Sunday, November 15, 2015

Blessed to Bless: Sermon on Genesis 12, 1 Samuel 3, and Zechariah 8

The old man had three jobs – each one a heavy enough burden in its own right. Before the mobs ever cried out for a leader over the nation, he had been a leader within the nation – a judge, leading the people in military victory and then traveling in a constant circuit, seldom resting, until he had sifted out the truth in every dispute, however minor. He poured his God-given wisdom into the lives of those around him. On top of that, he led his people in worship. Raised at a holy shrine, he knew what he was doing. He built altars, he offered sacrifices. He went to God on behalf of the people, bringing a gift; he handed the gift over to God to be consumed by God's holiness; he brought it back to the people as a sacred gift exchange; and so the people were blessed to dine with the divine. That's worship, that's what a priest is all about. And if that weren't enough, he held down a third full-time gig as a prophet, a seer. You want to hear what God has to say, you go to this man. He has the inside scoop. You watch what you say around him, lest you learn more than you bargained for! But he teaches the whole nation. It's plain as the nose on his face that the LORD is with him, that the LORD will “let none of his words fall to the ground” (1 Samuel 3:19). And so this prophet's word “came to all Israel” (1 Samuel 4:1). It blesses the entire kingdom because of this one man's obedience, because this one man's attitude was: “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him” (1 Samuel 3:18).

How does a career like that get launched? He's prime minister, he's megachurch pastor with a nation-sized congregation, he's an inspired social critic – how did all that happen? Rewind the clock, turn down the pages of the calendar, retreat into the mists of history – and you'll see a boy, handed over by his parents to the care of an aging priest named Eli. The two of them live in God's presence: the holy box, the ark of God, is there in their midst on this holy ground (1 Samuel 3:3). And though the word of God is rare (1 Samuel 3:1), is it any surprise to hear a voice in the dead of night? Is it a shout? Or is it, more likely, a whisper? “Samuel! Samuel!” The boy hears it once, runs to Eli, mistakes the call of God for one human voice among others. He needs discernment. “Samuel!” He hears it again, makes the same mistake. “Samuel!” The third time is not the charm. Eli pieces together the mystery, knows that something beyond the normal is afoot, traces the footprints of an Intruder who invented the thing we call 'universe' (1 Samuel 3:4-8).

A fourth time the voice calls out – not just calls out, but the LORD actually stands there, right next to the boy's bed as he waits in the pitch-black darkness. “Samuel! Samuel!” And what does the boy say? What are the right words in the face of God's sudden call? What's the answer when God wants our attention, when all is dark but he wants to make his presence known, when he has a destiny stored up for us? “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10). In other words: “You're LORD, I'm servant, I'm ready to both learn and obey, please proceed.”

Too often, that's not how we answer. Too often, we're stuck at the first stage: mistaking the LORD's voice for that of Eli – at best! We expect God to stay far away. Or, too often we despair in the dark of the night and think that if it's dark, then God isn't there. Doesn't he dwell in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16)? Wouldn't all things shine if he were near? But here we see what the cross confirms: that amidst the dark night of our souls, God may very well have drawn nearer than we can imagine; that unbeknownst to us, when we weep in our darkness, in our God-forsakenness, he could be within an inch of our soul, poised by our bedside, whether he speaks or whether he waits in the stillness of silence and invites us to rest with him there.

Or, too often we answer by saying, “Don't speak, LORD, for your servant has had enough already!” We aren't ready to receive. We look at ourselves, and we're smugly self-satisfied that we have things quite well enough figured out. We know what we're about, we've jotted down our daily to-do list, we've got a calendar full of appointments and amusements, and life is stable. When the LORD calls, he may well destabilize things: God is disruptive of all our false order, all our managed chaos; he speaks an order we don't recognize, and to hear him call and promise to listen may be an offer of grace too costly for our warped tastes.

Or yet, too often we answer by saying, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is curious.” We'd love to get an audience with God. We have so many questions! We're curious about so many things! Wouldn't it be great to unravel the great mysteries of your life – understand all the whys and all the hows, all the whos and all the whats? Wouldn't it be so wonderful, in other words, if God made himself available to serve our agendas – to confirm our theories and our speculations, to fork over all the trivia we'd like to collect, to download knowledge into our brains, so that we could sit back, prop up our feet, and grin in the delight of information acquisition?

None of those answers belong on Samuel's lips. Again, what does he actually say? “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10). In the blackness of the night, when heaven and earth and shrine are gone, when everything joyful lapses into invisibility, Samuel recognizes God there. When God calls out to him, Samuel recognizes that God is offering something good, something that may alter the course of his life but which he nevertheless needs. Samuel doesn't tell God to go away or bid God to keep silent. Samuel pleads with God to do what God wishes – to speak. And when God is offering his word, Samuel isn't merely curious, isn't preparing to treat a divine revelation as a museum showcase to hang on the wall of his mind and admire from time to time. Samuel is ready to listen, to act, to obey; ready to not just let the word of God fall on his ears, but to pass it along to others, to spread it around as God directs. In the words of this morning's hymn: “Lord, speak to me, that I may speak / in living echoes of thy tone.” And so begins a career where “the word of Samuel comes to all Israel” (1 Samuel 4:1), not a syllable falling lifelessly to the dirt (1 Samuel 3:19) – because Samuel first heard that word from God and then shared it. The only reason Samuel could bless his nation with his words was because Samuel first was blessed by God's word at his bedside. And Samuel knew that he'd been blessed with God's word with a purpose of blessing the whole nation with the same message. Samuel had been blessed to bless.

Now turn back the clock again, watch the centuries rewind. Shiloh zooms into the future, the lineage of Samuel and Eli reverses course, until the wind back to one man, standing in the desert with his clan. Called out from house and home, he'd packed his bags and booked a one-way ticket with the destination redacted. Introducing Abraham, or the man who becomes Abraham. Not quite a spring chicken: he's seventy-five years young when his saga even begins unfolding! We like to think of Abraham in his final form, as the perfect example of faith – a man ready to trust God with anything, even the life of the promised heir Isaac. But the truth is that Abraham's story is an epic of the slow development of his faith.

Up until that close call atop Mount Moriah, where the faith of Abraham is proven even in his own eyes, Abraham gets encouraged in his faith – and then mistrusts God in some pretty daring ways. No sooner had God called him, asking him to exercise that initial mustard-seed of faith to become an immigrant in a strange and foreign land, than Abram tricked the Egyptians, fearing that God wouldn't protect him there (Genesis 12:11-20). A few chapters later comes that wonderful sentence, the one Paul quotes with glee: “He believed the LORD, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Here's a man with flawless faith... right? Well, God then gives Abram another promise, that his family will own the land – and how does Abram answer? Do we read again that Abram's faith is reckoned as righteousness? Abram promptly asks God, “How can I know for sure?” (cf. Genesis 15:8). In other words, “Convince me, God; you can't just expect me to take your word for this one!” Abram's faith has a long way to go.

The next chapter unfolds, and Abram gives in to his wife's proposal to try to help God's promise along, take some shortcuts, make things easier for God. And so Ishmael comes into the world in an effort to manufacture God's blessing through human ingenuity (Genesis 16:1-12). Next chapter, God's blessing Abram again, renaming him as the Father of Many Nations (Genesis 17:5), reiterating his promise – and the newly minted Abraham laughs in God's face (Genesis 17:17). Two more chapters, and has Abraham learned from a couple decades earlier when he tricked Pharaoh? No, he does the same thing in Gerar that he did in Egypt (Genesis 20:1-7). Not until after Isaac's birth do we eventually see Abraham's faith flourish into full maturity. The Bible is shockingly honest that this kind of faith took a lot of time and a lot of work; it wasn't built in a day.

But alongside the story of Abraham's growth in faith is the story of his struggle to live into his vocation. To our ears, he doesn't come across very well when he tricks Pharaoh and then Abimelech, telling them lies of omission that lead to Abraham getting rich of their backs (Genesis 12:16; 20:14). Abraham gets blessed at their expense. But that isn't what Abraham was called to do, is it? That isn't God's purpose for his life. With what words did God call Abram in the first place? “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3). Why did God bless Abraham? Why did Abraham get all these promises from God? God himself spells it out: “So that you will be a blessing!” He wasn't meant to just bless himself. He wasn't meant to prosper at the expense of his neighbors. He was meant – and ultimately did, through the maturity of his faith – to be blessed to bless.

Abraham's descendants often forgot that, every bit as much as we do. The prophets had to consistently remind the people that God wouldn't give up on them ultimately, but also that God was holding them accountable to the same task he gave Abraham. The LORD said through Zechariah that he'd settle his people back in their true home, in the real Zion, where “they shall be my people, and I will be their God, in faithfulness and righteousness” (Zechariah 8:8). So far, that sounds great – for them. But he also encourages them – literally, exhorts them to courage – by saying that just as they'd been cursed by the nations, so now they would be saved with a purpose: “I will save you, and you shall be a blessing” (Zechariah 8:13).

And what does that look like? “Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true; and make for peace” (Zechariah 8:16). Be an example that truth, justice, and peace all go together, that they are possible when God is present; and when the nations see that God is present, they can be drawn there for a blessing, they will say, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (Zechariah 8:23). Israel was blessed mightily throughout the whole Old Testament – but their chosenness wasn't something to hoard, something to brag about, something to enjoy in the lap of luxury while everyone else toiled away in valleys of envy. Israel was blessed to bless, to be “a blessing in the midst of the earth” (Isaiah 19:24).

Isn't that how God works? God almost never blesses anyone exclusively for their own sake. There are a few possible minor exceptions, like Paul's trip to the third heaven or like praying in tongues without an interpreter. But you'd be hard-pressed to find many places in the Bible where he blesses an individual or a group for only their own sake, or maybe even primarily their own sake! God doesn't save us just for us. God doesn't glorify us just for us. God doesn't teach us just for us. God doesn't enrich us just for us. Forget that, and everything is just shades of the prosperity gospel. Remember, Paul reminded the Corinthians Christians that they had been enriched to be generous (2 Corinthians 9:11), and his advice to thieves to start working didn't end with, “so that you can feed yourselves honestly,” but, “so as to have something to share with the needy” (Ephesians 4:28). “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance,” but the purpose is that “you may share abundantly in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8). God doesn't bless you just for you. All his gifts are meant for gaining-together (1 Corinthians 12:7). And it's a life like that, that makes people cling to us and say, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (Zechariah 8:23).

Truth be told, churches don't see that often, do they? How many congregations frequently see people clinging to the members, begging to join them? Not many. And we aren't one of them. But why not? Hasn't God blessed this church? Every person who truly belongs to this church has been blessed by being snatched from sin's grasp and raised up from death to life; blessed by being drawn into the life of God's love that existed before the world began; blessed by being seated in high heavenly places on thrones; blessed by being made kings and priests to our God and Father; blessed by being filled with God's life, the Holy Spirit, to live through us; blessed with encouragement, with growth in virtue, with spiritual gifts aplenty. And we've been blessed with a beautiful building, blessed with gainful employment or the lingering benefits of past labor, blessed with homes and food and clothes – blessed with the riches of earth and the riches of heaven. We've been blessed to hear God's word, to learn the truth; we've had the riddle of existence unfolded before our eyes in Jesus Christ. We're blessed to have the ear of the King of Kings, and to dine at his table with him and to eat the sacrifice of praise. We “who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed” (Galatians 3:9).

And yet... And yet we aren't attracting the needy, those who crave the blessings found here. There are more important things than numbers: better to be small and deep than broad but shallow. But the truth is, when we think about what time in our congregation's history was the most blessed, few of us think of right now. Why was that then and not now? Could it be that we've lost sight of why we're here? Could it be that we as a church have a tendency – like so many churches – to consume our resources internally, to cater to our own wants and serve our own needs. Could it be that we act in practice like these blessings are all primarily for our benefit, and so God knows he can't yet trust us with anything more?

We sit here on a Sunday morning, we bid the LORD to speak to us through his word, and we hear what God has to say – but what practical difference does it make on Monday, or Wednesday, or Saturday? Not just, “How does it change us?”, but, “How does it bless them?” – them, those people whose paths we cross, or whose paths we might cross if we were sensitive to God's voice and did as he said? That's what this church is here for. This church does not exist for the benefit of its members. The church exists to glorify God and to bless the world, and our purpose is no exception. If we as a church aren't spreading God's blessings to neighbors near and far, then we're forgetting that we're blessed to bless. If you read our church newsletter, you might recognize this quote from Richard Bauckham, in my opinion one of the greatest living scholars of the New Testament:

God never singles out some for their own sake alone, but always for others. So the church should be the community from which the blessing of Abraham, experienced in Jesus, overflows to others. The church should be the people who have recognized God as he truly is in God's revelation in Jesus, and therefore make that revelation known to others. The church is those people who, so far, acknowledge God's rule as he is implementing it in Jesus and live for others in the light of the coming of his kingdom in all creation.

Operation Christmas Child is the tip of the iceberg, a token of what should be a persistent way of life. As it's been said, the church doesn't so much have a mission, as God's mission has a church to carry it out. We exist for the sake of the mission, and our options are two and only two: either live out our blessed-to-bless mission and make it the measure of all things, or else exist in vain and run on fumes until we break down. I can't promise that Option #1 is an easy thing; but we don't have to bless others in our own unaided power – God will bless us to make it possible.

What does it look like, in our day and in our place, to be blessed to bless? Maybe it means sharing the sermon's lessons with those who didn't hear it. Maybe it means being a patient and proactive listener to those with burdens, and then taking them to the throne of grace through the access wherewith Jesus blessed us in him. Maybe it means giving away half your possessions to people you've never met. Maybe it means opening your spacious home to those with nowhere else to turn or go. Maybe it means seeking out those who frustrate you, who infuriate and exasperate you with all their sins and all their prickliness and all their weaknesses and bad habits, and embracing them as they are, just as God first welcomed us as we were, with all our sins and all our prickliness and all our weaknesses and bad habits. “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9).

Maybe, in the wake of the recent abhorrent terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris, it means going to our Muslim neighbors in this county, and treating them as we'd want to be treated if wicked men perverted our faith that way, and pledging to use our voice to stand with them for peace against the pervasive politics of fear. Maybe it means actively seeking out the lost, the untouchable, and bringing them love and grace rather than judgment and exclusion. We have a whole community to care for: “By the blessing of the upright, a city is exalted” (Proverbs 11:11). Maybe it means all this and more.

I have a challenge for you as individuals and families and for us as a church. Go home today, and between now and next Sunday, start to write a list of the blessings God has put into your life right now. Your house, your food, your clothes, your car, your family, your friends, your job, your money, your time, your daily decisions, your very body and mind and soul; all the blessings you have in Christ; the skills and gifts God has given you. If you have trouble, ask those who know you to help you. But make an actual list – a literal one on paper. As you do, go through and ask yourself this question: “What did God give me this for? How does he want me to steward it to glorify him and bless others?” Bathe it in prayer, scrutinize it with the word of God. Pray, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” And as you begin getting a sense of the possibilities, commit to actually act on them, as the Spirit blesses you with wisdom for each day.

As a church community, let's pray that same prayer, let's make that same resolution. If we bring our lists all together, if we let Jesus open our eyes to the possibilities of life as parts of one and the same Body with one and the same Spirit, who knows what will happen? Who knows where God will take us, what God will make of us? But it isn't going to happen through our own inertia unless we first make a move to follow Jesus, the one Man who most undeniably lived his whole blessed life to bless us. That's what he was all about. That's how he defined his life. His body was broken for us, his blood was shed for us, his soul bore the burden of sin for us, he rose again for our justification – and he calls us his Body on earth now. Don't let this be another speech to occupy a few hours on a Sunday morning and then forget it. As the New Zion, God has saved us to be a blessing. Let Jesus redefine your life, our life, as a living, walking, breathing blessing. Let his mission have you, have you unreservedly. “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:17). “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:18)! So let's obey it and go a-blessin'. Amen.

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