The story is told of a bookie who was at the races and all but losing his shirt. At the fourth race he noticed a priest step out onto the track and bless the forehead of one of the horses lining up. Lo and behold, that horse – a long shot – won the race. Next race, as the horses lined up, the priest stepped onto the track. Sure enough, he blessed one of the horses. The bookie made a beeline for a betting window and placed a small bet on the horse. Again, even though it was another long shot, the horse won the race. He collected his winnings, and anxiously waited to see which horse the priest would bless next. He bet big on it, and it won. As the races continued the Priest kept blessing horses, and each one ended up winning. The bookie was elated. He made a quick dash to the ATM, withdrew all his savings, and waited for the Priest’s blessing that would tell him which horse to bet on. True to his pattern, the Priest stepped onto the track for the last race and blessed the forehead of an old nag that was 100/1. This time the priest blessed not only the forehead, but the eyes, ears, and hooves of the old nag. The bookie knew he had a winner and bet every cent he owned on the old nag. The race began, he then watched in horror as the old nag pulled up, staggered, and then fell down on the track half-way through the race. In a state of shock, he went to the track area where the priest was. Confronting him, he demanded, “Father! What happened? All day long you blessed horses and they all won. Then in the last race, the horse you blessed never even had a chance. Now, thanks to you I’ve lost every cent of my savings!”
The Priest nodded with sympathy. “You are not a Catholic are you my son?” “No I’m Jewish,” said the bookie. “Ah, that’s the problem.” said the Priest, “You couldn’t tell the difference between a blessing and last rites.”
It can be important to know the difference between last rites and a blessing. It is important to know if in fact we are being blessed because sometimes it is hard to tell by looking at one’s outward circumstances. Let’s look at Mary as a case in point. Elizabeth said to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Blessed is she who believed that there would be fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Mary herself says, “Behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
Today when we think we’re blessed typically we think in terms of good things God has given us or good circumstances in which we might find ourselves. For example, I could say that I am blessed because I have a wonderful job being your priest or I have lovely wife, or a beautiful home or a reliable car. God has given me these things and I am so blessed, right? We know blessings are something really good. We know that Mary was blessed. She says it right here in the Bible. But look at her life events. What good things did Mary have because of God’s blessing? When she said she was blessed she knew she was pregnant outside of wedlock. Was it good that others thought she was having an illegitimate baby, that Joseph and her friends would think that she had been unfaithful? Because of her pregnancy Joseph did not want to marry her. Further, her life would be actually in danger because unfaithfulness even during one’s engagement in first century Israel was a stoning offense—she could have been killed. During the last days of her pregnancy she has to travel by foot to Bethlehem. (We see in the pictures that there is a donkey, but since Joseph was not wealthy and animals were expensive probably there was no donkey.) She had to walk the entire way. It would be comparable to walking from this church to Orlando. Walk up Deltona to route 50 and stay on 50 until you walk into Orlando and then down to the I4. And don’t forget she is nine months pregnant and they had to carry all their food, extra clothing, and Joseph’s tools. No doubt Joseph carried a lot of it, but still it was not an easy trip. We are talking four maybe five long days of walking and it is not flat like Florida; it is very hilly in Israel. They finally get to Bethlehem and there is no room in the inn and she goes into labor probably in a cave amongst the livestock. If this were you or me we probably wouldn’t being feeling very blessed.
Later when the wise men find them a year or so later Joseph and Mary are in a house. The wise men leave them with some pretty nice gifts and things are looking up. We might look at her life now and say, “Ok, now she is being blessed.” But then a night or two after the wise men leave, Joseph wakes up in the middle of the night, wakes Mary and tells her, “We have got leave. We have to leave right now!” They walk (again) to Egypt, more days of walking, in order to hide from King Herod. She has to leave everything behind. They leave with the gifts of the wise men, the clothes on their backs, and perhaps Joseph’s tools. Although she is not 9 months pregnant, she has a toddler to take care of now. Running through the night for one’s life is not typically what we would call blessed either. Some years later they return to Israel. They settle in a one of the poorest communities in Israel, Nazareth. All too soon her husband Joseph dies relatively young and she is left with at least six children. Jesus was between 12 and in his twenties. Now would you call her life blessed? Now? Jesus leaves home when he is 30 to become a famous Rabbi and miracle worker but within three short years he is crucified. OK, so tell me again why we call Mary blessed? We get she is the mother of Jesus—but other than that, could we call her life blessed? The answer is yes.
But in order to understand why, we need to have a paradigm shift. That is, we need to learn to think like God thinks. Our natural tendency is to view our situation with our world’s values. But how God thinks is not the same as how our world thinks. How could Mary say she was blessed even though she ends up having a really tough life? Clearly blessing has to mean something more than simply having life go smoothly and prosperously.
Mary knew she was blessed. She was not simply saying religious words. She knew it because she knew that God approved of her. The angel Gabriel himself had come to her and said, “Hail highly favored one!” God Almighty favored Mary—she was one of his favorite people; God loved her and she knew it. This understanding of how God thought of her was the primary source of her being blessed. It is the foundation of understanding any blessing from God. When you and I understand and when you and I begin to grasp God’s love for us, despite any of our outward circumstances it is at that point we too can understand God’s blessing. Perhaps not blessed like Mary, but certainly blessed.
Secondly she could say she was blessed because she believed God was going to fulfill what He said. Mary had faith in God. She really believed what God had told her. That’s the key isn’t it? She really believed it. And the last time we see her in the Scriptures she is waiting with the 11 disciples in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost waiting for the promised Holy Spirit to down from heaven, still having faith, still believing. I see many Christians struggle with really believing. They struggle with really believing that God cares and loves them.. So from where did Mary’s faith come? From where did she get this faith to sustain her through what would be a very hard life? Scripture teaches us that faith comes first through hearing God’s word. We cannot believe and have faith in what God says unless we first know what God says. We can hear God’s word by listening when it is read and by reading it on our own. As we listen and hear his word it helps us to know him better and believe. But also faith is a gift and we can pray that God will give us faith. We can pray that God will strengthen the faith we have. I love that part in one of the gospel stories when Jesus asks a father if he has faith that his son can be healed. The father replies, “I believe, but help my unbelief.” That is you and me too, isn’t it? We need God’s help too to overcome our unbelief.
Mary was blessed. Even aside from her being the mother of Jesus Christ, she was a blessed woman. And you and I can be blessed too. But it is important to understand what being blessed is. We need to know the difference between what God calls blessed and what the world calls blessed. Understand what God thinks of you; understand he loves you so much he sent Jesus to die for you! Pray that God will strengthen your faith in him. And be blessed! Amen.