All four means have been used, but there is one better. It is to pronounce over them a benediction. In other words, bless them in the name of the Lord, and send them away with the assurance that the Lord will go with them.
That’s what a benediction is. It is a “good word” pronounced over the Lord’s people in the Lord’s name. Numbers 6:22-27 introduces us to the great priestly benediction. God ordered Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons to use this blessing to dismiss a gathering of his people. The priest was to raise his hands and say:
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
In this Old Testament blessing there is, by the way, a preview of the mystery of the Trinity. Note the threefold reference to “the Lord.” That is, as you go out from here, the triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — will be with you.
God’s instructions to Moses for the priestly blessing make it clear that this benediction is not a collection of empty words. The Lord tells Moses that when it is pronounced, “So will I put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” It is a promise of God’s favor.
Some pastors may feel that this is all too Old Testament and priestly. It might help them to be reminded that, when rightly understood, the pastor’s ministry is both prophetic and priestly. Think of such priestly ministries as the pastoral prayer, the wedding ritual, the serving of the sacraments, or the graveside sentences. In these, pastors are carrying out the priestly aspect of their calling.
The blessing of God’s people at the close of a service of worship is one more wonderful privilege contained in a pastor’s ordination.
A benediction is important because a local congregation does not cease to exist when it disperses. A local church can be considered both a gathered and a scattered community. When together for worship, it is gathered. When its people disperse to their many locations, it is scattered. In both cases it is still a church. St. Peter, for example, wrote an epistle to the church “scattered” abroad.
How appropriate it is, then, that before believers leave their place of assembly they are sent forth to take up their varied stations with a promise that God will also be with them in their many and sometimes isolated locations.
During the week ahead of you, here’s my benediction for you, my dear reader, from Hebrews 13:20-21:
Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Photo credit: Grace Lutheran Church (via flickr.com)