Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 25, 2019
Psalm 103:1-8 Commentary
There are some pieces of music, certain poems, some scenes in movies that are so lyric, so moving, so flat out beautiful that it doesn’t matter how often you hear it, read it, or see it: it gets you every time. Psalm 103 is like that. I usually balk a bit when the Lectionary slices up readings or snatches up only a few verses. Here we get only the first 8 verses of this Hebrew poem but this time that may be enough to savor. The rest of the Psalm goes on in similar veins, going from one lyric image to the next. Given how rich Psalm 103 is, maybe these 8 verses are enough for one sitting, for one sermon.
I have been part of congregations that sometimes uses these opening verses as a response to taking the Lord’s Supper. What other response is fitting after once again experiencing fellowship with the Jesus who gave himself for us than to say “Bless the Lord, O my soul! Forget not all his benefits!” Aside from stunned silence following the sacrament, “Bless the Lord” may in fact be the most apt thing to say and to express from the heart.
Of course, this Psalm may be just lyric enough—and many of us may associate this Psalm with good things just enough—that we may miss how sweeping (and perhaps, just so, how unrealistic) the claims of these opening verses actually are. Really? God heals ALL of our diseases? He lifts us up out of EVERY pit? He ALWAYS satisfies us with good things? He works justice for ALL the oppressed? All I have to do is check this week’s announcements in the church bulletin or click on the link to open up the CNN website and I can spy readily lots of people whose diseases were not healed, who have been in the pits for years, who suffer oppression and injustice without end (even until it takes their very lives from them).
If this were not so, the one-third of the 150 Psalms in the category of “Lament Psalms” would not need to exist in the same Bible as Psalm 103. Surely there have been moments in the churches I have attended and where we used Psalm 103 as our response to the Lord’s Supper when these words have stuck in some people’s throats. As I write this, I grieve a 55-year-old cousin who died of a spread of ovarian cancer, the same kind of cancer that took her sister 18 months ago at the age of 51. We prayed awfully hard for God to heal these diseases. For whatever the reason, that did not happen. Were I to recite these words of Psalm 103 today, I would have to mentally place an asterisk by verse 3b—not quite every disease gets healed after all.
Would this be a better poem if in the place of “all” or “every” the poet had inserted instead “some” or “many” or “a few”? Would it help to insert an adverb like “often” in the lines about rescuing from pits and bringing justice to the oppressed? Granted, it would undercut the power of the lyrics and all but wouldn’t it make the psalm a better fit for our everyday reality? Wouldn’t it prevent these words from sticking in people’s throats as often as they do?
Maybe. But then, we don’t expect this from other poems or songs we like. Would we deem it an improvement on Shakespeare if his sonnet said “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art frequently more lovely and sometimes more temperate.” I mean, let’s face it: even our most ardent loves in life are not ALWAYS like a summer’s day, right? Or how about a Beatles song. Is this an improvement: “It’s been a hard day’s night and I’ve been working like a dog. But hen I get home to you, I see the things that you do, and sometimes they make me feel all right.”
No, no: we want our love songs and sonnets to be singularly rapturous, to sum up love at its very best (even though we all know that in also the healthiest of relationships such feelings actually ebb and flow a bit). Maybe Psalm 103 is like that. This expresses the best of who God is, of how God deals with the world, of how God expresses his love for his creatures. As in sonnets and love songs, we know full well it cannot always be so for now but we appreciate the poetry anyway—it is at once inspirational and aspirational. As such, it gives one hope.
But biblical psalms are neither Shakespearean inventions nor the musings of Lennon/McCartney. We believe these are the inspired words of God and that they tie in with ultimate realities. So for Psalm 103 we have to see this as more than romantic exaggeration or inspirational poetry. We have to see this as expressing also how it will finally all shake out in God’s good world. We have to believe that even at their most literal extreme, the words here about forgiving sins and healing diseases, about rescuing from pits and working justice for all the oppressed are true and will ultimately be proven to be true at the end of the cosmic day. This is where we are headed. This is more than aspirational. This is schatological and finally, therefore, true. This is how the cosmic story concludes.
So it’s ok both to find these words sticking in your throat sometimes and now and then to get swept up in the lyric promise represented by these words. We can swoon a little here now and again in knowing this is an expression of God’s dearest desires. Or in the famed words of Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name. For one day, it will all be true.
The former Beatle and amazing songwriter Paul McCartney has never been much of a shrinking violet. He has never been adverse to facing criticisms head on, sometimes engaging critiques at a deep level, other times shrugging them off. A consistent knock on McCartney over the years—including even some songs he wrote when still with the Beatles—was that he was a bit saccharine, a bit syrupy, a bit overly romantic. Too many starry-eyed love song ballads, too many head-over-heels and downright silly lyrics. So with his post-Beatles band Wings, McCartney answered his critics with a song titled “Silly Love Songs.” “Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs. And what’s wrong with that, I’d like to know, cause here I go again . . . I love you . . . I love you.”
Ironically, the Silly Love Song meant to answer critics of silly love songs went on to become one of McCartney’s greatest hits of all time.
Sometimes we need over-the-top expressions of love and adoration. They sustain us. Like Psalm 103 perhaps. Because as McCartney’s song also said, when you are actually in love “It isn’t silly, it isn’t silly, love isn’t silly at all.”
No, it isn’t.
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