Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 20, 2023

Psalm 67 Commentary

When we think of getting a blessing, we tend to focus on ourselves as the recipient of something good—something that will be good for us, something that will benefit us.  The classic Aaronic Benediction from Numbers 6—that is clearly echoed in Psalm 67:1—is a good example.  When I give this benediction in church, I am asking God to bless, keep, make his face shine upon, be gracious and give peace “to you.”  Since in English we cannot distinguish (as you can in many other languages) between the singular and plural pronoun “you,” probably a lot of people who receive a benediction in church personalize it as the second person singular “you.”  “The Lord bless you.”  And we hear that as “The Lord blesses me.”  That makes sense.

Years ago a colleague of mine who is a professional mime taught one of my preaching classes about how many different positions you can have for your hands (I think he said mimes know 72 different hand positions!).  He also taught how each posture of your hands conveys something.  If I hold my hands out flat towards you, it means “Stop!  Come no closer!”  If I hold out my hands in front of me palms up, I am conveying a receptive posture.  Other examples abound.

Then some while later Tom Long talked about thinking about how we hold our hands as pastors when we pronounce a blessing.  Some do what Long calls “the stick-up” as pastors hold their hands flat over their shoulders the way you would do if a bank robber trained a gun on you.  Maybe not the best hand position for a blessing.  Or there is the “touchdown” blessing when pastors hold their hands up high over their heads as though they were referees at a football game signaling a touchdown.  Other pastors hold their hands up limply over their shoulders conveying almost an attitude of “Whatever.”  Instead, Long suggests (and my mime friend would likely affirm), cup your hands into the shape they would have if you were literally placing your hand on the top of someone’s head to confer this blessing.

Again, a blessing seems like an individual thing so that makes lyric sense too—the pastor is symbolically placing their hand atop each individual person’s head.

But look again at Psalm 67.  The portion of the Aaronic Benediction we get in verse 1 is followed up by something we never do when giving blessings in church: a “so that” clause.  May God bless us and be gracious to us and make his face shine upon us SO THAT God’s ways may be known on earth and SO THAT God’s salvation can be known among the nations.  Most of the balance of Psalm 67 is then a hortatory wish that all peoples and nations would come to understand the necessity of singing God’s praises.

So here is a rather different take on receiving a divine benediction.  It is not just for you.  It is received by you for the sake of the whole world.  Yes, God’s favor and blessing will benefit you as well but it is not supposed to stop with just your being satisfied and feeling good.  We are blessed in order to be a blessing.  We are blessed in order to serve as a witness to the people around us that we worship a wonderful God and we fervently hope and pray they may come to know this same God too and want to worship and praise God for all of God’s works, wonders, and gifts.

The church, its members, and the blessings they receive in Christ are never meant to be ends unto themselves.  The version of the Christian faith that is personalized, that is all about “Me and Jesus” as I worship Jesus as “my personal Savior” is not the true form of the Gospel and of its implications.  I am blessed to be a blessing.  The church is blessed in order to engage in its mission of witness, of bringing forth the Fruit of the Spirit, of working toward justice and shalom.  This is the vision of also Psalm 67, although the history of Israel (as encapsulated best in the parochial and ethnocentric figure of the prophet Jonah) shows that Israel forgot this vocation.  God formed Israel but never to be an end unto itself but rather—as God signaled already to Abram in Genesis 12—in order that through Israel all the nations of the earth would also be blessed.

The New Israel that is the Church of Jesus Christ is called to this same mission.  We lose sight of this in a thousand different ways.  There are so many things and cultural influences that can make us myopic and insular, that can make us wary of the “other” and focused more on building walls to keep others out rather than seeing ourselves as having the vocation to go forth and bring the “other” in.  But if we receive Psalm 67 the right way and its part of the larger witness of all Scripture, then we are properly called back to our better selves as servants to the whole needy world in which we find ourselves and for which God’s Son died.

Illustration Idea

One of the finer 20th century books on worship (originally published in 1963 and subsequently revised a few times) was written by the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann in his book For the Life of the World.  As the title suggests, Schmemann’s premise is that the Church and its worship life never exist for its own sake or in service of any kind of world-shunning isolation or withdrawal.  Rather, all that we do in worship—including in the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist—is done for the sake of and for the life of the world.  Below are two quotes, one regarding how to view Baptism in this light and the other how to view Eucharist in this light.

“Lately, it is true, there has occurred throughout the Christian world a certain widening of the theology of baptism.  There has been a rediscovery of the meaning of baptism as entrance and integration into the Church, of its ‘ecclesiological’ significance.  But ecclesiology, unless it is given its true cosmic perspective (“for the life of the world”), unless it is understood as the Christian form of ‘cosmology,’ is always ecclesiolatry, the Church considered as a ‘being in itself’ and not the new relation of God, man, and the world” (p. 68).

Following the Eucharist: “Now the time has come to return to the world.  ‘Let us depart in peace,’ says the celebrant as he leaves the altar, and this is the last commandment of the liturgy.  We must not stay on Mount Tabor, although we know that it is good for us to be there.  We are sent back.  But now ‘we have seen the true Light, we have received the heavenly Spirit.’  And it is as witnesses of this Light, as witnesses of the Spirit, that we must go forth and begin the never-ending mission of the Church.  Eucharist was the end of the journey, the end of time.  And now it is again the beginning, and things that were impossible are again revealed to us as possible . . . and God has made us competent to be His witnesses to fulfill what He has done and is ever doing.  This is the meaning of the Eucharist; this is why the mission of the Church begins in the liturgy of the ascension, for it alone makes possible the liturgy of mission” (pp. 45-46).

Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World.  New York: St. Vladamir’s Seminary Press, 2002.


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