Thursday, 14 February 2019

On Being Blessed - a sermon for next Sunday.

(Luke 6.17-26)

The word “bless” is one we use a fair bit. “Bless you!” we say when someone sneezes. “Ah, bless!” we might say if we see something or someone cute, maybe if we see a little toddler taking his or her first steps. “Well, bless me!” we may say as a slightly old-fashioned expression of surprise. But what does it actually mean to be “blessed”?

In our Gospel reading this morning we heard Luke’s version of what in Matthew we call the Sermon on the Mount. The version in Luke’s Gospel is sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain. We could discuss whether we have two accounts of the same event, or whether Jesus spoke on two occasions in similar vein. But in both accounts Jesus talks about the people who are blessed by God. In the version in Luke we heard today Jesus also mentions the people who are not blessed by God, and we’ll come to that later. But first, let’s think about what it means to be blessed.

The Greek word in the beatitudes that’s translated in English as blessed is Makarios. You may well recognise that word, if only because of Archbishop Makarios and Cypriot independence. His name meant “blessed”, even if our government didn’t think so at the time. Some modern translations translate makarios as “happy”, and that’s a reasonable translation of the Greek word, but I don’t think it goes far enough in this setting. Jesus is surely speaking about more than mere happiness - something about receiving God’s favour, being brought into his presence, knowing that we are accepted and have our place with him.

Mary, when in the Magnificat she says “all generations will call me blessed” uses the verb makarizo, which derives from makarios: all generations will recognize God’s presence with her, his choice of her, because of the child she bears. And God’s choice of her is because of the choice she has made. Mary said yes to what the angel asked of her. So we’re blessed when God recognises and affirms the godward choice we’ve made.

In our Gospel, those who are blessed have all made a choice for God; they’ve sacrificed material things or worldly status or happiness in order to serve him. That’s one reason why I’d want to say that makarios needs to mean more than just happy. We can be happy, for a while at least, with what we own or with our status or popularity. But those who are blessed have given up that kind of transient happiness for something more.

Or at any rate it’s not what they seek or value most, and mere happiness won’t replace the way of God and the worship of God in their lives. We can be happy whether or not we believe in God, and I guess most of us are, a lot of the time. But being blessed isn’t the same as being happy. Jesus never promised his disciples they’d be happy all the time. In fact he told them they’d need to take up their cross in order to follow him. But he did promise they’d be blessed by his Father.

Here’s what Paul writes in chapter 1 verse 3 of the Letter to the Ephesians: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places.’ That suggests that being blessed means we’re in some way participating in the divine nature. Elsewhere, Paul writes (Galatians chapter 3 verse 26): ‘in Christ Jesus you are all children of God, through faith.’ Jesus on Easter morning (John chapter 20 verse 17) sends Mary of Magdala to tell the disciples that he is ascending to ‘my Father and your Father.’ We’re blessed as brothers and sisters of Christ, our blessing makes us children of God. Whatever the world may throw at us, we can be sure of his accepting and redeeming love.

The quote from Ephesians used a different Greek word - not makarios, but eulogeo. Eulogeo is I think used more in scripture than makarios, in fact. Both words translate as the English word “blessed”, but there are different shades to their meaning. The tribute at a funeral service is sometimes called a eulogy, and this is the Greek word that eulogy comes from.

Of course, you don’t actually have to have died in order for someone to give a eulogy - a eulogy is in fact any speech of praise; and I might just mention that it’s a shame if we wait till they’re gone before we start praising people. It’s good that people know when they’re doing well; it’s good that people know when they are appreciated by others. Being British, we tend not to be too demonstrative; but sometimes we’re better at picking up on mistakes or sending letters of complaint than we are at praising or commending. Yet most of the time we’re treated well and there’s more good stuff than bad stuff in the world around us.

Anyway, to get back to my theme, eulogeo means blessed in the sense of being well spoken of, being recognised and affirmed by others. Another word for that might be worthy, like in the prayer that says: Lord, you are worthy to receive our praise and thanksgiving. And we know that our sin makes us unworthy, but we are made worthy by God’s grace and blessing.

Most services close with a benediction or blessing, and in many of our prayers we ask God to bless us. When we say “Bless me Lord” we’re asking God to speak well of us. If that sounds like a prayer for special treatment, look again at our Gospel reading. The people listed as blessed have all set aside earthly things and placed themselves in God’s hands. When we ask God’s blessing, that’s a purposeful thing: we’re only really ask God’s blessing when at the same time we’re offering ourselves to him. And his blessing is granted in our doing of his will, in our being light and hope and mercy for others, in our being channels in his name of love and peace.

After all, when God speaks his words are words of creation. Think of Genesis chapter 1: when God speaks, things come into being, creation happens, the world is made. To say “Bless me Lord,” is to ask for his word of re-creation in our lives, and for him to breathe his good purposes into us.

Matthew chapter 5 and Luke chapter 6 both list those who are blessed. But only Luke lists those who are not. Alas for you who are rich, he says. Alas for you who laugh. Now Jesus isn’t in fact condemning riches and happiness so much as short termism and short sightedness. It’s the people who don’t see beyond those transitory things who’ve put themselves outside God’s blessing. For God’s deep desire is to bless every single one of us. It was his word of blessing that brought all things into being. We push his blessing aside when we put our faith in transitory things, in the stuff that rots and rusts and gets moth eaten, and doesn’t pass the test of time.

To have those things may look good and feel good for a while, but in the end it’s a waste of our lives. I suppose the ultimate question at the heart of it all is: “Are we made for just this, the however many moments of our earthly lives, or are we made for more than this? Do we have the seeds of eternity within us?” You see, I think the people who are blessed are those who discern within themselves the seeds of eternity. They discover how God enriches us in blessing with a depth of joy - makarios - and speaks his affirming word into our hearts - eulogeo. To be blessed doesn’t mean we’re perfect, or that we get everything we want; it doesn’t mean we’re free of pain, or the life doesn’t continue to have it’s worries and troubles and struggles. Life goes on with all its messiness and uncertainty, but we are seeing beyond that. God’s blessing upon us requires that we first turn to him; but that blessing upon and within us makes us already citizens of heaven.

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