Sunday morning services were basic in our church in the Saskatchewan town where I grew up. There was no printed order of service; no call to worship; no invocations, or prayers over the offerings. As I recall, the simple and informal style of that devout congregation reflected a desire to avoid “formalism” — the word they used — lest it encumber the work of the Holy Spirit.
But, as decades have passed, in my denomination such restrictions have dropped off in favor of more ordered services and the inclusion of such helpful aids to worship as the singing of the doxology over the offering, or the congregation‘s reciting of the Lord’s Prayer at the conclusion of a pastoral prayer. Then there’s the benediction (or blessing) to conclude a service of worship.
For many years, during early pastoral days I concluded worship services with a prayer or a benediction from the Scriptures, but I did not raise my hands over the congregation as the Old Testament priests were instructed to do (Leviticus 9:22). I suppose I feared appearing pretentious. Childhood influences are strong.
Over the years, however, my understanding of the importance of benedictions has grown in rich measure. Now, pronouncing a benediction over a gathering of the Lord’s people with hands raised toward them as a dismissal from public worship gives me joy.
Should benedictions be important? We get a cue from Numbers 6:22-27. The Lord said to Moses, Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites.’ Say to them:
‘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.’
In those few words there is a succession of six blessings. As well, the name of the Lord is repeated three times to emphasize that He, Jehovah, alone is the source of these blessings.
A benediction is therefore more than specially crafted words spoken over a congregation to give them a psychological boost. Man’s words alone are never enough. The New Living Translation clarifies Numbers 6:27 to show God is really the blesser: Whenever Aaron and his sons bless the people of Israel in my name, I myself will bless them”.
2 Chronicles 30:27 sheds further light. During a time of revival under King Hezekiah and at a moment of intense worship we read that the priests and Levites stood to bless the people…
Such blessings can be uttered in any part of a service of worship. In fact, the Scriptures are rich with benedictions (Psalm 121:7,8; 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13; Hebrews 13:20,21; 2 Peter 1:2; to cite a few). They have special meaning when used to send God’s people forth. Used in this way, a benediction tells believers that God has not only made his presence known to them while gathered for worship; he will also attend them as they disperse to go their various ways.
He will be with them even though this may mean they will be going back to a difficult job, a troubled home, or health uncertainties. In essence, the God who has made his presence known in the house of God assures them he can be counted on to make his presence known during the journey of the workweek, too.
For pastors, the benediction is a wonderful moment for the expression of holy love exchanged between pastor and people. It seals the service they have shared together.
Dipping into the New Testament, what more comprehensive expression of God’s ceaseless love for his people could a pastor call upon to bless his people as they depart than the benediction with which the Apostle Paul closed his second letter to the Corinthians:
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:14). Amen!
Photo credit: RichardBH (via flickr.com)