Matthew 5:1-12

Are You Blessed?

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

When I first moved back to Hope (Arkansas), I worked out at a local fitness center.  What I enjoyed most about it was the camaraderie.  There were about twelve of us regulars, both men and women, who came to the fitness center in the early morning hours for exercise.

The place was reminiscent of Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.”  You were sure to get a nice greeting when you came in the door.  Then there’d be a lot of friendly banter around the treadmills and weight stations.

One woman was particularly friendly and outgoing, and she’d often take the lead.  I’d walk in and she’d say something like, “Well, good morning, Glory, it’s about time you showed up.”  I’d ask her how she was doing, and she’d say, “I’m blessed, thank you.”

It was her stock answer: “I’m blessed, thank you.”  I never asked, but I often wondered: What exactly do you mean by that?

My hunch is when we talk about being blessed we’re talking about such things as having good health and a measure of prosperity; loving friends and family; a comfortable home and a secure environment – good fortune, in other words.

You don’t usually hear people say, “I’m blessed,” when they’re having a bad day or when they’re suffering from some sort of hardship or loss.  We think of blessings as the positive side of life.

And, while that’s only natural, the Beatitudes would have us think again.  They point us to a different reality – life in the kingdom of God – which is what we experience when we look to God as the source of blessing, rather than the circumstances of the moment.

Only from the perspective of God’s reign does it make any sense that the meek will inherit the earth, not the aggressor; that it’s the poor in spirit who will win God’s favor, not the proud of heart; that it’s those who mourn over the inequities and injustices of life who will be comforted, not those who are content with the way things are.

The Beatitudes turn our world upside down.  They throw cold water on our self-indulgence and remind us that, only when the Lord is the Lord of your life, will you be happy and content.  There are only eight of them.  Think of them as the Whitman’s Sampler of the Kingdom of God.

So, are you blessed?  Don’t be too quick to answer.  What first seems like a blessing – winning the Powerball Sweepstakes, to put it in the extreme – may prove to be your demise.  And what seems like a stroke of bad luck – losing your job, for example – may turn out to be a blessing, if it leads you to your true calling in life.

There’s an old Oriental parable that puts it this way:

A young man asked his father for a horse.  All of his friends had horses.  He wanted one, too.  But his father said no.  Feeling dejected, he went for a walk out in the woods.  Lo and behold, a beautiful mare appeared out of nowhere.  It was strong and gentle and easy to ride.  He rode it back to the village and told his father, “Look father!  This horse came to me.  What a blessing!”  The father replied, “You never know; it could be a curse.”  Sure enough, the boy was riding his new horse with his friends when the horse shied and threw him to the ground, breaking his leg.  The friends carried him back to the village, and he told his father, “You were right; it was a curse, after all.”  The father replied, “You never know; it could be a blessing.”  Sure enough, a neighboring tribe declared war on his village.  Every able-bodied man was expected to fight.  But because he had a broken leg, the boy was exempt.  He told his father, “You were right; it was a blessing.”  The father said, “You never know; it could be a curse.”

What is a blessing?  It all depends on whether you to look to God or to the circumstances of the moment.  Apart from God, what appears to be a blessing can be your undoing, and what appears to be misfortunate can be a blessing in disguise.

No one knew this better than the Apostle Paul.  In his Second Letter to the Corinthians he talks about the hardships he’s endured on his missionary journeys.  He writes,

“Five times … I received forty stripes minus one.
Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned.
Three times I suffered shipwreck. I have been a night and a day in the deep.
I have been in … perils of rivers, perils of robbers,
perils from my countrymen, perils from the Gentiles,
perils in the city, perils in the wilderness,
perils in the sea, perils among false brothers;
in labor and travail … in hunger and thirst … in cold and nakedness.”
(2 Corinthians 2:11:24-27)

He goes on to talk about some sort of physical ailment from which he suffered.  He called it his “thorn in the flesh.”  He said he prayed to God three times for God to take it away, but nothing changed.  You might say it was a curse.  Paul saw it as a blessing.  He said,

“(God) said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you,
for my power is made perfect in weakness.’
Most gladly therefore I will rather glory in my weaknesses,
That the power of Christ may rest on me.”
(2 Corinthians 12:9)

Paul would have us know that when the Lord reigns the proud are humbled, the foolish are seen to be wise, the weak are made to be strong.  (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)  This is what it means to be blessed: To know that God, and God alone, is the source of your strength and hope.  That’s what he meant when he said to the Romans:

“We also rejoice in our sufferings,
knowing that suffering produces perseverance;
and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope:
and hope doesn’t disappoint us …”
(Romans 5:3-4)

Why?  “… because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”
(Romans 5:5)

Are you blessed? Maureen Emerson would be quick to say, “Yes! Absolutely!”

Maureen was a member of my congregation in Odessa, Texas. In her early years she was a ballerina. In midlife, she taught ballet at the Maureen Emerson School of Dance. By the time I got there, she was in her senior years and bedridden with rheumatoid arthritis.

We had a dedicated corps of volunteers who visited the sick and homebound, and they all told me what a blessing I’d get out of visiting Maureen. They were right. I found her upbeat and cheerful and teeming with life. She was quick to ask how I was doing, and she wanted to know all about my family.

I couldn’t escape the irony: A once-graceful ballerina now reduced to a tiny, gnarled, twisted body confined to a hospital bed. She had every reason to be bitter and complain and feel sorry for herself. Instead, she exuded a spirit of joy and optimism and gratitude for life in all its abundance.

She turned a curse into a blessing, not by living in denial, but by living by faith. God was her strength and hope. That’s what she shared with others, and that’s what I think she’d have me share with you today.

Often, people like Maureen suffer through no fault of their own. She certainly didn’t do anything to deserve the hand she was dealt. At the same time, we often bring about our own misfortunate by the poor choices we make.

You know the adage: “Be careful what you ask for – you may just get it!” Well, I got a taste of that early on in life.

I was a pre-teen, and go-karts were the big fad. They were like miniature race cars –quick and maneuverable – plus, sitting so low to the ground, you felt like you were going a hundred miles an hour, whatever the speed. It was a rush. I had to have one.

The problem was they cost about $100, which was a pretty hefty price for a 12-year-old in the 1950s. But I worked as a caddie at the country club and, on a good weekend, I could make $3.00. So, I went to the bank and asked for a loan.

I told Mr. McMath all about go-karts and how they were the coming thing – that everybody was sure to want one – so, in a way, you could say I was making an investment. I’d keep it for a while, then sell it for a profit.

He wasn’t buying it. He said he thought I was making a mistake. He said once the new wore off, I’d be sorry … and I’d still have the loan to repay.

Turns out, he was right. He loaned me the money, and I paid it back, plus $10.00 interest, at the rate of $2.00 a week. That’s fifty-five weeks, if you’re good at math. As for the go-kart, the fun lasted for about a month.

Was it a blessing or a curse? It was both. Buying the go-kart was a costly mistake; thankfully, not nearly as costly as other mistakes I’ve made. Turns out, the loan was a blessing. It taught me a lesson I’ll never forget.

You all know what it’s like to want something so badly you’d do anything to have it, only to realize that it was never going to fulfill your fantasies. You know what they say: “The two happiest days in a man’s life are the day he buys a boat … and the day he sells it.”

God shows his mercy by giving us what we need, not necessarily what we want. More importantly, God uses the circumstances of the moment to give us the gift of abundant life, if we’re willing to turn to God in faith.

That’s what a wounded warrior chose to do. He was a Confederate soldier struck down in battle. Over the course of his rehabilitation, he wrote:

“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 men;
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 I hoped for.

Almost despite myself,
my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all men, most richly blessed.”

I’d like to close by asking the question once more: Are you blessed?

Rather than tally up your “good fortune” and weigh it against the bad, base your answer on what Jesus said in the Beatitudes. And to help you hear his voice in a fresh, new way, listen to the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases Jesus’ words in his translation of the Bible called, The Message:

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.
With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you.
Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less.
That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners
of everything that can’t be bought.”

NOTE: See Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” for his treatment of the rest of the Beatitudes.

Let us pray: Gracious God, pour out your blessings upon us, not that we may be rich and famous, but that we may experience new life in your kingdom and be faithful to the purposes you have set before us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Copyright 2014, Philip McLarty.  Used by permission.