On the coast of England, about an hour out of London, two church towers mark a place called Reculver, the spot where Romans once built a fort. The ancient king of Kent, King Ethelbert, is rumored to be buried there. For centuries, this spot was occupied by Romans, and later, after the Romans fled Britain, by monks. All that remains there today is an ancient Roman wall, some old gravestones, and the ruins of an old church, blown down by dynamite in 1809.
The reason? Erosion. The vicar of the church called an emergency meeting. Erosion had already taken the northern part of the Roman walls, the Chapel House, several cottages and part of the graveyard. The vicar persuaded the church members to vote to demolish the church and to head for safer ground. It seemed to be a sensible decision, so they blew apart the church and headed for safer ground.
Later on, it came out that the vicar might have been influenced by other factors. His mother hated the area and refused the live there. The vicar never mentioned the option that, ironically, was put into place after they deserted the area: building a wall to prevent further erosion. They really didn’t have an erosion problem as much as they didn’t love the area enough to stay.
There might be a bit of a metaphor there for the church today. We understand, of course, that the church is not a building. But we also understand that erosion is a factor. We all understand that currents in society are eroding the church. These aren’t safe days to be the church. Most Canadians (84%) believe in God. They believe in God, but they also believe their way. Eight out of ten Canadians believe that you don’t have to go to church to be a good Christian. Seven out of ten think that their own private beliefs are more important than what the church believes. The result is that we live in a very spiritual time, but for most people, spirituality has nothing to do with church.
We’re faced as a church with the reality that most Canadians don’t see churches as being relevant or especially necessary to what it means to be a spiritual person, or even a Christian. That’s just a fact. A few years ago, Charlene talked to someone who lived down the road, literally a five minute walk from here. She discovered I was a pastor in the area, and asked Charlene exactly where the church was. Despite being on a major road, this neighbor of ours had no idea that we were here. Why? Not because we need better signs or marketing. I’m convinced that the reason is because churches don’t even show up on the map of most of our neighbors. The erosion is taking place. Churches aren’t happy about it, but that doesn’t change the reality.
How do we respond to the erosion? One option is to follow the example of the vicar in Reculver and to retreat to safer ground. The vicar was motivated by two factors: a desire for safety and a dislike of the area. It is possible to choose this option today. I’ve seen a few churches move to safer ground, and move themselves away from the erosion of society, and while they’re at it make it pretty clear that they don’t like the mess out there very much.
I may sound like I’m being harsh, but actually, I understand the desire to retreat and move to safer ground. There’s another option, though. It’s one that you can trace back throughout the entire Bible. It predates the church by hundreds of years. It’s an option that goes back right to the beginning of God’s interaction with the people. It’s a continuation of God’s first words to human beings. It goes back so far that the New Testament calls it the Gospel given in advance. Let’s look at the most viable option we can choose as a church, beyond the option of retreat.
God’s First Word
To start, you have to go back to God’s first recorded word to people. God’s first word to people was one of blessing. Genesis 1:28 says, “God blessed them and told them, “Multiply and fill the earth and subdue it. Be masters over the fish and birds and all the animals.” Did you get that? God’s first word to them was a word of blessing. Blessing here involved three things: living in a fruitful place, being able to multiply, and ruling all of creation. God’s original word to human beings was one of blessing and approval.
Fast forward to Genesis 12, and you come to an important event. God is initiating a relationship with a man named Abraham, in one of the foundational covenants that lead to the creation of the Jewish nation. What God originally gave to the entire human race, he especially gives to this man, Abraham, and his offspring. God says to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3:
Then the LORD told Abram, “Leave your country, your relatives, and your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you. I will cause you to become the father of a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and I will make you a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you.”
There is the word again: I will bless you. I will make you a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you. All the families on the earth will be blessed through you. God’s great intention is to bless. The same blessing that he gave Adam and Eve are now given to Abram: a fruitful place (flowing with milk and honey); the ability to reproduce, even though Abram and his wife had been unable to have a baby; and the ability to rule (kingship). The blessing he had given to the human race, he now gives to Abram and his descendants, saying that they will one day ultimately bless the world.
This becomes so important that you can call it God’s blessing program. God’s intention has always been to bless the world. Through Abram and his descendants, and the covenant he has made with them, it was God’s intention to bless the world.
The Apostle Paul picked up on this hundreds of years later. Writing about the spread of the blessing to those who weren’t direct descendants of Abraham, Paul wrote, “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you'” (Galatians 3:8). This idea of God blessing Abram, and Abram blessing the world is so important that Paul calls it the gospel announced in advance. You want to know one of the earliest summaries of the Gospel? It’s the world being blessed through God’s people. God is about blessing people, and he uses his people in order to accomplish this purpose.
Blessed by God
Let’s read what God said to Abram again:
Leave your country, your relatives, and your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you. I will cause you to become the father of a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and I will make you a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. (Genesis 12:1-3)
God called Abram into a relationship with him, and it was a relationship of blessing. The blessing wasn’t just a spiritual one. It is one that would encompass all of life, one that is about legacy and greatness.
This is the part of our relationship with God that we are pretty good at. You could do a whole Bible study on the way that God has blessed us. Hole books have been written on the blessings that God gives to people who are in relationship with him. Jesus preached his most famous message and began with nine words of blessing to people who weren’t used to being blessed.
Jesus is the promise, the giver of abundant life, the one who invites us to enter into a life of blessing in which even our suffering is transformed into something significant. We live in the promise that God is putting all things right, and that the good and the holy and the right triumphs in the end. We are all about this blessing.
An insider’s Gospel says, “For God so loved ME that he gave me his only Son, so that because I believe in him, I will not perish but have everlasting life.”
The problem is that this blessing is only half of the Gospel. If we stop here, we end up privatizing God’s blessing and keeping it all for ourselves. If we stop here, we retreat from the danger that’s out there and move to where it’s safe and where we can preserve our blessing. It becomes about us and what God has done for us, and of inviting people into our place of safety so that they too can be blessed.
Blessed to be a Blessing
The second part of the blessing, and the part that Paul called the Gospel given in advance, is this: ” All the families of the earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). This is where retreat to a safer place is not an option, no matter how much erosion takes place. God hasn’t given the blessing to us simply so we could be blessed. God has blessed us so we can bless all nations and all people in the world.
God’s call is for us to be blessed so that we can bless the world. This version of the Gospel goes like this:
This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. (John 3:16-17)
Len Sweet puts it this way: “If God so loved the world, why can’t we?”
The Gospel is about God loving the world enough to enter it. The Gospel is about refusing to stay where it’s safe. It’s about blessing the world. It’s about the Father sending the Son to the world out of love, the Son and the Father sending the Spirit, and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sending the church into the world. It’s about following a sending God who’s on a mission to bless the world.
If you don’t hear anything else today, hear this: You have been blessed so you can bless the world. That is your calling. God has put us here as a church so that we could bless the world. That is the Gospel.
This isn’t part of the reason for our existence. This is at the heart of why we’re here: so we can be in relationship with God, and through that relationship with God, bless the entire world.
This means that we see everything differently. We have been placed in Etobicoke, in Toronto, to be an outpost of blessing to our neighborhood. We are here to be a blessing to them: not just the ones who come to church. We’re called to follow the example of Jesus who went out there to bless the world.
We’ve been blessed to be a blessing to the people out there.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look at how we can do this. For today, I want to challenge you to start to see your life and this church differently. Your life is the means by which God intends to bless those that God has already put into your life, who may never step into the doors of the church. We come here to band together, not so we can retreat from the world, but so we can prepare ourselves to go into the world to bless them.
This can take all kinds of shapes. It can be the church where its people purposely move into the neighborhood because you have to live there to bless there. It can be the church that comes into some extra money and gives it away to the school down the road because they need it more. It can be the church that takes down the “no trespassing” signs and replaces them with “please trespass” signs, which chooses to build skateboard ramps rather than getting upset that the skateboarders are wrecking the concrete.
It can work at the personal level as well. I want to wrap up by looking at three ways that Abram and his descendants blessed the world, since that’s probably going to provide a bit of a pattern for us to follow. I thought of three ways, and the good news is that all three are within the reach of everyone here.
Blessing by association – One way that people were blessed by Abram and his descendants is that when God blessed them, some of that blessing just naturally spilled over to anyone who was close to them. Lots of people were blessed just by happening to be close enough to those that God was blessing. One example is Joseph, a man who’s story is still celebrated today in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. God kept blessing him, and those who were around him – when he was a slave, in prison, and eventually as prime minister of Egypt – were blessed by the spill over.
This is one way that we can be a blessing to others today – just by living in such a way that we experience God’s blessing, and to let that blessing spill over to others. If you can figure out how God has blessed you, you can figure out how you can share that blessing with others. Part of our growth is to experience the wholeness, the peace, the well-being that flows to all of life as we grow more into Christ. As this happens, those who work with us, live with us, are friends with us, will experience some of the benefit.
What has God blessed you with? Whatever that is, make sure you’re not hoarding it all to yourself. Share whatever it is with others. Give money away. Open your home. Share your time. Whatever God has given you, give it away.
Blessing by example – One of the best ways we’ve been blessed by Abram and his descendants is that we can look at them and say, “This is what it looks like to live in relationship with God.” They lived and showed us what it looked like when you are in relationship with God. They became a model for other nations. The law was given through them. The prophets came from among their number. Scripture was written from them. Their history became a public record of God in action.
Do you have to be perfect to be an example? Here’s what I love: the record of God in relationship with these people was anything but neat and tidy. Some of the history could make the Springer show. It’s not the history of people who have it all together. The people are not the heroes of the story. God is the hero of the story. When we are blessed by God, people see God blessing and using and forgiving messed up people. Your life can be a public record of God loving and blessing somebody who is far from perfect. You can go on record as what God can do with those who are equally less than perfect.
The world isn’t looking for perfection. It is looking for authenticity. We can be honest about our shortcomings, and demonstrate that normal, messed up people can be loved by God. We can model what it means to live forgiven and to live free.
Blessing because of who we know – The main way that Abram blessed the world was that Jesus was born as one of his descendants. Abram blessed the world because it was through Abram that God gave us Jesus. The only thing that we ultimately have to offer the world is Jesus.
Abram blessed the world because God’s Son came through him. We can bless the world because God’s Son can come through us to our world. This is one of the reasons why Jesus said, “I am with you always.” If we believe this, then when people meet us, they meet someone who lives in the presence of Jesus. They meet someone who is part of him – his body – today.
We’re going to expand on this in further weeks. Today, I want to start by reminding us why we are here. We are not here to be blessed. No, we’re blessed – to be a blessing to the world. Your mission: to bless your world.
Retreat is not an option. We won’t move to safer ground. We are here to join God in loving the world enough to stay in it.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be building a missional confession. I wonder if you would join me in confessing the first part of this confession, that God has blessed us so that we could be a blessing.
We believe that we are the church, that is, we are a community of God’s people called and set apart for witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. We are blessed to be a blessing.
Father, thank you for loving the world enough to want to bless it. Thank you for not just blessing a part of it. It is your desire to bless all peoples of the earth through your people. We are here to bless this community on your behalf.
We don’t have all the answers on how to do this, but for today it is enough to say that we want the world to be blessed through us. It is enough to say that we won’t retreat to safer ground. It’s enough to say that we want to join Jesus in going out in the world not to condemn it, but to love it and to help put it right again. Help us, father, to continue to be blessed. And help us learn how to join you in blessing the world. In Christ’s name, Amen.