“Called To Be Blessed” 

Scripture:  Matthew 5:1-12

Jesus: Not A Seminarian

It is obvious to me that Jesus didn’t go to seminary.  His sermon doesn’t follow any expected form or style.  He doesn’t kick his sermon off with a joke, or a story, or an example from contemporary culture.  He doesn’t build up our expectation, holding off on giving us the main point of his sermon – that one little challenging tidbit that will make us think and reflect as we chew it over in the coming days.  Nope.  From the standpoint of the textbook from my Preaching course in seminary, “The Greatest Sermon Ever Preached” really isn’t all that… great.

It’s a tough sermon.  And it’s tough from the very get-go.  Like I said, he doesn’t start with anything flowery.  Instead, he kicks it off with the passage we heard a few moments ago – the section of the Sermon known as “The Beatitudes,” or to translate from Latin into English, “The Blessings.”  In this section of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares people in many situations to be “blessed,” most of which seem at first glance (and, honestly, every subsequent glance, as well) to be exactly the opposite of blessed circumstances.

Let’s face it – if this sermon were given by anybody else, we probably wouldn’t have made it past the first two beatitudes – “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “blessed are those who mourn.”  But since it was Jesus who spoke these words, we should probably try to figure out what it is that he was getting at.

God’s Blessing

It is apparent that when Jesus speaks about blessedness, he has something in mind that is very different from the contemporary American understanding of God’s blessing.  We often declare ourselves and others to be blessed when we are materially successful, or fortunate, or even just plain lucky.  We preach a different set of beatitudes:

  • Blessed are those who are able to provide a brand new car for their children on their 16th birthday.
  • Blessed are those who are surrounded by a multitude of friends and family.
  • Blessed are those who are able to park in the parking spot closest to the door at the grocery store.
  • And, my personal favorite that I heard from another preacher:  Blessed are those in good enough health to play golf, for they shall wear silly pants.

 Perhaps even more often, we lament the ways in which God hasn’t bestowed upon us those so-called “blessings” of American society.  We say, “Well, I wasn’t blessed with [blank].”  And then we insert our favorite thing that we wish we had – wealth, height, a good singing voice, public speaking skills, and on and on and on.  How often have you, yourself, used a phrase that began with, “I wasn’t blessed with”?  Unfortunately, I know that I am guilty of passing off my perceived shortcomings – the ones that are, of course, no fault of my own – to the lack of God’s blessings.

But Jesus turns all of this on its head.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness?  Those sound more like curses than blessings.  Those are people who are usually pitied, who are pushed aside, and who are cast away.  These sound like the kind of people who might make statements like, “I wasn’t blessed with wealth,” or health, or confidence.  But these are precisely the people who Jesus proclaims as blessed.

The Meaning of “Blessed”

Our first major bump in understanding Jesus’ meaning is to understand what Jesus means by “blessed.”

Some translations translate the Greek word makarios as “happy” or “fortunate.”  I imagine that most of you have heard this passage at least a time or two in your lives, and you have probably heard it translated as “Happy are those…” rather than “Blessed are those…”  But “happy” has different connotations in our understanding.

Instead, the blessedness that Jesus refers to is the blessing of God’s favor or approval. 

The best rendering of the term “blessed” that I can think of comes from the novel, “The Shack” by William Paul Young.  Throughout the book, God (also known as Papa) tells the main character, Mack, that He is “especially fond” of various people.  To be blessed means that you have received God’s special fondness and affection.

You Are Blessed

Now…  How do we get ourselves included on the list of people who receive God’s blessing?  This is bump #2.

It is tempting to view the Beatitudes as a call to action.  In my experience, that is how this passage is usually presented – that Jesus’ words call us to seek to enter into these various situations that Jesus calls “blessed.”  Preachers far and wide have invited their congregations to examine their hearts, to explore ways in which they might seek opportunities to become poorer in spirit, mourn more, to become meek, and so forth – to do all these things in order that God might bless them more.

To be honest, I have always had a bit of an aversion to the Beatitudes for exactly that reason.  If my goal is to earn the blessing of God, I certainly have my work cut out for me!  When I hear, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” I immediately wonder, “Am I poor enough in spirit right now?  I should probably try to be more poor.”  And when Jesus declares blessings on the peacemakers, I can admit – sure, I really should continue to strive to be more committed to peace.  But then we get to “blessed are those who mourn,” and this interpretation gets especially uncomfortable.  To be perfectly honest, I don’t really want to mourn, and hearing that mourners are blessed doesn’t make me eager to take on additional mourning.  The same goes for being persecuted.

But there is another – and I believe more scripturally accurate – way to read this passage.  You see, the Beatitudes are much more than a set of moral imperatives or mottos for us to live our lives by.[1]  Jesus isn’t giving any ultimatums or saying “Do this or else you won’t be blessed,” rather, he is simply offering God’s blessings upon the community of believers, a community that included members of oppressed and marginalized groups.  He isn’t saying that you must do these particular things in order to become blessed, but that people who find themselves in these situations are blessed.  Jesus declares that God’s love and grace are actively poured out – right here and right now – on each and every one of us.  Even, and especially, on those who have been rejected by society.

It’s not about what could be or what should be.  These words of Jesus are radical precisely because they are not commands, or exhortations, or requirements for receiving the attention and blessings of God.  They are, instead, a statement of the world that has already been turned upside down, where those who mourn are comforted rather than abandoned or merely pitied; where those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are satisfied, not ignored or shuffled off the streets; where the meek inherit the earth rather than being ground into the dust.  The statement of blessedness is a proclamation about a present reality – that we are called to live into God’s kingdom here on earth.  In the famous words of the late Walter Cronkite, “And that’s the way it is.” 

At the same time, this blessing is also a promise that God makes to us about our place in the coming realm of God’s Kingdom, when Christ returns and the fullness of the Kingdom comes.  “And that’s the way it will be.”

Remember, You Are Blessed

I think that part of our collective struggle with understanding God’s amazing grace and blessing is that it is much easier to accept blessing when we feel like we have done something to earn it.  And I also think that is exactly why Jesus declared blessings upon those who feel the least blessed.  I imagine that the original audience of this sermon, hearing that they have been blessed by God, were reluctant to receive the blessing.  Rather than respond with joy, saying, “Thanks be to God!” I think it is more likely that they said, “Who, me?”  Or maybe they even laughed it off a little bit.  “Are you serious?”

Isn’t that what we do today when we encounter the Beatitudes?  Don’t you feel more comfortable with this passage as a call to some higher moral ideal than with it being a declaration of God’s blessing upon you, here and now?  I wonder why that is.

Maybe the problem is that we have a hard time believing God would have any desire to bless us in the first place. It may be that our picture of God is distorted, that we can only imagine God as a stern, demanding ruler, and so it seems out of character for God to bless us so extravagantly.  While this isn’t the primary image of God taught in the Bible, maybe it is one that we picked up along the way and have a hard time letting go of.

On the other hand, maybe it's not that we don't know God well enough to recognize God's grace, maybe the real problem is that we know ourselves too well to feel worthy of it.  After all, we are intimately familiar with our faults and limitations, our insecurities and our failures. And knowing ourselves this well – and knowing that God knows us even better – we find it hard to believe that God could possibly love us unconditionally.  Very little, if anything, in our world is free and unconditional. We're used to paying for our mistakes, paving our own way, toeing the line and reaping the consequences when we don't.  So it may not only be unexpected, but downright unsettling and nearly inconceivable to imagine that God behaves differently, blessing us apart from what we have done, earned, or deserve.[2]

Will You Believe It?

Earlier, I mentioned the book “The Shack.”  There is one great conversation that happens between Mack and God.  It results in Mack asking God, “Are there any people who you are not especially fond of?”  God responds, “Nope, I haven’t been able to find any.  Guess that’s just the way I am.”

So…  Will you believe it?  Will you listen to the words of Jesus this morning and hear them as a proclamation that you – yes, YOU! – have no been called to become blessed, but called to be blessed.  No matter where you find yourself this morning, no matter how you feel, no matter how undeserving you may feel that you are…  You are blessed.  God is especially fond of you.

Here’s what I want you to do:  Turn to your neighbor.  Now, look your neighbor in the eye, and say these words:  You are a blessed child of God!

[1] Adapted from Elizabeth Shively, “January 30, 2011: Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12,” accessed at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=863

[2] Paraphrased from David Lose, “God Bless You,” accessed at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1542