Sermon 10-04-15: “Bless the Lord, O My Soul”

October 19, 2015

Fight Songs

This sermon explores the meaning of praise. It’s as essential to Christian living as cheering is to a football game. Praise is nothing less cheering for God. Can you imagine sitting in the stands, watching your favorite team play, and being unable to cheer? You wouldn’t be able to enjoy the game nearly as much! Is it possible that we’re not as happy in our relationship with God because we’re not praising him as much as we should? This sermon, I hope, gives us reasons to cheer!

Sermon Text: Psalm 103:1-19

[Please note: Inexplicably, my sermon video is not on my iPhone. I have no idea what happened! It was definitely recorded. Sorry!]

The following is my original sermon text.

Did any of you see the YouTube video that went viral a couple of weeks ago of the rat carrying the slice of pizza down the stairs of a the New York City subway? I’ve never thought of a rat as “cute” before. But look at this thing! He comes pretty close to cute. Look how determined he is! That pizza slice is twice the rat’s size! He wants it so badly! But he gives up on the third to last step and scampers away. And I’m like, “Don’t give up, little rat! You’re so close!”

The truth is, the rat probably got scared away because there was this guy who was standing over it with his smartphone, filming it!

I think this is a fitting metaphor for us when it comes the subject of today’s psalm: “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” David says, “and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” To “bless” the Lord means to “praise” the Lord. This is what we gather each week to do here, at Hampton United Methodist. It takes work to wake up early on Sunday morning, which for many of us might be our only day off, our only opportunity to sleep in. When the alarm on our smartphone or clock went off, we had to fight the temptation to hit the “snooze” button or turn it off entirely and go back to sleep. But we fought that temptation and didn’t go back to sleep.

And maybe if we have small children it was a challenge to get them fed and bathed and dressed and out the door. Or maybe if we have teenage children, we had to fight with them to get them out the door. And maybe our kids were fighting with one another this morning, or maybe we were fighting with our kids. Maybe there was a lot of stress, a lot of yelling, a lot of threats, yet we still made it here this morning.

But like that rat carrying the giant slice of pizza down the subway stairs, we’re not all the way there yet! Let’s finish the job we started! We haven’t come this far to not do what we came here to do—which is, to praise the Lord with all that is within us! Because just being here, just sitting in our pew, doesn’t mean that we’re actually praising and worshiping.

It’s hard to praise the Lord with everything that’s within us! It feels unnatural. We resist it. I think David gave us this psalm because he understood how hard it is! Yet we need to praise God like we need oxygen!

gal-snl-julia-sweeney-jpg

Julia Sweeney is an actress, comedian, and author who appeared for four years on Saturday Night Live. She grew up Catholic, but in recent years has become an outspoken atheist. One of the major problems that she has with Christianity is that we Christians believe in a God who insists that we praise him. She said, “First of all, how insecure is God? I mean, God is so insecure he needs everyone to say, ‘You’re the number one, you’re the number one over all the other gods, you’re the top god.’”

If Sweeney were talking about a mere human, she might have a point: The most vain, the most conceited, the most dangerous dictators in the world, after all, have been those who demand our praise, our adoration, our flattery—I’m thinking, for example, of men like Saddam Hussein, or Kim Jong Il, or Mao Zedong.

One major difference is that God doesn’t command us to praise him for his sake, for his benefit—because God needs it. No. It’s because God knows that we need it; it’s good for us; and we should want it as badly as that poor rat wanted that slice of pizza!

See, we need to praise God for the same reason that we need to cheer at football games when our team does well! “Praising” is cheering, after all. Weren’t some of you cheering yesterday at Sanford Stadium—for one team or the other? Weren’t many more of you cheering at home? I was cheering on my team—unsuccessfully—at Bobby Dodd stadium! Can you imagine if we weren’t permitted to cheer?

Honestly, if you’re a Falcons fan, imagine someone gives you a ticket to today’s game against the Texans—great seats, 50-yard-line, lower level, surrounded by your fellow fans in black and red. Best seat in the house! And this person says to you: “This ticket is completely free of charge. The only condition is, you’re not allowed to cheer. Don’t say a word. Don’t applaud. Don’t move. Don’t make a sound. Just sit there quietly. But hey… it’s no big deal. You still get to enjoy the game. Right?”

Wrong! Oh my goodness! If that were the case, you couldn’t enjoy the game! Cheering is a big part of what it means to enjoy the game! If you care about the team, if you love the team, you wouldn’t think of not cheering, or not praising! It comes so naturally to us! I mean, I have no trouble praising when my team wins the victory! I have no trouble letting my emotions show then. I love my team. But when it comes to God… Do I not love him as much as I love this group of 18 to 22 year old kids on Saturday afternoons who wear my team’s colors—none of whom I’ve ever met, none of whom I know?

Look, Julia Sweeney doesn’t get it at all—but when I consider the ways in which I struggle to praise God, I have to wonder whether I get it!

You can’t enjoy life the way you’re supposed to if you’re not praising God! And God knows that!

We should be so in love—in love—with our Jesus Christ—so grateful for his love and grace and mercy—that if we don’t praise him with everything we’ve got inside of us, we will feel like we’re going to explode. We’ll explode if we keep it bottled up inside of us!

So we have a problem—as this psalm recognizes. And the problem is stated in verse 2: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.”

We don’t praise God the way we should mostly because we forget God’s benefits. We’ve forgotten  all the good and amazing things that God has done for us.

Speaking of football, a couple of weeks ago, the Green Bay Packers defeated the Seattle Seahawks 27 to 17 in Week 2 of the NFL season. During the press conference after the game, quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, “I think God was a Packers fan tonight, so he was taking care of us.” Although Rodgers is a believer, he was actually teasing Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson for something that Wilson said last January, when the Seahawks defeated the Packers in the NFC championship game. Wilson, who is a deeply committed Christian, said that the Lord must have wanted the Seahawks to go to the Super Bowl.

Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson

Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson

Now granted, Wilson’s words were ill-advised. I wouldn’t presume to say that God favored one team over another. But… the negative reaction to Wilson’s words wasn’t mostly because he said that God wanted his team to win; it was mostly because Wilson believed that God cared about something so small and trivial as a football game. But hold on a minute! Of course God cares about a football game. Why? Because God cares about the people who play it, the people who coach it, the people who sit in the stands or at home in front of a TV and watch it. I mean, football is Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers’s career, their livelihood, their paycheck. Does God care about what I do for a living, or what you do? Does God not want all of us to be successful? Is God not always working to bring good out of every situation, so that—win or lose—we will be blessed in some way by the experience—if only we’re able receive the blessing? That’s what the Bible teaches: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

I honestly believe one of the biggest reasons we struggle to praise God is because we fail to appreciate just how intimately involved God is with every detail of our lives! Instead we try to put God inside this box in this small corner of our lives—and we act as if God has nothing to do with the rest of of our lives. If we believe God has so little to do with our lives—outside of Sunday morning, at least—then no wonder we have a hard time praising God!

Suppose, by contrast, we really do believe Jesus when he says that not one sparrow will fall to the ground outside of our Fathers’s care. Suppose we believe James when he tells us that every good and perfect gift comes from God. Suppose we believe Paul when he says, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”[1]

Forget not all of God’s benefits! This psalm mentions a lot of them, but I want to focus on just one benefit—although it’s an incredibly important one. It’s in verse 13: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.” The Hebrew word translated “compassion” in this verse is used most often to describe the love that a mother has for her child. For instance, there’s the famous story found in 1 Kings chapter 3: Two mothers who have nursing babies are living together in the same home. One mother’s baby dies in the night. So she steals the other mother’s baby. When this other mother wakes up she realizes what happened—that her child has been stolen—so she drags the other woman and her child to King Solomon, seeking justice.

Since it’s one mother’s word against another, what’s Solomon going to to do? He says, “Bring me a sword and I’ll cut the baby in half. You can each have a half.” And at that point, the woman who is the child’s mother speaks up: “Oh, my lord, give her the child, and by no means put [the child] to death.” Why would she do this? 1 Kings 3:26 tells us: because her heart “yearned for” her son. Those words “her heart yearned for” translate the same Hebrew word for compassion that we find in Psalm 103.

Now think about it: By withdrawing her complaint and saying, “Give this child to the other woman,” this mother risked her life—if Solomon thought this mother had brought false charges to him, he could put her to death. You don’t waste the king’s time. You don’t want to lie to the king! Yet she was willing to sacrifice her own life to save her child’s life. And she was certainly willing to sacrifice her own happiness, her own joy, and bring shame upon herself—the shame of being childless—by giving up her child. She was willing to give up everything, in other words, if it meant saving her child’s life. Why would she do it? Because her heart yearned for her child.

Brothers and sisters, do you believe that God’s heart yearns for us in that same way: that he loves us so much it hurts? That he loves us so much he’s willing to be hurt in order to save us. In fact, as we stand on this side of the cross, we know that God—God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ—loved us so much that he let himself be killed in order to save us!

And as a result, what happens? Our transgressions, verse 12 says—our sins—are as far away from us as the east is from the west. Which is, of course, an infinite distance. Which means God no longer holds our sins against us; he’s no longer angry with us; he’s no longer holding a grudge. We’re not guilty. We’re forgiven. We can let go of this guilt we carry around.

My dog Neko

My dog Neko, who belongs on a leash!

Three weeks ago, it was Monday. My day off. I’d had a busy workweek and I was looking forward to going to Atlanta and shopping for records—I collect records. I’m getting in my car when I see my dog, Neko, running across the driveway. Something’s wrong… Neko isn’t allowed outside the house or outside the backyard fence without being on a leash. How did she get out of the fence? Was the gate open? No. So I went in the backyard and surveyed the chainlink fence. Sure enough, there was a gaping hole where a large tree had fallen. Among other things, a part of the trunk needed to be removed in order to repair the section of the fence that had collapsed.

So I needed a chainsaw. Only I don’t own a chainsaw. And I’ve never operated a chainsaw.

And suddenly I find myself in a dark, familiar place: I’m cursing myself—literally cursing—because I perceive that I’m missing some bit of genetic code that most men seem to possess: that part that enables them to be handy with tools. I have no aptitude for them. I have little interest in them. Repairing fences and sawing logs is something that someone like me has to pay someone to do. Which only makes matters worse, because then I tell myself that I’m about as good at making money as I am at working with tools! Why am I like this? Where did I go wrong?

I feel as if I’m not equipped to be a proper man!

So I was thinking: You know who was good with tools? My dad. He had been a mechanic in the Air Force. You know who was really good at making money? My dad. He was a successful businessman and entrepreneur. If only I had spent more time with him, if only I had shared his interests, if I only had been more like him, I thought—instead of constantly defying and disappointing him—I wouldn’t be this way! And I thought, I would have been the son that he wanted.

Where did that terrible thought come from? How long has that been in the back of mind. Do I really believe that I wasn’t the son that my father wanted? So I was overwhelmed with this sense of guilt. That’s why I was angry at myself, cursing myself! Guilt.

Today’s scripture says we have no reason to be guilty before God. He’s taken our guilt away. And we don’t have to worry about whether or not we’re the son or daughter that our Father wanted—because he proved he wanted us more than anything else when he gave us his only Son. Do you believe that?

Early in our marriage, Lisa noticed that I was someone who had a hard time with self-esteem. I was very down on myself; very down on life in general. Pessimistic. And she had this idea that every day, I needed to say five things for which I was thankful. Five positives. And I did it, because this was back when I still listened to her! Just kidding! But honestly, we would be lying in bed before we went to sleep, and she’d have me think of five specific positive things that happened that day for which I could be grateful. It was hard… At first. But it became easier.

We need to do the same thing when it comes to our relationship with God. [Introduce the Blessing Beads.]

[1] 1 Corinthians 4:7

One Response to “Sermon 10-04-15: “Bless the Lord, O My Soul””

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    One of the first things you notice when you attend, or watch on TV, a worship service in an African American church is the intensity of of what I would call “Praise Emotion”. They are just filled with the Spirit. Their worship is more unbridled and more active than anything we ever see in our churches. I think our “reserve” must seem quite tepid to God, compared to the joy, love, and other emotions on full display for Him in that black worship service.


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