When John the Baptist shows up in the gospel of Luke inviting all to get right with God, the writer reminds us of Isaiah’s words “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:4b-6)
Every valley filled, every mountain and hill made low. In other words, everything on a level plain—as we move towards the blessing of God’s salvation. So no wonder when Jesus addresses the crowds in Luke 6 with his list of Blessings and Woes, it is “on a level place.” No Sermon on the Mount here. No Jesus standing above and us below. On a level plain.
That must have been frustrating! If you’ve ever been to a concert, or a lecture, or anything with any type of crowd size, you know you want the person you are there to hear to be “lifted up” so you can see—otherwise, starting from a few rows back, or if you’re height challenged, like I am, even in the second row, you can’t SEE anything.
So what’s so good about being on a level plain Jesus? I want to see you. I came here to see you. Maybe your voice gets garbled in the people between me and you. Maybe I can’t hear you so well. Maybe I can’t see you so well. All these people are in the way. I wish all these people weren’t in the way!
And to make this egalitarianism even worse—there were people from all over. People from around the corner, people from the next town, people from the north and south, people from the big city, people who weren’t even Jewish! All those people coming to hear Jesus, coming to be healed by Jesus. All the lame and the blind and the sick and the troubled with unclean spirits. You should have seen them all! And everyone was trying to push and shove, to touch him, to touch even his clothes, and there we were in a mosh pit of teeming, dirty, needy people! What part of being on a level plain is good?
And it says that Jesus healed them all! No regard for those who REALLY needed healing, as opposed to the slackers. No regard for the home team, even the your own people, Jesus. No regard for anything. Healing went out to all. What are we to do with that? What are we to do with being surrounded by others that have been healed just like we have been healed? What are we to do with not being able to see anything but those pressing in on us? Not being able to hear anything but the babble of voices—oh wait, I think I hear …
Blessed are you who are poor,
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
Blessed are you who weep now,
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
But woe to you who are rich,
Woe to you who are full now,
Woe to you who are laughing now
Woe to you when all speak well of you.
Yes, the valleys need to be filled and the mountains made low. Yes, those with little need a hand up, and those who have so much now, need a hand down—so all can be on a level plain.
Let’s admit it. We’re not sure we want this levelness. We kind of like the up and down—if we are on the upside, it feels pretty good. If we are on the down side, at least we have someone to complain about! What if all that went away? What if we were all healed—not just of disease, but of dis/ease? We would be left looking everyone in the eye. That’s uncomfortable. That’s downright scary. A Level playing field. Level ground. Where is the blessing in that?
We like to twist blessedness. Do you remember the scene in Steel Magnolias where two of the mother of the bride’s friends are dissecting all the flaws and misfortunes of the guests at Shelby’s wedding. And then at the end of every dig, at the end of every juicy tidbit, to seemingly wipe away the bitterness and the low-down meanness of it, they would punctuate their sentences with “Bless her heart.” The Urban Dictionary defines “bless your heart” as “the most Southern insult there is” (Seasons, 2/17/19).
Being blessed is something our culture is not very good at. On the one hand it’s common to say “Bless you” when someone sneezes. It is almost a Christian reflex statement to offer “Blessings” in prayer, or as a way of signing off. It almost becomes trivial, these blessings.
And on the other hand, we take seriously being anointed, having hands laid on us, being blessed in prayer, being blessed with God’s forgiveness, being blessed with healing. I’m just not sure that we take seriously enough the cosmic effect of God’s blessedness.
I know the words Jesus says sound personal. Blessed are you, if you are poor, if you are hungry, if you weep, if you are thought low. We want to find ourselves in that “you.” And when those woes come, the rich, the full, the laughing, the well thought of, we want to pass that along to some other “you.”
The fact that Jesus healed them ALL, the fact that Luke is so intent on us seeing this message coming on a level plain, that fact that Jesus here lifts up in blessing and pulls down in woe, makes me wonder if this sermon on the plain is less about each of us individually, and more about getting us (all of us, all flesh) ready to see the salvation of God—often called “the kingdom of God.”
In this new realm of God we shouldn’t be trying to look up, at our leaders, even Jesus! In this new realm of God we shouldn’t be trying to look down on anyone. In this new realm of God, when we want blessing—it comes from those around us. In this new realm of God, when we want to be a blessing—it insists that we offer what we have face to face, eye to eye, from one child of God to another. In this new realm of God, we are all on the same level, all recipients of God’s healing, all indicted by God’s gaze.
That’s why the whole countryside came down to the Jordan to be baptized by John. That’s why the whole populace, near and far, wanted to be near Jesus—to be healed. Because we know that we live in a world that is not level. Because we know that we have lived lives that have not treated all the same. Because we desperately want to change, to be changed, to bring about change in our world. And for that, we need to start with ourselves. We need to keep working to have an equal footing. We need to be willing maybe to give up some of what we have, or to raise ourselves up to the level of others. It’s hard. It’s frustrating. It’s scary. It is being Blessed, and being a Blessing.
Let us lift our voices together in prayer:
One: O God, May the poor and the outcast,
All: teach us about your divine hospitality.
One: May the hungry –
All: show us how important it is to fill all in need.
One: May the weeping –
All: give us a reason to share our laughter.
One: May the despised –
All: bring us the challenge of accepting all.
One: May the rich –
All: reveal the need for us to find consolation by sharing.
One: May the satisfied –
All: spark our own desire for the company and well-being of
One: May the happy –
All: teach us not to fear loss.
One: May the celebrated and revered –
All: give us lessons in the grace of humility.
Together: God, we take comfort that it is you who is sovereign and steadfast in love. May we bless others with the
power of this love. Amen.