What's Holding Us Up? - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday After Epiphany - February 13, 2022
Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 17:5–10 | Psalm 1 | 1 Corinthians 15:12–20 | Luke 6:17–26
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” (1 Corinthians 15:20).
What’s holding us up?
There is a game from my childhood that’s still around today called Jenga. It involves building a solid tower out of rectangular wooden blocks, and then taking turns removing them one at a time, and stacking them on top. Bit by bit the tower gets higher, but only at the cost of making the whole tower less stable… less able to stand steady and upright, until eventually somebody pulls out an unlucky piece and the whole thing falls over. It’s a pretty fun game if you have a steady hand, but regardless of how good you get, everyone knows the tower won’t stay up for long. Eventually, it’s going to fall.
This feels like a game a lot of people can probably identify with these days: many of us are feeling increasingly stretched and unstable in all sorts of ways… afraid that at any moment our ‘towers’ might to crumble to the ground.
Over these last few years, our whole society has been shaken. So many things that we once considered solid have been eroded… leaving us unsure of how to move forward without knocking everything down. And as much as we might want to keep going, to keep building, without a firm foundation holding us up we know it’s only a matter of time before it all falls apart.
In our Scripture readings today we are presented with some alternatives… some contrasting kinds of foundations that we can choose from to build our lives upon.
Our passage from Jeremiah contrasts the sorry fate of those who place their trust in mere mortals, with the blessed future of those who place their trust in the LORD. The first will find their life dry up like a desert shrub, while those who trust in the LORD
“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 17:8)
Even when troubles come, Jeremiah proclaims, those who look to the the Living God will endure, and find themselves blessed.
Psalm 1 offers us a similar image: with the wicked being carried away by the wind, while those who delight in the law of the LORD “are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.” (Psalm 1:3).
Presented like this, it doesn’t seem like it’s all that hard of a choice. In fact, it’s pretty straightforward: If you want to do well, be blessed, to experience life and not death, than trust in the LORD and seek His ways.
But if it was really that simple, why does it seem like so many people who are trying to trust in the LORD, and serve Him faithfully are still struggling and suffering? Experiencing bitterness and pain?
It’s important to remember that these claims from Holy Scripture come to us as part of a story… an ongoing narrative about a broken world in need of being put back together and setting right again. A story in which our blessed Creator and Saviour does not hide from suffering, but faces its full fury in order to set us free. And a story which has not yet reached its conclusion, even though we now know how it will end.
At the centre of this sacred story, we encounter Jesus Christ, who in our Gospel reading today upends so many of our assumptions about what the blessed life looks like.
After healing the crowds that had come to Him seeking help and relief from their various burdens, Jesus turns to His disciples and says these shocking words:
“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. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:20-26).
If you ask anyone, back then or today, if they’d rather be poor, hungry, mourning, and hated on the one hand, or rich, satisfied, amused, and spoken well of on the other, it doesn’t seem like that hard of a choice. It’s obvious to us which of these groups we would call blessed… which tower is on more solid ground, and is more likely to stand.
But this is the shocking point that Jesus is making: the things we tend to think of as success, security, and solid ground can’t really hold us up. In fact, they can often be a source, not of blessings but of woe.
Why? Because when these things undermine our trust in the One who truly can hold us up, and get in the way of our living His way, then no matter how blessed we may seem to ourselves and those around us, we’re actually missing out on the source of all blessings.
In reflecting on Christ’s words here, N.T. Wright makes another important point: “The poor, the hungry, those who weep, those who are hated: blessings on them! Not that there’s anything virtuous about being poor or hungry in itself. But when injustice is reigning, the world will have to be turned once more the right way up for God’s justice and kingdom to come to birth. And that will provoke opposition from people who like things the way they are.” In other words, if our wealth, and our food, and our laughter, and honour come at the expense of the oppressed that God longs to rescue, then we can rightly expect our share of woe ahead.
But in this passage, Jesus was not primarily making a general statement about God’s coming justice. Jesus was also sending a vital message to His own disciples: ‘when you are poor, hungry, hurting and hated as you follow Me, that’s not a sign that you’re on the wrong path. Take heart! Keep trusting me! No matter how you may feel, or what others think, with Me you are blessed by God, and one day that blessing will be evident to all.
Christ’s own life shows this to be true: Jesus took on the suffering of His sinful and sin-filled world. He was betrayed, arrested, humiliated, tortured, and crucified… an absolute failure in the eyes of all except His Heavenly Father. At the cross, no one would look at Jesus hanging there and dream of calling Him blessed. His whole life and work, which at one time had seemed so promising, had completely collapsed. Yet after three days of death and darkness, Jesus rose up from the grave… and the reality of His resurrection still leaves our heads spinning.
But as St. Paul points out to the Christians in living in Corinth: everything rests on the reality of the resurrection… first of all the resurrection of Jesus, but also ours as well.
Understandably, some of the new Christians in Corinth were still struggling to believe that God could raise the dead, and today we heard the Apostle’s response: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:13-14). For St. Paul and all the Apostles, the resurrection isn’t a nice add-on… it’s the foundation of our faith, the ground that all our hope is built on.
If it’s untrue, then all is lost, St. Paul tells us. But if Christ has truly been raised from the dead, then we can face anything. We can go without material goods, trusting that all things are ours in Christ Jesus our Risen King. We can endure hunger, knowing in Him we will be eternally satisfied. We can weep and lament, in the confidence that God Himself will one day wipe away every tear. And we can even abide the hatred, slander, and mistreatment of those around us, leaning on the holy love of the Lord to see us through.
The resurrection of Jesus, and His promise to share this New Life with those who trust in Him, tells us that our lives are not resting on a rickety tower on the verge of sudden collapse. Our lives are held up forever by the hands of Jesus, our Risen Lord.
We know the old saying: a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, in recent years, I have found myself often deeply moved by icons: sacred images of biblical scenes, characters, or themes, portraying the mysteries of our faith in powerful detail.
In particular, I love the icon of the Resurrection. It offers a picture of Jesus breaking down the gates of hell, and raising up two figures from their graves: Adam with His right hand, and Eve with His left. It is a beautiful picture of God’s rescue and reconciliation, not only of individuals, but of our whole human family.
One detail in this icon has always stood out to me (and many others): Adam and Eve are not pulling themselves up… they’re not even able to hold onto Christ’s hands. No, Jesus is holding them up Himself. Their fate is in His saving hands alone… just like us.
I know that many of us today are having a hard time holding on. In so many ways, we’re stretched thin, stressed out, and longing for relief… anxious about our future, and where our broken world is headed. But because Jesus was raised from the dead, we know where our story is headed. We know that death itself has been defeated. That our broken world will be renewed. And that eternal life and blessings await all those who trust in Jesus Christ, the crucified and Risen Lord.
So when it feels like we can’t hold on any longer, let us turn again to Jesus: trusting in His saving, life-giving love to hold us up.
I’ll end now with the benediction from the book of Jude 24-25: "Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen."
 Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 71.
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Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School