Blessing God

  • Ephesians 1:3-14
  • Hope CRC

Last October, after preaching at Hope, I raced out of the parking lot and jumped on the tollway going north to attend the wedding of my high school next-door locker neighbor and great friend Siiri Rimpila. In fact, Siiri did me a great honor—she asked me to help the rabbi who would be officiating.

Siiri is anything but Jewish—for those of you not familiar with Scandinavian names, her name is Finnish enough to pass in Helsinki, as are her looks—she is six feet of cheerful energy, culminating in one of the world’s greatest smiles, a halo of super-blonde curls, and the most unique, contagious laugh I’ve ever heard.

I had the privilege and honor of standing at the front of the aisle with the rabbi and Barry Levi, the groom, while Siiri’s sisters and then Siiri walked down toward us—Siiri grinning, and the rabbi (who barely came up to my shoulder) commenting to me that each sister was taller and blonder than the next. The ceremony was a beautiful blend of Jewish and Christian wedding traditions. One of the most important parts of a Jewish wedding is the “Seven Blessings.” The rabbi recited them in Hebrew, I repeated them in English.

The blessings are not just for the couple, but also for God. And although we Christians share the biblical idea and precedent of blessing God with Jews, it’s language that we are not entirely familiar with. But for Jews, it’s as familiar as our phrases like, “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” or “in Jesus’ name, amen.” “Blessed are you, Lord God…” begins Jewish prayers for the family, and in the synagogue, daily prayers and prayers for special occasions like holidays and weddings. “Blessed are you, Lord God…”

This is not just language of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. It is also language of the New Testament. Ephesians, like so many other letters in the New Testament, is written to churches that are a great mix of Jew and Gentile, churches that knew this language of blessing from their roots or grafting to a Jewish heritage. And Paul opens with this familiar language of blessing—blessing God for blessing us. The NIV translates, “Praise be to God…” but it is the same word used in the following verses where we read that God has blessed us. “Blessed be God…”

To bless God is to praise God, but it is also more than that—it means that we announce, to God and to others, that God is good and great and holy. It means that we name God as holy. For God to bless us, astoundingly, means similar things—God calls us holy. In fact, our English word, “to bless” originally, long before Christianity came to Britain, had a meaning related to blood—to mark or consecrate with blood. That can only be linguistic providence, that a language culture so far from Israel understood this—to bless, to mark with blood—that the God who allows himself to be marked with blood on the cross also marks us with his blood to make us holy.

To say “blessed be God, who has blessed us,” rather than “Praise God, who blessed us” reminds us of the connection between God’s holiness and our own. In God’s holiness, we are holy. In God’s blessedness, we become blessed.

And although blessing God is not one of our most familiar liturgical acts, we haven’t completely lost the language. It still happens in our worship, even if blessing isn’t the exact language we use.

And I imagine that most of us still have moments where we break down in moments of extreme gratitude to God and, maybe not as eloquently as Paul, at least feel the same desire to praise and bless God. But I wonder what sorts of things usually compel us to praise God.

Perhaps my speculation about this comes from my own experience, and there are some of you more seasoned than I am who have traveled different and rougher roads and would have a different, more mature answer. I admit to a relatively easy life (for which I should bless God), and amidst the comfort, cushiness, and blessings of my own life, I find that the things I am inclined to bless God for are good, sunny days; a pleasant, close family; health; a near-perfect husband; general prosperity. I know that many of you have similar lists of blessings. Rightly so, I bless God for these things. But if these are the things that we are inclined to bless God for, what about when things aren’t happy, sunny, pleasant, and Norman-Rockwell-perfect? What do we praise and bless God for then?

These blessings are not, in the grand scheme of things, the largest, most important blessings God has given us. If these are the things we usually bless God for, our ability to bless God is in danger. These are good things, but can we bless God if they fall apart—if the sun disappears, the skies open up, and our basement floods?—if the economy takes a dive, and takes our prosperity with it?—if a loved-one suffers or dies?—if relationships that sustained us fall apart? Should these be the first things that come to mind when we bless God?

I’m always struck by the ability of other Christians to bless God in bad circumstances. During seminary, I got to know a man named Zaichhawna Hlawndo. (We called him Zaia because that was just easier). Zaia was a Christian pastor from the Mizouram state in India. You got the feeling talking to him that things were not particularly easy where he lived and ministered—Christians dealt with poverty, some hostility from neighbors, difficult prospects for evangelism. But Zaia was a very joyful man, and he would describe worship services that bubbled over with joy about God’s blessings. I remember one class where he described a typical worship service. It included, he said, what can only be described as mosh-pit up front during the singing. Pure, unbridled blessing of God, with voice and body. I can imagine Pastor Zaia breaking forth into some wonderful blessing like this one in Ephesians. I can imagine him doing so in a way that was heartfelt and genuine. Honestly, I have a hard time seeing myself, I have a hard time imagining many North Americans breaking into this kind of blessing with that sort of genuineness.

Maybe it is easier for me to imagine this as genuine blessing from Zaia because I think he might have had his priorities straight. Zaia, like Paul, knew that there was something greater than general happiness to bless God for. In this blessing, he pours out a blessing for God because of God’s redemption. If you strip everything else away, that blessing of grace and redemption is still there. However bad things get, that blessing is still there.

In fact, maybe the best time for praise and blessing isn’t in the middle of perfect happiness with the world around us. Martin Buber, a twentieth century Jewish philosopher, wrote: “Praise happens in the matrix of pain.” Praise happens in spite of, in the middle of the pain that we might experience in life. There is a raw truth to the kind of praise that we hear from Job, the Old Testament man who has everything, and winds up reduced to nothing, when he says that he lives with hope, in spite of everything, that he will still see God in his life. True blessing, too, comes from the mouth of one like Job who still calls God holy when things are at their worst.

When everything else is stripped away, then we can bless God for the big things. When everything else is stripped away, it is easier for us to answer Q & A 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism—“What is my only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ…”

What does Paul bless God for, then? Broadly, for redemption—that’s what’s at the heart of the blessing in verse 7—redemption in Jesus Christ. But it’s not just redemption from sin, death, even hell. It’s redemption with purpose and hope. It’s redemption that doesn’t just save us—it’s a redemption that blesses us and makes us holy.

The broad redemption in this blessing covers at least five specific things (there could be more—I have to tell you this gets a little tricky—Paul was so excited as he blessed God that he produced one of the most remarkably long sentences in the Bible—verses 3 to 14 are one sentence—generations of readers, preachers, New Testament scholars, and translators will be lining up in heaven to ask Paul how on earth he could do this to them!)

The five broad things are these—(1) God has chosen us from the beginning of time to belong to him (in other words, God elected us); (2) that God, from the beginning, chose us not just for salvation, but to be his children; (3) God redeemed us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ; (4) God revealed all of this to us; (5) and that we can hope for everything to be brought together under Jesus Christ—and that we are being used for God’s glory to accomplish this. There is a sermon in each of those five things. But notice this—at the center—number 3 of the 5—is redemption. But it’s not couched in just being saved from sin or death or hell. The blessings of redemption are all positives. God elects us and adopts us—we are blessed because God chose us and because God knows us intimately. And God draws us into this plan of redemption in a way that extends beyond our individual selves—God gives us knowledge of the plan, and God gives us hope that everything will finally come together for good under Christ. Not only that, but we are being used, together, to make that happen. God invites us into the grand plan. The blessing of redemption is not just about being saved from something—it’s about being made part of something big and wonderful.

And what we are a part of goes beyond ourselves. Ephesians is the book of the New Testament with the biggest emphasis on redemption of the community rather than redemption of the individual. The church is not just an association of individuals, but a body—many parts that make up a whole—many parts that don’t function without each other. The redemption Paul blesses God for is not just his redemption—he calls it our redemption. And he specifically includes the church he writes to—when you heard and believed you were brought into this redemption. It’s not just redemption for me—it’s redemption for the whole church. We aren’t saved alone, we are saved together.

But it’s not just about the church, either—the church is blessed to be a blessing to the world. We bless God, bring God glory, when we work together with God’s will. The church is used to the glory of God when its work is not just to save individual souls, but to save the world. This blessing starts with heavenly things—we receive heavenly blessings, but those blessings bring glory to God when they come together in God’s will—to bring us into the great plan for God’s world. When Paul describes redemption as a heavenly blessing, he is not discounting earthly blessings—he finally brings the two together in the end. All things, he says, are supposed to come together under Christ. It is our privilege, part of God’s blessing to us that we are able to work with God.

This redemption, its broad scope, and all the positive benefits we get from it, this is our primary reason to bless God. Redemption doesn’t mean that we won’t hit rough spots, but it does mean that we always have reason to bless God.

If we want to bless God, then, for these things, Paul has given us reason and scope to bless God in any setting—in moments that are ordinary and unusual, personal and communal, awe-inspiring and mundane, filled with happiness and filled with suffering. In all of these moments, we can cling to, and even catch a glimpse of the wonder of our redemption because redemption remains with us no matter what situation we find ourselves in.

We can bless God everywhere, at any time—all of our work, our play, our relaxing, our striving, all of that can be part of God’s will for the world. All of these things can glorify and honor the God who redeems us. It’s not just overflowing words of praise that bless God, it’s also lives that overflow with service and attentiveness to God’s will. When we bless God, and call God holy, it’s a reminder that we are God’s holy children—blessed and called to work with God.

We can bless even in the midst of pain—because our blessing doesn’t depend on our happiness. It may not make less of our pain to bless God, and it won’t make less of our yearning for a world where God removes every pain and wipes every tear. But even that hope for God’s kingdom to break in is a reason to bless God. That hope is something to cling to in the midst of the worst.

We can bless God for every good gift—for health, for families and friends, for good, sunny days. And as we bless God for these things, we should recognize that every good thing is coming together under Christ, that this movement toward wholeness is part of our redemption. Every good thing is a reminder of the broad scope of our redemption. And every good thing is a glimpse of God’s great plan.

Let us bless the Lord:
Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the Universe.
You have given us every good thing,
But in your great mercy,
you have blessed us with a great redemption:
You called us your own holy people,
and redeemed us in Jesus Christ.
You call us to work for your glory,
And you are calling us together into your kingdom.
For these great gifts, we bless your Holy Name.


2 Responses to “Blessing God”

  1. wedding traditions Says:

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  2. Zaia Says:

    hi its me zaia iread your article is very thoughtful
    you remind me of the memorable time we shared at the seminary
    i wish all the best for your ministry just to let you knw that i am now studying PHD in theology at the university of Birmingham