English Service on September 18
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
Scripture: Numbers 6:22-27
Title: “Living in the Lord’s Blessing”
Good morning, everyone. I’m glad to be back at Open Door after being gone for a few weeks in the US. One of my reasons for going was to help our daughter get started in university. The first Sunday there, I looked at a list of churches in Waco, Texas, trying to decide where to go to worship. I found there were 78 Baptist churches in Waco alone, not to mention all the others. I felt then how happy I am to be serving at this church in Sapporo, Japan. Thinking of what I could have done with my life, I suppose I could have stayed in my home country and done similar work there. Maybe I could have done something like raising the number of churches in Waco, Texas, from 78 to 79. But when I compare that to the chance I have to be here, living among people in this community of faith, I’m glad about the choices I have made and the way God has led me. I feel blessed to have the chance to tell the Good News of Christ, especially where there are people who don’t have a very good chance to hear it normally.
Just now I used the word blessed, didn’t I. Bless and blessing are similar words, “church-language” that we may hear in places like this but rarely anywhere else. I tend to avoid using them if I don’t think they’ll be understood. But God uses them often in speaking to us through the Bible, and they are a vital part of the faith that has been handed down to us over thousands of years. Also, you may recall, I’ve been bringing messages focused on worship recently, and blessing is a central part of worship. So I’d like to conclude our series on community worship with today’s talk.
Maybe it’s fitting that this will be the last message in the series because the blessing is often the last part of the worship we do together here on Sundays. In English we use a special word for it, benediction, that simply means “good word” (祝祷 in Japanese). In Genesis 1 as God made the world, the story tells us five different times that looked at His creation and called it “good.” It tells us twice that He “blessed it.” As humans, we are part of God’s creation, and it is in His nature to
bless. So it’s natural that a blessing, or benediction, is part of our worship every week, but you may never have learned why we do it or what meaning there is behind it. So let’s take today as a good chance to do that and in the process become better able to live in the Lord’s blessing.
Let’s go phrase by phrase through the blessing God taught the people of Israel to include in their worship of Him.
Verse 24 begins, “May the LORD bless you . . . .” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says that to bless means to provide a person (or place, etc.) with something good or desirable. The pastor asks God to do that for the people of the church. In the same way, for someone to bless another person is “to ask God to care for and protect (that person),” Merriam-Webster says. This is based on love, of course, and it fits well with the next phrase, asking God to “take good care of you.” In other words, blessing someone is asking God to protect and provide for that person. The English word bless comes originally from the word blōd (blood). The idea is the use of blood in killing an animal in a ceremony to set something apart for the special use God has for it.
Likewise, when we talk about “a blessing,” we mean (1) “approval that allows or helps you to do something, (2) help and approval from God, or (3) something that helps you or brings happiness,” Merriam-Webster says.
So, for example, you may hear Christians talk about giving money for God’s work say things like, “It’s better to have 90% of the money I receive and the Lord’s blessing than 100% without His blessing.”
I don’t think it would be a mistake to say that being blessed is living the good life or having true happiness. Those are things that probably every human being seeks in some way. Even people who reject belief in God can want very deeply
to be good people and live well. But the main point in the first part of the blessing (“May the Lord bless you . . . .”) is that God is the one doing the blessing. We as people get our blessings from God.
You can’t bless yourself, the Bible shows. Western culture often tells us that we should just do what makes us happy as individuals, be happy know matter what anyone thinks. Some more group-oriented cultures have the idea that for the good life, we need the blessing of other people. The Bible’s God teaches something different from both. Most of all, we need God’s blessing. If we get the blessing of other people, that’s great, but our identity, meaning, and purpose in life don’t depend on it. The way others feel about us or we feel about ourselves is not everything. These things aren’t the center of our lives. They don’t go to the level of who we are. They don’t control us. When you have the blessing of God and you know it, it is possible to live in peace.
This blessing ends with the prayer that God will “give you His peace.” This “peace” is “shalom” in the original. That word includes more than the English word peace often does in the minds of its users. In shalom is well-being, health, good relationships, true happiness, satisfaction, and complete fulfillment of all your deepest needs.
When your happiness (shalom) comes from the Lord, you don’t live with the pressure to produce it yourself or do something so that others will give it to you. When you try to get your deepest needs met by yourself, it can easily lead to fear of failure and even self-hate when you find you cannot do it well enough. On the other hand, it can lead to trying to use others to get your needs met, seeing them not for the people they are but what they can do for you. Other times, when you are too desperate to get your blessing from other people, you can allow yourself to be used by them, willing to do too much in order for them to think well of you. That can lead to abuse. By contrast, setting your sights on God, allowing Him to bless you and keep you, holds the key to freedom from placing unhealthy expectations on both yourself and others. “May the Lord bless you . . . .”
The same sentence continues with “and take care of you.” Here we see that God, in blessing us, doesn’t only think nice thoughts about us or feel something special about us. He actively commits Himself to us, including meeting all our needs.
We get one of the clearest pictures of what blessing means to the Bible’s God in the Genesis 25-27 story of Isaac and Rebekah’s family. By chapter 27, Isaac is old and nearing death. Here you can see the Hebrew custom of the father giving a blessing to his children soon before leaving this world. Blessing someone is delighting in that person, in this case the father has deep joy in being the father of his children, longing for their prosperity in the future. The blessing shows the father’s feelings about the children and his relationship with them. But it is more. It is also giving them an inheritance. It is passing on money, goods, material possessions.
You may know this story, but especially if you do not, please read Genesis chapter 27. We don’t have time to look at it carefully here, but I’ll try to tell some of the key points.
Normally, the older child would receive the blessing, and that was Esau in this case, but God told Isaac to give the blessing to the second son, Jacob. Yet we don’t read anything about it until Isaac is nearly dead. It seems Isaac liked Esau better. The story gives the impression that Isaac was closer to Esau and Jacob was closer to his mother, Rebekah. Jacob probably grew up deeply longing for the blessing of His father’s love but not feeling sure he would ever receive it fully. His longing for it may explain why he was so desperate to do something as foolish as he did. When it was time for Isaac to give the blessing to Esau, he sent Esau out hunting so that he could make him a special meal. The celebration would be the time for giving the blessing. But while Esau was out, Jacob (at his mother’s leading) put on his brother’s clothes, took Isaac his favorite food (his mother had prepared), told his father he was Esau, and received the blessing before his brother returned home. There was no doubt he would get caught, he was, and it blew up the whole family, but by then Jacob had the blessing, and it could not be taken back. Jacob
ended up losing everything he had, including his family, and having to run away to save his life. Yet he was willing to risk such a great loss to hear his father say even one time that he blessed him.
By the way, do you ever feel frustrated with your family relationships? If so, you may take hope from seeing the deep, complicated troubles this family had. God was able to use them for great things, even to bring the world the Messiah, Jesus, through their family, even with all its failures and problems.
One thing is very clear in this story: the blessing had deep meaning and great value. And this is what God wants to give to us as His own children. He does not just give some nice words to us in the Numbers 6 blessing. He feels the way He felt about His Son when Jesus was baptized and God spoke from heaven (Mark 1:11), saying, “You are my Son, and I love you. I am very pleased with you” (NIRV). The New International Version (NIV) puts it: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Please don’t go home today without hearing those as God’s words to you as a follower of His Son and letting that blessing sink deep into your heart, mind, and soul.
The blessing continues in v. 25, “May the LORD smile on you . . . .” The NIV says, “the LORD make his face shine on you . . . .” God’s “smile” is His way of showing His love for you. Likewise, His “face” is His loving presence with us. If you are in a room where many people are eating a meal, for example, you are present with them all, but you are there in a much more meaningful way with someone if you are looking at them and enjoying having a conversation with him or her.
Eugene Peterson and other writers discuss the Bible’s use of the word face. Whose face did you look at the most as you were growing up? How did that face guide and direct you as you grew? Was it more often a smiling and supporting face or a frowning and condemning one? Whoever’s face it was, it probably influenced the way you came to understand yourself quite a bit. As humans, we learn about
ourselves largely through the way others respond to us. What impact do the faces you saw the most as a child continue to have on your life?
The Bible’s God teaches us to learn the habit of turning our eyes to Him, looking on His face, seeing His smile, from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day. Living in relationship with Him, regularly communicating with Him, we can come to understand Him, the world, and ourselves in the most accurate and healthiest way, He tells us. For many or maybe all of us, learning to do that means unlearning some of the understandings of ourselves we have picked up along our life’s journey. Looking on the faces of those who did not see us clearly or love us purely has given us a bad way of looking of ourselves. But in that sometimes confusing and often painful struggle of learning to live with God’s face in view, we can day by day come to live as free, whole, thoroughly loved people. “The Lord make His face to shine on you.”
God wants to be with you. He wants to look on you. This is wonderful. But it is also terrifying. Moses was close to God and wanted to be closer, so he asked God to show him His glory in Exodus 33. God agreed to do this in some ways but also added, “But you can't see my face. . . . No one can see me and stay alive.”
If we encounter God too directly, we are not ready to handle it. We couldn’t survive it if we did it fully, it seems. Do you really want to be very close to a God like that? I hope so, but don’t answer too quickly because it is not a light or casual thing. God’s glory and sin cannot be together, just as fire and water cannot be together. One will force the other to change. So when we receive the blessing of God’s smiling face shining on us, we are also receiving the command to be pure, holy people on whom He can look in kindness and not judgment.
Now we are seeing the question Moses must have had when God told Israel’s priests to give this blessing in worship. That is, how is it possible for God to smile on us when we are sinful people? It is only possible through grace. That is why the
blessing does not stop at “May the LORD smile on you” but continues, “and be gracious to you” (v. 25).
God did something important that is necessary for us to have our sin problem taken care of. God’s grace came to us most fully in Jesus, especially in the event of His death on the cross. Yet even before that world-changing act, there were hints and signs of what would happen there.
For example, in the Genesis 27 story we were thinking about earlier, Jacob asked Rebekah, “What if my father touches me? He would know I was trying to trick him. That would bring a curse down on me instead of a blessing.”
She answered him, “My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say.”
Jesus in effect said this for us. The blessing that rightfully belonged to Jesus was given to us. Christ freely chose to take our place and receive the curse that we should have received, dying on the cross for us. Because He, as our older brother, did this for us, it is possible for us to live in God’s blessing. In fact, this is what He wants and intends for you and me. He expects us to live in God’s blessing. It is for that that He gave His life. That is why God can “look on you with favor and give you his peace” (v. 26).
I want to tell you a story about the picture you see on the screen. It is probably a poor example of what God is teaching us because it is different in so many ways. But it does connect at some points, too. It is of my father and the three boys in our family when I was a child. We were at the zoo in Memphis, Tennessee, USA. (My brother recently found this picture and sent it to me.)
You may notice we are all smiling. That is why I think the picture was taken soon before what our family now calls “the gorilla incident.”
When we walked by the gorillas, there was a thick glass between us and them. I kept tapping on it again and again, trying to get the gorilla to look at me. I
guess that noise irritated the gorilla because after a while he looked over at me, picked up some poop from the floor, and threw it my way. But somehow that poop hit the glass right in front of my older brother’s face.
When I saw that, I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever seen and began laughing and laughing. But my brother did not think it was the high-level humor that I did. He got angry, there were tears, there was fighting, and it probably wasn’t a pleasant time for anyone from that point on.
What happened with the gorilla, my brother, and me was like the cross in this way. The punishment that I should have received came to my brother instead. The freedom to enjoy watching, that he should have had, came to me rather than him. Because he paid the price, I was free to enjoy myself.
My brother did not choose to be in that position, but Jesus actually did choose to obey God and go to the cross. There, all the anger of God that we deserved fell on Jesus. All the blessing that He deserved falls on us. Through Christ, we have the opportunity to live with His name on us and in His promise, “And I will bless them” (v. 27). Praise God for that word of Good News. I am so glad to have the chance to bring it to you today. I pray that you will receive it fully.
Again, when God looks down on us, He does not just wish us well. He makes a commitment to accept Christ’s payment of the price for our sin and to be there for us no matter what. When you become a follower of God, He does not just make you feel better. He does not just forgive your sin. He puts His name on you. You wear God’s family name on you. With that, we receive identity, support, defense, accountability (someone will check on us, and we will check on each other), security, intimacy, and all that we need and He chooses to give. When you follow God, you don’t get a boss—you get a father. When you do the wrong thing, you don’t get fired—you get loved. (That may be even more difficult in some ways, but it is what you need.) In all these forms and more, we live in His blessing.
So in response to the Good News we have now heard, I invite you to spend some time in prayer with me.
Almighty God and loving Father, thank you for the amazing grace that makes it possible for us to live in your blessing. Help us not only to receive it with thanks but in response also give it to others and seek more of it.
You teach us in Romans 12, “. . . Bless and curse not.” So please help us make the habit of finding the fruit, gifts, and sacrifices that we see in those around us each day. And seeing these signs of your presence in these people, help us to bless them. Help us not to allow ourselves to be in the habit of finding people’s mistakes and bad points, then shining the light them out. That is cursing. Help us bless and curse not.
God, we especially ask for your help in blessing people who are not kind to us. You teach us in I Peter to “repay evil with blessing,” reminding us, “to this you were called, so that you may inherit a blessing.”
In our lives of faith each day, Lord, help us to remember, as you teach us in John 1, “We have all received one blessing after another.” Help us to keep that truth deep in our hearts, and as a result live so that we will be a blessing to you and many people. This is our prayer, in Christ’s name, amen.
Keller, T. (September 14, 2008). “Benediction.” Gospel in Life. Redeemer Presbyterian Church. New York City. Retrieved September 13, 2016 from http://www.gospelinlife.com/benediction-5611
Peterson, E. (1997). Subversive Spirituality. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans-Regent.