God’s benediction prepares us for each moment

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.

Numbers 6:24-26

 

I heard this benediction many times in church as a child. It’s a warm, positive, uplifting way to send a congregation out of the sanctuary and into our big, bad world.

This blessing rests in the middle of a lecture from God to Moses for the people of Israel camped at Mount Sinai, as they were beginning their wanderings in the desert before reaching the Promised Land. This part of the lecture included rules for the Levites, whom God designated as the priests for the entire nation.

Numbers is a book about holiness. Israel is set apart from all other nations. The Levites are set apart from all other Israelites. Break the rules, and you die. Literally.

Not every rule was punishable by death, of course – at least for the perpetrator. God instituted plenty of sacrifices for the people, including the Levites, to regain their holiness when they become “unclean” or when they sinned.

Those sacrifices meant that an animal had to die for a human’s errant ways.

Serious stuff. And bloody.

Most of Numbers 6 talks about the meaning of a nazirite vow, “to separate themselves to the LORD” (v. 2). We’re familiar with this vow because Samson broke all of it, reaping a heavy price while still receiving many blessings from God (his story is told in Judges 13-16).

So, while this blessing asks God for favor, we have a role to play as well. If we turn our backs on God and reject His laws, we can’t expect many blessings from Him, can we?

I frequently test God this way. I want to do things my way, then ask God to bless it and make it good. Most of the time, my way is a cheap imitation of what my Lord and Savior really wants to give me, and wants me to do.

I know that God wants the best for me. If I only understood what that really means …

The LORD bless you …

Dictionary.com offers six definitions of “blessing:”

  1. the act or words of a person who blesses.
  2. a special favor, mercy, or benefit:

the blessings of liberty.

  1. a favor or gift bestowed by God, thereby bringing happiness.
  2. the invoking of God’s favor upon a person:

The son was denied his father’s blessing.

  1. praise; devotion; worship, especially grace said before a meal:

The children took turns reciting the blessing.

  1. approval or good wishes:

The proposed law had the blessing of the governor.

God wanted to give the Israelites favor, mercy and good wishes. He wants the same for us today.

… and keep you

This blessing also asks God to “keep you.” This means that God will protect Israel and keep them from harm. http://www.gospel.com/bookmarks/Lord-bless-keep-Christian-perspective/12210/

God protects us today as well.

The LORD make his face to shine upon you …

This implies that God does not shine on everyone. He causes His face to shine on those who seek His face and want to be a blessing to Him. Several times in the Bible, people asked that God not hide His face from them (Job 13:24, Psalm 27:9, 44:24, 69:17, 88:14, 102:2, 143:7).

http://storage.cloversites.com/makinglifecountministriesinc/documents/What%20does%20His%20face%20shine%20on%20us%20mean.pdf

… and be gracious to you

Dictionary.com offers these definitions of “gracious:”

  1. pleasantly kind, benevolent, and courteous.
  2. characterized by good taste, comfort, ease, or luxury:

gracious suburban living; a gracious home.

  1. indulgent or beneficent in a pleasantly condescending way, especiallyto inferiors.
  2. merciful or compassionate:

our gracious king.

  1. Obsolete. fortunate or happy.

I like the “merciful or compassionate” definition for Numbers 6, although “kind, benevolent, and courteous” certainly could apply as well.

We’re asking God to be on our side, not because we deserve it or we even know what “merciful” or “compassionate” mean, but because we know God has the best plan, the right plan, for each of us. By giving us mercy and compassion, God wants us to give those away – ie, share mercy and compassion with literally everyone we meet.

The LORD lift up his countenance upon you …

What is countenance? Dictionary.com explains it this way:

  1. appearance, especially the look or expression of the face:

a sad countenance.

  1. the face; visage.
  2. calm facial expression; composure.
  3. approval or favor; encouragement; moral support.
  4. Obsolete. bearing; behavior.

Countenance is a person’s face or facial expression. It doesn’t have to be positive, but it often is. Moses is asking God to smile for us, because of us. What a thought that is.

… and give you peace

Peace is a tough concept to understand. Dictionary.com lists many possibilities:

  1. the normal, nonwarring condition of a nation, group of nations, or the world.
  2. (often initial capital letter) an agreement or treaty between warring or antagonistic nations, groups, etc., to end hostilities and abstain from further fighting or antagonism:

the Peace of Ryswick.

  1. a state of mutual harmony between people or groups, especially in personal relations:

Try to live in peace with your neighbors.

  1. the normal freedom from civil commotion and violence of a community; public order and security:

He was arrested for being drunk and disturbing the peace.

  1. cessation of or freedom from any strife or dissension.
  2. freedom of the mind from annoyance, distraction, anxiety, an obsession, etc.; tranquility; serenity.
  3. a state of tranquility or serenity:

May he rest in peace.

These definitions say “peace” is the absence of war, but it’s much more than that. Absence leaves a vacuum. If not war, what replaces it? Mutual harmony? Tranquility or serenity?

I think peace is more than those things.

Here’s a few Bible verses on peace:

 

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.

Hebrews 12:14

 

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:7

 

The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace.

Psalm 29:11

 

Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

Psalm 34:14

 

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:6

 

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

John 16:33

 

We are to pursue peace; it’s not in our human nature to do this. We prefer to defend ourselves, even if that means we antagonize others. Jesus “gives strength to his people” to pursue peace.

Jesus is called the Prince of Peace 700 years before He is born. Jesus claims this by saying peace is one of His objectives for us. The world doesn’t understand peace; only Jesus offers peace that “transcends all understanding,” that “overcomes the world.”

Benediction

There’s a lot in this Old Testament benediction. If we do our part, God will surely do His.

Blessings will follow. That’s a promise.

Advertisements

Defending a dress code

Someone asked online the other day whether the church I attend has a dress code, saying she didn’t have “dress-up” clothes and didn’t want to feel out of place. I responded by saying, no, there’s no dress code there. Come as you are!

She said thanks.

Someone else took that a step further, saying that any church that has a dress code is being exclusive.

I let that go because I didn’t want to get political over a sincere question. But I do have a response.

Dressing up

While churches should welcome all who visit, I grew up in a church that did have a dress code. I wore a suit and tie to church as a teenager. (Perhaps that’s where my lifelong rebellion to ties comes from.)

While a suit and tie (or a long dress) is not a symbol of comfort, it has a specific purpose. Those who wear formal clothes, in a business or church setting, are showing off their best side. Formality shows dignity and respect to those we interact with.

Again, formal clothes are not meant for comfort (although they shouldn’t be distractingly uncomfortable). They serve a higher purpose. We are giving our best. We have standards. It costs money to buy formal clothes, and in certain settings, they are necessary.

Weddings and funerals require more than T-shirt and flip-flops. Why? Respect for those we are honoring.

Dressing down

Having no dress code on Sunday mornings is fine, to make sure that no one is excluded. But I think we’ve taken that thought too far. We are so casual, we’ve forgotten who the God of the universe really is. It’s hard to offer respect in a T-shirt and flip-flops. We can start there with God, but should we remain there our whole lives?

I’m reading the book of Leviticus in the Bible with a group of friends. It’s a long list of rules for animal and grain sacrifices, purification rituals and standards for daily living. It’s hard reading. Does it even apply to 21st century America?

Oh, yes. My study Bible offers this commentary:

 

We may be tempted to dismiss Leviticus as a record of bizarre rituals of a different age. But its practices made sense to the people of the day and offer important insights for us into God’s nature and character.

 

Israel, from the day God formed the nation, had to follow different rules than every other nation did. Israel was set apart. Its standards for living were much higher. The Israelites didn’t always appreciate that. At one point they wanted a king, solely because every other nation had one. God said He was their king, but that wasn’t good enough for them. God said fine, but you’ll have problems as a result. And they did.

Holy standards

The higher standards remained, even as Israel rebelled.

The Ten Commandments, as well as all the Levitical laws and rules, didn’t apply outside Israel. But inside Israel, they did.

God had something special planned for the nation. The higher standards benefited Israel as much as it did giving God the honor and respect He deserved. Do not commit adultery, for example: When we do commit adultery, the side effects are obvious and horribly damaging. But we do it anyway, don’t we?

As Christians who inherit this lifestyle, we are held to this higher standard. It’s easy to point fingers at us when we fall short. We all do, you know, whether we admit it or not.

Here’s the kicker: Those outside the church by definition aren’t following God’s standards. They follow their own man- (and woman)-made rules, many of which are based on Biblical principles (again, whether we admit that or not).

Where God’s standards and man’s standards differ is where we clash. Hard. It’s difficult to find compromise when we see life through different eyes. I’m not talking Republican and Democrat; I’m talking much bigger than that. I’m talking Christian and non-Christian.

Those two groups read the Bible differently, and here’s the explanation. Do we read Leviticus, for example, as a list of bizarre rituals, or insight into our holy God? Same words, two totally different meanings.

Best foot forward

The business world understands this better than the church does. Business executives put their best foot forward to lure customers to their product or service. If a business cuts corners, customers eventually will find out – and leave for a competitor.

High standards have a cost. Businesses have to put out time and money to research and build the best products and services, and then they charge us accordingly to consume them.

With God, the high standards are a lifestyle choice. That choice affects the way we think and live, the lens through which we see life. Are we willing to submit to a high standard, or not?

There are consequences and side effects whichever choice we make.

With God, it’s not a decide-once-and-live-happily-ever-after decision. Perhaps that’s why so few people accept God’s standards. It’s a daily thing. When we fall short, we ask God (and each other, when necessary) for forgiveness. Then we do it again. Forgive, and be forgiven. Seventy times seven times, in Jesus’ words.

I wish more people in the church understood holiness. In our efforts at being casual, it’s a lost theme.

But God is God and the standards remain, whether anyone follows them or not. Israel learned that the hard way over time in Old Testament days. I fear we are learning that the hard way today as well.