TEXT: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 67
SERVICE VIDEO: youtu.be/ZJw_4whpfwE
“The Lord bless you and keep you, and make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you…” (Numbers 6:25)
Last week we talked about the beginning of worship, the invitation and call to worship. We realized that it begins before you even step into this room, when greeters and other worshipers ask about your week and how you are doing and invite conversation and dialogue.
Today we are talking about the end of the service: the benediction or blessing. I’ll touch on the other uses of the word blessing, but mainly upon that particular kind of blessing. And it is similar to the invitation to worship in that it doesn’t just end our time here, but goes with you back out into the world.
This is also a special service in that we’ll have an opportunity to do plenty of blessing throughout the service. So I look forward to digging deep into the idea and practice of blessing that we find in scripture!
Bless and Blessing
I want to begin with a brief overview of three main uses of the biblical words for ‘bless’ and ‘blessing’.
1. God blesses us (and other things)
God is the source of all blessing and we see that throughout scripture, beginning in Creation. As God created the world, He blessed the fish and birds (Genesis 1:22); the humans (1:28 and 5:2) and even the seventh day, the Sabbath (2:3). Moving forward, God blessed Abraham and his family (Genesis 12:2-3; 22:15-18). There are many uses of the adjective form of the word, “Blessed is/are…,” which helps us understand what it means to be blessed by God. Consider Jeremiah 17:7-8, “Blessed is the one who trusts the Lord.” Or the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, “Blessed are the peacemakers…” (and many other examples). If you look at a number of these descriptions of who is blessed you will see that they share something in common: obedience to the will and Word of the Lord. Jesus says this directly in Luke 11:28, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and observe it.” Or Revelation 1:3, “Blessed is the one who reads and hears and heeds the Word.”
Obedience is the common thread. Blessing is not what comes after rubbing the genie bottle. It’s not winning the lottery. It is the consequence – often the natural consequence – of pursuing and following the will of the Lord. That’s the definition of blessed: to seek and follow the Lord. Creation was God’s perfect will enacted. God pronounced it ‘good’ – and so it was blessed. If obeying God’s Word leads you to be a peacemaker, than you ARE blessed. If it leads you to being merciful, you ARE blessed. And God has blessed you. So if you pray and ask God to bless you or an endeavor or a church, God’s loving and gracious response is, “Then keep my commandments; follow my Word; follow me!” That’s what it means to be blessed.
2. We bless God
There are also many examples in scripture, particularly in the Psalms, of us blessing God. “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me bless His holy name!” (Psalm 103:1) And in the New Testament, several epistles have near the beginning and after the greeting, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor 1:3; Eph 1:3; 1 Peter 1:3) We sing a song here, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, O my soul.” So what does it mean for a human being to “bless God” when God is already all in all and it’s God’s will that defines blessing?
It is like a short prayer or declaration: “I align myself with you, O Lord… I want to read and hear and heed your Word!” It’s a declaration of intent, like saying “Your will and Word are holy, good, and perfect, O Lord; may I be found within that place of blessing.” It’s a relational and intentional word and action. Think of saying “I love you” to someone to whom you are close. It’s not just heaping affection upon them; real love puts the needs and wants of the other person in the foreground. “I love you” means I stand ready to love and serve and do what it is that is important to you. In effect, I stand ready to bless you because I am following your lead. So it is with God. We bless God when we love and serve and follow God’s lead.
3. We bless one another
The third usage of ‘bless’ is from one human to another. And think of it as a short prayer for another person to experience that alignment with God (and consequent blessing) that I’ve just described. And there are examples of that throughout scripture as well. And that is what a benediction/blessing is doing. Often it is a pastor or priest who pronounces a benediction over a congregation, in part because you’ve invited my authority to do so over you. But any person can pray, can ask God’s blessing on another person. It’s just good to know what it is you are doing!
The benediction-blessing we read from Numbers 6 is one of the most well-known. The Lord tells Moses to instruct Aaron and the priests to bless the people in this way. “May the Lord bless you and keep you…” We see other examples of a human blessing another when Simeon blesses Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in Luke 2:34. That blessing is wrapped up in Jesus obeying or fulfilling what God has set out for him to do. Or in Romans 12:14 when Paul exhorts us to “bless those who persecute you,” an example of obeying Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek or even the Jeremiah teaching to seek the shalom of your enemies.
So clearly pastors and priests are not the only ones who can bless others. We are to speak, pray, and enact God’s blessing on others. Again, that is not praying for them to win the lottery or have their wishes fulfilled, it is a prayer that they would know God’s presence in their life and be led to align their life with God’s good will and Word.
I want to spend our remaining time looking at our scripture texts, to better understand what blessing looks like.
First, let’s look at Aaron’s benediction-blessing in Numbers 6. It’s very short, but full of meaning. The Lord tells Moses to tell Aaron and his sons (the priests) how to bless Israel. There are six phrases; like most Hebrew poetry it is repetitive and uses similar words and phrases for emphasis.
He begins, “The Lord bless you and keep you” – keep can mean ‘guard’ or ‘save’. It is a prayer for the Lord to not only be present, but to stay present and hold fast to His people. The beginning half of the next two verses are very similar: “The Lord make His face shine on you… lift up His countenance on you.” These are both references to the presence, attention, and involvement of God. Think of the power of a child wanting your attention and when you give it to them, turning to look them full in the face as if to say, “I am here, I am listening, I see you.” And the two second halves of those same verses describe God’s intent in giving attention. It is not to curse or smite or judge, but to impart grace and peace. And finally in v. 27 they are to “invoke God’s name on Israel” – signaling belonging, relationship, and inviting obedience.
This is the same greeting-blessing used frequently in the New Testament, “Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ!” And likewise, the New Testament writers invoke the name of Jesus, also signaling belonging, relationship, and inviting obedience from those who literally bear the name ‘Christian.’
In Psalm 67 we see more of how blessing is manifested in God’s people. It begins with the prayer, “God be gracious to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us.” (v.1) It is very reminiscent of Aaron’s blessing, and likely no coincidence since that blessing became an important part of the life of God’s people. But verse 2 adds some of the result of being blessed: “That your way may be known on the earth, your salvation among all nations.” This was the heart of God’s blessing of Abraham, that the nations of the world would be blessed through him.
The next verses play out what that blessing of the nations will look like: peoples praise God, nations sing for joy at the knowledge of the Lord. Blessing is living in and participating in the will and Word of God. Central to that is the undoing of the Fall, reaching all people with the Good News of God’s salvation. To be blessed is to participating in the blessing of others in this way.
Finally in vv.6-7 The Psalmist uses the flourishing of the earth as a picture of what God desires for humanity, that “God blesses us, that all the ends of the earth may fear/worship Him.” (Fear is connected to the awe of God rather than running scared from God.)
We are blessed to be a blessing, that is, that God will be made known through our words and actions.
So each week I pronounce some kind of benediction-blessing at the end of the service. It usually picks up some aspect of the sermon. This is a re-statement of God’s Word, which is at the heart of blessing. As Jesus said, we are blessed when we hear God’s Word and observe it – when we hear and respond to it faithfully. You’ll also hear me invoke the Triune name of God: In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is because God blesses those who belong to Him, trust Him, obey Him. Blessing makes a claim on you – that you belong to God and intend to listen to and follow God. That’s what it means to be blessed. And following God leads us out into the world to invite others to know, trust, and follow God through Jesus Christ. May God bless you indeed! Amen.
Some Music Used
- It is Well
- Yes and Amen
- Trading My Sorrows
- Rick Bean, jazz piano
- Come Thou Fount/We’ll Feast (arr. Austell)
- My Soul Finds Rest in God Alone
- Be Thou My Vision
- The Blessing