Creekside Church
Sermon of February 9, 2020

"Shining Faces"
Numbers 6:22-27

Pastor
Rosanna McFadden

 

Good morning! This is “B” Sunday of our PB&J Sunday, and B stands for . . . Blessing. It’s a word and a concept that as a pastor I use a lot. I try to end every message I record on our Phone Tree prayer chain with “God bless you”; and when I forget, you let me know you missed it. I often end conversations -- especially about pastoral care -- by saying God bless you, or blessings to you. I sign off on text messages and sometimes emails by writing Blessings for the day. I tell friends and strangers “Bless you!” when they sneeze. I am not apologizing for any of this -- it is appropriate and sincere -- even though I know that the sneezing thing has its roots back in the times of the bubonic plague. It never hurts to bless someone.

Of course, blessing can be used ironically. I especially associate this with Southern women who tack the phrase on to nasty criticism or gossip in order to give it veneer of good will or gentility. As in, “she and her children are complete trailer trash, bless their hearts.” It’s much like prefacing a juicy piece of slander with the words, “I don’t like to gossip, but . . .” Forms of the word blessing: bless, blessed, etc. are so widely used that we may not even connect it to its Judeo-Christian context. I have chosen Old Testament texts for each of our PB&J Sundays because the Christian understanding of Praise, Blessing and Joy come from that Hebrew tradition: the Old Testament is the ground where those legumes grow and the vine where the grapes for the jelly are rooted.

The Hebrew Bible mentions “blessing” almost 400 times. About a quarter of the time, that is God blessing the people; the rest of the time it is people blessing other people, but they are often sharing God’s blessing in the name of God, as in today’s text. This text from Numbers 6 is one of the best-known blessings in the Bible: it’s known as the Priestly Blessing, or the Aaronic blessing you may even know it from memory, especially if you are familiar with a musical setting of it:

The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

I am not a Hebrew scholar, but the research I did emphasized that this blessing loses some things in the translation from Hebrew to English. Specifically, the Hebrew text is more literal and concrete -- remember, this is thousands of years old -- while the English is fairly abstract. I want to highlight some of the key words or ideas in Hebrew so we can reflect on what that means for our own understanding of blessing.

The Hebrew verb “bless” as in The Lord bless you is barakh and it means to kneel, show respect, or give something of value. So as strange or uncomfortable as it may sound to us, a blessing from God means God is kneeling before us with a gift. The word keep as in bless and keep means to guard and protect -- as shepherds did with their sheep. Out in the desert they would literally stack thorn bushes to make a hedge to protect the flock.

The idea of the countenance of God, or God’s face shining upon us is a little bit involved. Tim McFadden and Tim Morphew had a conversation last week about this piece of bread with PB&J on the chancel. My husband assured Rev Morphew that it is not my image of the face of God -- at least , he didn’t think so. My husband is correct: the face of God is not a smiley jelly face. No one knows what God looks like, in part because the Hebrews thought that looking directly at the glory of God could be fatal. Even Moses caught only a glimpse of the back of God as God passed by, and even that made Moses’ face shine when he came back to the people of Israel. The Hebrew word for face is a metaphor of the presence of God: we may not be able to literally see what God looks like, but we can experience the illumination of God’s presence to provide healing, help, strength and protection. This goes far beyond God merely ‘smiling’ at us, it is the power and the comfort of the presence of God.

The Hebrew Bible presents the face of God many times, but it is in blessing, not for cursing or judgement. The prophets hear and convey the voice of God with words of warning or rebuke, but God’s face is for blessing and comfort. One source I read compared God lifting up God’s countenance to us like a father lifting up his child and looking up in at that child with joy. That is a wonderful image of God’s blessing: notice, there is no stuff involved -- no sports cars or groceries or utility payments -- we are blessed by the presence of God and that we are claimed and held by God.

The last word of this blessing, “peace,” is the Hebrew word that is probably the most familiar to us: shalom. We translate this most often as peace, but shalom is more comprehensive than that. It means wholeness, completeness, harmony, prosperity and welfare. It’s also used as a greeting or a farewell, in the same way that “good-bye” is a contraction of God Be With You. It’s a blessing all on its own. It is a wish that we might be in harmony with ourselves and God, and that may be whole. So when we expand the meaning of the words in Hebrew, the sense of the blessing is more like this:

YHWH will kneel before you presenting gifts and will guard you with a hedge of protection.

YHWH will illuminate the wholeness of his being toward you bringing order and he will give you comfort and sustenance.

YHWH will lift up his wholeness of being and look upon you and he will set in place all you need to be whole and complete.

That, brothers and sisters, is a powerful affirmation of who God is, and what God wants for each of us.

I want to share some other words about blessing from a variety of sources [Slides about blessing]

Here are some of the stories you have shared with me about Random Acts of Kindness. I won’t share names with all of them, but knowing the people will give you context which is helpful in some cases These stories show how respect and kindness from strangers can contribute to our shalom: our sense of peace, welfare, and wholeness:

Several years ago, on the one-year anniversary of Keith Vardaman’s death, Kurt and Lisa and Jan -- who was still living with them at the time -- spent the day together in remembrance. Group from local church who had been sent into the neighborhood to pray. Led to look for “something white” car which was not normally parked where it could be seen.

Kurt Vardaman in hospital visited by John Longenbaugh

Woman traveling on foot from Downtown Elkhart to a camp south of town -- not Camp Mack, but still a lot further than she thought. Knocked on doors, doors shut in her face. Creekside member gave her a ride -- a different neighbor called the police. Safely to destination.

Couple from Creekside traveling home from Chicago in snow storm. Family owned restaurant. Fed, slept in a bed. Returned payment with a note that said, “If we accepted your money, our kindness would have meant nothing”

Blessing is God’s will for each one of us -- this is different from calling on God so that we can get what we want: to “name it and claim it” or “call it and haul it” -- God wants us to be surrounded with the presence of protection and safety and well-being. Our work is not only to acknowledge and accept that blessing, but to experience the shining face of God so that we can reflect it to others. We will never see the literal face of God, but as Scott reminded us in the children’s story a couple weeks ago, God’s image surrounds us every day in the faces of other people. We also have the opportunity and the responsibility to be the image of God to the people around us: friends, strangers, co-workers, brothers and sisters in Christ. RAKs are one way that we can reflect the blessing of God to others. There are still PB&J cards left on the ushers table -- if you don’t have time to write them on Sunday morning, pick up a few and take them home, or simply tell someone how important their gifts are to you or to this family of faith.

This morning we will have the service of anointing, oil for confession of sin, strengthening of faith, and for the shalom which comes with healing of mind, body and spirit. Placing oil on your forehead is a sign of God’s presence, and a literal way of making your face shine. After our sisters and brothers have been anointed you may stay where you are, and we’ll end by having Ron lead us in this blessing from Numbers 6 as our words of blessing and sending. You may come forward for anointing as we sing the final hymn.

 

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