When we hear the word “blessing,” we often think of rewards. Think about it. What is the context of “blessing” that is used over and over again? Typically we talk about rewards, and most often we use it in the context of our rewards. What we don’t hear very often is blessings being placed in the context of righteousness and repentance.
In Isaiah, Israel will bless other people by displaying righteousness and calling people to repentance: “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6-7 ESV).
Israel is kept by God, who holds their hand. They do not walk this path alone. God does not abandon His people or leave them stranded on some vacant island. Rather, God walks with His people, hand-in-hand, to instruct them in how to live as children of light. He gives them as a covenant for the people, to open the eyes of the blind and to call people out of the darkness of the prison of sin.
Through God, this is how we bless people still today. We free the oppressed. We give to the needy. We sit with the broken. We teach them to do right by our righteousness. We call them to repentance in the name of Christ. Transformed lives are the beauty of blessing!
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When Paul was on his very first missionary journey, he endured incredible challenges. It is not surprising, because the Lord told Ananias that he would show Paul how much he would suffer for his name. And suffer Paul did. From the very first step he took on the mission trail, Paul experienced opposition.
When Paul and Barnabas came into Lystra, Paul was stoned and left for dead. Luke records that “when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe” (Acts 14:20 ESV). When they had gone on to Derbe, they circled back and entered Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
In the midst of hardships, Paul and his companions were strengthening the church, encouraging people to remain faithful, and were appointing elders in every church. This is such an example of what the church could and should be doing! Most people shut down when they are discouraged. It is normal to feel defeated. But what happens when we share our pain and suffering and use that to the glory of God? Luke records that, in those same churches, “the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily” (Acts 16:5). God will bless the church when we lean into him and endure hardships together!
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The past week was a great reminder of just how many people in our congregation really get Jesus’ words: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24 ESV).
In the past week I’ve witnessed people selflessly give of themselves–both their time and their money–to help others who are in need. I was teaching the Bible class when literally half of the class abruptly got up and walked out. At first, I wondered what I said to offend them. In my ten years of teaching and preaching here, I’ve never had a group just up and walk out. Then I saw the reason–a recent widow walked in the door and they ran to embrace her, cry with her, and pray over her. My heart smiled at the disruption and it reminded me of how well our congregation loves others.
Several people personally handed me money to help various people in need. Others quietly gave and did not let their left hand know what their right hand was doing. We received a beautiful card in the mail from a church member who lives in another state. I’ve heard of so, so many stories of people who have received phone calls, visits, emails, and even money from church members.
This congregation is heeding the words of Jesus to deny yourself, pick up your cross daily, and follow Jesus.
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As we’ve been doing a series on caring for the poor, we cannot forget about the foreigner. We are in a political climate where a lot of attention and emotion is being poured out on account of foreigners. Immigration is nothing new. Right now in the United States we have almost 50 million immigrants living among us. These are people who were not born in the United States but are now residents. As Christians, we need to look at what God says about how we welcome and treat foreigners.
In Isaiah 56:1, God reminds Israel to “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed.” When foreigners resided in the Promised Land, Israel was commanded to take care of them and instruct them with God’s word. “Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people'” (Isaiah 56:3). The godly foreigner shouldn’t live in fear that they will be separated. God grafts them into the holy family.
God is clear that foreigners who obey the commandments are honored: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds to my covenant–these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:6-7).
We are commanded to care for the foreigners and sojourners who are in need, just the same as everyone else. With nearly 50 million immigrants living with us, we should consider it an honor to treat them with care.
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The message is clear that there is a great cost of being a disciple of Jesus. Christians are promised persecution and there is so much we need to sacrifice. One of the costs (and great blessings!) is taking care of the poor. With the cost comes reward. Jesus said, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:32-34 ESV).
The Bible is pregnant with references to caring for the poor–to those in desperate need. Those who are sojourners, poor, oppressed, and destitute, are described in the Bible as our neighbors. We are commanded to love and care for our neighbors, to lend to them and not expect anything in return.
Caring for the poor comes with a cost, but is not meant to be burdensome. In fact, over and over we are told to give joyfully and to lend with an open hand. When we store up treasure in heaven, we do so by helping those in need. Jesus took it so seriously that, in a scathing dialogue, he specifically mentioned the sorting of the sheep and goats by whether they cared for the poor and sick or not. These are not suggestions in the Bible.
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Giving to the poor is all through the Bible. God has a very special place in his heart for the poor. In Acts 2, the Christians sold possessions and gave liberally so that there were no needs. If someone was sick, Jesus and his disciples healed them so they could go back to work and provide.
Jesus told the rich man that, if he wanted to be perfect, he would go sell everything then come back and follow Christ. Poverty was just as real as it is today. There are many people who die of starvation each day. Our homeless population even in the US is out of control.
The idea of storing up treasures in heaven was not a new concept. Nor was Jesus the only one to say it. Paul told Timothy to tell the rich not to put their “hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Tim. 6:18-19).
The future is important. Jesus doesn’t propose throwing money out. Rather, we should take care of each others’ needs because we’ve been so richly blessed.
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Ezekiel 34 is Ezekiel’s prophecy against the bad shepherds of Israel. When Jesus came as the Good Shepherd (John 10), he was fulfilling Ezekiel 34. “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. . . I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Ezekiel 34:11-12).
Over and over again, Jesus intentionally seeks out the distraught–the poor, oppressed, broken hearted, and the outcasts. He temporarily leaves the ninety-nine sheep to search for the one who is lost. When Jesus saw the crowd of 5,000 waiting on the shore, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
This echoes Ezekiel 34:11-24. Ezekiel describes the Lord actively looking for his sheep who were oppressed and abandoned “so they shall no longer be a prey.” The sheep were abused by the shepherds and they “thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad” (Ezekiel 34:21). Jesus immediately recognized who the sheep were that had no shepherd. And he led them as their new shepherd, for God promised: “And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken” (Ezekiel 34:24).
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