Pastor Eric Schroeder

Text: Numbers 6:22-27

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These words sound familiar.  You have heard these words before (or words awfully close to them) more times than we can count.  We can call them the Aaronic Benediction (named after Moses’ brother Aaron, who is mentioned here) or the priestly blessing (since Aaron was the first in a long line of Jewish High Priests that would come from his line).  Most of the time, we just call it “the blessing.”  Quite often, they are the last spoken words we hear before our worship services end. 

The ironic thing is that on New Year’s Day (of all times), we go back to the oldest part of our liturgy (first spoken almost 3500 years ago), and we have the opportunity to consider what these words mean for us as we seek to begin another year With God’s Blessing. 

We look again at the context.  God’s people are still in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.  God has just revealed how he wants his people to be set apart from other nations, to preserve the promise of the Savior by the way they lived, and the way they ate, and the way they worshiped.  As part of that worship life, God gives Aaron and all future worship leaders a very special job.  22 The Lord said to Moses, 23 “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:

Before we get to the words of the blessing itself, it’s worth pausing to note the fact that God doesn’t list any conditions.  In other words, God doesn’t say “if the people do this,” or “if the people do that…”  No, God loves his people and wants to give them good things.  God doesn’t even say that he wants the priests to pray these words, as if they have to ask God before he is willing to provide the blessing.  “This is how you do it…speak these words.”  This blessing makes a great prayer, but it is just as much a pronouncement of God’s intentions to bless his people.  We never have to wonder if it works or not.  God’s Word always works.  We can be confident every time we hear the blessing that it comes from a God who cannot lie.  We can cling to these words because God hasn’t changed his mind or altered his plan one bit.  He is who he is, and we belong to him. 

Now to the words themselves.  We’ll hear the blessing again, make a few general observations, and then focus in on each part.  24“‘The Lord bless you and keep you; 25the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; 26the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” ’ In looking at the entire blessing, what do we notice about the structure?  It’s easy to break into three lines, because each segment begins the same way: “The Lord… The Lord… The Lord…”  Throughout the Bible, God uses many names and titles to reveal himself, but this one in particular (Jehovah, in Hebrew) is used when God wants to emphasize his promise to bring about salvation.  Here God uses this name of full and faithful love three times to bless his people.  Keep that in mind, as we look at the words.

The first line: The Lord bless you and keep you…  Here God assures us that he will bless us; in other words, he will give us good gifts—and of course we have many to be thankful for: our homes, our relationships, our health, our possessions.  Even as the stock market finishes down for the year, we haven’t gone hungry.  God has blessed us, and will continue to do so, with everything we need for body and life.  He will also keep us throughout the New Year.  The Hebrew word here has the idea of guarding us, watching over us, protecting us from harm, like a shepherd taking care of his sheep. 

It’s a great comfort going into a New Year.  Who knows what tragedies will strike the face of the earth?  Who knows what conflicts may escalate into war?  Who knows what personal struggles we will face, or what challenges will come into our lives?  Who knows?  God knows.  And no matter what happens, God is bigger.  He will still be in charge of the master plan, and for us, his people, he promises to bless you and keep you.

The second line: 25the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; What exactly does that mean, that the Lord would make his face shine upon you?  Well, we all start in darkness.  We were born as sinful people in a sinful world, naturally blind to the will of God.  But the Lord’s favorite thing to do is to rescue people from darkness, and there is no light greater than the light of his presence.  The first line promised physical blessing; the second assures us that spiritual blessings are ours, too, through the light of his presence in our lives, the light that breaks into a sinful world and reveals God’s saving love.  What kind of love? 

The Lord will be gracious to you.  Are you going to be a better person in 2019 than in 2018?  That’s always our goal, but have we ever attained it?  For some people, the greatest part of the New Year is the idea of wiping the slate clean and starting over, starting fresh.  But none of us will ever be good enough to make God love us.  None of us will ever be good enough to defeat all temptations and fight off all of our sinful tendencies.  None of us will ever be good enough to wipe our slate clean and pay for forgiveness.  But the Lord is.  And especially on this day, when we also celebrate how a baby was named with the name that is above all others, the name his Father gave him, the name of Jesus, we are filled with God’s blessing as we see the one who lived up to his name as our Savior.  God loves us far more than we could ever hope to deserve.  Keep struggling against sin this year, knowing that if and when you fall in your weakness, for Jesus’ sake, God’s forgiveness never runs out.  The Lord will make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you in 2019.

The third line: 26the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.  Here’s God’s face again; what does it mean that he would turn his face toward you?  It’s an expression that means that God will look at you with pleasure and delight; another way to say it is to say that the Lord will smile at you.  Like a proud parent says, “that one is mine” with a big grin on their face, that’s the way God promises to bless you as his child.  Through the faith that God gave you, he sees you as his innocent, holy child for Jesus’ sake, because your sins were washed away and you were given new birth into his family. 

If this year is like the last one, we can expect that some details of our lives will change.  You will have more money, or less.  You will be healthier and in better shape, or sicker and in worse shape.  You will make some friends, or you might lose some.  You will have great personal victories, or tragic personal defeats.  But no matter what, you can trust God’s promise here in this blessing.  You can know that he will keep his face focused on you, and when he sees you look back, you can picture a smile.  And that will give you peace.  God’s work in your life assures you that he is the one constant, the one who is eternal and unchanging, the everlasting, dependable source of strength and forgiveness and spiritual health.  The Lord will turn his face toward you and give you peace this year.

What happens every time this blessing goes out?  27 “So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”  You have God’s name on you.  You have God the Father who provides for you, watches over you, protects you and preserves you.  You have God the Son, whose gracious life, death, and resurrection on your behalf makes you worthy of the heaven you never could have earned.  You have God the Holy Spirit, who works through Word and Sacrament to strengthen your faith, forgive your sins, and lead you on toward eternal life.  The Lord… The Lord… The Lord…Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, whose name you were baptized into, and whose name remains with you, and whose promise is renewed in you with every blessing.  This year, hear his Word on a regular basis.  Think of your baptism every day.  If you are confirmed, come to the Lord’s Table often.  It comes with a blessing every time. 

And finally, since today’s is one of our liturgies that ends with a different blessing, we’ll use this one to close the sermon.  Carry it with you, and hear it again and again in the New Year. 

The Lord bless you and keep you;

25the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;

26the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”  AMEN.