Numbers 6:22-27 The LORD said to Moses, 23 "Tell Aaron and his sons, 'This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: 24 "'"The LORD bless you and keep you; 25 the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; 26 the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace."' 27 "So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them."
Hand gestures are a very effective nonverbal form of communication. Think of some of the famous hand gestures made popular in TV and movies.
In “Star Trek,” Spock separated his third and fourth fingers to give the Vulcan blessing, “Live long and prosper.”
In the “Hunger Games” trilogy, Katniss gives the three-finger salute to express unity with people of the districts.
In “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” if someone just kept yapping Ross would give the “blah-blah-blah” gesture. Elaine’s was a bit more expressive.
If you are a loser, Ace Ventura will give you the “Loser” sign with the L on the forehead. If you are cool, the Fonz will give you the “thumbs up.” If you are a boy coming over to my house, I’m giving you the “I’m watching you” signal, from “Meet the Fockers.”
You may or may not be geeky enough to know all of those hand gestures. But there is a hand gesture that you see every single Sunday and you don’t have to be a geek at all to recognize it or know what it means.
With the use of five fingers, the pastor is symbolizing a timeless truth – that our God is triune – three persons yet one God. The pastor raises his right hand to make the sign of the cross during times of blessing. Asking for the Lord’s blessing upon our worship service as we invoke His holy, triune name with the invocation. Giving you the blessing that your sins are forgiven in the absolution. Consecrating the bread and wine in Holy Communion with the Lord’s blessing and words of institution. And granting the Lord’s blessing upon you in the benediction before you leave worship.
Each pastor may make the sign of the cross a bit differently, but the symbolism is the same. Typically, I will have my thumb, index, and middle finger extended. That symbolizes the Trinity – that God is three persons yet one God. The ring and pinkie fingers against the palm symbolize the two natures of Christ – that He is both God and Man.
Other times I may place my thumb over or touching my ring and pinkie fingers. The symbolism of the Trinity and two natures of Christ are the same.
There is a secret symbol gesture I make when I cross myself after receiving communion. I place the tips of my thumb, index, and middle fingers together with my last two fingers against my palm. This is the Eastern Orthodox way of making the sign of the cross. It’s not that I’m secretly becoming Eastern Orthodox, but rather it is a reminder to me that I’m part of something much bigger than being WELS Lutheran. I’m part of the Holy Christian Church – Lutheran, Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, etc.
Crossing ourselves during the invocation, absolution, or communion is a fine Christian practice. It isn’t and shouldn’t be confined to the Catholic or Orthodox churches. More and more of our members are doing it. In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther encouraged all Christians to cross themselves before their morning and evening prayers. Making the sign of the cross can be a helpful practice that reminds us that “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23) and that the Christian life is one of bearing the cross (Matthew 16:34).
When the pastor makes the sign of the cross at the invocation or you cross yourself in your private or public worship, you hear the words, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The sign of the cross and those words remind you of your baptism. That was when the pastor made the sign of the cross over your head and heart, marking you as a redeemed child of God. That was when the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, placed His holy name on you.
Andy wrote his name on the bottom of Woody’s cowboy boot in “Toy Story.” Woody belonged to Andy. The Triune God placed His name on you in your baptism and He continues to remind you of that naming privilege in His Benediction. You belong to Him. God told His high priest Aaron to give God’s people His three-fold Benediction and the result would be: “So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”
What name is used in the Benediction? The name “LORD,” in all capitals. This is the unique name of our God. Any time you see the name “LORD” in all capitals letters, this is the great “I AM” who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. He is not a god of the past – “I was” – or a god of the future – “I will be.” Rather, the LORD is the God of the present – “I AM.” He is the eternal, unchangeable God – the only true constant we have in our lives.
The LORD places His name on you in the Benediction. But what do the words of the Benediction really mean? Just as you may have seen the pastor’s right hand raised in blessing countless times and not known what it meant, so you may have heard these ancient words of blessing thousands of times and only thought, “The service is finally over.”
The words of the Benediction were divinely inspired – given by the Triune God Himself. God commanded His priests to bless His people in this way. We use these words of the Benediction as we leave the Lord’s House and return to our lives in this world of sin and evil.
“The LORD bless and keep you.” God provided for the Israelites as they crossed through the Red Sea on dry ground. God preserved Daniel by keeping him safe from hungry lions and greedy kings. When a young mother gives birth to her baby prematurely, God cares for and provides life for that child. When you narrowly missed a car accident, it is God who sent His angels to guard you in all your ways. When terrorist attacks or tornadoes or recession hits, our heavenly Father is hard at work blessing and keeping us.
To “bless” means to “shower favor upon.” The LORD certainly showers us with plenty of material blessings. But much more importantly, the LORD has showered many spiritual blessings on us. St. Paul writes, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). The LORD, our heavenly Father, showered His Son from heaven like rain sent upon a desert wasteland. The LORD, God’s Son, showered His blood upon us to wash us clean from our sin. The LORD, God the Holy Spirit, showered us with grace and faith at the baptismal font. Part of that blessing means that the LORD keeps us – He defends us from danger to body and soul. He guards and protects us from all evil.
“The LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.” When your daughter scores a goal in the soccer tournament or your son makes the honor roll or all your children are on stage together for another successful grade school play, you smile and shine with parental pride. Our Lord Jesus smiles and shines at you, His brothers and sisters. He smiles at you, not because you are perfect, but because you are His project of love. His grace shines on you when He picks you up as His little lamb wandering off into mischief, gathering you into His arms and patting you on the head, “Hey there, little rascal, stay close to me and you’ll always be safe.” The picture that comes to mind is Jesus holding a lamb in each arm promising us, “No one can snatch them out of my hands” (John 10:29).
You’ve probably been to enough sporting events where you saw a young person get seriously injured. The trainer goes out, then the coach. When it is really, really bad, then the parents are called onto the field. That student athlete is frightened and crying because of the pain of the injury, but there is a calm that sweeps over the face of the child when he or she seems Dad’s face. Now everything will be all right. Dad is here.
When your marriage is falling apart or you’ve lost your job or you are scared to receive the doctor’s prognosis, you remember these words, “The LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you.” Your heavenly Father’s face is shining on you through the work of His Son. Everything will be all right. Your DAD is here.
“The LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.” It is a terrible thing to have the Triune God turn His back on you. He is the worst enemy anyone can have. Because of our sin, we deserve to have God turn His back on us and want nothing to do with us. But that’s not what happens. Instead of us who deserved it, the LORD turned His back on Jesus, who didn’t deserve it at all. That’s why Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46). Because Jesus endured the suffering of separation that our sins caused, now the LORD turns His face toward us and looks with favor upon us. The only reason we can be in the Father’s holy presence is by the work of the Son.
The result of the LORD turning His face toward us gives us peace. This is the work of the Holy Spirit blessing us with a peace that is beyond all human understanding (Philippians 4:7). Peace for your troubled conscience in the knowledge that your sins are forgiven. Peace before surgery knowing that your heavenly Father is watching over you. Peace when your child is born knowing that God has sent His angels to protect her from Satan’s demons. Peace as you see your mom slipping away from you with dementia knowing that though she may not know you anymore, she knows the LORD and the LORD knows her. Peace as you watch your grandfather die with his calm confidence in the LORD who put His name on Grandpa so long ago in baptism and repeated that name countless times in the Benediction.
When the Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892, children were to say, “I pledge allegiance,” with their right hand held at the brow in a military salute. When they came to say, “to my flag” (the original words), then they extended their right arm up and out, pointing towards the flag. This was used for decades until Americans realized that it closely resembled the stiff-armed salute of dictators Mussolini and Hitler. So in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt made the hand over the heart gesture as the official gesture of the Pledge of Allegiance that we all know today.
Words, and the gestures we use with them, have meaning. Whether it is in the Pledge, in movies or in daily life. The same is true for worship. Different pastors and different Christian traditions may make the sign of the cross in different ways, but the meaning is still the same. The words of the Benediction are the same. Those words have been the same for 3500 years. And now you know their meaning when the pastor raises his hand to give you the Triune God’s blessing. Amen.