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Thornbury Parish


Psalm of Blessings  14 July

Psalm 103

The second in a series of sermons on Psalms

Revd David Self

Tonight we are focusing on blessing.  In the gospel story (Mark 10:16) mothers bring their children to Jesus. And he gladly takes them into his arms and blesses them, enfolding them in the love of God – a beautiful picture.  Imagine Jesus taking you into his arms and blessing you. Peter’s letter begins with a joyous thanksgiving, praising God for the gift of the gospel: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! (1 Peter 1:3)

Two meanings for  blessing. The Bible speaks of God blessing people with life-giving gifts for their nurture and protection, and the mothers were asking for that from Jesus. But, like the second reading, Psalm 103 invites us to bless God.  Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name. (Ps 103:1)  In fact, the invitation to ‘bless’ appears no less than 7 times in the psalm as a word of praise  .. warm with gratitude, coming from the soul, from the very core of our being with all the powers of heart and mind, thanking a God who makes himself known to us and gives himself in power and grace. (cf Eaton: Psalms p.358) The psalmist wrote it and we know it through the gift of Jesus. We are well blest with the gift of the gospel but the psalmist goes on immediately to say ‘do not forget all his benefits’, do not take them for granted. But we do.

The Spirit of God continues to move creatively through the universe. We may wonder at the stars for a moment and then turn our eyes back to daily concerns.  The flowers and fruits of the field surround us, the labours of the farmers who are trying to harvest of grain and rice and vegetables to continue to feed us each day.  Prices may go up because of shortages but we just say, ‘I’ve run out of something, I’ll just go to the shop and complain about the price’. Millions of the poor are not saying that. For there is no shop they can afford and no crop either. Once more the prospect of famine looms in parts of the world. In the book of Acts the early disciples in Antioch heard that a famine was coming to others, and they immediately resolved to help out. Locally we do that through a food bank. But we are also called to join others to help out the starving elsewhere now, so that we too may share God’s blessing with others. Blessings from God are given to be shared, so that others may bless God too.

We go astray when we depend on our own strength and forget that we are but dust. We are tempted to take the gospel itself for granted.  But the days come when faith is tested and any sense of the presence of Christ seems weak. Dark clouds of overshadow our souls; times of frailty, serious illness, loss, death of a loved one, our own sinfulness or the effects of the sinfulness of others. Such times shake any sense of well-being. We lose sight of blessing and doubt grows.

Let’s turn to the only disciple who has a Christian denomination named after him – Thomas.  There was never any doubt about his loyalty (let us go with him to Jerusalem and die with him) but he is far more clear-eyed and sceptical about this world – what the modern person would call a realist.  (Funny how the word ‘realist’ is always applied by those giving bad news to others.) So when his friends tell Thomas ‘We have seen the Lord’ he could not dare to believe the good news.  Such vigorous disbelief often represents a strong urge to believe, but it is held down by the ‘realistic’ common sense and a dread of disillusionment.  Jesus had touched his soul and called out his loyalty.  Thomas had taken the risk and allowed hope to grow.  But then came the crucifixion. Jesus’ death must have confirmed all his temptations to see the world framed in black.

When Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to his friends to restore relationships and draw them out of the pit of grief.  We are only given glimpses, but where necessary he worked with each one as sensitively and appropriately as he did when he walked the earth. He knows of what we are made; he remembers that we are but dust. (Ps 103: 14) So he came to Thomas, loyal Thomas, and gave him what he needed.  The evidence of faith is not an experience of the moment, nor a matter of feeling cheerful and strong about following Christ, it is a loyalty, the sort that made Thomas ready to share Jesus’ journey to the cross. Even after his friends began bubbling about this ridiculous story of a resurrection Thomas did not stomp off.  It is hard to stay with a close group when all the rest are laughing and you cannot join them.  But Thomas stayed, and their love and longing for him to share their joy held him.  And Jesus, at the right time, granted him a sign of his resurrection not given to others.  Put your finger here, put out your hand ... Jesus knew Thomas, knew the dread that people have when hope has been destroyed once too often.  Jesus gently gave him what he needed to release his faith into wholly new dimensions. Doubt has an important part to play within faith because doubt can lead to a deeper insight and a deeper faith in difficult times. And faith which holds in difficult times has an authority and encouragement which others need. Thomas remained honest in his loyalty. He neither pretended to beliefs he did not hold nor stomped off in the rage of his grief.  And so he remained open and accessible to the love of God.  The love of God is not a sentimental warm feeling, it is an almighty saving act. The invitation is to be open to the unexpected gifts which may come to us in the dark times. Look for them. They may not be apparent as blessings at the time. Indeed, the testing of faith may well take us into endurance. St. Paul writes in Romans, chapter 5: suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Look at the order – suffering, endurance, character, hope. Some blessings grow slowly within, and it may be that only by looking back we come to realise that.

But there is more. The risen Jesus could have healed his own limbs so perfectly that no trace of wounds appeared in them, but he kept the scars in his body in order to heal the wound of doubt in our hearts. (Augustine: Exposition of the Psalms, vol.4 p.293) What about us? We are dusty, fragile creatures who carry many wounds inflicted in the course of our lives.  We carry the scars that come from our experiences in life, we carry the scars of our own sinfulness, blindness and confusion as we do things we did not want to do, and fail to do what we wanted to do. All of these can be offered to God in honesty to receive forgiveness, healing  and grace. Psalm 103 begins with Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name. All. Everything. Not just the bits of ourselves and our lives that we are comfortable with, but the rest too – the scars, the wounds, the sins, those parts of which we are ashamed offer them to God as well for healing and blessing.  They too become part of the treasure and unique glory that God gives us at the resurrection. the Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness. (Ps 103)

‘In the thankful praise of the soul lies the capacity to love God as he is and the world as it will be. The thankfulness centre in the experience of forgiveness: it is the knowledge of God as the awesome One who upholds all that is just and good, and yet is full of pity and mercy, patient, and wonderful in his tenacious and abundant love.   His forgiveness delivers us from the dark abyss, and gives new life as redeemed souls rise on the breath of his Spirit.  .. Belief will grow that, blessing God, the soul in its turn is blessed with a place in the heart of God that will never be lost.’ (Eaton pg 359)

In your prayers, give some time to think the positive things in your life and offer thanks to God for those blessings. Well, perhaps you could spend some time in prayer to think about the times in your life which were dark times of testing, or sin, or suffering, or loss, and thank  God for his blessings then. If we can do that as well, then we are growing towards accepting them, thereby allowing God to lay in us the foundations for a truly lasting peace in the heart and we become more of a blessing to others.

Bless the Lord O my soul.