaven.

To have a “woe” pronounced means the opposite of blessing – to have God’s disapproval. It is to experience a curse – body, mind, emotions, and spirit – in the holistic sense.

The woeful may not experience apparent discomfort during this life. They mistake their wealth, their stuff, and their high connections as approval from God. However, they will find a fiery existence awaiting them. Apart from repentance and faith in becoming poor in spirit, their end is sure.

We are being led and guided to choose the way of blessing – and to avoid the path of woe.

Poverty, hunger, and weeping, on one level, are broad social categories. At another level, they are spiritual categories which describe the true follower of Jesus.

Christ’s church includes people who are poor, hungry, and weeping – in the full sense of the term. They, therefore, rely upon the community of the redeemed sharing all things in common as their means of provision. (Acts 2:44-45; 4:34)

We really need to avoid the temptation to make complex situations simple. To look upon those who now have wealth, eat well, laugh, and enjoy high standing, as under a curse from God, makes us simpletons who likely don’t understand what’s going on.

Others may make direct associations with wealth as blessing, which it may or may not be. And the same can be said for poverty and hunger – the presence of it doesn’t necessarily mean either blessing or woe.

The watershed issue is what we do with the life we have been given. Do the rich rely upon wealth or on God? Do the poor seek the Lord or just try to look for patrons who will help them? And do we all accept where we are right now and look to use whatever we have, and whoever we are, to benefit the benevolent and gracious kingdom of God?

We all may come from different places, have differing experiences, and be at various points along the continuum of poverty and wealth. Yet, we are all human and we are all in this life together.

So, we need to make the best of it with each other – instead of continually being at cross purposes with one another through simple stereotypes and hackneyed approaches based in little research or rational thought.

Jesus is leading us to a place of abundance, peace, and blessing – if we have ears to hear and minds receptive to his leading. It’s a place of healing; and not a place of woe. It is the realm of God, in which morality, ethics, kindness, and joy abound forever and ever.

Help us, O God, to heal those who are broken in body or spirit, and to turn their sorrow into joy. Grant this, Father, for the love of your Son, who for our sake became poor, Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.

The Ministry of Jesus (Matthew 4:12-23)

Jesus Calls His Disciples by He Qi

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali—to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
    the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
    Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
    a light has dawned.”

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (New International Version)

What is “ministry”? 

For some, ministry is only about the souls of people; it is seeing as many people respond to the message of salvation in Christ as possible. 

For others, ministry is meeting the tangible needs of people because there is such a breadth and depth of human social and physical problems. 

And, for others, ministry is defined in terms of what takes place within the four walls of a church building, led by pastors and church leaders.

“Ministry takes place when divine resources meet human needs through loving channels to the glory of God.”

Warren Wiersbe

Problems, however, arise whenever we:

  • Focus on one dimension of ministry. Because, in reality, ministry is multidimensional.
  • Fulfill the outward, administrative demands of ministry – without going after the relational heart of what ministry entails. 
  • Forget about whole groups of people who are different than us. Ministry is for everyone, not some.

We need to look at the ministry of Jesus – what he did and why he did it. Christ’s purpose is to be our purpose: Minister to the total life of all people.

Jesus Preaching

Before there were newspapers, CNN, and 24 hour news cycles, ancient people heard what was happening from heralds or preachers who loudly announced in the streets the important news of the day.

Jesus had a ministry to both Jew and Gentile. Although his ministry was chiefly directed toward his fellow Jews, Christ went out of his way to engage Gentiles, as well, with a message of repentance.

Repentance is turning the whole person – body, soul, mind, will, and emotions – from sin and disobedience to God in obedience to the message of Christ. It involves humility, sorrow for sin, and a commitment to following Jesus.

To repent doesn’t mean to manage sin or clean up parts of my life; it’s a radical conversion from an old way of life to a new way of life. Repentance is not simply adding Jesus to our schedule but is a complete change of how we live.

Christianity is a life, not just an event. Following Jesus is a journey, a life-long process of inner transformation; a complete forsaking of anything that does not please God; and a desire to reorient my life around what’s important to God. 

To illustrate this in a contemporary context, I ask, “What does it mean to follow the Green Bay Packers football team?” A fan not only watches all the games from start to finish, but cheers loudly for the Packers; talks about the Packers with everyone, even strangers; and doesn’t cheer for the Chicago Bears! Fans are committed to their team.

The difference, however, between football and Christianity, is that followers of a team are fans, whereas followers of Jesus are not fans in the stands or watching the television. Instead, Christ followers are on the field of play as teammates with Jesus.

So, when it comes to repentance, we turn from being fans of Jesus to followers of Jesus, doing what he did and saying what he said. We are active participants in the kingdom of God – embracing and embodying a message of repentance to new life in Christ.

Jesus Calling

Jesus calling the first disciples illustrates the kingdom message: a radical break with the old life. Each disciple walked away from a good life and embraced of a new life following Jesus.

Some understanding of Jewish culture in the time of Jesus is helpful here. Central to the life of any Jew was the Torah, the Law. Around age 6, Jewish boys would begin to go to the synagogue for schooling in the Torah by the local rabbi. 

This first level of education was called Beth Sefer (“House of the Book”) and would last until about age 10. In those four years, the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, were thoroughly memorized.

By age 10, some of the boys would distinguish themselves as good students and able to handle Torah. So, they would continue on in the second level of schooling called Beth Talmud (“House of Learning”). Those that did not continue with school would then learn the family trade and become an apprentice. Those that went on with school would then memorize the rest of the Old Testament.

At about age 14, only the best of the best were studying Torah. At the completion of their studies, they would apply to a well-known rabbi in order to become his disciple. The goal of this third level was to become just like the rabbi. This was called Beth Midrash (“House of Study”). The rabbi essentially interviews the teenager to find out if he has the stuff to become like the rabbi. 

If the rabbi believes the kid doesn’t have it in him, he tells him to go back to the family business. If, however, the rabbi grills the kid and finds he has what it takes, then he will say to him, “Come, follow me.” It was considered a great privilege and opportunity, and the teenager would leave everything to literally follow the rabbi everywhere he went.

Now, let’s return to Christ’s disciples. Jesus calls Andrew, Peter, James, and John. At the time, they were fishing because they were fishermen. That meant somewhere along the line they didn’t have what it took to further their education, or to follow a rabbi. 

Let’s, then, not miss the import and impact of Jesus saying to them, “Come, follow me!”  Jesus is expressing a belief that these men can become just like him. Well, of course you drop your nets and follow him! Jesus believes I can be like him! Jesus took a group of young men who couldn’t make the grade and used them to change human history. 

Jesus also says the same thing to you and me: I choose you. Come, follow me. 

Christ believed in us before we believed in him. Yes, Jesus believes you can do all the work of embodying the very words of God and becoming like him.

The attitude here is not, “Oh, geez, I have to go do ministry,” as if I were a teenager who was just asked to do the dishes. Rather, the attitude is of privilege and opportunity. If we fail to view ministry in this way, then we must come back to the message of repentance and have an attitude adjustment. People who follow Jesus do so because they get to, not because they have to.

Jesus Healing

            Envision yourself walking with Jesus and following him. You observe several things about his ministry of healing:

  • Jesus heals every problem. Christ has the power and authority to do so.
  • Jesus heals the whole person – not just the physical, or just the spiritual.
  • Jesus heals people whether they repent or not. Christ never made repentance a prerequisite for healing. He heals simply because he wants to.
  • Jesus heals to defeat the devil. Christ continually looks to reverse the hold that sin has on people.
  • Jesus chose to focus on healing the destitute, the poor, and the disadvantaged – rather than directing ministry to the higher classes and royalty to mediate his wishes to the people.

Who are the people – the least, the lonely, the lost – in need of healing in your family, neighborhood, and community?

  1. Those who are ill with various diseases
  2. Those suffering severe pain – of body, mind, emotion, and spirit
  3. The demon possessed or demonically influenced
  4. Prisoners and ex-convicts
  5. The working poor, and the elderly poor
  6. Those in the hospital with no one to visit them
  7. Those who grieve alone
  8. Those with addictions and behavioral issues
  9. Victims of verbal or physical abuse
  10. And many, many more….

Jesus had a ministry of both word and deed. To follow Christ is to become like him and pass on what we have learned to reliable people who will do the same.

Remember Your Baptism (Matthew 3:13-17)

John baptizing Jesus with the Holy Spirit’s affirmation

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (New International Version)

Baptism is important. Remembering is important. Put together, remembering our baptism is highly important. Here’s why….

Baptism is important to Jesus

Baptism is the distinguishing mark or symbol of being a Christian. 

The New Testament actually knows nothing of an unbaptized Christian. That’s because the practice is tied to our identity as believers. Our baptisms are based in the baptism of the Lord who, in his Great Commission, told us to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit (who were all present at Christ’s baptism). 

The absence of baptism is like a bride without a wedding ring; a football player not wearing a uniform; a motorcycle gang without tattoos; or like an Iowa farmer without a Pioneer seed corn hat!

Baptism is the outward sign that we belong to God. It is the distinguishing symbol that we have been adopted by God and will receive all the promises of salvation in Christ.

Christ’s baptism fulfilled all righteousness through identification with repentant people

John the Baptist was understandably hesitant to baptize Jesus; he knew Jesus had no need of repentance. Although Jesus had no sin to confess, his baptism is a powerful symbol of his humility. It anticipates his ministry to people who recognize their need for God. 

It was necessary for Jesus to be baptized in order to communicate solidarity with people who are coming to God. “Righteousness” means having a right relationship with both God and other people. By being baptized, Jesus is proclaiming that a renewed and right relationship with God will become a reality through himself. Baptism is the sign that we belong to God and that our righteousness is tied to our union with Jesus.

It was important for Jesus to identify with sinners; it is important for us, as well. We remember our baptism – that we belong to God – by identifying with “sinners.” Here are 7 ways of doing it:

  1. Practicing hospitality (love of strangers)
  2. Using our spiritual gifts of speaking and serving on their behalf
  3. Getting to know people very different from ourselves
  4. Meeting people on their turf (not just ours)
  5. Showing respect and upholding dignity
  6. Asking thoughtful and caring questions
  7. Listening with focused attention

It isn’t what we “do” for people that’s as important as affirming our shared humanity with them; thus leading folks to the ultimate person who can address the needs of their heart:  Jesus.

Christ’s baptism fulfilled all righteousness through the affirmation of witnesses

Before Jesus began his ministry, it was necessary to receive validation of what he was about to teach and do. In ancient Judaism, one of the protections guaranteeing that Scripture would be taught according to the way of God, was through an ordination, of sorts. In order for a new rabbi to become a new rabbi, he needed the laying on of hands from two other rabbis who had authority to do so. 

That’s why Christ’s baptism is important. John the Baptist was a powerful teacher and prophet who was recognized by the people as such. John publicly said he wasn’t worthy to carry Jesus’s sandals, that Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. So, a baptism by John validated Jesus and inaugurated his ministry. 

Baptism of Christ by Dave Zelenka

A second voice – another witness from heaven – affirmed Jesus: “This is my Son, the one I love. I am very pleased with him.” And then, the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, came upon Jesus. This further affirmed that Jesus would save people, not through arm-twisting and great shows of power, but through humility and gentleness.

Baptism was Christ’s first recorded act as an adult. In some ways, it was his first miracle – the miracle of humility in identifying with sinners.

Remember your baptism

Baptism is a sign and seal of God’s grace. Just as Christ’s baptism focused all the promises of God in salvation as being fulfilled in one person, so in our baptism we claim all the promises of God as found in Jesus. Water symbolizes new life, God identifying with us – Immanuel, God with us.

In baptism, God promises and seals to us our union with Jesus so that identity is not found in my past and my profession of faith, but in Christ’s past of bringing redemption to us.  Baptism does not so much express faith as call one to a life of faith and sets us apart as belonging to God.

Baptism is a visible declaration of an invisible reality: union with Christ. Just as circumcision was the outward visible sign of the old covenant, so baptism is the sign of the new covenant in Christ – available to both male and female – thus opening the way for women to participate fully in the ministry of the gospel.

In particular, infant baptism confirms that salvation is not initiated by us, but by God. It affirms that one is betrothed to God. As a child, then an adult, grows into the faith, it is our task to remember our baptism, to be reminded that God’s mark is upon us, that we belong to the Lord. 

God has set us apart to be a holy people, given to Jesus to live as he did. We must never forget that baptism is God’s identifying mark upon us; that our union and solidarity with Jesus is affirmed through this practice.

We are not solitary Christians; we belong Christ and to one another. Baptism is the initiation rite that takes a lifetime to complete. Therefore, we must struggle together in working out our salvation.

Because of our union with Jesus Christ, we must remember:

  • I do not belong to the world. So, I will not live selfishly, only seeking my own comfort agenda. Instead, I will give and serve others from a pure and humble heart.
  • I do not belong to sin. So, I will not give myself over to shameful words or actions, to bullying or manipulating people, to throwing fits and pity parties to get my way, nor using my tongue to speak gossip, slander, or suck-up to others. Instead, I will use my speech wisely, building up others through thoughtful and heartfelt encouragement.
  • I do not belong to the devil. So, I will not seek his agenda of lying, cheating, stealing, and being bitter. 

I belong to Jesus, so therefore:

  • I will uphold biblical justice by championing the cause of the fatherless and the widow, the poor and the needy, the least and the lost among us.
  • I will love others with all the grace God gives me.
  • I will forgive others because Christ has forgiven me.
  • I will consider others better than myself by embracing the humility of Christ.
  • I will hunger and thirst for righteousness.
  • I will seek peace and pursue it.
  • I will, give myself to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ my Savior and Lord – completely and thoroughly, unabashedly and unreservedly.
  • I will live into my baptism and remember it always because I belong to Jesus!

The Light of the World (John 8:12-19)

Jesus spoke to the Pharisees again. “I am the light of the world,” he said. “Whoever follows me will have the light of life and will never walk in darkness.”

The Pharisees said to him, “Now you are testifying on your own behalf; what you say proves nothing.”

“No,” Jesus answered, “even though I do testify on my own behalf, what I say is true, because I know where I came from and where I am going. You do not know where I came from or where I am going. You make judgments in a purely human way; I pass judgment on no one. But if I were to do so, my judgment would be true, because I am not alone in this; the Father who sent me is with me. It is written in your Law that when two witnesses agree, what they say is true. I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me also testifies on my behalf.”

 “Where is your father?” they asked him.

“You know neither me nor my Father,” Jesus answered. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” (Good News Translation)

Light has many uses and a lot of facets to it. The sun’s light gives life; without it we wouldn’t survive. In the form of a fixture or flashlight, it illumines the way so that we can function. The gift of light allows us not to remain in darkness.

The Son, Jesus, is also the Light which gives life. Throughout Holy Scripture, light represents awareness and deliverance; it represents God’s ability to guide us and save us. Jesus helps us find our way in this world.

The Apostle John talked a great deal about light in his Gospel and Epistles:

The Word was the source of life, and this life brought light to people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out. (John 1:4-5, GNT)

Jesus said, “The light will be among you a little longer. Continue on your way while you have the light, so that the darkness will not come upon you; for the one who walks in the dark does not know where he is going. (John 12:35, GNT)

Now the message that we have heard from his Son and announce is this: God is light, and there is no darkness at all in him. If then, we say that we have fellowship with him, yet at the same time live in the darkness, we are lying both in our words and in our actions. But if we live in the light—just as he is in the light—then we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from every sin. (1 John 1:5-7, GNT)

Light is life, and Jesus, as the Light of the World, is eternal life.

As our Light and our Life, Jesus fulfills the prophetic role, as described by the prophet Isaiah:

“I, the Lord, have called you and given you power
    to see that justice is done on earth.
Through you I will make a covenant with all peoples;
    through you I will bring light to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:6, GNT)

As people of the Light, we are to let that light shine in the darkness so that others can also find direction and deliverance:

“You are like light for the whole world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl; instead it is put on the lampstand, where it gives light for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16, GNT)

Not everyone, of course, buys into this distinctively Christian way of seeing things – which is why it’s important for all Christians and Churches everywhere to be characterized by the Light and not by the darkness.

Humanity is a strange alchemy of both light and dark, hopefulness and hopelessness, awareness and ignorance, love and hate. We must acknowledge the light, bring it out, let it shine. Hiding the light only gives the dark forces of this world an opportunity to grip people in the shadows of guilt and shame.

Light must be respected. Long exposure to the sun brings a nasty sunburn to the skin. Being drawn to the fire’s light will also get you burnt if you get too close. And some light masquerades as good when it really isn’t.

False apostles lie about their work and disguise themselves to look like real apostles of Christ. Well, no wonder! Even Satan can disguise himself to look like an angel of light! So it is no great thing if his servants disguise themselves to look like servants of righteousness. In the end they will get exactly what their actions deserve. (2 Corinthians 11:13-15, GNT)

The deception typically happens whenever one lacks awareness of their own light, or forgotten, like a misplaced sock under the bed. Then, there’s no means by which to discern the bogus righteousness.

There are many ways of becoming more self-aware and recognizing the light of Christ, such as:

  • Keep a daily journal. Answer for yourself questions like, “What did you do well today?” “What didn’t go so well?” “Why?” and “How will you be and do things differently next time?”

“If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.” Lord Byron (1788-1824)

  • Debrief with others about your experiences. Merely interrogating yourself all the time leads to twisted thinking.

“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” John Dewey (1859-1952)

  • Fight evil. Read books. Meditatively read Scripture. Reading not only helps one to become more knowledgeable and well-rounded, but it also builds empathy and emotional intelligence.

“To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting.” Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

  • Practice gratitude. Giving thanks illumines the path. A critical spirit makes others small and limits your own spiritual eyesight. So, be gracious, all the time, every day, no matter what.

“Gratitude, like faith, is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it grows.” Alan Cohen

O Lord, your Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Give us grace to receive your truth in faith and love, and strength to follow on the path you set before us; through Jesus Christ, Amen.