May 02, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
One of the most creative preachers I know who always manages to approach texts in a very fresh way is Debbie Blue. For this text, she reminds us that biblically “glory doesn’t shine, it bleeds.” You can hear that sermon by clicking on this link:
What does Jesus mean by all his talk here about “glory”?
“I have given them the glory that you gave me . . .” (vs. 22)
“I want them . . . to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me . . .” (vs. 24)
Clearly this has been a key theme in John’s gospel all along. It began in his opening chapter and that well-known soaring prologue. However, a striking feature to that prologue is the fact that John never mentions “glory” until after he has given the shocking revelation that the eternal Word of God—who had been with God in the beginning and through whom all things had been made—was made flesh. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory, the glory of God’s one and only, full of grace and truth.”
John did not talk about “glory” in connection to the soaring words about the beginning of all things, about the creation, or about anything that we might regard as “heavenly” and eternal in nature. No, glory came onto the scene only after the incarnation is mentioned. It reminds you of also Philippians 2 where Paul talks about the glorification of Christ Jesus only after he depicts him as having sunk as far down into death and hell as he can go. Only then was he glorified and given the name above all names.
Another curious place early in John where glory pops up is at the wedding at Cana in John 2. We all know the story: the bridal party did not order enough wine for the (in those days lengthy) wedding reception. Although we are told the guests were probably pretty loaded already as it was, they needed more wine and so Jesus’ mother Mary corners Jesus into doing something about the situation. He does, transforming six huge water jars into the finest vintage anyone had ever tasted. A neat trick, a fine miracle. Not earth shattering perhaps. This was the first “sign” in John’s Gospel and the last such sign will be the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Now THAT was something.
And yet in John 2 after Jesus turns water into wine, the disciples are said to have beheld Jesus’ “glory” and so they put their faith in him. Really? Glory in a goblet of wine? Glory in wine created for people already tipsy? But yes, there it is: glory can be ever-so-mundane.
Here and throughout the gospel we discover a wonderfully paradoxical presentation of glory. Yes, glory can be and is everything we usually associate with the glory of God: glory can be luminous and splendid and mind-boggling and blinding and majestic in ways that unmake us and send us falling down upon our faces in humble adoration.
But glory can also come through the grace and truth of the very humble incarnate Lord Jesus. When in John 17 Jesus says he has shown the disciples his glory, it is all-but certain that he is not talking about extraordinary spectacles of light and effulgence and mind-bending special effects. The glory of Jesus emerged in the course of his ministry when he gave hope to the poor, when he forgave the sins of downtrodden and marginalized persons, when he reached out to his enemies in love, when he displayed grace to the least deserving. The glory shined earlier that very evening when Jesus stripped down to his underwear to wash dirty feet. The Transfiguration it wasn’t but . . . for those with eyes to see, it was the glory of God’s One and Only shining yet again.
In verse 24 when we hear Jesus say he wants his followers to be with him where he is so that they can see the glory the Father has given, we tend to picture golden thrones situated on lofty clouds in the heavens above. But considering that Jesus was within minutes of being arrested, tried, and crucified, is it not likely that the “where” of Jesus’ glory would very shortly be the cross itself? Is it not likely that Jesus is praying that his followers will not abandon him but will stay with him even at Golgotha to see the true measure of divine glory in reaching out to and saving a very fallen world?
If there is anything to this line of thought, then it is also a bracing reminder to us all that the Church today gains conformity to Christ and displays unity with the Father not when it garners the attention of the media and not when its programming and ministries become global in scope and not when it has to build bigger sanctuaries to accommodate the thousands who throng into popular megachurches. No, glory shines through when the Church is humble, doing quiet things to serve the poor and preach good news to the downtrodden.
The glory that the Father gave to the Son and that the Son gives to the Church is not the glory of klieg lights and media sizzle. It’s the glory of the Word of God becoming meat, being made flesh, dwelling here in the mud and muck of this world. It’s the glory of the One who came to serve and not be served. It’s the glory of the One who was, as Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3, lifted up off the earth not on some high throne but on a cross of wood.
That is the glory the Father gave the Son. That is the glory we display in the Church we, like our Savior, serve quietly and humbly.
As Debbie Blue put it, glory doesn’t shine.
KOSMOS (world, cosmos) is one of John’s favorite words and it figures prominently in this prayer in John 17 as well. There are clear echoes here of John 1:10 in which nearly an identical phrasing is used in the Greek. In John 1:10 we are told that although Jesus was in the world he himself had made in the beginning, “HO KOSMO AUTON OUK EGNO” (“the world knows him not”). Now in John 17:25 Jesus addresses the Father and says “HO KOSMO SE OUK EGNO” (“the world knows you not”). Clearly the world/cosmos is a hostile place for the divine: it knows neither the Son of God who is the Word who made the world in the beginning nor the Father God who sent the Son into this world. Yet we cannot ponder this sad situation without tumbling to also the grace-filled glory of John 3:16: for God so loved THE WORLD . . . A good deal of the “glory” Jesus talks about in John 17 can be located right in the midst of this apparently paradoxical circumstance of a world ignorant of God and yet loved enough by God for him to sacrifice himself for that same world.
Here is the essence of gospel good news. We don’t have to wait for special seasons of blessing to see glory. We don’t need angels’ wings or skies split asunder. We don’t need to be transported out of the routines of our workaday lives to be encountered by glory. Nor do we need to be lifted out of our sufferings, our sorrows, our hardships to see glory. In fact, the gospel suggests that those are the very places where we can expect to see glory more often than not.
I once read a story related by a surgeon named Richard Selzer. One day Selzer had to remove a tumor from the cheek of a young woman. After the surgery, the woman was in bed, her postoperative mouth twisted in a palsied, clownish way. A tiny twig of the facial nerve had been severed in the operation, releasing a muscle that led to her mouth. Her young husband was in the room along with the surgeon. “Will my mouth always be like this?” the woman asked. “Yes,” the doctor replied, “the nerve was cut.” She nodded, fell silent, and looked broken.
But the young husband smiled gently and said, “I like it. It’s kind of cute.” And all at once, Dr. Selzer writes, I knew who this young husband was. The doctor saw Jesus in the man. He saw Jesus in the man’s gentleness and love, in his sympathy and brokenness. And then he saw Jesus afresh as the kind husband bent down to kiss her crooked mouth, carefully twisting his own lips to accommodate her lips, showing her that their kiss still worked and always would.
Glory infused that hospital room that day—the glory of God’s One and Only who came here, humbly accommodating himself to us in our brokenness by taking on the very nature of a servant. We have seen his glory. We still see his glory. It is all around us. We see it at the communion table and at the breakfast table; we see it in the water at the baptismal font and in the water from the sprinkler that catches the sun’s rays just so; we see it in the anthem sung by a grand choir and in the simple chorus of “Jesus Loves Me” that our child absent-mindedly sings to herself while doing her paint-by-numbers.
This is the glory we see. Thanks be to God.
Author: Doug Bratt
TANSTAAFL is an acronym for the old adage, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” reportedly coined by Robert Heinlein. Quite simply, it means even if something appears to be free, there’s always some kind of catch. So your friendly neighborhood lobbyist (or pastor) may buy you lunch or dinner. However, she’s probably going to use the occasion to ask you to do something for her. If, after all, something seems to be too good to be true, it probably is.
People naturally assume that there’s also no such thing as free lunch when it comes to religion. So they feel compelled to join Paul’s flustered jailer in asking, “What must I do (italics added) to be saved?” After all, nothing so precious as salvation can possibly be free, can it? We naturally assume that since the idea of salvation as a free gift seems too good to be true, it must be.
What’s more, some pastors seem all too eager to feed this heresy. After all, some regularly dole out advice like, “Pray every day, don’t drink, don’t smoke, and don’t swear. Go to church every Sunday and put lots of money in the offering plate while you’re there.” Even churches with a more biblical view of grace sometimes pack our services with “musts” and “shoulds.” By doing so leaders imply that we must do certain things to have salvation.
Yet we profess that when it comes to the greatest gift in the universe, there is such a thing as a free lunch. God, in Christ, has done everything to grant salvation. Of course, salvation wasn’t free for God. It cost God the life and death of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ. Yet as a result, when it comes to salvation, as one prominent theologian has written, “the heavy lifting is accomplished by Another.”
Of course, God’s salvation by grace was hardly a doorway to a boring life for Paul. In fact, in this text, he packs about all the activity into one day that anyone possibly can. Paul and his companions are, as Luke reports, on their “way to the place of prayer,” something they did every day when they were in Philippi.
However, a slave girl who has a lucrative knack for predicting the future interrupts their trip. People own her because she makes much money for them by forecasting what will happen to their clients. What the original language calls a “python spirit” possesses this slave girl. It claims to help her do what modern psychic hotlines claim to do: tell you what’s going to happen.
While citizens of the twenty-first century may be skeptical about such prescience, apparently the Philippians weren’t. They’ve, after all, turned this slave girl into quite the “golden goose” for her masters. Yet while we’re not sure the slave girl could actually tell the future, her spirit clearly revealed to her some things other people didn’t yet realize. After all, as she chases Paul and his companions, she hollers things about a most high God and the way to salvation (17).
Since this slave is telling the truth, we’re not sure why she so obviously irritates Paul. Perhaps it’s her captivity to a demon rather than her message or persistence that so deeply troubles the apostle. Paul eventually tires of her enslavement and casts the evil spirit right out of the slave girl. Though we can be certain this was a great relief for this girl, Luke doesn’t tell us what happens to her.
Luke does, however, tell us what happens to the slave girl’s masters. They sense Paul has snapped off their meal ticket’s psychic antenna. Since this creates a cash flow problem for the slave’s masters, they haul Paul and company off to court.
Religion has gotten mixed up with economics in Philippi and, as is often the case, religion loses. After all, the slave girl’s owners accuse Paul and company of disturbing the peace, in other words, of disrupting their profitable business.
The Philippians, apparently committed capitalists, fall right into line with the masters. To “keep the peace” they attack and batter Paul and Silas. Not content with such vigilante justice, however, the local judges order soldiers to also strip and brutally beat the apostles. They then banish them to the back cell of the city jail. So while God has used Paul and Silas to set a pitiful young woman free, in the process, the authorities have jailed the apostles. The liberators have become the prisoners.
Their two savage beatings probably leave Paul and Silas intensely uncomfortable. Yet instead of complaining about it, the apostles turn their jail time into a hymn sing that seems to shut down all conversation around them. Apparently the only person in the jail who isn’t listening to them sing is the jailer. After all, it seems to take an earthquake to make him finally pay attention to his prisoners.
By the time the warden finds his way down to the shaken prison cells, he worries his prisoners have disappeared. The rattled warden knows what his punishment for such dereliction of duty will be. So he decides to save his boss the trouble of killing him. Paul, however, interrupts the suicidal jailer. “Don’t do hurt yourself,” we can almost hear him shout. “We’re all still here, just singing.” You see, Paul and Silas were never really the prisoners in Philippi. They’re free men.
While it seems like an odd way to launch an investigation into a jailbreak, the jailer immediately asks the apostles, “What must I do to be saved?” Apparently this shaken jailer recognizes that he’s enslaved. So he asks Paul and Silas what he must do to be free.
The apostles answer, of course, by saying, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ…” After all, Jesus Christ has already done everything necessary for the jailer’s salvation. All that’s left is to simply believe that God graciously did it. So what must I do to be saved? “Nothing,” Paul basically answers. “Just trust that Jesus has already done it all for you and that you’re all set for eternal life.”
Then, however, as if to remind the jailer and us that God’s grace is incredibly lavish, Paul adds, “You and your household” will be saved. God’s salvation, the apostle insists, will scoop up the jailer and his family before they even get a chance to do much of anything.
Yet while God’s people don’t have to do anything to be saved, we must still admit that even simply believing in the Lord Jesus Christ is immensely difficult. First, accepting Christ’s finished work means the end of efforts to save ourselves. On top of that, our consciences (and sometimes the people around us) never let us forget that we grievously sin against God by failing to keep any of God’s commandments. What’s more, Christians know that we still often succumb to the powerful tug of sin’s attractiveness.
Yet Christians profess that when God looks at us, God sees only Christ and Christ’s righteousness. God graciously looks right past the dark things you and I see in our own lives that make us doubt that God could ever love us.
Of course, God literally sees sins. God sees and knows, after all, everything. However, we profess that God graciously treats us as if God doesn’t see them. So while we keep slipping back into our sinful habits, God keeps redirecting us. God doesn’t even mention the fact that God has already had to do that a thousand times.
So what must those whom we teach and to whom we preach do to be saved? Not a blessed thing. In fact, as we profess, even the act of believing in Jesus Christ is God’s gift to us. So Christ doesn’t just do everything necessary for our salvation. God also gives us the gift of faith we desperately need in order to faithfully receive that work.
What must our hearers do to be saved? Not a blessed thing. God, however, does invite us to do certain things in thankful response to God’s great gift of salvation. We glimpse that in the subsequent interaction between the apostles and their former jailer. Midnight washing fills this redeemed house. The jailer responds to Christ’s finished work of salvation by tenderly washing the wounds his cronies had earlier inflicted on Paul and Silas. Then the apostles turn right around and gently bathe his family and him in God’s healing baptismal waters.
(During the Easter season, the Lectionary appoints texts from Acts as Old Testament lessons)
In his book, Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner winsomely writes, “After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested any more. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.
Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.
A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.
There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”
Author: Stan Mast
It’s not hard to understand the message of Psalm 97; it’s just hard to believe. There’s no doubt about its message: “The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad, let the distant shores rejoice.” But, if a growing consensus of scholars is right, there must have been a great deal of doubt in the minds of ancient Israel about whether that message was true.
Here’s why. Many scholars note that the third book of the Psalter seems to be occupied with the Exile. Psalm 89 in particular is full of the pain of that disruption of Israel’s life; they had lost their land, their king, their temple, even, it seemed, their God. So it is not accidental that Book IV of the Psalter opens with Psalms (93, 95-99) shouting, against all evidence, that “the Lord reigns.” According to Sandra Richter, Psalm 97 is the most dramatic portrayal of Yahweh’s sovereign power to be found in the Psalter. Exiled Israel needed to hear that message. In our day of power politics, so do we.
Further, this Psalm helps us see the earth-shaking importance of Christ’s Ascension, which we celebrate on this seventh Sunday of the Easter season. As Easter fades into the distance and Pentecost rustles just around the corner, we need to be reminded that the ascension of Christ was as important as his resurrection. Indeed, an old preacher friend of mine was fond of reminding me that Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and session at God’s right hand were really one huge saving act. Psalm 97 will help us see just how huge that act was for salvation history and how important it is for our lives.
The Psalm begins with the declaration that Yahweh reigns, not just over his little kingdom of Israel or over the lands he had conquered in the past, but even over the “distant shores” (the ends of the earth) and, yes, even over the foes who have just conquered the kingdom of Israel. In spite of recent events, the Psalmist claims that the whole earth is filled with the glory of the Lord. His is the kingdom and the power and the glory.
But unlike so many earthly rulers, God does not use his power to conquer and oppress and squeeze all he can out of his subjects. That’s because “righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.” That’s the platform on which God stands, the basis for all God does, the agenda God always pursues. James Luther Mays says that God’s “righteousness” is the rightness of God that makes for life and Shalom, while God’s “justice” is found in the decisions and actions of a righteous God. That is to say, God is righteous; God does justice. Unlike the nations that dragged Israel off into Exile, Yahweh uses his power to rule the world with righteousness and justice.
We might think that isn’t true, given the recent disasters in the world. The overwhelming power of evil might lead us to conclude that God’s righteousness and justice are too weak to have any real impact on the world. But we would be very wrong to think that way, because, look, here comes the Lord. Verses 2-6 read like a theophany, a once in a life-time appearance of God in all his glory. In words that must have reminded Israel of their first theophany at Mt. Sinai, God comes in or out of “clouds and thick darkness.” When God renewed his covenant with Israel at that mountain, Israel felt the earth shake, saw the fire on the mountain and the lightning fill the skies, and were filled with terror at the God who hid himself in deep darkness.
Here in Psalm 97, that’s exactly how the universe responds to the coming of the great King. “Fire goes out before him and consumes his foes on every side. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness and all the peoples see his glory.” Yahweh is not a God to be trifled with.
Those who have trifled with God by fooling around with other gods will cower in shame and despair. Verse 7 shows us a negative reaction to the Cosmic Coronation of the Lord of the universe, while verses 8 and following show us a positive reaction. Many scholars see verse 7 as the theological center of the Psalm, because it is the counterpoint to the point made in verse 1. The nations who have conquered Israel claim that their gods have given them victory, but Israel must not stop believing that “Yahweh reigns.”
In fact, those gods of the nations are nothing more than images (the Hebrew is pesel, meaning something that is crafted, the work of their own hands) and idols (the Hebrew is elilim, meaning something that is vanity because it is powerless and, thus, useless). Those who put their trust in such things will be put to shame. Therefore, not only they, but also their gods should turn to the Lord and worship him. “For you, O Lord, are the Most High over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.” Politically incorrect? Yes, but theologically correct.
On the positive side, say verses 8-12, the reign of Yahweh over all the earth is the source of deep comfort and joy for those who love and trust him. That note of joy runs through the entire Psalm. It opens with a call to the ends of the earth to rejoice, because the Lord is King. And it ends with a call for all God’s righteous ones to rejoice in his just reign. When the residents of the capital (Zion) and all the little villages (literally, “daughters”) hear that good news again in the face of their disaster, they will rejoice.
Even now they can rejoice, “because of your judgments, O Lord.” (verse 8). To our modern audiences, it may seem a bit strange to rejoice in God’s judgment, but we need to hear that in the light of Israel’s experience of Exile. This is a reminder and a promise that their righteous God will put things right again. As he did in Egypt, Yahweh will break through into their history and right the wrongs that have been inflicted on God’s faithful children.
But they need to be faithful. Verse 10 spells out what covenant faithfulness looks like in a world overcome by evil. “Let those who love the Lord hate evil….” That was the central command of the covenant. It was not an easy command. In fact, it is terribly difficult to understand and to do. What does it mean? Well, if we focus on the law God gave when he renewed covenant with Israel back at Sinai, then loving the good Lord entails hating everything that is not good, like murder and adultery and lying.
That’s clear, but it is very easy to get confused about this. For example, we can take verse 10 the wrong way and end up hating people who do evil. Jesus clarified this once and for all when he said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That’s not easy. It is very difficult to separate people from the evil they do. But, if we are supposed to show our love for God by the way we love our neighbor (I John), we must guard against demonizing the neighbor who does evil to us.
The difficulty of this central covenant criterion doesn’t stop with loving our enemy. It is also hard to hate evil without becoming self-righteous. We must remind ourselves that evil tempts us, too. Further, it is the case that when we hate evil, we may court trouble from those who delight in doing it.
All of which is to say that hating evil is a hard and tricky business. So, it is a distinct relief to hear the Psalmist say that the Lord “guards the lives of his faithful ones and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.” Do we really believe that? Languishing in Exile, Israel must have struggled with this statement of faith. But Psalm 97 assures us that the righteousness of God will indeed be the source of light and joy even for those who feel like they have been overwhelmed by evil. The Lord of the universe will break through the chains of evil that enslave his people and set them free. The proclamation of God’s reign over all the earth offers hope to the righteous in their opposition to evil.
Indeed, says Brueggemann, “the kingship of Yahweh causes an inversion. The wicked are exposed for what they are. They are denied their preeminence. Conversely, the righteous, the ones who keep covenant and do Yahweh’s will, are given life and power.” Contrary to the way it seems in the world, the ultimate power in the universe is in the service of righteousness and justice, so the exiles, the righteous may now expect a better life.
It is no wonder that the Psalm ends, as it begins, with a call to joy. Indeed, if we miss this note of joy, we have missed the whole point of the Psalm. To those who laid down their harps by the willows of Babylon saying, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” Psalm 97 is a call to rejoice anyway. This is an important word for Christians who lament the wicked state of things in the United States and Canada (or wherever you live and preach).
We in the church often emphasize the love and grace of God to such an extent that we miss the good news in a text like Psalm 97. The love and grace of God are righteous and just. Our loving and gracious God will not only forgive us our sins and get us to heaven. He will also, and more importantly (?), set all things right in the world. After all, righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. So his agenda, his platform, his passion is to make all things right again and thus restore the Shalom of paradise. No wonder the Psalm ends with this call to joy. “Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name.”
There is a prophetic tone in this call to rejoice. As we look out over the political scene, particularly in this election year in America, we have to critique what we see in the light of Psalm 97. Righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s reign. What is the foundation on which the various candidates and their parties stand? Rather than merely reacting to personalities and soundbites, Christians should be asking about the moral and spiritual platforms on which our would-be leaders stand. What is their ultimate agenda? What is their passion? We hear what they are against all the time, but what do they stand for? Is it their own power and self-interest? Or America’s self-interest? Or the cause of the poor? Or the welfare of the world? Or righteousness and justice? We need to be careful about making partisan statements from the pulpit, but we should be asking those kinds of questions. What are the foundations of their thrones? And what difference will it make for us and for the world if one or the other wins?
Finally, there is surely a gospel message in this Psalm. The inventors of the Revised Common Lectionary were entirely correct in choosing this Psalm for Ascension Sunday. It is a reminder that Christ’s Ascension was about a lot more than a man magically levitating into the clouds. It was about the re-enthronement of God’s Son who had left his throne for a cross. He now rules “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion….” (Ephesians 1) When he returns, he will make everything right. The evil in the world will melt in the fire, the world will be reborn whole and clean, and the righteous will rejoice. In the meantime, let us love God, hate evil, and sing for joy.
An enterprising preacher with access to decent AV equipment would help the congregation envision the effect of the theophany depicted in Psalm 97 by showing (or verbally describing) that climactic scene from the Tolkien movie, “The Return of the King.” With Sam’s assistance, Frodo finally hurls the terrible Ring into the fires, which triggers the end of the kingdom of evil. The way the earth collapses and the mountains quake and volcanoes erupt and the hordes of evil creatures run for their lives—all give us some notion of the earth-changing effect of the coming of the King in all his glory and power.
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
Author: Scott Hoezee
When I was a student at Calvin College, I spent three years serving as one of the student leaders at the on-campus worship services. When you stand up front in such services, you see things which most people cannot see. One of the things I witnessed more Sunday mornings than not in those years was a number of students seated in the far upper reaches of the balcony. They’d usually get there about 30 seconds before the service started at 11:00 am but then every morning they would leave during the hymn following the sermon. The reason was obvious: they wanted to dash over to the Commons and get in line for lunch before the other 800 or so students who attended the service did the same thing.
But this early exit bothered the college chaplain. On more than one occasion he told us student leaders that what troubled him about this is that those students missed the benediction each week. But to his mind that is a vital part of the worship service–so much so, I remember his saying, that if that were the only part of the service these students caught, it would still have been worth their time to come.
I think he was largely right about that. Yet that statement was striking to me then, and maybe you find it striking also now. But if so, the reason is probably because we do not generally reflect much on that concluding gesture of our worship services. It surely does not last long and most weeks neither does the benediction seem particularly dramatic. Yet it is a moment of sublime power.
And this kind of powerful, pastoral blessing has been with God’s people for a long time. The most famous benediction in the world is probably the one spoken by Aaron way back in Numbers 6: “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 the light of his countenance upon you and give you peace.” And in Numbers 6 when Aaron and the other priests pronounced that now-famous benediction on the Israelites, it was the equivalent of placing the very name of Yahweh onto those people. How could anything but a great blessing result from that!
Because remember: God made clear to the Israelites that the name “Yahweh” was sacred. It was so holy and so powerful that the people scarcely dared to speak it out loud or, eventually, actually write it out. They substituted “Adonai” when they saw the letters YHWH in print and to this day when a Jewish organization takes out an ad in something like the New York Times, they put in “G-d” instead of adding that extra vowel that would spell out the word.
Yet in the benediction the priest was to say it and thereby the Name above all names–that white-hot name that burned with an intensity almost too searing to touch–got placed onto the people. But what exactly did that mean? After all, these days people quite literally wear the names of others but without any particular effect on their lives. Walk through the mall on any given day and you’ll see all kinds of folks who look like walking billboards as they wear shirts emblazoned with “Tommy Hilfiger,” “The Rolling Stones,” and other such names. People in the fashion and entertainment industries are only too happy to place their names on you. But it doesn’t mean much.
But names in the Bible were far more than just handles by which to get a hold of people. A name said something about the person even as the giving out of that name conveyed personal presence. Maybe that is also why in the Aaronic Benediction of Numbers 6 the priest grants to the people the lifting up, the turning toward them, of God’s very face. Throughout the Old Testament you can often find the notion that to see God is to die. No one may see God face to face and live. Well, that may be true for sinful and evil people, but the grace and lovingkindness of God puts away our sin, purges us of the impurities which would otherwise prevent our fellowship with God. We get restored to what Adam and Eve had in Eden: the ability to walk with God without fear of judgment or punishment. God turns his very face to us in the benediction, letting us know that things between us are all right now. He loves us. His divine visage radiates affection.
So it is wonderfully apropos that the entire Bible ends with a benediction at the conclusion of Revelation 22. What’s more, that benediction confers on us “the grace of the Lord Jesus.” What that benediction imparts when it talks about the “grace” of Jesus is really the very Holy Spirit of God in Christ. It is the very Spirit of God who wings afresh into our hearts in every benediction. By that Spirit we are sealed with the personal presence of Jesus, nurtured in the production of every spiritual fruit, and so given the power of holiness and righteousness.
It all comes to us in the package that just is gospel grace. It is grace that saves us but also grace that allows frail, flawed, and faulty folks like us even to be permitted to have conferred on us the Name above all names–a Name of such sacred and sublime power that a day will come when the mere uttering of that Name will bring the universe to its knees; a Name so rich in truth and justice, compassion and love, that one day just saying it aloud will cause every tongue to confess, “Jesus is Lord!”
Because in Jesus God has turned his face to us indeed–the very real, flesh-and-blood face of Jesus is lifted upon all who believe. And because of the grace of the gospel, we can return the stare without fear of seeing in Jesus’ eyes flickers of damning judgment or anger. We receive a benediction not a malediction; a “good word” not a “bad word.” And each Sunday we fly out of worship on the wings of that good word, nestled on the soft feathers of the Holy Spirit who assures us that the grace of the Lord Jesus is with us, that the divine Name is sealed upon us, and that the face that is almost too holy to behold is turned toward us in a smile so broad and a gaze so compassionate as to assure us again and again how much we are loved.
In her luminous, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson conveys vast troves of theological and pastoral insights through the narrative voice of her main character, Rev. John Ames. Ames is a quiet Iowa pastor in a small town in the 1950s. Weaving in and through the novel—presented as a protracted epistle to Rev. Ames’s young son—is a theme of blessing, of benediction. Early in the story Ames relates baptizing cats and kittens when he was young in a kind of play-acting of church life. He writes to his son that he still remembers vividly the touch of their warm little brows upon his hand. There was something sacred about such a blessing, even on a cat!
But a key character in the story is the prodigal son Jack Boughton, the child of a fellow pastor who had been named after Rev. Ames. Jack has brought a lot of heartache and sorrow to his family over the years. But Rev. Ames maintains a soft spot in his heart for the man and near the end of the novel—when Jack is about to abandon his family and cause more pain yet again—there is a scene in which something of the power of blessing gets conveyed.
“Then I said, ‘The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you’ [Rev. Ames tells Jack]. He shrugged, ‘What would that involve?’ ‘Well, as I envisage it, it would involve my placing my hand on your brow and asking the protection of God for you. But if it would be embarrassing . . .’ ‘No, no’ he said. ‘That doesn’t matter.’ And he took his hat off and set it on his knee and closed his eyes and lowered his head, almost rested it against my hand, and I did bless him to the limit of my powers, whatever they are, repeating the benediction from Numbers, of course—‘The Lord make his face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee: the Lord life up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.’ Nothing could be more beautiful than that, or more expressive of my feelings, certainly, or more sufficient, for that matter. Then, when he didn’t open his eyes or lift up his head, I said, ‘Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father.’ Then he sat back and looked at me as if he were waking out of a dream. ‘Thank you, Reverend,’ he said, and his tone made me think that to him it might have seemed I had named everything I thought he no longer was, when that was absolutely the furthest thing from my meaning, the exact opposite of my meaning. Well anyway, I told him it was an honor to bless him. And that was absolutely true. In fact, I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment.”
(Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux 2004, pp. 241-42.)