Blessings, Mercy, and Precipitation

Read Matthew 7:24-29 to start.

The wise man built his house upon the rock. That’s of course the title of a children’s song we sing from time to time, it’s not one we trot out every single week or anything, but I recall it being quite popular when I was Sunday School age. The first two verses of that song are lifted wholesale from this passage of scripture. Those two verses tell the story of prudent construction versus unwise building methods, much as the parable we read to start does. It’s a familiar account, and a familiar song, and it’s an easy to understand principle as it applies both to building a house and to establishing your manner of living. If you follow Christ, if you hear His words and decide to obey them, then you will be established and sound. If you do not, then you will find yourself, as Paul describes in Ephesians chapter four, tossed about by every wind of doctrine. The wise man takes one approach, the foolish man a different one, and the results speak for themselves.

The third verse of the song, which really is where the whole point of the piece is contained, though, leaves me with something of a concern. That third verse advises the listener to build his or her life on the Lord Jesus Christ, which is sound instruction, to be sure. However, the additional promise that blessings are sure to follow, in fact blessings will come down as the prayers go up, that gives me pause.  There is nothing in the verses we read that so much as suggests blessings, unless you consider not having your house collapse to be a blessing. The word blessing does not appear in those verses. It doesn’t even appear in the entire chapter.

The blessings will come down as the prayers go up. That’s how the song goes, but is that what we should actually expect to occur in the Christian life? Do we pray so that God will dispense blessings upon us? If we do not feel blessed, is it because we did not pray well enough, or hard enough, or because of some other deficiency on our part? That seems to me a poor view of God’s goodness, when we have the idea that we can turn on and off the faucet of His blessings with our prayers.

I’ve said this before from this platform and no doubt I will say it again, but God is not a vending machine. We are not supposed to come before Him in prayer seeking some manner of boon, hoping that we know the particular combination of words to utter or buttons to press. That is not how we are supposed to pray, it is certainly not how the Lord taught the disciples to pray. Think about the words of the Lord’s Prayer, there is praise to God, which comprises the largest part of the prayer. As well, there is a request for forgiveness for our sins and for protection from evil ways. The only material thing asked for is daily bread. I don’t see anything there about blessings at all. Yet frequently we ask for blessings in our prayers. I know that I do myself, and I’m hardly unique in this. We desire blessings, for ourselves and for the people we care about. I pray the Levitical blessing from Numbers chapter 6 over my children and my wife every morning. But do we even understand what is truly meant by being blessed? What does the word blessing mean to you?

The human race, at its core, is made up of people who are exceedingly covetous and not easily satisfied. It’s tempting to say never satisfied, really, that is close to the truth, but perhaps some people find some small measure of satisfaction in this life. It is rare, though, to be sure. If it feels like you’ve heard me preach this before it’s because I have preached this before, on more than one occasion in fact. I’ve preached on envy, on covetousness, on contentment, on selfishness, and on the emptiness within, to name a few. But that’s only because it remains relevant. I see my children always wanting more, and never entirely happy with what they have. One of them recently bought a toy, it was a Lego set to be specific, with some saved up allowance money, and before the end of that very day that same child was lamenting to me that the toy did not bring happiness. I had an opportunity to point out that things, having more and better things, will never bring lasting happiness, and that this is an excellent lesson to learn while still a child. How many adults fail to learn that lesson?

We may know deep in our hearts that having more and better things will not bring happiness, but if we can justify it to ourselves with the thought that God has blessed us with these things because we prayed for them, because we obeyed Him and served Him and have done well, then it doesn’t feel half so covetous to want those things, does it? If the good things we have, if the health we enjoy, if the family we appreciate is all the result of God’s blessing, then we must be doing something right, and God must be pleased with us. That’s an easy mindset to rationalize.

Of course, if that is indeed what we believe, then what happens when we lose our possessions? What happens when we have a breakdown in our family? And if those should not happen to us, then what happens when our health fails? You can only live so long before the body starts to break down, that is the inevitable result of living on this sin-cursed earth. It’s only a matter of time until either you die from something unexpected, accidental, or violent, or the physician reports that you have a terminal case of natural causes.

If our status with God is reflected in how we see our condition in this life, when that condition changes, where do we stand with God? Did we do something to displease Him, and so our blessings are revoked? What if that has nothing at all to do with how blessed we might be, how blessed we might feel, so far as the world describes it? What if we have it entirely wrong?

If you can turn to the book of Luke I’d like to read a few verses from chapter 16. These will be familiar, and you might wonder what these have to do with today’s topic, but please bear with me, there is a question to answer following the reading, from verse 19 There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: 20 And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, 21 And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; 23 And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. 25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.

We could continue, but I think that we probably know the rest. We read more than enough to answer my question: Which of those two men was truly blessed? Was it Lazarus, in his abject poverty, in his illness, in his hunger, or was it the rich man, dressed to the nines and who fared sumptuously every day, the passage tells us. Which of these was blessed?

So often I fear that we associate the idea of blessing with material things, with having money, having possessions, having stuff. If we think in terms of material things, there is only one possible answer. The rich man had everything, the beggar had nothing. No one passing by would look at Lazarus and say “There is someone who has been blessed by the Lord.” No, they would be more likely to look away, because poor beggars with skin conditions are generally considered gross. They are undesirable to spend time with. The rich man, no doubt he had frequent guests for his sumptuous dinner parties. I can’t imagine he ever invited the beggar to sit at his table. We aren’t even told that he saw fit to give Lazarus his scraps.

Of course, once you reach verse 22 things change. The rich man does not seem nearly so blessed when you read about him lifting up his eyes in hell, being in torments. Lazarus, on the other hand, is comforted, safe, and at peace.  Which one can be called blessed now?

And it’s not just money and health to take into account. We tend of associate blessing as well with having a solid family life, with being comfortable in this life and in this world. After all, in Psalm 127 the psalmist refers to children as being a heritage and a reward, which sounds a lot like what we might describe as a blessing. If we read further down Luke chapter 16, we would find that the rich man had five brothers and he was deeply concerned for them, that they not suffer the same fate. Sounds like he had a decent family life.

The rich man had the winning combination of money, health, and family, all the things which we associate with the blessed life, whereas Lazarus had basically nothing. He had no money, he had poor health, and by all accounts he was alone in the world, but still, he was comforted, and the rich man tormented in flame. One was blessed, truly blessed, and the other was not.

It’s clear that Christ would not have wanted anyone to look at the rich man and think that he was someone to emulate, that he was doing things right, that he was someone who had received great blessing. But our idea of what it means to be blessed aligns a lot more closely with the depiction of the rich man than it does with the poor beggar. How do we get this so wrong?

Yes, a lot of it comes down to covetousness and selfishness on our part. We like to have nice things, we like to be healthy, and we like to be comfortable, and so we imagine that God wants us to have what we like. But God does not promise those things to those who are faithful to Him. Not in this life. If we look at the experiences of the believers in the early church, if we look at the apostles, if we look at Christ during His ministry, we see little in the way of wealth, we see isolation from family, we see hard work and discomfort. We see opposition and persecution. We do not see a life of ease. We do not see what we might think of as stereotypical blessing.

Looking back at the verses we read from Matthew chapter 7, we do not see the word blessing there, but we see something else. The wise man, the man who followed Christ’s teachings, his work endured. What he had built remained, because it was solidly founded. In contrast, the foolish man, his works perished. His house collapsed when the storms came, because it had no firm foundation.

When we think of blessing in a temporal and material way, our blessing is founded on little. We think that God is blessing us when good things happen to us, but we are looking at a small and frankly selfish piece of a much larger puzzle. Perhaps we are better of thinking of blessing not in how it makes us warm and cozy in the here and now, but in how it benefits the kingdom of God in the much longer term.

There’s another song that I’ll mention that comes to mind with what we’ve been looking at, one found in our red hymnbook. No, it’s not “How Firm a Foundation” although that certainly would be applicable here. But the mention of rain and storm, as well as the idea from blessings being like running water brings to mind a different kind of precipitation. Maybe you can guess which one I’m thinking of, it’s number 279, “There Shall Be Showers of Blessing.” Showers of blessing, showers of blessing we need. Mercy drops round us are falling, but for the showers we plead.

The song uses several precipitation metaphors, which do have basis in scripture. The concept of showers of blessing is taken directly from Ezekiel chapter 34. However, I find some concerns with how this song approaches the very idea of blessing. Songs are great, songs are useful, and can certainly be a convenient way to remember and encapsulate truth. But we need to be sure that our theology, the doctrines that we hold to, are based solidly in scripture. Something that rolls off the tongue easily in a song may be catchy, and may be memorable, but is it true?

Do we need showers of blessing? Do we plead with God for them, as the song suggests? If that sounds a lot like what we said before about blessings coming down as prayers go up, it’s because it does sound similar. But before we look at that, consider the mercy drops for a moment. I think of a rainy day, when I hear the word “drops” it’s not all that serious. You don’t cancel your picnic and pull out the umbrellas because of a few drops of rain. You don’t even pull the laundry off the line. A few drops don’t even get you wet. The quantity is insignificant.

This might be an artistic licence thing on the part of the songwriter, but the measurement of God’s mercy in drops is not accurate. It is not adequate, for God does not dole out mercy drop by drop. God’s mercy is indeed precious, but it is not something that is scarce and has to be rationed. It says in Ephesians chapter 2, verses 4 and 5, But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ. Let me read that first part again. God, who is rich in mercy. Rich in mercy means He has plenty of it. It’s not in short supply.

People might look at God, they might look at some of the judgements that we read of in the Bible and say that doesn’t sound all that merciful to me. They might argue that God was not merciful to the world in the days of Noah. They might argue that he had little mercy for Sodom and Gomorrah, or for the Canaanite nations, or indeed for His own chosen people when the Assyrians and the Babylonians came calling. But that sort of argument belies a lack of understanding of what mercy really means.

We might have a notion about what mercy looks like, but have you actually looked up the word? In the back of my Bible, there is a nicely succinct definition of mercy: forbearance to inflict harm. Let that sink in for a moment. Sometimes we associate the idea of mercy with forgiveness, and certainly the two may go hand in hand, but they are not one and the same. Forbearance is not forgiveness. You can get forbearance on your mortgage or your student loan, but that is a temporary thing. Because of some circumstance, maybe illness or unemployment or something else, you are unable to make payments for a period of time, and the holder of the loan allows you to get things in order before resuming payments. But the debt still has to be repaid. Just not today.

Sometimes we look at God’s mercy and assume that He will let things go indefinitely. After all, things are pretty bad in the world around us, and they’ve been pretty bad for a long time, the closer you look at the myth of the ‘good old days’ the more you realize that things were really not so great in a lot of ways, and God has not judged the world of sin, so surely His mercy endureth for ever, as it says in Psalm 136.

We don’t so quickly remember that God is just, and so He will not turn a blind eye to sin indefinitely. The wages of sin is death, and payday is coming. In all of those examples I gave before, from the days of Noah, to Sodom, to the Canaanite nations and to Israel itself, God extended mercy in considerable measure. The world received more than a century of mercy. During that time Noah built the ark, and anyone who was concerned in the least that God might judge the earth has the opportunity to decide to get on board with him. Sodom, if you recall Abraham’s bargain in Genesis chapter 18, did not contain even 10 righteous men, the presence and witness of Lot, flawed as he may have been, was not enough to move the needle even a little. The Canaan nations had centuries of mercy, their iniquity was not yet full in the days of Abraham, nor for another 400 years to follow. And Israel spent the major part of its history in the land disobeyed God’s laws, but He gave them more time and more chances than was reasonable. God’s mercy is seen in that He does not wipe the human race from the earth this very moment, or the next moment, or the one after that. God’s mercy is that when Adam took that first bite of the forbidden fruit, and so would surely die, that he got another 930 years before he actually gave up the ghost. That’s assuming the fall happened sometime in the first year after creation, we don’t know how long a time it was, sometime longer than a day and probably less than a century, because we are told Seth was born when Adam was 130. But however long Adam and Eve lived after they sinned, it was because of God’s mercy.

God is rich in mercy, and therefore He forbears to inflict upon us the punishment that we have most definitely earned. If He did not extend us that mercy, who would ever have so much as the opportunity to hear the good news of how Christ has paid the price for our sins, much less the chance to actually believe and to trust? We trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, in His finished work on the cross to pay the price for our sins. That we are given the opportunity to do so, that He paid the price in the first place, is provided for in His mercy.

Saved as we are, and let me say this morning, while I do not know the hearts of any of you, I know most of you well enough to say with a measure of confidence that I trust you know the Lord. If anyone here does not feel confident in having the gift of salvation already in reach and would like to know more or discuss further, please speak with me following the meeting. But saved from sin as we are if we know Christ, still we live in a sinful world and we sin frequently. Hopefully not as blatantly or intentionally as we did before we knew the Lord, but still we miss the mark, and no doubt on a daily basis.

Saved or otherwise, we need God’s mercy ever, and in great measure. It is not something that is only required in miniscule, intermittent doses. Mercy drops, as the song describes, are simply not going to cut it.

That song calls for showers of blessing. Yes, we’re back to blessing now, that is my main topic this morning, even if there was a mini-sermon on mercy hidden away inside the main sermon like some sort of Russian nesting doll.

Do we plead with God for blessing? And if so, what exactly are we looking for? As stated earlier, if we are looking for material blessings, we have missed the mark. If we assume that by pleading with God we will obtain more stuff, we are inclined to come to Him only with our demands as if we were petulant, spoiled children. When we do not get everything we want, or when what we perceive as received material blessings are taken from us, we may blame God and accuse Him of failing us. And likewise, when we see others who do not trust God even in the slightest but yet boast more material wealth than we would ever wish for, we must conclude that the blessings of this life are not the blessings we need. They are not the blessings we should seek.

What blessings instead should we be looking for? What blessings do we indeed already have that we may have overlooked? If you turned to Ephesians chapter 2 earlier, flip back to chapter 1, I’ll read a few verses from there to illustrate what we are talking about. We’ll read the first dozen verses, but the key verse to look for is verse 3. 1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus: 2 Grace be to you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: 4 According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: 5 Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. 7 In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace; 8 Wherein he hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence; 9 Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: 10 That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him: 11 In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will: 12 That we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ.

What does it say at verse 3? First, Paul calls for a blessing upon God, and if you think in terms of material blessings then that is a silly notion, because how can the creator of the universe possibly receive more material things? The latter part of the verse, though, is where I would draw your attention – who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings. And just in case you missed that, those blessings are in heavenly places, and in Christ. That’s not things of this world, not at all.

Look at the list which follows, the list of spiritual blessings. God has chosen us prior to the foundation of the world. He intends for us to be holy and without blame before Him. Without blame means to be without fault or blemish. God has perfection in mind for our final destiny. He also has adoption in mind, He wishes for us to be His children, us, who were once dead in trespasses and sins. At verse 6 we see that we are accepted in the beloved. Do you know what accepted means in this context? The Greek word is Charitoo (car-ee-TOO-oh) and it is only used twice in the NT, once in this passage, and the other time in Luke chapter 1. That is the instance where the angel Gabriel came to Mary. His greeting was that she was highly favoured, that is the exact same word. If we have trusted in Christ for our salvation, we are highly favoured with God. That is quite the thing to understand.

But wait, there’s more, for the passage continues with more spiritual blessings. In Christ we have redemption and the forgiveness of sins. We spoke earlier about mercy, which is not exactly the same as forgiveness. In Christ, we can have both. We are bought back from the power of sin and forgiven from our transgressions. God has not simply given us forbearance so that we can make things right, He has provided a means for us to have a proper standing before Him. He had not simply patience with us while we grappled with our problems, He also gave us the solution. And as we see in verse 9, He has informed us about this. He has made known unto us the mystery of His will. He has not kept the truth concealed or obscure. Certainly we can see that ourselves, we have the full word of God available to us, readily available in fact, with the good news of the Gospel contained therein, as well as all the other truth with which to guide our lives. In times past it was more challenging to obtain this, the scriptures were not yet written, and prophets with revelation from God may have been few and far between, but we cannot say that anymore. God has made much known unto us.

That is not even the end of the list. We have obtained an inheritance in Christ, who will gather us all together with Him in the future. That goes beyond this life and its short span, but reaches to eternity. We have been chosen to be to the praise of God’s glory, because we have trusted in Christ.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like an impressive list of spiritual blessings to me. We may not think of those things as blessings, because we are unable to hold them all in our hands and experience them in the here and now, but truly they are. They are blessings which we cannot possibly earn, not by any amount of hard work or good fortune. These are spiritual blessings that God gives to all who will believe.

What does the word blessing mean to you? Does it perhaps mean something a little different now than it did when you got up this morning? Is it about comfort and enjoyment, or does it extend to something more? The next time you have the thought, or hear someone described as being blessed, consider what that really means. Ask as well if you yourself are truly blessed. If you feel that you are, so much the better. If you feel that you are not, consider what you should do about it.