And away we go. As we move into the fourth week of our series, the scene changes. Now that Jesus has called his disciples to follow him, and now that your members have begun doing their work of bringing guests to “come and see” who Jesus is, the training period begins. For the next four weeks, we will be hearing Jesus’ first lesson for his followers, known to people familiar with the Bible as the Sermon on the Mount. We will listen in as Jesus instructs his disciples and the growing crowd of people who are coming out to hear him speak and to receive healing. As we listen to his teaching for these first disciples, he will be teaching us too.
When we met as a planning team to study this opening part of Jesus’ sermon called the “Beatitudes,” we were reminded of the current social media phenomenon around #blessed. As I peruse the tag today, I am struck by the sheer volume of sports references associated with this tag:
A night I’ve always dreamed of…tonight is my homecoming playing the Titans. #blessed
5 catches, 136 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns on my senior night. Hard work paid off. #blessed
Blessed to receive an offer from the University of North Carolina! #blessed
Very excited for next year blessed to be a part of the [rugby team] for 2017. #blessed
But it isn’t just sports stars. It’s all kinds of people!
Happiness is finding leftover chipotle in the fridge that you'd forgotten about. #blessed
As long as I was able to encourage/inspire at least one person, then I did what I was suppose to do ❤️ #blessed
Thank you God for all the blessings. Gracias a Dios por todas las bendiciones. #Blessed #Bendecido
Even President Barack Obama uses it on Instagram:
A photo posted by Barack Obama (@barackobama) onOct 31, 2016 at 11:28am PDT
There is one from Upper Room!
Be a blessing each and every day. #blessed
Lots of stars on Twitter are feeling #blessed by their opportunities to be in movies, on television, and in concert. There are families starting vacations and ending them, all feeling #blessed. #blessed appears for babies being born, for the Starbucks drive-through, and for getting an extra McNugget at McDonalds.
Not having been involved personally in this phenomenon, I have to admit I’m a little shocked. One thing is clear though: this is not what Jesus meant when he used the word “Blessed” as the opening word of his teaching ministry.
When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” he isn’t making a statement of cause and effect. He isn’t saying you are blessed with the kingdom of heaven because you are poor in spirit. He isn’t saying you are blessed with comfort because you are in mourning.
What Jesus is doing here is pronouncing a blessing on the people who have gathered as he begins to teach. He is giving a blessing to all the people who have come to hear him. He is blessing them for a purpose. He is blessing them to think differently about the way the world works because of what he is teaching and doing. He is describing how we are to live as God’s people in this world—not simply by calling attention to all the many ways God has #blessed us personally—but by, as Upper Room’s tweet put it so succinctly, “being a blessing for others.”
This was a radically new teaching for the people in Jesus’ day. In the ancient world, just like today, many people believed strongly in cause and effect. They believed that if they were good people who followed God’s commandments, worked hard, and tried to do their best in all circumstances, God would reward them with good health, food to eat, stable jobs, happy families, and prosperity. Likewise, they believed that God punished the sinful with illness, poverty, imprisonment, blindness, divorce, and other personal tragedy. Many believed that God even punished entire sinful populations through war, famine, droughts, and other disasters.
If a man was sick, or mourning, or poor in spirit, or starving, or persecuted, it was his own fault for sinning. A woman who suffered did so as the consequence of her own bad behavior because suffering was understood as punishment for sin.
But Jesus is saying it doesn’t work like that in the kingdom of God. It isn’t that we are wrong to feel #blessed when something goes our way. But when things do not go our way, that doesn’t mean God is punishing us either. God’s kingdom is a whole different playing field.
Jesus blesses everyone who has gathered, no matter who they are and no matter what they have done. God’s blessing in Christ is not just for the righteous ones. God’s blessing is not just for certain religious groups, or certain genders, or certain sexual orientations, or certain cultural or racial groups. God’s blessing is not just for those who are pure, who go to church and give to charities and treat people with kindness. And God’s blessing is not evidenced by a big bank account or a fancy title or a luxury home.
In this new kingdom that Jesus is showing us, God blesses the saints and sinners alike. Jesus offers a blessing on the poor in wallet and the poor in spirit. He blesses the blind, the lame, the imprisoned, the outcast. He blesses the leper and the prostitute. He blesses the murderer and the thief and the adulterer. He blesses the Jews and the Christians, the Muslims and the Hindus, the Buddhists and the Ba’hai. He blesses the Democrats and the Republicans and the Independents alike. In Christ, God’s blessing does not discriminate. God’s blessing is for all. God’s blessing is for you. God’s blessing is for me.
That’s good news, don’t you think? It means that no matter who you are or what you have done, you are blessed and you are welcomed into God’s family, and there is nothing you can do, ever, to lose God’s love, affirmation, and blessing.
#blessed is our identity
#blessed is our condition
#blessed is who we are because of God’s saving love shown in Jesus Christ
So in this first teaching for his followers, his disciples, in his first teaching for you and for me, Jesus is telling us as clearly as he can that these people—”look around you,” he says to his disciples—these people in the crowd that gathered that day near the shores of the Galilean lake—these people who live down the street and let their kids run wild, these people who don’t work and are collecting welfare, these people who are in jail for dealing drugs, these people who got pregnant out of wedlock and now want an abortion, these people who are members of a gang, these people who are members of a white supremacist group, these people who are chanting #blacklivesmatter, these people who sit in judgment, these people who pray to Allah, these people who carry guns into Walmart, these people who are crazy feminists, these people who are pro-life, these people who are pro-choice. . .well, you get the idea. Jesus his telling his disciples that ALL THESE PEOPLE are #blessed.
And we who call ourselves disciples, followers of Jesus Christ, need to not just understand this, but we need to live it out by our words and our actions. We are #blessed in order that we may be a blessing to others says the tweet from Upper Room. Right on.
Well. There is really no other way to say it. This is a tough opening line for these folks, and for us, whether we are already disciples or we are here at the invitation of someone from this church to “come and see” for ourselves who this man Jesus is and what he has to say.
So do you hear him? Can you hear him speaking to you? Can you hear him saying, “YOU ARE BLESSED”?
Consider ending your sermon by walking through the sanctuary and offering a blessing to the people in your congregation. You can’t get to everyone, but make eye contact and make your way all the way to the back rows.
Blessed are YOU. Blessed are YOU. Blessed are YOU.
An alternative suggestion is to invite members of the gathered worshiping community to turn to the people around them and offer their neighbors a blessing.