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|Contents|||||Blessing others: Deuteronomy 33|
Before we talk about what blessings are and how to bless others, I’d like us to dwell on the two scenes we have had read to us. First, Luke’s description of Zechariah, speaking a prophetic blessing over his new son John. We have here an intimate family scene, when the new boy was to be circumcised at eight days of age, and so marked out as a son of the Covenant – a key stage in his religious life. Both parents are present, a few close relatives or friends, the priest performing the ceremony – probably also a friend since Zechariah served God in the Temple – and of course the new baby himself. This baby has undergone the rigours of childbirth – a hazardous time for both mother and child – and has experienced his first great life-separation, from mother’s womb. He has arrived in a strange new world, where he breathes air, experiences extremes of heat and cold, eats and drinks, speaks. He is impacted all over his body by new sensations, and over the last eight days has been finding reconnection with his mother through the comfort and nourishment of her breast. And over this scene, his voice freed after nine months of silence when he affirms the giving of the prophetic name John, Zechariah speaks this blessing over his son.
“You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation, through the forgiveness of their sins”.
Now, the scene in Deuteronomy 33 is different. We stand on the Plains of Moab with Moses, with a great throng of the tribes of Israel all around him. They are a large group of people, but again, only family and friends are there – the nations at large are not yet witness to what Israel will become. And over this group of people Moses speaks, and perhaps we can see him going up to the representatives of each tribe in turn, “Listen, Judah, may the LORD hear your cry … listen, Levi, may the LORD bless all your skills … listen, Naphtali, may you abound with the favour of the LORD … “ and so on, and perhaps we can then hear these words rippling out through the clans and the families in each tribe so that all could hear, “this is what Mosheh said about us”. For Moses himself, these are words spoken before death, since he knows he is not permitted to enter the Promised Land. But for the Israelites, this is again a birth-blessing. Since the point at which the Red Sea waters broke apart for Israel at the border between Egypt and the Sinai, Israel was being born as an infant nation. Only one obstacle, a river, now separated the emerging infant from the land flowing with milk and honey, and the men’s collective circumcision was to happen in a few days time. It would be many years before infant Israel matured to the point of having a king, of taking adult place amongst the surrounding nations, but these words of Moses are a blessing at, and about, her birth.
“Israel will live in safety alone, Jacob’s spring is secure… Blessed are you, O Israel, who is like you? A people saved by the LORD”.
So, what is a blessing? Well, in the widest sense it is a sign of an individual and communal impulse of all mankind. All religions have teachings about blessing, and people who profess no religion at all nevertheless come up with ways to wish one another well and desire that good things should happen. In Biblical terms we can trace this back before Moses to Abraham, who amongst other things was told, “by your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” Now the New Testament tells us that Christians, followers of Jesus, are counted as spiritual descendants of Abraham, so we had better learn what it means to walk so as to bless others.
Now, sadly the word “bless” has become somewhat debased nowadays into a rather empty phrase of well-wishing. We say, “Bless you” when someone sneezes, and my suspicion is that most of the time we don’t really think what we are saying here. Even within the church, blessings are often very casual, almost habitual words of well-wishing we say to someone, or else they end up being thinly disguised pieces of advice. Perhaps these words trip off our tongue a little too easily.
Now, the Greek word for blessing, that the New Testament uses, means “a good word” – a word, that is, that does you good, not just one that sounds nice. It reminds us of the role of the spoken word in a blessing, and it connects to the teaching that Jesus is the Word of God, the ultimate Good Word. At the end of the order of service for tonight is the word “benediction” – the Latin word with the same meaning. But the Hebrew word, used in the Old Testament, has to do with kneeling in order to serve. It has the idea of enabling or empowering a person, of propelling them forward into their future. It’s an active word, one that suggests that the person doing the blessing is helping to make the future happen. The person giving the blessing is sharing in – and to an extent shaping – the future of the person receiving.
To this end, it’s important that a blessing is spoken aloud. Unlike prayers, which if we prefer can be just internal and shared only with God, a blessing needs to be spoken to or spoken over a person. Throughout the Bible, the power of the spoken word – for good and for ill – is emphasised. The words we speak are not empty noises, but are fraught, powerful, trembling with significance. In God’s economy, there are no “casual words”. From God’s voice speaking creation into the formless void, through Jesus’ cry “It is finished” on the cross, to the Spirit saying “Come” at the end of Revelation, divine words not only communicate but also enact history. The same is true, on a lesser scale, of human words. In the Bible we find the words of good and bad people, of the devoted and the doubt-ridden, we find words spoken with care or in haste – but always the words shape the future lives of the speaker and those about him or her. The Bible records for us several cases where careless or ill-chosen words end up as a curse. Think of the judge Jepthah, who sacrificed his daughter in order to fulfil a rashly spoken vow. A poster used in the Second World War read, “Careless talk costs lives”, and in the Christian sense it is certainly true that careless words can cost Life.
Moses’ blessing shows us that our blessings should be shaped by knowledge, not ignorance. Moses had been the religious and spiritual leader of this people for many years, and this was surely not the first time he had blessed them. Perhaps he had used similar words before. This particular blessing is given extra weight by the knowing that these would be his last words, but I think we can be sure that these words had been building in him for considerable time. There are large variations between each blessing, and they are personally adapted to the tribe being addressed. Benjamin is granted rest, Dan is promised action, Zebulun and Issachar will call others to them and serve them, Gad will become a leader. Levi’s section mostly recounts past deeds that illuminate a devoted character. Joseph’s – which we read together – is the most extensive, and gives a comprehensive list of benefits to be lavished on this pair of tribes – the best of the heavens, the earth and the deep waters, natural produce, divine favour, and military victory. The more we know of a person and their situation, the more focused our blessing can be. Some of Moses’ words don’t read as blessings in the everyday sense of “nice things we would like to happen”, but have a prophetic, slightly dangerous edge. “Gad lives like a lion, tearing at arm or head”.
Zechariah’s blessing shows us that blessings are also to be inspired and not just well thought-out. The unborn John had lived in Elizabeth’s womb for nine months, and Zechariah had been unable to speak for all of that time. He had had abundant opportunity to contemplate Gabriel’s message and its Old Testament background, to think about his son, to pray and meditate … but he had had no human opportunity to meet his son, to get to know him as an individual. “You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High” – these words are inspired ones, the fruit of his own conversation with God. Blessings should certainly be based on our knowledge, but they are more than suitable words for the right occasion – they are open windows for the inspiration of the Spirit of God.
Moses’ words also highlight for us that the hearer has a responsibility to receive blessing. It is not just an automatic benefit, like a sort of lucky charm. Receiving a blessing requires faith and willingness to walk into the future illuminated in front of us. Some of the Israelite tribes that heard Moses’ words did walk into their revealed future, albeit in an uncertain and faltering way. But some of the tribes did not walk into it, and their subsequent history in the land faded and withered away.
Now, blessing in its best and most God-centred sense springs out of the fertile ground of knowledge of and relationship with God. This is why the first half of Zechariah’s words recount the great deeds God had done for Israel in earlier years, and why Moses starts and ends his blessing with a description of God’s character and actions. There are some wonderful words here, but I want to focus for the last few minutes on the phrase in verse 27, “the eternal God is your refuge”. The word Moses uses here, “refuge”, is a rather unusual one in the Hebrew Bible, and carries along with it a cluster of ideas that no single English word quite captures.
The first idea is that of a dwelling-place. Our God is a place to dwell, and the more securely we feel the warmth of that dwelling-place, the more perceptive will be our blessings. This doesn’t always have to do with how long we’ve, as it were, dwelt in God’s house, but the extent to which we feel welcomed and at home, a family member. Now, for Moses, this idea was clearly a central one, and he opens Psalm 90 with the words “Lord, you have been our dwelling-place throughout all generations” – a slightly different word but expressing a similar idea. Moses paints a picture here and elsewhere of God being vigorous in the defence of his house and his household – he rides on the clouds of the heavens to help us, he is our shield and our sword. He does not just open the door for newcomers, he goes out to find and to gather in the occupants in whom he delights.
Along with that, the word carries the idea of a working-place, especially one where growth or cultivation is due to happen, like a ploughed field. The life of God is not a static thing, but a lively, fertile place of creative activity. Whether or not any of us is at work in the conventional sense, the life of God is at work in us to heal and to bless. The ploughed field is ready for the seed to be planted and to grow. The unformed clay awaits the shaping hands of the potter.
Thirdly, the word brings the idea of suffering, of poverty, destitution, affliction. Now, there is a sense in which God is a haven from suffering – a refuge – but I do not think this is what Moses is meaning here. Nor do I think he is seeing prophetically the Christian truth that God in the person of Jesus suffered more than any other, for the sake of those he loved. No. Rather, Moses is joining together here the ideas of dwelling and suffering – our union with God necessarily involves suffering of some kind. Now, suffering comes to us in many different forms – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, the abuse of others, unfair treatment, self-denial from things of this world, and so on. Out of this suffering comes, if we so choose, a capacity to bless others. Now, I do not believe there is anything automatic about this, that suffering always leads to a capacity or desire to bless. In the case of Jesus it did lead to this outcome – from the cross he was able to bless the Roman soldiers, his own mother, and ultimately all those who through history would adhere to him. But I suspect we have all noticed in other people, or indeed in ourselves, the opposite tendency. Suffering can turn us inwards in defensiveness or bitterness, or silent remoteness, just as it can turn us outwards into relationship and blessing. A life with God inevitably includes suffering in some form, but whether blessing emerges from our mouths in these circumstances is a choice that is personal and often repeated. Which choice are we going to make?
Finally, this wonderfully rich Hebrew word brings the idea of singing. Our God is a dwelling-place, a place of creative work, a suffering-place, but He is also a singing-place, and out of this song, blessing can emerge. As I was preparing this, I started thinking about all the different kinds of singing that there are, and I wonder what kind of song comes into your mind? A hymn, perhaps, like the ones we have sung here tonight? A modern worship chorus? Perhaps a national anthem, like the ones being sung at the Olympic Games in Athens at present? Perhaps a solo ballad, a choral piece, a protest song, a call to arms, a victory shout, a lament? Something in a major or a minor key? A song of success or failure, a song of triumph or despair? The Church needs all of these, sung in different ways by different people at different times. I wonder what your personal song is, the song that fills your soul at those points when you feel closest to God? Part of the unique image you bear of your Creator is your personal melody in the overall anthem, built of the whole of God’s people throughout history and across the world. Is each of us willing to sing our unique song in God’s service? Noone else’s song is quite like yours. Noone else can sing your song.
In summary, then, what do these two readings tell us? Being able to impart blessing to other people is an important part of the Christian life. To be sure, there are many ways we can bless others by our actions, but the two examples we have looked at tonight are concerned with blessing others by our words. These words have to be based on our knowledge of the person and their situation, but they also have to be open to God’s Spirit breathing inspiration into them. If we are the one being blessed, then our reception needs to be faith-filled and active for the blessing to bear fruit. Blessings are rooted in our knowledge and experience of God’s actions and character. This character is described by Moses in a variety of ways – a place to dwell, a place of creative activity, a place where we suffer, and a singing-place. I suggest that all of us can deepen our personal experience of God in each of these ways, and in doing so allow our blessings to become more enlivened by God.