Sermon from 13th Feb 2022 (Epiphany 6)

Luke 6:17-26 (ESV)

17 Jesus went down with the apostles and stood on a level place with a large crowd of his disciples and a large number of people from all Judea and Jerusalem, as well as from the coastal area of Tyre and Sidon. These people came to listen to him and to be healed of their diseases. 18 Those who were troubled by unclean spirits were also cured. 19 The whole crowd kept trying to touch him, because power was going out from him and healing them all.

20 He lifted up his eyes to his disciples and said:

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

23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy because of this: Your reward is great in heaven! The fact is, their fathers constantly did the same things to the prophets.”

24 But woe to you who are rich,
    because you are receiving your comfort now.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
    because you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
    because you will be mourning and weeping.
26 Woe to you when all people speak well of you,
    because that is how their fathers constantly treated the
        false prophets.

Dear Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit upon us so that whatever we may be experiencing in our life, we may trust you truly bless us through faith in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever come across something with the wrong label on it?

For example, have you ever grabbed a jar of what you thought was sugar, and placed it in your tea or coffee or cooking, only to later discover it was in fact, salt?

If you’ve ever done so, you would have discovered your tea, or coffee, or cake, just doesn’t taste like it should!

This teaches us the important lesson that, no matter how many wrong labels you might put on a jar, you can’t change the truth of what’s inside it! You simply can’t make salt into sugar by changing a label or by making out it’s something different than it truly is!

Now, without going into the dangerous topic of debating how people are currently being encouraged to ‘self-identify’ themselves and be whoever they want to be (without being able to actually change the genetic substance of who they truly are), today Jesus challenges us by telling us our labels are often wrong and we’re tempted to believe the false labels.

This ‘changing of the labels’ has been an age-old problem which started in the Garden of Eden.

For instance, God had labelled a certain tree as ‘out of bounds’ and to eat from it would result in death. Every other tree in that Garden was labelled as ‘good for you’ and would sustain humanity if they ate from them.

But the deceiver came along and did what he does best: he started swapping the labels around!

He first questioned the instructions given by God which led them to distrust God’s word. He was effectively suggesting to them God had put the wrong label on this forbidden tree. He then tempted them to see how the fruit from the forbidden tree was in fact ‘good for them.’ They started to believe God had got it wrong and the deceiver was the only one who saw things the correct way. They saw the fruit was pleasing to the eye and good for food.

So, believing this false label, they took, they ate, and they hid from God.

You see, not only had Satan changed the label of the tree, but he had also changed God’s label. Even though God is by nature gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, the first humans now saw God as ungracious, unmerciful, vindictive, and angry. They not only hid from God and each other, but they were also attempting to hide their new labels: the labels of ‘guilty’ and ‘ashamed’.

Unfortunately, the deceiver keeps on labelling worthless and destructive things as valuable and desirable, and valuable and desirable things as worthless or destructive. He calls evil ‘good’ and good ‘evil’. Because our hearts are full of fears and desires which so easily deceive us, we keep believing the false labels, thinking a change of label changes the substance.

We’re also tempted to do this with all our experiences in life. Since our hearts so easily deceive us, we don’t know how to label, interpret, or evaluate whether what we’re going through is to be received as something good for us or not.

For example, when something goes wrong, you might ask such questions as “What did I do to deserve this?” or “Why me, Lord? or even “God, what would you have me do so that you might bless me once again?”

It’s possible you might think a church with financial problems or with small numbers is doing something wrong and we need to do something different so we can be blessed again.

Similarly, when something goes right, you might think God is rightly pleased with you and has blessed you with riches, or success, or a good reputation. You might think a church experiencing growing numbers or budget surpluses are signs God is rewarding the people for their faithfulness.

But if success and good health and growth and popularity are signs of God’s blessing for being faithful or obedient, why were the faithful prophets of the past persecuted and criticised? Why was Jesus crucified, even though he is God’s own dearly beloved Son with whom God was well pleased?

You see, God doesn’t get the labels wrong. We do, and we label many of our experiences differently than Jesus does.

For instance, just because some of you might be labelled ‘poor’ or ‘hungry’ or ‘grieving’ or ‘hated’ doesn’t change who you are. If Jesus calls you blessed, then blessed they are, no matter how you’re labelled by yourself or anyone else!

Similarly, some of you may be labelled ‘rich’ or ‘well fed’ or ‘laughing’ or ‘well-though-of’, but this doesn’t change the fact you might be in danger because these things aren’t always signs of having a right relationship with God. Many people have placed their trust in humans or the ways of the world, and yet God tells us through the prophet Jeremiah that such people, despite their apparent successes, are ‘cursed’ because their hearts have turned away from trusting in God!

Why don’t we get the labels right? Because our eyes don’t see what God tells us to see, our ears don’t hear what God tells us to listen to, and our hearts are deceptive.

The labels we place on ourselves, or the labels given to us by others, are no more real than calling salt ‘sugar’ or sugar ‘salt’. The label doesn’t change who you truly are, but it does affect the way you perceive yourself and your relationship with God.

You see, by labelling yourself poorly might make you look down on yourself and so you criticise yourself. But if you look down on yourself, you look down on a person who has been made in the image of God, who has been made holy in the waters of baptism, who bears the holy name of the Triune God, has been bought with the precious blood of Jesus, has been forgiven of all your sins, and has been promised eternal life in the kingdom of heaven!

This means, by looking down on yourself you don’t recognise and trust in the reality of the glory of God who has created you, redeemed you, and sanctified you through and through.

Similarly, by labelling yourself as being better than you truly are, might fill you with pride. But having pride in yourself might tempt you to limit the glory of God and what he’s done for you. Pride in yourself is a form of trusting in yourself and Jeremiah warns us that those who trust in the strength or the ingenuity or the abilities of humans aren’t always trusting in the Lord.

You see, instead of having pride and hope and faith in the work of Jesus through his faithful obedience, his bitter suffering, his cruel death, and his glorious resurrection, you pride yourself in your own work, or your own cleverness. Even thinking God has blessed you for being a faithful and obedient person takes away from the glory of Christ.

The trouble with labels is you’re tempted to believe them. It’s not only how you label yourself, but you might be tempted to believe the labels other people call you, such as Good-for-nothing, Know-it-all, Trouble-maker, Nosey, Do-Gooder, Rich, Good, Old, A Few Bricks Short of a Wall, or even Blessed, but the label can’t change the substance within. Similarly, you might be tempted to place unfair and critical labels on those around you which would question or deny who God says they are.

But God knows who you truly are, and he sent his Son to remind you who you are and whose you are. In fact, just like a label can’t change the substance of what’s within, neither can any other outward circumstances change who God says you are.

This means, even if you experience old age, or a lack of possessions, or sickness, or injury, and any other negative circumstance or experience (which many people might think indicates God doesn’t favour you), the kingdom of heaven is still yours.

Even if you experience an emptiness of hunger, meaning, or contentment, Jesus promises to satisfy you with his gifts of love, forgiveness, and salvation.

Even if you weep or mourn, you’ll be given reason to laugh and be joyful as you receive the fullness of Christ’s mercy and compassion.

Even when you’re insulted or criticised for your faith in Jesus Christ, your experience is compared to the faithful prophets of the past who continued to believe and trust God’s word despite their experience of ridicule and persecution.

Jesus, the One who became poor for you, who became hungry for you, who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of loved ones for you, and who was unjustly bullied, criticised, tried, and convicted to death for you, calls you blessed. And blessed you are, no matter what any other labels or experiences of life tell you.

Jesus also loves you enough to warn you not to place your trust in those good labels or good experiences which would often be interpreted by many as proof of God’s favour because of your faithfulness, obedience, or goodness.

If you’re placing your hope of God’s love on these things, he reminds you this is what the false prophets experienced. They were praised by humans because they said all the things the people wanted to hear. Unfortunately, all those good experiences, all their apparent success, and all those lovely platitudes spoken to them didn’t save them.

Now, this doesn’t mean if you’re poor or hungry or crying or insulted you’re automatically blessed, and if you’re rich or well fed or laughing or have a good reputation you’re automatically doomed.

Remember, the warning is for you not to believe a false label.

Don’t place your trust in what others say of you. Don’t place your trust in your comfort or success. But on the flip-side, don’t despair because of your bad experiences or because of your poor situation in life. Don’t place your trust in those labels which are trying to lead you away from true faith in your Lord Jesus Christ.

Believe instead that Jesus loves you and nothing anyone can say, and no experience in life, can change that.

Believe your sins are forgiven. Jesus has paid the full price for your sins through his suffering and death for you. Nothing you experience in life is punishment because Jesus paid the full price for your guilt and shame.

Believe you’re a dearly loved child of God because you’ve been baptised into Jesus Christ, God’s own Son. It doesn’t matter what surname you have or what others call you, because you bear the holy name of God. You’re his and no other names or labels can change that.

Believe this life will be full of sorrow and heartache. There will be tears, and suffering, and grief. This is the pain we experience as we learn to let go of the fragile, tenuous, temporary, and transitory things of this fallen world and learn to cling to the eternal kingdom of God with all its beauty, majesty, and splendour.

It doesn’t matter what labels or experiences you’re putting up with. God loves you, and Jesus proves it to you through his death and resurrection. That’s all you need to know and trust in so that…

…the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.