Story Time - Bishop Paul recounts the Christmas Story

THE BLESSING OF GOD

The way this Lent Series works is that each talk stands on its own, but if you are at all three you will get a lot more out of it than if you are only at one. The sum of the three is more than the individual ones because they interweave in and out of each other. So that’s just an encouragement to be at all three really.

We are going to explore the theme of blessing. Our diocesan vision is ‘To bless our communities in Jesus’ name for the transformation of us all’ therefore it seems sensible to do some thinking and teaching around the whole theme of blessing.

In this first talk we are going to look at the God of blessing. The second looks at the blessing of God which is us blessing God and the third looks much more at how do we live lives which are about blessing others, particularly blessing communities and individuals. Together they do weave in and out of each other. There are quite a lot of bible passages referred to throughout. We will not have time to read all of them. In due course the text will be available on the diocesan website and that will have all of the verses if you want to follow up.

The God of Blessing

Psalm 134 which is very short – ‘Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord who minister by night in the house of the Lord. Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the Lord. May the Lord bless you from Zion, he who made heaven and earth.’

The word is exactly the same, Bless, but the first few references in Psalm 134 are an encouragement to the people of God to bless God and then the last verse is about God blessing us from Zion and this happens again and again and here it is in Ephesians 1: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places’. I hope you get the picture that the word blessing is used both of God towards us and us towards God.

In this first talk we are thinking about God towards us and in the seconded he focus is on us towards God and thenunit the third outwards to others.

In Hebrew the word for blessing is ‘barakh/berakhah’ and the root of that word is to bow the knee. If you think about that for the second talk that makes quite a lot of sense, because the idea of us bowing the knee to God and therefore blessing God makes a lot of sense, because it is an attitude of worship. But interestingly God bows the knee towards us as he blesses us, if you take it literally. So there is something of the divine grace in the word itself.

In Greek in the New Testament, and in the way in which the Old Testament is translated into Greek, most of the time when that Hebrew word appears the Greek word ‘eulogeo’ is used. And that simply means to speak well of. So it is to speak well of God, it is to speak well of others, that’s the root meaning of blessing, to speak well of. But there is another word that’s used ‘makarios’ which is often translated ‘happy’ and that’s the word that gets used in the Sermon on the Mount in particular and Jesus saying Blessed and so on….and we will look at the Sermon on the Mount in the next two talks. There is an important difference between those two words which I will explain when we get there, but most of the time we are dealing with the Hebrew word that means to bow the knee and a Greek work which means ‘to speak well of’.

There are 3 key things I want to suggest to you as to how God blesses us; in creation, in covenant and in Christ.

The God of Blessing in Creation

The first is of the God of blessing in creation and it starts in the opening chapter of the Bible, Genesis Chapter 1 you will remember the story of the creation as it is told there. When we get to verse 22 this is what we read, God has just created the sea creatures, every living creature that moves and so on. God saw that it was good and God blessed them saying be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters of the seas and let birds multiply on the earth and there was evening and there was morning on the fifth day.

Then we get to the 6th day and God makes more creatures and God says let us make man in our image after our likeness and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the Heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female, he created them and God blessed them and said to them ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.’So the idea of God’s blessing in creation is there right from the outset of Genesis chapter 1 and the idea of God blessing in creation appears once more in this telling which is in Chapter 2, when the 7th day is the day of rest and God blessed the 7th day and made it Holy because on it God rested from all his work. So God is constantly blessing in creation, in the existence of the universe in the existence of the earth, in all that is happening in the earth, and this is theme that runs right the way through the Old Testament and is picked up particularly in the Psalms.

If we take Psalm 67 as one of the most obvious examples ‘May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.’ The word means bowing the knee but it’s the phrase that often arises when you read of God’s blessing, you also read often of God making his face to shine upon us. So if you want another image of what does it mean when God blesses us and blesses his creation, he is making his face shine upon us. That’s what he is doing constantly and continually, God is shining his face on creation for its good and its wellbeing. I want to suggest we keep remembering this truth about the world in which we live, and about the universe with its gravitational waves as well as its light waves. God’s blessing is expressed in gravitational waves and in light waves and in its whole existence. God’s blessing is expressed in the fact the earth keeps producing more and more food, that creatures keep multiplying, this is a sign and symbol of God’s blessing on us still. That’s what’s happening and we are in danger of course of forgetting that completely. We start thinking that it is entirely down to us that it is entirely down to our brilliance at farming techniques and all that goes with it. No. The core thing is that God is blessing us in creation day in and day out.

The God of Blessing in Covenant

Noah

But then as the scriptures move on there is also the theme of God blessing us in covenant and the first covenant that emerges in the scriptures is that made with Noah which we read about in Genesis 8 & 9. Remember the story of the flood and then the flood subsides, and this is what we read in Chapter 8.20 ‘Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took of every clean animal and of every clean birds and offered burnt offerings on the altar and when the Lords smelled the pleasing aroma the Lord said in his heart ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.’

When you read on the story a little bit more you then have the sign of the rainbow put in the clouds. When the rainbow is in the clouds I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. God said to Noah ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth’. So God has blessed in creation from its outset. But God then makes a covenant that he will continue renewed blessing of creation on and on. And please note the covenant is not just with human beings. The covenant is between God and every living creature of all flesh and that’s repeated. It’s a covenant with the whole of creation. That’s the primary covenant that God makes in the early chapters of the scriptures. It’s a covenant of continuing to be blessing in creation. So the covenants that follow in the scripture we are going to look at in a moment, they have to be read and understood and heard in the light of the fact that God is committed to the whole of creation and the whole of humanity, to keep on pouring his grace and his love and his blessing out. He is going to keep shining his face on the whole of creation. And any other covenant that comes along we have to recognise fits underneath that overall covenant.

Abraham

So what happens next? Well we have the God of blessing in covenant with Abraham and this is absolutely pivotal to the history of God’s dealings with humankind and God’s saving work through human history. Now the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you and I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him that dishonours you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ And that covenant with Abraham gets repeated in chapter 15 and again in chapter 17 to how it is being played out, and that becomes more obvious in chapter 17. But there is the blessing here of the land, God’s covenant to give Abraham’s descendants the land. God’s covenant with Abraham that he will have many many descendants, but we always have to note that the purpose of God blessing Abraham with land and with descendants is so that blessing can come for all the families of the earth. So the covenant with Abraham is not to create an exclusive little group against the rest of the world, but it is to make a covenant with them and bless them on behalf of the rest of the world, so that through Abraham and his descendants God’s blessing may reach out to all families and all nations and all peoples.

That covenant is reaffirmed with Isaac in chapter 26, and with Jacob not only in chapter 35, Jacob needed reaffirming several times. But this is the covenant that forms the basis of God’s activity in bringing about the salvation of the world as we shall see further. So you have the covenant with Noah which is with all of creation, the covenant with one person Abraham, that they will have land and descendants so that through him and through those descendants all nations can be blessed. As you know that as this family begins to grow, Abraham never had any land except one tiny bit which he bought, which is the burial plot for his wife. In fact they get dragged off, well not dragged off, they go off into Egypt and they stay in Egypt for a long time. Still the number of descendants is increasing but still no land.

Moses

And then the Exodus happens and Moses is called by God to deliver and rescue the people of Israel out of Egypt, out of slavery and to take them to the Promised Land. They are by this stage a very large number of people. And in Exodus chapter 19 having rescued them and taken them into the wilderness and taken them to Mount Sinai, God renews the covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai. And in Exodus chapter 19 that renewing we read about and the promise that God makes is this ‘now therefore if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and holy nation. These are the words that you should speak to the people of Israel.’ In this new phase of covenant commitment by God they are reminded that the whole earth belongs to God and therefore all peoples, and yet God is renewing the promise that they have a particularly treasured place within his purposes for the whole earth.

They are to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Within the nation they had priests, but then as a nation they were to be a kingdom of priests. Priests act on behalf of those whom they represent. The covenant with Israel was that God wanted them to be the means through which, and by which, God’s blessing would be spread out into all the earth. It was not so that they had a hold on God and God had a hold on them without any interest in anybody else, it was that through them God’s blessing would be poured out on all peoples. Now that got a bit lost in their thinking, but that was what the covenant was there for. The prophets keep calling them back to this calling, ‘to be a light to the Gentiles’. The covenants begin to work out in history, they get into the land, so they now have the land, and they live in the land, and they continue to grow in number and they begin to become a more powerful nation, and they then have a king.

David

The first king is Saul, the next king is David and this is the final covenant of the Old Testament that we read about where God makes a covenant with David. David decides that he is going to build God a temple. God responds to him ‘No you’re not. Your son will build a temple but I am going to make a promise to you. I am going to make you and your children and your people into a line of kings’. And the covenant with David is that there will be a divine king who will represent the people for all time and will be the king of all kings. We are back down to one person. We had one person, Abraham, and then we had one person in David, and there’s a line. But still the constant theme of the covenant is that this is for the blessing of all peoples and all the earth. That’s the series of covenants in the Old Testament.

The prophets do also speak of ‘a new covenant’ but it is essentially the fulfilling of these covenants for it looks to the one Davidic King, the Messiah.

Take a pause to think over all that has been considered so far.

Cursing

The next bit gets slightly more awkward because if we talk about the God of blessing in creation and in covenant what about cursing? Because if we go back to Genesis, Adam and Eve turn their back on God, and what happens? They are driven out and there is a curse. A curse placed on the serpent, a curse placed on the ground. When we read that carefully, what is happening is that when human beings have decided that they are not satisfied with being human beings but want to be like God, the relationship between human beings and God gets broken down. That broken relationship leads to a broken relationship with creation, particularly with the earth. So the curse of Genesis chapter 3 at its heart, is the breaking of the relationship between humanity and God and its impact. The curse is about broken relationships.

The longest passage that deals with the idea of cursing in the Old Testament law is Deuteronomy 27 -30. It’s a very long 4 chapters so we are not going to read it but the cursing bit is longer than the blessing bit. When the people of God, under Moses instruction, was going to go into the Promised Land they were to line up on two hills and one hill was the hill of blessing, and the other hill was the hill of cursing and they were going to echo these across at each other. But the focus of those chapters and the reference to blessing and curse is exactly the same as in Genesis chapter 3, in that it is about broken relationship and its impact. The broken relationship with God, the broken relationship between one another, broken relationships between the tribes, broken relationships with the earth. The curse of God in that sense is broken relationship, but it’s not so much God’s curse on us as it is the curse that we bring upon ourselves when we turn our backs on God. And God in his wisdom and in his grace is actually allowing us to make the free choice that leads to that situation. Actually we can’t understand fully the God of blessing unless we grasp the fact that if we don’t allow the blessing of God to shine upon us we end up in a position effectively of curse.

The most interesting story of blessing and cursing in action in the Old Testament I think is the story of Balak and Balaam. I say ‘I think’ but those who write about blessing and cursing also think, so it’s not my original thought. Numbers 22-24 is one of those stories when you read it you think, goodness me, what on earth is going on here. Balak hires Balaam to curse Israel who are walking through the wilderness. Balaam says No because he knows that Gods hand is upon Israel. Then he is persuaded to come and do it and we have the extraordinary story of Balaam’s ass talking to him. Then when he goes to pronounce a curse over Israel, he pronounces a blessing and Balak get extremely cross with him saying ‘I paid you to come and curse them and you’re blessing them’ and each time he tries, Balak says why don’t you do it from here or why don’t you try this and why don’t you try that, and the point about the story all the way through is, Israel is under God’s blessing and you can’t stop that. Balak and no human can stop that. You cannot manipulate God. When God is at work and God is on the move you cannot manipulate him, out do him, out think him, out-manoeuvre him. Where God is going to bless he will bless. Balaam understood that but half gave in to Balak, but found he couldn’t. It’s worth reading in full, as it is a very good Lenten reading. So cursing goes on but God is always in the business of wanting to bless through his covenant with the whole of creation, through his covenant with Abraham, through his covenant with Moses, through his covenant with David. His desire is to bless, but he keeps warning us that if we don’t go with his blessing then there is effectively a curse upon us, because there is a broken relationship with God and a broken relationship with God always leads to a broken relationship with humanity and with creation.

The God of Blessing in Christ

Jesus in Gospels

So let’s move to the New Testament because there’s the God of blessing in creation, the God of blessing in covenant and then there’s the God of blessing in Christ, which is the fulfilment of the covenant with Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob and Moses and David. The new covenant of the prophets is fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is the seed of Abraham. Jesus is the one who fulfils the law. Jesus is great David’s, greater son. Now in Jesus’ ministry we see the exercise of blessing, and here are some examples.

The loaves and the fish he takes and blesses and feeds, whether that be the 5000 or the 4000 and this I suggest to you, ties back in with the idea of the God of blessing of creation. In the blessing of the loaves and the fish there is something of the blessing of creation. A multiplication that God promised in creation and Jesus is revealing that in the way that he is feeding people. He is acting as God blessing in creation. That could be argued also for the blessing of the bread and wine, at what we come to call Communion or Eucharist, as in the Last Supper. But Jesus doesn’t just bless things, Jesus blesses people. He took children in his arms, laid his hands on them and blessed them. After the Resurrection as he ascends to heaven, he is blessing his disciples (Lk 24.50-52) When you think about his miracles, particularly as he heals and restores people and speaks peace into their lives the whole notion of Jesus saying go in peace is a way of him speaking God’s blessing of peace into those people’s lives. They are all of course about restored relationships.

Restored relationship with God, restored relationship with others, those who have been excluded from the temple because they had leprosy now welcomed back. Those who have been excluded from society because of the nature of their illnesses now welcomed back. As God blesses them and gives them his peace their relationships are restored. And the blessing of God is in restored relationships in Christ. That’s in the gospels, then when you get to the Epistles the whole thing bursts forth.

Epistles

Galatians Chapter 3 ‘For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse for it is written, cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law and do them.’ That’s taken from Deuteronomy. ‘Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for the righteous shall live by faith. For the law is not of faith but rather the one who does them shall live by them. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written ‘cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’. That is also from Deuteronomy. ‘So that in Christ Jesus, the blessing of Abraham might come to the gentiles so that we might receive the promised spirit through faith. So Paul is saying to the Galatians none of us can live by the law, the law may be God given but therefore we are all under the law’s curse because all of us have broken the relationship with God. We all live in that state of broken relationship and therefore are under curse. But what Christ has done is to redeem us from that curse by becoming a curse for us.

Pictures and images of what the cross is about abound in the New Testament, there’s a range of them but this is one; we are redeemed from being under the curse, we are now in the hands of the blessing of God. And what blessing are we in from God? We are in the blessing of Abraham. The promise that God made with Abraham, the covenant that God made with Abraham, that through him all the nations would be blessed and finds its fulfilment in Jesus Christ hanging on a cross and then rising again. We are redeemed, we are set free, and we are brought back into the right relationship with God and under God’s blessing through Christ.

We go to Ephesians 1: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places, just as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world that we shall be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ according to the purpose of his will to the praise of his glorious grace with which he has blessed us in the beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood. The forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’ It just spills out of Paul, at this point God has blessed us in every possible way in Jesus Christ he has chosen us to be his people so we are now the Israel of God. He has adopted us as Gods children so we are his heirs, we are his sons and his daughters. He has reconciled us to God in Christ, he has brought about forgiveness of ourselves in Christ and as we go on he has reconciled Jew and Gentile, he has broken down all the barriers of relationship which existed, he has transformed it utterly in Christ. This is God’s blessing in Christ complete restoration of everything he ever intended for humanity and for the whole of creation. Colossians 1 says much the same that it’s all about the restoration and reconciliation of all things of the whole of creation, that the cross is not just redeeming you and me, but is restoring all of creation into relationship with God into the right relationship which he always wanted.

This is how God blesses. He blesses through and in Jesus Christ, and the heart of his blessing is to restore us and all of humanity into right relationship with him, into right relationship with one another, into right relationship with the created order. Now we do not yet see that in all its fulfilment. That’s the tension that we live, of what Christ has done and yet is to be seen in all its fulfilment but this is the blessing of God in Jesus Christ, the complete restoration and renewal of all things. And this has to come first. We cannot bless God unless we grasp how much God has blessed us. We cannot bless others unless we realise how blessed we are. And know, how blessed we are and know how determined God is to keep blessing the whole of creation. God does not want your next door neighbour or my next door neighbour to be anything other than living under his blessing.

This is how God blesses us. He blesses us in creation, he blesses us in the covenants that he has made, which find their fulfilling and their fulfilment in the blessing that he gives us in Jesus Christ. And that blessing, at its heart, is aright relationship with God as his beloved children, as his beloved people, reunited with one another and with the created order. Its amazing good news.

Bishop Paul Bulter, Lent 2016

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