Genesis 48:8-20, Psalm 67

A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

When I felt called to be a priest after 15 years of teaching maths, both my Mum and my Dad seemed genuinely surprised. They seemed to wonder where this strange vocation had come from. I reminded them about taking me to church all through my childhood and, that loving music and particularly religious music, about Mum’s encouragement for me and my sister to sing in St Andrews Church choir for 15 years. And I reminded them how much St Oswald’s at Parkside meant to me and our children, about how life giving it was there. Mum was always one for encouraging my sister and I and then her grandchildren, even when she was a bit baffled by what we hoped to explore. ‘You must follow your star,’ she said, when I told her about feeling called to be a priest. I didn’t forget her words. They seemed to guide me like that star from the story of the magi. “And you wonder where this came from”, I thought to myself. To Dad I said something out aloud. “Do you know how you end conversations with people you care about, Dad?” I said. “Almost every time you finish a conversation with someone you love on the phone you say ‘Bless you.’” Dad and Mum blessed me and those they love and encouraged us and stood by us, most of the time (!), even when they were baffled by what we hoped to explore. And they wondered where my vocation came from…

Bless you. Blessings. The work and words of God.

This evening’s OT reading from the 48th Chapter of the first book of the bible Genesis and this evening’s psalm 67 both seem to have blessings at their heart and so I thought we would spend a little time pondering blessings, wondering, perhaps what they are. The first blessings in the bible occur in the creation account in Genesis 1. On the sixth day of creation we find that:

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ 
(Genesis 1:27-28)

The first blessing in the bible seems to be about fruitfulness, about abundant life. When God blesses, God gives life. And that life spreads across the earth.

In our reading from Genesis Chapter 48, we hear the story of Israel (who we remember was named Jacob) close to death. His favourite son Joseph brings his sons Manessah and Ephraim to their grandfather. There is the confusion that we often read about in Genesis of the younger being favoured over the older and then we read:

[Israel] blessed Joseph, and said,
‘The God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked,
the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day,
the angel who has redeemed me from all harm, bless the boys;
and in them let my name be perpetuated, and the name of my ancestors Abraham and Isaac;
and let them grow into a multitude on the earth.
(Genesis 48:15-16)

In his book, “Theology of the Old Testament” Walter Brueggemann notes with interest that, “sandwiched between reference to the grandsons”, Israel blesses Joseph. Bruggemann explores the nature of the blessing on the boys:

“The blessing …looks back to the fathers, Abraham and Isaac. It also looks forward to a multitude on the earth. …[The blessing] is a bestowal of life-force, as energy, prosperity, abundance, well-being. Yahweh is a God unlike any other, who has the gift of good life in Yahweh’s own power…. Alongside the intimacy of generating heirs, the verb bless in these narratives has in purview a large arena of new life that is to be transmitted, via Israel, to the nations.”[1]

Blessing is a bestowal of life-force, as energy, prosperity, abundance, well-being …

And this abundant life is not just for the next generation of a particular family. This abundant life is to go via that family, via the people Israel, to the nations, to the ends of the earth. The blessing is for the one on whose head the loving hand is placed, for whose life the loving words are spoken, but also to blossom out to the ends of the earth. And also we might suspect, not just to the people of the earth, but for … the earth.

Another blessing that is well known in the Torah, the first five books of the bible, is found in Numbers Chapter 6. The Lord speaks to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites:

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

(Numbers 6:23-26)

There is something else here in this blessing. Something that reminds us of the Sabbath… the gift of peace. Genesis 2 verse 3 describes it: God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

Here we have the blessing of a day, the seventh day, the day of rest, the day of peace.

All these ideas seem to be woven into our psalm, Psalm 67. The opening verse echoes the blessing from Numbers:

 God be merciful unto us, and bless us 
 and shew us the light of his countenance, and be merciful unto us;

Walter Brueggemann reflects on the psalm:

“This psalm is a celebration of God’s gracious blessing to Israel and a summons to the other nations to join Israel in praise for God’s abundant goodness to all creation. … The sum of the entire poem is gladness for the life-giving world-ordering power of God that makes a viable, shared life in the world possible.”[2]

As we saw in the blessing on the sixth day of creation, and on the blessing of Joseph’s sons, God’s blessing is not only for Israel, it is to spread to the ends of the earth. The saving ways of God are to be known among all the nations, the ends of the earth are to fear God.

The psalm opens and closes with the blessing of God and then woven into this psalm is the response of the people:

 Let the people praise thee, O God 
 yea, let all the people praise thee.

God blesses giving a bestowal of life-force, as energy, prosperity, abundance, well-being …And we are to respond with praise.

As we look back over our lives, we might wonder in what way God has blessed us. For many of us our parents at times were not unlike Jacob, placing a hand on his beloved grandsons’ heads, reminding them what God has been to him and his family – the God who has been a shepherd all my life to this day,
the angel who has redeemed me from all harm-
and what he hopes God will be to them. What story were we told, what words were used to describe God to us, by those who nurtured us in our faith? It might have been a parent or grandparent or a teacher or a priest or perhaps someone who nurtured us in music or liturgy …Was God described as shepherd or an angel … or was it more that stories of Jesus were told? Was one of the gospel stories precious to us? An image of Jesus healing, or telling those strange stories? An image of Jesus gathering unloved ones at a meal, or is it the cross? Is that where we know we are blessed? That he died and rose again? Is that the story that helps us know?

Or did we know him with us at a precious time, or a difficult time, or when we were afraid? When we look back and wonder about God and God’s blessing of us. Will we pass it on? To those we love? Those we mighty sense need to hear? What God has meant to us … and our dear hope that they will find in God a bestowal of life-force, as energy, prosperity, abundance, well-being …

How shall we respond to this idea of blessing, to our experience of it? Shall we find our sons or our daughters, our grandsons or granddaughters, put our hands on their dear heads and speak words of blessing? Shall we look instead at someone, some place, some situation, that we sense needs God’s abundant life and whisper prayers of blessing there? Shall we ponder the possibility that when we pray such a prayer it might send God’s love to the ends of the earth?

[1] Walter Brueggemann Theology of the Old Testament p167-168.

[2] Walter Brueggemann & William H. Bellinger Jr Psalms p290