Holy Communion Service on the fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Celebrating New Blessings. 

What would we most like in our lives?  Jesus highlights the things most likely to make us happy.

Sermon

This sermon is taken from Matthew 5, verses 1-12

Celebrating New Blessings

CELEBRATING NEW BLESSINGS

 

Mr Brocklehurst- who remembers Mr Brocklehurst?

Mr Brocklehurst appears in the novel “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte. He was a clergyman in charge of a boarding school for girls. It was a charitable establishment, set up by wealthy and pious individuals to provide a Christian upbringing for the daughters of poor families.

For Mr Brocklehurst, his duty first and foremost was to turn these girls into good Christians. In order to do this, he saw to it that their food was strictly limited and often uneatable; their clothing totally inadequate for harsh weather; their bedrooms likewise so cold that in winter ice would form on their wash basins; discipline was strict; punishments painful and humiliating; even the girls’ hair-he decreed- must be cut right off for fear of vanity.  

Hunger, cold, discomfort, pain and shame, he preached, were the paths by which young people would earn the blessings of the kingdom of God.

 

Charlotte Bronte was not convinced.  This school was the school she and her four sisters were sent to as children. And having watched two of her sisters die from hunger, disease and neglect she most certainly did not feel “blessed.” Her novel exposed what she saw as the hypocrisy of rich Christians who, just so long as they made sure that their servants or employees went to church regularly and said their prayers, believed that they had done their duty and that poverty and disease were none of their business. God was not interested in people’s mortal bodies but in their immortal souls.

 

I suppose that there has always been this sense that God sees things from a different perspective to us; that what look like blessings to us may be anathema to God and what look like misfortunes to us may in fact be a hidden blessing from God. God’s ways are not our ways: that is what makes God, “God.”   

There has also been, even before people started talking about any kind of god at all, a deep belief that there is more to human life than the physical body.

Before the time of Jesus, Greek culture and religion had developed a theory called “dualism” in which everything physical was seen as transitory and bad compared to things spiritual which were eternal and “good.”

Jesus then horrified his own people, the Jews, who had hoped that he would be their promised Messiah to restore peace and prosperity, only to see him die in agony on a cross. You can see why religion has so often become associated with physical deprivation and suffering.

Even in the church where I grew up, I remember a certain uneasiness around pleasure. If you were enjoying yourself then it was quite likely that you were doing something wrong and that sooner or later God would catch up with you. We were haunted by those terrifying words of John Bunyan at the end of his book “The Pilgrim’s Progress” that “there is a door to hell even at the very gates of heaven.”

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Jesus’ promises of “blessing” in Matthew 5 do not all come across, do they, as “good news” from our point of view? The blessing of being “poor in spirit” sounds suspiciously like “miserable” to me; the blessing of grief? The blessing of being meek which could be interpreted as downtrodden? The blessing of being given a hard time because of your faith? A lot of this seems to go against everything we believe will make us happy.

It is obvious from its context that Jesus, in Matthew 5, was talking to people, most of whom were not enjoying an easy life. The last section of Matthew 4 describes the people who came to Jesus as suffering from all kinds of diseases, including mental illness. The country in which he lived was occupied by the Romans, which meant that most people lived in a state of perpetual fear and resentment. Poverty was widespread and taxes uncomfortably high. Religion had become barren- with many people turning away altogether; some just “going through the motions,” and some turning it into a fierce fanaticism over rules and rituals, convincing themselves that this was their way of maintaining God’s standards and of earning God’s blessing.  

 

So, what was Jesus trying to tell these people about blessedness? He was no Mr Brocklehurst. Jesus comes across as deeply compassionate and as concerned for people’s physical wellbeing as spiritual. Nor was he a kill joy. Quite the reverse, in fact. He was told off more than once for spending too much time eating, drinking and partying. And although he predicted his own suffering and death, he also promised a resurrection. And it was stressed in the Gospels that this was physical resurrection. OK, there are many arguments about this but the point here is the message coming across – that in Christianity the physical life can be fully as “godly” as the spiritual and that God’s blessings are just as much for this life as for life in eternity.

Jesus’ resurrection was proclaimed as a tremendous victory- of life over death; of love over hatred; of forgiveness over revenge; of God and goodness over evil. It was a turning around of John Bunyan’s fearful words that there is a door to hell at the gates of heaven. Jesus gave us a door to heaven even at the gates of hell. And the blessedness of heaven is to be found in this life and not only something to be dreamed of in the life to come.

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So, what is this “blessedness?” In some modern translations of the Bible the word “blessed” is translated as “happy.” But “blessed” means a bit more than happy.  One commentary pointed out that happiness is an emotion and our emotions are often dependent on our outward circumstances- what is going on in our life.  “Blessed” is a deeper sense of ultimate wellbeing; that no matter what is happening “all shall be well” as Julian of Norwich put it.

 

A man called John Nelson, born in 1707, kept a journal and this is what he wrote, “I began to consider what I wanted to make me happy, I said to myself “what can I desire that I have not? I have as agreeable a wife as I can wish for; I am clothed as well as I can desire; I have more money than I need; yet still I keep wandering, seeking rest and cannot find it.” Then I cried out “O that I had been a cow or a sheep!” (He can see no future worth living for)

…. Yet I thought that I would set out once more; for I said, “Surely God never made man to be such a riddle to himself and to leave him so; there must be something in religion that I am unacquainted with, to satisfy the empty mind of man; or he is in a worse state than beasts that perish.”

 

 I guess that we have all been in a similar state to Mr Nelson- when everything outwardly in our life has been going well and we are happy, yet we are not satisfied. And we cannot think why not. We list all the people we know who are struggling with money worries, family problems, illness, grief and tell ourselves off for daring to feel dissatisfied when we have none of these things to contend with. But it does not make us any more content. It just makes us feel guilty as well as miserable. We know this sense of worthlessness. Three thousand years ago, King Solomon of Israel, one of the richest and most successful men in history, sighed over his life and called it “nothing but vanity and empty air.”

  

“Blessedness” then, maybe means finding a purpose in life; something greater than ourselves to get involved in; tapping into a source of power that goes further than what we can see; trusting a love that is infinitely bigger than we are? In other words, that which faith calls “God.”

John Nelson, we are told, joined the emerging revival group called the Methodists, who were passionate about their faith and about sharing it with the thousands of poor, despairing people whom the church had forgotten about. His life almost certainly became harder in some ways, yet infinitely more satisfying in others.

 

If you look at it this way, Jesus’ words start to make a whole lot more sense.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit:” those who are not handicapped by an inflated opinion of what they think they ought to be and never quite make it.

“Blessed are those who mourn”: who allow themselves to grieve; who permit themselves to share their pain with others and to share the pain of others,  and find comfort.  

“Blessed are the meek”, as opposed to the pushy; those who do not go through life grabbing everything they can, regardless of the needs and rights of other people. Blessed are those who live gently in the world, rather than plundering it just to prove how great they are. They are the people who will save the planet for future generations.

“Blessed are the merciful;” those who believe in forgiveness both for others and for themselves.

“Blessed are those who long to see goodness;” not just for their own life but in the life of the whole world because they accept that they have their place in the whole world.

“Blessed are the pure in heart”: those whose lives are focussed on God; for whom everything they do and everything they experience, both good and sad, becomes a means of coming closer to God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers”: those who believe in peace and never give up on it.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness:” if you know that the cause for which you are sticking your neck out is right and just then yes, even when other people make life hard for you, you are not sorry. And you hold on because you believe in goodness and you know that you, yourself, will become diminished if you give in.

 

Blessedness, then, is not about God deciding, for reasons best known to himself, who should be happy and who should be sad. Blessedness is God’s gift to us- a reason to live, a purpose in life, a restlessness that He can and will answer.

And once you have found that blessedness, you do not ever want to go back.

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Let’s finish by remembering the story of Florence Nightingale.

Florence was born into a wealthy family at a time when women, especially rich women, were not expected to have any kind of profession. Even at a young age, Florence found herself restless and unhappy with her life. She had loving parents, plenty of food, warmth and comfort- what more could she want when other little children were starving and homeless?  Nevertheless, it was not enough for her. She wanted a purpose, a mission in her life and even the church could not use the gifts and skills and passion she offered.

As we know, It was in the vocation to nurse the neglected, suffering, wounded soldiers in the Crimea that she finally found her way. Her life became harsh, painful and utterly exhausting, yet she never even thought of turning back. She faced abuse and opposition from the army and her family thought she was mad. Yet she refused to give up and return home.

 

Finally, when her work was recognised for the glorious ministry it was, and she was praised by virtually the entire population of England, she was received by Queen Victoria and presented with a brooch on which was inscribed the verse from Matthew 5 “Blessed are the merciful.”   Now there is no denying that she richly deserved the gift and the acclamation. But was this where her state of “blessedness” lay? I think not. Florence Nightingale would have said that her blessedness lay in discovering where she most needed her to be and finding that meaning and purpose in her life which even King Solomon in all his glory had apparently never found.

 

I asked you to think about what makes you happy. I hope you found plenty going on in your life to make you happy. I now ask you to think about what makes you “blessed.” What gives you a true sense of meaning and purpose in your life? What remains deep inside you, no matter what is going on in your life? Where do you find your strength and conviction? 

For, I am sorry Mr Brocklehurst, but blessedness is not something we are expected to torture ourselves into deserving. It is not about clocking up good deeds or patient suffering in the hopes of gaining God’s rewards. It actually works the other way around. Blessedness is God’s gift to us and it is as we find ourselves blessed, that we naturally we become the peacemakers, the merciful, the caring, the passionate for peace and justice, the people who, no matter where we are in our lives, live within the kingdom of heaven here on earth.    

Amen.