Based on Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 145: 14-21, Mt 14:13-21
The other day I met a person who, in response to the question of “how are you?” answered, “I am truly blessed!” This is not the first time that I have encountered this response, in fact, it was the most common response given at the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church where I interned for two years. This was not just a “throw away” phrase either. I could tell by the emphatic nature of the response that the person really felt blessed by God to be alive, well and able to respond. In essence, to return the blessing back to God that God had given them. In each situation where someone has truthfully responded, “I’m blessed”, the story of their life has reflected how God made a way when there seemed to be no way. Feeling that we have been blessed, and returning that blessing to God and others is an important activity for us as disciples. Let us have a word of prayer before we go farther…
You may have figured out by now from the title printed in your bulletin and the lead-in paragraph that our focus today is “Our Blessings”. We use the term “blessing” quite freely in church, and it occurs some 600 times in the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) alone, but have you ever stopped to define it for yourself? What do you mean when you say, “I’ve been blessed”? For me it means that I’ve recognized that I’ve received more than I deserved or have dodged some calamity; or it is something that I say before I eat; it is something that I say in response to being asked for a blessing; it is a kind word. In the Bible, we find blessings from Genesis through Revelation. In the first section of the Bible the Hebrew words that are translated to blessing are “barak” and “esher”. The first word (and the first name of our last President) means to praise or curse, to salute or congratulate. The second word, esher, typically means happiness. In the New Testament the Greek word “makarios” is the same as esher and the word “eulogeo” (where we get our word Eulogy) means to speak well of someone. To bestow a blessing on someone carried great weight (as we saw in the stolen blessing of Jacob over Esau). Returning a blessing was an act of a well developed disciple.
We see this modeled for us when we read the words of the Psalmist, “Every day I will bless you, and praise your name for ever and ever….” (Psalm 145 verse 2, NRSV) The writer speaks of how God is “faithful” and “gracious” – God holds up those who have fallen and lifts up those who are heavily laden. God is worthy of our blessings for all that God does for us – and not only for us, but for all God’s children since the beginning of time and until the end of times. God will always be faithful and gracious to us – that’s a great blessing and one that is worthy of our blessing God in return.
The Gospel of Matthew today has Jesus fleeing from the wrath of King Herod. You see, Herod had just beheaded his cousin, John the Baptist. Jesus, in caution and probably so that he could grieve the death of John, withdrew to a lonely place. However, the country grapevine was working and a “great crowd” had gathered on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was tired and grieving, and yet our text today tells us that, “…he had compassion for them and cured their sick….” (verse 14, NRSV) Think about those words of the Psalmist who wrote about God picking us up when we are down. Then, God/Jesus blessed the crowd extravagently. The Disciples wanted to send everyone away to get supper, but Jesus said no “…you give them something to eat….” (verse 16, NRSV)
The Disciples were beside themselves, “…We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish….”, and Jesus, look at the crowd – you must be joking! (verse 16, NRSV) Jesus had the crowd sit on the grass, he said a blessing over the meal, broke the loaves and fed 5000 men (plus women and children) – oh, and there were 12 baskets of broken pieces left over! Surely here is an unexpected and undeserved blessing that brought great happiness and contentment to those who had gathered. What about those blessings that are hidden or that we have to work for? Let’s consider the case of Jacob’s wrestling match…
We again find ourselves in Genesis with the Patriarch, Jacob. He and all of his wives, children and huge number of flocks and herds are headed back to his ancestral home. There he will confront his brother, Esau. It has been twenty years since they have seen each other and Esau’s coming at Jacob with a reported 400 armed men. Jacob, not surprisingly, is worried. He has sent servants ahead of him with hundreds of goats and sheep, with camels and their young, with cattle and donkeys. He is trying to buy favor with his brother by overwhelming him with his gifts. He knows that he wronged Esau greatly when he stole his first-born blessing from their father Isaac. Esau has every right to still be quite angry with Jacob; remember that Jacob left the country because Esau wanted to kill him. So Jacob, soon to confront his brother, sends everyone across the river Jabbok and he lays down to sleep, alone with this thoughts, anxieties, and it turns out…God!
The wrestling match described in this text is as iconic as the almost-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, or Moses leading the people out of Egypt. In this story, Jacob wrestles an unknown assailant all night long. The rabbinic literature interprets this metaphorically – Jacob is again dreaming of God and is “wrestling” to overcome the guilt associated with his past interactions with Esau. As dawn is about to break (and thus Jacob to wake from his dream) the antagonist asks to be set free. Jacob won’t let go until he receives a blessing. What a blessing he receives…his name is changed to Israel (the one who strives with God) – and that name carries on to all his descendants. There are more blessings that are hidden here however. Jacob realizes, in verse 30, that he has indeed “…seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved….” This wonder at the blessing (you may remember that God will tell Moses to turn his face away because to see God is to die) from God carries over to his coming interaction with Esau, where he sees in Esau the face of God. (Gen 33:10) Esau and Jacob reconcile and this is the third blessing that comes to Jacob through his interaction with God. Being able to see the face of God in those with whom we need to reconcile is an important virtue – one which we have failed to develop all too often to our own sorrow.
Blessings come in many forms, in happiness, in praise, and in those struggling times where we really have to look for the blessing. It is good for us to stop every so often and to do what my grandfather instructed me…count your blessings. There is an old hymn of the same name, published by a Methodist Episcopal pastor, Johnson Oatman Jr, in 1897. His opening stanza contains these words, “…Count your many blessings, name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord has done…” It’s a time honored truth, isn’t it?! When we take the time to look past whatever has befallen us, we find that God has been working in and around us while we haven’t noticed. We have to count our blessings as a congregation as well. When was the last time you counted up all the blessings that God has given this church? Take a moment or two this week and “count them one by one”. I think that you will notice that even though things might not be perfect, that God is consistently blessing this church. Once you realize that, I’m fairly certain that you will want to say a word of blessing back to God – “from whom all blessings flow”. I’m also certain that your perspective on our life together with God will be renewed and your faith deepened. Thanks be to God, amen!