Summary: The Aaronic blessing is part and parcel of our Sunday liturgy. What does God do when he blesses us with those words? What do we receive from him in the Benediction?
[Sermon preached on 27 May 2018, Holy Trinity Sunday / 3rd year, ELCF Lectionary]
Today, I would like you to turn to the Old Testament text. Here we find the benediction which I use to bless the congregation at the end of our worship service. As you can see, it is not a blessing that I made up myself. It is not something that Martin Luther gave us. It is not the result of a worship planning committee meeting. It is straight from the Bible.
Last Sunday in the coffee hour, someone suggested that we could sometimes use another blessing—one that we can sing as a congregation. In particular, she suggested an Irish blessing that can be found in the Finnish Lutheran hymnal—in English, for sure.
I have nothing against that. It is good to bless one another. Jesus told us to bless and not to curse. That is a commendable thing. Because when we bless people, we wish them well. And we can only do that if we think well of others. A blessing can change the person who blesses just as much as it can change the one who receives the blessing. So in the future, we will sometimes use the Irish blessing. But still I would like to hold on to the biblical blessing that God gave to Moses to give to Aaron and his sons, who were the priests of Israel.
As Christians, we use the word “blessing” very generously and freely. For us, it is often a Christian way of greeting each other, especially when we say our goodbyes. We sign our letters and e-mails not with the words “Kind regards” or “Faithfully yours”, but with “God bless you” or “Many blessings” or something like that. It often feels a bit superficial, to be honest.
But the blessing that God gives to Aaron to bless the people of Israel is not just a superficial greeting. In many ways it is very special. It was never meant to be taken lightly or even to be paraphrased. It was meant to be recited or sung word for word before the people with hands raised high above the head. That was a symbolic gesture to remind the people that the blessing came not from the High Priest but from above, from God himself.
In the Bible there are several words that are translated in English as “blessing”. There are ten Hebrew words in the Old Testament and another eleven Greek words in the New Testament that are all translated as “bless” or “blessing”.
The Hebrew word used here in Numbers 6 is “barak”. It is used more than 200 times in the Bible. It may seem a bit ironic, that the first appearance of the word is in Genesis 1:22. There God blesses the fish in the sea and the birds in the air, and commands them to be fruitful and multiply. Then, a few verses later he bestows a similar blessing on mankind whom he created in his own image. And the third time that God blesses is in the beginning of Genesis 2, where God blesses the seventh day and makes it holy, a day of rest.
The word “barak” is used mainly as a sign of God’s favor. When blessing his people Israel, God promises prosperity and health, fertility and a large offspring, success in work and trade, victory in battle and much more. In Deuteronomy, Moses says “The Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful.” That is not wishful thinking: it is a promise to Israel—be it a conditional one. It is dependent on their faithfulness, as the context of Numbers 6 clearly indicates. And it is backed up by God’s power and his covenant of faithful love. When God blesses, things change for the better.
What is remarkable, though, is the original meaning of the word “barak”. It literally means “on bended knee”. It refers to the position, in which a person kneels before another on one knee. Think of the good old days when a man went down on his knee to propose to a woman or ask for her hand.
You have probably seen movies about days gone by long ago, where a king or knight goes out to conquer his enemies. Those who decide to follow the conquering hero, demonstrate their loyalty to him by kneeling down before him on one knee. That is barak, to bless.
Perhaps, you have seen the movies “The Lord of the Ring”. In the third sequel: “The return of the King”, there is a scene where Aragorn is crowned king of men. When he meets the four hobbits, what does he do? Does he demand them to show loyalty and submission to him? No, he himself, the newly crowned king, kneels down before them as his sign of loyalty to them. It is actually a very touching scene in the movie.