Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Lenten Midweek: “Psalms for Worship, Psalms for Lent”
Psalm 67 - “Benediction”

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

This commentary by James Boice refers to Psalm 67 as an unpopular psalm. He says that because very few other commentators or scholars spend very much time on Psalm 67—if at all—in comparison to popular psalms like Psalm 23—“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

But I guess it surprises me that Psalm 67 would be unpopular, because when I read it, I immediately see the great connection it has to the Benediction in worship. That’s the very reason we’ve been using verses from Psalm 67 as our Benediction on these Wednesday evenings.

Psalm 67 says, “God be merciful to us and bless us, And cause His face to shine upon us,….God, our own God, shall bless us.”

It’s so strikingly similar to the benediction, the blessing that the Lord gave to Moses in book of Numbers, a benediction for Aaron and the priests to use to bless all of the people. It’s the Aaronic Benediction, the traditional Benediction we use in worship, from Numbers chapter 6 that Pastor Dan read this evening as our Old Testament reading: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD look upon you with favor and give you peace.”

Psalm 67 is written with the purpose of reminding the reader of this blessing that they here every time they come into God’s house. They’ve been sent out into the world with God’s blessing, sent out with a peace that can only come from the Lord.

I guess it just surprises me that people haven’t spent more time studying Psalm 67, or using it in worship. I guess it just surprises me that it would be known as an unpopular psalm, because for me, the Benediction is one of the most moving parts of the worship service. So a psalm that reminds me of the Benediction. . .well, that’s a psalm that should be popular.

I grew up in the Lutheran Church, so I grew up hearing the traditional Benediction. Perhaps that’s why I am so fond of it, and if you’ve come to Immanuel from a different background or tradition, perhaps those words—“The Lord bless you and keep you”—don’t quite excite you in the same way, but no matter how you feel about this Benediction, this blessing of God, let me you tell some stories about how I came to be so fond of those words from the Lord.

First of all, the Benediction has always been comforting to me, because as long as I can remember, it’s been a picture in my mind. Now this picture of a smiley face was drawn by our son, Samuel, just a couple of weeks ago, but the picture captures something of what I always imagine when I hear the Benediction: “His face shall shine upon us.”

The Benediction paints a picture for us before we leave church and go back to our daily routine. The Benediction helps us to picture the Father in heaven looking down us, following us with His eyes, not in a scary, Big Brother, surveillance camera sort of way. No, the Father’s face is shining down on us, shining with the brightness of the sun, shining with a smiley face to fill the sky, shining down like those rays of light you see coming through the clouds on a gorgeous day.

Even when I was younger and didn’t understand everything that was happening in the worship service, still those words of the Benediction made sense to me—“The Lord look upon you with favor”—because I knew that look. When you’re young, when you’re little, it’s the look that you’re always hoping for. Everyone is tall, everyone is looking down on you from above, and so you’re always hoping you’ll see a smile, a bright smile, a face of love, pride, and joy when they look down at you.

So it only made sense that we’re all leaving church, needing to know that God’s big smiley face is shining down on us, looking on us with love, forgiveness, mercy, and the promise of salvation in Jesus Christ. We’re leaving church where we just confessed our sins, heard God’s Word about our sins, heard a sermon where we had to think some more about changing our ways; we’re leaving a church service where we also heard forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness, but now when we leave, we need to hear it just one more time. And this time it comes with the perfect image to carry with us during the rest of the week: God’s face shining down us.

So the Benediction was always one of the comforting parts of worship for me, but then I left for college. I remember that my dad encouraged me to keep going to church once I was on campus, but the temptations of freedom, independence, and sleep often won out over getting up for church. Most of the first year at Northwestern—without a good Lutheran option nearby—I would get up just barely in time to go to the campus chapel service on Sunday. It was mostly a watered-down affair, short on Gospel, short on attendees, and not much of a fellowship building experience. It was hard to stay motivated about getting up in time.

Except that the campus chapel had a student choir that often closed the service by singing the Benediction, the traditional Benediction, “the Lord bless you and keep you,” in this beautiful arrangement by Peter Lutkin.

Peter Lutkin was Northwestern University’s first dean of the School of Music. A small recital hall named for him remains on campus.

Even if I didn’t get much out of those worship services at the chapel, I left feeling strengthened, comforted, and hopeful, because of those traditional words, those words of Scripture, that Benediction that was so familiar, the image of God smiling down on me with this new melody I sang to myself all the way back to my dorm and my sleeping roommate.

Much like I said last week, there’s something to be said for tradition, repetition, and hearing the ancients worship with us. The Benediction connects us with the worship as God designed it for the people of Israel thousands of years ago. For me specifically, the chance to hear those traditional words, those words of God meant that God was still able to encourage me during a worship service that often wandered away from His Word of hope. Despite what else was happening in worship, His Word came through loud and clear, beautifully sung by that choir, beautiful for the way it sent me out knowing again that through Jesus, God smiles on us with His love, mercy, and forgiveness.

Thankfully, many of the congregations in Evanston used Lutkin’s arrangement of the Benediction, and it was always one of the things that helped me in my spiritual life as I spent a lot of time in strange congregations, strange worship services, during the kind of nomadic college experience.

And then I went to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis where I learned one more thing that would unleash the power, meaning, and comfort of the Benediction.

I grew up, like I suppose many of you, thinking that to make the sign of the cross was a Catholic thing. Lutherans didn’t do that. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that making the sign of the cross was superstitious, and I knew that we weren’t supposed to be superstitious, so I avoided making the sign of the cross completely.

So it came as quite a shock to go to chapel that first year at the Seminary and see all of my fellow students—Lutherans, Lutherans studying to be pastors—and they’re all crossing themselves. At the Invocation, at the Absolution, at the Lord’s Supper, at the Benediction, a lot of them were making the sign of the cross. I couldn’t believe it, because I thought we weren’t supposed to do that.

Until a friend showed me Luther’s catechism. There in the section of the Daily Prayers a little sentence that I suppose all of my pastors had skipped over in Confirmation class, not wanting to stress something that only Catholics did, and there Luther says, “In the morning when you wake up, make the sign of the cross, and say, In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Luther encourages us to make the sign of the cross. I was dumbfounded. And as awkward as it seemed the first time, I tried it the next time I went to chapel. The Invocation: “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The Absolution: “I forgive all of your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And then the Benediction: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD look upon you with favor and give you peace.”

I was sold. Making the cross made the Benediction complete. Oh, I mean, God giving me His blessing with that picture of His face shining down on me, that’s His Word promising me His favor, but making the sign of the cross brought it all together, these words from the Old Testament with the Gospel of the New Testament, the blessing of the Lord brought together with the cross and resurrection of Christ.

For me, it just developed the picture even more. The Benediction make me think of God smiling down on me, but making the sign of the cross makes me feel like that’s God’s embrace, His hug, His arms wrapping around me through Jesus.

God’s embrace. That’s not a bad way to think about what happens in the Benediction. God is sending us out with His blessing, with His love, mercy, and forgiveness, He’s sending us out with His watchful protection, with His joy over us showing up in His shining face, but He’s also sending us out with His embrace, His hug. He’s lifted us out of our sins, lifted us out of our despair, troubles, grief, and darkness. He’s lifted us up, embraced us, and holds us forever in His protection.

So now you’ll see me making the sign of the cross over myself, and I encourage you to do the same. Not out of obligation, not because you’re a bad Christian if you don’t, not because the ritual makes the blessing more real, or anything like that. No, I’d just encourage you to think about making the sign of the cross at the Benediction, because I want you to remember that when worship ends, when you hear the Benediction, that God is sending you while He’s looking down on you with favor, His face shining down on you, and His embrace, His arms wrapped around you in love.

You know, going back to that commentary James Boice, he may have called Psalm 67 an unpopular psalm, but he also calls it a missional psalm, a psalm about missions. And I suppose he’s right, because besides talking about God’s blessings, Psalm 67 also says, “[Let] Your way may be known on earth, Your salvation among all nations. Let all the peoples praise You. Oh, let the nations be glad and sing for joy!”

This psalm is about God’s blessing going out in the world, His blessing drawing all people to Him, His blessing being over all of the nations.

Which makes me realize one more thing about the Benediction: it’s about mission. When the worship service comes to a close, when we’re sent out with God’s blessing, His face shining upon us, His embrace around us through the cross, He’s also sending us out to share that blessing with the world, with all of the nations.

Psalm 67 is a missional psalm, and the Benediction is about the mission, too. It’s God’s mission; it’s what He’s done for us through Jesus Christ; it’s about His forgiveness, love, and mercy; it’s His gift to us as we leave the service, but it’s also a gift for the whole world.

If we go out thinking about God’s smiley face, if we go out singing a Benediction song (like we will tonight), if we go out knowing that God’s blessing comes through the cross, well, then we also go out realizing that we’ve been given something that God wants to give to the whole world.

So tonight, and for as many times as you can remember, I want you to take all comfort in the Benediction, but also see it as the Benediction Mission. And I want you to think about it this way: when you get a chance to tell someone about Jesus, what you’re really hoping is that one day they’ll be in a worship service, they’ll get to hear the Benediction, they’ll get to see God’s face shining down on them, they’ll get to sing words about God’s grace and favor, they’ll get to be embraced by the cross, they’ll know God’s wonderful blessing of salvation in the cross and resurrection of Christ. That’s your mission: invite someone to hear the Benediction, and now I invite you to hear that Benediction—please stand.