Rising Star Baptist Church
March 24, 2019
I have the good fortune of preaching 3 out of the next 4 Sundays. I am preaching here at Rising Star again in two weeks—April 7—and then I am preaching somewhere else the next week, April 14. So I decided that I would have a theme, a progression, to my preaching over these next few weeks.
I’m going to talk about life as a blessed journey. This week we are going to look at the fact that your journey begins with blessing. And then next week we will consider the idea that your journey also takes you through the wilderness.
God calls us to and God offers us a blessed life. God wants you to live a blessed life. And life is not one thing but a journey.
It can sound a little scary, I know, to set out on a journey, not knowing exactly where you’re going to go or what is going to be asked of you.
What you need to know is, and what I want you to know is—just like Jesus began his journey of public ministry with his baptism and blessing, your journey with Jesus begins with blessing. Your first step is to receive God’s blessing.
Now, there is a voice out there that many of us have heard since we were children. It says to you, If you want to be loved, you better show that you are worth loving, you better prove that you deserve it.
There is another voice. And a blessed is a life in which you gradually learn to listen to that other voice. And that other voice says, You are God’s beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Jesus listened to that voice.
Jesus came up from Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice from Heaven said, This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
Jesus heard that voice, and I want you to hear that voice as well.
Because this is the voice we long to hear. These are the words from God we all of us so need to hear: You are my son, my daughter, beloved. With you I am well pleased. These are the words that, when we identify with Jesus, we do, in fact, hear.
We’re so afraid of feeling forgotten, of going unnoticed. And we will do almost anything to distinguish ourselves as special. All the praise we seek. All the recognition:
All the ways we endeavor to stand out. All the ways we use to assure ourselves
that we matter,
that we have a place in the world,
that we are loved.
All because we assume we have to do something to be valued.
Martin Copenhaver talks very effectively about this and relates it to walking for the first time as a toddler.
[“Whispered in Your Ear,”30 Good Minutes, January 7, 2009]
I don’t remember the first time I walked, but I imagine it went something like this: I stood at one end of the room with my mother and my father was a full three steps away. Before that day I could probably do the kind of dangling that almost looks like walking, when somebody held me by the hands and shifted me from side to side as my feet barely touched the floor.
But this is the day when I will try a real honest walk on my own with just two eager parents, miles apart, there to cheer me on. So I set out, wobbling at first, stumbling at second, but unmistakably making it on my own from one set of arms to the other.
And then I imagine that my father lifted me high in the air with an exultant shout as if no one in human history had ever walked before. Then, after numerous kisses and exclamations, I probably felt like the most loved, most marvelous boy in all the world.
After a time I could walk with more assurance but, for some reason, I didn’t receive so much praise. In fact, I can’t remember the last time that anyone praised me for walking across a room. So I had to do other things. Simply walking just wasn’t good enough anymore. I had to strive to make a splash in other ways, just to get back to that feeling, that feeling
of being noticed,
of being picked up with a shout of delight,
of being valued.
And in all that striving, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact, as Copenhaver puts it, that my parents did not praise me because of my accomplishments. Rather, they praised my accomplishments because they loved me, they took joy in my accomplishments because they loved me. They did not take joy in me because of my accomplishments. They took joy in my accomplishments because they loved me.
That’s what it means to have the blessing.
I think one of the keys to life, actually, is this:
Can you claim that voice that says that you are God’s beloved?
That God is pleased with you?
That God takes joy in you simply because you are you?
That’s what it means to receive blessing.
The thing we all really want, I think, is to be blessed.
Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest, left a position at an Ivy League university to become a chaplain at a community for physically and mentally challenged people. He tells about how there was one of his friends there who had a lot of physical and mental differences but was a wonderful woman.
She said to him, Henri, can you bless me? He remembers walking up to her and giving her a little cross on her forehead. She said, Henri, it doesn’t work. No, that is not what I mean.
He was embarrassed and said, I gave you a blessing.
She said, No, I want to be blessed. He didn’t know what she meant.
They had a little worship service and all these people were sitting there. After the service Henri Nouwen said, Janet wants a blessing. He had a long robe with long sleeves.
Janet walked up to him and said, I want to be blessed.
She put her head against his chest and he spontaneously put his arms around her, held her, and looked right into her eyes and said, Blessed are you, Janet. You know how much we love you. You know how important you are. You know what a good woman you are.
She looked at him and said, Yes, yes, yes, I know. Nouwen said he suddenly saw all sorts of energy coming back to her. She seemed to be so relieved because she realized again that she was blessed.
She went back to her place and immediately other people said, I want that kind of blessing, too.
The people kept walking up to him and he suddenly found himself embracing people. He remembers that after that, one of the people in their community who assists the handicapped, a strong guy, a football player, said, Henri, can I have a blessing, too?
Nouwen remembers their standing there in front of each other and he said, John, and he put his hand on John’s shoulder, you are blessed. You are a good person. God loves you. We love you. You are important.
God loves you. We love you. You are important. You are blessed.
I told this story at a Zulu church in South Africa in 2013. We took a group from Broadway to South Africa, and there is this church some of us were working with in the community of Emmaus. Emmaus is a rural area about a five hour drive from Johannesburg at the foot of the Drakensburg Mountains. At and around this church, they have no electricity, no plumbing, no running water.
We were helping with a preschool they have in the mornings for kids who live all around the church. It was an incredible sight to see children as young as 2 and 3 years old emerging—by themselves— from the tall grass of the African plains to go to preschool at that church and, at noon, leaving the same way by themselves heading home.
On Thursday afternoons they have a Bible study for adults, and since we were there they asked if I would lead the Bible study. It was a group of about 15 women from the church and a handful of young men. We sat in a big circle.
They spoke Zulu—no English. I spoke English—no Zulu. So a young man named Xolani sat next to me and translated for me. That is an unusual thing to do—speak with a translator. I had never done that before. I would say a couple of sentences and pause. Xolani would then express what I had said in Zulu—at least I think he was expressing what I had said. I had no way of knowing. They had been studying the Beatitudes, so did a talk on the Beatitudes.
It was very difficult and a little awkward. I wasn’t sure if what I was saying was making any connection at all. I realized as I was talking that some of the examples I used were things that they had no idea what I was talking about. I tried to tell a story about something that I realized they had no concept of.
I concluded my talk with the story I just told about Henri Nouwen and the blessing. When I got to the end of it, I spontaneously decided that I was going to go around and give a blessing to some of the people in the circle the way Henri Nouwen had done in the story.
So I got up and Xolani followed me. I went to the first person in the circle and put my hand on him and said, God loves you, we love you, you are important, you are blessed. And then Xolani said it in Zulu. I moved to the next person and did the same thing: God loves you , we love you, you are important, you are blessed. Xolani said it again in Zulu.
I went all the way around the circle and did the same thing with each person.
And with all the distance between us—
with all the distance between us, finally there was a connection.
You know why. Because we all want to be blessed. We all need to be blessed. But it can’t be fought for, stolen, or won. It can only be given. And received.
Can you claim that voice that says that you are God’s beloved? That God is pleased with you? That God takes joy in you simply because you are you? And live as the blessed one.
I know. Life isn’t all great. You don’t always feel special or chosen or blessed. Sometimes it’s really hard. Mostly in life the blessing and the brokenness are all mixed together.
Blessed and broken, all of us. Our main task is to put our brokenness under the blessing. Here’s the thing. I learned this from my spiritual mentor Henri Nouwen. If you try to live your brokenness outside of the blessing, even a little brokenness can destroy your life. It is like an affirmation that you are no good and suddenly you say, You see what has happened? This friend didn’t speak to me. This person rejected me. You can hold on to it and see it proven that you are no good. You always thought so.
But if you can
put your brokenness under the blessing, within the
allow it to be enfolded into the blessing of God…
that changes everything.
If you can really know that you are blessed, if you can somehow hear and let it get inside you that you are blessed, that you are God’s beloved child, it makes all the difference.
Fred Craddock tells a classic story about he and his wife going back to visit his home state of Tennessee.
They were eating dinner one night at a restaurant in the hills of East Tennessee. They had a great view over the mountains from their table. They were having a wonderful dinner together.
Then an old man came up and said hello. He started asking them questions like
Where are you from?
How long are you staying?
What do you do for a living?, etc.
The old man pulled up a chair and sat down. He began to tell about how he was born to an unmarried mother. Back in those days, more so than today, there was a terrible stigma attached to a young woman who got pregnant outside of marriage—especially in a small town in East Tennessee.
The old man, talking about his mother, said, The shame that fell on her fell on me.
When he was a boy, the kids at school and their parents called him names. Most parents wouldn’t let their children play with him. He was an outcast, just like his mother. A poor, vulnerable child.
When he was about nine or ten he started going to church to hear a man preach. Sitting there, listening to that preacher truly was a sanctuary for that little boy. But he always slipped out just as the service was ending. He didn’t feel like he belonged there, and he didn’t want to give anyone the chance to tell him so.
One time he got caught by the preacher before he could get out the door. The preacher came up behind him and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. The boy figured he was in trouble.
The preacher said, Son, you’re a child of. . .
Oh no. Don’t say it, the boy was thinking. Just let me go.
Son, you’re a child of God, the preacher said. Go claim your inheritance.
Fred Craddock asked the man his name. He said his name was Ben Hooper. He was two times the governor of Tennessee. And Ben Hooper said, That day made all the difference.
Here are the words of blessing that send you out to start your blessed journey:
You are God’s beloved son/daughter. With you God is well pleased.