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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Bless the Lord (Psalm 103, Matthew 7.7-11)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; August 13, 2017 - Psalm 103; Matthew 7:7-11

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell." 

:: Scripture and Music ::
Singing Together: Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven (LAUDA ANIMA)
Singing Together: Everlasting God (Brenton Brown)
The Word in Music: Canon of Praise, choir (arr. Hopson)
Offering of Music/Song of Praise: Bless His Holy Name (Andre Crouch)
Song of Sending: Here and Now (Kirkland)
:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) ::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

We began today's service acknowledging the tragic events in Charlottesville. I noted that I was not changing the sermon - focused on blessing the Lord, it is all about aligning our heart, mind, and soul with God's Will and Word, which is at cross-purposes with racism and white nationalism. I invited the congregation (and will publicize opportunities) to join a book study with me or others of "Waking Up White" - a book that has greatly helped me see my own racial "blind spots." We also spent time in prayer for the racial issues behind Charlottesville (and our country), and ended the service with a wonderful song ("Here and Now") which invites us, as the church, to be the bearers of mercy, justice, and hope. If you are reading this, I invite you to enter into a season of prayer and self-examination with me around the racial realities and waters in which we all live in this country. ~Robert

We are continuing our summer series, “Psalm+1.” Today we look at Psalm 103, which challenges us and models for us how to “bless the Lord.” We will also look at a short teaching of Jesus from Matthew which further illustrates one portion of the Psalm.

Earlier this year we talked about blessing. When talking about God blessing us or our being blessed, scripture defines it as what happens when we are aligned with God’s Will and Word. That is the best place to be! So blessing is not what we want, but what God wants.

We’ll work through this Psalm in order. It has several sections which are arranged in a classic poetic structure like an hour glass:

Bless the Lord, O My Soul! (theme)
What the Lord has Done
What the Lord is Like
What We are Like
What the Lord is Like
What the Lord has Done
Bless the Lord, O My Soul (revisited)

Bless the Lord, O My Soul (vv. 1-2)

The Psalm begins with the words, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name.” (v. 1)  The idea of blessing can be confusing because it is sometimes used to describe something God gives or does to us; and sometimes it is something we say or do to God. But the two are very much entwined, since they both happen together. Maybe this illustration will be helpful: in most places where there is a gas line, there is a small lever that opens and closes the gas line. If that lever is perpendicular to the gas line, no gas flows. If it is lined up with the gas line, the gas flows. When you “turn on the gas” you line up the lever and it “turns on the gas” so your stove or fireplace will light. “Bless the Lord” is like lining up your heart, soul, and life with the gas line. The “Lord’s blessings” are the flowing of God’s presence into and through your life. Got it? Now let’s light the fire! 

In this Psalm, blessing God is the posture we take towards God to line up with Him, where we will also then be recipients of God’s blessing. So verse one is the challenge to line up with God: to bless the Lord. Verse two reminds us to “forget none of His benefits.” That’s what happens when we are lined up – the blessing, the power, the benefits flow.

Having said that, more than once I’ve gone to light the fire or stove, or the pilot light, and I’ve forgotten to turn on the main switch to the gas line. It is crucial to remember that the gas comes from outside (ourselves) and how we can access it. Likewise, we do forget and we do take our eyes off of God as the source of what we need. The Psalm goes on to walk us through several important ‘remembrances’ that help us keep the sequence straight.

What the Lord Has Done (vv. 3-7)

Verses 3-7 are packed full of words describing what the Lord has done. Let me just read them off. The Lord PARDONS, HEALS, REDEEMS, CROWNS, SATISFIES, PERFORMS, and REVEALS (makes Himself known). Remember those ‘benefits’ from verse two that we are supposed remember? There’s an overflow of benefits. And it’s worth slowing down to hear the full sentence for each of those verbs; the Lord…

    Pardons all your iniquities (sins) (v. 3)
    Heals all your diseases (v. 3)
    Redeems your life from the pit (v. 4)
    Crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion (v. 4)
    Satisfies your years with good things (v. 5)
    Performs righteous deeds and judgments (v. 6)
    Made known His ways and acts (v. 7)

Wait a minute, wait a minute. That’s a great list, but there are a few that raise some questions for me. Does God heal all disease? That seems clearly to not be the case. And “satisfies your years with good things” – does THAT always happen? And let’s not go with the answer that says to the degree that you trust God these things happen. Besides our own experience of suffering, scripture itself makes clear that disease is not always the fault of the individual (though sometimes it might be a consequence). And there are plenty of folks in scripture who also struggle throughout their years, particularly in old age. So what could those phrases mean?

I think rather than being a list of promises, like a contract, these are meant to serve as a reminder that WHEN sin is forgiven, or healing comes, or rescue, or good things, or justice; God is the source of those things. God doesn’t promise us all good things all the time in this life; but we do know some measure of God’s goodness. So rather than reading “God will heal every disease” this reminds us that if you found healing, praise God for it. Some scholars see “heals all diseases” as a parallel with “pardons all your iniquities” and a way of talking about that which weakens or sickens us before God. So, not a physical meaning so much as spiritual pardon and healing.   

What the Lord is Like (vv. 8-14)

From there, the Psalm moves slightly into a series of verses that describe what the Lord is like. We’ve moved from the works of God to the character of God. In this case, verse eight has all the descriptive words – the Lord is COMPASSIONATE and GRACIOUS, SLOW TO ANGER and ABOUNDING IN LOVINGKINDNESS. IN the verses that follow, each of those descriptive words is explored and illustrated in more depth.

In v. 9, God will not always strive with us, nor keep His anger forever. (SLOW TO ANGER)  In v. 10, God has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.  (GRACIOUS) In v. 11, God’s lovingkindness is “high as the heavens” (ABOUNDING LOVE) In v. 12, He has removed our transgressions as far as the east is from the west. (GRACIOUS) In v. 13, the Lord has compassion on us that is like a father’s compassion on his children. (COMPASSIONATE)

It is that verse that brought to mind the passage from Matthew 7. There Jesus is teaching about God’s character and says: You know how fathers won’t give their children rocks if they ask for bread? or a snake instead of a fish? Well if human father’s love their children like that, think HOW MUCH MORE your Heavenly Father loves and cares for you. That teaching is in the context of: ask, seek, and knock; and you will find God. That’s another way of describing blessing. If you seek to align your heart, soul, and life with God; God will not hide, but will show up. That’s two-way blessing.

In the last part of that “what the Lord is like” section, we read that God KNOWS us and is mindful that we are ‘dust’ – we are fragile and mortal. (v. 14) That leads into the short center section that describes what we are like.

What we are Like (vv. 15-16)

These middle verses are brief, perhaps to illustrate the point of what they say – human life is lovely, but is brief. As the grass or flowers are to us (quickly fading and forgotten), so are our lives in the expanse of time and history. That’s not meant to be discouraging, but to simply remind us of our limitation and, I think, to point us back towards an eternal God who endures.

And like that - fleeting like humanity – the Psalm is back to God. The next section simply re-visits the two sections we’ve already seen, this time in reverse order.

The Lord, Revisited (vv. 17-19)

First, two verses about what the Lord is like: his LOVINGKINDNESS (mentioned previously in v. 8) is everlasting and enduring, a clear contrast with the fleeting nature of human life. And then God’s RIGHTEOUSNESS (mentioned previously in v. 6) – here, too, set in contrast to our short lives as something that will pass on to children, grandchildren, and successive generations. We may live and die, but our children and grandchildren can know the same God that we knew and worshiped.

Then, v. 19 returns to the action verbs describing what the Lord has done: He has ESTABLISHED His throne and, as King, He RULES over all.

We add those character traits and deeds to those accumulated in the early part of the Psalm. And then we return to a final section of blessing, revisiting the original theme from v. 1.

Blessing Revisited (vv. 20-22)

Whereas the Lord’s character and deeds were somewhat compressed in the reprise, the theme of blessing is expanded at the end. Now all of Heaven is called into the action of praise, of aligning with the Lord’s Will and Word. The ANGELS (v. 20) bless the Lord through their obedience to the voice of God’s Word. The HOSTS (v. 21) of Heaven bless the Lord by serving God, doing His will.  Even God’s own WORKS (v. 22a ) bless His name – that’s yet a new version of blessing – not only can God bless us and can we bless God; God can bless Himself! This reinforces the definition of blessing – God’s works bless His name because they demonstrate God’s consistency with Himself – His Will and Word lines up with His Work. He walks His talk!

And then we end where we began: “Bless the Lord, O my soul!” (v. 22b) Remember what God has done, what God is like, and what we are like. Seek, ask, and knock, that we might align our lives – heart, soul, mind, and strength – with the Will and Word of God. When the gas line is on and not blocked, the flame can light. That’s God’s desire and invitation for each of us. Amen.

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