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Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Readings: Jeremiah 17:5–10, 1 Corinthians 15:12–20 & Luke 6:17–26

We see some parallels today between our first reading, from the Book of Jeremiah, and our gospel passage, from the Gospel of Luke. 

By way of reminder, in the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet was largely writing to the people of Judah and its capital city Jerusalem, to warn them of impending doom at the hands of Babylon. For the most part his warnings went unheeded, and as both history and the Bible tell us, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, and many of the survivors were sent into exile in Babylon. This occurred because the people of Jerusalem and Judah had forsaken God, they had turned away from Him and were trusting in their own capabilities rather than in Him, and so they were no longer in His presence and comfort.

In today’s passage, Jeremiah suggests that anyone who does this is cursed, and he uses the analogy of a shrub in the desert, which gets no relief from the sun and scorching heat in the dry and unforgiving wilderness, to describe what life without God will be like for them.

On the flip side, Jeremiah contrasts their existence with that of someone who trusts in God rather than in their own devices. This time Jeremiah uses the analogy of a tree planted by the water, whose roots extend into the stream, to describe what life will be like for that person who puts their trust in God. This tree will have an endless supply of water which will provide it with relief against the heat and oppressive conditions. So it will be for the person who lives in the presence and comfort of God.

Our gospel passage for today, is Luke’s version of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, only in Luke’s version, Jesus actually comes down from the mountain and delivers his sermon on the plain. And whereas Matthew’s account contains nine “beatitudes” or blessings, Luke’s has four beatitudes and four corresponding woes. 

A beatitude or blessing, when bestowed upon someone, did not suggest that they were fortunate to be in their current situation, for example, “blessed are the poor” did not mean that anyone who was poor should consider themselves lucky to be in that position, but instead, it indicated that this person would be blessed by a coming action of God. They may be poor now, but when God acts, the person who receives the benefit of His action, will be the fortunate or lucky one.

Whereas the outcome associated with a “beatitude” is a positive one, the opposite is true of a “woe”. In that case, the outcome associated with a “woe” is a negative one. Therefore a statement such as “woe to you who are rich”, suggests that the situation for a person who is rich might be good today, but in time to come, again when God has acted, the situation of that person will change for the worse. Their situation will be reversed.

This theme of reversal, is central to Luke’s Gospel. We heard it first in chapter one when Mary, the mother of Jesus, receives a beatitude from her cousin Elizabeth, and then responds by singing a song of praise and thanksgiving to God. Mary says of God, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52–53 NRSV) The theme of reversal, continues right throughout Luke’s Gospel.

Luke is telling us that things are different in God’s Kingdom than they are here on earth. The things that people place the most value on here – wealth, fame and status et cetera – are not what is valued most in God’s Kingdom. In God’s Kingdom, what matters most is love, compassion, generosity, kindness and selflessness. 

Sandwiched in between our first reading and our gospel passage, which both speak of blessings and curses (or woes), is a reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. At first glance, it seems to have nothing in common with either of the two other readings. Paul is responding to his opponents in Corinth, who refuse to accept that the dead can be raised to new life. Paul’s position is that if the dead can’t be raised, then everything that the Christians in Corinth have believed in is unfounded. It is worthless. Because if Jesus was not raised from the dead, then all of them are still living with their sins. And after all, Jesus died, so that the sins of humankind might be forgiven.

If Jesus was not raised from the dead, then his death in itself achieved nothing. It was just another crucifixion, which was an excruciating and shameful form of death, designed to publicly humiliate the person being crucified, and to dissuade witnesses from carrying out similar crimes to those that had been committed by the convicted criminal.

Why was the resurrection so crucial to Paul’s thinking? What great values and truths does it preserve? The Scottish theologian, William Barclay, believes the resurrection of Jesus proves four great facts which can make a difference to our view of life.

The first of these facts is that “truth is stronger than lies”. Barclay argues that Jesus came with the true idea of God and goodness, and that his enemies wanted him dead because he threatened to expose and destroy their own false view of God. If they succeeded in destroying Jesus, and any memory of him, then their lies would have been stronger than the truth.

The second fact proven by the resurrection is that “good is stronger than evil”. The forces of evil were responsible for crucifying Jesus, so if there was no resurrection, then they would have been triumphant. But we know they weren’t.

The third fact proven by the resurrection is that “love is stronger than hatred”. Jesus was the love of God in the world. But the attitude of those who wanted him dead was that of pure hatred. “If there had been no resurrection, it would have meant that human hatred in the end conquered the love of God. Therefore the resurrection is the triumph of love over all that hatred could do.”

And finally, the resurrection proves that “life is stronger than death”. If Jesus had not risen again, it would have been proof that death could take the loveliest and best life that had ever lived and finally break it. 

Barclay tells the story of a church in London during the Second World War that was preparing for a Sunday service of harvest thanksgiving, and in the centre of the gifts being offered was a sheaf of corn. The service never happened because the church was bombed in an air raid on the Saturday night, and was totally destroyed. 

Months later in spring, someone noticed shoots of green on the bomb site where the church had stood. And several more months later, in the autumn, there was a flourishing patch of corn in the middle of the rubble. “Not even the bombs and destruction could kill the life of the corn and its seeds. The resurrection is the proof that life is stronger death.”

So what does the Resurrection have to do with the “blessings and curses” we heard about in both the Book of Jeremiah and Gospel of Luke? Well, put simply, we are all blessed that Jesus died and, more importantly, was raised from the dead, because it means that our sins have been forgiven and that we have been reconciled to God. And by the grace of God, we are free to enter into a relationship with Him. We are free to trust in God rather than in our own devices. 

And if we do that, then as Jeremiah said, we will be like a tree planted by the water, whose roots extend into the stream. The tree will have an endless supply of water which will provide it with relief against the heat and oppressive conditions. So too will it be for us, who live in the presence and comfort of God.

We will have relief against the heat and oppressive conditions of life, that come to us in time of pain, suffering, trial and struggle. 


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