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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - 08/21/2016

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.

Those words are familiar to me, maybe to you too, but I was trying to figure out why. I don’t think they’re part of any liturgy unless they were in the Missouri Synod hymnal of my youth so I’m thinking maybe they were part of my Sunday School memory work. Did you have that too where every week you had to memorize some part of the catechism or a Bible verse or a verse of a hymn? It wasn’t a bad idea to make us kids do that helping us to learning the language of the faith and the language of worship; maybe it’s something we should be doing more of. One certainly doesn’t remember all of it but then you hear something, like the opening verses of this psalm, and you think, that sounds familiar.

Bless the Lord, O my soul and all that is within me, Bless his holy name. The words are familiar enough that you don’t notice that they are a bit unusual with the call to bless the Lord. With blessing it’s usually the other way around with a call for the Lord to bless us like the words spoken in the benediction every week, “The Lord bless you and keep you” which is understood as asking for God’s favor and presence and guidance. In the case of this psalm though, it’s reversed, calling on us to bless the Lord, which doesn’t sound right, but all the commentaries seem to agree that “Bless the Lord” is understood here as a synonym for “Praise the Lord,” as in Hebrew the word for bless is associated with kneeling so “Bless the Lord” is heard as a call to humble oneself and kneel before the Lord in praise, not so unusual after all.

I mentioned last week that on these summer Sundays we’ve had a series of rather difficult gospel texts. Today’s isn’t that bad, but even so this psalm gives us, gives me an opportunity to mostly avoid any challenges Jesus might pose and instead to consider this uplifting psalm which gives thanks that the God we deal with is a God of mercy and grace.

We don’t get all of Psalm 103 today, just the first eight verses, but in total it presents a summary of the things that Israel has learned about the ways of God, specifically that God has not dealt with them according to their sins which of course is good news. The whole psalm has 22 verses which is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet and that, in Hebrew poetry, is a clue that the poet is trying to be all inclusive and comprehensive in what is what is being said.

Another thing about Hebrew poetry and something that’s also worth keeping in mind relative to this psalm is that the second of a pair of verses is often used to amplify or to say more about the previous verse. In the first pair of verses of this psalm there is a call to Bless the Lord in both, but in the second verse you get, “and forget not all his benefits to me” which builds on the call to bless: “forget not all his benefits to me.” What that says is that the way we bless the Lord is by not forgetting. It means speaking about the God who blesses us, the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We remember and tell the stories about this God who forgives, and heals and redeems and satisfies as stated in verses 3 through 5. Those are the actions we don’t want to forget.

The thinking on the history of this psalm is that it was one used by ancient Israel in worship with the leader offering praise and thanksgiving to God on behalf of the congregation. It’s pretty much the same thing we do in worship. Most weeks we sing a hymn of praise and other hymns of the day often include praise, but maybe the primary way that we bless the Lord and forget not his benefits is by telling those stories that offer concrete testimony concerning God’s forgiveness and blessing. That telling of the stories is a big part of our Sabbath day observance and Sabbath is a theme that runs through this week’s texts.

In the gospel, Jesus healed a woman on the Sabbath which always created controversy between him and the religious leadership who saw what he did as a violation on the Sabbath prohibition on work. In the Isaiah text observance of the Sabbath is highlighted as a behavior that reflected being properly oriented toward the Lord. Such texts offer evidence of the importance of the Sabbath but the meaning of Sabbath and how to understand “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” has always been open for discussion.

In the Old Testament Sabbath was mostly about rest, refraining from work, trusting that God could take care of things for one day and that perspective is still worthy of consideration in an increasingly busy, activity filled world. For Martin Luther though, Sabbath didn’t completely lose the element of rest, but mostly it was about a day set aside for worship. In the catechism his “What does this mean?” on the Third Commandment says, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn it.” Luther might say that that is how we bless the Lord and forget not his benefits, by gathering each week to hear the stories and other sacred writings read and talked about. We bless the Lord as we tell the old, old story.

You know of course, that the stories aren’t as well known now as they once were. What used to be part of common culture isn’t so common anymore. People have forgotten…or perhaps never learned about the Lord and his benefits. But we don’t forget; we persist in the belief that these are the stories that tell us about God and that tell us about ourselves. As the psalm says, they tell us about a God who forgives, one who heals and redeems, who crowns and who satisfies and that is the ground of our hope in a world so often dominated by fear and despair. We remember the works of the Lord and make them imaginatively present and part of who we are.

Doing so we encounter and we trust in God’s steadfast love. In Hebrew the word is hesed and it is repeated several times in this psalm not to mention in many others and throughout the Old Testament. You hear the cliché that the Old Testament gives us a God of wrath and the New Testament a God of grace but steadfast love, hesed, often paired with mercy and faithfulness, is used by the writers of the Old Testament over and over again to describe God.

Hesed, as I’ve talked about before, reflects God’s unwavering commitment to the people with whom he is in relationship. It reflects God’s grace. It says that God will not forget us, no matter what, and our response to that is to Bless the Lord and forget not his benefits. God doesn’t forget us and we don’t forget God. We continue to proclaim the grace of God, the hesed of God, especially as it is revealed in the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus.

There was a time when gathering for worship on the Sabbath to make and to hear that proclamation placed one in the majority. Not so anymore. But that leads to verse six of the psalm that says that besides forgiving, healing, redeeming, crowning and satisfying, the Lord also vindicates: “You provide vindication.” Now vindication is a word that can have a variety of connotations; it can be a synonym for justice or deliverance, sometimes even vengeance. But vindication also occurs when a point of view, or belief or action that has been condemned, dismissed or undervalued is shown to be true.

That’s the promise here, that these stories and the God they describe, the God revealed in Jesus, the God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love will be revealed as the true God and so our faith will be vindicated. We look forward to such vindication, not in an “I told you so” way, but because it represents as it always has, the good news that the world needs to hear and know is true because you know that there are other stories, and other images of God out there even among those who call themselves Christians.

Psalm 103 proclaims a different and surprising way of God in the world and that is that surprising way that we forget not. God does not deal with us according to our sins nor repay us according to our iniquities as it says a couple of verses beyond where today’s reading ends; instead, God’s actions reflect steadfast love and mercy.

Believing that, we do join the psalmist and say, “Bless the Lord, O my soul and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, and forget not all his benefits.”

They are good verses to memorize.


Pastor Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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