Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 – Giving the Good

Psalm 85 by American artist John August Swanson

Lord, you were favorable to your land;
    you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people;
    you pardoned all their sin….

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
    for he will speak peace to his people,
    to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
    that his glory may dwell in our land.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
    righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
    and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
    and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
    and will make a path for his steps. (NRSV)

Steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace are terms which all spiritual folks need to be familiar with as well as experience. Steadfast love and faithfulness have its ground in God’s chesed, the divine covenant loyalty and kindness which always holds on, even despite people’s fickle commitment. Righteousness and peace are primarily relational terms which communicate a harmonious way of being with others and all creation.

This psalm says God will give exactly what the people have prayed for. It is a blessing given by the Lord to those who long for wholeness, integrity, and unhindered connection with God and God’s creation. And it is in the metaphors surrounding the words which give us such a beautiful picture of the blessing realized.

This is neither a general nor generic blessing from God Almighty. It is personal. In the grand immensity of the universe, the Creator God bends and condescends not only to all humanity but also to the individual. God’s steadfast love and faithfulness will meet to bless you and me. The Lord will come alongside and conform a divine blessing to our life. God’s grace will stick to us like glue in the form of right relationships and unity.

All of God’s attributes and character shall work in a seamless whole to bring divine acceptance and assistance to our lives. The good news here is that our struggles to be right and live right amidst terrible conditions of pandemics and people’s petulance have a vindication of divine sanction and enablement.

So, take a big breath and exhale, allowing the worries and anxieties of adverse situations to be expelled from our weary spirits. The Lord will give what is good. Today’s psalm is a wonderful reminder that salvation is not limited to a coming life; it is also deliverance in this present world we inhabit, basking in the Lord’s love and shalom and enjoying the good gifts God wants to give us right now.

Gracious God speak peace to your people. Through your Son, the Lord Jesus, we turn to you in our hearts, knowing your steadfast love and faithfulness, your righteousness and peace goes before us, with us, and behind us. In Christ, our salvation is at hand. May we reflect your goodness, as we respond to you with heart, soul, mind, and strength. This we pray in the name of the One who is your peace, your salvation—Jesus Christ. Amen.

Psalm 128 – Blessed

The Lord will bless you 
    if you respect him 
    and obey his laws. 
Your fields will produce, 
    and you will be happy 
    and all will go well. 
Your wife will be as fruitful 
    as a grapevine, 
and just as an olive tree 
    is rich with olives, 
    your home will be rich 
    with healthy children. 
That is how the Lord will bless 
    everyone who respects him. 

I pray that the Lord 
    will bless you from Zion 
    and let Jerusalem prosper 
    as long as you live. 
May you live long enough 
    to see your grandchildren. 
    Let’s pray for peace in Israel! (CEV) 

There is a consistent connection between obedience and blessing. That is, in observing God’s ways, one will typically enjoy divine favor and approval.  

Keep in mind, however, this is not a math equation. Like 2+2=4 there are folks who expect a neat linear connection between their obedience and their blessing. In math theology, when a woman is unable to have children, or a child goes astray from their heritage, the parent concludes that they themselves must have been unfaithful to God’s law or are being punished. Conversely, with children who grow to be good citizens and respectful persons, the parents might conclude it was because of their superior observance to the spiritual life. 

In both cases, parents take too much credit, either for a child’s wandering or success. As for kids going astray, even God had prodigal children, so cut ourselves some slack. As for children who maintain faithfulness, a lot of factors went into who they are. I suppose it is only natural to quickly assume we have far more control of than we really do. 

This all cuts to the heart of biblical interpretation. If all Scripture is read literally, then we will likely see the Bible as a math equation where doing and saying the right things gets a predictable result of blessing. Yet, this mistakenly views promise and proverb as the same thing, and divine work with one person or group will be precisely the same for another. The wisdom literature of Scripture, which includes the psalms, were never designed as prescriptive decree but rather as the sage approach for work, worship, and family. 

Today’s psalm communicates the path of happiness coming through love and respect for God. It neither promises lots of kids, ensures money, nor guarantees smooth sailing. Rather, when one lives each day being cognizant and observant to center everything around the divine, then blessing and happiness will tend to follow. 

Blessings and benedictions are given to sustain us in hope and confidence. The best things in life usually come through faith and family. So, when we choose to walk with God and travel down the ethical road, then life becomes full of peace and prosperity – perhaps not always in the manner we expect, yet blessing, nonetheless. 

Humanity is hard-wired for blessing, for a steady diet of encouragement, acceptance, and approval from God and others. When this is withheld from us, unhappiness, even despair begins to settle. Giving and receiving blessing is at the heart of being fully human and alive. Our work and family life will likely be miserable if blessing is absent. Yet, with blessing, we have a sustainable form of happiness and enjoyment. 

Eternal God, by whose power we are created and by whose love we are redeemed, guide, strengthen, and bless us through your Spirit so that we may give ourselves to your service and live today in love to one another and to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Genesis 49:1-33 – The Long View

Blessing of the Twelve Tribes

Then Jacob called for his sons and said: “Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come.

“Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob;
listen to your father Israel.

“Reuben, you are my firstborn,
my might, the first sign of my strength,
excelling in honor, excelling in power.
Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel,
for you went up onto your father’s bed,
onto my couch and defiled it.

“Simeon and Levi are brothers—
their swords are weapons of violence.
Let me not enter their council,
let me not join their assembly,
for they have killed men in their anger
and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.
Cursed be their anger, so fierce,
and their fury, so cruel!
I will scatter them in Jacob
and disperse them in Israel.

“Judah, your brothers will praise you;
your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons will bow down to you.
You are a lion’s cub, Judah;
you return from the prey, my son.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down,
like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he to whom it belongs shall come
and the obedience of the nations shall be his.
He will tether his donkey to a vine,
his colt to the choicest branch;
he will wash his garments in wine,
his robes in the blood of grapes.
His eyes will be darker than wine,
his teeth whiter than milk.

“Zebulun will live by the seashore
and become a haven for ships;
his border will extend toward Sidon.

“Issachar is a rawboned donkey
lying down among the sheep pens.
When he sees how good his resting place is
and how pleasant is his land,
he will bend his shoulder to the burden
and submit to forced labor.

“Dan will provide justice for his people
as one of the tribes of Israel.
Dan will be a snake by the roadside,
a viper along the path,
that bites the horse’s heels
so that its rider tumbles backward.

“I look for your deliverance, Lord.

“Gad will be attacked by a band of raiders,
but he will attack them at their heels.

“Asher’s food will be rich;
he will provide delicacies fit for a king.

“Naphtali is a doe set free
that bears beautiful fawns.

“Joseph is a fruitful vine,
a fruitful vine near a spring,
whose branches climb over a wall.
With bitterness archers attacked him;
they shot at him with hostility.
But his bow remained steady,
his strong arms stayed limber,
because of the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob,
because of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel,
because of your father’s God, who helps you,
because of the Almighty, who blesses you
with blessings of the skies above,
blessings of the deep springs below,
blessings of the breast and womb.
Your father’s blessings are greater
than the blessings of the ancient mountains,
than the bounty of the age-old hills.
Let all these rest on the head of Joseph,
on the brow of the prince among his brothers.

“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf;
in the morning he devours the prey,
in the evening he divides the plunder.”

All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, giving each the blessing appropriate to him.

Then he gave them these instructions: “I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought along with the field as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite. There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried, there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried, and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave in it were bought from the Hittites.”

When Jacob had finished giving instructions to his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people. (NIV)

The theme of confidence works its way through the patriarch Jacob’s deathbed prophecies and blessings – a resolute conviction in the promises of God, that he will accomplish what he said he would do. Jacob expressed the hope and sure belief that God would bring the Israelites out of Egypt and into the land of Canaan as their inheritance – and, ultimately to the City of God, the eternal inheritance.

The Christian will find much in Judah’s blessing as the promise of the coming Christ, Jesus. Mentioning the implements of “staff” and “scepter” are symbols of authority. And, the reference to a donkey communicated a ruler was coming, as donkeys were the preferred mounts of royalty in ancient times. What is more, the washing of garments in wine, and eyes darker than wine, are allusions to the future blessing and abundance there will be through the tribe of Judah. In fact, the first miracle of Jesus was turning water into wine – a deliberate attempt by the Apostle John to connect Jesus with Old Testament messianic prophecies of abundance and blessing. (John 2:1-12)

long hallway

It is important for us to take the long view of life, keeping in mind that it took eighteen centuries for Jacob’s prophecy of Judah to occur. This long view is what gives us our confidence in life and provides the patience and perseverance we need right now.  Keeping in mind the big picture of God’s work in this world is necessary because if we do not, we will likely become discouraged with the circumstances we face right now.

The reason Jacob makes it into the great Hall of Faith is not because he was squeaky clean and perfect in how he lived his life, but because he took the long view, the big picture, and saw that God was going to fulfill his promises to Israel:

By an act of faith, Jacob on his deathbed blessed each of Joseph’s sons in turn, blessing them with God’s blessing, not his own—as he bowed in worship upon his staff. (Hebrews 11:21, MSG)

Furthermore, when we string the following three verses together across both Testaments, we see the long view of God’s purposes:

It is true that you planned to do something bad to me. But really, God was planning good things. God’s plan was to use me to save the lives of many people. And that is what happened. (Genesis 50:20, ERV)

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV)  

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28, NKJV)

In the Christian faith tradition, all God’s promises come together and are fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus. He is our salvation, our inheritance, and our hope.  To give our lives to him in complete trust of faith is both our challenge and our privilege.

May we live by faith, and not by fear.

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through anxious times, so that we who are wearied by the changes of this life may rest in your eternal steadiness. Keep watch, dear God, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

Psalm 133 – The Blessing of Unity and Harmony

Ascend to Jerusalem by Dan Livni
“Ascend to Jerusalem” by Dan Livni

Oh, how wonderful, how pleasing it is
when God’s people all come together as one!
It is like the sweet-smelling oil that is poured over the high priest’s head,
that runs down his beard flowing over his robes.
It is like a gentle rain from Mount Hermon falling on Mount Zion.
It is there that the Lord has promised his blessing of eternal life. (ERV)

Unity, solidarity, and harmony are a beautiful blessing. Disunity, division, and fragmentation are an ugly curse. Within all families and faith communities are a diverse bunch of people – which brings the potential of both wonderful fellowship and disagreeing fights.

Today’s reading is a psalm of ascent. It is one of a group of psalms the Israelites would say and sing together as they made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and ascended the temple mount to worship the Lord. Their common purpose and shared experience led to a blessed unity among all the worshipers.

The metaphors the psalm uses are meant to convey the feeling and impact of a unified people’s blessing as one harmonious bunch. The reference to oil communicates abundance and extravagant blessing beyond expectation. The gentle rain or the dew pictures the giving of life to a parched landscape. The psalm is a celebration of life’s simple pleasures, enjoyed with friends and family.

People created in the image of God are hard-wired for community. Rather than existing in isolation, doing our own thing, and keeping to ourselves, the Lord’s intention for humans is to be close enough to one another to rejoice with those experiencing joy and to weep with those mourning a loss. True community requires unity and harmony.

To live in harmony with one another means we regard everyone the same way by not playing favorites, being condescending, or giving more weight to one group more than another. It is a willingness to interact, work, and play with all kinds of people – not just those whom we like or help us get ahead in life. We are designed by our Creator to live and work together in common purposes. In fact, it takes a great deal of effort.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:2-3, NIV).

Think about what we have in Christ: the encouragement he has brought us, the comfort of his love, our sharing in his Spirit, and the mercy and kindness he has shown us. If you enjoy these blessings, then do what will make my joy complete: Agree with each other and show your love for each other. Be united in your goals and in the way you think. In whatever you do, do not let selfishness or pride be your guide. Be humble, and honor others more than yourselves. Do not be interested only in your own life, but care about the lives of others too (Philippians 2:1-4, ERV). 

If we desire the enjoyment of blessed relationships we will engage in genuine conversation, focused listening, and equal dialogue; simply stating opinions at each other will not do the trick.

Yes, we are to work at unity and harmony because we can have a nasty tendency to think better of ourselves than what is true, and of others what is not so good.  We might inflate our positive qualities and abilities, especially in comparison to other people.  Numerous research studies have revealed the propensity to overestimate ourselves.

For example, when one research study asked a million high school students how well they got along with their peers, none of the students rated themselves below average. As a matter of fact, 60% of students believed they were in the top 10%; and, 25% rated themselves in the top 1%.

College professors were just as biased about their abilities – 2% rated themselves below average; 10% were average and 63% were above average, while 25% rated themselves as truly exceptional. Of course, this is statistically impossible. One researcher summarized the data this way: “It’s the great contradiction: the average person believes he is a better person than the average person.”

Christian psychologist Mark McMinn contends that this study reveals our pride. He writes, “One of the clearest conclusions of social science research is that we are proud. We think better of ourselves than we really are, we see our faults in faint black and white rather than in vivid color, and we assume the worst in others while assuming the best in ourselves.”

Where sinful pride rules, disharmony runs amok within a community. The acid test of harmonious love is how we treat the lowly. One of the great preachers in church history, St. John Chrysostom (the fourth century Bishop of Constantinople) had this to say:

“If a poor man comes into your church behave like him and do not put on airs because of your riches.  In Christ there is no rich or poor.  Do not be ashamed of him because of his outward dress but receive him because of his inward faith.  If you see him in sorrow, do not hesitate to comfort him, and if he is prospering, do not feel shy about sharing in his pleasure.  If you think you are a great person, then think others are also.  If you think they are humble and lowly, then think the same of yourself.”

We cannot function apart from harmony. Consider a tuning fork. It delivers a true pitch by two tines vibrating together. Muffle either side, even a little, and the note disappears. Neither tine individually produces the pure note. Only when both tines vibrate is the correct pitch heard.  Harmony is not a matter of give and take and compromise to make each other happy or satisfied.  Harmony comes through a common mission and purpose which engages in shared experiences of loving and caring for others.

My Christian convictions and tradition tell me that the Word of God is applied by the Spirit of God through the people of God.  We are to embrace community.  We are to do life together.  We are to view everyone as my brother or sister. After all, we are our brother’s keeper.

So, let us ascend the hill of the Lord together. Let us worship God together with glad and sincere hearts. Let us be mindful of all our brothers and sisters, no matter who they are.