This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached on Sunday, the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. Many apologies for the lateness of this post — it’s been a busy week. The gospel reading was Matthew 5:1-10, the “Beatitudes.”
Today’s gospel is about being blessed. It’s about blessings. And we know that we have been blessed. We count our blessings from time to time. That’s what Thanksgiving is about. And many of us practice that throughout the year as well. Nurturing a spirit of gratitude, of thankfulness, can change us. Make us calmer, happier, more at peace. Help us to see even more clearly the blessings God has given us.
If I asked you to list your blessings now, I bet I can guess a lot of the answers. We’d probably list health. And friends. And our church home. And family. Those are blessings we are thankful for. The good things in our lives.
That’s how we usually think of blessings. But that doesn’t seem to be what Jesus is talking about here.
Jesus doesn’t say, “blessed are those who have a loving family” or “blessed are those who have good health.”
Jesus lists nine types of people who are blessed. I want to look closely at three of them.
First, Jesus says this:
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Now, I know, it’s hard to really hear what that says. Many of us are so used to these words. They were embroidered on a pillow at our grandmother’s house. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” is one of those phrases that just sounds holy, like “Our Father who art in heaven” or “The Lord is my shepherd.” But let’s try to really look at the words here: “Blessed are the poor – in – spirit.” Blessed are the people whose spirit is poor. The people whose spirit is not strong, not full, not faithful. Those who struggle with their faith, those whose faith is weak, whose faith has been shattered. Those who aren’t good at trusting God. Jesus is saying here: Blessed are those who are spiritual screwups. And that might sound odd. People like that don’t sound blessed, they sound like we should feel sorry for them and help them. It might sound more accurate to say, “The poor in spirit are worthy of your pity.”
Then Jesus says:
Blessed are those who mourn.
Again, wouldn’t it make more sense to say, “Those who mourn are worthy of your pity?” But no, Jesus says blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the ones who are grieving, those who have lost someone or something dear to them. Blessed are the ones who mourn for their country. Who mourn for their health. Blessed are the people who have lost everything.
And the third one I want to look at is this. Jesus says:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Righteousness means rightness and decency. It means justice and integrity. So blessed are those who hunger and thirst for decency. Those who hunger and thirst for justice. Those who just want to see people doing the right thing. Blessed are those who look around and don’t see that anywhere. Blessed are those who just want to see goodness, those who crave it, hungering and thirsting for it.
So, let’s get this straight.
Blessed are the spiritual screwups.
Blessed are those who have lost everything.
Blessed are the ones who see only suffering around them.
Blessed are the empty.
When I am in the midst of a deep depression, it feels like there is an emptiness, something missing, something raw and absent. Empty. Open. Raw. Perhaps you know that feeling. These are the ones Jesus says are blessed – the empty. The ones at the end of their rope. The ones who have nothing left to rely on. People in twelve-step programs might say, blessed are those who have hit rock bottom.
These are those who are blessed, says Jesus. But how?
There were two brothers, Timmy and Billy, ages 3 and 5. Timmy ran into the kitchen, carrying his cup and says, “Mommy, Mommy! Can I have more water?” His mother said, “Of course!” She took his cup, filled it at the sink, and returned it to him. “Thank you, Mommy.” He ran off. Then Billy ran into the kitchen, carrying his cup and said, “Mommy, Mommy! Can I have more water?” His mother looked at him, and at his cup, and said, “No Billy, you can’t.” Billy didn’t understand, and he started to whimper. “But you gave Timmy more water! Why not me?” His mother gently directed his gaze to the cup, and said, “Billy, your cup is still full. You don’t need any more water. If it were empty, of course I would fill it! But how can I fill it when it’s already full?”
Of course God promises blessings on those who are empty. Because they’re the ones who need it. That’s the good news of God’s kingdom. That’s what God does. Sometimes we trick ourselves into believing that the good news is that if you’re good, if you follow the commandments, if you go to church, if you believe the right things, and so forth, if, if, if, then God will give you good things. No.
That’s not grace. And grace is how God works. God doesn’t reward us for good behavior. God fills us up when we’re empty. You know that old saying, “God helps those who help themselves?” Do you know where that’s found in the Bible? Nowhere. In fact, it’s actually an ancient Latin proverb that refers to the Roman gods, Jupiter and Mars and so forth. The saying was, “The gods help those who help themselves.” The Romans worshiped many gods, and their gods were fickle and sometimes cruel. I’m not sure how that saying worked its way into Christianity, but it has nothing to do with the God we see revealed in scripture, nothing to do with the God who revealed himself in the flesh in the form of Jesus. Scripture tells us, and Jesus shows us, that God helps those…who need God’s help. God helps those who need God’s help. The empty. The worried. The persecuted. The beaten down. The weak.
The blessings we usually think of, health, friends, family, and so forth, these are very good things. But even better are the blessings God promises here.
Blessed are you when you are empty, Jesus says…
…for you will receive.
Blessed are you for you will be filled.
You will be comforted.
You will receive mercy.
You will inherit the earth.
Yours is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you.
This is the good news. And it is good news for everyone. Tell this news. Tell those you know who need to hear it: God loves you. And God promises to fill you, comfort you, bless you. Blessed are you, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.