Psalm 103 3rd Sunday after Pentecost
Elizabeth M. Deibert 14 June 2015
When I was fifteen I went to a week-long Christian conference in Atlanta with my mother, my piano teacher (also named Peggy), and Peggy’s cousin, Julie. One teen girl, three moms, but they let me drive the car into Atlanta. In retrospect I cannot believe my mother trusted me like that. I had only driven for three months with a permit in rural areas. But that’s the grace that comes with being the fourth instead of the first. It’s a last shall be first kind of thing. She was nervous, but she had been in the front seat with teen drivers before. She trusted that all would be well, and it was.
What happened for me at that conference was similar to what happens when we send youth to Montreat, our regional Presbyterian Church conference center. They leave the familiar surroundings of school friends and church, where they are surrounded by adults, most of them old enough to be their grandparents and they go to an exciting conference with a thousand or more youth present. A similar things can happen even just up the road at our presbytery’s campground, Cedarkirk, with younger kids. Mountain top faith experiences are pivotal moments – times when the presence of God and the love of Christ and the movement of the Holy Spirit is more easily experienced. It is a moment of seeing how blessed you are to know that love and how that love calls you to be a blessing to those around you. I came home from that conference, knowing that Christ was first in my life, more important than anyone else ever would be. Other experiences have strengthened that commitment.
As I have said many times, one does not have to be able to name a moment like that, and real Christian growth happens over the long journey of faithfulness and struggle, but pivotal moments of commitment are tremendously helpful. We should seek them for ourselves and others. One of the things that happened with me during that week at the Christian conference was that we four memorized Psalm 103 together. We practiced it together all week – every time we had a chance, we practiced these verses. I don’t remember them all now. Please don’t ask me to recite it for you, but because of the time spent with this psalm, its verses are very special to me. They resonate with me deep in my soul. I hope the opening lines are meaningful to our four children, as we have used them for a table blessing for years. I hope today this psalm will become more meaningful to you, but I cannot promise it will, unless you spend some considerable time with it this week. That’s the way it is with scripture. People will sometimes say to me that a certain scripture does not speak to them. I can understand that for some verses, but there are so many that have much to say to your soul, if you spend enough time with them to let them get inside your soul. Jesus Christ, our Living Word, speak to us in your written word.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. 2 Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits-- 3 who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, 4 who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, 5 who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's. 6 The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. 7 He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel. 8 The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 9 He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. 10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. 13 As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him. 14 For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust. 15 As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; 16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. 17 But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children's children, 18 to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. 19 The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all. 20 Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, obedient to his spoken word. 21 Bless the LORD, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will. 22 Bless the LORD, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the LORD, O my soul. (NRSV)
If you’ve ever done a study of the Psalms, you might know that psalms are classified as songs of thanksgiving or lament, as individual or communal expressions of a relationship with God. In Psalm 103 God is being praised or blessed by an individual who has experienced God’s help.
The psalmist begins the words of thanksgiving by addressing the nephesh, usually translated as “soul,” but better understood as “inmost being” -- the all of who a person is. Psalm 103 outlines in detail just what God does for the psalmist’s nephesh. God forgives iniquity, heals diseases, redeems from the Pit (a reference to death), crowns with steadfast love and mercy, satisfies with good, and works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed (verses 3-6).
Verses 7 and 8 recall the time of the Wilderness Wanderings, when Israel repeatedly grumbled against and rejected God’s goodness, but God continued to provide for and guide them. Verse 8 brings to the mind of the hearer the golden calf incident in Exodus, which culminated in God’s self-declaration in Exodus 34: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
The word translated “merciful” in Exodus and Psalm 103 is particularly interesting. It is derived from the Hebrew verbal root raham, whose noun form rehem means “womb.” What this means is that God's compassion is tied closely to the concept of “womb love,” the love a mother feels for her yet-to-be-born child. Over and over, the psalmists remember and call upon God's mercy, God's “womb love.” “Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love” (Psalm 25:6); “Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me” (Psalm 69:16); “The LORD is good to all, and his compassion (another word used by the NRSV to translate raham) is over all that he has made” (Pslam 145:9). References to God’s mercy (or compassion) occur no less than twenty-two times in the book of Psalms.
Another key Hebrew word in Psalm 103 is hesed. It is translated in the NRSV as “steadfast love.” Hesed is a difficult word to render into English; it has to do with the relationship between two parties of an agreement, a covenant in the context of the Old Testament. God made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, stating “To your descendants I give the land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”
In Exodus 19:4-5, God and the people of Israel entered into a covenant relationship at Mt. Sinai. God said to them, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.”
God promised that the Israelites would be a treasured possession; they had only to keep God’s covenant stipulations. We might say that hesed is about covenant relationship or covenant promises. It has to do with the sacred agreement, the sacred relationship, between God and God’s people.
So Psalm 103 remind us that our God is a God of womb-love and a God of covenant promise or faithfulness.
(Nancy deClaissé-Walford, workingpreacher.org)
People who say that the God of the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures is a God of wrath and the God of the New Testament is a God of love have not meditated on Psalm 103, among other verses that speak of the generous love of God. Now I’m going to take a little theological rabbit trail because I want to talk about how we understand the mercy of God and the consequences of sin without missing out on grace or cheapening it by watering down God’s expectations.
Steadfast love (covenant promise-keeping – hesed) and mercy or compassion (womb-love – raham) are what define God’s character. When we remember from two weeks ago, that God is the Trinity of love, then we see that love is primarily a relational concept and that love is defined by mutual blessing. We are made in the image of God and when we choose to love in mutual relationships, we are being more like God and therefore are blessed by the fruit of mutual relationships.
Salvation is what connects to our being blessed by God’s mercy and steadfast love. Salvation is that which connects us with God the Trinity who loves us and reorients our hearts so that we can be a blessing. The Salvation, the healing of being blessed brings healing to all of the damage that our choices not to love (and the choices of all those other people around us not to love) have done in our souls. Salvation is the blessing that Christ our Lord brings us out of the death we create by our broken relationships, by our not being a blessing to others.
Just as our salvation is experienced in the context of our relationships, so is our damnation, our judgment. People may come up with all kinds of reasons why they chose to behave this way or that way, but ultimately they chose not to listen, not to give, not to be patient, not to forgive, not to love. When we choose not to love, we turn our back on God just as we turn our back on one another. Distance between us and God grows. Not that God goes anywhere. The distance is our doing, our perception, our desire. God remains ready to hear us, ready to receive us, ready to love us, and in fact never stops doing so. God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. It’s just with our backs turned to God we no longer see, nor do we hear very well, nor can we embrace and be embraced in love. Hell is the estrangement we experience from each other, from God. Our choices not to love actually dig a hole into which we fall. Hell is not something that God does to us. We are never sent to hell – not in this life or in the afterlife. Rather we do hell to ourselves, to one another. Like our first parents, like every person who has gone before us, we choose not to love, and are left with the consequences.
(I have borrowed much of the last two paragraphs from the Onesimus blog of a missionary professor friend of ours – Bill Black, who teaches seminary in Kenya. Bill was a Presbyterian minister for many years and recently affiliated with the Orthodox Christians.)
Yet God has richly blessed us and given us a command that will make us a blessing. When we bless the Lord with all our inward being, our soul, and when we are blessing to others, we will find our own lives are blessed. That’s why Jesus could say in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor, the mourning, the meek, the hungry, the poor, the peacemakers, the pure in heart.” Being blessed is not about having life go your way or being successful in the eyes of others. Being blessed is about being a blessing to God and others. It’s as simple and as complex as that. Simple, complex – it’s relational.