Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 23rd July 2006
Dt 30: 1-10; 1 Pet 3: 8-18
We have just said the Jubilate: Psalm 100. It is a lovely little psalm of praise: 'O be joyful in the Lord all ye lands,' and verse 3 in the Book of Common Prayer has an inspired quirk of translation: 'Be thankful unto him and speak good of his name'. I don't know why the word that is almost invariably translated 'bless' should here be translated 'speak good', but 'speak good' is the literal translation of the Greek word for 'bless'. What I want to suggest this morning is that the idea of 'speaking good' is central to both our Old and New Testament readings, in fact to the whole Christian faith, and that to think of 'blessing' in this way can help us as we lead the Christian life today.
The Israelites never lost their sense of a God who, by 'speaking good' had made them into a people. They had been a group of landless slaves, exiled to Egypt, but God had decreed that they should be freed. He had decreed that they should have a leader to liberate them from captivity, to bring them through the wilderness and into the land that he had promised to them. The land of the promise was the land of God's good word, his promise to Israel. This understanding of God as one who 'speaks good' is fundamental to the Jewish faith. If it was experienced first in liberation from captivity, it then became central to their understanding of creation itself. God spoke and a world came into being, and, because the word of God was very good, creation was very good. For Christians the central act in which God speaks good for his people is of course the incarnation of his word in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the living goodness of God communicated to us in a way we can understand.
The response that God looks for is the response that 'speaks good' of his name, that blesses God for his goodness to human beings. In the reading we heard from Deuteronomy, it is made very clear that the blessings promised to Israel are conditional upon Israel's response of obedience and thanksgiving to God. Blessing is to flow both ways between human beings and God. The General Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer exactly captures the sense of thanksgiving simply for the gift of life: 'We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life.' When we meet together like this to worship God, it is not primarily to ask for things from him, or even to confess our sins to him, but simply to bless God for who God is and what he has done: 'Be thankful unto him and speak good of his name'. For Christians, the most important thing for which we bless God is the gift of Jesus Christ. We meet to thank God for Jesus Christ and to speak good of his name.
Both the Old and New Testaments are, however, utterly realistic about those times and situations in which it is extremely difficult to speak good of God, when we are tempted to do the opposite, to curse God. This is the temptation that is put in the way of Job, in all his sufferings (Job 1:11). The book of Job is presented as a series of tests to see whether a man of outstanding faith who has experienced the blessing of God in remarkable ways can be brought to curse God. Job's situation is far from unique. There are others in the Old Testament, like Job, who, though they have outstanding faith in God, are put in a position where it is doubly hard to speak good of his name: Jeremiah is thrown into a deep well because of the harsh things he has to say to Israel, and the suffering servant in Isaiah has been so badly beaten up that people don't want to look at him. It is hardly surprising that when the followers of Jesus tried to understand the way he had been rejected and crucified this was the pattern that made sense of it to them. As we heard in our second lesson, Jesus did not repay 'evil for evil for evil or abuse for abuse' but, on the contrary, responded to evil by 'speaking good', by blessing. What we see in Jeremiah and the Suffering Servant of Isaiah and Jesus is a pattern whereby it seems at a crucial time God's face, God's blessing, gets hidden: 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' Yet in each case the one who is in extreme suffering holds on, remembering God's blessing in the past, hopeful that it will come again, and, even though there may in the present be little sense of the goodness of God, refusing the very human temptation to curse God.
What both our readings showed clearly was that at the heart of the believing community there is a sense of God taking the initiative in blessing human beings, and then at the heart of the religious life of the community is the response of blessing God, of speaking good of his name. The New Testament reading showed particularly how the community is to be one in which people also 'speak good' of and to one another: 'have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind'. The Christians are to be a community that inherits and shares the blessing of God together. They will not have some superficial expectation that it will always be easy to live together or that they will be spared suffering. They will surely be tested, but those times of testing will be the very times they have to be particularly aware of the example of Jesus, who, when people spoke ill of him, did not respond with hard words, but spoke good in return: 'Father forgive them for they know not what they do'.
If we were to take this really seriously, what a difference it would make in the life of our churches! What would be striking about our shared life would be the way in which we were always positive about one another, looking for ways of encouraging and helping one another. I have to say that I have found this most conspicuously in the Afro-Caribbean churches, where, whenever someone steps up to the front and speaks, there is always encouragement and appreciation. I think of a personal example last week, where I had to take an initiative about which I was very nervous. When I told my colleagues what I had done I was not at all sure they would approve, but their understanding about why I did it, their encouragement and trust, helped me enormously. It's worth reflecting on whether words like 'understanding', 'encouragement', 'trust' and 'affirmation' would be the words that best describe the common life in the churches to which we belong. In what ways could we be said to be a blessing, to 'speak good' to one another?
It strikes me that if we could be this sort of community it would make a huge difference in the life of our society. We live in a culture which is always looking for someone to blame; the picture here is the very opposite. I don't think for a moment that trying to live this way will spare us from conflict both within and without our churches. The early churches experienced huge conflicts, and Jesus, like Jeremiah, could speak harsh words to those who stood between the blessing of God and his people. The ways in which we together 'speak good', speak in encouraging, forgiving, reconciling, affirmative, and positive ways to and for one another, is something for which we are both individually and corporately responsible. 'Speaking good' begins with a renewed sense of the good that God has spoken in and for us; the challenge that comes to us is whether we can 'speak good' to God and to one another in return. As we have already said, in the words of the psalmist: 'Be thankful unto him and speak good of his name'.