The Benediction was my favorite part of the Sunday morning worship service. As a young child, I thought I knew what Benediction meant. The cartoons I watched signed off with "That's all folks!" and I knew the cartoon was over. Benediction was the church's way of saying, "That's all folks!" Soon I could get up and move around. No longer did I have to be quiet and worry about the stern look from my Mother if I was not so attentive. Lunch was not far away. I loved the Benediction and everything that it represented!
Much later in life, I learned what "benediction" really means. It simply means "a good word." As worship concludes, a "good word" is spoken to the congregation. Often, we bow our heads as if it is a prayer, but the "good word" is usually a word spoken more to the worshipper than to God. It sends us out from the worship where we have gathered in God's name to be scattered into the world to live on mission from God. The Bible is filled with benedictions. The ancient Hebrews used them; the Apostle Paul often closed his letters with one. Today, ministers sometimes use these biblical benedictions to send the congregation into the world.
From the time I was five until I was sixteen, John Claypool was my pastor in the Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He had written his own benediction. Every week he spoke the same words at the conclusion of worship. Soon the congregation began to learn these familiar refrains and would even whisper them along with the preacher. As I grew older, the benediction took on new meaning for me. No longer was it just the end of worship. Instead, it became the chance for me to speak along with my pastor. The words that had become so familiar to me took on the profound effect of ritual. Each phrase of John's benediction began to be planted like seeds in my mind and heart. Most of John's sermons I do not remember. I will never forget his benediction. I have used it throughout my ministry. Have you heard these words before?[i]
Depart now in the fellowship of God the Father,
and as you go remember:
in the goodness of God, you were born into this world;
by the grace of God, you have been kept all the day long, even unto this hour;
and by the love of God, fully revealed in the face of Jesus,
you are being redeemed. Amen
John R. Claypool[ii]
Today I invite you to think about the good word of a benediction that was spoken at the end of an incredible worship experience. Perhaps we can learn these words and repeat them over and over again in our own encounters with God. One day Isaiah had an experience of worship that included a vivid vision of God. He saw the Lord "high and lofty" (v.1) in all the majesty and grandeur of divine splendor. He described this as a smoke-filled room with mysterious creatures inhabiting the place. The atmosphere of this encounter was one of wonder and awe. His close encounter with God called forth praise and a declaration of the holiness of God. The God Isaiah depicts is not some cozy buddy who can be accepted or rejected with ease. Instead, Isaiah describes a God of power who strikes our hearts and bends our knees in praise and adoration. It is as if Isaiah looked through the temple window and saw the face of God.
We could stop right here and talk for a long time about the wondrous glory of God. In a world that is often filled with mundane routine and ugly behavior, we would do well to see again a vision of a God who is "Holy, holy, holy." But we must move on. A benediction is waiting.
The vision of God called forth a response from Isaiah. As soon as Isaiah saw the wondrous glory of God, he was struck by his own lack of luster. He cried out, "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" (v. 5) This encounter with the Holy One was not only an opportunity for Isaiah to focus on God, it was also a chance for him to consider the sinfulness and brokenness of his own humanity.
We cannot focus on God's goodness without also examining our own faults. We cannot praise the strengths of God without being made aware of our own weakness. We cannot glorify the love of God without also agonizing over our own lack of love. We can echo the words of Isaiah when we look into the mirror of reality and say, "Woe is me!" We can also know the joy of Isaiah when we hear God's word of grace. Our "guilt has departed and our sin is blotted out." There is not a more welcomed word for us to hear than the grace-filled message of forgiveness. We could spend a long time talking about our woes and God's loving forgiveness. But we need to move on. A benediction is waiting.
A real encounter with God challenges us to look at the needs of the world. Isaiah did not have time to settle in for a long worship retreat. As great as his vision of the power of God might have been, and as reassuring as the forgiveness of God was following his repentance, Isaiah is challenged with a question. God is looking for a volunteer to go into the world to proclaim the message of good news. God asks, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Isaiah responds by saying the famous words, "Here am I; send me!" Worship is always transformed into mission!
Hearing the voice of God is not just for our own personal enlightenment. That is what God is trying to say to Isaiah when God sent him from the temple. Too often churches have created their own closed societies inside stained glass windows and under tall steeples. It is little wonder that many who are outside the walls have trouble discerning the relevance of what is done in the church. Worship is not a wall behind which to hide; it is a door that beckons us to walk through it to a world in need. Everything that we do in worship should relate to life outside of the church.
"Here am I; send me!" These are words of benediction. Because of Isaiah's profound experience of the glory of God, and because his guilt was cleansed and his sins forgiven, he was set free to invest his life in others. That should always be our good word of benediction.
After all, isn't that what Jesus said? He certainly knew the majestic glory of God's presence, but he also saw the brokenness of humanity in need of forgiveness. The good word of Jesus was to say, "Here am I; send me!" And, in the mystery of what we call the Incarnation, Jesus was sent from glory into a world desperately needing grace. As he walked among us, Jesus was a benediction - a good word. As the Gospel of John says it so beautifully, "The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14, NRSV) Glory and grace happened in the benediction of the Good Word we call Jesus.
A missionary once taught me an important lesson. We were talking together about the meaning of incarnational missions in Thailand. He asked, "Why did Jesus wait so long before he began his ministry?" We usually think that Jesus was about thirty when he began his earthly ministry. Why wait so long if his work was so important? It was because of the incarnation. He came to live among us - not just to quickly do a salvation operation and then get out. Jesus came to know our hopes and dreams, sorrows and griefs. "The Word became flesh and lived among us" is not just what happened in Bethlehem - it continued in Nazareth for many years, preparing Jesus to know how to bring peace into our hearts. "Here am I; send me!" meant that Jesus literally "moved into our neighborhood" (see The Message rendering for John 1:14) and spent time getting to know us.
As I grew in faith, I learned to say my pastor's benediction along with him. The words were no longer just his words - they became my words and our words. Isn't that what faith really is? Jesus said the good word in the glory and holiness of heaven - "Here am I; send me!" He then came to share God's glory and grace with all of us. What a good word of benediction his life was! We who are his followers can now begin saying his same good word of benediction along with Jesus. "Here am I; send me!" When our lives have been changed by the vision of God's holiness and by the grace of God's forgiveness, then we can respond to the call from God to be on mission in the world. "Here am I; send me!" becomes our good word of benediction.
"Who will go?" God asks...
When people don't know about the love of Jesus and need to hear the story,
When injustice marginalizes groups of people who need love and respect,
When poverty means that children are going hungry.
"Who will go?" God asks...
When prejudice separates us from brothers and sisters in the human family,
When grief is so great that lives are immobilized,
When guilt is so consuming that people feel imprisoned.
"Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" God asks. Perhaps we can speak the word of benediction along with Isaiah and Jesus, "Here am I; send me!" That is the good word our world needs to hear!
Pray with me please.
Inspire us by a vision of your glory, dear God. Cleanse us by the forgiveness of your grace. Empower us to speak the words of benediction that a hurting world needs to hear. We pray these things in the name of Jesus, your Good Word who lived among us, Amen.
[i] An expanded written account of my "benediction memories" can be found in Carolyn Sloss Ratliff's excellent collection of stories entitled, Life is Gift: Remembrances of John Rowan Claypool IV, Birmingham: St. Luke's Episcopal Church, 2015, pp. 212-214.
[ii] An audio recording of John Claypool saying his Benediction during his tenure as Pastor of Crescent Hill Baptist Church can be found on the church web site at www.chbcky.org/history .