Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
This summer we’ve been focusing on the Old Testament book of Psalms, highlighting individual scenes here and there, noting they’re written in a way that invites us to step into the role of speaker and make the words our own.
Early on in the series I used the analogy of a festival of short plays, each one with its own setting and tone and plot. I hope there’ve been scenes or scripts that have stuck with you and that you’ll return to your favorites often.
Today I thought it would be interesting to read a psalm that’s almost a festival of short scenes all on its own, because Psalm 103 has a little of everything.
We see nods to penitential psalms (psalms of confession) here in words like these: “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities… as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.” (verses 10, 12)
We see a nod to psalms of lament in a reference here to “the Pit,” (verse 4) a metaphor used often in psalms of lament to express experiences of suffering.
And that’s not all, when it comes to thematic elements in this text. Psalm 103 alludes to Moses and the early history of the people of Israel (verse 7), and to God’s covenant and God’s commandments (verse 18). There are lines here that have the flavor of wisdom literature, reading like something out of the book of Proverbs: “as for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone.” (verses 15-16) God’s divine rule becomes the focus toward the end of the psalm: “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all… bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion.” (verses 19, 22). And the important emphasis on God’s justice we see throughout the Scriptures turns up here too: “The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.” (verse 6)
What brackets and unifies this psalm-of-many-themes is the language of blessing, specifically the phrase “bless the Lord.” Twice in the first two verses, four times in the final three verses, the psalmist uses these words. We often think of the noun “blessing” as something God offers us, and the verb “blessing” as something God does for us, but here in Psalm 103 the psalmist flips that language around, inviting himself and all of us to “bless the Lord.” In this context to bless means to thank and praise God for all of the “benefits” (verse 2) he lists in the rest of the psalm.
If you know the movie “White Christmas” created shortly after WWII, there are two scenes, one at the beginning and one at the end of the film, where loyal troops under the command of General Waverly line up, salute, and sing their tribute to him. You might even remember some of the words they sing. My favorite are these: “because we love him, we love him, especially when he keeps us on the ball.” They looked up to him, they respected him, he was their commander, and in those moments they blessed him with their praise.
It’s something a little similar, I think, when we bless God. The Lord does so much for us. God’s the one in command and in control of course, yet we can still touch God’s heart. We can still bless God with our praise.
So we bless the Lord for forgiveness and healing, renewal and mercy, rescue from disease and danger, and above all for God’s steadfast love, another phrase that echoes throughout the psalm. Listen again: God “crowns you with steadfast love and mercy” (verse 4), God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (verse 8), “as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is [God’s] steadfast love” (verse 11), “the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting.” (verse 17). There’s no question of God being fickle; God’s love is firm, persistent, unwavering, dependable.
We also bless the Lord for God’s tender care: “as a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” Incidentally the “fear of the Lord” here and elsewhere simply means looking to God with respect and awe, not being frightened of God. And the Hebrew word for compassion is actually related to the word for womb, evoking a sense of intimate love and protection from our divine parent. Why does God have compassion on us? “He knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust” (verse 14). Yes, the one who created us knows our human limitations better than anyone, and (thank goodness!) chooses to meet our weakness with his mercy.
There’s a wonderful prayer I remember from my days in the Episcopal Church that urges us as we approach Scripture texts to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” them. I find myself wanting to do that with this psalm. To pour over and over it. To internalize it so it travels with me. Composer and author Greg Scheer talks about wanting Psalm 103 as his funeral hymn someday, because he feels it so beautifully encapsulates the essential elements of the Christian faith. We may not have spent as much time with Psalm 103 as with other psalms – like the 23rd for instance, “the Lord is my shepherd” – but if this one is less familiar to us, it’s no less worthy of becoming a favorite.
And if we take away nothing else today, I hope the refrain will stick with us, that repeated call to “bless the Lord.”
The psalm mentions enough challenges that we know it’s intended for all times and circumstances, not just when life is going smoothly. There’s ample room in that metaphorical language of redeeming our lives from the Pit (verse 4) for remembering every occasion on which God has come to our rescue and lifted us up. There’s ample room here in Psalm 103 for whatever challenges we might be facing right now whether individually or together. In spite of it all, through it all, we say “bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.”
And with its mention of God’s “vindication and justice for all who are oppressed,” we are reminded that our faith in the Lord’s steadfast love needs to be about more than a private relationship with God. Are we noticing and addressing injustice? Are we treating others fairly in God’s name, and working to right significant wrongs in this world God has asked us to care for? “We love him, we love him, especially when he keeps us on the ball.” Let’s live like we do! For when we seek justice as the God of justice commands, we bless the Lord who has compassion for all his children. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.”
My prayer for you today is that as you (as we) learn to bless the Lord in all times and circumstances, with all that is within us, obeying God’s commands and working for the good of all God’s children, God will indeed “crown you with steadfast love and mercy, and satisfy you with good as long as you live.” Amen.