And of Joseph he said: Blessed by the Lord be his land, with the choice gifts of heaven above, and of the deep that lies beneath; Deuteronomy 33:13 (NRSV)
Along my life journey I have received words of incredible encouragement from family, teachers, and mentors:
“You will do well in whatever you do.”
“Whatever you do, I know you’ll succeed.”
“You’ll do great. I know you will.“
Those words are examples of what the ancients called a blessing. Most commonly given from father to son, king to subject, leader to follower, a blessing is a word of affirmation spoken to bless and encourage. Some blessings can be prophetic nature while others simply to strengthen and comfort the recipient.
In today’s chapter we find Moses approaching then end of the road. He is in the home stretch of his life journey, and the finish line is straight ahead. He gathers his people together and, tribe-by-tribe, he speaks over them a blessing. The blessing for each tribe is unique, and the themes include life, safety, strength, acceptance, abundance, provision, affluence, favor, possession, and etc.
Today, I’m thinking about my children, and others who live within the circles of my influence. I’m thinking about the opportunity I have to speak words of blessing into them. Conversely, I’m thinking about the curse of staying silent and not blessing those who I have the opportunity to encourage. I need not wait until the end of my life journey to speak a blessing over others. In fact, what a shame it would be for me to do so.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against,so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”Luke 2:34-35 (NIV)
My company does customer surveys and research for many different companies. Over the years I and my company have been in the position of reporting data that we knew would be unpopular with the client. In some cases, the truth of the data pointed to conclusions that opposed to the prevailing opinions of our clients leadership. In other cases, the data pointed to customer dissatisfaction that would put certain executives in a difficult position with their employer. It’s never fun delivering bad news. Killing the messenger is sometimes a frustrated clients first reaction.
I thought about Simeon’s words to Mary this morning. Mary was fresh off of angel visits and the shepherds’ amazing stories. She had to have been living in constant wonder and awe after all that she had seen, heard, and experienced in the previous year. Then Simeon pulls her aside to speak a quiet truth. There was another side to this amazing story that she, perhaps, had not yet considered. When you speak the truth you tend to become unpopular with certain people and you sometimes make powerful enemies. Simeon’s warning was prescient. Children will be slaughtered and a flight to Egypt will be made. The family will be pressured to get their lunatic son under control. She doesn’t yet know that the crown that awaits her baby boy is full of thorns. His kingdom and his truth will be misunderstood, maligned and rejected by the majority of people. Blood will be spilled.
I read an article yesterday about the fate of Jesus followers in Mosul, Iraq. The church of Mary (ironically) that has stood in that place since the middle ages was recently emptied by muslims and blockaded. Followers of Jesus have lived and worshipped in that city for centuries but now have been given the choice of conversion to Islam or death. In the Sudan a woman was recently sentenced to death by the government for choosing to believe in Jesus. With a little investigation you’ll find that these are not isolated incidents. Simeon’s words still ring true. Jesus remains a lightning rod and outside of the tolerant nations of the west the choice to follow Him can be a life or death decision.
This morning I’m thinking about a young girl filled with wonder at the glorious events she has experienced, and is only beginning to get a hint of the darkness that lies ahead for her and her Son. I am contemplating the reality that God sent a Messenger, and we killed Him. I’m mulling over one of Jesus’ own stories which has come to mind:
Jesus told another story to the people: “A man planted a vineyard. He handed it over to farmhands and went off on a trip. He was gone a long time. In time he sent a servant back to the farmhands to collect the profits, but they beat him up and sent him off empty-handed. He decided to try again and sent another servant. That one they beat black-and-blue, and sent him off empty-handed. He tried a third time. They worked that servant over from head to foot and dumped him in the street.
“Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘I know what I’ll do: I’ll send my beloved son. They’re bound to respect my son.’
“But when the farmhands saw him coming, they quickly put their heads together. ‘This is our chance—this is the heir! Let’s kill him and have it all to ourselves.’ They killed him and threw him over the fence.
“What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do? Right. He’ll come and clean house. Then he’ll assign the care of the vineyard to others.”
Those who were listening said, “Oh, no! He’d never do that!”
But Jesus didn’t back down. “Why, then, do you think this was written:
That stone the masons threw out— It’s now the cornerstone!?
“Anyone falling over that stone will break every bone in his body; if the stone falls on anyone, it will be a total smashup.”
The religion scholars and high priests wanted to lynch him on the spot, but they were intimidated by public opinion. They knew the story was about them.
Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord who minister by night in the house of the Lord. Psalm 134:1 (NIV)
In all my work experience, I have never worked “the graveyard shift.” I have, on occasion, been required to do training presentations for clients who have a graveyard shift. I’ll admit that doing customer service training at 2:00 a.m. stretched me a bit. It’s hard to crank up the energy when your body is screaming at you that you should be in bed. Being a morning person, I have worked plenty of early morning shifts as paperboy, breakfast cook, caterer, radio dj, and etc. There is something I like about being up and about when the majority of the world around you is still asleep.
I like the fact that the abbreviated lyric of today’s psalm pays homage to those who serve through the watches of the night. Perhaps the brevity of the song is a word picture of how little most of us can relate to the task of regularly serving all night and sleeping all day. Nevertheless, it’s a reminder that God is not bound by time and therefore His work does not wane with the setting of the sun.
It’s easy for me to be lulled by the daily work schedule. Because my occupational labor tends to end each weekday, I apply the general rule to spiritual service as if following Jesus is an activity to which I punch in and punch out. But, that’s not the case. Following Jesus, and serving others means being on call 24/7/365, and it sometimes requires staying up through the watches of the night to bring Life to the graveyard shift.
I am not what I would consider to be “well traveled” from an international perspective. I’ve done just enough travel to other nations and cultures to have a taste of life in other places. I am proud of my daughters. Even in their youth, they have travelled far more extensively than me and have experienced many other cultures on other continents. I have watched them approach life with a larger perspective on life than I see in most of their peers. Through their experiences I have gained a much bigger appreciation for our global village.
I am constantly aware that for my brothers and sisters around the globe, following Jesus comes with a much higher personal price tag:
In Syria in 2013, there were 2,123 documented killings of Jesus followers because of their faith (CBS News)
On New Year’s Eve in Cairo, a Jesus follower was shot leaving worship. He was turned away by three hospitals and died a short time later. (MideastChristianNews)
On January 3rd in Lebanon a Greek Orthodox priest, whose personal library of books and resources had been used by the whole community, had his entire library torched and an employee shot. An interview with the priest, published years ago, had been deemed blasphemous to Islam. (WorldWatchNews)
This morning I am thinking about how easy it is to follow Jesus in this place where I live. While grateful for this, I confess how susceptible I am to giving undue daily emotional concern and mental energy to what my daughter Taylor labels “Midwest white girl problems.” When I read the lyric in the psalmist’s short, ancient ditty calling on praise for all nations this morning, it reminded me of my penchant for living an insular life and my need to widen my perspective. In the quiet of this dark, Iowa morning I muse that ease and affluence may be more eternally detrimental to my spiritual well-being than the daily suffering and persecution faced by my brothers and sisters around the globe.
Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything. 2 Corinthians 6:10 (NLT)
Some friends of our daughter and son-in-law recently had their car stolen. The police reported a week or so later that they had found the stolen car because it had been wrecked. Two young girls had stolen the car and subsequently got in an accident. As owners of the car, our kid’s friends had every right to be angry and to desire swift and severe punishment for the girls. They chose, however, to find out the identity of these young perpetrators of grand theft auto and….wait for it…invite them over for dinner.
I thought about this gracious couple as I read Paul’s words to the believers in Corinth this morning. As followers of Jesus, we are called to respond differently than the world responds. When hated, we love. When injured, we forgive. When insulted, we bless. When suffering, we rejoice. When in need, we are to be content. When in plenty, we give away. When slapped on one cheek, we offer the other. When our car is stolen and wrecked, we invite the thieves over for a home cooked meal.
In a world of mindless lemmings and the herd mentality it is easy to go with the flow.
So you must remain faithful to what you have been taught from the beginning. 1 John 2:24a (NLT)
Over the past few years Wendy and I have invested in some quality audio equipment for listening to movies, music, calls that I must analyze for work, and etc. It’s nothing over-the-top, mind you, but it’s not cheap either. It’s good quality. In retro days of turntables and Long Play (LP) vinyl records we called it “high-fidelity” which then became simply known as “hi-fi.” Fidelity comes from the latin word, fidelis which means faithfulness. High-Fidelity meant a faithful reproduction of the original music, it was “true to sound.”
With the deterioration of my hearing over the past several years, I find that having high-fidelity audio makes a difference in my everyday listening I do for work and pleasure. I thought about this as I read the second chapter of John’s letter and his encouragement to remain faithful to what we’ve been taught from the beginning.
Faithful. Fidelis. High-fidelity. A faithful reproduction of the original.
The original that John points to is Jesus and His teaching:
Love God with everything you’ve got
Love others as you love yourself
Forgive those who’ve wronged you
Bless and show love to those you can’t stand
Treasure people not things
Take loving care of societal outcasts and those less fortunate
Give until it hurts (then give some more)
Do the right thing, not the religious thing
Concern yourself with eternal things, not temporary things
Jesus said that the world was full of people who are always hearing, but never listening and understanding. That’s a word picture I live every day as my ears hear what people say but somewhere between the ear drum and the brain it all gets muffled, garbled and largely unintelligible. Thanks to some hi-fidelity hearing aids and audio equipment, I can usually both hear and understand.
Perhaps that’s why as Jesus followers we are called to be a faithful reproduction of the original: So a blind and deaf world might see, hear, and understand – and follow along. I’m far from perfect and after 30+ years I still have so far to go, but more than ever I want to be a high-fidelity follower of Jesus and His Message. Please God, help to increasingly make me a faithful reproduction of the original.
Now Joseph gave these instructions to the steward of his house: “Fill the men’s sacks with as much food as they can carry, and put each man’s silver in the mouth of his sack.2 Then put my cup, the silver one, in the mouth of the youngest one’s sack, along with the silver for his grain.” And he did as Joseph said. Genesis 44:1 (NLT)
As I’ve been reading through the stories of Genesis once again, I’ve been tracking this pattern of deceit revealed through the generations of Abraham’s family. When we first meet Abraham’s great grandson Joseph, he is revealed to be a boy who speaks to truth simply and plainly (seemingly to his detriment). As a result, he’s sold into slavery and has not been a part of the family for years and years.
How fascinating that as soon as his brothers show up in Egypt, Joseph begins to deal with them deceitfully. He does not immediately reveal who he is. He has things snuck into their sacks. He schemes to have his brother Benjamin brought back to Egypt and now schemes to keep Benjamin in Egypt when the rest of the brothers go home.
Roles and patterns in the way a family systemically operates and behaves is very powerful. I’ve known people who have spent years apart from their unhealthy family system working to understand and change their own behaviors, but once they return to their familial home for a visit they fall right back into their old role within the system. It’s a fascinating thing about the way we broken human beings live and behave in our fallen world.
One of the reasons that I have been and remain a follower of Jesus is because of His promise and provision of divine forgiveness and undeserved favor in spite of my many failings. I’m no different than Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Lamech, Rachel, Leah, Joseph or his brothers. Despite my best efforts to live honestly and truthfully as God would have me do, like Joseph I find myself getting sucked back into old negative patterns of thought and behavior again and again. I need copious doses of God’s forgiveness, mercy and grace.
A second reason I remain a follower of Jesus is because of His promise and provision to bring lasting positive change into my life. Despite my failings I can look back across the years and see the many ways that God’s grown me up, honed me, humbled me, and made me into a better human being. Were it not for God’s non-stop work of convicting, prodding, pushing, guiding and molding me over 30 plus years, I hate to think of the person I would have become.
Today, I’m reminded that no one is immune from falling off the path and back into destructive old patterns and behaviors. I’m equally reminded that God is faithful to both forgive us our failures and empower us towards getting back on the road which leads toward Life.