It’s New Year’s resolution time. So, I looked at a number of websites for the Top 10 New Year’s resolutions and they all seem to be variants of:
- Exercise more
- Lose weight
- Get organized
- Learn a new skill or hobby
- Live life to the fullest
- Save more money / spend less money
- Quit smoking / reduce drinking
- Spend more time with family and friends
- Travel more
- Give more money to your local church.
OK, so perhaps I made the last one up – but if you’re still trying to decide, then I hope that list was of some help! But it does say something about both the kind of people that we want to be and the kind of people that we are. It seems we’re stuck in a rut, overweight, smoke too much, in debt and disorganised.
On the other hand, if we actually made these resolutions and kept them, then we would have well-organized lives and we’d have enough money, we would exercise regularly and be at our target weight, be free of any addiction and spend our spare time knitting or doing watercolours or a little woodturning. What a wholesome bunch of people we would be! And we wouldn’t be short of things to sell at our Coffee Mornings either!
Blessing and Benediction
Thoughts of New Year resolutions drew me to our OT reading today, the words of which should be familiar to us: ‘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 his countenance upon you and give you peace.’ These are words of blessing and benediction.
The passage is often used in both Christian and Jewish communities to conclude services of worship. But here in the Book of Numbers the words are amongst a text describing the children of Israel’s preparations for leaving Mount Sinai, where they’ve been camped for around a year whilst they took a break from wandering in the desert.
They’re about to re-commence their journey to the Land of Promise. The blessing was for when they departed from the mountain and was to be used each day for the rest of their journey. It’s perhaps a good reminder that just like ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’, todays blessing isn’t meant to finish a service but rather to kick-start what happens next, what we do ‘out there’ rather than ‘in here’.
I wonder if we feel like we’ve been camped for awhile in one place and that it’s time to get going again. Maybe these words of blessing and benediction might be good ones to pack-up and carry with us in the next steps of our journey. Words that we could wish to each other.
As always, it’s worth looking either side of our reading to see the context. In the verses before, we have details about what it means to be a Nazirite. These were men and women dedicated to God who took a special vow of consecration. They completely yielded themselves to God. They abstained from wine and didn’t (voluntarily) cut their hair. Samuel and Samson and John the Baptist are all good examples.
In the verses that follow ours, we have the consecration of the Tabernacle, which stood in the heart of their community during their wanderings. It housed the Ark of the Covenant and was the place where God’s presence was thought to dwell. So, we have the consecration of special individuals, the consecration of God’s dwelling place and in-between the consecration of God’s people on the move.
Each line in our blessing gets increasingly longer. Three, five and seven words in Hebrew. It’s to signify the ever-increasing blessing from God. An overflowing of any blessing that we might have possibly hoped for.
In this very short passage, God is very active. If we look at the doing-words, the verbs, of God: God blesses, God keeps, God makes his face shine, God is gracious, God lifts up his countenance – and God gives his peace, his shalom.
And whilst the blessing is for the community, ‘the Lord bless you’ is singular. It’s meant individually, a blessing for each one of us to make our own. It’s how the community works, by each and every one of us taking our individual blessing and using it for the common good.
And if we look closely at the words, it doesn’t say ‘May the Lord bless you and keep you,’ as our service sheets sometimes say. It says: ‘The Lord bless you…’ The word ‘may’ is not there. The blessing is a definite thing. It will happen. No ifs or buts.
The work of God
‘Blessing’ – is the work of God within a community of faith and beyond. It signifies any divine gift which serves the life, health and well-being of individuals and communities.
‘Keeping’ – is about the safety and shelter provided by God to protect people from evil and anything that might harm us as we journey.
The face or countenance of God was a common way of picturing God. We particularly see it in the Psalms. Giving human attributes to God helps us know the unknowable. And this face is shining and glowing on a people who had done very little to deserve such benevolence.
This blessing was to be carried around on their journey. Quite literally carried around, since this blessing has been found inscribed on silver jewellery which dates back to around the 7thcentury BC, unearthed near Jerusalem.
Jesus is the verb
Today Jewish communities will use it in their daily Amidah prayer and parents will say it as a special Friday blessing for their children. In the Church of Scotland, it’s used as a baptism blessing. But why is all this important? What is the ‘so what’ for us now?
Well today, our Gospel reading is the naming of the Christ child. You might have seen ‘The boy, the mole, the fox and the horse’ on BBC this last week. Here we have ‘The boy, the shepherds, the mother and the step-dad’.
The name that the boy is given is Jesus, Yeshua, which means ‘God saves’. Jesus is the verb, the Word, the doing word, of God.
The real deal
Born as a human baby, in Jesus we have the human face, the countenance of God shining on us. Not some poetic device this time, but the real deal.
In Jesus, we have the ‘blessing’ – the work of God in the community of faith and beyond. In Jesus we have the ‘keeping’ – the shelter and protection of God from evil and harm as we journey through life. Jesus named to fulfil the OT. Not just the Immanuel passage in Isaiah but many other scriptures too, including this one from today.
God saves us, Jesus – by being with us, Immanuel. He blesses us and he keeps us.
Inhabit those words
‘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 his countenance upon you and give you peace.’
That seems like a pretty good New Year’s resolution for each one of us. To carry those words with us each and every day, like the people of old. To live and breathe and inhabit those words, as co-heirs with Christ, as we set out as a community on a fresh journey together, today and every day. And to embody God’s ‘blessing’ and ‘keeping’ in the way that we behave towards each other – and aspire to be thought of that way by the people whom we meet.
And it probably wouldn’t hurt if we exercised a little more as well! Amen
- Berlin, A. & Brettler, M.Z. (2004). The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford.