We continue our study of practices of generosity by learning the power of blessing others.
Jesus, teach me to bless others as You have blessed me.
A few weeks ago, we found out that one of my youngest kids had been sleepwalking. And not just sleepwalking, he actually went through a little gate that we have at the top of the stairs, walked all the way down to the main floor of the house, and then walked all the way down another flight of stairs to the basement. Thankfully, my father-in-law was in the basement at the time and was awake in the middle of the night, so he picked up our son and carried him all the way back upstairs to his bed. My wife and I had no idea, until the next day when we heard the hilarious story of his night-time meandering. But immediately, we had a problem on our hands: there was a breach in the gate. We had placed this blanket rack, which our kids affectionately refer to as the “blanket cage” in front of the stairs to keep anyone from sleepwalking or falling down in the darkness of nighttime. But unbeknownst to us, there was a small gap on one side of the blanket cage, and our son slipped quietly and effortlessly through the gap, completely unaware. We repaired the breach with a big pillow, and since then we haven’t heard any sleepwalking reports. Although, I wouldn’t be surprised if our son finds another breach at some point, and we find him cooking in the kitchen at two in the morning.
In our Old Testament passage today, the prophet Isaiah offers a beautiful image of what is possible in community, what is available to us from God’s generous hand.
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
I love the imagery he uses here. Not only will God satisfy our needs like a watered garden, not only will he rebuild ancient ruins, but we will be called “repairer of the breach.” We will be called out as the ones who have patched the hole, restoring safety, health, and life to the community. No more sleepwalkers, no more danger coming in or out.
We’ve been talking for the past three weeks about the story of Jesus from Luke 12, where he addressed issues like greed, giving, and last week his warning about bringing fire on the earth. We’ve seen how generosity directly counteracts the kingdom of man, breaking down its corrupt systems of power and injustice from the inside out. But how do we not only break down the systems of power, how do we begin repairing the massive gaps that are let? How do we repair the breach between people and a loving God, between people in community, between people and their own true selves?
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
Remove the yoke, the burden, the thing that ties someone into harsh, heavy labor. Remove the yoke, loosen it from around the neck of someone, and you become a repairer of the breach. This is a huge calling, and it can seem overwhelming. What does that look like? What is this yoke, and how do we remove it? Is something like this even possible?
As it turns out, that same idea is exactly what we see happening in today’s gospel passage from Luke 13. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, surrounded by disciples and under the watchful eye of the synagogue president. Suddenly, a woman appears who is doubled over because of her back, she can’t stand up straight and hasn’t been able to for eighteen years. No one knows why, there’s no medical reason for it, which is one of the reasons why Luke describes it as a “spirit” that crippled her. But here she is, walking in and looking down at the floor as she has grown accustomed to.
And Jesus heals her, which is incredible, to everyone except for the president in charge of the synagogue. He’s upset, because he’s been upstaged! “This is my place, and I don’t know what synagogue you are from, but we follow the rules around here!” The leader of the synagogue wants to make this all about the nit-picking rules about keeping the Sabbath holy. Over time, laws had built up in the oral tradition to supplement the law given in the Old Testament. What you could or couldn’t do on a sabbath was closely watched and regulated. You could untie an animal and take him to get water, but not with a load on its back. You could help someone if their life was in danger, but if they have a cold, you have to just leave them be. Rules that made sense to someone, at some point, but now just seem a bit petty and overwrought.
And when Jesus hears this challenge, he immediately points out how ridiculous this rule structure is. “So let me get this straight, you can untie an animal to take him to get water, but you can’t untie a person from the effects of the Accuser? How does that make any sense?” In fact, when Jesus makes these statements about untying a donkey and setting the woman free from bondage, he’s using the same greek word: Lyo. It means “to loose,” and in fact it’s the exact same word (in the Greek translation) that Isaiah uses when he says how to become a repairer of the breach: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.” Jesus is well aware of that word from Isaiah, and he’s playing it out, he’s standing in the gap and becoming a repairer of the breach, right in front of them.
In healing this woman, Jesus not only fixes her physical ailment which has kept her staring at the ground for years, he does so much more. Can you imagine having to walk around only looking at the ground? Not getting to ever look someone in the eye, not getting to experience the warmth of a hug or the sensation of the sun on your face? Not remembering what it looks like to walk outside on a warm night and see the stars from horizon to horizon. None of that was possible for her. It was an existence of putting one foot in front of the other, watching the dirt and knowing that others were mocking quietly all around her.
But Jesus changes all of that. He restores her dignity, her ability to see herself as a whole, healthy person. Suddenly she can stand tall and proud, she can look around and see others face to face, she no longer has to feel hidden, out of sight, out of mind. And not only that, as someone with such a long-standing physical ailment, this woman would have been considered unclean. She would have had to keep her distance from society, she couldn’t be a part of community. She had probably long ago lost hope of ever having a role in the society, or even a true friend. But Jesus does something so powerful.
“When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
Notice the deliberate order of what Jesus does. He sees her, he calls her, he declares a truth about her that she can’t even see, and then he lays a hand on her. Each component of this verse is so important.
First, Jesus sees the woman. That’s not strange, right? Everyone would have seen her, she probably wasn’t an inconspicuous person. Yes, but did everyone really see her? Did they see the broken, wounded heart that has carried this burden for almost two decades? Or did they see a social nuisance, a person who is a drain on the community, a person who makes them feel guilty because they don’t know what to do, how to care for her? Jesus sees something in her that no one else sees, that she is hurting and broken, but that she is a loved and cherished “daughter of Abraham.” Jesus sees her as someone with worth and dignity, and he responds accordingly.
Then, Jesus calls her over. He deliberately singles her out and beckons her to come close to him. He could have talked to her from a distance, which would have been safer and more predictable. He could have proclaimed healing over the noise of the crowded synagogue and let her go on her way. Jesus sometimes healed from a distance, even people who were in other towns at the time. But in this case, Jesus is not satisfied with healing from a distance, He wants to encounter this person and be present with her.
Next, he declares to her “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” What a fascinating thing to say! He doesn’t say, “you will be set free,” or “I will set you free,” or “I have set you free.” He says “you are free.” He’s not proclaiming something that can or will become true, he is declaring something that is already true. Jesus is calling out something that he sees as true, but that no one else can see. He knows that this ailment is somehow a result of his bondage to the accuser, and Jesus knows that the power of the accuser has no hold over this person’s life any more. Because he has broken that power, he has begun the decisive battle with evil itself, and will defeat it once and for all through his death and resurrection. Jesus knows that she is already free, and he wants her to know it too.
But interestingly, that’s still not enough. She doesn’t sense it, she doesn’t immediately jump up and start running around. She still doesn’t believe it to be true, but when Jesus “laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” Not only does Jesus see her, call her over, and proclaim the truth over her life, Jesus reaches out and physically touches her with his hand. This would have been unthinkable. It would be one thing for someone who is teaching in the synagogue to be around an unclean person on the Sabbath. But for him to reach out and touch her, it was powerful! Because it declared, not just to her, but to the entire synagogue, that she was not unclean at all. With that one little touch, Jesus restored her to the community, he proved that there was nothing to be afraid of, that she was a person worth knowing, worth being around, worth embracing and loving like every other daughter or son.
Jesus sees her, calls her into his presence, declares the truth over her, and gives her the gift of restorative touch. And just like that, Jesus has repaired the breach. The gap is closed. The gateway that the accuser had used for eighteen years to break this woman’s spirit was sealed up, and she was completely free. This was more than a healing, it was a breaking of the yoke that Isaiah described: “the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.” That old life of shame and quiet whispers was gone. The breach, not only a physical breach but one hidden deep within this woman’s soul, had been repaired.
Now, we have talked many times about how Jesus taught his disciples that “…whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these…” So when we read a passage like this, one of the first things that should come to mind for us, as followers of Jesus, is how in the world do we even attempt something this great, let alone something even greater? Sure, Jesus is a repairer of the breach, but he’s Jesus after all. That’s to be expected. But what are we to do? Does this mean we go around proclaiming healing over every person with an ailment that we see?
In a sense, yes. I am a firm believer that healing can and does occur, and God can work miraculous things on our behalf physically. This is a fascinating subject, and one that we can get caught up in quickly and lose sight of one of the most powerful implications of this story. Some people are gifted at praying for healing, and sometimes physical healing does occur. But whether that is our gifting or story, we are all called to be agents of healing to the world around us. And Jesus shows us the way, he is laying out a pattern that we can follow to bring deep healing to the world around us.
As a church, we have been discussing generosity, and over the next six weeks or so we are going to be discussing several practices of generosity. These are ways that we can practically follow the pattern of a generous God, where we can live and act as Jesus lived and acted. And not all of them are directly related to money. Money is a very important form of generosity, especially when we live in a culture that is obsessed with money and that builds systems of injustice and oppression on the foundations of economics. But money is not the only way we can practice the generous way of Jesus. And this week, we are focusing on following the pattern of Jesus in the practice of blessing.
Jesus does not simply heal this woman. Jesus blesses her. And he does so in a way that is powerful, a practice of blessing that the Father can use to bring a much deeper, inner healing than any physical problem. Blessing is a practice that we find throughout the scriptures. As God created the world, he didn’t just make it and stop there. He stepped back and blessed it, calling it “good.” God promised blessing to Abraham, and that through Abraham he would bless all people. Throughout the Old Testament, we see powerful instances of blessing being passed down from one generation to the next, speaking the truth of God’s goodness into the life of someone else. And in the New Testament, we see countless examples of the authors of Scripture speaking a blessing over the readers, and even instructing them to go and bless others in return.
But blessing is not just an ancient practice, it is something we are invited to participate in now. We can do the same thing that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did. We may not know the gift of healing, personally, but we can pass along the gift of blessing in the same way that Jesus did to this woman. And in doing so, we can bestow on someone in our world an incredible gift of mercy, grace, dignity, love, and even deep, inner healing.
How do we do this? It is simple, in fact. In their book, The Blessing, John Treng, Gary Smalley and Kari Stageberg explore the examples of blessing throughout the scriptures and notice a simple pattern that we can follow. It takes a few important steps:
1. Meaningful touch
This may be the most difficult step in the process, and it may seem out of place or awkward. Why do we need to touch someone to bless them? Why did Jesus need to touch this woman for her to realize that she was healed? As it turns out, scientists have been uncovering a powerful need within each of us for actual physical touch. Whenever someone is deprived of meaningful touch from another human, the effects are devastating. Whether it is orphaned children without someone to hold them or a prisoner in solitary confinement, scientists have begun to notice that skin hunger leads to very real and devastating consequences. It has been correlated with depression, stress, mood and anxiety disorders, some immune disorders, and eventually an overall lack of ability to connect meaningfully with other people. Over time, a lack of physical touch erodes our ability to give and receive love.
Now, think for a moment about the current state of our world. We are far more obsessed with touch-screens than we are with the touch of a person around us. In fact, many times we go out of our way to avoid having to touch anyone around us. We at least used to have to touch someone by handing them cash, now everything is done electronically with the push of a button. We can spend hours online, interacting with far more people than we ever thought imaginable, and yet we can go days, weeks, even months without experiencing the touch of another person. In a touch-starved society, the simple gesture of meaningful (and appropriate) touch can be profoundly moving.
2. Speaking Love and Acceptance
The second element is to speak a message of love and acceptance to the person we are blessing. This seems so simple, perhaps even silly. And yet speaking love and acceptance is a deeply meaningful act. How many times in your life has someone looked you in the eyes and let you know that you are loved and accepted? Can you call one of those moments to mind? If so, it was not inconsequential, fleeting or silly. We all need to be reminded of the same message that Jesus heard at his baptism, “You are my Son [Daughter], whom I love.” That same blessing that Jesus received from his Father, is available to us as well. And in the practice of blessing, we get to pass on words that remind someone of their status as a beloved son or daughter of God.
3. Attaching High Value
And the words of the Father’s blessing didn’t stop there… he continued by saying, “with You I am well pleased.” This is the third step, to attach “high value” to the person being blessed. Not for something comparative, like “you’re the best engineer at this company.” That is temporary, it can be gone the moment a new person is hired. That kind of value is out of our control, it is based on the perspective of others and it can change at a moment’s notice. Instead, when we attach high value to someone, we speak truth about a present reality that cannot be questioned. When Jesus calls the woman forward, he is attaching value to her. He is stating, “You are valuable for who you are, not based upon the views of any person here. I see the value you in you, and I am not ashamed to stand with you.”
We attach high value to someone when we share what we see, or what we have experienced. “You are an incredible friend, and your heart for loving others is so clear.” “You are wise, and even if no one else in the world sees the wisdom in you, know that I see it and am thankful for it.” “You are beautiful, and as someone made in the image of God you will always be beautiful.” When we attach high value to someone, we are naming what is true about that person, in a way that cannot be changed or challenged.
4. Picture a Special Future
Next, we picture a special future for the person we are blessing. Jesus does this clearly in his words to this woman, “Woman, you are set free…” That is a future she could not possibly have imagined, but Jesus could, and did. When we bless someone, we picture something for them that they may be unable to see. We are not fortune-telling or making empty promises, but we are looking ahead and calling to light the truth of God’s goodness and faithfulness to them, praying that their future will be soaked in the peace of God’s kingdom.
If you have children, this step might come easily as you bless them. Imagine a future for them that is surrounded by the nearness of God’s presence and the peace of His kingdom. We’re not imagining fame or fortune, but a life lived in the fullness of God’s loving presence. It may be harder to do for our friends, or coworkers, but with a little time and prayerful imagination we can envision a special future for every person God connects us with. It can be as simple as, “You are going to grow and flourish,” or “You’re going to be a great father,” or “I know you can’t see it yet, but there is life waiting for you on the other side of this season of pain.” Whatever it is, we can use the imagination God has given us to speak hope into the life of someone else.
5. An Active Commitment
Finally, we conclude the practice of blessing with an active commitment to fulfill the blessing that we have prayed. We don’t just bless and walk away, we commit to be there, to help see it through, to shepherd and care for this person until the blessing is fully realized. Sometimes the blessing will happen immediately, like it does for the woman Jesus heals. Sometimes, the healing will take decades of painful obedience. No matter what, if we are to truly bless someone, we must commit to walk alongside them until what we see as possibility becomes reality.
Meaningful touch. Love and Acceptance. Attaching High Value. Picturing a Special Future. Making an Active Commitment. These simple steps can be life-changing for the people around us. Who is God calling us to bless? Perhaps it is a son or a daughter, a grandson or granddaughter. Perhaps it is a husband or a wife. Perhaps it is an employee or coworker. Perhaps it is the server at our lunch table. Perhaps it is someone on the fringes of our life, hesitant to come close because of their fear or shame.
All of us have been blessed, immensely, by a gracious and generous God. It is time for us to practice generosity by sharing that blessing to the world around us. If you are looking for a practical way to get started on this path, you will find our Daily Practices for this week on the table at the back door. Pick one up, and give it a shot this week! We have listed out five simple ways to experiment with blessing others. Sometimes through these five steps, sometimes through a simple written card or note. These are helpful ways for us to engage in this practice, one small step at a time.
Let’s be a people who are courageous and bold. Let’s not just take the blessings of a good Father for ourselves, let’s be lavishly generous and engage in the practice of blessing.
Our breath prayer this week is, “Jesus, teach me to bless others as You have blessed me.”