This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday August 4th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the ninth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 128. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.
For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.
God doesn’t say things for no reason. His words are there to do something. Take do not fear, an injunction from the divine to humans which punctuates Scripture with alarming regularity. Whenever God or one of His messengers stands in front of someone, His opening line is more often than not along those lines. That’s no coincidence. God knows we’re prone to fear when faced with the supernatural; so He tells us we needn’t.
All of which makes us wonder if the Bible contradicts itself. Our next Psalm in this series, Psalm 128, presents us with this problem in the first line … fear God, the writer seems to be saying, and it will go well for you. Often the writers of the Bible tell us to fear God; the same God who tells us not to be afraid when He shows up. So which is it? Be afraid or not?
The answer, as often, lies in the limitations of language. As Eugene Peterson points out at different points in his writing, this injunction to fear God should be rendered more like this: fear-of-the-Lord … one long word capturing a concept which is hard to verbalise. The sense that as we walk with God, we should do so with the holy anticipation that this is a God who can do anything at anytime – and that He has the right to do so. This is the God of stone tablets and spoken law, of flood and Sinai, of Carmel and Calvary. These stories are written into the very architecture of the temple to which the pilgrims who first sang this were travelling to and from; it was their community’s heritage, the story of their people. This God could do anything; what’s more, He would do anything.
Walk before Him with this holy expectancy of action and it will go well with you, says the Psalm. You will get the rewards of your work, you will see fruitful crops and a growing family. All signs to the people who first heard this that God was with a person. A healthy harvest meant God was close to the farmer. A growing family – especially one of sons and grandsons – was a sign of God’s favour. These were the things to be wished for and the things to wish for others.
Which of course gives us another problem. I know people with mountain-shaking faith for whom life is hard, who do not enjoy the fruit of their work, for whom life is not easy, who do not see the families they long for. So we’re left with some interesting conclusions.
The first is about food. There is no global food problem; there is a global food distribution problem. God has provided; I, we, you have hoarded.
The second conclusion uses a similar route to get to a different place. Children. Those who have children (my wife and I do not, by choice) can not seem to imagine life without them. Such is the seismic impact of new life in the home, that life can never be the same again. Nor should it be. Children are not the point, though. Consider how they are intended to be made. Sexual intimacy is the God-given gift to unify a loving couple physically and emotionally. It is given for pleasure. In the act of self-giving comes deep blessing. From that blessing sometimes flows the blessing of children. From blessing flows blessing. Blessing expands and grows.
Think of the imagery of the family in the Psalm. Olive shoot and vine, sources of staple produce; a good crop from each a sign of blessing. The point of that blessing? The fruit which continues to grow. Blessing grows.
Blessing. We pray for God to bless us and others. And so we should. The point of such blessing is for blessing to flow from it. For a virtuous cycle of good to infect and flood and bring life. Consider Abram and Sara, blessed with the son they so desperately longed for in their old age. A blessing. From him flowed blessing to the nations. The line of Christ. The soil from which salvation grows. Blessing begets blessing.
There’s a catch. If a blessing Only if we don’t hold on to it. Abram’s child only became a blessing to nations as a knife hovered over his rising and falling chest. The boy was spared, an animal provided, the blessing flowed. Why put people through such unimaginable trial? Simply because God knows the human capacity to take something He has given as good and subtly twist to an end in itself. Be it animals, work, sex, children, family, art, our bodies, the church … almost anything. Anything good and God-given, we can and do turn into God.
If you are blessed, then use the blessing to be a blessing. If you have children, invite others into family life. Adopt children – not for nothing is adoption one of the central Biblical images of what God does for us. What more profound thing can we then do for others. You have a relationship of love? Don’t use it to shut the world out; use it so serve the world. You cook good food? Cook well and feed bodies and souls. You make art? Then don’t hide it – use it to bring light and life.
Let God show you your blessings. Then ask Him to grow them elsewhere, outward, further, wider. It’s what He does.
This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 4th Augus 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full script.
Also in this series: