Malachi 3:1-4 • Hebrews 2:14-18 • Luke 2:22-40
So, I have lived in this country long enough to know that, in some parts, the phrase ”bless your heart” has a very certain meaning and it’s really not very nice.
In Scotland we have a similar response when someone has shown that they just don’t get it or have stepped over the line. “God love them” we’ll say, because, well, really who else possibly could is the undertone. Same idea I think in "Bless your heart," right?
But, let’s put that particular understanding of blessing aside for a few minutes. What is it that we mean when we say that something is blessed? Jesus identifies nine different sets of people as blessed in this passage we read – what does he mean by that and what does it mean for us?
I see and sometimes I write the word “blessings” at the end of a note or email.
I say "bless you" to someone when I see they are hurting or when they say something touching or even when they compliment me. “Your hair looks good today” – “Well, bless you,” I might reply.
I hear the word used to describe someone’s good fortune or happy state – they are “blessed” we say.
I was thinking about all these uses of the word, and I was getting tied in knots trying to get to some kind of satisfying understanding of what it really means in the world we live in, not to mention the world Jesus lived in, to say something is blessed. So, I decided I needed to take a walk to clear my head. As I was walking, a song started to play over and over in my mind. Before I knew it my steps had lengthened and slowed, my shoulders fell a little, my breathing eased, and I was humming the tune as I went. The tangles in my mind started to unravel and in this song that I found a clearer picture of what it means to bless.
It’s a song we sing here.
Bless the Lord, my soul,
And bless God’s holy name.
Bless the Lord, my soul,
Who leads me into life.
The description of someone’s good fortune, sudden wealth or improved situation as a blessing gets right to this association and is based solidly in this idea of blessing as somehow being about giving or receiving something that improves our lot.
But it became clear to me in this song and in the scripture upon which it is based that when we bless the Lord, when we bless God’s Holy name, what we are actually being asked to do is to encourage our soul, our spirit, our heart, our senses, to see the Lord. We are being asked to remember something we actually already know. We are being encouraged to notice again and to slow down and take time, to push everything else back and make space for the holiness of God. To remember what God has done for us, to take in again who God is, and to see this, hold this, be present to this reality.
From this realization, our other uses of the word bless and blessed and blessing began to make so much more sense. Bless you – the thing I hear myself say when someone acts in a lovely way or even when I receive a compliment is about just about taking a minute to notice them. It’s about making space in the hurriedness of the world to remember, give time for, maybe give thanks for the beauty, the kindness, the presence of God in this other.
Blessings at the end of a note is about taking time to remember and maybe give thanks for this other as the beloved of God and hoping that they will encounter blessings, that is to say that others will also see who they are as beloved of God.
We receive a blessing as we leave worship – “Go in peace, Christ is with you." In the blessing we are to do nothing more than remember, give thanks and have trust in the one who is really at work as we go out into the world.
There are quite a few stories in our scripture of the ancients sitting stones on end and blessing them with oil in places where they had encountered God. They blessed them, marked them as a reminder that God is here, as a reminder to give thanks and trust in the Lord. And in many traditions, we bless things – a baby, a new house, sometimes we mark them with with oil, sometimes we laying our hand on them. We pray blessings on new ministers, and all sort of things – our food at home, our food here. Just like the ancients we bless them as a reminder that God is present in these places and to remind us to give thanks that God will be with them. In some traditions, the people bless themselves in prayer or with water from the font – that too is just a noticing of who is at work and to whom we pray, to whom we belong.
Bless the Lord, my soul. The words went over and over in my mind. I am not asking you to bring me things because I have done something to deserve it, God is saying in that song. What I am asking you to do is remember who I am, remember to whom you belong. Remember, honor, gaze upon the Lord and trust that as you remember who I am I while lead you into life
So, how does all of this help us understand these statements of Jesus? Notice here that Jesus is talking to his disciples, the smaller group, not the crowds, and he is talking to them about others, about the ones who have been following looking to be fed and looking for healing. He has drawn these disciples close and is in a teaching position and he is saying, notice what is real here. You see these people, he says, these people who are looking to us for healing, these people that the culture tells us are to be ignored because they are of no use to any of us. God makes space for them, honors and gazes on them with love. They are blessed.
See these people, these ones who are needy and can’t look after themselves, who have lost the things they need, their health, their income, their families, their identities, their self-respect. God makes space for them, honors and gazes on them with love. They are blessed.
And then these others who come at us desperate for a better way, tired of the injustice they see in the world, these people who extend a hand of kindness, a hand of love even though it won’t serve them in any material way, in fact it might cost them their reputation or their livelihood. God makes space for them, honors and gazes on them with love. They are blessed.
These people who crowd, who come for healing and hope. They are blessed, God notice’s them, honors them. When you look at them you are to see God’s beloved. You are to take time and make space. They are to be revered and gazed upon with honor and love.
And then he turns to the disciples and says and as for you, my friends, you are blessed when you remind people that God is with these people. Now you are going to have to remember this because believe me you are going to meet some resistance. Because when you follow me, when you do what I ask and make space for these people, hold them up as honored and loved, the world is not going to like it. Mark my words, there will be push-back, severe push-back. People will question you, criticize you at best and they will make life hard for you, hurt you emotionally even physically when you dare to suggest that we notice these people, claim for them honor and love. But when you remind people that God loves then and wants them to be honored and cared for God sees you. God blesses you and leads you into life.
I had a professor once who told me that once you read the words of Jesus in this sermon you are in deep deep trouble – there is no going back, she said. Once you read these words, you know what you have to do and life can never the same again. I think that’s true, but where it once they caused me to panic I now find myself at peace. I was panicked because I read the words as if God’s blessing was something I had to earn – what if I am not meek enough, poor enough in Spirit, what if I am not merciful enough? But this sermon of Jesus is less a call to measure up and work for our reward and more a statement of the love of God for us, a statement of God making space for us, God’s noticing, noticing the times when we are grieving or feeling like we are not good enough or don’t have what it takes to make our way, noticing the times when we yearn for there to be more justice, the times when we try or wish we could reach out in mercy and care.
The prescription in this sermon of Jesus is not to do better, make everything right, take on the burden of fixing it all, earn God’s blessing. The prescription is to remember that all those who struggle (and, that’s all of us right?) are already blessed.
I wonder if this week we can do just this. I wonder if we can look at the world we encounter and remember God’s blessings – remember that all we meet, all we see, is noticed and loved by God.
And of course, our action to help others will most likely follow – I think it is really impossible to reflect on what the world is as God’s beloved and not then act towards it in love and kindness – but if we start with the reality of God’s blessing on us, our movement to kindness and justice comes from a place of peace and love, hope and humility and not from the anxiety that we need to earn our way. So sing to your soul this week, whatever that means for you. Let your stride lengthen, your shoulders relax, your breath deepen. Sing to your soul a reminder to bless the Lord, bless your neighbor, bless the world and trust that in this God will lead us into just and peaceful life.
Thanks be to God.