Have you noticed that Epiphany is an action-packed season of the Church Year? There were the mysterious Magi who followed the star to Bethlehem to worship Jesus as their Savior, too. (Matthew 2:1-12) The heavens opened, God spoke, and the Spirit descended at Jesus’ baptism. (Luke 3:15-22) Then he miraculously saved a wedding from disaster in Cana (John 2:1-11), escaped murder by his friends and neighbors in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), and filled Peter’s nets with fish. (Luke 5:1-11) With the Epiphany emphasis on Jesus’ power to perform miracles, to satisfy needs, to heal and provide and fix and solve – we might get the wrong impression; that if you follow Jesus all the problems in your life will suddenly disappear, that every problem will be solved and need satisfied, that your life as a disciple will be one of unbroken happiness and joy. Or, even worse, you might conclude that if those things aren’t true for you that either your faith isn’t strong enough or Jesus isn’t really God and doesn’t really love you. And so today, in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus reveals the stark truth about this life and true life; it’s not what you think.
Jesus says that in this life it’s better to have poverty than wealth; hunger than satisfaction; weeping than laughter; persecution than popularity. And, let’s be honest, it sounds like absolute nonsense. It’s like Jesus is describing an alternate universe. Then again, you may have noticed that most of what we say and do here is what the world considers “nonsense.” We stand before living, newborn babies and declare that they are dead in sin. (Psalm 51:5) We stand before the caskets and urns of dead old people and declare that they are only sleeping. (Matthew 9:24) We pour regular tap water into a bowl and call it the fountain of life (Titus 3:5-6), we eat and drink bread and wine and confess it to be the very body and blood of Christ. (Matthew 26:26-27) You believe that your sins are forgiven before God in heaven when a pastor says so here on earth. (Matthew 16:19)
The point is that it’s not really about what you or I or anyone else thinks. It’s about what God says. God says that newborns are dead and dead believers are alive. God says that water and Word give life and bread and wine forgive sins. God says that confessed sinners are justified and self-righteous hypocrites are damned. What God says: that’s the reality – and not what you and I can think, reason, feel, or see. And who are we to argue? When God said let there be (Genesis 1) the universe and everything in it came into being! When God sent his Son to earth to make the lame walk, the dead come alive, and free those possessed by demons – that’s what happened. When God through his servant says that you are forgiven, justified, saved – right here and right now – you are.
Fine, you might say, but that’s not what Jesus is talking about in this Sermon on the Plain. He’s talking about things that hit really close to home: our wealth, our health, our happiness and social status. These things are important to us – not just for one hour on Sunday mornings, but every minute of every day. So just what is Jesus driving at? Consider the context. People had flocked from all over Israel to see Jesus. Why? To hear him and to be healed of their diseases. But Luke makes it clear that not all of these people were disciples, believers. At least some were coming simply to benefit from his divine power, to have their temporary needs satisfied and be sent on their way happy. And Jesus knew that his disciples might get the wrong idea about the Christian life from these miracles. And so he presses pause on the healing and explains how the blessings of this life relate to true life.
The Bible is painfully clear that God didn’t send his only Son into the world to make you or me or anyone else rich, well-fed, happy, or popular. He didn’t come to establish a utopia – a paradise – on earth. Make no mistake – it’s not that he couldn’t have, that he tried and failed. The One who created everything with just his Word, who cast out demons, healed the sick and raised the dead – certainly could have spoken and this earth would have become an instant paradise once again. Jesus could have established another Eden, planted the tree of life in it, put you there – and it wouldn’t have required him to die on a cross. You could’ve lived free of disease, crime, poverty, hunger and sadness and eaten from that tree of life and lived forever. Then why didn’t he do that? For the very same reason that God kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden in the first place.
The only way to understand life now is to remember what happened in the Garden in the beginning. God gave Adam one simple command. You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die. (Genesis 2:17) Adam ate and the death he earned by his disobedience wasn’t just the separation of his body and soul – it was a separation from God. From the moment Adam sunk his teeth into the forbidden fruit he forfeited perfection and lost his perfect relationship with God. And his sin had consequences: the man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever. So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 3:22-23) God kicked Adam and Eve out of the perfect bliss of Eden so that they wouldn’t have to endure the curse of sin, of separation from him forever. The thorns and thistles and pain in child birth and enmity between believers and unbelievers and war between the sexes would remind them that the world wasn’t the problem; they were. In other words, God kicked them out of paradise to lead them to repentance – he did it out of love.
Why doesn’t Jesus just give us everything we think we might want for happiness in this life? Why doesn’t he just snap his fingers and turn this world into paradise once again? Because even if Jesus recreated the paradise on earth we think we want – we would still be under God’s curse – because we have not continued to do everything written in the Law. (Galatians 3:10) He could cause us to live forever. But it would be an awful existence; because we wouldn’t be forgiven, we wouldn’t be justified, we wouldn’t be saved. Worse than the living dead, we would be the living damned. It would be hell on earth. It would be the very life God wanted to spare us from by driving Adam and Eve out of the Garden. And that is why Jesus says that in this life poverty is better than wealth, hunger than satisfaction, weeping than laughter, and persecution than popularity: because that’s the reality of our standing with God. The broken world around us, the consequences of sin that touch our lives are vivid reminders that the world is not the problem, we are. Weeping, begging, hunger for God’s grace and mercy are the only proper response – because only then will we appreciate the real reason Jesus came to earth.
Jesus didn’t come to get rid of poverty and hunger and sadness – no State of the Union promises or Green New Deals for him – he came to get rid of sin, death, and God’s curse. Jesus came to gather up the pieces of the commandments we have broken and put together a perfect life of obedience. He came to take our sin and rebellion upon himself to the extent that when God looked at earth on Good Friday, the only sinner he saw was Jesus. (2 Corinthians 5:21) When he was nailed to a cross and God unleashed all of his wrath over sin, all of his curses meant for sinners on Jesus – then, and only then, was God’s justice satisfied, his wrath quenched, his curse removed. By his perfect life and hellish death, Jesus won true life for you; life in an eternal kingdom, filled with riches beyond imagination, an endless feast hosted by Jesus himself, a place of unbroken joy where God himself calls us his beloved children.
And when the Holy Spirit works on your heart to see, understand, and believe that this is true life, then you will see the reality of this life. Luther describes this awakening so beautifully in The Bondage of the Will: “Scripture represents man as one who is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick, and dead, but in addition to his other miseries is afflicted, through the agency of Satan his prince, with this misery of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, unfettered, able, well, and alive. For Satan knows that if men were aware of their misery, he would not be able to keep a single one of them in his kingdom, because God would at once pity and help them in their misery and cries for help.” 
The Devil either wants to fill you so full of wealth, food, happiness, and popularity now that you don’t see or feel the real misery of your sin or he wants you to see Jesus as nothing more than a cosmic genie who came to give you those things. The devil wants you to believe that you are rich in good works, not to confess your spiritual poverty; to be satisfied in your own goodness, not hunger for God’s righteousness; to laugh at your sin, not weep over it; to value what other people say about you more than what God says about you. But the awful reality is that if we believe that because we are rich, well-fed, happy and popular everything is alright between us and God – then the devil has won, then we are already lost.
Because it’s all a delusion. Popularity and laughter and happiness are mirages that are gone as soon as you have them. We may eat at the best brunch buffet in Madison this morning – but we’ll have to eat again later tonight. Money can’t buy everything – especially the most important things. And, sooner or later, we die and it’s all gone. Most importantly – and this is Jesus’ main point here: our circumstances of life now are not an accurate measure of our standing with God. Only the cross is. We deserved to hang there – because we are all poor, miserable sinners; but Jesus hung there in our place. That’s the truth the devil doesn’t want you to see or confess.
And that’s why Jesus preaches this shocking sermon, wakes us up to the truth and turn the world upside down for us. He lets us in on the secret that what made Eden paradise was not the climate, the food, the happiness, or the fact that men and women got along. What made Eden paradise was the fact that Adam and Eve were perfect and had a perfect relationship with God. That’s what Jesus came to restore. And he has. He kept all the commandments for you – and gives you the credit. He suffered the death your sins deserved – and your record is wiped clean. In Christ, when God looks at you, he’s as pleased with you now as he was when he first created Adam and Eve and called them very good. (Genesis 1:31) Now, if you were all-powerful, if you could give your child anything, would you give them riches, food, happiness, and popularity in a world that is infested with sin and sickness and ends in death? Of course not. If you could give someone you love anything at all – it would be a one-way ticket out of this world to a place where there is no sin, death, or the devil. And that’s exactly what God has given us in Jesus – a one-way ticket out of this life to true life with God. That is, finally, why he came.
In Luther’s day, when plagues and famine and disease and death were every day realities people would say “In the midst of life we are surrounded by death.” That’s what the devil would like you to think. This is THE life. This is as good as it gets. Eat and drink and be as merry as you can now because tomorrow you die and life will be over. Martin Luther turned that saying around. “In the midst of death we are surrounded by life.”  This place – where sin, death and the devil stalk us, hurt us, kill us and our loved ones – this is not true life. True life is with God and he gives us signs of true life even in this world of death. He gave you new life in the life-giving water of Baptism. He restores your life day after day with his forgiveness. He gives you the body and blood of his Son which preserves you to life everlasting. It’s not what we think; it’s even better. Amen.
 LW 33:130
 LW 13:83