Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - 8/26

“Bless the Lord, O my soul and all that is within me; bless his holy name.  Bless the Lord, O my soul and forget not all his benefits.”  I’m pretty sure that this was one of the verses I had for memory work coming up through Sunday School many years ago because it sure rolls easily off the tongue.  It’s amazing how those memorized passages stay with you or at least come back quickly when you see them or hear them.  We don’t do much memory work in Sunday School anymore but maybe we should because it does have its benefits.

I’m sure the reason these particular verses were included as part of my memory work is because they are the opening verses of one of the best known hymns of praise in all the Psalms.  Last week I said that in the writings of Jeremiah we didn’t necessarily get a description of God as we would like him to be.  In last week’s gospel with Jesus bringing division rather than peace we didn’t get Jesus as we would like him to be either.  There’s no such problem with Psalm 103; this is God as we would like him to be, God as we expect him to be, a God who forgives sins, heals diseases, redeems life, crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, satisfies your desires, renews your youth and provides justice.  This is God as we would like him to be, full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 

If only it could be that way all the time; if only our relationship with God could always be that way, full of praise and thanksgiving and confidence.  Maybe for some of you it is, maybe it is that way all the time; but I think for most people stuff happens, life happens which can make you less sure about things, not so quick to offer praise to God or if you do it’s praise that rings hollow; witness the letters of Mother Theresa released this week.  Even she experienced it.  I think the author of this psalm has been down that road too, having had those dark nights of the soul.  You can’t tell it from the verses appointed for today, but there’s more.  (Find Psalm 103 in the hymnal)

Remember I said once that one of the questions Walter Brueggemann suggests when looking at a psalm is, “Whose psalm is this?  What prompted this prayer?”  In the 8 verses assigned for today you don’t get much hint about that.   It’s pretty much just abundant praise.  But look at what comes after that; verse 9: “You will not always accuse us, nor will you keep your anger forever.”  That sounds to me like someone who has felt accused, someone who has sensed the anger of God.  Verse 10:  “You have not dealt with us according to our sins, nor repaid us according to our iniquities.”  That sounds like someone who is quite aware of his own guilt and aware of the punishment he rightly deserves.

Verses 11, 12 and 13: “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.  As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.”  It sounds to me like a weight has been lifted so life can go on.

It sounds like someone who, from hard experience, has come to terms with who he or she is, a sinful mortal formed from the dust who is aware that the only hope is hope in the steadfast love of the Lord whose throne is established in heaven and whose dominion rules over all.  This person has come to terms with their own identity and with the identity of God so they   can say, “Bless the Lord, all you works of God, in all places where God rules; bless the Lord, O my soul.”

The author of this psalm is ready to offer praise, again, but there has been a journey through…something.  What it is, is not exactly clear, but he’s on the other side now, that’s the important thing.  What’s brought him through to the other side is not exactly clear either, but something has happened; once he was lost but now he’s found.  But how did that change take place?  What’s the secret? 

This is one of the things that makes the Psalms interesting, this path from orientation, when God’s in heaven and all’s right with the world, to disorientation, when life is disrupted and everything, including God is called into question, back to a new orientation where things are OK again, different but OK.  It’s interesting because it describes a pretty normal cycle of life and faith.  For most of us it’s quite familiar.  Different aspects of this cycle are accented in different Psalms but it all gets covered and in some of them a change happens very quickly, sometimes from tortured lament in one verse to praise in the next leaving you to wonder how did it happen so fast?

For the most part, the Psalms don’t answer that but in a way the specifics of the answer don’t really matter.  It’s the overall conversation that matters.  What the Psalms as a whole give us is ancient Israel’s conversation with God through good times and bad times, times of praise and times of lament.  The desire is always for praise though; praise and thanksgiving; that is the desired attitude toward God, human life as it should be.  But it’s not always easy and the Psalms are very honest about the fact that an attitude of praise is not always where we are.  But the underlying faith of all the Psalms, even the most tortured of them, is the promise of new life that returns us to an attitude of praise.  Hope and new life are the heartbeat of the Psalms, because they are the heartbeat of the gospel.

Hope and new life are what we cling to when we persist in the conversation with God, persist in the relationship, calling on God to do what we know he can do.  And it happens.  I’ve talked to enough people who have been down the road of grief and despair, but they keep coming to church even though they might not really feel like it, they stay connected and at some point they are surprised to find that the praise is real again.  Something happened!  Life might never be as it was before the time of crisis, whatever it was, but something new has happened; God has acted; there’s reason for praise.

The good news in today’s gospel is that this can happen even when our side of the divine conversation has pretty much dried up, when it seems like we’ve run out of things to say or we’re tired of saying the same old things.  Even when that happens, Jesus is still looking for us.  The woman in today’s story had been crippled, bent over for 18 years.  She’d probably been through her times of pleading with God for healing, but after 18 years she probably figured…it is what it is.  Yet she was still there, in the synagogue for Sabbath worship, maybe just going through the motions, real hope having disappeared years ago.  She wasn’t looking for Jesus, but Jesus was looking for her in order to heal her and return her to an attitude of praise. 

She wasn’t looking for anything, but grace happened.  In Jesus she saw the God who forgives sins, heals diseases and redeems life from the grave.  She saw the God who crowned her with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfied her desires with good things.  She was moved to praise, again, maybe using the words of Psalm 103 that she had memorized as a child, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.”
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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