I spoke to a woman in passing the other day. “How are you?” I asked. She smiled and said, “I’m blessed, thank you!”
Of course, it was neither the time nor the place for a theological discussion, but I wanted to ask, “Excuse me, but what do you mean by that?” What does it mean to be blessed?
It’s a good question. The way we commonly use the word, to be blessed is to enjoy the pleasures of life and avoid the pain. Remember this old gospel song?
“Count your blessings, name them one by one, Count your blessings, see what God hath done! Count your blessings, name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.”
A man named Johnson Oatman wrote that song back in 1897. I’m pretty sure when he wrote it he wasn’t thinking about a tax audit or a root canal; he was thinking about the benefits of good health and prosperity and the blessings of family and friends.
Blessings refer to those things that enrich our lives and make our lives more enjoyable. And, if that’s what it means to be being blessed, then to be cursed is just the opposite. It means to have a run of bad luck, or to experience some misfortune, or for things not to go your way.
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And, while all this sounds perfectly logical, what I’d like for you to think about in the sermon this morning is that it may not be as simple as all that. What appears to be a blessing often can be a curse, and what appears to be a curse often turns out to be a blessing in disguise. It’s like this little parable I ran across years ago:
“Once there lived a young man on the northern frontier of China. One day, for no reason, his horse bolted and ran away across the border. Despondent, everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “You never know, it could be a blessing.” Months later his horse returned bringing with it a splendid stallion. Everyone rejoiced at his good fortune, but his father said, “You never know, it could be a curse.” One day the young man went out for a ride and the horse threw him, breaking his leg. Despondent, everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “You never know, it could be a blessing.” Sure enough, within weeks nomads crossed the border in battle. Every able-bodied young man took his bow to defend their village. The casualties were high. Only because of his leg was the young man spared. Truly, blessing turns to disaster, and disaster to blessing: The changes have no end, nor can the mystery be fathomed.” (A story by Liu An)
It’s more than fiction, it’s the gospel. Jesus said the kingdom belongs to the poor, not the rich. He said those who are hungry will be filled, while those who are full we go away hungry. He said those who weep will laugh, while those who laugh will weep.
What we find in the beatitudes and the woes is a reversal of our value system. What appears to be desirable and lasting in the eyes of the world turns out to be an empty promise; while the things that are undesirable and unpopular in the eyes of the world are the source of real life.
You don’t have to look far for an illustration. Just watch the news. Someone wins the lottery and, all of a sudden, has more money than he knows what to do with, but instead of changing his life for the better, it wrecks his life with worry and greed and all sorts of self-centeredness.
Did you ever watch the old television show called, The Millionaire? It was popular back in the mid-50s. Each week this wealthy tycoon by the name of John Beresford Tipton would give away a million dollars, no strings attached, to some deserving individual or couple.
It was a great theme: His intent was perfectly altruistic, yet the effect was catastrophic. Without fail, it’d lead to the recipients’ demise. What appeared to be a blessing turned out to be a curse.
Our kids got a little taste of this back in 1987. We were living in Nashville, Tennessee, and the Harpeth River was just a block from our house. They’d go down and play on the river banks for hours at a time. One day Patrick and Christopher found a skateboard in the underbrush that had, evidently, washed downstream.
They brought it home and showed it to their mother. “Can we keep it?” they asked. They’d been begging her forever to buy them one, but she was of the opinion that skateboards were the work of the devil. “I suppose,” she said, not at all happy about their good fortune. They could hardly wait to get the hang of it.
Well, long story, short, it brought them a lot of grief. They got a lot of bumps and bruises, and they argued constantly over whose turn it was. Finally, Donna had enough of it. “You’ve done nothing but fuss at each other ever since you found that old skateboard,” she said. “You were having such a good time before.”
They thought about it and decided that, maybe just this once, their mother was right. And so, without saying a word to anyone, they went back down to the river bank and tossed the skateboard into the middle of the river and watched it float away.
Sometimes what appears to be a blessing turns out to be a curse. You get a big promotion at work, but your job is stressful and time-consuming, and it takes you away from your family. You work and slave to get the house of your dreams only to be weighed down by the burden of monthly payments you can’t afford.
But if a blessing can turn out to be a curse, so can a curse turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Do you remember the Garth Brooks song called, Unanswered Prayers? It’s about a young man who went back to his hometown and ran into his high school sweetheart. He remembers how madly in love they’d been and how he’d prayed so hard that they’d get married one day. Well, it didn’t happen. They grew apart and went their separate ways and, in time, he met another woman, who turned out to be the love of his life. The song goes,
“She wasn’t quite the angel that I remembered in my dreams, And I could tell that time had changed me In her eyes, too, it seems. We tried to talk about the good old days, There wasn’t much we could recall. I guess the Lord knows what he’s doin’ after all.
Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers. Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs That just because he may not answer doesn’t mean he don’t care; Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”
It’s true: What, at first, seems to be an unanswered prayer ends up being an unexpected blessing. Have you ever heard this little saying?
“I asked God for strength, that I might achieve; I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey; I asked for health, that I might do greater things, I was given infirmity, that I might do better things; I asked for riches, that I might be happy, I was given poverty, that I might be wise; I asked for power, that I might have the praise of others, I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God; I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life, I was given life, that I might enjoy all things; I got nothing that I asked for, But everything that I had hoped for; Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered, And I am, of all people, most richly blessed.” (Creed: Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, NYC)
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve known someone who lost his job and thought it was the end of the world, only to go out and find a better job … and then look back and say, “Losing that job was the best thing that ever happened to me.” Or someone who went through a painful divorce and, in time, found a greater happiness than before.
It happens all the time: We experience the pain of disappointment and loss only to discover a deeper level of peace and a new opportunity for growth and self-fulfillment.
No one knew this better than Paul, who experienced criticism and rejection everywhere he went. Yet, instead of despair, Paul found hope. He told the Romans,
“We also rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering works perseverance; 5:4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope: 5:5 and hope doesn’t disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:3-5)
It’s an old story. Remember Joseph and the coat of many colors? Joseph was the brother all the other brothers hated because he was his father’s favorite. So, one day, when Joseph came out into the wilderness to check on his brothers, they beat him up and threw him into a pit. They were going to leave him there to die, but there was a caravan of Midianite traders passing by, so they so him as a slave. When the Midianites got to Rameses, they auctioned him off to an Egyptian nobleman named Potiphar.
It turned out to be a blessing. Joseph quickly earned Potiphar’s trust and was put in charge of his whole household. But that turned out to be a curse, for when Potiphar’s wife saw how capable and handsome he was, she tried to seduce him, and when Joseph said no, she accused him of making advances toward her, and Potiphar had him put in prison.
But that turned out to be a blessing. For when the Pharaoh heard about Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, he brought him to the palace. Joseph interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream, and, in return, the Pharaoh put him in charge of all the grain in Egypt, so that when Joseph’s family came down to Egypt in search of food, it was Joseph himself who was in a position to save them.
The story ends with one of the most dramatic scenes in the Bible. Joseph moved his family to Egypt and got to see his father before he died. The only thing unresolved was the issue of his having been sold into slavery. So, the brothers got together and concocted a lie. They told Joseph, “Before he died, our father asked you to forgive our wrong doing. We really didn’t mean you any harm, you know.” And Joseph replied, “Oh, yes you did. You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” (Gen. 50:16-20)
And that’s where I’d like to end the sermon this morning: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” Yes, there’s misfortune in the world, and, as Christians, we’re as vulnerable as anyone else to the realities of pain and suffering, disappointment and loss.
The Good News is God can take our good fortune and magnify it beyond all expectation. At the same time, God can take the tragedies of our lives and turn them into blessings. “All things work together for good for those who love the Lord …,” scripture says. (Romans 8:28) Through faith, God can take the darkness of our despair and make it as bright as day.
Well, here’s what I’d like for you to take home with you today: Next time someone asks, “How are you?” smile and say, “I’m blessed, thank you!”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2007, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.