Bishop Paul's Christmas Message talks of understanding other people’s situations


Let’s begin with a very quick catch up from the first talk. The word that’s used for blessing in the Old Testament in Hebrew, ‘barakh/berakhah’ means literally to ‘bow the knee’ and it’s the same word that is used when the Hebrew writers are writing of God blessing us or of us blessing God. In the translation of Psalm 103 that we’ve just had read you heard the word ‘praise’ regularly. Incorrect translation. Sorry. It is the word bless. But as you will see, praise is not actually an unfair translation. In the New Testament, the Greek translation of the Hebrew uses the word ‘eulogeo’ which means ‘to speak well of’. So there’s one idea of ‘bowing the knee’ and another idea of ‘speaking well of’. The other image that I highlighted last week was one of the phrases in the prayer of blessing about God shining his face upon us. For God to bless us is for his face to be shining on us and for us to bless others is for our face to be shining on them. And we thought last week about the way in which God blesses us in creation, in the covenants which he made, we went through Noah then Isaac and Abraham, Moses and David and then how he blesses us in Christ fulfilling all those covenants and looking at some of the blessings particularly outlined in Ephesians 1. That’s where we went in the first talk; God blessing us.

In this talk we are looking at what it means for us to be blessing God. It can seem slightly strange that the same word is used for both God blessing us and us blessing God.

Blessing God in Worship

First of all we bless God in worship. Psalm 103 is all about worship, praise and thanksgiving which is why actually in some translations you do get the word for blessing translated as’ praise’. Blessing God at its heart is us responding to the blessing of God upon us in offering Him our worship, our praise, our thanksgiving. The reason for looking at Psalm 103 is it encapsulates both, so we begin ‘bless the Lord of my soul’ and we have lots of how God blesses us spelt out, so you have the two hand in hand. So if blessing God is primarily about worship, what does worship contain? If we take Psalm 103, it’s all about thanking and blessing and praising God for who He is and all that He has done for us. So it’s about thanking Him for all the benefits; thank Him for forgiveness and healing, for redemption that He gives us; for the goodness He pours out upon us, for the justice that He does, for the way He keeps his covenants and so on and so on and so on. For us to bless God is for us to be a people of praise and worship for all that He has done. Well let’s go a bit further than that. Bless the Lord oh my soul and all that is within me bless His holy name. The psalmist here clearly sees this blessing of God as being about everything in ourselves. It’s not simply what we do when we gather for what we call a service of worship. It’s a response of the entire person, everything within me. The way I think, the way I behave, the way I feel is all meant to be a response to God’s blessing of us. And if you are noticing carefully, at the end of the psalm it’s not just something that we as human beings do. It’s something in which we join with the whole of creation. In particular in this psalm, the angels, who do Gods bidding, all his hosts, his ministers, but also all his works in all places of his dominion. So the whole of creation is going to be caught up in praise and worship of God. If you go to one or two other parts of the psalms there are delightful intimations, that when we hear birds singing to whom are they singing? They’re singing to God as well as to each other for mating purposes and everything else. But if you think about some of the stuff in the prophets, about the trees clapping their hands, the whole idea is that the whole of creation is caught up in blessing God for who He is and for all that He has done. And that has been restricted actually, by our failings and our weaknesses. We are caught up with blessing God with the whole of creation.

Psalm 134, which is one of the shortest psalms, is a psalm for the evening or the night but contains the phrase about lifting up your hands in God’s name. This reminds us that the blessing of God involves not only everything within us, as in Psalm 103, but everything that we are in terms of our bodies. Whether that is us lifting hands up formally or informally or keeping them down by your sides as tight as you possibly can because you don’t want to be embarrassed. The point is that as we worship and bless God, it’s meant to involve our bodies as well as our words and our minds. Everything about us is given so that we can worship and praise God with who we are.

Then if we go back to Abraham and Jacob to see what they did, Genesis 13:18 is one of the instances where Abraham puts up an altar. We have no idea what Abraham’s altars looked like but Jacob’s we do have a bit more because we are told ‘they are pillars of stone’. So they were blocks of stone and they were used sometimes for the sacrifice of animals, but here with Abraham and Jacob, they are not. They are more simply a place at which Abraham and Jacob are remembering what God has promised. So there is something about, in our worship and our blessing of God, there’s a right and proper time and place, sometimes for physically expressing it by putting something in the ground or on the ground and using it. That is one reason of course why we’ve put up things like this church over the centuries. It’s why people will choose particular places to go to pray. Or when a loved one dies why we would choose a particular place to go and scatter their ashes; because particular places have become particularly associated with people or with God.

Let me give you an example. I worked for Scripture Union for several years and for 5 years I’d been the Inner London Evangelist and I’d been interviewed for a new post, which was the head of the Missions Department. I didn’t get the job. I went out to Holland with Scripture Union International for a major conference and there were people gathered from all over the globe. It was one of the most formative 2 weeks for me, in terms of shaping my understanding of God at work all over the globe. But I was quite disturbed by not having got the job. It’s the first time in my life that had happened. It was one of those times where I was confused. I have great sympathy every time I’m doing interviews with clergy because we all put quite a lot of effort and thought in, and inevitably the more energy and effort we put in and the more we think about doing a presentation, answering the questions, the more we get pulled into ‘this might be God’s calling’. So when ‘no’ comes, it’s always hard, or nearly always hard. And this did feel particularly hard. Particularly because the big boss had told me he thought I should get the job. Not God, that could have been easily misunderstood. So I went on a walk away from the conference centre to have a great big rant with the Lord and pour out, ‘what on earth are you doing?’, ‘I thought you were leading me this way’ and so on and so forth. I went walking for some time and there came a point where I stopped. There was this lovely tree that had fallen down and the way it lay, it was a really good seat; it was just right for me. It was a lovely sunny day so I stopped. I thought, ‘I’m going to sit here and pray’ and I got my bible out. It was one of those moments in life where I felt a sense, as I was praying, God saying to me to ‘kneel down’. I hadn’t packed too much for this 2 weeks and the ground was a bit dirty, so I had this argument with God about how I wasn’t going to kneel down because I would dirty my trousers and I didn’t have that many with me. We get so petty with God sometimes don’t we? Here I am arguing with the Almighty about getting my knees dirty. So I got down on my knees in the end. I can’t remember to this day really what I said, but all I do know is that I found myself on my knees for probably half an hour, maybe ¾ of an hour. A very long period of time; and I cried. When I got up I simply still did not know the answer, but what I did know was that I had met with God and that he would not let me, or Rosemary and the children, down. It’s one of those moments in my life that has reminded me of the importance actually of the use of our bodies and physical actions in our worship and in our relationship with God. It may seem odd, but I know if I, on that occasion, had not got on my knees, I would not have met with God in the way that I did. So this business of it being the whole of us; I couldn’t put a stone up but I wanted to put a stone by this tree, to mark it, but it would have been inappropriate.

But for Abraham and Jacob it certainly wasn’t. So throughout the Old Testament this is the core of how we bless God. It’s about worship, it’s about praise and thanksgiving which is around who He is, what He’s done. It involves all of our being. Sometimes it involves putting something physical in place to mark what God has done and to be a reminder to others. As the Old Testament unfolds, the planting of stones in memorial was much more about the next generations and people coming along and saying ‘why on earth is that pile of stones there?’ and you would tell them the story of what God had done. The pile of stones acted as a reminder. So this pile of stones, the church, is meant to be here as a reminder of God’s presence and God’s love and God’s power in this community. That’s what church buildings are around for, as well as other things.

Blessing God in worship involved music and song and of course it wasn’t always great. Blessing God also involved lament and anguish. Telling God and enquiring of God, ‘where are you?’, ‘how long’ … Take Psalm 13 or Psalm 88 as examples where the heart cry of blessing God is ‘are you there, I don’t know where you are, I didn’t know what you’re doing’. We bless God in that way too.

If we move on to blessing God in New Testament, of course it doesn’t change very much. So think about Zechariah who’s song begins ‘bless’, he thanks God for his actions through salvation history and now in the birth of his son John the Baptist. We read of Jesus blessing God in prayer and worship and there’s a couple of instances where we have Jesus recorded as offering God, His Father, worship, praise and thanksgiving. Luke reminds us, that he does so in the power of the Spirit. This blessing the Lord is something of the Spirit working in and through us. Ephesians 1 again, Paul spills out all the things that God has done for us in Christ. All the blessings that He has poured out upon us. It is an expression of praise and thanks. When he’s writing to Timothy, Paul twice calls God our blessed God. He is blessed.

But then if we turn to look at James 3 there is a clear warning about our blessing God. Chapter 3, half way through verse 5,

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire? And the tongue, if a fire, a world of unrighteousness, the tongue is set among our members staining the whole body setting on fire the entire cause of life and set on fire by hell.

For every kind of beast and bird of reptile or sea creature can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind but no human being can contain the tongue it is a restless evil full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives or a great vine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water’.  

Blessing God is something that happens with our tongues. It’s something that we say and speak and sing. And yet at the same time the very same tongue can be used for cursing other people. So we need to be reflective when we are pondering how we bless God in worship. Is what we are saying and singing in our worship, being matched by what we are saying of others when we are out on the streets and in our places of work? If, as is here, blessing is about speaking well of, speaking well of God but speaking ill of others. What James is saying, is that doesn’t work. We need to be those who speak well of God and speak well of others. If we are involved in blessing God we should be involved in blessing others, not cursing them. We are coming back to cursing in a moment. We looked at cursing last week and we are going to come back to it.

Then Revelation, there are 2 of the songs of heaven a simple reminder that blessing God is in all of our worship and singing his praise. Chapter 5:12

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing.”

And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying,

“To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honour and glory and mine forever and ever.

“…and the four living creatures said. Amen. And the elders fell down and worshipped.

And then 7.13

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”

I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serving Him day and night …’

These are the people who blessed God in heaven, who worship God in heaven, those who have been rescued by Christ. The reason I think we need to get this in our heads is, this is to what we are called. We are called to be a people of worship. A people who give praise and thanksgiving and honour and worship to God. Because we are going to be doing it for all eternity, so we had better get some practice in. We recognise that this is what we are about so we ought to do it well.

That’s all fairly obvious, but here’s the problem, Job 2:9. Remember the story where everything has been taken away from Job then his wife said to him ‘do you still hold fast your integrity curse God and die?’ But he said to her, ‘you speak as one of the foolish, who would seek, shall we receive good from God and shall we not receive evil’. The only problem is it’s the same word. Where it says curse God and die, it’s the same Hebrew word, it’s the word bless. So the translators have had lots of fun and lots of difficulty with this one. Should it be translated ‘bless god and die’, because that’s how you would in most of the Old Testament, or is she being ironic? I think I can safely say that all the translators have reached the conclusion that you should say ‘curse’. So what she was saying is, ‘stop being faithful to God and tell him where to get off. ‘Curse him and die’. The point here is that we tend to think of blessing and cursing God as opposites. Actually they are very close together. Cursing God is only a step away from blessing God. If I can explain this more, I have to be very careful about this language as I’m in church. So a lot of the way in which, in English, we express curse, dislike and disrespect is in language which has its roots actually in blessing. So ‘by our Lady’, I shan’t say it, is meant to be a prayer that gets turned and shortened into a swear word. ‘Jesus Christ’ is meant to be a name of honour and praise and thanksgiving and gets turned into a term of abuse or frustration or whatever. ‘By God’, is meant to be a pray, an invocation for God’s help and it very quickly gets turned into misuse. In one way or another misuse of language is ‘taking God’s name in vain’, which is in Exodus 20:7. Somehow we slide from blessing God in how we speak, quite easily, if we’re not careful, into taking God’s name in vain and misusing it, and effectively cursing. That appears to be what happened in the Job story and one of the reasons why the language is identical. For me this plays back into verses as how the same tongue blesses God and curses him. So it comes for us as a simple warning of how easily we can slide from being a people of worship and praise and thanksgiving into a people who actually start dishonouring the God that we want to honour and worship and praise.

Blessing by Sacrificial Giving

So the heart of blessing God is the whole business of worship. But I want to suggest that the next most significant thing, in terms of the use of the language of blessing that we find often in the Scriptures is around blessing God by sacrificial giving. How do we bless God? Well we bless Him in our worship, in how we speak of Him, sing of Him and express that in our bodies and so on. But we also bless God by sacrificial giving. If you read through the early chapters of Leviticus there’s a mixture in the sacrifices. Some of them are to do with sin and guilt and the need for atonement and forgiveness. That’s the core of a lot of the sacrificial system in the Old Testament. It’s about being put right with God, the lamb or the goat or the heifer or the turtle dove, whichever sacrifice it happens to be, is there in our place, and they are sacrificed so we are forgiven, in Old Testament terms. And Jesus becomes the Lamb of God, the Passover lamb, the one who, through him atonement happens. But some of the sacrifices are sacrifices of thanksgiving and they are peace offerings. There is more of a sense of wanting to bless God simply by offering him sacrifice. As a way of saying thank you. So, I’m going to go to the tabernacle, or in later years I am going to go to the temple, and I am going to express my thanks to God by giving to him. Which actually meant most of those were sacrifices which the priest could keep and eat. So you were expressing your thanks to God by offering this sacrifice and it was then allowed to be shared by the priests to help with their livelihood. So it’s the idea of giving and expressing thanks and blessing God through that giving of a sacrifice.

Now we turn to my dream for every church when they are doing a building project. This is my dream for the parish share. And various other things as well.

Exodus 35:4

Moses said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “This is the thing that the Lord has commanded. Take from among you a contribution to the Lord. Whoever is of a generous heart, let him bring the Lord’s contribution: gold, silver, and bronze; blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen; goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, and goatskins; acacia wood, oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, 9and onyx stones and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breast piece. Let every skilful craftsman among you come and make all that the Lord has commanded.

Exodus 36:2

And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whose mind the Lord had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work. And they received from Moses all the contribution that the people of Israel had brought for doing the work on the sanctuary. They still kept bringing him freewill offerings every morning, so that all the craftsmen who were doing every sort of task on the sanctuary came, each from the task that he was doing, and said to Moses, “The people bring much more than enough for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do.” So Moses gave command, and word was proclaimed throughout the camp, “Let no man or woman do anything more for the contribution for the sanctuary.” So the people were restrained from bringing, for the material they had was sufficient to do all the work, and more.

That’s my vision to what giving is all about, because that’s the vision that we are given in Scripture. Actually the same thing happens in 1 Chronicles 29 and in 2 Chronicles 31. So there are a number of occasions in the history of the people of Israel where they are asked for contributions and they respond so enormously that they have to be told to stop giving. They are blessing God. They are so filled with thankfulness at what God has done, that they just want to give, to his work and all that’s going on and it overflows. The contrast comes in the last little book of the bible, as we lay it out,

Malachi 3:6

For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?” Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How have we robbed you?” In your tithes and contributions! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.

So we have these examples in scripture where the people of God bless Him by sacrificial giving and then we have this word of warning through Malachi, that it’s also possible to find ourselves under curse because we fail to give and we rob God of what is duly his. We bless God by sacrificial giving. This happens of course in the New Testament. Think of the widow’s offering in Luke 21. Remember Jesus and the disciples are stood there watching. They are watching people put big bags of money in and the widow comes by, and its one of those occasions where the old language still works; she puts in her two mites and Jesus declares that she is the one who has really given because she has put in everything that she had. She is expressing complete trust in the God to whom she is giving because if that’s everything she’s got then how is she going to buy any food, how is she going to look after herself. She’s expressing complete trust that God is still in control and God’s still looking after her. So it’s not the amount that you give it’s the amount that you have left that matters.

Or take the stories of the anointing’s of Jesus and remember how the disciples object because it could have been sold and given to the poor. Jesus overrules them on this occasion and says ‘No I’ve been anointed for my burial’. This is hugely sacrificial, generous giving going on, in anointing him.

The only bit that is described as the words of Jesus not in the Gospels is Acts 20:35 where it says that ‘Jesus taught it’s more blessed to give than to receive’. Or if you go to 2 Corinthians 8 & 9, which is the longest piece about Christian giving that you find anywhere in the New Testament, where Paul says that ‘God has poured himself out for us in Christ’ and we give the response. So we bless God by our giving. I try to always ask myself these questions. When we put money in the plate do we see that primarily as blessing God for who He is and what He gives up for us. Because that’s what it’s about. It’s not about paying the bills, it’s not about giving to the church, and it’s not about the parish share or the vicars’ expenses or the decorating. It’s about blessing God for all that He has done for us. And we will never ever get Christian giving right, if we do not see that this is the heart of it. I give because of what God has done for me and Jesus Christ and I want to bless Him, by giving back to Him what is only his anyway, to be used for the goodness of others and in the praise of His name and the glorification through His name through the ministry of the church and through the ministry of other agencies to go hand in hand. But the heart is ‘bless you Lord for all you have done for me and Jesus Christ’. So that it is giving out of that.

Blessing God by Holy Living

Which leads on to how we bless God by Holy living. Now we are going to explore this in more detail in the next talk when we think more specifically about how we bless others and how we bless our communities. So this last bit is an introduction to that in general terms. We bless God by Holy living as we pursue justice and mercy. I go back to the chapters in Deuteronomy that I referred to last week, which is the blessings and curses chapters in Deuteronomy, which are about broken relationships being restored. Our relationship with God being restored and our broken relationships being restored with one another, and with our communities. And we seek to bless God by being involved in the restoration of justice and mercy. We bless God by Holy living. Then we also bless God by holy living personally, so the very first verse of the Psalms, Psalms 1:1 which reads

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.

Personal holiness alongside seeking justice and mercy in our world and in our communities blesses God. This is one of the places where the beatitudes come in, so we are going to look at Matthew 5. If one of the ways in which we bless God is by Holy lives then this in many ways has to be the most definitive description of what that Holy life is like and therefore why we are blessed by God. But here, a reminder for those who were around last week, it’s not the same word. It’s not ‘speaking well of’ here, it’s the word ‘makarios’ which is most often translated as ‘happy’. So if you go to the Good News Bible the Beatitudes talk about ‘happy are the poor in spirit; ‘happy are those who mourn.’ That is one occasion where using the word ‘happy’ works beautifully. So personal holiness is about poverty of spirit. It’s about humility. Personal holiness is about mourning. Mourning over what? Mourning over sin, mourning over all that’s wrong in the world. Mourning over our failings.

‘Blessed are the meek’. Another side of humility. Certainly not weakness. ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’. Holiness is about longing for and wanting God’s way of doing things and being in the world. That’s what righteousness is. It’s God’s way of things being done. And if we want to bless God then we need to be those who are hungry and thirsty for seeing things done God’s way. And in response we find ourselves blessed. Holiness is about being merciful. Blessing God by us being merciful to others. And we discover that we are blessed as we are merciful. Blessing God by purity of heart. And we discover that we are blessed by Him. Blessing God by being peacemakers. And we discover that we are blessed. Blessing God by being prepared to be persecuted for his names sake. But knowing that going God’s way, being hungry and thirsty for things being done God’s way, will not always be popular, will not always be liked and can lead to outright persecution. As our sisters and brothers in some parts of the world experience today. We need to pray for them. We need to pray that they will have the courage and the strength, the humility to stand it. And to know that because of the persecution they are going through, they are blessed by God even though they might feel cursed by the authorities and their neighbours. Blessed when we are reviled. We bless God by seeking to live such holy lives that we may be discounted by the world. We bless God by wanting his ways so strongly that we will not be deflected when people try to buy us off with an easier life. And we will always be tempted to be bought off with an easier life. So it’s quite a challenge I think that if we bless God by being committed to living holy lives and by seeking to live it out, it will not be easy.

Blessing God

Blessing God is always our response to God’s blessing of us. We can never be people who bless God, who praise Him, who worship Him, who honour Him, without first knowing and experiencing just how much God has blessed us, in creation, in the covenants, and supremely in Jesus Christ. It is always a response. But, and it’s important to emphasis this, we do not bless God in order to get something back. We do not bless God hoping that he will respond in a particular way. This is where some sectors of church teaching can go very wrong. It’s easy to see why this temptation comes in, because on one reading of some of the Old Testament blessings and curses, it does appear to be ‘if you do this in obedience you will be blessed’ and it’s very easy for us to quite quickly go down the line, ‘if I live this way, if I do this for God, God will respond to me’. ‘If I give generously Gods promised not to let me down. So he will give me plenty back’. ‘If I do Gods will and live his way I will be healthy’. ‘If I live Gods way I will be popular’. We fall quite quickly into the temptation to think that we can manipulate God by blessing him by obeying him because he then promises that he will bless us and all will be well. Its call health wealth and prosperity teaching and you can find it all over the world. Including in this country. Including in the Church of England. It’s a great temptation because it’s easy to see how you can read it that way. But if we read it that way we’ve failed to read ‘blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you’. We’ve failed to hear Jesus say ‘take up your cross and follow me’. We’ve failed to hear Jesus say ‘that following him is the way of the cross’. Yes it is a way of being blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. Absolutely. But it is not saying all will be well. All will be easy. You will get richer you will have a nice big car, you will have a bigger television, you will never be ill again. As false teaching does say that kind of thing. So we bless God in obedience leaving it in God’s hands as to how he then leads us and guides us and treats us. Because sometimes good things do happen in response to obedience. And people do have all sorts of blessings. There is someone I know who is hugely generous with their money and keeps giving it away and wants to give it away and says the trouble is the more I give away the more God gives back to me. So I give more away. And I seem to get more back. Now the answer for me observing from outside is because they’ve got it, they’ve understood that Gods giving it to them to give away so God can trust them not to use it on themselves. The danger for me is, not for Rosemary, but just me ‘I’ll keep it thank you very much’. We bless God simply to bless God not for anything we get back out of it. And we bless God in our worship and by blessing others. And that’s what well think about in the next talk.

Bishop Paul Bulter, Lent 2016

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