Summary: Through the Benediction God promises protection, grace, and peace.
How many of you sit through the credits at the end of a movie? Chances are you haven’t. As soon as the credits start rolling that’s usually when we gather our coats and our popcorns buckets and start making our way toward the aisle. And with good reason. Not only is it hard to read that small print, in most cases the credits don’t tell us anything we need to know. At first the stars of the movie are listed (as if we didn’t know who those were already) and then comes a long list of every person who had anything to do with the making of that movie: camera operators, stuntmen, the audio guys, the makeup artists, even the catering service. Is this information you really need or want to know? Not usually. That’s why most people head out of the theatre long before the credits are done rolling.
Perhaps one of the last things we do in worship feels a bit like the rolling of the credits after a movie. When I speak the Benediction and say, “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord look on you with favor and give you peace,” do you start positioning yourself for a quick exit as you mentally make note of the things you need to gather before you leave this place? If so, I hope that today’s sermon will slow you down because the Benediction is nothing like movie credits. In this last sermon in our series on Lutheran Worship we’ll learn that the Benediction proclaims important promises from God: a promise of protection, a promise of grace, and a promise of peace.
It’s important to understand that the Benediction is not something the church made up. These words were given by God himself to Moses. God said: “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: 24 “‘The LORD bless you and keep you…’ 27 “So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them” (Numbers 6:23, 24a, 27). It seems that Aaron was supposed to speak the Benediction at the end of worship, just like we do. In other words, God wanted this to be his last word to his people. With that in mind, isn’t the content of the Benediction surprising? Wouldn’t you expect God to send us on our way as a teacher might? “OK class, that was the bell. But before you get up and leave, write down your homework assignment: read pages 3-304 and do the worksheet!” Shouldn’t God’s last words to us also be about the work he wants us to do? Nor does God sound like a parent who barks out the door to his son who is going out with friends: “Behave yourself!” God doesn’t even sound like a coach who, in the pregame pep talk, will remind his players of all the things he taught them in the previous week and say something like: “It’s up to you guys now. If you hustle and play hard, we can win this game.” No. God doesn’t say anything like that. He doesn’t burden us but blesses us as we go on our way.
Look at the first blessing. If we translated the Benediction literally it would read: “The Lord will keep on blessing and protecting you.” The Israelites must have especially appreciated this promise. They had seen God do amazing things like part the Red Sea so they could escape slavery in Egypt. They had eaten bread that had miraculously fallen from heaven. They had followed God through the wilderness as he led them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. That was great, but would God continue to be with them even after they entered the Promised Land and faced well-fortified cities and a warlike people? Yes! That was God’s enduring promise conveyed through the Benediction.
We’re in a similar situation when we get to the Benediction during our Sunday morning liturgy. Like the Israelites, we have had the opportunity to witness and experience some amazing things during the hour we have spent in God’s house. He has spoken to us through his Word and Sacrament. He has reassured us of his love and forgiveness. He has strengthened us. He has listened to our prayers and praises. Now we’re ready to leave God’s house and enter “the real world” once again where we face temptation and heartache. But before we go, God promises continuing protection.
But is this promise of protection really kept? Did everyone who received the Benediction last week make it through these past seven days without getting sick or suffering any other hardship? If not, does this mean that the Benediction is nothing more than a pious wish? No. A gardener may protect her garden by building a mesh fence around it so the deer can’t get at the tasty plants within. Likewise God does keep harm from us by surrounding us with his holy angels. But keeping a garden doesn’t just mean shutting pests out, it also means getting rid of pests within. So just as a gardener will use a sharp spade to attack weeds, God sometimes uses sharp tools like hardships to dig below the surface and to get at our self-sufficiency and pride. He does this because he loves us and wants to weed out that which would choke our trust in Jesus.