Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 28, 2023
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b Commentary
The singer Sting says he’ll be watching “every breath you take.” The pop group Berlin gave the original Top Gun movie its romantic lead theme music with its song “Take My Breath Away.” Taylor Swift has a whole album titled “Breathe” and its lead song says that after her love went away, she just cannot breathe without him. Not to be outdone, Britney Spears has a song in which she hopes her love will “Breathe on Me” and one of the mellowest songs of the rock band Pearl Jam includes a lyric invitation to a lover very simply to “just breathe with me.” By the way, this list of songs about breath and breathing could continue, but you get the point.
Ironically breathing is the one thing we all do without (thankfully) ever having to think about it. In fact, there is no swifter way to have trouble with your breathing than trying to pay attention to it or being forced to pay attention to it in case you feel short of breath (a symptom so common in Emergency Rooms that doctors and nurses refer to it via the shorted hand “S.O.B.” and it’s a symptom in this case not an insult!). We don’t pay much attention to literal breathing but we talk metaphorically about breathing a lot. We express shock and surprise with the phrase “It took my breath away.” We convey the idea of fear or suspense when we say “As I stood there, I didn’t even dare breathe!” And as many pop songs display, breath and breathing in various forms gets all wrapped up in love too even as intense romantic encounters are usually described as involving a lot of “heavy breathing!”
Breathing is something we all do on average 16 times per minute and as just noted, respiration is autonomic—we do not need to think about it or will ourselves to do it. In fact and as just noted, the only time we pay attention to our breathing is when something is going wrong. In a panic we begin to hyperventilate. Or when we are sick, our lungs don’t work right—fluid replaces at least some of the empty space in our pulmonary air sacs such that each breath nets us less results than usual, which was the primary cause of death in the recent COVID global pandemic. When the air sacs totally fill up with fluid, we die, as happened to my uncle who died of COVID in 2020. He contracted a COVID-induced pneumonia (and that very word contains the Greek pneuma or “spirit”, the Hebrew equivalent of ruach and both meaning also “breath”).
Psalm 104 claims that each breath is given by God. It makes it sound like this is a conscious action on God’s part, which of course is a little hard to take literally. The average adult takes 23,000 breaths per day and nearly 8.4 million breaths per year. In a country like the U.S. of roughly 300 million people, that might be a total of 2.5 quadrillion breaths per year to keep everyone going. One cannot quite see God breathing in and out of each person’s mouth and nostrils every single time. And let’s not even factor in what Psalm 104 includes: birds, beasts, dogs, cats, gophers. Everybody. We are talking about a lot of breaths!
But since part of Psalm 104 is assigned for the Year A Pentecost Sunday, lots of breaths and thinking about breathing is the point of it all. Pentecost is the great out-breathing of God’s very Spirit and although some Bible versions capitalize the word “Spirit” in this psalm, that is really more of an anachronism that glosses a Trinitarian theology over and onto a Hebrew poem whose author had no idea of a separate Person in the Godhead known as the Holy Spirit (distinct from the Father and the Son). For the ancient Hebrews, God just was primarily a spirit and the ruach or breath of that divine spirit is the animating source of all life in this cosmos. If God breathes onto a creature, it lives and has life. If God stops breathing on that creature, it dies.
Poetry traffics in the realm of hyperbole and so we know we need not take it as biblical literalism that God makes each person’s chest rise and fall 16 times a minute. Surely God has better things to do! But that does not diminish the truth that is behind such sentiments. Nor should we miss the fact that poetry, metaphor, and simile are what we reach for when what we want to articulate or convey goes beyond the conventions of literal, mundane speech. What lies behind such poetics is often something profound.
Sometimes we make Pentecost all about only the one Person of the Holy Spirit. But really Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all part of the Pentecost package. What’s more, Psalm 104’s contribution to all this reminds us that our Triune God is sovereign over all things. At the 2023 Symposium on Worship at Calvin University and Seminary we focused on the Letter to the Colossians, which includes that stunning 270-word Greek sentence in Colossians 1:15-20 in which Paul repeats the Greek words ta panta or “all things” over and over to remind us that Jesus Christ is the head of absolutely everything even as the Son’s Father superintends the cosmos and the Holy Spirit is dispatched by both the Father and the Son to keep all things going according to God’s good purposes.
God’s attending to us by the gentle (now indwelling) presence of that Spirit is such a profound gift. It’s the reason to give God all the praise Psalm 104 tries to muster for the whole glorious panoply of the entire creation. And it’s more than a good Pentecostal reason to give God the glory for our salvation in Jesus. Because through Jesus and now by his Holy Spirit we do see the truth of that well-known line from John 1: “In him was light and that light was the life of all people.”
“I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God for as long as I live.” But going beyond Psalm 104 we know that “as long as I live” will be forever. Because Someone once said “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will never die but live.” Thanks be to God for giving breath to all God’s creatures, now and into eternity!
My wife oversees all of the staff education at a large senior living facility. Among her tasks is to teach classes to keep everyone’s American Heart Association /American Red Cross CPR certification up to date. She does a 2-hour version and a 4-hour version. One is called “Heartsaver” and the other is called “Basic Lifesaver” but both have the same goal: keeping the heart beating and the lungs breathing to save a life in a moment of cardiac crisis. CPR, Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation, was one of the 20th century’s most amazing medical breakthroughs. Although many heart attacks prove to be too catastrophic to recover from, in a decent percentage of cases people who suffer a cardiac arrest for whatever the reason can be saved with the swift administration of CPR—it works to save a life about 45% of the time it is administered according to the American Red Cross.
Someone figured out that we can take the breath from our lungs and transfer it to another person’s lungs to save their life (along with chest compressions that keep blood pumping and the brain profused with oxygen until something might be done to jumpstart the heart). I suppose since Genesis pictures God breathing God’s ruach / breath into Adam’s nostrils at the dawn of creation, we might have tumbled to the idea behind CPR way earlier than we actually did. In any event, CPR may turn out to be a small part of the Image of God in us: taking our own ruach and letting it bring life to another.
It’s very medical. But it’s pretty biblical too!
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!