I think blessing is a good topic to start the new year off with don’t you? If any of you want to be blessed raise your hand. And the prayer in Numbers Chapter 6 is probably one of the most beautiful benedictions in the Bible;
“The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon and give you peace.”
What does it mean to be blessed?
Broadly we can say that blessing of the LORD consists of three parts.
- The blessing of protection
- The blessing of presence
- The blessing of peace.
The benediction opens up with this, “ The LORD bless you and keep you.” The word for “keep” here is often used to describe the Lord’s protection in battle. So when the young shepherd boy David threw away Saul’s heavy armor and lay the smack down on Goliath with some stones from a creek and his sling, we would say that the Lord kept David and protected David that day. Psalm 121 sums up this perspective the best, “ The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore. “
Surely, in the New Testament God is still concerned with physically protecting His people. Yet, God’s power in the New Testament is not so much focused on our personal safety or us getting a private jet, but on our witness. What did Jesus tell us? “Behold I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” To be honest being a sheep in the midst of wolves is a lot less appealing than laying the smack down on Goliath with a sling shot. How often in Vacation Bible School do we reenact the sheep in the midst of wolves passage? Not often. David and Goliath is much more popular. Jesus doesn’t tell us that when we are in the midst of our enemies that he will always protect us from physical danger. Instead he says, “ When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour.” Jesus is saying that when the going get’s tough he can give us the power to witness.
Now if you are anxious about witnessing so am I. Yet, recently, I had breakthrough in witnessing. I got to witness to a witch, a High Priest or priestess of Wicca. I won’t say when or where or when this happened to protect the person’s privacy. But I can tell you the broad conversation. The person was demonstrating his or her “spirit stones” to the group I was with. Each of these stones had special healing properties. I asked this person to explain more about the stones. At first his or her response was,
“wait aren’t you the preacher?”
And he or she did not say it in a friendly or excited way. It was more in a skeptical and incredulous way. I felt a moment of panic. Often, around unbelievers I will downplay my calling, I will downplay that I believe a lot of things that are frankly strange and different to most secular people these days. But this time I decided to press in. I replied,
“Yes but I am not trying to make fun of you. I really want to know.”
The person’s demeanor softened to me and he or she explained more about the stones. Then the person mentioned how he or she considered herself religious but his or her friend was spiritual. I have never really met someone who practiced Wicca, and generally with folks these days prefer to describe themselves as spiritual and not religious. So I asked this person what he or she thought the difference between being religious and spiritual was? In reply, this person said he or she considered him or herself to be religious because this person prayed to gods and his or her friend was more an agnostic, seeking some general higher power, but not sure that power had an identity that this person could know. Frankly, I found this to be fascinating and I wanted to continue this conversation. Then to my surprise she asked me,
“Why did you become a pastor?”
Frankly, whenever I had gotten this question before I have punted. I have tried to say how normal I was. How I don’t hear strange voices and such. I haven’t really told nonbelievers my call story. The story I introduced myself with here at Calvin Presbyterian in the sermon, “Here I Am Lord.” But this time I didn’t punt. I told her how I had wrote an article for my college newspaper about my conversion. I told her how the day after I posted it I got an email titled, “Hi from Australia”. I told her how a random stranger from Australia, a man who I had never met, had read my article. I told her how he had emailed me to tell me that he was a complete atheist but my words had moved him and he thought I had a gift. I told her that the idea that my words affected someone on the other side of the globe convinced me that I should become a preacher. I told them that I saw it as a sign.” After I told my story the High Priest’s spiritual friend said something like,
“aww” as if my story had touched him or her. I think the Priest said something like,
“God is good like that.”
Frankly, I don’t remember exactly how they reacted for I was just stunned for I had just witnessed to a Wiccan. And it wasn’t that hard.
The entire experience reminded me of Paul’s testimony at the Areopagus of Athens in Acts 17. Paul begins by complementing them on all their altars and idols. He said, “ Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an alter with this inscription, “To the unknown God.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
, “In him we live and move and have our being”, as some of your poets have said. For we are indeed his offspring.” “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Now before, I thought Paul wasn’t really complimenting the Athenians. He was just playing lip service I thought. He was lying through his teeth I thought. For, Paul was a Jew. For him to walk through a city of idols would have turned his stomach. And indeed, making idols, may they be literal, or metaphorical, based on Biblical teaching, is wrong. But Paul looked past his offense to a common desire. When he complimented the Athenians for being religious he meant it. Because he saw that they were seeking God, and he saw that they believed the divine nature they were seeking had a character and a name. The divine nature was real. Real enough for them to build alters. Real enough for them to give it names. Real enough for them to devote time, money, and finances to it. He honored what was good in their searching while critiquing what was not.
The first step to witnessing is not to argue but to listen and observe. The first step is to understand where the other person is coming from. An open Spirit leads people down our messiah’s narrow path. This High priest I met called him or herself religious because he or she prayed to gods. This person was certain of the reality of a spiritual world and its work in his or her life.
And indeed, a Wiccan, is far closer to the Biblical view of the spiritual world, than a modern day agnostic or atheist. Wicca offered this person a more powerful and whole alternative than what the church had to offer. Much of the church practices a form of godliness without power. We talk about a spiritual world that is so separate from our world that it is of no importance to our everyday lives. If we are honest perhaps many of us in the church worship an unknown God. We recite our creeds and practice our liturgy but we are afraid to approach the One our confessions point to. Often, this is reflected by our fear of praying out loud, which frankly is almost a universal fear in the church. And certainly we should not pray out loud if we are looking for attention. But the scriptures tell us out of the abundance of our hearts our mouths shall speak. We voice our prayers because our hearts are overflowing not because we want to be elegant. We would not be afraid if we knew the one we were praying to. We would not be afraid if we believed the Lord does not require eloquence in our prayers but a simple and contrite heart. If Wicca, and new age religions seem to have more power and peace than the Christian Faith why in the world would you not worship those gods?
But that is not the God that Paul witnessed to in Acts. He witnessed to a God who raised Jesus from the dead. A God who defeated death and restored Jesus’ body to a glorious state. Jesus wasn’t a ghost after the resurrection. If he was how would death have been defeated? As a seed gives birth to a tree God birthed in Jesus a new body, connected to the old, but redeemed and transformed. And He promises that one day he will come again to redeem creation, to right every wrong, and till that day he sends His Holy Spirit as a sign that day is coming. Every miracle, every act of mercy, every time we lift up the name of Jesus, is a sign of the Spirit at work within us. It is a sign that the day of the Lord is coming.
Today the world wants you to believe that we live in ignorance. That all roads lead to Rome. That all roads lead to the same God. But that is not true. My friends there is good in all things but not all things are good. There is a real spiritual realm. There is something beyond what we can see that in some respects is more real than what we can see. And there are many ways you can touch this Spirit realm. And they are not completely bad. But if you try to touch that realm outside of Christ you do expose yourself to forces you cannot fully comprehend or protect yourself from.
First, is the blessing of protection which is the power to witness. Second, is the blessing of the LORD’s presence. To quote the benediction, “ the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.” The face of God in the Old Testament is synonymous with the manifest presence of the all powerful God. Most of the time God is invisible. His glory is hidden from us. But when people saw the face of God in the Old Testament often it would be an overwhelming experience. Moses was said to be the only man who spoke to God face to face like a friend (Exodus 33:11). But apparently, even Moses did not see the fullness of God’s face, because when he asked to see the LORD’s glory, the LORD refused, for if Moses saw the fullness of God’s face he would die. Instead, he put Moses in the cleft of a rock and as God passed by he showed Moses His back (Exodus 33:23). For Moses, if the presence of the LORD did not go with the people of Israel into the promised land than it wasn’t worth the journey. For the LORD’s presence was the most valuable thing to Moses. Now God doesn’t have a literal back or face. But what this language is trying to express to us is the magnitude and overwhelming power of the manifest presence of God.
We may think that Moses had a pretty amazing experience but Paul tells us that the experience of the everyday Christian believer is far more astounding than that of Moses. To quote Paul, “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” What Paul is saying is that when we see Jesus in our hearts we see the fire on the mountain, the glory that shone from Moses’ face. In Christ we stand before the glory of God face to face and we don’t die, in fact we are given eternal life. Not everyone can see this. Paul even admits that many of his own Jewish people could not. To quote Paul, “Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day, whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. “ Do you hear that church? As we gather together, as we raise our voices in praise, as we break the bread and drink the cup of communion, as we give thanks for what Christ has done for us, the presence of God is magnified in our lives. It is that presence that draws people to us. It is that presence that allows us to bear witness to His glory.
Finally, we see that the blessing of the Lord is peace. To quote the benediction, “ the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” The word for peace is the Hebrew word, “shalom.” The depth of this word is hard to define. It is more than simply the lack of conflict. You can be in the eye of the hurricane and not really be at peace because just beyond the clouds that surround you lies a world of hurt. Shalom is about renewed and restored relationships. Our relationships to our neighbors, our family, our church, our government, our nation, our world, our God. Because we know that if your relationships are not healthy, we may have a truce, but that doesn’t mean we have peace. It takes more than a lack of conflict to forge a family, a church, or a country. Think about that one perfect day. That day when the kids are laughing and go to bed without a fight. Think about that day. That day you stood at the alter with the love of your life and you could see nothing else but that person’s eyes. Think about that day. That vacation where you glimpsed the setting sun in some foreign location and you felt everything was right with the world. Think about that day. That day at work where you are getting it done, getting that promotion, getting that special employee of the month parking space. Think about that day. That day when you preach a sermon and nobody falls asleep. And nobody complains that you talked too long. That’s what shalom means. Wholeness and restoration. Completion and an understanding of your purpose. A knowing that you may not know what you the future holds but you know the One Who holds the future in His hands.
In the Old Testament generally you could only have shalom when everything was going your way. When you vanquished your enemies, when your wife had lots of kids, and your family had lots of land and livestock. If you read the Psalms when things are going rough it is pretty hard for the Psalmists to have shalom. But Paul tells us in the book of Philippians that there is a peace that surpasses all understanding that will guard our hearts in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:7). Paul wrote those when he was in prison. And he gave thanks because when he was in prison the guards got to know Jesus through him. Perhaps you are thinking that you have a long way to go before you are like Paul. That’s okay. So do I. God meets us where we are because that is the only place He can find us. He can’t meet us where we want to be because we are not there yet.
However, there is a problem with this passage from Philippians. I am a teacher by nature. I like to understand things. I like to understand the Bible and teach it to you guys. First, because that is what I am called to do. Second, because that is what you guys pay me for. The problem is that Paul tells us that this peace surpasses understanding. As a teacher I have a problem with that. If I cannot understand the peace of God because it surpasses understanding I can’t teach you all based on my Biblical knowledge how to experience it. I know Paul says we have to give God our worries in prayer. But even I as a pastor sometimes don’t know how to do that when my back is against a wall and I am between a rock and a hard place. You can’t just memorize this Bible verse and repeat it enough that all your anxiety goes away. Not that memorizing scripture is wrong. It’s just that we have to do more than just read the Bible. Don Coleman, a mentor of mine, put it simply, we can’t just read the Bible, we need to do the Bible. We learn about the peace that surpasses understanding not by understanding but by living according to the Word of God.
There have been times in my life where I have experienced that peace. And often, when you are questioning what direction to go, the peace of God is a sign you are moving in the right direction. Back in July of last year I experienced this peace. I have yet to tell you all but back in July I almost got offered a position at another church. I won’t say where the church was or what exactly happened, but because of circumstances not related to me and beyond my control the entire thing fell apart and I was left without a job. Strangely, it came as a shock to everyone but me. When I got the news that things had fallen apart I knew in my head that I should be distraught. But I just had in my Spirit this profound sense of peace. The Lord had spoken a word before that event to me about coming out as gold. I discovered the phrase was from the book of Job. In Job 23:7-10 it says, “ Behold , I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him; on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.” And indeed, I believe I have come out as gold. Indeed, there is a Jewish tradition that when a piece of pottery is broken they will seal the cracks with gold to show that even with the cracks, the new creation is more beautiful than the old. I know I am here to seal up the cracks in my life and in your lives. I know that I am here so we can be gold together. So that we can speak shalom into this church and shalom into our community.
Because the beautiful thing about the blessings of the Lord as believers in Christ is that you don’t have to be a priest, you don’t have to wear a robe, you don’t have to be ordained clergy to give those blessings away. As 1 Peter tells us each one of you with Christ in your hearts is a nation of priests, and we have been called out of darkness into glorious light. As our verse in Matthew today explains the Lord commissioned the twelve and so he commissions us to bring peace to where we are welcomed. Each of us has the ability to bless people with the Lord’s protection, his presence, and his peace. Whether we feel like it or not we are blessed to be a blessing. The only question that remains is will we bless someone today?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.