Feast Day: The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
Readings: Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26
“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8)
If you were to go out on the street and survey people and ask them what they thought it meant to be blessed what sort of answers do you think you’d hear? The answers you’d hear would probably correspond to some sort of earthly happiness, right? A certain comfort or contentment—physically, mentally, emotionally, relationally.
Happiness has been a source of philosophical reflection going all the way back to the ancient Greeks and beyond. John Calvin, the Swiss reformed theologian, characterized the ancient Greek understanding of happiness thus: “the happy man is he who, relieved from all his troubles, in possession of all he asks, leads a happy and a quiet life.” A blessed life consists in a certain freedom from trouble and a lack of need so that we might lead a quiet and peaceable life. Sounds fair, don’t you think?
Except, notice how Jesus turns this all on its head. I hope that reading from St Luke a few moments ago struck you as odd. Because Jesus’ idea of what it means to live a blessed life is a little different. When Jesus talks about what it means to be blessed he isn’t referring to something that belongs to us, a feeling or experience or possession. In fact, he cautions against just that doesn’t he? Are you rich? Well fed? In a position whereby you can look down upon others and laugh? Do people speak well of you and praise you? Woe to you, says Jesus. The things that normally strike us as evidence of a blessed life are for Jesus dangers. Beware, he says. Set not your heart upon such things. Build not up for yourself treasures on earth for if you do then you will have received your reward.
Rather, who does Jesus say are blessed? Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Jesus would have made a terrible salesman don’t you think?
So if “blessedness” according to Jesus does not refer to something that belongs to us what does it refer to? Calvin again is helpful: the blessedness that Jesus is talking about refers to something in God that affects us, that touches us, that changes us. Therefore, the one who is blessed is the one who trusts the Lord and delights in his law and is open to his life. Isn’t that what both Jeremiah and the Psalmist say?
And here’s the thing, Jesus himself is that one who trusts in the Lord, whose delight is in the law of the Lord and thus the one who is blessed despite the fact that for our sakes he became poor, deprived himself of food, wept for the sins of his people, and who finally was so scorned, so reviled, so excluded that he was hung up on a cross. Therefore, God raised him from the dead.
For you and I then, a blessed life has less to do with what belongs to us and more to do with our relation to Jesus Christ. Is our life connected to his risen life? Do we trust him and what he has accomplished for us in his death and resurrection?
With what shall we compare those who trust in Christ, the blessed one? “They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”
When the heat comes, says Jeremiah. Not if, but when. Normally drought is an occasion for anxiety but not so for those who trust in the Lord, says Jeremiah, for even in those dry seasons their leaves will stay green and they will continue to bear fruit. Why? Because they are connected to the living water. Their roots go down deep and are nourished by Christ.
The last year has been anxious for some of you. Some of you have felt the heat and maybe you have wondered if you are cursed or forgotten or what. Maybe some of you are in that anxious place right now. What do you do? Who do you look to? Whose voice do you trust? Do you look to Jesus? Do you trust in him? Do you meditate upon his Word? Because let me tell you, apart from that you will dry up and wither. It doesn’t matter how much money you have in the bank, it doesn’t matter how put together you appear on the outside, it doesn’t matter how highly people think of you—apart from trusting in Jesus Christ above everything else you will dry up when the heat comes.
However. Somebody say however. When you trust in Christ, it doesn’t matter how little you have in the bank, it doesn’t matter how much you are falling apart, it doesn’t matter how little people think of you—when you trust in Christ above everything else then even when that heat comes you will bear fruit. Blessed are those who trust in the Lord. Great is their reward.
Two days last week provide an illustration of a life that is blessed despite extreme deprivation. February 14 was Valentine’s day. St Valentine was a bishop and martyr who lived in the Roman Empire in the third century during a time when Christians faced great persecution and he cared for them. For this and for refusing to renounce the faith Valentine was beaten with clubs and beheaded. The following day, February 15, marked the fourth anniversary of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who had their throats slit on a beach somewhere in Libya two days after being kidnapped by the Islamic State.
Stories like these sound like a tragedy and indeed they are, if Christ has not been raised. But if Christ has been raised, and indeed he has, then these stories take on a new significance as they are caught up with the story of Christ himself. If Christ has been raised, and indeed he has, then a blessed life even includes suffering for the gospel.
If you want to think about what it means to be blessed, if you want to know what it looks like for a human creature to be set ablaze with the life of the gospel, think not about a padded savings account or a perfect bill of health or a flawless family, think instead about those martyrs who had the privilege of suffering with Christ. For though they are poor the kingdom of God belongs to such as them.
There is something really important for the Church to grasp here—for our parish, for our diocese, for our national church, for the Church around the world. If Jesus went to the Cross then his followers can hardly expect a parade. The heat is going to come says Jeremiah. We might have to be poor, we might have to be hungry, we might have to weep, we might have to be excluded and rejected and defamed. And that might hurt. But such suffering for the sake of the gospel is prophetic, says Jesus. It is a prophetic act because it points to the reality of a joy that is greater than sorrow, a love that is greater than hate, a hope that is greater than despair, and a life that is greater than death. A willingness to suffer for the gospel is an act that points to and trusts entirely in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
A life that is bound up with the risen and living Jesus Christ and open to his vigor. That is the shape of a blessed life whatever one’s earthly circumstances. What a joy for our lives to be bound up with Christ’s life. What a joy to have his Holy Spirit in us. What a joy to touch people with his healing love. What a joy to be poor, hungry, and excluded with him. What a joy to suffer with him. What a joy to be raised up with him into a life that death cannot touch. What a joy to have a hope that transcends this world.
That is my prayer for each of you and for all of us. That we would know the joy of this life. The joy of being in Christ and he in us. The joy of having his Holy Spirit in us, flowing through us as sap through a tree, nourishing us and sustaining us and producing good and lasting fruit in us whatever the season. “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.”