When I first began my ministry at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia over twenty years ago, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. In my first year worship attendance jumped 15%. This past year, it dropped by 12%. I guess the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. As Jesus reminds us in the Gospel text for Epiphany 6, Year C (Luke 6:17-26), “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep” (v.25b).
Nothing lasts forever. And that’s a pretty good thing isn’t it? It means that the bad times won’t last forever, either. Think about it. If you’ve ever been down, sad, worried, or doing without then you know how joyful any tiny favor or scrap of good news can be. When I was a seminary student studying urban ministry I saw first-hand how folks in low-income neighborhoods sometimes had more joyful and ebullient worship services in their churches than did folks in the more comfortable suburbs. There’s something about having little which makes you grateful for the little you have. And there’s always the promise of God’s favor—the promise that the bad times aren’t going to last forever.
And yet, we always seem to think the good times will.
Jesus, in our Gospel lesson, has been riding pretty high in the ratings. Throughout Luke chapters 5 and 6 he’s doing all kinds of wild, miraculous deeds. He’s really drawing the crowds, and, as prophets go, he’s a rock star. People are actually coming from the coast of Tyre and Sidon (v.17) to catch his act. That’s about 100 miles away. In fact, he’s getting so famous and popular that he has to choose a Board of Directors from his followers (Luke 6:12-16) just to manage his awesome ministry. Nevertheless, as with every successful enterprise, nothing is ever perfect, and trouble is always creeping around getting ready to bite us in the butt.
Yup. Jesus has done miraculous healings, but some of them have been on the Sabbath (v.6-11). His disciples have had the audacity to snack on some trail mix picked from the grain fields on the Sabbath—an act which the ultra-pious see as harvesting (v.1-5). The Pharisees feel really threatened by this, and they’re planning to get rid of Jesus (v. 11). The fecal matter is getting ready to go “splat” against the rotary air conditioner (metaphorically speaking). It’s only a matter of time.
The good times never last, do they? Not even for Jesus.
It’s the old saying: No good deed ever goes unpunished. Jesus came to liberate us from sin and our own idolatrous and deceptive self-reliance. But this didn’t jive with the Pharisees’ ideas about works righteousness and ritual piety. They liked to feel smugly superior. It was only natural that they’d resent Jesus. By teaching folks they didn’t need to rely on their own works to win God’s favor, Jesus got himself into a world of hurt. But that’s always been the way. It happened to the prophets before him, too.
Our Revised Common Lectionary marries this story in Luke with a passage from Jeramiah (Jeramiah 17:5-10). Jeramiah is called to proclaim God’s word, and he sees that things in Judah are headed into the dumper. The Babylonians are at the gates, but the king is listening to false prophets who tell him everything is groovy because they’ve made a fabulous deal with the Egyptians. They’ve put their faith in their negotiating skills, but they’ve forgotten the Law of God. The nation has forgotten God’s command to mercy and charity. They don’t realize that no nation can be strong in the world if it is weak at home. Jeramiah calls them out, naming their self-reliance for what it is—idolatry.
Jeramiah’s situation puts me in mind of the late, great Soviet Union. Remember them? The communist ideologues imagined a world of share and share alike. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” sounded pretty swell. The problem was they didn’t recognize that no program of social change could be successful without the love of God in the hearts of those who implement it. As the Psalmist said, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). The communists fed the peoples’ moral indignation, but they starved their souls. Their utopian ideals were wet mud idols without the sacrificial love of God as their foundation. They really could’ve used the voice of a Jeramiah to set them straight. Sometimes, we all need that voice. BUT: if you happen to be the Jeramiah, you’re going to make people mad. As Christians, it may be good to remember that, if we’re not making someone mad, we might not be doing our job.
But back to the “woes” in Luke 6:24-26. What if we are rich, full, laughing, and well-loved? It doesn’t necessarily mean were a bunch of dirt bags, but it should make us stop and think. Being well satisfied with the things of this world should make us remember that a reversal is always looming. It’s time to be humble. It’s a time to remember that God is in charge, not us. It’s a time to cultivate gratitude, and to pray, “Thy will be done.” It’s a time to ask God how to be a good and loving steward. If you hit the lottery, get the new job, have a new grandchild, pay off your mortgage—it’s a time to remember this is God’s doing, not yours.
And, should the reversal come, should you get the diagnosis, lose your job, get the tax or the home repair bill, or be faced with a family member in crisis—this is the time to remember God is still here for you. God is here in loving friends, in the spirit of hope, and in the promise of salvation. If you can’t rejoice in these things in the bad times, you won’t recognize them in the good times.
Things change. God doesn’t. Be blessed, my friend, and thanks for reading.