Happy 4th of July! Hold the bunting and party hats though, until we’ve asked some bracing questions about Independence and the way it is glorified in the Western world.
Not least because, if the way of the Hebrew Scriptures and this amazing way of Jesus are right, then actually we’ve got the opposite of independence written into our DNA – we’re created to be interdependent. The word that our Bibles use for that, is ‘blessing’: we are made in such a way that we need God’s blessing in our lives and we need each other’s blessing in our lives.
Blessing is a very twee word! That we use mostly when someone sneezes. But in the Bible, ‘blessing’ is robust and deep and meaningful, and doesn’t get thrown around lightly. Blessing is all about God’s presence in our lives: the assumption that God has good plans and purposes for our lives, and the expectation that God is at work in our lives to bring those good plans into action. We find that all over the scriptures – two of the best-known examples are in Jeremiah’s prophecy and St Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Blessing doesn’t mean that God gives us ‘good luck’ or lots of possessions, as the prosperity gospel movement has taken it to mean. On the contrary, it means we give ourselves into God’s possession. So if I say ‘bless you’, it means I’m putting you into God’s hands and seeking God’s will for your life, because that’s the best place you could possibly be. And it means I’d like to find out with you what that means in your life and in my life. We’re made for God’s blessing and for each other’s blessing.
We find that first in Adam and Eve, who were created and blessed by God, so that they could bless creation by caring for it. But they turned their backs on God’s blessing, and ended up ‘cursed.’ That doesn’t mean that God cast a bad spell on them – it means there were consequences to taking their lives out of God’s hands and choosing a different way of life. And the early chapters of Genesis are all about those consequences, as human life goes into a horrible downward spiral of nastiness that ends in the great flood.
But God has good plans for this world- plans for blessing, not cursing- so God started again with Abram and Sarah. God said, I’ll bless you, and you go share that blessing with the world. Again God invited people to put their lives into God’s hands, to welcome God at work in their lives, and to seek God’s good plans and purposes for them and through them:
God was committing to our world and our human race, by inviting the Jewish people to be priestly people sharing God’s blessing with a broken world. But of course the Jewish people were just as human as Adam and Eve, and just as liable to turn their backs on God’s way of life. And so God gave them priests to remind them who they were- to bless them and send them out to bless others.
In Deuteronomy, as the Jewish people were about to enter their promised land (ie re-enter the garden of God’s blessing), Moses gave them a choice: blessing or curse, life or death. Put your life into God’s hands and there will be consequences for good; take your lives out of God’s hands and there will be consequences for bad. God doesn’t want the death of anyone, so please please choose life not death, choose blessing not curse.
And Matthew’s Jesus offers exactly the same choice. He offers the chance to re-enter the garden of God’s blessing, in the fullest sense: to turn the whole world into the garden of God’s blessing! God’s kingdom (or garden) come, on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus invites his followers to help turn the world upside down – where the world has chosen curse, let’s go bless. Where the world has chosen to take its life out of God’s hands, let’s go put it back into God’s hands.
And Jesus described that just like Moses did. In Matthew 5, BLESSED ARE YOU if you are poor in spirit, blessed are you if you’re weak, mourning, hungering for justice. And in Matthew 23, WOE TO YOU if you’re a hypocrite, if your life is godly and beautiful on the outside, but ugly on the inside. Woe to you if you are arrogant in your way of life and your way of serving God. Woe to you if you pay your 10 percent tithe but ignore justice.
But blessed are you if you recognise God’s transcendent and wonderful way of life in Jesus, the one who ‘comes in the name of the Lord.’ (Matthew 23:39)
Jesus is blessed indeed, because he gets it right where Adam and Eve couldn’t. He gets it right where the Jewish people after the Exodus couldn’t. Jesus put his life completely into God’s hands, and so lived a life that was completely open to God’s blessing. Through joy and sorrow, through life and even through death. Jesus was completely open to God’s goodness and purposes, and so he could offer God’s blessing into the lives of others that he healed and fed and released from captivity.
And blessed are we if we join in his wonderful way of life, because it’s what we were made to do and to be. It’s what Adam and Eve were made to be, it’s what the people of Israel were made to be. Through Jesus’ life and ministry, through his death and resurrection, and through his sending of the Holy Spirit, we are built into a people of blessing, the priesthood of God.
We are God’s priestly people- individually and together. We are blessed by God, and we are called by God to go share that blessing, with each other and with the world out there. So this morning, are we ready to assume that God has good plans and purposes for our lives, and expect God to work in our lives to bring those good plans into action?
Are we ready to put the people sitting around us into God’s hands, and into each other’s hands?? Sometimes we do that in word, symbolically marking the highs and lows of life. But blessing in word alone is not enough… It leaves us in a sort of liminal space, wanting and needing more: the symbol demands fulfilment in reality, that we find out what ‘blessing’ actually looks like in the highs and lows of each other’s lives. That might be a smile, a hug, a cup of tea, a kind word, a telephone call – part of the blessing is in the finding out and creatively fulfilling!
If I say bless you, it means I’m putting you into God’s hands and seeking God’s will for your life, because that’s the best place you could possibly be. And it means I’d like to find out with you what God’s good plans look like in your life and in my life. Let’s go BLESS each other this week!