Be on guard for the God who is not God. Watch out for the God who is more like Santa than the God we see in Jesus.
We have talked about this before and how without our realizing it, as we move from our childhood faith into adulthood, qualities associated with Jolly Old St. Nick get overlaid onto God.
Like Santa, this God lives at a distance.
Like Santa, this God discerns everything we do and think and then labels those thoughts and actions naughty or nice, sinful or virtuous.
And just like Santa does, God either rewards us for our individual choices or leaves us with the equivalent of a lump of coal.
When your God functions this way, it becomes quite easy to tell who has pleased God and who has not.
Those who have done what God asks, those who have made God happy are the ones whose lives are brimming with blessings—good health, happy children, comfortable lives. Those who have in some way disappointed or displeased this Santa-similar God have lives that reflect this sad reality.
It’s a convenient way to sort people, I suppose. But in the end, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. After all, bad things happen to good people all the time, and good things happen to bad people every day.
The way some think about who is blessed and why isn’t exclusive to Christians. The Navajo do this too. To a traditional Navajo, when someone is sick or suffering, this is evidence that they have done something they should not have—and in Navajo culture, there are a good number of those “should nots.” Taboos, cultural anthropologists call them.
Other spiritual traditions and lifeways also use outward circumstances to assess a person’s blessedness or lack thereof.
Decades ago, I was driving across town with a friend whose spirituality was based on an eclectic mix of influences. Pulling up to a red light, we watched an older man in a threadbare suit carefully step off the curb and then labor to cross in front of us.
It was immediately evident that this fellow was doing his best to retain his dignity and not be defeated by life—and that the score, that day anyway, was tied.
Sensing the sudden wash of feelings this man elicited in me, my companion reached down and patted me gently on the knee. “Don’t worry, Karen. This will never happen to us. We’ve spent many lifetimes getting to where we are.”
In other words, our lives are our reward. And the life the man in the crosswalk is living is his.
“Let’s not be too quick to make assumptions,” I said, fumbling for words. “This man is clearly more evolved, more spiritually advanced than either of us. I don’t know about you, but the life I have now is about all I can take.”
It’s tempting to assume that lives of ease, lives of manifest blessing, speak to our having pleased God. I saw this all the time in Utah, where it was commonly assumed that those living higher up on the Wasatch Bench were bathed in God’s blessings for living good and pleasing lives. Those who lived in the lowlands clearly weren’t as blessed.
Soon after beginning his public ministry, Jesus made it a point to address the question of who God blesses and how. With his heart full of God’s love, Jesus knew what you know—that God doesn’t go around handing out rewards to some and punishments to others. God is not a transactional, contractual, “if you will… then I will…” kind of God.
God is relational. And indiscriminate. As Jesus would later point out, God makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust alike.
With his heart brimming with love for all God’s children, especially those who suffer and struggle, Jesus could see how foolish and cruel it was to say to those who were hurting or poor or isolated or broken in body or spirit that they somehow—willfully or unwittingly—brought on this on themselves.
How it must have pained Jesus, how it must have set his teeth on edge to hear one of his own disciples ask him one day when they encountered a man blind from birth, “Who sinned, Jesus? This man or his parents?”
As if God would ever, ever want a person to be born blind. As if God would take away a person’s sight as punishment for something.
How it must have grieved Jesus to know that those who most needed to be assured of God’s compassion and solidarity were the ones who were thought to be least deserving of those deep blessings.
And how it must have hurt Jesus to encounter those whose spiritual pride had crept in and overtaken them.
You may remember the parable in Luke’s gospel, Jesus told about the Pharisee at the Temple. In that brief but potent story, Jesus has the man look over at a reviled tax collector, and then begin to pray for all to hear, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people… I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
In a religious system where many misunderstood God’s generous ways and who saw blessing as a reward doled out, Jesus preached a sermon that no one was expecting and that everyone needed. A sermon about who God blesses that no doubt sounded incredibly strange and, depending on who was listening, also incredibly comforting.
“Blessed are, blessed are, blessed are,” Jesus said.
Discover that you are blessed even in seasons and situations when you are poor in spirit, Jesus said.
Mourning itself is not a blessing, but certainly, when you mourn, the blessing of God’s presence can be felt in ways that make that mourning bearable, Jesus said.
Likewise, know that you are blessed with God’s presence and solidarity when, like those in and beyond Memphis this morning (following the release of a video showing Tyree Nichol’s brutal beating), we simply cannot ignore our hunger and thirst for justice to come when all we have known is cruel, persisting injustice.
It’s not that any of these challenging realities are themselves a blessing. The blessing comes in feeling God’s presence, in being assured that God is active and engaged in the lives we are living.
As with a difficult diagnosis, a financial disaster, or a tragedy, the blessing lies far beneath the surface. It makes itself known not in the circumstance itself but rather in the truth that God has not forsaken us. That’s the comfort. That’s the assurance. That’s the truth that blesses, not the challenging reality itself.
Those who pay close attention to Jesus’ grammar in this passage are quick to point out that what Jesus is saying is not “You will be blessed.” What he is saying is this: “You already are blessed.”
Even so, if you are like me, it’s not always the case that you can claim God’s blessing in the present moment. Often that comes later, in hindsight.
In his first major sermon, Jesus identifies with those who feel anything but blessed. Rather than wag a finger and say, “You created your own reality,” rather than cluck his tongue and say, “You got what you deserved,” Jesus says the last thing a heart-hardened world would ever say.
“Y’all are blessed. Y’all are blessed. Not later, not when, not if. Y’all are blessed because God is with you. Right here. Right now. Because no matter what anyone might think, God is just that good.”
Let us pray together:
Praise you, O God, from whom all blessings flow. For those blessings that are obvious to us, that are the source of delight, we sing our praises.
For those places in our lives that feel like dry riverbeds with barely a trickle of blessing, we pray you would open us to your presence so that even in those arid and lonely places, we might begin to notice your encouragement, your compassion, your creative and loving efforts flowing toward and into us.
Then, as we discover and savor your blessings, use us to bless a world in perpetual need of a blessing.
With every breath we take, remind us—so that we can then remind others—that we can never be separated from you and your love. No matter what. Amen.
Preached for Community Spirit Church (UCC) in Montrose, Colorado