I like to ask people new to our congregation about their first impressions of Village Church. Mary's answer surprised me. "I've been part of a church family for as long as I can remember," she said, "but this is the only church where the pastor blessed his people at the end of the service." She always thought the benediction was the last hymn the congregation sang before returning to the world; she didn't know it was God's blessing on his people.
"When you stretched out your arms and sang a song of blessing over us," she said, "I was moved to tears. You weren't just sending us out to face the world on our own; you were pouring out God's blessing and Spirit on us so that we would be better prepared to face the world."
Benedictions have become one of my favorite pastoral privileges. I can't imagine ending a worship service with, "See you next week," or "You're dismissed," when I can offer a congregation God's blessing instead.
"This is how you are to bless …"
There are many kinds of benedictions. Some pastors write a unique blessing for each Sunday, drawing from the texts of the morning. Scripture itself provides the church with many blessings, including Paul's familiar, "Grace and peace to you from our Lord Jesus Christ." But one blessing is the source and summary of all others.
In Numbers 6:23–26, God instructed Moses that Aaron and his sons were to bless the Israelites in this way: "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace."
This blessing was Israel's national treasure, their holy heirloom. This national blessing began with God's promises to the patriarchs, unique promises of success, safety, and significance. In these three lines, God summarizes what he would always bring to those who trust him.
This blessing has come to be called a benediction—from the Latin for "to speak well of." The benediction is a good word. The best of words, actually. Unfortunately, it comes off sometimes as a kind of churchy, Hallmark sentiment, as if it were in swirly printed script over a picture of a country church. It has been the thoughtless repetition of benedictions which has done them in, I imagine.
Through the mutual carelessness of pastors and their people, the words can cease being sacred gifts and become clergy code for the service's end, a congregational heads-up to collect your stuff.
Listen to what we're saying.
But, in fact, it is so much more. This blessing is a unique kind of statement, its own genre. It isn't a wish. We really shouldn't say, "May the Lord bless you," the way people say, "May all your dreams come true." The benediction is a declaration: "The Lord blesses you—he really does!" It doesn't tell us what God will do for us, but what God is doing ever and always for his people. It is sort of an uber-promise. I wonder if the best analogy would be that it is God's wedding vow spoken to his people. It's his way of saying, "I take you for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, and death will never part us." The benediction is like God renewing his vows to us. Let's take a closer look at what these vows include.