Journey to the Cross IV: “A Brief Detour – Back in Time”
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, March 21, 2021
Reading: Psalm 103
My grandmother Stirling was a very strong character. She had a strong will, a strong personality, a strong sense of right and wrong. She was very much the product of her era growing up in the North of England. Grandmother could be very stubborn. She visited us once when we were living in Northeast of England, in Darlington. It was my duty as the grandson to take her to a department store in town. It had several floors. We walked in on the ground floor, and that's what I thought she wanted to see. Like a lot of department stores, the glamour items were there, the perfumes, the jewellery, the makeup, the beautiful things. But my grandmother was determined, even though she was well into her 90s, that she was going to see the whole store. "I don't just want the glamour stuff," she said, "I want to see the whole thing."
So, there I am, standing in front of an escalator getting ready to take my grandmother up to all these different floors. She goes on the escalator in front of me, but unfortunately, she stood on the gap between the stairs. As the escalator began to rise, my grandmother began to tilt backwards, so for the duration of the ride, I was holding her entire weight as she leaned up against me. I was terrified and wondering what will we do when we get to the top? Will she collapse into a forward roll? What are we going to do? Finally, we get to the top and she staggers, but maintains her balance, and she looks at me in classic Lancashire, she says, "Ee ba gum, lad," she said, "That was exciting." After I regained consciousness, and the terrified staff confirmed that all was well. I managed to convince my grandmother to go very gently onto the escalator to the other floors. She still wanted to see everything: Pots, pans, bedding, clothing, you name it, the ordinary stuff. She didn't want just the glamour, she wanted to have a full experience.
Psalm 103, our passage today, is a statement about seeing all of God, by having a testimony to the entirety of God's character and grace and activity. What makes this psalm so special is the breadth that it paints of God's activity and God's passion. It's particularly bold in dealing with a tension that we often feel within scriptures. The tension not only in the Old Testament or the New Testament, but the entire Bible. It is the tension between seeing God as a judge, the God of Justice, the God of Righteousness, the God who sides with the oppressed, the God who is against sin, and on the other hand the God of Mercy, the God of Forgiveness, the God of Love, the God of Redemption, the God of New Beginnings.
I think all of us live, to some extent, with that tension in our relationship with God. I think that even those outside of the covenant of the church also feel that same say. Some see God primarily as the divine judge and the enactor of judgement and feel that those are the dominant characteristic of God. While others feel that God is merciful and gracious, and that those traits are the dominant motif for God. But here in this psalm we see both coming together.
The great Old Testament professor, Claus Westermann, said there is a difference between the weight that is given between judgement and mercy in the scriptures. He says that the judgement of God has a boundary to it, whereas the mercy of God does not have the same boundaries. So, while God is both just and merciful, the mercy often goes beyond the judgement and you see that in these passages. It is from as far as the east is from the west. It is like a parent with a child. God recognizes our sins and knows that we have fallen short. God sees the injustice and the oppression, but still does not count our iniquities against us. His favour exceeds even his judgement. God is both a judge though, and merciful.
But there's always that caveat for those who fear him, for those who are obedient to him. Don't take God's mercy for granted. It is not something that automatically happens; it must come from our response of faith in him. In this powerful passage what we have is a picture of the psalmist talking in very personal terms about how God is both just and merciful. Look at the beginning and the end because it's like he's having a conversation with himself: “Bless the Lord, oh my soul, and all that is within me, praise his holy name.”
This is an invitation to himself to bless the Lord, to honour and to glorify the Lord. There is a great rabbinic traditional that suggests that all the organs we have in our bodies correspond with our emotions. That our hearts, lungs, brains, bowels, livers, everything has an emotional component to it and that the whole person is made up of these organs, which emotionally respond to different sensory things, and even to God. When he says “all that is within me” he means every part of us, every single part, is to bless and praise the Lord. It's a wonderful image because often we bless the Lord only in partial terms, whereas the psalmist looks at an all-in response to the all-sovereign God. It's a wonderful image.
But it's not just personal. He's not just talking about my truth. He's talking about the truth, and he refers to Moses and the Mosaic Law and how Moses was used by God for all the people to be able to bless the Lord. He recognizes that it's not an individual thing – although for him it was very much an individual thing – but that it is also a corporate thing. It is where the entire community of faith comes to recognize the glory and the majesty of God.
What is our response to this all-encompassing sovereign and glorious God? The answer is, he uses the word bracha, which is a blessing, or blessedness. This blessedness in the Hebrew means kneeling, and that you're blessing God by humbly coming into God's presence. This Lent it seems to be that one of the great lessons for us is to come into the presence of God humbly. Now, that does not mean as we normally would, being able to come into the House of the Lord and to worship, to bow on bended knee as some people do when they come into the church and pray. It does not mean that we should do that as a group physically, but you still can do it in your own life. You can still get up every day and be like the psalmist and say to yourself, "Bless the Lord, oh my soul and all that is within me. Bless His holy name." It's a great gift. If you can do that then your walk with the totality of God will become real.
For a moment I want to take a little detour. I want to take this passage and look at it in light of the Cross of Christ. Over the last few weeks, we've been looking at the stories of Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. Next week, of course we will be looking at something similar, but this week I want to look at the cross and Holy Week in the light of Psalm 103.
Now some may say, "Yes, but you're looking back at this passage through the lens of the New Testament. Is that a legitimate thing to do?" Well, the reformers all did it; I think it's very important to see, because if we're looking at the totality of God, if we're looking at the things that God does and God's character, supremely we see this embodied, incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
If we look at this passage, maybe our detour into this Old Testament psalm is helpful for us to understand because detours can really enliven and enlighten us. Even in a physical sense a detour can be helpful. I remember some years ago Marial and I were driving from Aberdeen to Inverness across the North of Scotland and this one road that links essentially those two cities. As we were driving along in our rental car with a map, we realized that there was a detour and a major portion of the road was under repair.
This detour took us all the way along the top of what is known as the Cairngorms, that magnificent habitat of hills and animals in the North of Scotland. We went on some magnificent winding roads and along some brooks. Oh yes, we also went past some of the great whisky scotch distillers along the way. Not that we stopped there, mind you, but anyway, we kept on going until to we got to Inverness. It was the most beautiful detour, an unexpected road with immense beauty.
So, as we go off the road with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem and we stop off at Psalm 103, believe me, there's a lot in here that speaks about the glory and the majesty of Christ. There are seven words that describe God's activity that I think relate very realistically to the person of Jesus Christ. Look at the text very carefully for a moment with me. The psalmist sees the wholeness of God, as I mentioned. He sees the judgement of God; he sees the mercy of God. But then in a stanza he uses this phrase: “God forgives us all our iniquities.” He starts describing the values, the virtues, the characteristics of God in terms of forgiveness. A very good friend of mine who ministered in Nova Scotia and also at the Church of the Advent in Boston, Massachusetts, David Currie, would also remind me in conversations that at the heart of the biblical message is that one word, “forgiveness”. Forgiveness constitutes so much of God's activity on our behalf.
That is captured in the New Testament, especially by the Apostle Paul. In the Book of Romans, he says, "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Even on the cross Christ Jesus says, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." The psalmist talks about the forgiveness of all sins, Jesus on the cross, in exit. The psalmist goes on and he says, "He heals all our wounds." Woundedness is something that we all know something about, and we certainly know about it during COVID. Our wounds are deep and this notion that God comes and heals the wounds and restores that which is broken is a powerful image. We've looked at Jesus' healing ministry over the last few weeks, but it's not just there that we find the healing. The healing goes beyond that.
Peter wrote, "By Christ's wounds, we are healed. By his own suffering he heals us and restores us." It's marvelous. He not only forgives, he not only heals, but he also redeems, he saves from the pit. I've often thought that there is a qualitative difference between God and ourselves, and that is why we need a redeemer.
The psalmist put it this way in this psalm, "We're all mortals and we're all like flowers. We all fade. We do not last." I love an illustration that Fred Craddock, the great preacher once used. He said, "It's like the relationship between a sculptor and a piece of art. A sculptor will make a piece of art, and often the piece of art will outlive the sculptor. The sculptor will die but the piece of art will remain. But not so with God. The sculptor makes the piece of art, which is us and we ourselves might not live but the sculptor does." It's that very sculptor who enables what he has made to live on.
The psalmist understood that God redeems from the pit and in the person of Jesus, the crucified in the tomb, and then the risen one, we see that redemption at work. He describes God as The Crown. “He crowns us with his mercy”. A human being, for all our mortality, for all our warts and all our sins is still made in the image of God. We are the crown of God's creation. There is something special about being human because we're made in the image of the divine sculptor who made us, and therefore we're precious. God crowns us with his mercy.
When I look at the life of Jesus, I see crowns. I see not only the crown of glory, I see the crown of thorns, the crown that he worn upon his head, while jeered and mocked for being the King of the Jews. He wore that crown precisely because God is merciful and loves us. We are told that this God also fifthly satisfies the good for our whole life. He satisfies the good from the moment we're born until the moment we leave this earth. God satisfies us with his presence. This is what God does. Jesus said to the disciples, "I will be with you always, even to the ends of the earth. I will not leave you." There's nothing that satisfies our sense of the goodness of life more than having the presence of Jesus Christ in it.
This is why we celebrate our Risen Lord. The psalmist also goes on to say that he will renew us. He uses the image of eagles again, eagles that soar, eagles that fly, eagles that go beyond the ordinary. Being lifted up, sustained, and renewed like we were in our youth. I was in a lineup not long ago for a vaccine and there were a whole group of people of a certain age, and everyone was saying, "It's amazing isn't it when you get to a certain age, standing for half an hour in the cold really takes it out of you." People were laughing and moaning and groaning and complaining and so on. It's very true that there is a need, particularly as you get older, to have the wings of youth lift you up. Not only when we're down do we need to be renewed. It's not just a matter of age, it's a matter of the spiritual power of God in Christ lifting us up. Jesus said, "If I be lifted up, I will draw all people unto me.” That is the inspiring lifting up into the presence of God by Jesus.
Last is a powerful verse. He said, "He will vindicate the oppressed." Ultimately God is not only the judge, but the vindicator of justice. I sometimes hear people say things like, "Well, all we really need in Jesus is a knowledge of who he was and what he did, that he was a good man, that he took the side of the oppressed, that that is really the essential Jesus.” Well it is the essential Jesus but so too is the Crucified and the Risen Jesus, for surely the ultimate vindication of God's love and mercy and justice is seen on the cross and in an empty tomb. The victory, the vindication, is seen in Jesus Christ himself. You cannot separate the deeds of Jesus from the person of Jesus any more than you can separate the notion of right and wrong and justice from the divine giver of that justice and that righteousness. The psalmist brings them all together. For the psalmist there is no distinction. This is the same God, this is the whole, the complete God. I believe as we get ready for Holy Week we will see all of those things manifested in the life and the death and the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
When my grandmother and I had finally finished our rather laborious tour of that department store and we were a wee bit tired and shell-shocked, she took me to the little restaurant that was adjacent to it and we had tea and scones and crumpets, very elegant. I remember my grandmother really having enjoyed the day despite all the theatrics early on. She said, "Lad, it's awfully good to have somebody there when you fall."
It's awfully good to have someone there when you fall. What this psalmist reminds us if that our souls bless the Lord in case we fall. He is always there to lift us up. Holy Week vindicates that truth. May this Lord be with you and those you love. Amen.