Expecting to Be Blessed
Lectionary Texts: Micah 6: 1-8, Matthew 5: 1-12
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, January 29, 2017
So, what are your expectations for today? What do you hope to get out of this service or the Scriptures or even the sermon? We all come here with expectations of what we might find. It’s normal and it’s OK. In fact, it would be odd if we didn’t have them. We read two fairly well-known passages. So what do you expect to find? You know the ending of the Micah passage and you know all of the Beatitudes. You may have them on a plaque on your wall. So, are you expecting something different? What ARE your expectations? Do you expect to be entertained? Perhaps just kept awake? Or do you expect something more? Do you expect to encounter God? Or do you expect to be blessed?
We walk through our lives with expectations of what will (or at least what we hope should) come next. But often our expectations also sort of shape what we see or what we hear. In fact, I’m curious if you really listened to the familiar Scriptures at all. I know I had to read them several times to get past what I thought I had heard before. Sometimes familiarity breeds an expectation of what will happen and it is our expectations that we hear rather than the truth.
And yet…we could not exist without expectations. They shape our thoughts. They inspire our work. They fuel our very lives. In fact, Henry David Thoreau proclaimed that “we must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn”. So, indeed, it is what we see in the road ahead that makes us travel onward. It is our expectation of what is to come that compels us to move toward it. After all, that is what faith is all about.
But, today, maybe put aside your expectations and see if you can hear something new. What if you expected to be surprised? Expected to go beyond your expectations? What if you expected, positively expected, to encounter God or maybe even yourself in some new way?
- An 8th Century Prophet
So what, then, do the words of a prophet from eight centuries prior to the birth of Christ have to do with our expectations? What does he have to do with our looking forward? Everything…
Micah was the last of the prophets from that era. Many think of him as a younger contemporary of the better-known prophet, Isaiah. Micah was from southwestern Judah, west of Hebron. He operated totally independent of political and religious leaders of the day and his main concern was social justice. Now get the picture: Times are bad. Assyria has captured Damascus and Samaria. Jerusalem itself was under siege in 701 BCE. The society is full of poverty, homelessness, and rampant injustices between those living there.
The people have actually failed in their covenant to God. And they know it. They have looked at their lives through God’s eyes and the scene is not a pretty one. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Those with power are taking and using the resources of the less powerful and leaving them out in the cold, so to speak. Wealth is becoming concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller group of people while homelessness and poverty are growing at an escalating pace.
There is no doubt that Micah felt concern and compassion for the poor and dispossessed of society and that he held the leaders responsible for their suffering. The prophet recognized that much of this suffering is a consequence of human behavior. And yet, the writings are filled with hope. They are filled with the prophet’s sense of looking forward, of what God will provide, and of the part that all of society must play in bringing that hope into being. There is also an underlying assumption that God and what God brings to be is and always will be perfectly just.
But there is also a sense that this just and loving God expects something in return. What would be an appropriate to the God that has given so much? In this eighth century understanding of reward and sacrifice, what is it that God wants? Micah’s answer was not what they were expecting. Essentially, he is saying that there is no religious ritual or ceremony that would do it. You can’t do something to receive penance for the shortcomings in your life. You can’t just go on sitting here on Sunday mornings worshipping your God without doing your part to change the world around you. God’s requirement is this: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. In other words, that is what God expects from us. And it is in living this way that we are truly blessed.
III. Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly
So, look at these words a little more closely. To “do justice”…at its deepest meaning, it probably makes all of us a little uncomfortable. The Hebrew word is mispat. It is a word that describes the wholeness of one’s being. It is not enough to wish or pray for justice or to complain because it is lacking. It’s not even about “getting what you are due.” We are called to make sure that it happens. We are called to do it. We are the ones called to work for justice and equality for all. It is an expectation of who we are—in our world, in our country, in our community, and as individuals. I know you’ve probably heard it before, but Mahatma Ghandi said that “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.” As children of God, the expectation for us is that we become the justice that the world so desperately needs. We become the ones that speak out against injustice, that work for equality in all things and all resources, We become part of God’s vision of justice in the world—the whole world.
And at our deepest level, we are told to “love kindness”. The Hebrew word here, hesed, is a little difficult to translate into our language. It’s not just being nice. It’s about love, and loyalty, and faithfulness. It has to do with relationships. Hesed describes that incredible kindness that God has bestowed upon us—a kindness that we can’t even fathom. It calls us to love so much how God relates to us that we become mirrors of God’s love for all around us. Teilhard de Chardin said once that “the day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire.”
And, “walk humbly with your God”…the key word is to walk…carefully, expectantly, and with each step we take, we follow the footprints that God has laid before us. It is a pilgrimage, a way of living and being, to walk with God as our constant companion, to encounter God in every aspect of our lives.
The prophet Micah got it. He expected it. He glimpsed that vision of Shalom that God has and he knew that in order for us to glimpse it to, we have to expect that it will happen and be a part of it. Justice and mercy and humility are as much a part of who we are as prayer and worship.
- A First Century Messiah
Fast forward…eight centuries…and the words of Jesus are not really all that new. The vision was the same. In these words, a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the greatest sermon ever given, Jesus was laying before us an alternate way of being, a way that God calls us to be. It was a reversal of the usual value system. He was calling us to expect something different than what we see around us. It can’t have been accepted all that well. I mean, he was telling them that the way the world was was not really working. People don’t like that.
Each beatitude begins in the present and moves to the future. Expect the future to be different. Expect that when God finishes this new creation, justice and righteousness and peace will finally and always prevail. And in our seemingly small way, by living in this life now, by living a life of gentleness in this time of violence, pure devotion to God in this time of competing allegiances, and one in which we truly hunger and thirst for that day of expected justice and righteousness for all, we will become the future.
No longer can Christianity be seen as a philosophy of life that would make us healthy, wealthy, and wise. It is a way of walking that is different from what we know. And we are expected to do something to make that happen.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this: Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear his word. He does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal; he really means us to get on with it. Blessed are those who do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with their God.
- Being Blessed
The promise is not that being blessed means that our lives will become easier. It doesn’t have anything to do with having a nice house or a good job or living a life of ease and plenty. Being blessed means having a blessed relationship with God and with God’s people. And from that standpoint, the beatitudes are meant to be not instructive but descriptive of that relationship. They are not meant to be a checklist of what makes us a better person. They are a vision of a community—an alternative community than the one in which we live. Truth be told, being “blessed” has more to do with being used by God than it does getting stuff or having your life be easier.
The truth is, these beatitudes don’t make sense in our world. In fact, they are downright absurd. In an article on this passage, Bishop William Willimon makes these points:
It’s when the absurd starts to sound reasonable that we should begin to worry. “Blessed are the meek. . . .” “Thou shalt not kill.” “Love your enemies.” “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor.” Be honest now. Blessed are the meek? Try being meek tomorrow at work and see how far you get. Meekness is fine for church, but in the real world the meek get to go home early with a pink slip and a pat on the back. Blessed are those who are peacemakers; they shall get done to them what they are loath to do to others. Blessed are the merciful; they shall get it done to them a second time. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; they shall be called fanatics. (Excerpt from “Looking Like Fools”, by William Willimon, The Christian Century, March 10, 1982.)
VII. Expecting to Be Blessed
So, do you expect to be blessed? It might not be exactly what you were expecting at all. Christ’s coming into this world as our Messiah brought about for us the conception of what Shalom is, the vision of what God’s full and final Kingdom looks like. And even as the world groans with pain, we get a sense that perhaps some of it are the pains of birthing God’s Reign into being. We are in the midst of a holy labor, a holy gestation as God’s vision comes to be. And in our expectation of what will come to be, we find our faith. And in the meantime, what part do we play? What is expected of us?
How are we supposed to live as people of faith in this sort of chaotic world in which we find ourselves now?
We live in a time when people tell us to live well and do well.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
We live learning ways to make our life the best we can.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
We live in a society that tells us to stand up for ourselves, to put ourselves first.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
We live trying to satisfy ourselves in every way.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
We live in a place that teaches us to hold onto what we have and protect it.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
We live in a place that calls us to fill our minds and live pure ways.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
And we live in a country that is trying so desperately to protect itself.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
So what were you expecting? How do we live this vision of God that seems to be so counter to our world? We live by doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with this God that will never leave us to fend for ourselves. We live by asking ourselves and those around us the hard questions, the uncomfortable questions. We live by knowing that God gives us the grace to quarrel with our world, to change our world. We live by beginning to see beyond our expectations. We live by reminding ourselves of the past while not allowing ourselves to be shaped by the present. God calls us to shape the future into what God envisions and to be shaped ourselves by the same promise—that promise of Shalom, of peace and righteousness and mercy for all, of justice and kindness and humility. It’s hard because it’s not what our world looks like. We live by expecting to be blessed not in this world but in the way that God envisions we will be. We are blessed not because we draw close to God but because God draws close to us and we are in a position to notice.
There is a story of a woman who was walking home from work when she saw a sight a little girl standing on the street corner, begging. The little girl’s clothes were paper thin and dirty, her hair matted and unclean, and her cheeks red from the cold. The young woman dropped a few coins in the begging bowl, gave the girl a smile and walked on. As she walked she started to feel guilty. How could she go home to her warm house with its full pantry and well supplied wardrobe while this little girl shivered on the street. The young woman also began to feel angry, angry with God. She let her feeling be known in a prayer of protest. “God, how can you let these sort of things happen? Why don’t you do something to help this girl?” And then, to her surprise God answered. He said, “I did do something. I created you.”
The Beatitudes are not prescriptions of what to do; they are a geography of where we should be standing. The question is not whether you are being good, but whether or not you are putting yourself in a place where you are part of healing the world, where you can encounter God and hear what God expects of you.
So go forward. EXPECT to be blessed. Because God is waiting for you to do just that.