The Church assigns today’s text to the season of Epiphany. The theological significance of Epiphany harkens back to the Magi - the first Gentiles to recognize Jesus as King (or Lord). Epiphany “reveals” to us that Jesus’ salvation is universal in scope: his salvation is for every tongue, every nation, every tribe, every race, every gender, every person. Epiphany is a season of focus on the Missio Dei and this includes specifically a call to the reconciling work of the gospel, healing the divisions wrought by human sinfulness.
Theology Behind the Text
Luke is universal in his scope of salvation, as we see in his Gospel and Acts. Jesus comes to bring liberation for Israel but also for all people. Salvation is more than a spiritual “get out of Hell” card (though that is included as a logical consequence). Luke’s salvation-liberation includes peace, healing, conversion, restoration, justice, and behavior change. For Luke, Jesus is Savior. Jesus is Lord. His gospel begins that story and the Church in the power of the Spirit extend this salvation “in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). God will restore Israel. God will put the world to rights. In the meantime, the Church has a job to do, a part to play - and obedience means putting this into practice. Though writing with an eye toward the Gentiles, Luke’s sense of salvation is very Jewish with concrete expectations of “doing good.” The way to life for Jews was to keep the commandments. The way to life for Christians acknowledging Jesus is Lord and doing what he did. The Way (salvation, liberation) of Jesus is revealed in his teachings and his life. Luke understands the cross as human rejection of the Jesus Way and he posits the Resurrection as God’s vindication of the Jesus Way. Today’s text fits within Luke’s concept of salvation as liberation with a heavy emphasis on obedience to the Way of Jesus, who is Lord of all. Disobedience has dire consequences.
The Text in Context
Luke 6.39-49 is the conclusion to the “Sermon on the Plain.” While not as long or as spiritualized as in Matthew, Luke’s version of the sermon carries prophetic significance. While it may seem like a hodgepodge of analogies from Luke, the fact that these are grouped together at the end of the sermon is key to their interpretation as one pericope for preaching. There are four short sayings here and each is a kind of “wisdom” saying. The analogies themselves are straightforward and easy to understand:
• VV. 39-40 - On good & bad teachers (be careful who you follow)
• VV. 41-42 - On good & bad judgement (be careful to recognize your own faults first)
• VV. 43-45 - On good & bad hearts (be careful to develop your inward character)
• VV. 48-49 - On good & bad foundations (be careful to protect yourself from trial by acting on Jesus’ words)
Notice that VV. 46-47 are not an analogy. If Luke had our modern sensibilities, these two verses would precede all four of our comparison analogies. These two verses reveal the theme for Luke’s conclusion to the sermon on the mount. Jesus asks the question: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? I will show you want someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. If these words bring to mind the judgment scene of Matthew 25.31-46, it’s because the concern of Matthew there and Luke in the Sermon on the Plain are closely related. In Matthew, judgment comes to those who call Jesus “Lord” but do not minister to the hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger/alien, or imprisoned. Luke’s Sermon on the Plain proclaims blessing on the poor and woe to the rich; speaks in a practical way of what it means to love enemies with instruction such as ‘lending to others without expecting anything in return,’ and concludes with ‘be merciful as your father in heaven is merciful’ (whereas Matthew uses the phrase ‘be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect’). The central confession of New Testament Christianity is “Jesus Christ is Lord.” That confession means far more than accepting Jesus as our personal savior. The confession of Jesus Christ as Lord makes an all-encompassing claim on our lives. Calling Jesus Lord means that the one who calls Jesus Lord behaves as jesus does. Being a part of the crowd who followed him around and listened to his teaching is not enough. Only by acting out Jesus’ teaching here in the Sermon on the Plain (and the rest of his earthly life) will we find life. Obeying Jesus’ words means we have to make major changes in our habits, behaviors, attitudes, spending, and earthly allegiances. Confession without obedience is exuberance but not discipleship.
Preaching the Text
The text can be preached in a variety of faithful ways - and its the readers who know their own local contexts the best. Generally speaking, this is a good text for preaching holiness - if what we mean by holiness is Christlikeness and has social implications. Jesus Christ is Lord and that means no other person, thing, political party, or philosophy of life can be lord. Here are some suggested pathways for preaching this text based on some popular.
• The bad news here isn’t just that “sinners” reject Jesus, but that many who claim to follow him don’t put into practice his explicit teachings - because their allegiances are to other “lords” like money, politics, family, et al. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus is Lord and every act of obedience is a step closer to becoming like him and that its Jesus our Lord, reigning within us that makes this obedience possible. There is a lot of either/or within the analogies of the text. The comparison in the text lends itself to comparison in the sermon.
• Modern people - like the ancient philosophers & religious teachers - liked to talk about wisdom, character, and integrity. Note that there is nothing explicitly Christian about these sayings until Jesus speaks in first person. The surprise in the text is found with the question of Jesus. Christian wisdom, character, and integrity come from an encounter with the mercy of God in Jesus Christ. The preacher could collect a lot of “bumper sticker” wisdom and works righteousness that leads ultimately to futility outside of confessing Jesus Christ is Lord. The key here is to hold off revealing the surprise until at least 2/3 to 3/4 of the way through the sermon.
• The refrain of the hymn The Solid Rock. “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand” or something similar or familiar could be used throughout the sermon. This type of refrain is embedded in our popular theology and people think they agree with it. But do they? The preacher could begin by agreeing with the congregation on the ways we do believe it and through repeating the refrain throughout pushing the limits with the all-encompassing and challenging call of the text. Do we believe Jesus is the solid rock that we build our lives on? What about the American Dream? What about our “freedoms?” What about other people who appear to threaten our “security” like Syrian refugees?
• The structure of the pericope works well especially for preachers who like to preach sermons with points. Jesus is Lord. Christians say this, but what does it mean practically in our lives? These verses contain wisdom according to Jesus. The preacher might ask: What does it mean to live as if Jesus is Lord? or How can we put Jesus’ life & teachings into practice? Step One: Be careful who you follow. Step Two…(see above for the rest of the ‘be careful’ statements). The key here is not a new list works righteousness, but a revealing (Epiphany!) of what it means to confess Jesus Christ is Lord.