Before we move onto the New Testament Passage, we have to start with our Old Testament one! Why?
Well, surely of all the passages we can find in the Bible, it’s the one that best sums up the nature of God – and His benevolence towards us.
You’ll recognise the words contained within it of course. Most likely at all the Baptism you’ve ever been at – you’ll have sung it – usually without recourse to words (though now we have it on screen and we also recognise the appropriateness to have it displayed as those not commonly in church (baptism guests) wouldn’t know it and we risk leaving people feeling left out.)
Let’s try and recite it with me – ‘The Lord Bless thee, and keep thee, the Lord make his face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto you; the lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give ye peace’.
The verse itself is an ancient one. It is recognised as going way back into the time of the Israelites; appearing in many different texts within our Bible. Most likely used by the ancient people as a Benediction at the close of worship. Within Christian times the text was found on small silver tablets (no larger than a playing card) dating from 6th 7th century – perhaps the earliest discovered piece of biblical text.
It’s foundational to our faith.
Grammatically it’s a masterpiece and I want to summarise our understanding of the text – as its relevant and indicative of the character of God and his love towards us.
God is the actor in all six clauses of the text: bless, keep, make the face shine, be gracious, lift up countenance, and give peace. The six verbs together cover God’s benevolent activity from various angles and state God’s gracious ‘Will’ for the life of the people.
To “bless” testifies most basically to the work of God – serving the life, health, and the well-being of individuals and communities. The verb covers the spheres of both creation and redemption, from gifts of fertility and posterity to spiritual and bodily health. Importantly no conditions are attached.
To “keep” refers to God’s shelter for the different journeys we face.
God’s “face/countenance” is a common description for God in the Psalms. “shining” draws in elements of light – and contrasts with the idea of darkness. The shining face of God signifies God’s benevolent disposition toward the other, for which Israel can make no special claims – This favour of God is for the whole world. In modern language we might say ‘God smiles on all’.
The word “peace” (shalom) is the climactic word of the piece. In the words of Dennis Olson, ‘the richness of the word includes “prosperity, longevity, happiness in a family, safety, security, good health, friendship, and general well-being.’
The text finishes with a line additional to our commonly used Blessing which says, ‘I will Bless them’. And this line effectively concludes by saying – this Blessing of God is shared with all that they/ that we – might ‘wear it’.
That means believe it – take heart from it – live by it.
Powerful – heart-warming stuff.
No wonder we use it at a baptism of a child – maybe we should use it more often than that – daily as a reminder of God’s countenance towards us and all – that we might ‘wear this Blessing’ as we go through our day to day stuff!
The inclusivity of this Blessing as certainly made me think about how we have treated the notion of Blessing over the years of our Church – how we have portrayed what it means to be baptised for instance.
We’ve not got any old pictures up in the church anymore – but I recall the pictures adorning the wall of my home church – also appearing on publications like the baptismal bible received children in the 60’s 70’s 80’s sometimes beyond.
These images tended to show Jesus with babies on his lap or reaching out to them – giving his blessing as if it was a reward – on chosen ones.
Not only that – but how foolish the image makers were to have Jesus portrayed as white skinned, blond haired and blue eyed. (all very unlikely given his ancestry and origin!)
All of this tends to build a view of the Kingdom of God as a place where those whom Jesus loves are welcomed. Some chosen for the special reward of entry. Are only some loved, welcomed, indeed Blessed?
When we think of the Kingdom as something inclusive, something to be created and shared, and not as something that is a reward for those who are faithful and chosen, then this passage and the familiar words often used at baptism take on new understanding.
Rewards are okay – we like awards for jobs well done, for races raced etc. Gifts however are something completely different. Not awards – but free gifts – no strings or attachments, not based on achievements.
Gifts are meant to be treasured and used. Not to do so is an affront to the giver. Such gifts are not intended to be hidden away from view.
When we are told then, “receive the Kingdom of God”, it is
to be thought of more as a gift of blessing that is full of
opportunity and purpose than considered as a prize.
It is not meant as a reward for good behaviour. It is more about pointing to the opportunity we have for co-creating the Kingdom of God. We are a part of a process.
In the words of Blessing we have been describing this morning – surely, we see that the countenance of God towards us and all people is a gift freely given. He loves us unconditionally, and that He promises to ‘keep us, shine His face on us, be gracious to us, and give us peace’ – is a gift to treasure.
Jesus in the story takes this Blessing a stage further. Just as some seek to place limits on God’s Love (creating obstacles for some getting close to Jesus (in this case children)), he strongly rejects such selectiveness. “Let the children come to me for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these”.
God’s smiles on all.
And Jesus goes further still, ‘Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’
‘Receiving the gift’ of the Blessing of God, does not mean hiding it away, hoarding and protecting it like we do our medals and prizes. It means with gratitude – using the gift.
To use the gift of knowing we are part of the Kingdom of God and Blessed so lavishly by God – is to invite others to know this gift too; that they might recognise themselves as those Blessed by God that they might come to ‘wear’ it as we do.
Jesus here is teaching us a lesson.
He is pointing to the opportunity we have for co-creating the Kingdom of God. We are a part of a process.
To help the Kingdom of God grow we are meant
to live with the freedom, inquisitiveness, energy and
determination often associated with youthful humanity. Our thinking, our questions, should be about how we can help the Kingdom grow. Never satisfied, we push on for more… like a child. Never content – we know no limits to what we can do …like a child. Never compromising, or narrow minded – we stand up for justice – we use imagination…like a child.
‘Blessing’ is both acknowledgement of God’s love for us,
and the extension of energy and purpose and inclusiveness
that is so needed for the business of growing the Kingdom
that God desires to see in our world.
In the story of Jesus welcoming children and the tones
found in the words of Aaronic Blessing, we have confirmation of our relationship with God and an encouragement to recognise how blessed we are as humanity loved by God.
Within all of this, is the revelation of the Kingdom of God that we are all responsible for creating. God’s Blessings is shared around the world, and throughout our communities, as we use the gifts and talents, and opportunities of time, God makes possible in us, and for us.
It is in the image, or metaphor, of the energy of children and the determination of youth, that we have our inspiration for fulfilling the task.