Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Lord bless you....

Sermon preached for the Eve of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus, Saturday, December 31, 2011.

    The words of the Aaronic benediction are among the most familiar words of worship for Lutherans.  We hear them so often, we often do not really listen to them.  Tonight, the Eve of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus, we are ready to tear off the calendar page and trade 2011 in for 2012.  Tonight we hear those words not as benediction but as the first lesson appointed for the Eve of this festival.  It offers us a moment to explore their meaning in more depth.
    The Lord bless you and keep you...  To bless means much more than to have good wishes for someone.  When we hear how the Lord told Aaron to bless His people, we do not hear niceties about hopes and dreams for an unknown and uncertain future.  Instead the word bless means to set apart for holy use.  We bless our food by remembering who has given it to us, by giving thanks to God, and by eating it to nourish the bodies God has given us for His service.  A certain Pastor I know closed his services with the words “The Lord bless you real good” – as if a blessing were a good wish and some wishes were better than others.  Can the Lord not bless us real good?  Each Sunday these words are spoken over us not as a pious hope or dream for something good to happen to you but to remind you of your baptism.  You have been set apart for holy use, holy life, and a holy purpose.  Look how baptism is reflected in the hymn on these words we just sang, “Go, My Children, with My Blessing.”
    This is not some vague or generic blessing but a setting apart in Christ. It is because you bear the name of Christ in baptism that you are set apart.  You were not set apart by your feelings or desire but by the mighty act of Christ who shed His infant and adult blood for you, fulfilling the law and commandments of God and giving to you His righteousness as gift.  The Lord bless you – set you apart for His purpose and glory – and keep you – keep you set apart, keep you holy and righteous in Christ, and keep you now, within the present, and for all eternity.  The Lord bless and keep you – in other words, may the Lord who called you out and made you holy in your baptism keep you in this baptismal life and grace ready for the Lord when He comes again.  This is the problem we have after each service on Sunday and as a people beginning a new calendar year – keeping set apart amid the great temptations, glitter, and deceptions of the world and our own sinful flesh.  Here the benediction we are clothed with the grace that does not once set us apart but keeps us set apart, in faith, in Christ, amid all that would distract and distance us from this.
    The Lord make His face to shine on you and be gracious to you.  You and I know how hard it is to talk to someone who is looking elsewhere.  We want to see into the face and look into the eyes of the people with whom we speak.  To turn your face to someone is to give them your attention, to grace them with that attention.  The face of the Lord is His favor.  To look upon us is an act of grace on the part of God. This face shines on us through the face of Christ, who came for us as one of us to die in our place and rise to bestow upon us eternal life.  This is the smiling countenance of love, the favor of grace, and the smile of mercy.
    What do we sing in Lent: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love...”  The grace of God is not a feeling or attitude but the concrete grace of the cross and suffering, death and the grave.  God's gracious disposition is the choice of God to take our burden of sin and death as His own, to suffer for us what was ours to suffer, and the incarnation of God to fulfill all righteousness for us.
    The Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace...   The favor of the Lord is always gift and grace.  What God has shown to us in Christ, is what He continues to show to us in Christ.  The smile of mercy remains upon us and we do not live in doubt or fear of God's disposition toward us.  For a people set to enter a new calendar year, this is so important to us.  What we know of God yesterday and today, is what we can confidently count on for the days to come.  God does not change.  He is yesterday, today and forever the same. 
    The peace that these words speak of is not an absence of conflict or distress but the positive peace that comes from Jesus.  To hear these words is to remember Jesus "My peace I give to you, not as the world gives to you..." It also recalls the words of Paul – the peace that surpasses all human understanding..."  This peace is what remains with you even amid the conflicts and upsets of life.  This peace is what remains in you even when your best laid plans and intentions go awry.  This is the personal peace of Jesus.
    When I was first a Pastor, I would walk down the halls of the hospital or nursing home and people would cry out, "bless me."  It made me feel kind of sheepish at first.  A wise Pastor reminded me that it was not me whose blessing they sought but the blessing of Him who sent me.  They sought to know amid sickness and old age that God was still with them, that they  were still set apart for the Lord, for His holy purpose and life.  It is no different on this night.  We come to close the book on 2011 – all of its victories and successes as well as all of its defeats and failures.  We come seeking to know that no matter what has happened, we belong to the Lord and God lives in us by baptism and faith.  We come to open the first page of 2012 – with all the uncertainties, fears, and anxieties about what is to come.  We come seeking to know that no matter what happens, we belong to the Lord and God lives in us by baptism and faith.
    So to us who gather on the eve of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus, what we receive from God is His Name and His blessing.  The past is past and cannot be redone.  It can only be folded into the mercy of God and forgiven.  The present moment is a brief one which endures only because we live it in Christ.  The future is completely unknown (and if the political pundits are right, not too rosy).  But through it all, you are still the Lord’s.  His forgiveness makes you clean.  His presence still sustains you.  His promise has not faded away.  You who were set apart in baptism, are still set apart for His holy purpose, the holy calling of faith.  So do not fear, You belong to Him and He will not abandon those whom He had moved time and eternity to call His own.  A blessed New Year to you all.  Amen.

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