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Praying the Psalms: Psalm 103

October 10, 2010

Sermon: Praying the Psalms
Text: Psalm 103

“I do not read the Old Testament anymore,” he said.  “The Old Testament is filled with the God of wrath.  The New Testament has a God of love.  That’s what I want to read.”

Have you ever heard anyone express that sentiment?  That attitude suggests that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament were not the same, that they were different gods, one for the old and one for the new.  I would suggest that the next time you hear a statement such as that, you refer that person to Psalm 103, a passage that expresses an individual’s gratitude.

We do not know exactly the circumstances that prompted the writing of this psalm; but if you read the verses carefully, you might gather that the author has recently recovered from a severe illness.  The psalmist praises God, saying, “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me.”  He also expresses two very strong sentiments: God forgives all of our iniquities, and God heals all of our diseases.

The psalm presents a theological question for us:  Does God really heal all of our diseases?  I believe with all my heart that God forgives our iniquities.  If we go to God and confess our sins, the Scriptures are true in saying that He is faithful and just.  He will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  I have no doubt in my mind that God’s grace and mercy can cover every sin known to humankind.

Is God healing diseases the reality in your life?  Have all the diseases you know been healed by God?  We, of course, know of the tried and true technique that Christians often use: “Death itself is the ultimate healing.  We receive a complete transplant.  God gives us a brand new body when we die and go to heaven.  That is the ultimate healing.”  Many non-Christians would view that explanation as a kind of cop-out.  That rationalization is cold comfort for those suffering from any kind of illness.

Does God heal all of our diseases?

Do you remember the experience the Apostle Paul had with some sort of painful thorn in the flesh?  In II Corinthians 12:7-10, he says that he prayed three fervent times in which he asked God specifically to remove from him this “thorn in the flesh.”  God answered his prayer with a resounding no:  “No, I am not going to remove the thorn in the flesh.  My grace is sufficient for you.”  Paul said that in that experience, he learned an important lesson: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.  When I come to the end of my strength, to the end of my rope, there are resources beyond mind.  Those resources are with God Himself.”  Paul would say to us that any experience of suffering can be a part of our growth in the Christian faith.

In my own experience, I have had the disease known as diabetes for the past twenty-four years.  A number of you have diabetes, as well.  I would be so happy if God would heal that disease, but I am not sure that will happen this side of heaven.

I believe, with all of my heart, that in this psalm, we find a way to understand the psalmist’s deep appreciation to God.  I have talked with you before about a literary device used in Hebrew poetry – Hebrew parallelism.  So often, psalmists or prophets in other parts of wisdom literature give two different sentences or lines that really have the same meaning:  “…he forgives all your iniquities and heals all your diseases…”  The use of Hebrew parallelism combines and equates the two acts of God into one.

If we take that approach, we see a cause-and-effect relationship between our sin and our illnesses.  In Hebrew thought, a close connection, a correlation, existed between any kind of physical malady and sin.  They believed that a person who was ill had done something wrong.  The disease was punishment for the violation of some part of the covenant.

Certainly a direct correlation does exist at times.  I believe that my diabetes is a direct result of the fact that I ate all of my desserts in the first forty years of life.  I cannot blame the illness on anyone else; it was absolutely self-inflicted.  Other diseases are exactly that way.

Have you known people who suffered, some of them terribly, but not because of any wrong they had done?  The truth is that we live in an imperfect universe.  People get sick, sometimes with no good explanation.  Some people suffer tremendously, not because they have committed some sin but because they are part of the human race.  This fact offers a confounding dilemma for us.

Consider another way of understanding how the psalmist arranges his thoughts.  Note, please, that the psalmist pays close attention to the power of God’s forgiveness.  Forgiveness comes first before healing.  It always does in the providence of God.  While the psalmist does mention that his disease has been healed, look at the great detail he gives in order to explain God’s forgiveness.  It is as if he is saying to us, “Forgiveness is the top priority.”

The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
Nor will he harbor his anger forever.
He does not treat us as our sin deserves
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;

Turn with me to the Gospel of Mark, which is the first of the written Gospels.  Follow along in your Bible as I read Verses 1-12 from Chapter 2, an account that tells of a miracle of healing from the life of Jesus:

A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home.  So many gathered that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them.  Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them.  Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on.  When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Now some of the teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that?  He’s blaspheming!  Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things?  Which is easier:  to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take up your mat, and walk’?  But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”
He said to the paralytic, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”
He got up, took his mat, and walked out in full view of them all.  This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

Which came first – forgiveness or healing? It is very clear from this account from the ministry of Jesus that forgiveness was his priority.  In the days of Jesus, many people had all kinds of ailments.  Jesus did not heal every one of them.  He, did, however, forgive everybody who came to him.  He offers forgiveness to the whole world for every sin.  Jesus’ words from the cross were, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  Christ Jesus forgives every sin that we bring to the cross.  In the great scheme of things, forgiveness outweighs healing in the priority of God.  Not everyone is healed, but everyone is forgiven.

Psalm 103, a wonderful hymn and prayer about the grace and the mercy of God, understands this sense of priority.  Here in this book from the Old Testament, we do not see a God of wrath; we see a God of grace, a God of love, and a God of mercy.  Certainly, we must accept the consequences for our sins.  It is true that we reap what we sow.  God Himself vetoes the ultimate consequence of sin, though, the death that would separate us from the love of God forever.

In our Christian experience, another hymn that affirms God’s grace was written by John Newton.  As a teenager, Newton worked with his father, a sea captain.  By the time he was twenty years old, Newton was the captain of his own slave ship.  For nine years, he bought and sold human cargo – African slaves – and transported them across the ocean in his ship.

On March 21, 1748 in the midst of a storm, Newton prayed to God for deliverance.  That experience changed his life.  He left the sea and eventually entered the Christian ministry.  His memory of that night at sea later led him to pen the words of the hymn we know as “Amazing Grace.”  Newton’s words were put to the melody of an African slave song he had heard many times rising from below the deck of his slave ship.

For generations, “Amazing Grace” has been sung in rural churches and in city cathedrals.  Shape note singers like Billy Walker led, in Southern revivals, the harmonizing of “Amazing Grace.”  Native American flutes have prayed the song, and the Harlem Boys Choir has performed it.  It is said that the Cherokee Indians sang “Amazing Grace” on their “Trail of Tears,” and Johnny Cash included the hymn in every prison performance he gave.  It never failed to bring hardened criminals to tears.

In 1970, folksinger Judy Collins released her version of “Amazing Grace.”  Her clear beautiful voice carried the song to the top of the pop music charts.  Since that time, “Amazing Grace” has become the world’s most popular religious tune.  Judy Collins attributes her own recovery from alcoholism, her ability to overcome the sin in her life, to amazing grace.

On June 11, 1988 in London, England, 70,000 people gathered for a concert in Wembley Stadium.  Various musical groups, most of which were hard rock bands, celebrated the political changes in South Africa.  For twelve hours, the bands hammered out their music.  Groups like Guns N Roses blasted to a loud and rowdy crowd.

The promoters of the event had asked Jessye Norman, an African-American opera singer, to perform the final number.  No one knew exactly what she had chosen as her selection.  A single spotlight followed this elegant, stately African-American woman out onto the stage.  The crowd began jeering, asking for more Guns N Roses.  With no musical accompaniment, Jessye Norman began singing, “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me!   I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.”  Seventy thousand people fell silent, and Norman began the second verse:  “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved…”  By the time she got to the third verse, several thousand people were singing with her.  “’Tis grace hath bro’t me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.”  Remembering words they had heard in the past, the crowd was transformed into a congregation.  They sang the final verse together:  “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun, We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise Than when we first begun.”

Norman later said that she felt an unseen power descend on Wembley Stadium that night.  Whether “Amazing Grace” is played on Scottish bagpipes or on a blues harmonica, whether it is sung by untrained voices of cotton mill workers or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, whether it is played on a pipe organ in a great cathedral or heard on wind chimes in a summer breeze, the hymn is a reminder of God’s love.

Psalm 103 is the story of God’s amazing grace.  When grace descends, the world falls silent and human lives are changed.  Listen.  Listen for the grace of God.

Playing of “Amazing Grace!  How Sweet the Sound”

Could I invite you to respond to God’s grace?  If you have never received Christ as your Savior, why not make that decision today?  Let this be the day.  We invite you to respond.

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