In the Beatitudes, Jesus is not declaring the natural state of the world. He is addressing a crowd of people who have been following him; who desire to hear some word from him concerning the Kingdom of Heaven and how to come to grips with this fallen and unnatural world. These words are not for everybody.
There is much in Scripture that is not for everybody. The Bible does not spend a lot of time telling non-believers how to live. The counsel of the Spirit is reserved for people of the covenant.
There once was a young woman who called the parsonage on a Friday morning. She and her fiancée were getting married on Saturday and they just realized that neither of them had arranged for someone to officiate the wedding. They were not members of any church and she wanted to know if I would object. I said, “Not at all. Not by me and not in this church, but you go right ahead.” This way of life to which we have voluntarily surrendered ourselves does not apply to those who are not of the covenant. If they choose to live and act the way they do then what is that to us? We may not be able to participate nor even celebrate with them, but it is not for us to impose a way of life on non-believers that Christ himself left as voluntary for us.
Likewise, not every blessing and promise is for non-believers. As is the case in this morning’s lesson, they are for Church. So we cannot say that every person who mourns is blessed, or every person who is persecuted is blessed, nor even that every peacemaker is working on behalf of the Kingdom of God. Nor is being poor in and of itself a good thing. For many it means constant worry about basic provisions of life. Mourning is not automatically and naturally a blessed thing. Many of us have been there. It is a dark place and some people get trapped there. You may have felt it yourself; such a grief…sense of loss…not only of companionship but of purpose and meaning…that unless some power should reach in from outside this reality and grab hold of you then you may be lost in this darkness forever. So it is not the natural state of the fallen world which Jesus is describing, but rather a promise which he offers to a fallen world, when Christ looks upon the crowds and says, “Blessed are you…”
But, what does it mean to be blessed? In our children’s lessons we call them the Be Happy Attitudes. This is good as far as it goes, but surely that does not cover it all. I had an epiphany concerning the meaning of this word blessed many years ago after watching a news interview with a firefighter. He had been called on to dangle from a cable hanging under a helicopter to rescue someone from a burning skyscraper. Watching the video, you can see him disappear into a cloud of smoke with flames exploding towards him. When he was interviewed he said, “I just feel blessed to be the one asked.” Blessed? Suspended from a cable into a cloud of smoke and fire…is that happiness? Is he using the word correctly?
Karen and I say that we refugeed out of Atlanta some thirty plus years ago. We enjoy living where we can see the change of seasons: the leaves turning in the fall and the different color green that we get in the spring as compared to the green that comes with summer. In the city, concrete and steel don’t change colors with seasons: the department store windows do, but they are always about three months off. While many are called to the benefits and unique beauty of a city life we are not. So, a few days ago I was enjoying watching my grandchildren playing in a haystack. I said to Karen, “We chose well. I feel blessed.” Certainly I was happy, but is that all I meant?
I want to know what does it mean to be blessed, and not just a theological wordbook definition. I want to know what there is in common with the way Christ is speaking here, the way the word is used in the two examples I just gave, and the way blessed is used in the rest of Scripture.
“Hail Mary full of grace….Blessed art thou among women” You will outlive your firstborn child.
In what sense is Bethlehem blessed when every child under two will be put to the sword?
What is meant by, “…and as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body;” or when I pray every week over the offering, “Bless the gift and the giver,” or other words to that effect?
Certainly happiness is involved as is holiness, but at the fundamental core these are all people and things which have been chosen by God for a purpose (or, devoted to God for a purpose). I suspect that is what the firefighter meant when he said he was blessed. He was chosen by God for a purpose, and for a moment he saw what that purpose was. That is what I meant when I saw my grandchildren playing in the haystack. That is what Elizabeth saw in Mary—someone chosen for God’s purpose. It is true for the bread and it is our prayer for the offering…to be chosen by God for a purpose. It is what Jesus saw in the crowd who had stopped to be fed by him that day. A crowd of business executives and beggars, professors and pupils. Somewhere out there is a rich young prince and a poor old widow…all of them chosen by God for a purpose.
And we…”beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,” we who have come here to rest beside the weary road and hopefully hear an angel sing; they are singing, and the song is, “We are chosen by God for a purpose. “ You are surrounded by people who are chosen by God for a purpose…as improbable as some of us may seem. No matter what we see on the news about this fallen Roman world; no matter what grieving may have followed some of us into this house this morning; Jesus has not been caught off guard: he is not surprised: he saw it coming and knew exactly the people to take care of it. You are in the midst of them. You are one of them: chosen by God for a purpose.