Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Well, we’ve officially come to the end of our seven-week sermon series on the elements of worship. We’ve covered a lot of ground: from music to prayer, from communion to the sermon itself. As this is our last week of the series, it is fitting that today we are talking about the benediction, that is, the blessing that sends us out at the end of each service. This blessing is something we say from the altar every single week. Maybe you notice the words every time… maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re like me when I was a kid… always happy to hear the benediction because it means we’re heading out the door. Here at Augustana, we change the wording of the benediction from week to week, but our text today talks about one benediction you’ve likely heard before. It is one of the oldest blessings in the church, given by God to Moses’ brother Aaron and his sons, who were the acting priests of Israel after the exodus from Egypt.
While the exact wording of this priestly benediction might change depending on the translation you’re using, the message it conveys is always the same: that God will bless his people, allow them to prosper, protect them, keep them near to himself that they might know God and experience God’s favor. Powerful stuff, no doubt. But looking at the benediction in context in the book of Numbers, we get hints that it’s actually less about the blessing itself and more about the relationship established by the blessing. In verse 27, God says, “So they [the priests] shall put my name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them.” Through this blessing, God puts his name on his people, claiming them as his own.
It’s worth noting here that, back in the ancient near east when the book of Numbers was written, names carried enormous power. It was thought that if you knew the name of something or someone, you had the upper hand. A German illustration of the same idea is the story of Rumpelstiltskin – knowing a person’s name gives you power over that person. It’s why it’s so significant that the Israelites never actually knew God’s name – when they asked, the only answer they ever got was, “I am that I am.” God held all the power in their relationship, and yet, God chose to put his name on his people, covering them with that power and claiming them as his.
While names don’t carry that sort of supernatural weight in our culture today, the act of putting your name on something is still significant. Just think of all the things you’ve put your name on throughout your life. We put our names on the work we do, the papers we write or the presentations we give. Our name goes on the things we create – the songs we compose, the paintings we paint, the gadgets we invent. We put our names on the food in the fridge that we claim as ours and definitely not our roommates’. Maybe you and your siblings had your names on the tags of your clothes so your parents would know whose shirt was whose.
ne especially poignant example from pop culture of putting a name on something comes from the Toy Story movies. If you’ve never seen them, the movies revolve around the essentially sentient toys of a boy named Andy. The toys have various adventures, get into arguments, get jealous of one another. But one thread throughout the movies is that each toy has Andy’s name written somewhere on them. And with that name, scrawled in black magic marker, comes a sense of identity, of belonging, of purpose. There are several moments where a struggling toy looks at the name on his foot and realizes just what he has to do next. Their owner, Andy, has put his name on them, and time after time, that name makes all the difference.
Obviously, we are more than toys to God. When God puts his name on us, we are claimed by God as his children. But in the same way, when God puts his name on us, we each can find identity, belonging, purpose as a loved and forgiven child of God. God establishes a relationship with us, adopting us into his family and bestowing all of the benefits that come with it. And in Numbers 6, this claiming happens through the words of the benediction. “So they shall put my name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them.” Here, the blessing and the claiming are intimately connected. The relationship that God establishes gives the blessing its power – The Lord will bless us and keep us because the Lord has claimed us. We bear God’s name, and we are his, and because of that, we are blessed.
And so, when we end a service with the benediction, whatever the words may be, it is more than just a pastor speaking a blessing. Of course, we want that too, but first and foremost, the benediction is a proclamation of who we belong to. During the service each Sunday, we gather together, we hear God’s word, we get a chance to respond through song and prayer. And at the end, we are sent back out into the world. The benediction is our parting gift, a reminder that God has put his name on each of us, God’s people, God’s children. We are sent out into the world knowing whose name we bear.
It has been a great blessing to serve and learn here at Augustana these last nine months. Through my experience of your love and generosity, there has never been any doubt that this congregation truly belongs to God. And so, though we haven’t reached the end of the service quite yet, I’d like for my last official act as your intern to be bless you and to affirm for you whose name you bear. And so:
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 his countenance upon you, and give you peace. Amen.