Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 17, 2023

Psalm 103: (1-7), 8-13 Commentary

In past sermon commentaries here on the CEP website I have relayed the anecdote involving the author John Donne.  A friend of mine who taught English once lent an acquaintance a book of collected writings by John Donne.  When the person returned the book, my friend asked him what he thought of Donne’s work.  “He’s good” the man replied, “but he sure uses a lot of clichés!”  The joke of this is that of course Donne was himself the inventor of so many phrases that went on to become well-known enough as to count as almost clichés.  “No man is an island . . . Send not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee . . .  Death be not proud . . . ” etc.

Psalm 103 is kind of like that.  How can it be that so many of the better known lines from all of Scripture are all found in this one psalm?  “As a father has compassion on his children . . .  As far as the east is from the west . . .  He crowns us with love and compassion . . . Praise the Lord, O my soul . . . The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love . . . Your youth is renewed like the eagle’s . . .”  In ancient Greece when artists or poets felt inspiration, they credited “the muse” for having struck at just the right moment.  Christians don’t believe in any muses but we do believe in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and when it comes to something as well written and as rich as Psalm 103, we see that this divine inspiration did indeed strike gold on the person who composed these words.

It all comes out in a gush.  And it is all singularly positive, confident, optimistic, hyperbolic.  God is said to forgive all our sins, God heals all our diseases, God delivers us from all pits.  God crowns us with all blessings and this happens every morning.  Yes, this psalmist is doubtless aware that life can be difficult and that these blessings he is exuding about are not actually evident every new morning.  God may deliver us from all perils but the perils can go on a good long while sometimes and surely the psalmist knew at least a few people who did not see any deliverance ever in this life before they died.

As always, Psalm 103 is in a collection of poems that includes 149 other ones and they do not all sing this sunny of a tune.  There is plenty to lament in this life, plenty of reasons to feel God has gone off duty now and again.  Nevertheless, for this particular song all those truths and contrary thoughts are banished for the moment.  God is due great praise and although the RCL has us stop practically in mid-sentence in verse 13, the final verses of this exuberant song keep widening out the scope of the praise due to God.  All the angels in heaven must sing, every being of any kind in heaven must sing, every creature and being and thing of any kind anywhere in the universe must sing.  The whole psalm builds to a stunning crescendo.  It is as though the psalmist keeps turning up the volume knob on a whopping stereo system until the whole thing is like some Dolby Atmos surround-sound in a theater that is nearly deafening and rattles the seats (if you’ve seen the new film Oppenheimer, you get the idea!).

If we focus on the primary verses the Lectionary carves out (8-13), what we see is the psalmist’s gob smacked awe over the gracious compassion of God.  There is no denying we deserve punishment for our sins.  But God does not want to do that.  And the psalmist clearly believes he cannot possibly push his imagery too far to convey the wonder of grace.  Similes ought not be over-scrutinized.  The psalmist talks about how high the heavens are over the earth or how far east is from west.  He wants to convey a sense of the infinite here, although in some ways there is a finite way to define how high the heavens are above the earth or one could say that east and west could be just 100 yards apart on a football field as the distance between the goalpost on the east side of the field and the corresponding one on the west side.

But let’s have none of that cashing out of the imagery!  The poet here wants to signal infinitude, the vastness of God’s love.  You will never get to the bottom of it.  Don’t even try.  It’s finally fathomless.

Few passages of Scripture better capture what we too often casually call “Amazing Grace.”  We actually can never know just how amazing it really is.  It is difficult to live in a state of being perpetually stunned by anything but when it comes to the compassionate and forgiving love and grace of God, we ought to be stunned by it every moment.  If instead church-going folks spend most of their time talking about other things—especially if those other things are putting other people down, threatening judgment, making people feel bad about themselves for one reason or another—then we are missing something fundamental to our faith.

As I tell my preaching students, you stand in a pulpit every week for one and only one reason: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.  That’s what preachers are in the pulpit to talk about.  Let’s be sure we do!  And Psalm 103 is a great place to start.

Illustration Idea

In what was likely one of his last public sermons, Fred Craddock delivered a message at the Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis about 15 years ago.  Although no title was published, I have taken to call this sermon “The Gospel as Hyperbole.”  Craddock based his sermon on the final verse of John’s Gospel in John 21:25: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”  Having read that line, Craddock then began his sermon “Now that’s ridiculous!”  And with that he was off and running in a sermon that called for the preachers at that conference to stop being so tame in their preaching.  Use hyperbolic language like John did that shows how much size there is to our God and to our faith in God.

Craddock used multiple examples.  We use hyperbolic language in our singing:

“O for a thousand tongues to sing!”

“Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.”

Jesus used hyperbole well.  “When you have an entire tree sticking out of your own eye . . .”

Old-time frontier preachers were skilled at going over the top.  One such preacher tackled the impossible and tried to explain eternity to the congregation.  “Imagine a very large and high granite mountain.  And then imagine that once every 100 years a bird flies by that mountain and nicks the mountain with the tip of its wing.  Well, when that bird has succeeded in leveling that granite mountain to the ground, in eternity that’s before breakfast.”

Or finally the preacher who had gotten wind of this new social science field called “psychology” but who did not have much truck with it.  “What is psychology?” the preacher asked.  “Psychology is like a man in a deep dark cellar at midnight with no moon and no light of any kind looking for a black cat . . . .  That isn’t there.”

Note: If you choose to preach on Psalm 114 this week, here is a commentary on the CEP website:


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