Tuesday, February 27, 2007

the good life or the blessed life? (luke 6)

The Christian faith is never lived, taught, preached in a vacuum. There is always some alternative to it: another philosophy, another religion, another ideal. I see that you have many gods”, Paul said when he looked around first century Athens. And indeed there were gods of wealth, gods of beauty, gods of fertility, gods of immortality, gods of warfare. The statues were constructed to communicate permanence, power, reliability, endurance. The gods helped people to orient their lives toward achieving these ends: becoming wealthy, being beautiful, having sexual freedom, being healthy, avoiding death, overcoming the enemy by violence, being secure.

Most Christians have come to terms with the idea that there is only One God. But the gods that our ancestors worshipped die a slow death, and even though we live in a supposedly Christian nation, a supposedly Judeo-Christian western culture, their influence is still with us, and it has everything to do with what we might call “the good life”.

What is the good life? The good life is a life of wealth, beauty, sexual expression, health, security. I don’t need to give you chapter and verse about the good life. Take your remote control and turn to one of over one hundred channels: Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, The Apprentice, The Housewives of Orange County, 24. Or watch a music video---it could be country or rap. Or wander around for an hour at the mall. The culture saturates so much of our thinking about the good life.

And we are hooked by it. We are like the hamster, Wade, who lives in our house. I don’t know quite how or why we ever got a hamster, but that’s another story. Wade is in his cage, sometimes the wheel is turning, going really fast, sometimes Wade is gnawing on anything that is available. We are hooked by whatever is presented to us. And what is presented to us, in our culture, is a vision of the good life.

You will be happy if you are wealthy, if you are beautiful, if you express your sexuality in any way that feels good, if you are young and healthy, if you are secure. This is the good life.

There is a problem: the pursuit of the good life can almost train us to be hamsters on a never ending wheel of motion, one that gets harder and harder to keep going.

Most young adults sense that their world will not be as prosperous as the ones their parents lived in---they are aware of the debt and the environment. Every face that we see on television or at the movies is the face of a nineteen year old, but many people do carry on with their lives into the twenties or thirties, and even beyond. Sexual expression can be a gift from God, but it can also be destructive. Our bodies age, even as we try to keep putting them back together. Our world is dangerous and insecure.

The good life, it turns out, is a mirage. Sometimes we see the good life in what we imagine our neighbor’s life to be like. We compare ourselves to others and say, “they are really making it”. Of course, this is deadly sin of envy, and envy is all wrapped up with our vision of the good life. But there is a deeper problem. The good life, to use the language of the Old Testament prophets, is a false god.

And the good life turns out actually to be something we have substituted for the real thing. We have substituted the good life for the blessed life.

Jesus was, is and will always be a radical contrast to the gods of every culture, to our human constructions of the good life. This is nowhere more apparent than in the beatitudes; they are found in Matthew 5 (the sermon on the mount) and Luke 6 (the sermon on the plain).

The beatitudes of Jesus are surely among the best-known portions of the scripture, along with the ten commandments, the twenty-third psalm and the Lord’s Prayer. At times the beatitudes can be of great comfort, and at times they present a real challenge.

The comfort comes in the good news that God is near, that God provides, that God blesses. The comfort comes in the actions of God, on our behalf, on God’s help in our need. The challenge has everything to do with where we locate ourselves in the teaching. In Matthew’s gospel the beatitudes seem to be spiritualized: the poor “in spirit”, those who hunger and thirst “for righteousness”. In Luke, they are material, concrete: the poor, the hungry. In Matthew’s gospel there seems to be an orientation toward the future: they will inherit the earth, they will see God, they will be filled. In Luke’s gospel, the focus seems to be on the here and now: those who hunger now, those who weep now, those who are well fed now, those who laugh now.

The beatitudes are a challenge for some of us because we place ourselves in categories, and may sense that this is not about me, this is intended for some elite group, people who are more spiritual, more committed. The scholars have wrestled with this idea for centuries. How can you live your life based on the beatitudes, or on the sermon on the mount? We think it applies to someone else, or it is demoralizing.

This misses the point of the teaching of Jesus. The blessed life has to do not with us, but with God. The good life is something we try to control, but the blessed life comes to us as a gift. And the very clear message of the gospel is stated by Dallas Willard:

No one is beyond beatitude because the rule of the God of heavens is available to all. Everyone can reach it, and it can reach everyone”.

Think about the beatitudes:

Blessed are you who are poor. There was a clear teaching in the time of Jesus that wealth was a blessing, and poverty was a curse. And yet, Jesus teaches, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. The poor are blessed, in that God’s blessings are available to them. They are not excluded.

Blessed are you who weep. There was a clear teaching in the time of Jesus that tragedy was the will of God---your husband or wife dies, you child rebels, you have a terminal illness or a deformity. Who sinned, the rabbis would ask, you or your parents? Those who weep, Jesus says, are blessed, in that God’s blessings are available to them. They are not excluded.

Now, in Luke’s collection of the beatitudes there are also woes, cautions, warnings. Woe to you who are rich, to you who are well fed, to you who laugh, to you when all speak well of you. By the standards of the planet earth, 2007, that would include virtually every one of us.

What is Jesus saying to us? The gospels themselves help us. Blessed are the poor. Suppose you throw a party, and you invite the wealthy first, but they cannot come. Our wealth can become a distraction. I grew up in a country church, that became, in time, engulfed by the growth of the city on its north side. We became a little more sophisticated along the way, which meant we took down the little boards on each side of the front of the sanctuary, which listed the morning hymns, and began to have a printed bulletin. This was our controversial worship decision, but we made our way through it.

We had revivals every fall and every spring, and I recall one preacher, off on a tangent maybe, preachers do that at times, talking about a man who would accept Christ, and then he would be blessed with more of the world’s riches, and then he would buy a motorboat and take his family out on Sundays on the Chattahoochie River waterskiing. What started as a special occasion soon became a habit. Along the way his faith would become less important to him. Other bad things happened in his life. Wealth can be a blessing, but not necessarily.

Blessed are the hungry. Being well-fed, we can lose touch with the Creator, the Sustainer, the Provider, with the rhythms of planting and rainfall and harvest, and the reverence and trust and faithfulness that went along with that.

Blessed are those who weep. Being entertained, we can block out the world’s pain, the unnecessary suffering, the injustices. That is one reason someone like Bono, whom a number of people listened to by a videoconference this week, is so amazing: an entertainer who places the sufferings of the world squarely in front of us.

Blessed are those who are excluded and criticized because of their faith. Wanting to please people, we can forget that God is our primary audience, that God is our judge.

These are not hardened categories. We have all known poor people whose lives certainly are not blessed, and we have all known wealthy people who are quite humble and generous. But the teachings do challenge our understanding of the good life. They remind us that we must let go of the good life in order to receive the blessed life. The fourth century saint, Augustine, said it well: God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them”.

I am preaching this morning for about twenty minutes about the blessed life. In the next three days you will hear over twenty hours of messages about the good life. And since the good life is always presented to us in short soundbytes and digestable portions, here are a few ways you might enter more fully into the blessed life.

  1. Live more simply. Materialism can become an obstacle to the place of God in our lives. We can obsess into the night about wanting to possess something, or we worry about preserving it or protecting it. The poor are not burdened with these obstacles, and the rich person is wise who knows that this is not what life is all about.

  1. Enjoy the harvest, and share it with others. The earth is the Lord’s, and the poor have a place at our tables, in our hospitals and in our schools, in our nation but also in our lives, not because of our charity, but because they are children of our heavenly Father.

  1. Prefer happiness to entertainment. We live in a culture that escapes through movies, music, alcohol and drugs. The good life may be about work and diversion, but the blessed life is about work and worship, work and Sabbath, work and rest, work and celebration. On the Sabbath the wheel stops, and we get off, and rest, and worship. It is a taste of heaven on earth.

  1. Tell The Truth. I have played a little golf in my time. Some ministers are golfers, some are very good golfers. I think of Harley Dickson and Tom Latimer and Abe Moyer. I am not in the league of any of these guys. I heard a golf story from another preacher friend who talked about a shabby group with which he played. You may have heard of “gimmes”: the ball is close enough to the hole, that’s a gimme.

Well, they began by taking a gimme on the first hole of the front and back nine, then a gimme on the first and last holes on the front and back nine, then the first two and the last two holes on the front and back nine. At some point a question dawned on my friend: “Who speaks for par?”

Who speaks for par? We can say pleasing things to each other, but, in God’s sight, who speaks for par. The false prophets were adored, but what about par? What about truth?

What is the truth?

God will provide for us, that is our wealth.

We are created in the image of God, that is our beauty.

This mortal body must put on immortality, that is our health.

The Lord is our shepherd, that is our security.

Brothers and sisters, we are not here to achieve the good life. It may be within our grasp, but it is, finally, a trivial pursuit. The radical teaching of Jesus envisions a better life, a blessed life.

Live more simply.

Enjoy the harvest and share it with others.

Prefer happiness to entertainment.

Tell the truth.

Israel had made it to the promised land, and Moses was standing before them. All that they had dreamed about, they held in their hands. I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses”(Deut 30). “Therefore, choose life, so that you and your descendents may live”.

And so, what will it be: the good life, or the blessed life?

Source: Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy.


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