Easter 6 (Brent Reese)
May God be merciful to us and bless us.
The opening words of our Psalm invoke God’s mercy and blessing. May God be merciful to us and bless us. In preparing to speak today, as I read the lectionary texts from Acts, Psalms, John, and Revelation, I found in them a commonality concerning both the target and the nature of God’s blessing. I’m not claiming some profound or original discovery, but over the next few moments I would like to share with you what I’ve learned.
We have likely all heard someone say, “I’ve been blessed. [or] God has blessed me.” And it’s possible at one time or another, each of us has said those words ourselves—and when we do, it’s often in relation to our perception of some sort of positive event or situation—a success, health, family, finances, employment. When we associate the source of a blessing so defined with a divine God, what we’re really saying or thinking is God has favored me and given me something good.
When we view God’s blessing as his favor, we begin to convince ourselves and behave as though we are in a competition to win that favor...as though God’s favor were finite, and if others are getting more, then I must be getting less. If it’s a competition, then there needs to be rules, so we get caught up defining the criteria by which we think God awards favor. We then begin to apply these rules and measures to ourselves and to others—especially to others—eventually mostly to others. We start thinking that those lacking God’s favor as we define it are cursed rather than blessed. And we allow our fighting over such rules to divide us. That doesn’t sound to me like the prayer of the psalmist in our lectionary this morning. Notice with me again from your bulletin insert the number of times the psalmist’s prayer for blessing targets all of humanity. “Let your ways be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations…let all the peoples praise you…let the nations be glad…guide all the nations…let all the peoples praise you…may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of God.” God’s merciful blessing is meant to unite us, not divide us.
It’s logically inconsistent for me to claim love, care, and concern for all of humanity, but at the same time seek to hold on to such a general disapproval or even dislike for individuals who don’t meet the favor-winning criteria I’ve devised.
In terms of identifying the target of God’s blessing—this Psalm echoes the covenant that God first established with the Hebrew patriarch Abraham. [As an aside here, I feel I should explain that for nine years I was a teaching and preaching pastor in a Baptist congregation. In that tradition there was no established lectionary. To be sure we taught from the Bible, but we had the latitude to choose the portions that would be referenced and incorporated into each message. If you’ve heard a Baptist sermon, you know they can be long, and they are never complete without weaving in the entire scheme of redemption and culminating with an altar call. I assure I won’t get that carried away this morning, but there will be a couple of times when I reach outside the text of our lectionary to add to the context of what we have before us today.] In Genesis 12, God says to Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you.” What a profound declaration for Abraham to receive. God says, “I choose you.” Yet there’s more God has to say to Abraham that day. He says “I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. And all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Abraham hears that a blessing received is to be a blessing shared.
We see then that intended target of God’s blessing is all people. What then is the nature of that blessing?
My wife Denise and I have been married 37 years. We have four adult children and six grandchildren. We have reached the empty nest season of life. Our youngest grandson—his name is Townes—is ten months old, and we are fortunate that his parents live here in Champaign—our older grandchildren are in Chicago and Indy—still close, and we see them often, but naturally not as often as the one who lives nearby. A couple of weeks ago on a Friday evening, we had offered to keep Townes overnight in our home in Mahomet to give his parents some time to themselves. There was a moment that evening during our time with Townes that I remember vividly. Denise was standing and holding him in the kitchen as I walked into the room from another part of the house. He had been looking away from my direction when I entered, but when he heard me, he turned his face toward me, and the corners of his mouth turned up in a smile of what I am choosing to label recognition. If you have experienced such a moment with a child, you know the rush of joy that overtakes you. But there was more. As I approached, Townes raised up his arms and leaned toward me in that unmistakable way that children yet unable to speak nevertheless communicate clearly, “I want to come to you.”
What is God’s blessing? Let’s read again the opening verse of Psalm 67. May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us.
The picture of God’s blessing painted for us by the first verse of Psalm 67 is that God reveals himself to us, turns towards us in recognition, and comes to us. God’s blessing is learning to see and experience his abiding presence.
The nature of God’s presence is at the heart of our Gospel text from John this morning which picks up midway through what is often referred to as the Upper Room discourse. It’s the time Jesus spent with his apostles sharing a meal and conversation on the night that he would be betrayed. That evening, Jesus tells his followers he will be with them only a little longer.
The news is understandably unsettling, and in John 14, Jesus comforts his followers with two promises. First, he promises that he is going to prepare a place for them and will return and take them with him to that place so they could be with him forever. That’s a wonderful promise. Yet as Jesus continues to speak to his disciples, it’s as though he is answering their unspoken concern. “Jesus, that all sounds great that you’re getting a place ready for us, and that you’re going to come back and take us there to be with you forever, but, what about while you’re away? How are we going to make it without you?” They are ready to trust him with their future, but they still live with concerns in the present. Sound familiar? Are we any different? Their fears are not unlike ours. We live in a world of disease, hunger, earthquakes, tornadoes, and unemployment. A world of murder, theft, abuse, gossip, betrayal, and deceit. A world of pain—both physical and emotional. It’s in moments of such pain and bewilderment that we may find ourselves asking, “But what about now?”
In our lectionary text from John, Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” How is it that God the Father and God the son will come? Jesus answers as he continues, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Jesus words of comfort to his disciples that night and to us this morning are, “Don’t be afraid, I will be away, but God’s presence will remain.”
Jesus refers to the Spirit as the Holy Spirit. The word holy means something that stands out, something that is set apart. The Spirit comes into our life to set us apart—to purify us, to change us into the image of Christ. His Spirit works in us to bear the fruit of His character—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. How often have we pursued and accepted what the world offers as peace only to discover it was a counterfeit promise? As we experience the movement of Christ’s Spirit in our own hearts; we awaken to the movement of his Spirit in others. The beloved in us…sees the beloved in others. Our vision of the world changes. Our perception of inner peace is redefined and our potential for relational peace unfolds in a way that surpasses our prior understanding.
Jesus contrasts the peace he brings with peace as the world comprehends it. The world sees peace as the absence of war and conflict. The great Roman peace of that day had been secured by the military might of the first Roman emperor, Augustus in 30 B.C. Yet we know by events in our own day, a peace obtained by violence is forever threatened by violence. The peace of Christ is never threatened.
Such a peace doesn’t come to me when I am living the world’s dream. It comes when I connect to God’s presence and live his dream. A dream where the peace and blessing falls not by the standards of the world, but on the meek, the pour in spirt, those who suffer, and those who mourn.
God’s blessing is coming to know that as a child of God, you carry his presence within you.
Paul wrote to Corinth: Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? (1 Corinthians 6:19)
The long ago promise of blessing to Abraham was not only for him, it was for all nations. Nor was the promised Holy Spirit just for the closest disciples of Jesus who heard his words that night in the Upper Room. Paul wrote to the Galatians: “Christ has redeemed us out of the curse of the law… in order that the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” (Galatians 3:13-14)
The promise is for you.
The promise was for a first century merchant of purple cloth name Lydia who opened first her heart to the good news of Jesus when it came to her and then she opened her home to the messengers who brought it. Her blessing received became a blessing shared.
The promise is for your children. The promise is for all humanity.
The prayer of Psalm 67 for God to come to us is answered in Revelation 22 as John describes the vision of the holy city of Jerusalem where the dwelling place of God is not a temple, it is the Lord God the Almighty himself and the Lamb. The light of God’s countenance petitioned in Psalm 67 illuminates the holy city. God’s saving health among all nations invoked in Psalm 67 will be reality in the healing leaves of the trees that line the river in the holy city. The praise of all the people entreated in Psalm 67 will be heard rising from the worshipers gathered around the throne in the holy city.
Let’s choose today to join in and continue God’s movement to bless all the nations of the earth. Henri Nouwen wrote “the blessing that we give to each other is an expression of the blessing that rests on us from all eternity.” I invite you to consider that when we stand a little later this morning in our gathering, to turn our faces toward one another to express the blessing of peace.
May our prayer today be, “Advocate Holy Spirit, teach and remind us that you are present with and in us. Advocate Holy Spirit, grant us hearts untroubled. Advocate Holy Spirit, multiply our blessings received as blessings shared.”
May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us. Amen.
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