Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – February 17, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
For those of you who don’t use social media, I should probably begin by explaining what a hashtag is. When you use what used to be called a numbers sign, that tic-tac-toe figure on your keyboard, next to a word in a social media post, it is tagged with that term. This means that, if it is a public post, anyone can search that term and find all the posts associated with it. One of the most popular hashtags is the word “blessed.”
I know that social media has all kinds of problems and is probably destroying our society, but it is also kind of fun, and I thought, in light of our gospel reading for today, it would be interesting to see what social media users around the world today think about what it means to be blessed. So, I looked up the most recent posts with the hashtag “blessed.” I’m going to show you some of what I found on the screen. These are all public posts. [Corresponding pictures are shown on the screen.] It was the day after Valentine’s Day, so I had to wade through about one thousand pictures of flowers. Many people felt blessed by their romantic relationships this past week! It was a popular time to get engaged, and also, apparently, married, as there were a lot of wedding and anniversary pictures. Apparently, February is also a time when high school athletes sign with colleges, because there were lots of posts about that. There were lots of touching pictures celebrating the blessings of family. There was a post celebrating a mother’s victory over breast cancer. There were posts announcing pregnancies and new babies. Someone posted this about her new “baby,” a new car. One person felt blessed to have Chik-fil-A for breakfast. Some celebrated the beauty of creation. Someone even felt blessed by snow. Notably, this person was not from western Washington. One person felt blessed to have a hot tub – and who wouldn’t really. And of course some people in this country felt blessed to bring home the Vince Lombardi trophy after the Super Bowl.
So that’s just a few of the thousand and thousands, probably millions, of social media posts labeled with the hashtag “blessed.” People around the world today obviously associate blessings with the good things that are happening in their lives. And they aren’t wrong! This can pose a danger, which we’ll come back to in a bit, but they are not wrong! The Bible is full of passages which celebrate the good things of life as being blessings from God! The scriptures celebrate abundant harvests and growing herds of livestock as a blessing from God. Life and health are celebrated as a blessing from God. Marriage and family and children are all repeatedly celebrated as blessings from God. Even victory over one’s opponents is celebrated as a blessing from God in scripture. So these kinds of posts reflecting this understanding of what it means to be blessed are not inherently wrong. But they are incomplete.
In our gospel reading for today we hear the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. (We’ll hear the rest next week.) In these opening words of his sermon, Jesus proclaims blessings on some pretty unlikely people, people in situations that no one would think to call blessed. This is what this part of Jesus’ sermon would look like if it showed up on social media: “Blessed are you who are poor.” [Pictures of people living in poverty] “Blessed are you who are hungry now.” [Pictures of hungry people] “Blessed are you who weep now.” [Pictures of people grieving.] “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they revile you, because of my name.” [Pictures of modern Christian martyrs]
What is going on here? This isn’t what we think when we think of what it means to be blessed. Wasn’t it almost jarring to see those pictures with the word “blessed” next to them? What could Jesus possibly mean?
The first thing to note is that Jesus is being descriptive here, not prescriptive. He isn’t telling people to purposefully become poor or hungry. He isn’t telling people to seek out tragedy or martyrdom. Jesus is not saying there is anything inherently noble or virtuous in suffering. What Jesus is doing is describing his ministry. Jesus has come to bring good news to the poor, the good news that they are loved, the good news that they are part of the Kingdom of God. Jesus has come to fill the hungry with good things. Jesus has come to wipe every last tear from the eyes of those who weep, so that they would laugh with joy, so that their mourning would turn to dancing. Jesus’ followers will encounter opposition, perhaps even violent opposition, but he promises that all of that pales in light of the everlasting life he will give to all who trust in him. It isn’t the poverty or hunger that is the blessing. It is Jesus’ announcement that those who suffer these things are loved and valuable and precious to God, who will provide for them. It isn’t the grief or the suffering that is the blessing. It is Jesus’ promise that there will be laughter and life beyond all of these brief momentary afflictions. The blessing is found in this savior who has come to pour out his blessings on all people in any kind of need.
As Jesus carries out his ministry as this savior, there are people on the periphery watching all of this with their arms crossed. These people are secure in themselves. They have enough of everything they need. They laugh at Jesus’ claims about himself. They pride themselves in being well-spoken of as respected leaders in the religious community. If social media existed back then, they would have all kinds of selfies posted with the hashtag “blessed.” And, in a way, they were blessed! The problem was that their blessings had blinded them to their own need for what Jesus came to offer.
Jesus has some words for this peanut gallery of scoffers in the back: “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 people did to the false prophets.”
This isn’t about the rich versus the poor. It isn’t about having wealth or not having wealth. It is about having faith or not having faith! It is about where you put your trust! Plenty of people in the New Testament had both wealth and faith in Jesus. Zaccheaus used his wealth to help the poor. Mary of Bethany used her expensive perfume to anoint Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea used his wealth to buy several pounds of expensive spices to prepare Jesus’ body for burial He also bought a tomb for Jesus. (I hope he kept the receipt!) Lydia, the dealer of expensive purple cloth, used her resources to provide hospitality to Paul and Silas and Timothy. Our earthly blessings, including financial resources, can be used for godly purposes!
But they can also get in the way. That’s what’s behind these dire warnings from Jesus. Earthly blessings were preventing many people in Jesus’ time from receiving blessings from him. It happens today too. It is hard to see your need for the Kingdom of God when you’ve already got your own nice little kingdom going on for yourself, when you see yourself as the king or queen of your own castle – especially when that castle has a widescreen TV in it! It is hard to be filled with Christ’s grace when you’re already full of every earthly pleasure this world has to offer. It is hard to receive Christ’s forgiveness when everyone is telling you you’re perfect just the way you are. It is hard to cling to Jesus as your savior when you’ve got a bunch of trophies in your arms.
For those who have a lot they could put on social media with the hashtag “blessed,” (and I consider myself in this category), this first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Pain serves as a warning. Be careful – those earthly blessings can get in the way of the deeper blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation Jesus wants to give us. Those earthly blessings are real blessings, but they aren’t the whole picture. They don’t tell us the whole story of where God is to be found.
I had a nice moment this week visiting Tom Piper and his sweet daughter-in-law Janet and her new baby Ethan-Kai. At one point Ethan was laying in his bassinet in the middle of the living room as we all visited. Suddenly he stretched, looking like he was pumping his fist, and he gave out a hilarious little grunt. We all laughed with a holy laughter as this beautiful earthly blessing of this funny moment with this precious new life. It was a “hashtag blessed” moment.
I have also been with people in their homes and in emergency rooms and funeral chapels at the other end of human life, during times of death, when grief is thick and raw. Those are not “hashtag blessed” moments. But I can tell you that even there, there is a promise hanging in the air: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” That promise is a blessing of its own.
One of the privileges of being a pastor is being invited into the whole spectrum of human experiences, and I can tell you that God is at work in all of them. I am called to bring God’s Word to bear in both the joys and the sorrows of life, and I can tell you that God’s blessings are found even in the sorrows, even in the moments that don’t show up in someone’s social media feed.
That’s the good news of this first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. Jesus announces today to you who are struggling or suffering that you are blessed too. You are blessed because you have a God who loves you and is about the work of bringing you into his Kingdom. You are blessed because you have a Lord who is filling you with good things even now, so that your tears may be turned to laughter for the hope and joy he brings. You are blessed because God has given you a savior who, even in the midst of your struggles and sufferings, says, “blessed are you,” and then promises to never let you go.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church