Text: Numbers 6:22-27
Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen.
When I was a kid the words of our Old Testament reading today were music to my ears: “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you, the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” It wasn’t that I really thought much about what they meant or that they had some profound meaning to me or something like that, but when I heard those words I knew that church was almost over. I would give my mom her watch back (I’d hold her watch through church and check regularly how much longer the service was going to be) and we would sing one more song and then we’d get to go home. Music to my ears. Maybe those words are music to your ears some Sundays too!
“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.” We call those words the benediction and we use them at the end of most of our church services. The word “benediction” really just means blessing. “Bene” means well or good (like benefit) and “diction” means words or something spoken (like dictionary). These are good/well words spoken to us, a blessing.
Today we hear about where those words that we call the benediction come from in the book of Numbers. While the people of Israel are still wandering around in the desert wilderness waiting to enter into the Promised Land that God is giving to them, God gives these words through Moses to Aaron (Moses’ older brother) as a blessing to use over the people. Aaron was the priest for the people. He and his family were in charge of making sacrifices for the people, praying for the people, and teaching the people about God’s covenant and commandments. For this important work that has been given to Aaron and his descendants God provides these words of blessing. God basically says to Aaron, “When you bless the people of Israel this is what you are going to say: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you, The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you, the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.’”
There are a lot of important things to talk about in those words. There is a lot there that we might not think much about when we hear those words all the time. The first important thing to consider is that God gives these words at all. It is significant all on its own that God gives these words of blessing to His people. It is God’s desire here to bless His people through the words of priests like Aaron. From that day right on down through to today, across thousands of years of history, before and after the birth of Jesus, these words have been spoken by priests and pastors to the people of God and through those words God has bestowed His blessing upon His people. These words come from God’s own mouth and are spoken to us even today. Through these words God bestows His blessing on us today.
That is a significant thing for us to consider on a day like today as we begin a new year. As Christians we regularly wish each other God’s blessings on the year ahead, but we do need to ask ourselves what those blessings are and where do they come from?
The blessings God offers to us here are laid out here in the three lines of the benediction. First, “The Lord will bless you and keep you.” Here we have God’s promises to bless us in general, but then more specifically God promises to guard us and keep us. Here the idea is protection. We might think that would mean protection from all harm that nothing bad would happen to us, but that is not really the kind of protection that is being given to us here. This protection is the same kind of protection that we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer when we say “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” This is God’s promise to keep us and guard us from the attacks of Satan our enemy. Bad things may still happen to us, but those things and nothing else in all creation can snatch us out of the hand of our God who speaks these words of blessing to us. Jesus tells us that He is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep. He says that He gives us eternal life and that no one, not the devil not anybody, can steal us away from Him. The Lord our God will bless us and keep us as His people.
In the next line of the benediction that God gave to Aaron we see more promises. “The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you.” This way of speaking about “faces shining upon us” might seem strange to us, but it really just means God showing His love, mercy, and kindness to us as His people. The next part of the line really says the same thing: “and be gracious to you.” Throughout the Scriptures we see the graciousness of God displayed again and again. God’s graciousness, His grace, means that He does not deal with us according to our sins or give us what we deserve for our sin, but forgives us our trespasses for the sake of Jesus. He shows His love, mercy, and kindness to us for the sake of Jesus who gave His life on the cross laying down His life as the payment for our sins. God blesses us here by not punishing us for our sin forever, but graciously loving and forgiving us for the sake of Jesus. The Lord blesses us with His grace and forgiveness for us.
With that we reach the last line of the benediction. Here God’s promised blessing for us in ultimately peace. First, though, we have this bit about God “lifting up His countenance” upon us. “Countenance” is not a word we use very often. In most or the services in our hymnal it says “look upon you with favour” instead of “lift up His countenance.” Really all this is just another reference to God’s face. In the previous line it was God’s face “shining” upon His people and this time it is God lifting up His face toward His people. With God’s face lifted up upon us He gives us peace. We might initially think that this means that there will be no fighting or conflict, world peace or something like that, but that is not quite the point here. God has something much bigger than world peace in mind here. This peace is complete and total peace of body and soul. It is a kind of wholeness. It is the peace that comes from sins forgiven. It is the kind of peace that Jesus promises His disciples that the Holy Spirit will give to them when He will teach them to recall everything that Jesus had taught them. It is the peace of God that passes all understanding that guards our hearts and minds. It is peace that Jesus, the messiah, the prince of peace brings to earth when He is born. It is peace between God and man and peace inside ourselves as we rest assured in our God’s love and grace for the sake of Jesus. The Lord blesses us with His peace.
We see then what God’s blessings to us are. They are not generic greeting card blessings or well wishes that everything “works out alright in the end.” They are God’s concrete and real blessings to us as His people: His protection from the devil and the powers of evil, His forgiveness and grace for our sin, and His peace for our lives. These blessings all come from one place, the name of God.
The last verse of our Old Testament reading today says this: “So shall they (Aaron and the other priests) put my name on the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” These blessings from God flow from His name. The point of this benediction, God says, is to put His name on His people. The most important words in each line of the benediction are the first ones: “The Lord.” Three times over: “The Lord.” The Lord will do this, His name will do this. He puts His name on us, stamps it on our forehead, and marks us as His own. Aaron and the other prophets are given the task of putting God’s name on His people and with God’s name on them He will bless them.
The repetition of that name three times is important. This is a reminder for us of how God first put His name on us. We were baptised in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the water of baptism God’s name was put on us. That day when you were baptised a pastor did the same thing that Aaron and his sons were tasked with doing, putting God’s name on His people. God put His name on you that day, His name was stamped onto your forehead, and He keeps putting His name on you even today. You are the Lord’s. When we begin a service in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit God is putting His name on us again. When we hear the words of the benediction and the name of the Lord repeated three times over us God’s name is put on us again. And with that name comes the certainty of God’s blessing.
That name stamped onto our foreheads will never fade away, the blessings that come with that name will never cease. These things are not even just for this world, they carry on into eternity. In Revelation 22 John sees the eternal life that our God has prepared for us and He describes it as a heavenly city. This is part of how he describes that city: “No longer will there be anything accursed (the opposite of blessed), but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face (shining and lifted up upon them), and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” These blessings that God puts on us with His name here and now in words like the benediction will be also be our reality in heaven when we dwell in this heavenly city with our God.
This New Year 2017 and each and every day of our lives God’s promised blessings to us remain the same. His name stamped on us remains the same too. As we seek God’s blessings on the year to come let us look to Him and His name and receive again and again His blessings of protection, forgiveness, and peace. The Lord will bless you and keep you, the Lord will make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you, the Lord will look upon you with favour and give you peace. In Jesus name. Amen.