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…the Lord said to Abram,
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
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.
What does it mean to be “blessed?” It’s a word we use a lot these days. If you use social media, you’ve probably seen lots of posts or tweets with the hashtag “blessed.” We often use it to announce good things – like the birth of a new baby, the purchase of a new house, a promotion or a new job. And sometimes we use it for more ordinary everyday things – good weather, a beautiful sunset, time with dear friends, or the delighted laughter of children we love.
For a lot of us “blessing” has come to simply mean something that makes us happy or contented. And it’s a way to indicate that we’re grateful for what we have. Giving gratitude for God’s gifts is a good practice. Naming an occasion for celebration as a blessing can be a way of naming God as the giver of all that is holy and beautiful and good.
But when we name only the good things in our lives – the successes – as moments of God’s blessing, we risk communicating – and believing – that God is only with us when we are see tangible signs of God’s presence. We risk reinforcing the idea that God’s blessing is with those who prosper, but not with those who suffer. We risk coming to the conclusion that God is not with those who wait – for weeks or months or years or generations – with no resolution to their longing.
We risk concluding that God has abandoned us when we grieve, that God’s blessing is not upon those who struggle every day to pay for the basic necessities for themselves and their families, that God is absent when our life is filled with loss and anxiety and need. We risk equating God’s generous and life-giving presence with our own success and happiness, and equating failure, despair, illness, grief, and trouble with the absence of God’s blessing.
At first glance, it may appear that the blessing that God is promising to Abram is the kind that brings prosperity and security.
“I’m going to make your descendants into a great nation,” God tells a very ordinary, unremarkable man who was living with his extended family in Northern Mesopotamia – that’s present day Iraq – around 2000 BCE. “I will make your name respected and widely known. I’ll be on your side in whatever threats or challenges you face – blessing those who are good to you and cursing those who aren’t.” It sounds like the kind of blessing that is going to make for some really great future Facebook posts, right?
But Abram’s story doesn’t really play out that way. “Go!” God tells him. And so he leaves his country, his family, his home and he goes – with no idea where he is going. He takes his wife and his nephew and all the people who are a part of his household, and all his possessions, forms a big caravan, and heads off toward Canaan.
And suddenly, he no longer has the protection of his extended family. Overnight, he becomes a migrant in a foreign country, a stranger without a home of his own or a set destination. Suddenly, he has to face every day the difficulties of life as an outsider – the cultural differences, the language barriers, the great vulnerability to exploitation and violence, and the loss of home, family and friends.
And it doesn’t always go well. Yes, he prospers financially. But he also struggles to navigate life in a foreign country. Twice, Sarai is taken as the wife of another powerful man. Abram faces famine, the threat of violence, the kidnapping of his nephew, and terrible family conflict – all while continuing to lead his growing caravan of family, herds and slaves through the desert without any identifiable destination.
And nearly 25 years later, Abram – now renamed Abraham – has received this promise from God three more times – and has led his household through hundreds and hundreds of miles of desert- and yet he is still waiting for the promised child who will make his descendants into a great nation.
By this time, Sarah has gone through menopause and can no longer bear a child. And yet Abraham and Sarah are still waiting for the one thing they most long to receive – a child who will be the fulfillment of God’s promise to them.
And finally – finally – after any reasonable human hope is long gone, when Sarah and Abraham are near the end of their lives, Isaac is born.
Abraham and Sarah welcome him with great joy, as God’s gift. And yet, God’s promise was far from fulfilled. God promised to make Abraham and Sarah’s descendants into a great nation. And then, to this couple whose culture valued abundant fertility as one of the greatest signs of God’s blessing – he gave one tiny baby boy, born in a dangerous foreign country, hundreds and hundreds of miles from their home.
God promised to give Abraham a homeland for his descendants. And yet, in a cultural where identity was so intimately connected to land, the only land Abraham and Sarah owned was the burial plot Abraham bought from one of their temporary hosts.
God promised to give Abraham a great name – but to the people who mattered most to Abraham – the people of his homeland – Abraham had been entirely absent for a quarter of his life. Abraham and Sarah never returned home to see the family and friends they left behind. They lived out the rest of their lives in tents, without ever having the security of a walled home to call their own. They never met the grandchildren born to Isaac.
Abraham and Sarah didn’t live to see more than a glimmer of the fulfillment of God’s promises to them in their lifetime. So were they blessed?
By most measures, there were few signs of it.
But the heart of the blessing God promised was to be with Abraham and Sarah. And not just to be with them, but to be alive within them and bringing abundance and life for the whole world through them – through their deepest desires and longings. Through their bodies. Through their most intimate joining with each other. God promised to be at work accomplishing something abundant and generative for the whole world through the ordinary everyday stuff of their lives. God promised that blessing would indwell them and be born into the world through them.
Abraham and Sarah’s only baby boy grew up, and despite the obstacle of infertility, his wife – Rebekah – gave birth to two more little baby boys. And those boys – Jacob and Esau – grew up and, despite the obstacles of infertility, their wives gave birth to more babies. From body to body, life to life, from longing to longing and desire to desire, the promise was handed down through the generations.
According to Matthew’s accounting of the genealogy, this promise was handed down from generation to generation for 42 generations, until the birth of Jesus the Messiah.
And, 42 generations later, a tiny baby boy grew in the womb of Mary – a woman who, by any accounting, should not have been pregnant, a woman living under the reign of a dangerous and threatening government, a woman who, with her husband and son, was forced to become a refugee in order to protect her child.
When Mary learned of her pregnancy she was an unmarried, pregnant peasant girl from a remote small town. And yet she proclaimed that because of the tiny life growing in her “all generations will call me blessed.”
And her baby boy grew up to be a man who proclaimed, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”
Jamie Wright – who blogs at Jamie the Very Worst Missionary – writes about just how absurd those claims sound in light of our popular understanding of blessing.
She points out that “You would never come across a status update that says, “Feeling lost and alone. I wonder if Got is even listening. #PoorInSpirit #Blessed”
Or, “Terrible accident killed half my family. Funeral is Monday. #mourning #blessed.”
Or “Wish I could kick this…porn habit. I want nothing more to live a life that honors my spouse and my God and my covenant with them both #Blessed #Desperateforrighteousness”
And yet that is the vision of blessing we have been given – from Abraham and Sarah, handed down from body to body, longing to longing, until Mary, the peasant girl from Nazareth. God’s blessing comes to us in longing, in need, in desperation and desire that is often met only with glimmers of what is to come.
And that is the vision of God’s blessing that Jesus gives us. Not that God causes or wills our suffering – but that God is especially close to and indwelling those whose bodies and lives are filled with longing and need. God is with those who ache for a lost homeland. God is with those who need protection from threatening and powerful people every day. God’s life-giving presence is with those who mourn and who long for freedom from the habits and addictions and sin that keep them bound.
Some of us do not feel very blessed right now. Some of us are waiting in anguish and anxiety and need. Some of us feel the ache of unfulfilled desire in every cell of our bodies. We are waiting for a job. A clean bill of health. The peaceful release of a dying loved one. The safe birth of a longed-for child. Some glimmer of hope for wise leadership of our country and protection of our earth. Some moment of relief from anxiety or depression. Some strength to resist what keeps us from wholeness.
The promise of Abraham and the promise of Jesus is that, when we turn to God in our need, continuing to wait and long for a glimmer of God’s promise, God is with us. God indwells us, making a home within our ache and longing and need. And when we open ourselves to go, as Abraham and Sarah did, into the unknown land of grief or need or desire, trusting in God’s faithfulness, we open our lives to be a part of God’s generous, abundant, overflowing blessing to the whole world.
The promise of Abraham and Sarah, the promise of Mary, the promise of Jesus, is that God’s goodness and love and abundance flows through us – through the ordinary everyday stuff of our lives – overflowing from generation to generation, from country to country, and culture to culture, cascading from life to life. And what is only a tiny glimmer of light held in our hands becomes a river of light, marking the path through the desert for those who come after us and who continue to wait, as we do, for the day when God’s greatness will break forth like the dawn, flooding all the people of the world with God’s generous, abundant, life-giving love.
Our theme music is “Jesus, I believe you’re near,” composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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