Reformed worship: The charge and benediction

Scriptures: Numbers 6:24-27; Jude 1:24-25; Romans 12:1-13

This is the final sermon of the sermon series on Reformed worship, a wrap-up and the Charge and Benediction. As we started the series, the first thing we learned was that people are made to worship. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 1 says, “What is the chief end of man?”

And the answer is? [People in the congregation respond.] “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” You can feel free to shout that out like an Amen.

If we don’t worship God, we will worship something or someone else, because that’s the way we were made. We also learned some of the history of the formation of our worship today, noting that it was shaped mostly after synagogue worship, but that during the roughly one thousand years between 400 A.D. And 1500 A.D., it had moved away from that in its focus on the Eucharist and on the Gospel.

The Protestant Reformation, therefore, incorporated more teaching in the giving of the Word, though it’s still noted that there was an expectation that listeners would be supplementing their experience in Sunday School, Bible study, or personal devotional time.

We learned that all worship is really about the heart, nurturing the relationship you have with God and your fellow believers. We then began learning about the parts of the worship service in the Reformed faith, starting with the Gathering, then the Hearing, then the Response, and then the Sending.

In the Gathering, we fellowship some, give praise to God in song, and prepare our hearts to hear God’s word, as we reconcile ourselves with God and with each other with the prayer of confession, and, in those churches that have it, the passing of the peace.

In the Hearing of the Word, we listen for the message God has for us today, that our hearts might be moved and shaped by the Holy Spirit during this time. And make no mistake – the Word was meant to be read and preached in a worship context, first and foremost.

I was reminded of that this week, as I was doing some of my extra reading, and somebody had been kind enough to leave a copy of Christianity Today in my box. One of the articles, as it happened to be, in God’s timing, was about someone who had moved in an understanding of the purpose of Scripture and its reading.

He said when he was younger, he used to be very, very strict and firm in his devotional reading – he still is today – and he used some plan whose name I can’t remember, but they wanted you to read two chapters of the Old Testament and two chapters of the New Testament every single day. He said if you missed a day, you really got behind.

That was his primary thing, and then he would have a small group he was in. He would go to church on Sunday, and he would fellowship with the people, and he would enjoy his time there at the worship service and hear a message.

But as time went on and he matured, and he grew in understanding about the Scriptures themselves, who they were written for, the context they were written in, and the history behind it, he came to realize that the Scriptures, first and foremost, were meant to be read and preached on and thought on in the worship service, in the congregation as a whole.

Because most of the people in that time were illiterate. These letters, you’ll note, were never written to a single person. They’re always written to a church. When you hear about the stories that are in the Old Testament, yes, some of them are about individual people, but most of the time, they are about the people of God and the nation of God.

We are to begin to understand and learn about those things within the context of our worship time here. Then we can add onto those. I like to think of Bible study breaking it down further. It gives us the tools to really take apart and look at how it all fits together and how it works.

Your small groups are topical in nature and tend to be more relational, to teach you about application, applying what you learned in everyday life and to your specific situation where you are. And your daily devotional time is a time for you to reflect on what you have learned and give praise to God for His graciousness and glory and for His Word given to you in Jesus Christ.

Now after the Hearing of the Word, the Sacrament of Communion sometimes blurs the boundary between the Hearing of the Word and the Response, as we act out the Word and together remember the good news of the Gospel.

Then we respond to the Word in a variety of ways, as our hearts are moved by the Spirit, and we once again are refreshed in our joy and gratitude for all God has done.

The last section we have in our worship is the Sending, as with our heart full of the presence of Christ, empowered by the Spirit, and encouraged by the Word, we then turn our hearts to service, as we commit to glorify God with all that we do, reaching out in Christ’s love for each other first, and then to the world.

This outward focus can include testimony about mission, commissioning of teachers, missionaries, and others who serve in the world. We again sing praise to God for His goodness, and try to pick something that shows our determination to serve the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Which brings us to our topic for today, which is the Charge and Benediction (or Blessing). Now technically, these two things may be considered as part of the Sending. But along with giving me an excuse for the wrap-up, I really think they deserve their own coverage.

Few people like to leave this place without a charge. After having spent all this time listening for a word from the Lord, responding to the Word and committing to carry the Word out from this place, then you need some closure. Sometimes, direction is nice too.

There are many forms of charge that are Scripturally based. Romans 12 is a favorite, using verses 1-2 or 9-13, and our liturgist read those. I’d like to repeat for you Romans 12:1-2. Listen to it in the charge.

“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good, and acceptable, and perfect.”

We are told what to do, once we leave this place. I happen to like to quote from Matthew, where Jesus speaks of the greatest law, followed by the second one: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, serving Him only; and the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.”

Or perhaps from the Great Commission, as Jesus not only tells his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations by baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but also by teaching them all that he (Jesus) has commanded them.

The Charge is important. It reminds us that we are here for a purpose, and that purpose is greater than what goes on within the walls of this building. We’ve mentioned before how Deb Kinney, in her church, starts their service, as she likes to say, “It’s not about you.” Then the congregation responds back, “It’s not about you either.”

Just as in the beginning where we could be like Deb Kinney and remind ourselves that it isn’t about you, it isn’t about me, but it’s about God, so also we’re reminded of that at the end of the service. After all, our whole lives should be about God, giving Him praise and glory, seeking to serve Him, and sharing the good news about salvation in Jesus Christ.

Now, within the charge may be a small summary of the theme of the worship, so that we can take with us the essence of what was meant to be conveyed, and then try to apply it to our daily lives. Regardless, it gives us the opportunity to hear and affirm our mission.

After the Charge comes the Benediction, or Blessing. Benediction literally means “good word.” The hope is that, having been through this worship experience, we are blessed by God. The worship leader reminds us, with his or her blessing, and as with the charges, there are many blessings.

One of the better known ones comes from Jude, verses 24 and 25, as was read. The one that was read from Numbers 6:24-27 is called the Aaronic blessing, as Donna noted, one of the oldest ones recorded that we know of. It is also one that was given directly to Moses.

What I like about the passage and the blessing given is that it did come directly from God. By the way, Numbers is one of those books, like Leviticus, that is probably one of the greatest reasons that people fail in trying to read the Bible straight through.

You do great in Genesis, you do great in Exodus, then you hit Leviticus and you’re starting to slow down because you’re getting into all of the priestly stuff, and then you get to Numbers and you just fall asleep.

But even within books like this that are so difficult to deal with, you get these little gems that appear, these little nuggets. The prayer of Jabez is the famous one that someone wrote a book about it and it was a bestseller and became big news and a lot of people tried to say the prayer of Jabez.

Well, here’s another one, with this Aaronic blessing. After giving all these boring treatises in the first six chapters, on the different laws about ritual cleanliness, then suddenly the Lord tells Moses to tell his brother, the chief priest, to “bless the people in this manner.”

This isn’t some guy creating feel-good filler at the end of the show. This is God Himself making a promise to us. They aren’t empty words. Once again, they’re a reminder. They’re a reminder of the power and grace of God Almighty, a grace which we don’t deserve, but which God, in His great love for us, He pours out on us continually.

I’m going to go through this blessing a phrase at a time, quickly and briefly. “The Lord bless you and keep you.” In other words, the Lord keep His hand upon you and make certain you are safe within His hands.

Now, those of you that know me from Bible study and stuff know that I have this thing about the word “bless.” One of my pet peeves is actually the Beatitudes, where so many times, they translate the word blessed as “happy are you who … “ are poor in spirit, etc.”

But what is says is “blessed are you.” And I have to tell you that sometimes, being blessed by God is uncomfortable. Having the hand of God upon you isn’t always a happy thing. But it’s always a good thing. And ultimately it will bring joy to you, and those around you who are affected by it.

So happiness is a feeling, and blessedness is a state of being. So what he is saying is blessed are you, the Lord keep His hand upon you, and then make certain you are safe within those hands. The hands of God Almighty.

“The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.” The Jews understood that if God turned His face away, then nothing good could come from it. It was a sign of displeasure, of sin and of separation.

It says in the Scriptures that in the moment that Jesus became sin for us, the Father turned His face away. His holiness could not stand the sight of that sin, and in that moment, Christ experienced the ultimate loss for us, and then having done so, said, “It is finished.”

Three days later, Christ was raised from the dead, giving us His victory over sin and death, and the promise of God’s presence with us always, for His people. God is promising to turn His face to them, to love them and remain with them, to pour out that grace and mercy they so desperately need, to continue in a right relationship with Him. That’s the promise of that phrase.

The next one is “The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” Now, I know that some people may think, isn’t that a little bit redundant? Isn’t face and countenance the same thing? Well, face and countenance yes, the base meaning of countenance is synonymous with face.

But there’s an alternate meaning to countenance which means “support, affirmation,” and in this case, that’s what the word means. It’s saying “The Lord give all His support to you and give you peace.” Now think about that for a moment. The Almighty God is going to give His almighty strength and support for you.

Paul spoke truly when he said, “I can do all things through Christ who lives within me.” God is “all in” for you. Walk in His ways, live in His love, and you will achieve everything that God has planned for you. And you will know peace.

Now, not a peace like no wars or conflicts. Rather, it is a peace of serenity that comes from knowing you are loved with an everlasting love and will have an eternity with God, as you partake of life in God Himself. That kind of personal, spiritual peace.

Then it says, and I paraphrase, “After you say this, I will do as I have promised,” in that passage in Numbers.

So the worship leader closes with an invocation of God’s name, power, love, and support on each and every worshiper, so they can go out into the hostile world with enthusiasm and the assurance to follow where God leads.

Here in this church, we then respond as a congregation, giving a blessing and promise to each other and the worship leader who has just blessed you. After all, we are, as the bulletin says, all ministers in this church. All a royal priesthood, and all capable of passing on blessings and curses.

So the real thing that comes from that is what do you do? What will you do when you leave this place? Will you take the charge seriously and seek to carry out the Great Commission God has given to each of you?

Will you give God glory with each thing you do this week as you seek to serve Him and the people He has placed in your care and sphere of influence? Will you look forward with assurance and confidence in the watchful eye of the Lord and His great love and strength?

Or will you simply leave God at the church, as you might leave your work at the workplace, and move on with your life, unchanged and uncommitted? Will you let friction between you and someone else within the church or outside it keep you from experiencing the joy and liberty that is yours as one forgiven and freed by Jesus Christ? Will you shrug off the blessing as being for someone else who is more worthy, and forget that you are a child of God as well, and that Christ died for you?

Now, you may not have had much to do with the shaping of the worship experience – though you are welcome to participate at any stage. As most of you well know, liturgists, worship committee, coming up with a suggestion – I’m open to anything. Well, almost anything. There are things we Presbyterians struggle with. Maybe you even felt left out during worship itself, though I hope not.

But regardless, the ball is now in your court. You decide what you will take with you and what you will leave behind. My prayer is that you always choose to take hold of the charge and cling to the blessing as your anchor in the turbulence of life in the coming week, and of the coming Lenten season.

Remember that even in the darkest of times, God is there, if you look with the eyes and heart of a child of God, trusting Him with your life. May you give God praise and glory for the great things He has done, enjoying His presence now and the promise of eternity. Amen.

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