A sermon on Psalm 103 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 29 August 2021
Imagine sitting in a large church or cathedral, packed to the rafters full of enthusiastic, Spirit filled followers of Jesus singing praise to the Lord at the top of their lungs. I don’t mean a choir of trained singers who may or may not believe, who have beautiful voices but not necessarily beautiful lives. I don’t mean a group of people singing the notes of a hymn well without believing the words that they are singing. I mean the body of Christ joining their songs into one, not perfect but loud. It’s not just a moving experience. It’s even more. It means that you belong, that you are allowed to join in and no one’s going to hear you, not even the person sitting next to you. It’s an invitation to join the praise without feeling self-conscious about your own small and imperfect contribution.
That’s what Psalm 103 is like. It’s an invitation for you to join in praising the Lord with the whole of creation. It begins,
Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Notice that praise is not just about singing. Don’t get me wrong. I love singing and I’ve felt the grief that COVID restrictions have imposed upon all of us me. I may have chosen to comply with those restrictions because I want to protect the vulnerable and I don’t want to get in trouble. But it has hurt. That decision has come at a personal cost. And you probably feel the same way.
But praise is not just about singing. I can praise when I’m not allowed to sing. I could praise if I lost my voice completely. As David says in Psalm 103, it is something that my soul can do, not just my lips and lungs. Praise arises from my inmost being where my mind and my heart, my intellect, my will and my feelings all intersect, where every part of my personality unites and directs the rest of my life. I could praise and you wouldn’t hear a thing. I could praise while you were sleeping and I wouldn’t wake you up. And to praise while I sing means engaging my soul and my inmost being and letting it come out through my voice. It isn’t something that I can do by rote or from memory or by going through the motions. It involves the whole of me. It involves the very core of my existence.
Notice also that we don’t just praise. Praise is not just something we feel or enjoy, like you can feel happy or enjoy a movie. We praise someone, a person. We could praise a child who was trying his or her best. We could praise our health care workers, operating under great strain at the moment. But David invites us in Psalm 103 to praise the Lord, to praise his holy name. To express in words, whether sung or spoken or thought, how great and how good the Lord is.
Not because he needs it like a self-absorbed celebrity who needs the adulation to fill the emptiness inside. For I have nothing that the Lord needs to complete or to fulfill himself. No, I do not praise him because he needs it, but because he deserves it and because by praising the Lord I align my will with his will, and my heart with his. By praising the Lord I learn to love what he loves because I am agreeing in my heart that what he has made good is good and that by doing that he is great and deserving of praise. By praising the Lord I learn to stop resisting him and fighting against his will. By praising the Lord I learn to stop waiting for a miracle and to open my eyes to the miracles that happen around me every day.
In verses 2 to 6 David tells us firstly to praise the Lord because of what he has done.
Praise the Lord , O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.
David reminds us that the Lord has answered all our prayers. Every good thing that we have is a gift from the hand of God. Did the sun rise this morning? God did that. Did you wake up alive and able to stand on your own two feet? Praise the Lord. Were you fully vaccinated against COVID 19 last Friday afternoon like I was? The Lord made that possible.
It doesn’t mean that we pretend that nothing bad ever happens. But it does teach us to be grateful for what we have, to acknowledge the Lord’s hand in guiding our life to the point at which it now is, and, if we lack any of those good things, to turn to the Lord and ask for them from him, and if we receive them, to remember to thank him for giving us what we asked for.
In particular, notice that what the Lord has done for us is to show us mercy. He has forgiven all our sins. He has redeemed our life from the pit of death and hell. He has shown us love and compassion because our wrongs had not just offended him and hurt others, but through them we had hurt ourselves. We had squandered our gifts. We had missed the mark. We had fallen short. We had set our life on a course for disaster because our actions could have had eternal consequences separated from the Lord’s blessing. But he changed that course, brought us round so that we came to him.
Our actions will still have consequences. Others may not trust us. We might have ruined our reputation. We may have to pay a fine. We may have to go to gaol if we have done something terrible and serious. But in the act of repentance, in the gift of forgiveness, those things no longer determine our eternal future. This is the Lord’s holiness, that despite our sin, he makes us holy. This is his justice, that he puts our wrongs right.
We praise the Lord because of what he has done for us. Secondly David tells us to praise the Lord because of who he is.
The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbour his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.
This is what the Israelites learned at Mt Sinai. Moses was on the top of the mountain, getting the Ten Commandments. The Israelites went to Aaron and said, “Make us gods who will go before us.” And Aaron made for them the golden calf. Eventually, after a long negotiation with Moses, the Lord chose to forgive them, but not before revealing his true heart, saying
I am the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.
This is what the Israelites learned through their whole history. That when they forsook the Lord he would not forsake them. And though they felt his discipline, he was determined to fulfill his promises. Like a father has, or at least, should have compassion on his own children, realising that although they make mistakes, they can learn from them, and that even when they are disobedient, they are still his and he is as responsible for them as they are responsible to him for their own actions.
But this is who God is. Not just a distant God who spins galaxies on his finger. But a God who is close to us. A God who is family. A God who belongs to us and we belong to him. A God who loves. Whose love is bigger than the sky and whose forgiveness is wider than the horizon.
And if the cross of Jesus teaches us anything it is that. For although his enemies destroyed him out of hate, God reveals in the cross the two dimensions of his love. The vertical dimension of his love that can reach down to us on earth from heaven and the horizontal dimension of his love that not only includes all of us but can take our sin so far that we can no longer see it. This is who God is for us, our heavenly Father, slow to anger, and full of grace, abounding in love and compassion, ready to forgive. This is why he deserves all our praise from first to final breath.
David closes his psalm with verses 19 to 22,
The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all. Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will. Praise the Lord, all his works everywhere in his dominion. Praise the Lord, O my soul.
And with these words, David exalts the Lord over every other power in the universe. The Lord who made all things has no equal or rival. Even the angels through whom all marvels in space and earth are accomplished, rush to do the will of their creator. They too are summoned to worship their true master, to praise his name. All creatures are summoned to acknowledge the goodness and greatness and wisdom of God.
Which gave David the confidence to add his voice to theirs. Praise the Lord, O my soul. And in reciting or singing or simply reading this psalm, we are invited to add our voice as well. And not just our voice, but our heart and soul. Deep within, beneath all the masks we wear, underneath our false bravado and our fleeting doubts, where the real you and me really lives, we are invited to join the song of the universe in praise of its creator and ours. Our merciful Father. Our wonderful provider. Our saviour and our Lord. Praise him, O my soul. Praise him.