When Jesus begins to teach about the Kingdom of God, the first word is “Blessed!” This is not what we expected, not from God almighty in the season of Lent. We understand it’s the time for sober and brutal assessment; time for acknowledging our failures; time to confess we are moral losers, spiritual losers, and relational losers. Time to gather it all up and own the truth: Our human condition is failed.
Our natural default, sometimes even after long association with Jesus and his friends, leads us to expect that renewing our participation in the “Kingdom of God” necessitates a fierce facing of our many failings. We really expect the first word to be something like: “Wrong!” or “Woe!”
But Jesus begins teaching about the Kingdom that calls for repentance, for Lenten sojourn, with a very different word: “Blessed!” Then, to make sure no one can miss the point, he repeats that same word 8 times. Again and again he announces blessing. (I’m reflecting especially on Matt. 5:3-12, but this is entirely in tune with the other gospel portrayals).
That must mean God is not angry. Jesus has not come as the last straw before God does something rash. No, he comes precisely as the rash thing God has done for us, which is to bless. “Blessing” is the first word, and the first order of business for the kingdom Jesus declares, demonstrates, and for which he dies.
If we can let that word work its way into us, several things become clear. As a start, God does not enter the world in Jesus our Lord because God is angry. God does not approach as one “armed and dangerous,” weaponized with wrath. If that were how God was and is, God wouldn’t need to bother with personal appearance. Long before anyone could imagine or say “drone,” God could have authorized a strike.
God is not driven by anger and, characteristically, God is not angry. God is the creator of what is good and beautiful, which is why our creation accounts provide the first setting for the first utterance of blessing. God made it and then God blessed it—all. That Jesus begins his Kingdom teaching with this blessing makes us think that the Creator may not be done creating.
God is not angry. But God is determined to salvage and rescue as much of his creation as possible. So, God calls a family to bless, and to become a source of blessing for all other families the world over. In fact, God binds himself to the family of blessing so that eventually through this family blessing would flow. God binds himself by making a holy pact, a covenant, with one people—Abraham and Sarah’s people—for the sake of all people. Thus, when Jesus begins with a nine-fold pronouncement of blessing, we are right to think about God’s vow to purge the world of curse. We are right to think that holy promises are coming to pass.
God is not angry. God is King and is rightly fed-up with the unending failures of curse-shaped human governance and so God sends the Only begotten One, Jesus, whose throne is unrivaled and whose rule is right. It is this One and Only, enthroned over all who speaks blessing back into the world. Therefore, God is not angry. The first word is “blessed!”
Yet, to say God is not angry does not mean there is no reason to be angry. There is plenty wrong in our world. Everywhere we look, including into the mirror and maybe sometimes especially there, we see things that should not be. Further, to say that God is not angry is not to say that God is never angry. The ancient people of God confessed their God as gracious and kind, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (see Ex. 34:6; Nu 14:18; Neh. 9:31; Psa. 86:5, 15; Psa. 103:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2).
That God is not angry suggests, rather, that anger—even the righteous anger of God—is not the remedy. Since God is all about the remedy, angry words are not among the first out of Jesus’ mouth. Instead, from the heart of God, who is love, come words that express the reality and the remedy we need. That word is “blessed,” directed and targeted to people who like us were not expecting such a word, certainly not first and perhaps never.
Imagine being sick for several days hoping you will just get over it, and when you don’t you finally go to your doctor. You endure the check-in procedures, you wait to be called in, you enter the exam room, wait some more, and finally the doctor enters. At first you are relieved until you look into your doctor’s face. You are stunned to see a face that is red, veins in the neck that are bulging, and hands that flail wildly in the air. Then you are shocked to hear: “Idiot!” You are sick and the doctor calls you an idiot. You are feeling rotten and now the doctor is having a bad day and yells at you.
This is not a likely scenario and if it did happen once it would not happen again! But let’s be fair. You might have done something to contribute to your illness. It could be entirely your fault, in fact. Even so, the doctor is there to figure out how to make you well again. That’s who doctors are and why they do whatever they end up doing. In the case of human doctors, first words would intend to welcome you into a space where your condition can be known as fully as possible, where everything wrong can be thoroughly identified, not to shame or berate or punish, but to inform, correct and point the way toward healing responses—from both doctor and patient—that lead to fullness of health and vitality.
God does no less. Thus, our God whose Kingdom comes in Jesus, created us in love and wants us well and whole according to heaven’s own exacting standards. So Jesus welcomes us not in anger, not fed-up and about to go ballistic. He welcomes us and announces his intentions toward us by declaring words of blessing. These initial words of blessing should catch our attention, turn us around, draw us in, and heighten our wonder over what it might mean to live under a word of blessing.
In the season of Lent, we are called to repent, to turn from our ways toward God’s ways. Indeed, we are called to repent of our tendency to think that God is mad. That this way of life—following after Jesus and already beginning to experience eternal life—is an elaborate anger-management program for God. As if God were saying, “Just do this and my anger will not be a problem.”
No, the first word is “Blessed” and in the rush of words that follow, within a few moments you will have heard that word nine times. Jesus means it. This is the time to turn his way, look fully into his face, listen to what he says about God’s good governance. Turn and try it. You might sense a coming together of heaven and earth, a way of flourishing you never knew, a rethinking of what it means actually to be human and alive. Amen!