Thursday, December 07, 2017

Sermon on Psalm 103, for Advent Midweek 2, "Bless the Lord O My Soul"

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His Holy Name! Last week we spoke, sang, and meditated on a deeply personal Psalm—Psalm 42. It was the cry of a soul in distress, and pointed the soul to hope in God, our salvation. This week Psalm 103 begins with individual praise, the soul blessing God and recounting all His benefits—but then the psalm expands our vision to include the whole community praising God. What begins as a solo turns into a chorus of praise to God. This beloved psalm has been paraphrased several times into hymns, including both of the hymns we sing tonight. As the solo turns to a chorus, the singers of the psalm reflect on our human frailty and sin in comparison to God’s eternity and forgiveness; and finally the psalm soars in a closing doxology that calls all creation to praise God. The closing words bring it full circle: Bless the Lord, O my soul!
The psalm begins and ends in praise, much like we often pray in church: It is truly good, right, and salutary (that is: healthful) for us at all times and in all places to give thanks to you, O Lord. To bless God, to praise and thank Him, is not only good and right, but it’s also healthy. C.S. Lewis, in his reflections on the Psalms, has a short chapter on praise. He described how praise surrounds us in ordinary life, and how much we in fact enjoy doing it, without any special urging. Lovers praise the beauty and the good qualities of their beloved. Sports fans enthusiastically praise their team and it’s victories. Nature lovers praise and glorify the scenery, the sunsets, the mountains and waterfalls. We praise our favorite music and the musicians who create it; or the artists and the artwork that impresses us and touches us. Readers praise their favorite books or poetry, and burn to tell others about them. Today youth and adults use Instagram, and other social media to praise their favorite pics or events.
C.S. Lewis observed that the people who enjoyed life the most and were healthiest of mind seemed also to be the ones who praised the most—while those who he called cranks, malcontents, or snobs, seemed to be the least grateful and praised least. His point was that praise seemed a sign of our inner health. Praise seems wired into our enjoyment of life. (Although we should make a note here that self-praise is usually a warped and unhealthy form of praise).  It is truly, good, right, and salutary for us at all times and in all places to give thanks to you O Lord. While we praise ordinary things readily enough; apparently when it comes to praising God, we often need more urging. Praise of God doesn’t seem to flow so easily as those ordinary examples, even though it is of far greater importance.
Why praise gives us such satisfaction, Lewis ventures to explain that praising something, and telling others about it, completes our enjoyment of something, and that the higher the worth or value of the object or person we are praising, the more our enjoyment increases by praising it. So if we were able to fully delight in, love, and perfectly express our delight in the highest and worthiest object (which, of course, is God)—then our souls would experience supreme beatitude or perfect bliss. Isn’t this what the Psalmist—and really God—is inviting us to do? To join our soul in the praise of God—which both elevates our spirits and turns our eyes from this frail earthly life, to the daily benefits and blessings of God that surround us, and up further to the Divine Hand from which they flow? God’s benefits include forgiveness, healing, redemption, a glorious crown of His mercy and love upon our heads, and renewal of strength like the eagles.
Look at how God regards us in our low estate. God does not trample on us or despise us, but He has compassion on us, as a father to his children. He knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. God has not forgotten that He has made us fragile creatures, or that we are mortal. He knows our weakness. But how? Isn’t God infinitely above us, transcendent and immortal, beyond all the lowness and misery of dusty Earth? But God has so intimately entered our human frame and form in the person of Jesus Christ, that He knows our weakness from the inside out. He was born in a humble manger, in real human flesh and blood, and walked this earth in a mortal body, subject to pain, exhaustion, emotions, both joyful and sad, hunger, thirst, and ultimately even death. God knows our frame and remembers that we are dust—so intimately, so truly, because God became man in Jesus of Nazareth. His skin sweated under the Galilean sun. His hands and arms felt the splinters in wood. His heart felt the sorrow of being despised and hated by those He came to save. But as Jesus Christ entered human flesh, this the miracle and mystery of Christmas, He became the fulfilment of all these precious benefits and promises from God, contained in Psalm 103.
If all we knew was that we are dust, that we’re like the grass and flowers, doomed to fade and disappear; if all we knew was the guilt of our sins and the penalty that was justly due for them, then our life would be miserable indeed. Nothing better to do than eat, drink, be merry, and die. If that were all we knew, then there would be no reason to hope this Advent. But because God walked in human flesh, because Jesus’ road traveled to the cross and the empty tomb; the LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He forgives us our sins, driving them as far from us as the east is from the west. Our sins are forever parted from us and God does not record them to our account, because Jesus has forgiven them on the cross. God has entered our human condition and responded to all the sin that we use to cause ourselves and others so much grief. At the cross, the Father’s compassionate love for His children is seen, as He bears up all our sins, illness, and weakness, and takes it upon His Son. And Jesus delivers these pains and ills to the grave where they belong.
While our time on the scene may be fleeting, the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. God’s love is eternal and covenantal. While this temporary world passes away, His love for us is eternal—which means that the grave is not the end for us. He forever keeps the soul that blesses Him. He pours all His benefits graciously down on us, through Jesus, who died and rose to deliver on all these benefits for us.
The psalm ends with a fourfold call to bless God—from the highest angels in heaven to all the hosts that surround Him and ministers that do His will—across to every work of His creation, all the things that He has done and made—down to our individual soul. From the height, breadth, length, and depth of creation, let praise echo back to God! It is good, right, and salutary, or healthy, so to do! And while we just get tastes and glimpses of the full joy of heaven through our worship now—C.S. Lewis reminds us that our services are “merely attempts at worship”, to be completed in the perfect worship of heaven; like the tuning up of the orchestra for the future delight of the real performance; or the digging of water channels in a dry and dusty land, in anticipation that when the water comes, we will be ready and see the thirsty land flourish with new life. Or in the words of St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 13:12 “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” This present life is but a dim reflection of the full glory we will see in God face to face. Here we feebly struggle, we endure bumps, or bruises, we sing off-key notes, and our clothes are dusty with this earth—but we should never fear that heaven should be a poor continuation of these struggles—but rather confidently believe that in heaven we will fully know God and enjoy Him forever. There we will know God face to face, and the joy of our soul will be complete. Bless the Lord, O my soul! In Jesus’ Name, Amen. 

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