Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Proper NL 1-06/Pentecost 18
Text: Josh 24.1-15
During my internship, I helped run Vacation Bible School. The curriculum the congregation had chosen that year had an amusement park theme, and it was called “SonWorld.” Each day had a different theme that tied into the main theme of the week. We decided instead of rotating the days, we’d rotate the groups through each theme; that way, each volunteer could lead the same theme each day. The different themes were all based around choice: “Choose Kindness,” “Choose Love,” etc. It was the last one that hit me like a kick to the gut: “Choose Jesus.”
In that section, the curriculum basically told the kids how important it was to decide to follow Jesus, because that’s how you got into heaven. It was intended to be the theme for the final day, to cap the week off with a sort of altar call for the elementary school kids. As a Lutheran seminarian, there was no way I was going to let that ride, so I chose to lead that section, then I reworked all the lesson material and activities to talk about how Jesus chooses us, rather than us choosing Jesus.
The last verse of our lesson today brings up in me that same uneasy defensiveness I felt when I had when I saw that curriculum that said, “Choose Jesus.” It’s a popular theology, especially among our more fundamentalist sisters and brothers in the Church, and it tells us that our decision to love, serve and worship God is what is required for us to be saved. It is dangerous because it can give the impression that God either has no control over who gets into the kingdom because it’s all about our personal choices, or that God is so temperamental and petty that God is eagerly waiting with an eraser to remove our names from the book of life as soon as we show the least sign of doubt.
The God whom Joshua proclaims in the story today is not that kind of God. The God whom Joshua wants us to know is a God who as already walked with us through thick and thin; a God who has already bent over backwards to be with us, especially when we have been faithless and doubting; a God who would rather die on a cross than leave us behind to stew in our own stubbornness.
It’s the final line of Joshua’s speech that makes it onto all the cross-stitches and picture frames and paperweights at the Christian book stores, but it is the history he shares before it that final line that gives its meaning. The people to whom Joshua is speaking were born in the wilderness, the children and grandchildren of the people Moses led out of Egypt. Their parents saw God part the waters of the Red Sea, send manna and quail in the wilderness, and call forth water from the dry rock; and yet, their parents were also the ones who complained against Moses and against God again and again, asking, “Why have you brought us into the wilderness to die? It would have been better for us to live as slaves in Egypt!”
When Moses brought the Israelites to the land of Canaan so many years ago—the land promised to Abraham and his offspring by God—it was the parents of these people who were convinced that God had led them through the wilderness to abandon them to the Canaanites. They did not believe God would keep God’s promise and refused to enter Canaan. So, God gave them what they wanted; the Israelites wandered for another 40 years until that entire generation had died in the wilderness and God’s people were willing enter the land of the promise.
Then Joshua led these people into the land their parents rejected, and God delivered the land to them as promised. Joshua now reminds them that God has chosen them, and as evidence, Joshua names all the things that God has done for them. Today, Joshua tells them, they have a choice. They are free to follow the gods that Abraham served across the Euphrates, but it was not Abraham’s gods that made them the promise. They can serve the gods of the Egyptians, but it wasn’t those gods delivered them from slavery. They can even serve the gods of the Canaanites, but it was not the Canaanite gods who gave them this land. None of these gods have not done a whit for these people: what could they possibly gain by serving them?
On the other hand, they have seen what the LORD has already done, and that in itself is evidence enough of what the LORD will continue to do for them. They can serve those other gods, or they can serve the God who brought them out of Egypt and into Canaan. Their choice cannot change what God has already done for them, nor will it change the fact that God’s promise to Abraham—and to them—still holds.
Choosing to serve God is not about ensuring salvation or blessing; choosing to serve God is about remembering what God has done for us, and trusting that God will continue to do for us. We do not make a one-time choice to “give our hearts to Jesus;” instead, we must choose again, day after day, whom we will serve. That is the calling of our baptism: to daily drown the old sinner within us and daily rise to new life with Christ.
Some days, we will make the wrong choice. We will choose to serve our budget or our desires or our fears, and we will be disappointed; but that doesn’t change what God has done for us, nor does it mean that God will abandon us. Instead, God remains with us, and always invites us to choose God, to place our trust in God’s promises rather than our own insecurities or whims. We know that after the Israelites inhabited God’s promised land, they often chose to serve other gods; but in all that time, the LORD never abandoned them, never un-chose them, never gave them up to their own destruction. God remained with them, always calling for them to make the right choice.
In order to make the right choice, it is important for us to tell these stories. Like Joshua, we need to constantly remind ourselves and one another what God has already done for us, because otherwise, it becomes too easy for us to end up serving other gods like the Israelites of old did.
We must remember how God brought our ancestors to this place, protected them as they crossed oceans and prairies to establish themselves and their families here and entrusted them with land to support themselves. We must remember how God remained with them, and how they established the congregations of Swift Falls, St. Pauli and Rolling Forks to worship the God who gave them these things, and how those congregations came together to form Shepherd of the Hills so that the people of Swift Falls could all worship together as one community, support one another, and celebrate together what God has been doing in and around Swift Falls for generations.
When we remember how God has continued to bless us and provide for us, how can we turn away to serve the gods of budget or attendance? How can we instead place our trust in the god of the building or the god of how-we’ve-always-done-it? Have any of those gods given us the blessings of this community? Have those gods fed our children or comforted us during times of loss? No; but the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob has. The LORD has been with this congregation since before there ever was a congregation, and the LORD will continue to be here with us until long after this congregation is gone.
Choose this day whom you will serve. It is important, but not because our salvation or our eternal life hangs in the balance. It is important because if we choose to give into serving the fears and the temptations that lure us away from God, we will be disappointed, but if we instead choose to serve the LORD, those fears and temptations will never destroy us. God has already chosen us. God has already promised us the kingdom, and nothing can take that away. Even if we falter, God never will, and God is always there, inviting us, calling us: Choose this day whom you will serve.
As for me, I trust in what God is doing here. I believe in this congregation and the work God has given us to do, because I have seen what God has already done. God’s promise has held since before Abraham and Sarah forsook their gods to set foot across the Euphrates, and God’s promise will continue to hold until after Jesus comes back. So as for me, I will continue to serve the LORD and trust what God has in store for this congregation.
Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Proper NL 1-07/Pentecost 19
Text: Ex 19.3-7, 20.1-17
Our story today is about a journey. The Israelites are headed back to the land that their ancestor Jacob left to join his son Joseph in Egypt. In Egypt, they have lived for generations as slaves, but God has now brought them out of that foreign land and out of slavery. Today is the next step along their journey to freedom, for, as God says, “I have brought you to myself.”
The journey of Israel to God at Sinai is a journey that has its beginning way back in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve leave the garden. Ever since the beginning of our species, we have been wandering, searching for freedom. In the stories of the past few weeks, we have heard how God has been at work as we wandered. God created us good, but in our search for “freedom,” we turned away from God to follow the desires of our own hearts; and yet, in doing that, we only found ourselves enslaved to sin. Ever since then, God has been with us, attempting to cleanse us from that sin which separates us from God and corrupts God’s good creation. When the Great Flood didn’t cleanse the world from sin, God changed tack, and began combatting the power of sin with blessing.
God blessed Abraham and Sarah and their descendants; not because they were special or because they were more righteous than anybody else, but because God had a plan to bless the entire world through them. When Abraham’s descendants languished in slavery in Egypt, God, true to the promise made with Abraham, brought Abraham’s children to freedom and to God’s very self. What happens today is an important turning point in the story of God’s promise.
Today we learn that God has brought these people out of slavery and protected them in the desert—first from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, then from starvation with the manna and from thirst with the water from the rock—because God has a purpose in mind for them. God first made the covenant with Abraham and Sarah for this purpose, and now that purpose is coming to fruition. God has created and freed these people to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”
We talked this summer about what it is to be holy; it means to be dedicated to God and set aside for God’s special work. The work God has given them is to be priests. In the Church, the priest acts as a mediator between God and the congregation by delivering the sermon, administering the sacraments and leading the worship service. This is what God is calling Israel to do, but for the whole world. The priestly kingdom of Abraham and Sarah’s descendants will be the mediators between God and all creation. In order to do God’s work, they must be holy—specially prepared for it.
That is why God gives them the Law. When we think of laws, we tend to focus on how those laws infringe on our freedoms, but that is not what God is doing. Last week, we read how God helped these people escape slavery in Egypt to gain their freedom. The Law is given to complete the deliverance God began in Egypt, so these people may live as God’s holy and priestly people.
Notice how most of the 10 commandments are given as negative formulations: “you shall not murder,” “you shall not commit adultery.” By firmly marking what is forbidden, God leaves us plenty of room to be free. Imagine you are in a room with many different doors, each a different color. It leaves more options open to say, “Don’t use the red door” than it does to say, “Only use the green door.” God gives these laws to protect the people’s freedom by forbidding them from doing harm to one another. As long as we do not harm one another, we are free to do just about anything.
However, those of you who have been confirmed probably remember Luther’s explanations of the commandments in the Small Catechism. He reminds us that “You shall not murder” also means “…we may not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.” “You shall not commit adultery” also means to “lead a chaste and decent life in words and deeds, and each love and honor his or her spouse.” Though God gives these commandments in terms of what we cannot do, we read and understand them in terms of what we can and should be doing. This seems a lot more restrictive, like “only use the green door.”
These commandments of God’s can seem restrictive if we forget why God has given them to us. If we understand these laws as our roadmap to salvation, then yes, these commandments become burdensome and heavy because we can’t keep them perfectly; but this is not what God intends for us. That is why, when God’s Son came to earth, he seemed to be breaking all the laws that God had so intentionally given. He had to remind the good, religious folks that he had come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. God’s Law is intended to give us freedom—though perhaps not the kind of freedom we might expect.
God gives the Law to complete the work begun in bringing the people out of slavery in Egypt: God is working to make them a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These commandments do not give us the freedom to do whatever we want, they give us the freedom to love and serve God and our neighbors so that we might fulfill God’s promise to Sarah and Abraham to bless the world through their heirs. These commandments teach us how to be priests for the world.
The freedom comes in knowing that our relationship with God—our salvation—is not dependent upon how well we follow the Law. God only gives the Law after God has brought the people out of Egypt and sustained them in the desert. God has already chosen these people and already loves them—nothing will change that. God reminds them what God has already done for them: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” and then proceeds to list the commandments. The relationship has already been established through what God has done for us; now, we are invited to participate in God’s promise to bless the world, and the Law guides us in how to do that.
As Christians, we do not follow all the laws and commandments that God gave to Moses on the mountain, but we are no less a part of that promise. Paul writes in Romans that, through Jesus Christ, we non-Jews have been “grafted” onto the promise given to Abraham and Sarah, just like branches onto a grapevine; God’s promise now includes us, too.
We experience this “grafting” in our baptism. When we are washed in the font, we journey with the Israelites through the Red Sea, traveling from slavery and death into freedom and life. Like the Israelites, God makes this covenant with us, too: God first reminds us what God has done for us—at the Red Sea, in the wilderness, and on the cross—and then lays this responsibility on us to become a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. In baptism, our lives become dedicated to God and God’s work, just like the Israelites were dedicated at Sinai; and just like at Sinai, God’s purpose is not only so that each of us gets to feel great about being loved by God and freed from death, but so that we might become part of God’s work of saving the whole world from the corruption of sin.
For better or worse, God has chosen to work through people like us. If we want to see God at work, we have to get up and participate. When we see injustice, when we see pain, when we see evil and ask why God is allowing this to happen, that is God’s call to us to step up and do something. With the Law as our guide and baptism as our assurance, we can do anything, free from the fear that we might do it wrong or make it worse, because regardless of the outcome, we are doing God’s work. Moreover, God has given us the Church to be a learning, caring community where we can fail and falter and stumble around blindly together, so that in the process we might learn here together how to be God’s priests out there.
That’s what real freedom is: not the ability to do whatever we want without somebody looking over our shoulder or telling us what to do, but to have God the Creator constantly with us, guiding us, correcting us, and always loving us and helping us to be better. Freedom is knowing that no matter what God is always there, directing us to make the world better, even when it seems like we can do nothing but make it worse. Freedom is trusting that God will keep God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, to the Israelites, and to us: that one day, the world will finally be free from the corruption of sin.
Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Proper NL 1-04/Pentecost 16
Text: Ex. 14.10-14, 21-29; Mt 2.13-15
What do you think of when you think of freedom? What is so great about being free?
As Americans, we have a fascination with freedom. Our history is full of people yearning to be free—free from religious oppression, free from political tyranny, free from poverty or the status quo or limited opportunities. Our collective longing for freedom is still visible today; many of our contemporary debates can be understood in terms of opposing views of freedoms. For example, there are many in our country who long to be free from gun violence, and many others who wish to remain free from restrictive gun laws.
Almost universally, whenever we think about being free, we think of it in terms of “freedom from;” we want to be free from restrictions or impositions to live the way we want to live. This is why we sometimes have a hard time understanding the story of Moses and the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
Our story today begins after Moses and Israel have left Egypt, and when they are only a few days on their journey, Pharaoh sends out his army to either destroy them or bring them back. The Hebrews are so afraid of the advancing Egyptian army that they actually begin complaining to Moses about freeing them. The same people who had been crying out to God from their slavery for generations, aching to be free, now ask Moses, “Why did you bring us out here to die? We told you back in Egypt—didn’t we tell you?—we told you that it would be better to live in slavery to the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness!” To American ears, this sounds absolutely backwards: better to live as slaves than to die free?! We would be more likely to agree with Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
To us, nothing is more important than freedom; and in this story, God seems to agree. God is so anxious to free these people that God actually brings them through the sea, parting the waters so they can walk on dry land, and destroying the army behind them. God is—pardon the expression—hell bent on freeing these people; not just because they cried out to God for deliverance, but because God made a promise to Abraham and Sarah that their descendants would inhabit the land of Canaan. God renewed that promise to Jacob in the reading we heard on Wednesday, telling him that, when the time was right, God would bring Jacob’s descendants out of Egypt back to the land God had given to Abraham.
It is this promise that drives God to free these people. Now the time is right for God to fulfill the promises made and return them to the land God has given them. What is truly ironic is that now that God is acting, the people don’t want it! Now, they would rather be slaves because at least they know that they will be fed. They would rather have slavery because, when it comes right down to it, some things are more important than liberty. It is better to be alive and to have food security than to be able to determine your own choices in life. While we look back and realize that this Exodus from Egypt is God’s blessing on the people of Israel, they didn’t see it that way. If they had their own way, they would have stayed.
For several weeks now, we’ve been talking about how God doesn’t bless us for our own benefit. God didn’t make the promises God made to Abraham and Jacob and Joseph for their sakes. God’s promises and God’s blessings are for the benefit of the whole world. The freedom of Israel is God’s blessing not just to the Israelites, but to humanity. The freedom God promises is not the kind of freedom we imagine, where we are at liberty to do whatever it is we feel like or to determine our own futures. The freedom God promises is not “freedom from,” but “freedom for.”
Next week, we will read about God’s giving of the Law. Laws necessarily infringe on our freedom; we them because it is necessary to reign in our individual freedoms for the good of the community. The following week, we will hear the people of Israel swear before Joshua that they will serve the Lord, who delivered them from Egypt. In many ways, these people will have no more freedom from authority or servitude than they had in Egypt. They will, however, be freed for the work of God, what Jesus often called the “kingdom of heaven.”
This is the kind of freedom with which God blesses us. Martin Luther famously wrote in his essay on The Freedom of a Christian, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none… [and] a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” In Christ, we have been freed from that which holds us back. As Christians, our relationship with God is not dependent upon our obedience to God’s laws or to any other laws of religious or secular authority. We are no longer bound by the power of sin or the power of death. Yet, as Christians, we are also bound to serve God. At our baptism, we are given responsibilities; we are dedicated to God’s work. Our lives are given to the service of God’s kingdom, and we are made subjects and servants of all, just like our lord Jesus who came not to be served, but to serve.
The whole point of God’s kingdom and God’s blessing that we receive in our baptism, is that while freedom from is a great thing, God doesn’t care about any of that. God doesn’t free us so that we can have the luxury of choosing where to live or who to marry or which way to vote. God frees us from the worry that, by failing to properly live up to God’s laws, we might damage our relationship with God and lose God’s love or forgiveness. God frees us for service to our neighbors, the world, and God’s kingdom.
This “freedom for” is how God is blessing the world through us. By freeing us for the work of God in the world—by freeing us to love recklessly, to serve fearlessly, to fail extravagantly, and to try again tenaciously—God is at work in us to bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth. That is why God freed the Israelites. That is why God drug through the sea and across the wilderness—kicking and screaming at times—to freedom and the land that God had promised their ancestors. God had work for them to do, so God freed them for that work.
When they passed through the water of the Red Sea, at that moment they were freed. Before the crossing, they were fugitive slaves, pursued by angry masters; but on the other side, they were free people. In journeying through the waters, they left behind the slavery of Egypt and came out the other side freed for the work of God, freed to live lives of service to the world.
The same thing happens to us in baptism: God calls us through death into life. In the world we are enslaved by death in the powers of the world that constrain us and the sin that binds us. In baptism, God calls us through the waters, and we come out the other side freed from all those things, freed for the work of serving God in the world. Sin, death, consumerism, political partisanship, even our undying need for freedom itself no longer have any hold on us. Instead, we are given a sign of God’s love for us, a reminder that our primary identity is not as a consumer or a constituent or a data point, but as a child of God, and an agent of God’s kingdom.
We continue to tell this story of the Red Sea crossing because it reminds us that God’s freedom is not for us alone, it is for all creation. We can use that freedom to justify our inaction and our judgement on the sinners of the world, but this story reminds us that this is not the thing for which God has freed us. God has freed us so that the world might be blessed through us. God has freed us for action, for forgiveness, for service; God has freed us for the love of the world.
Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Proper NL 1-03/Pentecost 15
Text: Gen 39.1-23; Mt 5.11-12
In January of 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, killing over 200,000 people and injuring over 300,000 more. Among the dead was a Lutheran seminarian named Ben Larson. Ben had been in Haiti with his wife Renee and his cousin Jon, working with a Haitian boy’s school in Port-au-Prince caring for people in need. During the quake, all three were inside a concrete structure that collapsed. Jon and Renee walked out, and Ben did not.
When they came back, everybody thanked God for their safe return. Everybody believed that God had protected them. There were also many who wondered why God did not save Ben, why Ben was not protected by God’s care. More than that, why had God not protected the 200,000 other people who died in that disaster? The question left lingering after this earthquake was why God would save some and not others, why God would allow anything like this to happen at all. Where is God in tragedy such as this?
This is the question into which we are invited when we read the story of Joseph. Joseph is a man who, we are told, is blessed by God; and yet, he suffers terrible misfortune. Joseph is the favorite son of Jacob, who has 11 other sons (and one daughter) besides. Jacob’s favoritism makes Joseph’s 10 older brothers so jealous that they decide to kill him. Eventually, the settle for selling him into slavery. Joseph is sold to the Egyptian Potiphar, and when things finally seem to be going well again, he is falsely accused of a crime by his master’s wife and thrown into prison.
The story shows us that God’s blessing does not protect us from evil or harm. We say in our prayers and sing in our hymns that God spares us from danger, but the reality is that as followers of Jesus, we are no more or less likely to be hit by a bus, win the lottery, be diagnosed with cancer or die in an earthquake than anyone else on God’s earth. If the benefit of worshipping God is supposed to be safety, then we may as well give it up.
As we learned last week, God does not bless us to make us happy. This is another way of saying that God’s blessing is not for our benefit or our safety. God’s blessing is for the benefit of the whole world. From the beginning of creation, sin has been at work in the world and it will continue to be until the end of time. God is working in the world to overcome sin, but not by destroying or defeating it; we learned this from the story of Noah. Instead, God is working to overcome sin in the world through blessing. That is the blessing that God gave to Noah, to Abraham and Sarah, to Jacob, and to Joseph—that no matter what might befall them, God would remain with them.
The bad things that happen to Joseph are the result not of God’s plan or God’s failure to protect him. What happens to Joseph is the result of sin—the sins of his brothers and the sins of Potiphar’s wife. The same is true for us. The cause of all evil in the world is sin, even when it comes to earthquakes.
Just over a month after the 7.0 quake in Haiti that destroyed entire cities, an even stronger earthquake, measuring 8.8, struck Chile. A total of 723 people died. The reason why such an even bigger earthquake had fewer than 1% of the casualties of the smaller one is poverty, a problem of human sin. In Haiti, where poverty is almost universal, people lived in poorly constructed houses and had less access to emergency response and public sanitation following the quake. In Chile, on the other hand, buildings were well-constructed, the government had the money to finance disaster relief, and there was already a reliable infrastructure to support the survivors.
Sin is the root of our problems, and this is bad news for us, because sin dwells within us. Each of us, no matter how virtuous, harbors immense power for destruction, and each of us has been and will continue to be a means for sin to corrupt God’s creation through violence, hatred, ignorance, oppression, bigotry, and apathy. And yet, in spite of our culpability, God’s blessing to us is the promise that this sin cannot and will not separate us from God’s presence, and that no evil we commit will ever be beyond God’s power to forgive it and create good from it.
This is the story of Calvary. Jesus did not come to die because God planned it that way. He died as a direct result of our own selfishness and our need for control. He did not die for our sins but because of them. He did not take our justly deserved punishment for us; instead we unjustly punished him for bringing us God’s love. Jesus’ crucifixion was our outright rejection of God and God’s kingdom. His death is the greatest evil ever to occur on the face of the earth, and it was committed by the very people he came to save. But, like Joseph’s brothers, what we intended for evil, God used for good.
This is the blessing God has given us, the promise that God had made with us: that there is nothing in heaven or earth, nothing we could ever do or fail to do that will ever overcome God’s love for us and God’s power to create good from evil. Our ultimate rejection of God became God’s ultimate victory over the sin that crucified Jesus. That’s what resurrection is: as much as it is a dead man returning to life and walking out of a tomb, it is sin being turned to God’s purposes, just as Jesus’ death became an instrument of God’s life. God’s blessing is that even our most grievous sins against God and God’s kingdom can and will ultimately be used to accomplish God’s own will.
Because of God’s promise, even though Ben Larson and hundreds of thousands of others died in that quake in Haiti—an event which can only be described as a tragedy of the highest order—what is following that tragedy is serving God’s purpose. Ben’s death devastated his family and his community, but I have seen firsthand how, along with the pain, they have also received blessing. His absence is painfully felt by the Church he loved and served, and yet his ministry continues even in death as more people learn about him and his work through Jon and Renee. Ben is still preaching gospel of Jesus. From unspeakable tragedy—great evil—by God’s power, great good has come.
This is what it means to rest in the presence and the blessing of God. I does not mean we will be safe from harm or spared from pain. In fact, we may sometimes even suffer on account of God’s kingdom; but in the end, none of that can separate us from God, because God is everywhere and in everything, even the suffering and injustice of an innocent man dying an unjust and torturous death on a cross. God’s blessing is that there is nothing that can happen to us—not being sold into slavery by your own brothers, not being unjustly imprisoned, not even being killed senselessly in an earthquake—that God cannot use to bless the world through us.
God doesn’t orchestrate our suffering for some greater ends, and our pain is not a sign of God’s abandonment. God is as busy at work creating now as God was at the beginning of the world. Before there was anything, God created order from chaos, light and matter and life came from nothing; now God is busy creating good out of evil, blessing out of sin.
We—God’s children, called and claimed by God through the waters of baptism and nourished by the flesh and blood of Christ in the Eucharist—have been chosen and equipped like the first humans in God’s garden. We have been given the task of assisting in God’s work of creation. We are flawed, but God uses us anyway, just like Joseph’s brothers, and Potiphar and his wife, and the chief jailer, and the Pharisees and chief priests; through us—even through our failures—God is blessing the world.
The gift of God’s blessing—the blessing called grace—is that when we try and fail, we can try again, knowing that God continues to love us and use us to bless God’s world. We have been freed from the consequences of failure by Christ’s death and resurrection. Even our failure can be resurrected by God’s power and used for God’s purposes, and through us, all the world is blessed. That is why we are here this morning, why we worship this God of love. We have come to hear the words of God’s steadfast promise, to hear God’s invitation to us to be a blessing to the world, and hopefully, to accept that invitation.
Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Proper NL 1-02/Pentecost 14
Text: Gen 12.1-9; Mt 28.19-20
What is a blessing? Usually when we talk about being blessed, we are talking about good things that have happened to us. When we feel blessed, it is because something has gone our way or somebody has done something for us. Blessings are good things, things that make our lives better, and which we are glad to have happen to us.
When the Bible talks about being blessed by God, it is always a good thing. However, we have this tendency to think that God’s blessings are about us. We are blessed because God wants us to be happy or because we have done something to earn God’s favor. This is what what Joel Osteen’s wife, Victoria, has to say about being blessed:
I don’t know about you, but that is the biggest load of bunk I have ever heard. This is not what a blessing is. The purpose of God’s existence is not to make us happy. There is real danger with believing that blessings are divine rewards or that God’s deepest joy is making us happy. Everything is fine when life is good and things are going your way, but what happens when the chips are down, when life hands you lemons? If you believe that God’s blessings are only evident in your happiness and prosperity, then you must necessarily believe the corollary: that when you are suffering, when you are lonely, when you are struggling with great need, that God is either punishing you or does not care about you.
The fact is that sometimes God’s blessings don’t even look like blessings. That’s because God’s blessings are not just about making us happy. Take Abram and Sarai for example. God promised them a land and a nation that would be peopled with their descendants. At the time God made this promise, they were elderly and had no children. When they left everything they had to come to the land God had promised them, the land was so starved by famine that they couldn’t even live there, and had to live as foreigners in Egypt.
God didn’t bless Abram and Sarai to make them happy or wealthy or to earn their love. God blessed Abram and Sarai in order to bless the world. Remember that last week, we read about the Flood, about how God was so disgusted and heartbroken about the problem of evil and violence in the world that God decided to wipe everything out and start over. When the waters had receded—and sin remained—God made a promise with Noah to never again destroy the world and all the life it supports. God made a decision not to fight violence with violence, but with promise.
So, God makes a promise to Abram and Sarai with the same intent as when God opened the floodgates of creation to drown the world and start over: God’s purpose here is to overcome death with life. God blessed Abram and Sarai so that through them, God’s promise would be spread to all people of all nations: “I will bless you… to be a blessing… in you all families of the earth shall be blessed.”
If we believe, like Victoria Osteen, that God’s blessings are about our happiness and our well-being, then we start thinking that we have been blessed because we are special, that God must love us more than everyone else: we must be better than all those dirty Gentiles, loved more than all those filthy sinners. We start to look down our noses at the world around us and shake our head at how everything seems to be going to hell in a hand basket around us, and we do nothing about it except to condemn the lax morals of all those “heathens.”
The fact is that God blesses us not for us, but for the whole world. God’s goal is nothing short of the salvation of the universe. When God flooded the world, God’s intent was to save the world from the festering sin that had corrupted God’s good creation. God’s promise to Abram has the same purpose; but now instead of attempting to destroy sin, now God is working to counteract it. Paul writes in Romans that, through Christ, we have been “grafted on” to the promise which God made to Abram. The Church is the embodiment of God’s promise through Abram to overcome sin, violence and chaos with love, faithfulness and order. Jesus is the next Flood; not a flood of water to destroy life, but a flood of grace to give life and give it abundantly.
This is God’s purpose—God’s mission—in the world: we are blessed to be a blessing. The Church of Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God’s mission. Sadly, to often we forget this. We have lost our sense of mission; and a church without a mission is like fire without a flame—it doesn’t make any sense! If a church is not living out God’s mission in the world, then it isn’t a church, it’s a social club. A church takes the gospel of Jesus Christ and puts it into action outside its walls; a social club does nothing more than serve ethnic food and wear traditional clothing and celebrate common heritage and traditions, maybe with a little community service on the side.
Now, here is the other danger of believing that God’s blessings are about our happiness: it’s too easy for us to fall into the trap of believing that God only blesses those of us who believe the right things, or are good enough, or attend worship enough, or who try hard enough. We attribute our good fortune to how much we must be pleasing God, and that means that everybody who is suffering is obviously not doing enough to earn God’s favor. Ultimately, we must face the hard truth that we are no better. We do not deserve God’s blessing any more than the crackheads or murderers or crooked bankers that we hear about on the news. Then we start to despair: When we have failed God so completely, when we have betrayed our very reason for existing, how could God ever bless us?
If you continue reading the story of Abram and Sarai, you know that they weren’t shining examples of humanity either. Yes, when God said “get up and go,” they got up and went, and that showed great faith. However, along the way, they both showed a striking lack of faith. Abram offers his wife Sarai in marriage to other men in order to protect himself not once, but twice. Sarai mistrusts God’s promise so much that she told Abram to get an heir from her servant Hagar, and later when she was consumed with jealousy, Sarai ordered Abram to cast both Hagar and her son out into the wilderness, leaving them to die. They surely didn’t deserve God’s blessing, but they got it.
In the end, we must always remember that God’s blessing is not given as a reward or as a bribe to do good things. God’s blessing is given out of love—love not only for us, but for the world. The reason God gives the blessing is so that we will do God’s mission in the world, but the blessing is not contingent upon how well we do the work God has given us. We see this in Jesus Christ, the man who suffered and died to be a blessing for us. His death is proof that God doesn’t bless us for our own well-being, otherwise the perfectly-obedient Jesus would have lived to a ripe old age and died peacefully in bed. Instead, God’s blessings are about overcoming the power of sin in the whole world, about making God’s creation a place of abundant life and peace which passes all understanding.
We are always thinking that we have to “do” something: that we have to earn God’s love, or be worthy of it, or believe something specific. In truth, God’s blessing is beyond us: it will accomplish God’s mission through us, or in spite of us. Abram and Sarai never saw the fruition of God’s promise, save through the birth of their son, Isaac; and yet, through Abram and Sarai, the whole world has been blessed with the laws of Moses, with the leadership of David, with the words of the prophets, and with the life of Jesus Christ. Along the way, God’s chosen people at times helped God’s mission, and at times they hindered it, but God’s blessing has endured all the same.
Victoria Osteen has one thing right: doing good is its own reward, but not because God’s greatest joy is our happiness. We love and serve God because we trust that, as the creator of the universe, God’s greatest joy comes in saving all life and all creation from sin and death, and we believe that God has offered us the opportunity to be a part of that work. We are people born of the world; we are killed—drowned—in the waters of baptism; and we are raised to new life in Christ Jesus, the firstborn of the dead. We have been blessed with God’s love and grace so that we might be a blessing to the world.