Nancy and I had gotten married and were celebrating our first Christmas together. I was in grad school. We had no money at all. There was one place in the store that I went to that had something I could afford, and it was a table labeled "damaged goods." I found a dress where the imperfection was hardly noticeable. I bought it, and I gave it to Nancy. She opened it up and said to me, "Honey, this is exactly the kind of dress your mother would wear!" I realized when she said that that we were dealing with damaged goods, only it wasn't the dress—it was me.
And it's everybody here. If you're visiting this weekend, you have arrived at the damaged goods table. So we're starting a series this week about how it is that God changes people. This comes from a phrase by a guy named Henry Cloud: "Transformation requires grace plus truth plus time." Today we're going to look at the first element. I want to do that by looking at the way grace is concretely expressed from the very first chapter in the Bible.
Blessing begins with God
There is a word we're going to follow all the way through the first book in the Bible. "So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the water teems … and every winged bird …. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them …." (Genesis 1:21). Every time God blesses, it's a gift of grace. The word for bless or blessing is so crucial. It's used over 400 times just in the Old Testament alone. So in this message, I want to trace this notion of blessing through the Book of Genesis.
God starts by creating, and then God blesses. Then God creates human beings: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them …." God made creation because he wanted something to bless. God created a human being because he wanted somebody to bless. On the seventh day, God rests. He loves the seventh day so much that he blesses the seventh day. "Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy." In blessing the seventh day, God is blessing the human race to be able to experience rest.
Then after the flood, "God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.'" God loves to bless, so he creates human beings in his image to be both blessees but also blessers—to be able to give blessing. This gets clear when God talks to Abraham and says, "I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. And all people on earth will be blessed through you" (Genesis 12:2).
Now the idea with blessing is that it begins with God. Then it's going to flow to you and to me, but it doesn't stop there. Through Abraham, through you or me, we become people who bless the entire earth. This is going to be the way God spreads his blessing. Now the big problem is this: humans tend to think, How can I just enhance my own blessedness? Accumulating blessings becomes a way of life.
You may have heard of product placement in movies. Movies actually get paid to insert the names of products into the story somehow. I just read this story this week. A company actually offered pastors the chance to win $1,000 and a free trip to London if the pastor would send proof that they mentioned a particular movie in their sermon. I won't tell you what the movie was, but it's a good movie. It's connected to faith issues, but we live in such a commercially driven society that somebody is actually offering to pay pastors to do product placement in sermons! A perfect example of how consumed we are with our own blessings! That's not God's plan. God's plan is to give you a blessing so you can be a blessing.
See, the reason blessing is so central in the Bible is it's the answer to an ultimate, inevitable human question. The question is this: What is the good life? Who has the good life? Is it people with money, people with looks, people with health? Blessing is the Bible's answer to these questions. Blessing is different than success because it starts with God. It doesn't start with me. It's grace. It's different than success because it's given so I can bless the world. It's not about showing how blessed I am.
Mark Buchanan writes about a group of children who were asked what love means. Love is very connected to blessing. Rebecca, age 8, said, "When my grandmother got arthritis, she could not bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does this for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too." This is blessing. Billy, age 4, said, "When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know your name is safe in their mouth." Isn't that a wonderful way of putting it?
Whose toenails are you painting? Whose name is safe in your mouth? Who would say they find you a blessing in their life? That's the good life. That's the blessed life. See, this is another major theme in Genesis. God's plan for human beings to be conduits of blessing has been majorly disrupted by sin. The result is a blessing-hungry, blessing-starved people who feel like they're damaged goods because they're living apart from blessing.
Jacob—a story of God's blessings
A couple named Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis have twin boys. Esau is a hunter, an outdoorsman. Jacob is a quiet boy who stays home a lot. Then we read this about their parents: "Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob." There is a world of hurt in that one sentence. Their lives became a fight for a blessing they could not get because Isaac loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. How do you think Esau and Jacob got along with each other? Not so well.
One day while Jacob was in the kitchen cooking up some stew, Esau comes in from hunting, and he's really hungry. "He said to Jacob, 'Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I'm famished!' Jacob replied, 'First sell me your birthright.'" They get into a fight over who is going to have the birthright. "'Look, I am about to die,' Esau said. 'What good is the birthright to me?'" And he sells the birthright to his brother.
Nowwe look at the story and wonder, Why would he sell his birthright for a bowl of stew? It wasn't just a bowl of stew. It was a bowl of Dinty Moore hearty beef stew, so thick you could eat it with a fork, but no—use a spoon, because you'll want every last drop … No, I'm sorry. I've been waiting all week long to do that.
So what happens is that this becomes a desperate battle between two boys in the damaged goods department. Who is going to get the blessing? Jacob goes on to deceive his own father. Jacob receives the blessing that was intended for Esau: "When Esau heard his father's words [that the blessing went to Jacob], he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, 'Bless me—me too, my father! Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!' Then Esau [this tough, strong man] wept aloud."
The devastation is catastrophic. Later on, Esau learned that when Isaac blessed Jacob, "He commanded him: 'Do not marry a Canaanite woman.'" Now Esau had already married two Canaanite women. "Esau then realized how displeasing the Canaanite women were to his father Isaac; so he went to Ishmael and married Mahalath … in addition to the wives he already had." He thinks, If that's the way to get a blessing from my father, then I'll marry one of the women he approves of. Do you think that was the last time anybody's messed-up relationship with their parents led them to a bad marital choice?
Also, "Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, ' … I will kill my brother Jacob.'" Jacob runs away for years. This is a family devastated by the mishandling of the blessing. Jacob gets wealth. Jacob gets power, but he can't get what he really wanted, which is the blessing of his father's love and approval and delight. Where can somebody who is damaged goods get the blessing they crave? Well, for Jacob, the real blessing comes when he least expects it.
Many years later he is coming home, and he hears Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. He is scared to death. So the night before, he sends his family on ahead. Jacob ends up wrestling with this mysterious stranger, the angel of God. The angel tells Jacob to let him go. Jacob says, "I will not let you go until you bless me." The angel gives him the blessing of God and gives him another strange gift. The angel touches the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip is wrenched. We're told the next morning, "The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip."
Jacob looks up, and here comes Esau, his brother. The text says, "But Esau ran to meet Jacob." Jacob does not run to Esau. Jacob's running days are over. The rest of his life he will walk with a limp. Esau's heart melts. Remember the last time Esau saw Jacob, he swore to kill him. "But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him." Something about Jacob's brokenness touched Esau's heart in a way Jacob's cleverness and strength never could. Jacob is given a blessing and Jacob is given a wound. Or maybe his wound is his blessing.
Maybe you will bless more people with your limp than with all your strength. Maybe blessed are those who limp, for they will walk with God. Jacob gets a blessing from God, and he becomes the greatest blesser (humanly speaking) in the Bible. Chapter 49 in Genesis is devoted to laying out in detail the blessings Jacob gives his sons. Jacob's dad, Isaac, wanted to bless just one of his own sons, but Jacob gathers all of them. This is the end of the chapter: "All these are the twelve tribes of Israel"—we get the names of the 12 tribes of Israel from the 12 sons of Jacob—"And this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, giving each the blessing appropriate [fitting, just right] to him." Jacob becomes the blesser.
We see another major theme here. God does not wait to give the blessing out until somebody deserves it. In the ancient world, inheritance and the major blessing would always go to the firstborn. God comes to Abraham, "I will bless you and all the peoples of the earth through you." Then Abraham has a firstborn son, Ishmael. God's blessing does not flow through Ishmael, which it should have in the ancient world. It actually goes through Isaac. Isaac has two sons, Esau and Jacob. They're twins. Esau is born first. According to ancient world, the line of Israel ought to descend through Esau. It doesn't; it flows through Jacob. There is something odd going on here.
Jacob has 12 sons. You may remember that they fight each other a lot for the blessing. Remember the story of Joseph and the coat of many colors? The oldest of Jacob's sons is Reuben, but Israel does not descend through Reuben, nor does it descend through Joseph, interestingly, though Joseph is the one who becomes famous. The blessing actually flows through another son named Judah.
In Genesis 49, Jacob is giving these wonderful blessings. He comes to Judah, and he uses these pictures: "You are a lion's cub, Judah." The lion of Judah. "You will hold a scepter. You will tether your donkey to a vine." This is the image of a prince not riding a warhorse but coming in peace. These images would all be used later on by the prophets to describe and predict the coming of the Messiah. They would all be picked up later on in the New Testament to describe Jesus.
Blessing is coming through Jesus to people who are not firstborn, who have no status, who have done nothing in the world's eyes to deserve it. Grace is coming to the damaged goods department. The kingdom is going to turn everything upside down. Joseph brings his two sons to his dad. We're told, "Then [Jacob] Israel said, 'Bring them to me so I may bless them.'" Again, this is odd little tidbit here. Joseph puts Manasseh, his oldest, on Jacob's right, and puts Ephraim, the youngest, on the other side, on Jacob's left. Ephraim is to get the blessing of the firstborn.
Then we're told Jacob "reached out with his right hand and put it on Ephraim's head, though he was the younger, and crossing his arms, he put his left hand on Manasseh's head, even though Manasseh was the firstborn." Joseph gets ticked off at this and tries to switch his dad's hands. Jacob shakes his head and crosses his arms again. He blesses them cross-handed. They both get a blessing, but blessings are coming not from human status, they're coming through Jesus. They're coming just by grace to the damaged goods department.
So the 12 tribes are blessed. Interestingly enough, they're given the names of Jacob's sons. Joseph is the only son who does not get a tribe named after him. Joseph, who is so celebrated, who deserves it the most, has two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Two half tribes are named for them. Now grace is flowing all over the place.
Receive blessings from God
There are two big take-aways here for you and me. The first is to joyfully receive all the blessings God gives us. We must look for, acknowledge, embrace, and celebrate God's blessing in our lives because we cannot give anybody else what we do not have. We must come to see ourselves as richly blessed by God. When the greatest Teacher who ever lived preached the greatest sermon ever taught, it started with a single word: Blessed.
The blessing comes to all these people who don't think it's coming to them: "Blessed are those who mourn." "Blessed," Jesus says later on, "are those who are poor." Not because it's good to mourn or be poor, but because now life in the kingdom of God—God's love and favor and presence—is available to you. You are blessed. Do you go through life aware of how blessed you are?
In Jesus' day, every devout Jewish person would begin and end the day in prayer. They mainly prayed a prayer called the Amidah (this is still true in the practice of Judaism). Amidah is a Hebrew word that means standing; Jewish people would stand as they prayed this prayer. It's sometimes called The Eighteen, meaning18 benedictions or 18 blessings. The purpose of the prayer was to remember all the ways God had blessed their lives and to bless God in return. They were so eager to bless God that nothing was allowed to get in the way. For instance, there is an ancient rabbinic teaching about the urgency of praying this prayer every day multiple times, as the first and last activity of the day. Even if a king were to give one a greeting, one should not stop praying the Amidah to return the greeting. Even if a snake would curl around one's ankles, one must not stop praying. They were determined to bless the God who blessed them so richly.
The Jewish people were also committed to never praying these blessings mindlessly. Has anybody here ever started to prayed and then your mind began to wander off? Well, in the ancient teaching, if the prayer leader made a mistake saying the 18 blessings, the others were to stop him and have a replacement prayer take over for the initial prayer, starting where the faulty blessing had been said.
The Jewish people were also given the words to pray. Generally, if the prayer was around food, they would not pray, "Bless this food." Instead, they would pray, "Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, for you nourish us and the whole world with goodness, grace, kindness, and mercy. Blessed are you, Lord, for you nourish the universe." When you start to live in the world inhabited by a God who blesses like this, it changes the way you live. It changes your attitude.
There were rules about who was eligible to say these blessings. For example, if you were at a meal and you ate less than the volume of one olive, then you were not eligible to say the blessing, because they figured you hadn't gotten enough. They wanted people who had something to be grateful for to pray. And they had different words of blessings depending on how many people were there. If there were ten or 100 or 1,000 or 10,000, they would word the blessing differently to make sure everybody got in on blessing God.
Actually, you can find this subtly in different New Testament stories. When Jesus was teaching and he fed the 5,000 people, the text says this: "Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. He gave thanks." He said the blessing prayer. "The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand."
Why are those little details in there? The reason they sat in groups of hundreds and fifties, the reason they knew all together there were 5,000 men (men were the ones who were eligible to say the prayer of blessings), is that they wanted to bless God appropriately. They took blessing God—recognizing his blessing and blessing him back—so seriously that they were urgent about getting it right. That's why those numbers are in there. That's why Paul says to the church at Rome, "I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ."
There is an old song we used to sing in the church where I grew up when I was a kid. None of you will know this song, but it went like this: "Count your blessings / Name them one by one / and it will surprise you what the Lord has done."
How do you do that then? How do you count your blessings? Sometimes I'll get out a little journal and just write down, "I have been blessed because I have a God in heaven who loves me, because Jesus went to the cross for me, because I have forgiveness for my sins, because I have the Holy Spirit to guide me, because I have this church where I get to be part of a family, because I've been given spiritual gifts and have the chance to try to contribute to something, because when the end of my life comes, I have the promise of hope that will go beyond that. I have been blessed."
It's a weird thing. Sometimes I think the more blessings we have—we have so many material blessings and life opportunities—the less grateful we feel. The more blessings we have, the more entitled we feel to them. We get cranky and grumpy, and attitudes go south. We become irritable. It happens even in churches. But God is saying: Would you just count your blessings? Become a champion at receiving blessings. Then bless God back. Develop your blessing detector and live in gratitude for all those blessings.
Give God's blessings to others
Then secondly, joyfully give all the blessings you can give. Our Master here is Jesus. He is the Master Blesser. People would bring their children to Jesus, and he would take them in his arms, put his hand on them, and bless them. Physical touch is a really important part of blessing because we literally require it to live. A UCLA study found that people who experience meaningful touch ten times a day live longer than people who don't. The church ought to be a place where meaningful physical touch can happen. Start with people right here. Many people live alone or have difficult brokenness in their families. They're just so hungry for somebody to hug them.
How do you bless the people you live with? Would your roommate, spouse, or children say you are a blessing? Or have you drifted into being a cranky, irritable person? We desire to be a person through whom the blessings of God flow. It can be so! Bless the people you work with. Whoever God sends your way throughout the day, bless those people.
The Bible blessing is intergenerational. Every generation craves blessing from the one that went before it. Generations are bound in the transmission of blessing. There is a young generation here starving for a blessing. What if all of us with gray hair deliberately looked for people who don't have gray hair and said, "We're cheering you on. We want to bless you"? I was telling a friend this week about this guy in East Palo Alto—a rough part of town—who said, "I have no dreams for my life. I'm going to die before I'm 21. Why should I have a dream?" And a guy from our church kind of came alongside this young man and said, "You know what? I want to give you a blessing." This young guy is in college today because somebody was a blessing to him.
If you want a graduate level blessing challenge, move on to blessing the difficult people. Jesus says, "Bless those who curse you." Have you ever tried really doing that—and making it a way of life? On our own we can't do that, but Jesus can do that through us. God's dream is that we become a little blessing factory, that this place, the church of the damaged goods, becomes the church of the blessing because a blessing will change a life.
This is from a writer named Mary Ann Bird:
I grew up knowing I was different. I hated it. I was born with a cleft palate. When I started school, my classmates made it clear how I looked to others. Little girl, misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth, garbled speech. When schoolmates asked, 'What happened to your lip?' I'd tell them I'd fallen and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than been born different. I was convinced nobody outside my family could love me.
Then there was a teacher in the second grade we adored, Mrs. Leonard. Annually we had a hearing test. Mrs. Leonard gave the test to everybody in the class. Finally, it was my turn. I knew from past years as we stood against the door and covered one ear, the teacher sitting at her desk would whisper, and we'd have to repeat it back, something like, 'The sky is blue' or 'Do you have new shoes?' I waited there for the words. God must have put in her mouth those seven words that changed my life. Mrs. Leonard said in a whisper, 'I wish you were my little girl.'"
To people made ugly and twisted by sin, God whispers through Jesus, "I wish you were my little girl. I wish you were my little boy." All those blessings flow from the Cross; Blessed, blessed, blessed, blessed.
I've asked Dave Peterson to pronounce a blessing over you all today, that you could be a blessing to those around you.
May the Lord God Almighty, in his mercy obliterate every word, statement, experience, and invisible barrier you may have constructed that is keeping his blessing from reaching your heart. May the unrelenting love of God pursue you and surprise you with his compassion for you. May the forgiveness of Jesus Christ restore and renew your hearts. May the living waters of the Holy Spirit fill you and flow through you to a struggling and broken world. May God's peace rest upon you, and may the Lord fill you with his joy. May his joy become your strength. In the name of the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.