“Bless you!” someone responds when they hear you sneeze. What do they mean? In generations past it was a good word. A prayer, actually. God bless you! May that sneeze be the only one, not the first one of many.
However, in these lingering COVID 19 days (or is it now COVID 22?) “bless you!”after a sneeze is more of a push away, often followed by an actual step away and a palm held out to maintain the distance. It means I hope you’re not getting sick, but if you are… you’d better not infect me!
Instead of a good word, “bless you” has become a bad word of sorts, a word of warning. What can restore the goodness of these two little words?
One event in human history stands out as a snapshot of blessing: Jesus’ Ascension. In this post we will see how Jesus’ blessing to his disciples that day is not just a good word , but a powerful and permanent word for whole world.
Bless You, A Powerful Word
Luke tells us at the very end of his gospel that when Jesus ascended, he lifted his hands and blessed them. Was this just his way of saying good bye? See you later? Was it merely a formality, a stock phrase used to end a conversation before turning to leave?
Picture the scene with me. Jesus had been with his disciples for over three years. He had called them and they had followed him. Little had they known what would be involved in the days ahead. They shared meals and miracles. They saw him do the expected and the utterly unexpected. And then they witnessed the unthinkable, his crucifixion, followed by the unimaginable, his resurrection.
By now they felt bold, excited. With this risen Lord they could conquer the world! Sure, he said that he was leaving, but surely not now. They were like colts, pawing at the gate. It’s time! And we are ready, so ready…
I picture Jesus gesturing, palms forward, pressing down. Wait. Not now. Hold it. He told them they weren’t ready. That they were too weak for this work until the very power of God was given to them. Then Luke paints the next picture for us:
And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. Luke 24:50
Picture that for a moment.
Luke doesn’t tell us the words he used, but Matthew does. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore … And behold, I am with you always (Matthew 28:18, 20).” Jesus blessed them with the promise of power for the mission ahead. That promise would be fulfilled ten days later, when the Holy Spirit would be given to his people.
His blessing wasn’t merely words, it was power.
Bless You, A Permanent Word
Jesus not only blessed his soon-to-be-apostles, he ascended with his hands still raised in blessing. It was the last thing they saw as he disappeared into the clouds.
While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. Luke 24:51
I’ve sent kids off to summer camp and sent my husband off on ministry trips. I know what it feels like to watch them leave until I can’t see them anymore. That last glimpse leaves an impression. My youngest looking back at me with a mixture of fear and excitement. My oldest resolutely not looking back to make sure I know she doesn’t need me anymore. That picture stays in my heart until they’re safely home.
I bet Jesus’ apostles never forgot that parting glimpse. It was the snapshot they put in their wallet and carried with them. Hands raised in blessing was a familiar gesture in Jewish culture. Two hands lifted, two palms open, facing toward the one being blessed. Something good is being transferred invisibly through the air in that moment. Not just words, but blessing.
Jesus could have used the words given to Aaron for God’s people:
The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. Numbers 6:24-26
Whether Jesus added these familiar words to the unique blessing recorded in Matthew 28, he meant for it to stick. The words spoken are eternal. The hands raised that day are still raised today.
No matter what circumstances you’re in, what bad news you’ve received, what suffering you are experiencing, Jesus’ blessing has not departed from his church. It is permanent. We can bank on it.
Bless You, A Good Word
A blessing is constructive, words used to build up a person, rather than tearing them down. A blessing is a creative word that leaves something new in its wake. Something that wasn’t there before. Pleasure. Fullness. Satisfaction.
After Christmas it was time to write a few thank you notes, a chore that I wanted to do so I could check it off my list. As I sat down to the task, I thought about the gift. It was well chosen. I looked forward to using it. Pen poised to write a dandy note, I stopped to think about the person who had given it to me. I pictured her shopping, looking for not just any old thing but this thing that sat before me. This thing she chose because she thought it would delight me. My heart swelled.
What a gift the giver is! How kind! What a gift her love is!
That’s when the words began to flow. More than a polite thank you, it became a blessing.
After Christmas I also received a few thank you notes. I loved each one, knowing the discipline it takes to actually sit down and write it, not to mention finding a stamp and getting it in the mail. But the one that meant the most went beyond thanks to blessing. She appreciated me, not just my gift. And the words she used to bless me warmed me all the way to the deepest place.
A blessing is the word our souls long to hear. A good word. And it’s the very word Jesus speaks to us.