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The following is the transcript from Aaron Graham's sermon on January 11th at The District Church - Columbia Heights, entitled Upside Down.
I love basketball. I love to play it. I love to watch it. I love to dream about it. I love the Wizards. I love the Tarheels!
I’m hoping somebody in the church organizes a team. It’s killing me that there is not one. I usually have to settle for playing pick-up basketball.
In pick-up you often you shoot for captains. The first two to make it are captains. Usually people haven’t played together before so being captain can be a tough job – who do you pick?
I rarely make it, so I’m usually the one waiting to be picked. Hoping to get picked. Trying to look all tough so I get picked. Pushing out my chest. Standing on my tippy toes. Strutting around.
And you’ve got these two captains sizing people up. They only have externals to go on. I’m skinny and I’m white, so I’m not a very attractive pick. Even though I have some height, I don’t have enough meat on me to post up. And white boys can’t jump.
So I wait to get picked. Pick me! Pick me! Sometimes I get picked, but often I don’t…It feels awful to not get picked and to sit on the sidelines and wait. To feel like you are judged for how good you look rather than how good you really are. Ever been there?
This morning we are looking at the time when Jesus picks his twelve disciples. Andwhen Jesus picks his team he catches everyone off guard. Why these guys? They don’t seem to have the credentials. Jesus throws off all our expectations.
Today we are starting a series called Upside-Down. We have been in the Gospel of Luke and we’ve been seeing how God turned so many of our expectations upside down. Instead of coming to a well-known and respected leader, an unwed teenage mother is chosen to bear the Messiah. The shepherds who are not allowed in the temple are found at the manager worshiping the Christ child. Instead of highlighting specialness of his own Jewish people, Jesus proclaims his mission statement that includes reaching non-Jews. Instead of hanging out with religious leaders Jesus hangs out with tax collectors and sinners. Instead of healing on a weekday, Jesus chooses to provoke and heal on the Sabbath.
So much of what Jesus does is upside-down. When Jesus comes and introduces the Kingdom of God, it seems so radical because of the ways we have been shaped by the world. But the Kingdom of God is really right-side up. It just looks upside down to us!
I love how Anabaptist Donald Kraybill describes this:
“The Kingdom is full of surprises. Again and again in parable, sermon, and act Jesus startles us. Things in the Gospels are often upside down. Good guys turn out to be bad guys. Those we expect to receive rewards get spankings. Those who think they are headed for heaven land in hell. Things are reversed. Paradox, irony, and surprise permeate the teachings of Jesus. They flip our expectations upside down. The least are the greatest. The immoral receive forgiveness and blessing. Adults become like children. The religious miss the heavenly banquet. The pious receive curses – shattering our assumptions. Things aren’t the way we expect them to be. We’re baffled and perplexed. Amazed, we step back. Should we laugh or should we cry? Again and again, turning our expectations upside down, the kingdom surprises us.”
Today we are in Luke 6 and we are looking at just how upside down it is who Jesus chooses as his disciples. It is as if Jesus says, “give me twelve ordinary men and I will change the world.” And then if that is not enough Jesus launches into this radical upside down messagethat have become known today as the beatitudes.
Let’s go through our passage verse by verse, and pray that God opens our eyes to see the Kingdom through His eyes.
Luke 6:12-13 “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. 13 When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles.”
This is the only mention in the New Testament of all-night prayer. Which helps us realize just how seriously Jesus took this decision of who he picked as his disciples. I get the sense that this was a difficult decision - who would he choose and on what basis? Who would he not choose? Who was being left out? Who wanted to get picked to work alongside this miracle worker and teacher? Surely some of those not picked would get upset!
The first question I want to ask us is - Do you pray and seek God before making a big decision? Dating, marriage, school, a job opportunity, a new hire?
Jesus spent the night praying. And I believe it is in the night that he received the courage and affirmation from God to make some unpopular and countercultural decisions. To pick some unlikely people.
I’m convinced we need more people of prayer, because we need more people of courage in our world. People willing to make some tough calls. People willing to see others the way God sees them.
There is a scene in I Samuel 16 where the prophet Samuel is picking the next King of Israel. He is led to the sons of Jesse and knows he is to pick one of them, but cannot figure out who, and while he is waiting he hears from God in prayer. Listen to what the Lord says to Samuel, “The Lord does not look at things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (16:7).
Samuel has his pick of any of the seven sons of Jesse. But surprisingly he doesn’t select any of them. He picks David, who was the smallest and youngest of the brothers. David, the least likely to be picked, is anointed the next King of Israel.
Luke 6:14-16 “Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, 15 Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.”
Why did Jesus choose twelve? There are theological and practical reasons. First, this was the number of the tribes of Israel, which showed that Jesus is establishing the true Israel, the people of God.
But sociologically, there is something that happens experientially with a group this size. It’s not too big and not too small. It’s big enough to accomplish something, but small enough to know a bit about everyone’s life and to be friends.
This week our small groups are starting up again all across our city. I believe we have forty groups. They are all different sizes, but the average size of a group is twelve people.
There is something about this size. Not all of discipleship happens in that size. Jesus had the three – Peter, James and John; there were the 72 disciples; and there was the crowd. People were to grow as disciples in all of these spaces, but the small group was the key starting point. You could get even more tight with a few folks within the group or you could be connected to a larger group of folks in the church through these small group friendships.
So Jesus chooses twelve. And in Mark 3:14 it says that Jesus chose them so that “they might be with him.” Jesus chose them not just based on what he wanted to accomplish. He chose them to be his friends! It is important to remember that Jesus needed friendship just like we need. I spoke about this last week that this was a soul-care practice for Jesus. He spent time with his friends. Laughing together with them, going on long walks with them, praying with them. He went to the mountain, to the lake, and to the garden with them.
Jesus was aware of the growing opposition he was experiencing so he knew his time would end soon, so he would need people in place to continue to live out this mission. To embody this message. To be living pillars, living stones, living books.
So he called these 12 to be his disciples. Many of you know our vision is to see our city change. Our mission (how we do this) is by making disciples. Which begs the question: What is a disciple?
A disciple is simply a follower of Jesus who helps others follow Jesus. A disciple is a learner, who never stops. A disciple never arrive. The 10,000 hours rule does not apply to the life of a disciple!
As disciples experience life change, they help others follow Jesus.
So Jesus has his twelve. Their vision is the Kingdom of God on earth and their mission is preaching the good news of the gospel. They didn’t get sent off for three years to school. Jesus throws them into ministry. They start observing him and debriefing their experiences.
Luke 6:17 “He went down with them and stood on a level place.”
One of the questions I’ve gotten before is “why does Luke refer to it as a plain or level place and Matthew refer to it as a mount?” The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 contains a similar version of these beatitudes.
My best guess is that the beatitudes was Jesus’ stump speech. Meaning he gave it in many places. On the mount. Down on the plain. Luke and Matthew both share where they remember Jesus giving it.
Luke 6:17 “…A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, 18 who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, 19 and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.
Bringing healing and hope is not some new idea we came up with last Advent for our offering. Mary’s Center, Joseph’s House, SOME, are not the first to be about the ministry to the sick. This is a fundamental part of the ministry of Jesus, because sickness has no place in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus then looks at his disciples and gives them four promises and four warnings. He’s looking at his disciples, but it is clear that there is a larger group of disciples that are there needing to learn, as well as a larger crowd who is there. Jesus is focused on his twelve, but it’s not an exclusive club. Yes, it’s exclusive in the sense that you were in our out of those twelve, but they are exclusively called to be sent out on an inclusive mission.
20 Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you 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 great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
Jesus starts off by saying: “Blessed are you who are poor.” And this frames all of the other beatitudes that follow. When he uses the word poor, he is not talking exclusively about spiritual poverty or exclusively about physical poverty. This is a holistic sense of the word. Think those who have to depend on God and others.
He’s telling them, blessed are you who are poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted. The disciples are feeling under qualified to be chosen for this relationship and this mission. “You are still trying to figure out why you got picked. “He says “you are actually blessed. Your heart is what I’m looking at.”
When I was a sophomore in college I was invited to attend a fancy banquet dinner on the top floor of the State Department hosted by the Secretary of State Madeline Albright. The event was to celebrate the work that had been done across the world around removing landmines in war torn countries. It was quite an honor to be invited to such a high profile dinner given that my fundraising and awareness efforts around landmines seemed so small.
About a week before the dinner, my professor, call and asked me if I would be willing to speak at the dinner. This is when I started freaking out. Now something you have to know about me growing up. I was not a great student. It wasn’t because I didn’t care about school, I have just never been the most articulate person. My mind travels much faster than my mouth.
When God called me into ministry at 16 years old, God and I made a deal. I would go anywhere and do anything, except one thing. I would not do public ministry and specifically preaching and speaking.
Well, God must have a since of humor, because he decided that my induction into public ministry was to happen in front of the Secretary of State, world ambassadors, members of Congress, and CNN!
When my professor invited me to speak I was terrified, wondering what the heck happened for me to be selected and trying to decide whether to say yes to the invitation.
And so I called my dad…I remember it like it was yesterday. I was in Dennis Hall overlooking X Lot and the Robins Center at the University of Richmond. Pacing back and forth between looking at my dresser and looking out the little window. And my dad just listened to me talk for a bit, and then when I stopped long enough for my dad to get a word in edge-wise. He said something I will never forget:
“Aaron, you are going to have to come to a point in your life where you start believing in yourself as much God believes in you.”
I didn’t know how to respond. I had often heard my dad communicate his belief in me, but I had never heard him communicate our Heavenly Father’s confidence in me like this before.
I couldn’t come up with any more excuses. The next weekend I went out and bought my first suit and started working on my speech!
See sometimes God will put you in places not because you are qualified, but because your heart is in the right place. And that is what God is looking for. The Scripture says,“The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth looking to show himself strong on behalf of those whose hearts are completely His.” (I Chronicles 16:9)
The disciples are a rag tag group. Their resume wouldn’t qualify them. They were very ordinary men. They were not wealthy, famous, and there wasn’t an influential man among them.
Jesus knows these disciples are feeling very under-qualified. They are not the religious elite. They are not the teachers of the law, the Pharisees, the priests, the prophets, they are not the political leaders of the day. Who I’m sure everyone else would have thought would have been picked for Jesus’ team.
Jesus is saying, “Blessed are you when you are in this state of being poor, of being hungry. You thought it was your mission in life to get out of this state, but I just want you to know that it has become fertile soil for me to help shape you into the likeness of God. These other folks they have already been shaped and formed. They don’t realize their need to get help. Their success has blinded them. They haven’t hit rock bottom yet.”
It would sort of be like Jesus showing up to an AA meeting in a church basement and saying, “Blessed are you who struggle with addictions, depression, anxiety and who have showed up for this meeting to get help. Blessed are you, not because there is something virtuous about poverty, addiction, or depression. But because your condition, when you embrace it becomes the soil in which I am able to form you as a disciple!”
Luke 6:22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.”
Bit of context, this was a crazy mix of disciples Jesus called. Matthew the tax collector was a traitor to Rome and a renegade. There was Simon the Zealot, who was a fanatical nationalist. He was sworn to assassinate every traitor and every Roman he could! You had some aligned with Rome and some against Rome. One who collected money for Rome, the other fought to overcome Rome.
You know people were talking…how could this rag tag group stay together? They will never last. They will kill each other. Their political allegiances are too strong!
And yet, what do we see? The bond of Jesus is stronger than any level of tension that can be created by man or woman.
William Barclay writes, “It is one of the miracles of the power of Christ that Matthew the tax-collector and Simon the Zealot could live at peace in the close company of the apostolic band.”
I want us to be a church where we can worship with people who are very different than us. To be a countercultural witness to our country that is increasingly being divided.
What Jesus is saying is, “If you are misunderstood for who you are hanging out with. With who you are working with across the political aisle, don’t worry, because you are in good company…”
Luke 6:23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
Then he goes into four woes: Woe to you who are rich, well fed, laughing, and well-liked.
Woe does not convey the exact force of what Jesus meant. We hear “woe” today and we hear “curse.” But it’s more of an expression of grief than it is a threat. It’s more like, “How terrible” or “I feel sorry for you.”
I feel sorry because it may seem like a good path now, but there will be trouble ahead. I feel bad that you seem to be blinded to this. It’s like your friend that plays the lotteryall the time thinking this next time he is going to be the winner. You know the odds are stacked against him. You feel bad that he spends so much of his paycheck on it.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. 25 Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
Jesus is breaking up humankind into two groups: poor and rich, humble and proud, responsive and unresponsive. Which probably makes many of us feel uncomfortable – there must be a third way! We specialize in the third way here in this city. Jesus is saying that every listener belongs in one of the two camps. He’s trying to drive home his point.
Jesus is saying some of you are laughing now. Meaning you are boastful and condescending. You are going to mourn later…By the way Jesus loved to laugh and enjoy life. He’s talking about those who laugh in efforts to avoid life’s real challenges. I feel sorry for you.
Those of you who are popular and well liked. It’s nice to be liked. Praise God. But not when you have to compromise your values in the process. Not when you have to give up something important in order to get it. This is what happened to the false prophets before. They valued access to the king and being liked over faithfulness to God’s truth.
Bible scholar Leon Morris writes, “It is a danger when all men speak well of you, for this can scarcely happen apart from some sacrifice of principle.”
As we continue to march through Luke we are going to see that Jesus continues to take the accepted standards of the day and he turns them upside down.
And the challenge we hear today with the beatitudes is: are we going to be happy in the world’s way or in Christ’s way?
Being a disciple of Jesus is more than just nice words, it is a whole new way of life. And as we will see next week the evidence of this upside life gets put on display in how we treat others, especially our enemies.
The invitation today is that Jesus invites you into this upside-down way of living:
1) Jesus invites you to be one of his disciples - no matter your past, no matter how under-qualified you feel. His death has paid the price for you to be invited in with all the credentials you need. He wants to turn your self-defeating thought life and your lifestyle upside-down. He wants you to believe in yourself as much as He believes in you.
2) Jesus invites you into a community centered around him. We are designed to grow as disciples in the context of community. The primary way this happens for us is through what we call a small group. Jesus was in a small group! He had 12 other guys. The disciples only had one group to pick from. You have 40 groups to pick from.
3) Jesus invites you to see others differently - in our church and in our world. Those who you think are cursed, he calls blessed. And it’s the power of Jesus, the draw of Jesus, that is more powerful than the strongest political, racial, or cultural allegiances we may have.
It is him who we are invited to love, serve, and worship.
To listen to the audio version, click here.