A sermon on Psalm 103 preached by Nikolaj Christensen at Evening Prayer on 7 March 2021.
If you’re anything like me, you will tend to pray most diligently when there is either something you’re worried about or something you really want. And often as not, the thing we’re worried about doesn’t come to pass, or the thing we want does. And we move on to the next thing. At best we utter a little ‘Thank God’, but we don’t continue to ponder the fact that our prayer was answered. And the cycle of worry continues.
Well, our psalm this evening wants to stop us in our tracks. What I’m going to say this evening will revolve around that second verse: ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits’. In other words, the psalmist wants us to remember what the Lord has already done, in the past, and to give thanks and praise him for it.
We’re in our third week of looking at the Psalms: we began with the theme of pilgrimage, thinking about how the Psalms speak to our journey in life. Then we moved on to prayer, since the Psalms are really a collection of prayers. And this week the theme is wonder. And it’s really about going deeper into prayer, through wondering at the greatness of God and of what he has done. ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits’.
So we are thinking about a specific type of prayer: the prayer of praise and thanks. It’s often a good place to begin when we sit down to pray. It’s how Jesus taught his disciples to begin when they prayed: ‘hallowed be thy name’. When we celebrate Holy Communion we begin with a long prayer of thanks, which is why we also call it the Eucharist, from the Greek word for thanksgiving. In the introduction to Evening Prayer we hear that what we have gathered to do, before anything else, is ‘to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at [God’s] hands’ and ‘to set forth his most worthy praise’. And it’s an important thing for us each to practice in our own private prayer as well – I’ll come back to that at the end.
Our Psalm this evening addresses the psalmist’s own soul: ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits’. So praise and thanksgiving are connected with the soul, the mind, the psyche, or whatever term you prefer, and particularly with memory: ‘forget not all his benefits’. When we pray, and especially when we pray prayers of thanks, or wonder, our mind is formed and it becomes more and more in tune with the mind of God, and we are formed to be the sort of person who walks in his ways. In the Ten Commandments, which we have heard this evening, we begin with commandments that tell us to worship God, to love and praise God, and only then do we get the list of how to interact with our fellow human beings.
Psychologists who have studied the impact of thankfulness or gratitude agree that this is enormously beneficial to our mental health, and in turn it has benefits for people around us. Practising thankfulness is a way of digesting the good things that happen to us, to make sure we get the full benefit from them. The Psalm says that the Lord ‘satisfies you with good things, so that your youth is renewed like an eagle’s’. Even what time itself has stolen from us – even in this past year – God can and will redeem, when we remember the good things, with thankfulness, building our confidence in good things to come, rather than remembering the good times with nostalgia alone, which builds melancholy. ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits’.
So let’s have a look at what it is that the psalmist wants to praise or bless the Lord for. The rest of the psalm is a long list of descriptions of God, based on what he has done.
First the psalmist thinks back to the way the Lord freed his people from bondage in the Exodus: ‘He made his ways known to Moses and his works to the children of Israel.’ Next week we’ll be looking at the theme of The Way, but notice here that God’s ‘ways’ are what he has done, his ‘works’. Again, going back to the Ten Commandments, the very first words of the First Commandment are not about what we must do or not do, but about what God has done: ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery’. What God has already done is the basis of our relationship with him, not anything we must do. And the psalm invites us to apply this to our own lives, our individual stories, our own memories.
Because what are his ‘ways’ and his ‘works’? The psalm continues: ‘The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.’ Notice: three words for God’s love: compassion, mercy, and kindness. And so there is very little room left for anger.
In continues: ‘He has not dealt with us according to our sins’. Although we may feel that God is angry with us from time to time, we know from past experience that he doesn’t fully punish us for our propensity to mess things up. And that’s why remembering is so important: ‘forget not all his benefits’.
‘For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his mercy’. You may know my wife studies the heavens, or the atmosphere as scientists like to call it, so I asked her just how high the heavens are above the earth. Of course, there’s no answer: the atmosphere just gets thinner and thinner, and beyond that there is an infinity of space. So a very fitting image of God’s mercy: it’s infinite.
‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has he set our sins from us.’ Again, there is simply no way of measuring the distance from the east to the west – you can always keep going further east or further west. – ‘so far has he set our sins from us.’ God’s capacity for forgiveness is infinite. Three times the psalm mentions ‘those who fear him’ – but notice that God’s response to our fear is always mercy! Yes, we may be awestruck when we contemplate that he is great and we are small, but the greatest wonder of all for the psalmist is that the Lord himself ‘knows’ us and ‘remembers’ us in our smallness: he knows of what we are made; he remembers that we are but dust.’
These words are central among the verses from this psalm that are often read at funerals, as the coffin is lowered into the grave. ‘Our days are but as grass’ – in comparison with our eternal God. ‘But the merciful goodness of the Lord is from of old and endures for ever’. As our lives are short, God’s goodness is long.
And it’s only now, eighty per cent of the way through the psalm, that we hear anything at all about us having to do something in response to God’s goodness; it’s an afterthought almost: to ‘keep his covenant and remember his commandments to do them’.
Even here, it comes back to remembering. Because it’s remembering, pondering God’s commandments and God’s ways, that form us into people who can begin to walk in them. We begin with turning our eyes to God in worship, and being formed in his ways is just a natural consequence, and often it happens so gradually that we don’t even notice it.
There are many different ways we can think of building thanksgiving, praise, and remembering into our daily lives. Some like to keep a gratitude journal, noting down the things they are grateful for. Or you might try to think of something from your day to give thanks for when you sit down for dinner and say Grace. Or perhaps when you are ready to go to sleep you might take a moment to think back and give thanks. However we choose to do it: ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits’.