I’ve lived here in the Southern United States for almost 20 years. When I first arrived, I picked up on a common saying: “Bless your heart!” It was often accompanied by a little pat on the arm. It seemed so sweet. Everyone had told me that the South was really all about hospitality. So I took this phrase at face value. It wasn’t too long before I realized that sometimes it was actually a way of saying, “Silly man! You’re not too smart, are you?”
“Bless your heart.” You hear words of blessing, but you feel something else altogether.
But when God promises a blessing, it’s the real deal.
In Genesis 12, the Lord said to Abram,
“Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
those who curse you I will curse;
all the families of the earth
will be blessed because of you.”
Can you imagine those words being spoken to you? How amazing would that be? The whole world would be blessed because of God in you. What did it require for Abram? God said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household.” Leave everything you know, for something in the future that you’ve never seen before. Was Abram thinking more about that which he would be leaving behind or imagining what this blessing—a great nation—might look like? Which are you more likely to focus on?
Sometimes leaving the familiar allows us to trust in a future hope. It allows us, or even compels us, to believe in a vision far greater than what we have in mind for our own lives. Taking one step forward can cause us to set our heights a little higher. And then a little higher and then a little higher!
Just a little bit later in the story, God showed Abram the vast array (an uncountable number) of stars in the sky and promised that he would have as many children as there are stars in the sky (an uncountable number). Abram experienced a mix of disbelief and hope. I imagine he felt some of that tension when he was first told to move away from everything familiar. Have you ever had to leave your everyday surroundings in order to even imagine the future God has for you?
Even though Abram received a great promise, and even though the whole world (“all the families of the earth”) would benefit, God is the real actor in the story. God is the true hero. Without God pouring the hope of a blessing into Abram and through Abram into others, there is no story here.
Abram would be blessed and he would be a blessing. How easy it can be in certain seasons of life to hold on to our blessings. We claim them. We say, “The blessings have been given to me and I will keep them!” or even, “I earned these blessings…you earn your own!” But the blessing isn’t only for us. Whatever it is in our lives, it isn’t only for us.
In Advent, we enter a season of gift-giving. We make lists of how we can bless others. Some gifts may be given out of obligation. You have to get your brother something. It depends greatly on what story defines you. There’s a strange relationship between blessing and obligation. God’s blessing is purely a gift. God’s gift of Jesus is what gives us our future hope. It is a past blessing that is surprisingly current and yet points to a future blessing.
In this part of the Genesis story, God is watching everything swirling around Abram. God notices the blessings and the curses that Abram has dealt with. Is it possible that God notices the same in your life? Is it possible that you are included in the blessing promised to Abram?
Mark Youngman is one of the pastors at Providence United Methodist Church in Mt. Juliet, TN, and a doctoral student at Portland Seminary of George Fox University.