It is tempting to believe that what we have or our circumstances make us blessed. If you search social media for #blessed, we find all kinds of misunderstandings of what it means to be blessed. What does the Bible mean when it says we are “blessed”? What is a truly blessed life? Join us on Sunday for a blessing!
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
The sermon title today is not just “blessed.” It’s “blessed” with a pound or number sign in front of it. In the social media world, this is called a hashtag. So the sermon title this morning is actually hashtag-blessed. For those who may not know, a hashtag is simply one way for people to search common topics or conversations on social media. For example, if you wanted to follow what people on social media were saying about the recent General Assembly of the PC(USA), you could search the #GA223 hashtag on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, and see all that pops up. You can do this with movies, TV shows, elections, etc, etc.
Additionally, there are certain words that people just add on as hashtags to the end of their posts, oftentimes to give you a better of sense of their intentions. And one of the most overused hashtags is the #blessed hashtag.
If you do a search for the #blessed hashtag, you will find all kinds of ways that God is blessing your friends and celebrities. Some may be sincere, but others are perhaps questionable and sometimes outright bizarre. Jessica Bennett writes about this phenomenon in a New York Times article dated four years ago. The article, entitled “They Feel Blessed” says,
“God has … recently blessed my [social] network with: dazzling job promotions, coveted speaking gigs, the most wonderful fiancés ever, front row seats at Fashion Week, and nominations for many a “30 under 30” list. And, blessings aren’t limited to the little people, either. [God] blessed Macklemore with a wardrobe designer (thanks for the heads up, Instagram!) and Jamie Lynn Spears with an engagement ring (“#blessed #blessed #blessed!” she wrote on Twitter). [God’s] been known to bless Kanye West and Kim Kardashian with exotic getaways and expensive bottles of Champagne, overlooking sunsets of biblical proportion (naturally)…”
Bennet continues: “There’s nothing quite like invoking holiness as a way to brag about your life. But calling something “blessed” has become the go-to term for those who want to boast about an accomplishment while pretending to be humble, …acknowledge a success (without sounding too conceited), or purposely elicit envy. Blessed … is now used to explain that coveted Ted talk invite as well as to celebrate your grandmother’s 91st birthday…
But the overuse of the word has all but stripped it of its meaning. Now it’s just like, ‘Strawberries are half-priced at Trader Joe’s. I feel so blessed…’
On Twitter, the #blessed hashtag may still prompt some genuine sentiment (like “blessed to have such a supportive family behind me”) but more often than not it is blatantly self-promotional, surreptitiously braggy, or just plain absurd…
Blessed has reached such heights of overuse that tracking it has become a virtual sport. “It’s almost as if the Internet now exists simply to voyeuristically hate-read all of the ways everyone else in the world has been blessed,” said Danielle Thomson, a writer in New York. “There is literally no other word that can simultaneously inspire such animosity and rapture.”
OK, so given that we live in this kind of context, what comes to your mind when you hear a passage like today’s that begins its long run-on sentence with, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…”
What does that word, “blessed” invoke for you?
Unfortunately, even what some would call a Biblical understanding of the word “blessed” is often grossly out of sync with the gospel message shared by Jesus Christ. This is possible because, while the Bible was inspired by God, it was written by several different authors over the span of many thousands of years, so if you have an idea of what you want it to say, you can likely find proof of that somewhere within the pages of this good book. That’s called proof texting, by the way. We were taught not to do that in seminary.
But not all pastors who have a following, Paula White and Joel Osteen for example, went to seminary. That’s not to say they don’t feel called by God to ministry, but it is to say, they did not learn biblical hermeneutics or exegesis. And, let’s be honest, even some pastors who did go to seminary will still use proof texting to uphold their belief systems.
This happens in many settings, but when it comes to this concept of being blessed, the most egregious offenders are those who espouse the “prosperity gospel.” Again, Paula White and Joel Osteen fall into this camp.
Proponents of the prosperity gospel believe that God rewards those who are faithful by granting them prosperity: anything they want, be it health, wealth, or any form of personal success. God will bless you with all these things, if only you have enough faith. So the wealthier you are, the more successful you are, the healthier you are, the more God is blessing you for your great faith.
The dark underbelly of this kind of supposed theology then, is that if you don’t have good health, or wealth, or success, it’s because you are lacking in faith and because you are not in right relationship with God.
Friends, please hear me now when I say, not only is this kind of false theology contrary to the ways of Jesus; it is toxic and deadly.
Can these pastors find verses from scripture to support the prosperity gospel? Sure, of course. The same way slave holders could find scripture to uphold slavery; the same way misogynists find scripture to uphold sexism even today; the same way people who are homophobic find scripture to uphold homophobia.
If you read your Bible hoping to prove a point you’ve already decided as true, you’ll find it in there.
But the story of Job, who suffered so much through no consequence of his own actions or faith, is also in there; as is the story of Stephen who was martyred, stoned in fact, for his faith.
That’s why as reformed theologians, we read the individual verses and stories found in the Bible in light of the greater themes and overarching message of the Bible: the message of God’s unconditional love for us, the message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that promises hope and transformation.
So beware of those preaching a feel-good prosperity gospel where, if you just have enough faith (and give enough money to that preacher’s ministry), you can have anything and everything you want.
Being a Christian doesn’t mean our lives will be devoid of pain, grief, loss, or disappointment. In fact, Jesus tells his disciples to take up your cross and follow me, implying there is a cross to bear.
Rather, being a Christian means, in spite of all the pain and hardships we might endure, we can still claim to be blessed; not in the way social media lifts up, but in the way that we read about in today’s scripture from Ephesians.
Now, being blessed in our faith tradition has always meant that we are blessed to be a blessing. That’s what God told Abram in Genesis, that whatever we might receive, whatever hope or joy or promise or blessings we encounter, they are not to be hoarded or used for our own enjoyment, but to share with others, to bless others with what we have experienced. Blessing is not just for ourselves, but for the good of all people.
And being blessed is not about our current circumstances or what we have. Rather, it is a more permanent condition that undergirds all that we are experiencing temporally.
The Greek New Testament has two words for the what we translate into the English as blessed. The first is μακάριος (macarios), the word for blessed used in the Beatitudes which was our Call to Worship this morning. Sometimes this is translated happy or enviable.
But K.C. Hanson, a New Testament scholar suggests it is actually more appropriately a value judgment set within the context of an honor/shame culture. So the Beatitudes are not saying, how happy you are when these things happen, but rather, how honored are you or how honorable you are when you are suffering these things, honored by God although you may not yet be honored by society.
These Beatitudes flipped the common understanding of what most people held about being blessed or honored in Jesus’ day. I imagine the prosperity gospel would’ve been well-received by many in first century Palestine. But here is Jesus, preaching the Sermon on the Mount, proclaiming an upside down, radical message in favor of those who are “poor in spirit,” “mourning,” “meek,” and “persecuted.”
In Ephesians, the word used for blessed is not μακάριος (macarios) but εὐλογήσας (eulogesas). And it means a pronouncement often spoken aloud, usually by someone of authority, to consecrate and set apart for God that which is being blessed.
According to Ephesians, we are blessed because we are God’s children through Jesus Christ. We are consecrated, set apart, blessed to be God’s own.
Verses 4 and 5 say, “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before God in love. God destined us for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ.” And that is the greatest blessing, the greatest promise, and where our deep sense of gratitude originates, so that we can share that blessing with others.
When I was doing youth ministry in Chicago, I had several young people who were adopted in my youth group. And we talked about families and family structures, and how all of our families are a little bit different.
I will never forget one young woman. She was in seventh grade at the time, and was adopted by her parents when she was just a baby. She said, “I love that I was adopted because I know that I wasn’t an accident or a surprise to my parents. They wanted me; they chose me; they waited a long time for me. So I know that I belong with them.”
Friends, God has adopted us as God’s children; God has chosen us; long-awaited us, and we belong to God. There is nothing in this life nor in the next that can separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord. And that is why we can call ourselves blessed.
No matter what trials or tribulations we may face, no matter what circumstances we may find ourselves in life, no matter how much or how little we may have, we have the blessed assurance that Jesus is mine and that we are Jesus’.
In 1873, Horatio Spafford put his wife and four daughters on a boat to cross the Atlantic to Europe. Horatio had to tend to some business at home before he could join them, so he stayed behind planning to take another ship later that week.
Just a few days into their voyage, the ship holding his family collided with a much larger vessel and sunk. Anna, his wife was rescued, but none of their children were. Anna eventually landed in Cardiff, Wales. From there she wired her husband a message which began, “Saved alone, what shall I do?”
Horatio boarded the next ship heading to Europe to join his grieving wife. And as he crossed the Atlantic, the captain called Spafford to his cabin and told him that they were now over the place in the ocean where his children went down. It was then that he wrote the words to the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul.”
You see, being blessed, having the faith to proclaim that all is well, is not based on our present conditions. It is a permanent state of being God’s children.
Oswald Chambers says, “We are not made for the mountains, for sunrises, or for the other beautiful attractions in life — those are simply intended to be moments of inspiration. We are made for the valley and the ordinary things of life, and that is where we have to prove our stamina and strength.”
So, when we sing this song, “It Is Well with My Soul,” we remember that it was written during one of the darkest times of Spafford’s life, the lowest of all valleys, because no matter what befalls us, nothing in life or in death can separate us from God’s love.
We sing it with hope or with the great longing that it might bring us hope, not because all is actually well, for we all know there is so much that is not well with our own souls and with the soul of our nation right now, but because we need to believe that hope exists, because we cannot do God’s work of transformation without hope. We sing together, knowing that sometimes singing with others helps us to believe that which seems impossible. That’s why we gather together as people of faith, to find that hope together, to speak and sing that hope into being.
We all know that there is so much work to do. But this morning, as we sing together verses one and four of “It Is Well with My Soul,” give it all to God: all of your burdens, all of your cynicism, all of your pain and grief and weariness. And for just a moment, rest in God, be filled with God’s love and with God’s peace.
“It Is Well with My Soul”
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
It is well with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.