When I was a student at Calvin College, I spent three years serving as one of the student leaders at the on-campus worship services. When you stand up front in such services, you see things which most people cannot see. One of the things I witnessed more Sunday mornings than not in those years was a number of students seated in the far upper reaches of the balcony. They’d usually get there about 30 seconds before the service started at 11:00 am but then every morning they would leave during the hymn following the sermon. The reason was obvious: they wanted to dash over to the Commons and get in line for lunch before the other 800 or so students who attended the service did the same thing.
But this early exit bothered the college chaplain. On more than one occasion he told us student leaders that what troubled him about this is that those students missed the benediction each week. But to his mind that is a vital part of the worship service–so much so, I remember his saying, that if that were the only part of the service these students caught, it would still have been worth their time to come.
I think he was largely right about that. Yet that statement was striking to me then, and maybe you find it striking also now. But if so, the reason is probably because we do not generally reflect much on that concluding gesture of our worship services. It surely does not last long and most weeks neither does the benediction seem particularly dramatic. Yet it is a moment of sublime power.
And this kind of powerful, pastoral blessing has been with God’s people for a long time. The most famous benediction in the world is probably the one spoken by Aaron way back in Numbers 6: “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 the light of his countenance upon you and give you peace.” And in Numbers 6 when Aaron and the other priests pronounced that now-famous benediction on the Israelites, it was the equivalent of placing the very name of Yahweh onto those people. How could anything but a great blessing result from that!
Because remember: God made clear to the Israelites that the name “Yahweh” was sacred. It was so holy and so powerful that the people scarcely dared to speak it out loud or, eventually, actually write it out. They substituted “Adonai” when they saw the letters YHWH in print and to this day when a Jewish organization takes out an ad in something like the New York Times, they put in “G-d” instead of adding that extra vowel that would spell out the word.
Yet in the benediction the priest was to say it and thereby the Name above all names–that white-hot name that burned with an intensity almost too searing to touch–got placed onto the people. But what exactly did that mean? After all, these days people quite literally wear the names of others but without any particular effect on their lives. Walk through the mall on any given day and you’ll see all kinds of folks who look like walking billboards as they wear shirts emblazoned with “Tommy Hilfiger,” “The Rolling Stones,” and other such names. People in the fashion and entertainment industries are only too happy to place their names on you. But it doesn’t mean much.
But names in the Bible were far more than just handles by which to get a hold of people. A name said something about the person even as the giving out of that name conveyed personal presence. Maybe that is also why in the Aaronic Benediction of Numbers 6 the priest grants to the people the lifting up, the turning toward them, of God’s very face. Throughout the Old Testament you can often find the notion that to see God is to die. No one may see God face to face and live. Well, that may be true for sinful and evil people, but the grace and lovingkindness of God puts away our sin, purges us of the impurities which would otherwise prevent our fellowship with God. We get restored to what Adam and Eve had in Eden: the ability to walk with God without fear of judgment or punishment. God turns his very face to us in the benediction, letting us know that things between us are all right now. He loves us. His divine visage radiates affection.
So it is wonderfully apropos that the entire Bible ends with a benediction at the conclusion of Revelation 22. What’s more, that benediction confers on us “the grace of the Lord Jesus.” What that benediction imparts when it talks about the “grace” of Jesus is really the very Holy Spirit of God in Christ. It is the very Spirit of God who wings afresh into our hearts in every benediction. By that Spirit we are sealed with the personal presence of Jesus, nurtured in the production of every spiritual fruit, and so given the power of holiness and righteousness.
It all comes to us in the package that just is gospel grace. It is grace that saves us but also grace that allows frail, flawed, and faulty folks like us even to be permitted to have conferred on us the Name above all names–a Name of such sacred and sublime power that a day will come when the mere uttering of that Name will bring the universe to its knees; a Name so rich in truth and justice, compassion and love, that one day just saying it aloud will cause every tongue to confess, “Jesus is Lord!”
Because in Jesus God has turned his face to us indeed–the very real, flesh-and-blood face of Jesus is lifted upon all who believe. And because of the grace of the gospel, we can return the stare without fear of seeing in Jesus’ eyes flickers of damning judgment or anger. We receive a benediction not a malediction; a “good word” not a “bad word.” And each Sunday we fly out of worship on the wings of that good word, nestled on the soft feathers of the Holy Spirit who assures us that the grace of the Lord Jesus is with us, that the divine Name is sealed upon us, and that the face that is almost too holy to behold is turned toward us in a smile so broad and a gaze so compassionate as to assure us again and again how much we are loved.
In her luminous, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson conveys vast troves of theological and pastoral insights through the narrative voice of her main character, Rev. John Ames. Ames is a quiet Iowa pastor in a small town in the 1950s. Weaving in and through the novel—presented as a protracted epistle to Rev. Ames’s young son—is a theme of blessing, of benediction. Early in the story Ames relates baptizing cats and kittens when he was young in a kind of play-acting of church life. He writes to his son that he still remembers vividly the touch of their warm little brows upon his hand. There was something sacred about such a blessing, even on a cat!
But a key character in the story is the prodigal son Jack Boughton, the child of a fellow pastor who had been named after Rev. Ames. Jack has brought a lot of heartache and sorrow to his family over the years. But Rev. Ames maintains a soft spot in his heart for the man and near the end of the novel—when Jack is about to abandon his family and cause more pain yet again—there is a scene in which something of the power of blessing gets conveyed.
“Then I said, ‘The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you’ [Rev. Ames tells Jack]. He shrugged, ‘What would that involve?’ ‘Well, as I envisage it, it would involve my placing my hand on your brow and asking the protection of God for you. But if it would be embarrassing . . .’ ‘No, no’ he said. ‘That doesn’t matter.’ And he took his hat off and set it on his knee and closed his eyes and lowered his head, almost rested it against my hand, and I did bless him to the limit of my powers, whatever they are, repeating the benediction from Numbers, of course—‘The Lord make his face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee: the Lord life up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.’ Nothing could be more beautiful than that, or more expressive of my feelings, certainly, or more sufficient, for that matter. Then, when he didn’t open his eyes or lift up his head, I said, ‘Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father.’ Then he sat back and looked at me as if he were waking out of a dream. ‘Thank you, Reverend,’ he said, and his tone made me think that to him it might have seemed I had named everything I thought he no longer was, when that was absolutely the furthest thing from my meaning, the exact opposite of my meaning. Well anyway, I told him it was an honor to bless him. And that was absolutely true. In fact, I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment.”
(Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux 2004, pp. 241-42.)
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 8, 2016
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21 Commentary