[Jesus] came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God . “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
If this is what it takes to be blessed by God – for you to have to be poor, to have to be hungry, to have to weep, to have to be hated or excluded or reviled or defamed – if that is what it takes to be blessed by God, some of us would probably be willing to pass on the opportunity to be blessed. I would suspect that a good many of us here know something about weeping, or being hated, or being excluded, and although they may be experiences in life to be endured, they surely are not things to seek out. But that actually would not be an accurate interpretation of what Jesus is saying in this gospel passage. What we hear on Jesus’ lips is neither a de scription nor a pre scription. This is not a prescription: that you have to get yourself defamed to be blessed by God. No. Nor is it a description: that when you are being hated or reviled, it’s not so bad after all. Actually it’s a blessing. No, that’s not it either. We have to hear these words of Jesus as a prediction or as a promise: that out of the worst dregs of life – these most terrible experiences that we would never choose but sometimes cannot avoid – that in the bleakest days of our lives, God is really present. These are words of assurance from Jesus that in the best of times and in the worst of times, God is with us, and God is intent on blessing us.
A blessing from God is the assurance of wellbeing, a promise of provision, our sense of being “the apple of God’s eye,” of having a place in God’s heart. In the scriptures, this sense of blessing is pervasive. In the Old Testament, the main word for blessing is barak , which has a curious history and etymology. The origins of this notion of blessing lie far back in the primitive religions of the Middle East . This sense of blessing that comes from antiquity is connected with the fertility of animals and crops and human beings. A sign of blessing is that there is more: more in substance or more in goodness. Prosperity, in every form, becomes the sign of God’s blessing in the Old Testament. But in the New Testament, in the light and life of Jesus, this changes. Now it is adversity that becomes the touchstone for blessing (which is the context to hear Jesus’ words in today’s gospel). Blessing amidst adversity. And surely this has something to do with the cross of Christ. For those who us who are followers of Jesus, we cannot get out from under the cross. The cross is always before us. The cross is the paradox for Christians. Paradox from the Greek word para-doxa . Doxa , which means glory (from which we get our word “doxology”) and para , which means “other.” Paradox: God’s glory, God’s blessing being revealed in ways other than we would have imagined or chosen. Jesus promises to give us life, abundant life, and the context in which he speaks presumes the inevitability of the cross, which he shares with us – doesn’t spare us but shares with us. We hear Jesus saying a bit later in Luke’s gospel, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” [i] Our theology hangs on the cross. And we either pick it up, or stumble over it, because it most certainly is there for those of us who choose to follow Jesus. The paradox of the cross.
And so, back to blessing. In today’s gospel lesson, we hear of Jesus’ promise that God’s favor, God’s care, God’s provision, God’s love can be known in the best of times and in the worst of times… which you can probably best understand if you’ve been there. If you have been to brink of life, if you, in your own words, have cried out to God like Jesus did from the cross, “Why O why have you forsaken me?” and then miraculously lived to tell the story, then you probably know something about mystery of blessing that can come the greatest of adversities. That what was undeniably and perhaps unexplainably bad has in some miraculous way been redeemed as a channel of God’s light and life and love. And that is the paradox of God’s blessing, where you can neither deny the bad – when you’ve been weeping or hungry or in some other way tormented – nor can you deny the blessed good, that somehow the one has preceded, maybe even prepared the way for the other.
There is another curious quality about this promise and provision of blessing. We are given power to bless. And it starts with God: God’s blessing us. And it ends with God: our blessing God. Which is why we began the liturgy here this morning as we did: our grateful response to God for the gift of life. We began our liturgy by blessing God: “Blessed be God, and blessed be God’s kingdom.” And we will end the liturgy once more by blessing God: “Let us bless the Lord !” For us to bless God is to praise God for who God is and for what God does. Blessing God is an acknowledgment of God’s being, of God’s creation, of God’s presence among us. It is a grateful recognition that all that we are and all that we have is gift , not a given. And so we bless God for it. And in blessing God we are telling God that we take none of it for granted: our life, our labor, our loves are all gifts , gifts of God. It is letting God know that we know that God is the beginning of life and the end of life and the way into all life. Blessed be God. I = m not really sure what God “gets out of it,” if you’ll pardon my slang. I’m not sure what God gets out of being blessed. But is seems that God enjoys being praised at least as much as we do. There is one ancient strain of belief that God is in some way empowered or energized by our blessing, by our praise and thanksgiving. Maybe you can understand that, quite personally. Do you know, from your own experience, how your being praised and thanked and your feeling empowered all seem to go hand-in-hand. Just as we are “empowered” by being praised and thanked – by being blessed – it must also be so for God , because we have been created in the image of God. Our praise and thanks to God – our blessing God – makes a difference to God. It seems that God enjoys being praised and thanked at least as much as we do, we who have been created in the image of God. The Psalmist writes, “Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever,” [ii] which must thrill God to no end.
This sense of blessing is to participate the circle of life: that God is intent on giving blessing to us in seasons of both sorrow and gladness, and we receive this blessing and reflect like a mirror, back to God and all that God has created. In this way, life is like an icon: we look on God through the same eye that God looks on us… Which is to say that the God who is blessed is the God who blesses. We hear in the Psalms, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.” [iii] And in response, we pray with the psalmist, “Bless the Lord , O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.” [iv] “Bless the Lord , O my soul; O Lord my God, how excellent is your greatness! You are clothed with majesty and splendor.” [v] The theologian Martin Israel writes of the great mystical saying that there is nothing in this world that is unholy; there is only that which has not yet been blessed. This is not merely a Christian insight but an earlier Jewish insight which Jesus himself inherited and transformed. [vi]
I wonder if you can receive these words: that you are a blessing to God, and that God has intent on your being a channel of blessing, the blessing of God’s light and life and love to all that surrounds you. Can you receive that: that you are a blessing? If you stumble over those words, if you find yourself responding with argument or qualification – “How can I be a blessing?” – because your life is a bit tattered, or because you are so undisciplined, or because there are some shadows in your own life, God is bigger than all that. God has created you as a gift to God’s own self, and God is intent on your being a channel of God’s blessing. It’s of your essence. This is what you’ve been created to be: a blessing to God and a blessing of God.
For many years I’ve had occasion to visit a small pond just south of here. The pond is fed by a freshwater spring, except when some well-intending beavers take up residence, and then the flow stops. At other times the outflow of the pond is occasionally blocked, presumably by relatives of those other well-intending beavers. And I’ve seen this pond crystal clear and I’ve seen it bracken. If the mouth of the spring is blocked, the pond goes bracken. That may be obvious. But even if the mouth of the spring is wide open, if the outflow of the pond is blocked, the pond will become bracken because it simply cannot receive more fresh water. This scene from the pond comes to mind with regards to our being a channel of God’s blessing. If your sense of God’s blessing you eludes you just now, it may not have to do source of blessing or the actual presence of blessing in your life, even now. It may have to do with the outflow in your life. If it’s in any way clogged or restricted, let it flow. Open it up. Don’t be tentative or reluctant or apologetic about your being created to channel God’s blessing. You are intended to be a blessing to God and to all that God has created. It’s of your essence. As my father would say, “Let the clutch out!” Be very generous with the light that teams from your eyes; be very generous with your words and actions to be this flow of God’s blessing to God and to others… and that outflow may open up your own experience of the inflow of God’s blessing you. Let it all flow amidst the happiest and sorriest of conditions you witness.
I close with a Celtic prayer of blessing, written anonymously by a devoted child for their mother named “Josie”:
On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble
may the clay dance to balance you.
And when your eyes
freeze behind the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green
and azure blue
come to waken in you
a meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life. [vii]
[i] Luke 9:23-24.
[ii] Psalm. 145:2.
[iii] Psalm 67:1.
[iv] Psalm 103:1.
[v] Psalm 104:1. See also, for example, Psalms 5:12; 16: 7; 28:9; 34:1; 63:4; 67:1; 84:5,6; 100:4; 103:1, 21, 22; 134:3; 145:1,2.
[vi] From Martin Israel’s writings in Summons to Life .
[vii] “ Beannacht (Blessing) for Josie, My Mother,” from ANAM CARA: A Book Of Celtic Wisdom by John O’donohue.
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