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Sermon for Sunday 25 August 2013

FIRST READING Isaiah 58:9b–14

9b If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. 13 If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; 14 then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

PSALM Psalm 103:1–8

1 Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name. 2 Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all God’s benefits? 3 who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases; 4 who redeems your life from the grave and crowns you with steadfast love and mercy; 5 who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like an eagle’s. 6 O LORD, you provide vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. 7 You made known your ways to Moses and your works to the children of Israel. 8 LORD, you are full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

SECOND READING Hebrews 12:18–29

18 You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, 19 and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. 20 (For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”) 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. 25 See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! 26 At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken — that is, created things — so that what cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; 29 for indeed our God is a consuming fire.

GOSPEL Luke 13:10–17

10 Now [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.


A young minister was about to deliver his first sermon, and asked a retired minister-friend for advice on how to capture the congregation’s attention.  “Start with an opening line that’s certain to grab them,” the older man said.  “For example:  ‘Some of the best years of my life were spent in the arms of a woman who was not my wife.'”  He smiled at the younger man’s shocked expression before adding, “She was my mother.”  The next Sunday the young preacher nervously clutched the pulpit.  Finally he said, “Some of the best years of my life were spent in the arms of a woman.”  He was pleased at the instant reaction—then became panic-stricken.  “But for the life of me, I can’t remember who she was!”

Forgetfulness can be a tremendous problem, often getting us into terrible predicaments.  How many times have you been embarrassed by forgetting someone’s name?  How many appointments have been missed or opportunities slipped by simply because we forgot about them? 

Entire industries are built upon the manufacture and sale of memory aids.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been saved because I carry a smart phone … that is, as long as I remember to carry it with me.  I once read of a man who went to a training conference where a course was being taught on how to improve one’s memory.  He spent nearly $200 on the books, tapes and worksheets for the course and then brought them home, stored them in a convenient location, and promptly forgot where he put them.

In order not to forget famous people, we place their names on bridges and buildings.  But who among us remembers for whom these bridges are named or the man whose name graces a building?  We videotape family events, but forget to transfer the tapes. We have albums filled with pictures of people whose names we soon forget.  The problem is – we leak!

What’s worse, no matter how hard we try, our memories only fade with time.  The treachery of memory is that while it treasures the refuse of the past, it permits priceless treasures to decay.  The raunchy joke is forever etched on our mind, and the painful words from the family member are constantly replayed, but all too often the important truths that should transform our lives leak from us like the water from the colander loaded with spaghetti.  Forgetting to pick up the dry cleaning is inconvenient, forgetting a name embarrassing, and forgetting an anniversary troubling, but when we forget all that God has done for us, that’s frightening.

It’s for this reason Scripture shows that the opposite of forgetfulness isn’t just recalling truths like the grocery items you need from Wally world.  Rather, the opposite of forgetfulness is the activity of praise.  Psalm 103 enjoins us to praise our God for all the benefits He has given us.  This morning, in place of forgetfulness, let’s look at this Psalm to remember all we have.  Praise the LORD, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise His holy name.  Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits–who forgives all our sins and heals all our diseases, who redeems our life from the pit and crowns us with love and compassion, who satisfies our desires with good things so that our youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Our psalm appointed for today begins with the command to praise.  The NRSV version and others have “bless” but both terms point to the same activity.  The word used here means to kneel, or salute.  When this word is used of God blessing us, there are tangible benefits conveyed, but when it’s used of us blessing God the meaning is different.  There’s nothing we can add to God; nothing we can say makes Him any more or less sovereign.  Rather, to bless or praise God is to acknowledge all He’s done and all He’s given to us, and that He alone is worthy of our affections and attention.

But the importance of praise in place of forgetfulness is seen in how the word “forget” is used in the Old Testament.  To forget isn’t merely a psychological act of having a thought pass from one’s consciousness, or a lapse of memory.  In Deuteronomy chapter 8, to forget God is equated with going after other gods, or ignoring His commands.  To forget God is to live in fear, to doubt His goodness.  If we’re to avoid forgetfulness, remembering to praise Him is important.  In verses 3-5 we see three specific points of praise:  praise for pardon, praise for preservation, and praise for provision.

The first benefit listed is that of forgiveness.  The reason this leads the list is because God’s pardon is foundational to all the rest.  Before we discuss anything else God has done in our lives, we must consider that the barrier between God and us, due to sin, has been completely removed.  The trouble is that when we forget forgiveness, true praise can never be uttered.  There is no joy, no worship, and no excitement about life, unless we know that which separates us from God is once and finally removed.  There’s nothing more debilitating than guilt, and nothing more deadly than shame.  

The Hebrew word salah is only ever used of God’s pardoning the sinner and restoring the ruined relationship, and never of people forgiving each other.  We understand forgiveness only by a poor analogy, for when I forgive, I merely decide to no longer hold another person’s offense against them.  When God forgives, He alone is able to permanently change the person’s status.  When you or I forgive, it’s for the moment, but God’s forgiveness doesn’t fluctuate from bitterness to forgiveness and back to bitterness.  It’s a forgiveness that goes beyond our understanding.

The word describing the extent is simple but powerful:  all.  It’s not that God forgives certain sins but not others, some sins but not all, or sins before coming to Christ but not after.  To be satisfied that God forgives 99.9% of our sins and that would be good enough would be like saying that we should be satisfied with near completeness in other areas.  For example, we should be happy that at Charlotte Douglas, all planes except two, every day, land safely … except two.  Each week almost all surgeries are successful, but 500 deaths are tolerable.  Every day doctors drop 50 newborns, and the U.S. Postal Service loses 16,000 pieces of mail every hour.  That would not be good enough.  How much more with God’s forgiveness!  The good news is that God, because of Christ, forgives all our sins.  When we, as a Christian, wallow in guilt, imagining that the weight of God’s wrath bears down on us and not on Christ, we’ve forgotten our status in Christ.

Not long before she died in 1988, in a moment of surprising candor on television, Marghanita Laski, one of our best-known secular humanists and novelists, said, “What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness; I have nobody to forgive me.”  When we see our sin, do we wallow in the muck and mire of our shame?  For many, we imagine that we’re saved by grace, but grow in Christ by beating ourselves, trying to convince God we didn’t mean to do wrong.  What should be our response?  Certainly repentance, but then with repentance comes joy.  Seeing our sin is but another occasion to see the incredible love of Christ.  We also need to see that our pardon means that we’re healed.

Sins forgiven may seem easy to speak of, but diseases healed?  That’s too tangible to take lightly.  It might seem odd to combine these two until we read Isaiah 53 “by his stripes we are healed.”  In Matthew chapter 9 we read where Jesus, in response to the paralyzed man, pronounces his sins forgiven.  Notice the relationship between healing and forgiveness.  The connection of these two in the gospel is first that healing is a vibrant picture of what forgiveness is.  Second, more than just a picture, it points to what God does.

Does this give us a guarantee of perfect health?  Is healing a part of atonement?  No – death is certain.  Last time I checked, Peter and Paul are still dead.  Augustine hasn’t been seen for 1500 years.  Luther hasn’t lifted a beer in quite a while, and although Wesleyan hymns are sung, the Wesley brothers’ voices are quiet.  The question isn’t can God heal.  The answer to that is a resounding yes!  Any theist must affirm that, since God is God.  But this verse says “all diseases”.  How should we understand this phrase then?  Should we make it merely non-tangible, emotional healings?

We must see the relationship between disease and sin, forgiveness and wholeness.  Remember, disease is a product of sin:  not individual sin, but the sin from our forefather, Adam.  The Fall meant death and dying are a part of life.  But the second Adam, Jesus Christ, changed all that.  So, should we expect healing?  Yes, in Christ all our diseases are healed – in the resurrection.  Is that a cheap response?  No, not at all.

For in our bodily resurrection not one of us will ever suffer the pains of cancer, the torment of emotional breakdown, or the ache of arthritis.  This is a benefit we must not ignore, but which we forget when we suffer in pain, and when we face our own death.  This is a psalm of tremendous promise that we shouldn’t shy away from when facing our own demise.  The promise isn’t empty even in the final moments of life, for we must praise our God that while this tent is torn down, we will be raised with new bodies.  We will stand whole for all eternity.  Next we offer praise for preservation.  (verse 4)

And our preservation begins in our redemption.  With the first benefit of sins forgiven, and of our lives being made whole, we can have the confidence that our status has changed, and that God is working in our life is to preserve us, not destroy us.  God has reached down, and pulled us out of the pit, out of the mouth of destruction.  This comes at a cost; there’s a price paid as we are purchased.  Forgiveness for us is free, but it’s never cheap.

The word redeem points to a rich picture in the Old Testament of the kinsmen redeemer, one who would ensure the safety of a family member, and who would purchase their freedom from slavery.  For God to pull you out of the clutches of hell, God descended to earth, to suffer and die.

This work of Christ, redeeming us from the pit and taking on our sins is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed we confess each week in the unfortunately confusing phrase:  “he descended into hell.”  Theologians over the centuries have debated the exact meaning of this part of the confession, and many have offered their opinion.  Luther refused to get into this argument because it’s one that can only be answered by God.  Luther simply said, “After His burial the whole person of Christ, the God-man, descended into hell, conquered the devil, and destroyed the power of hell and Satan.  The mode and manner, however, in which this was done can no more be comprehended by human reason than His sitting at the right hand of the Father, and must therefore not be investigated, but believed and accepted in simple faith.  It is sufficient if we retain the consolation that neither hell nor [the] devil are any longer able to harm us.”  Accordingly, Luther did not regard the descent into hell as an act belonging to the state of humiliation, by which He paid the penalty for our sins, but as an act of exaltation, in which Christ, as it were, plucked for us the fruits of His sufferings which were finished when He died upon the cross.  Maybe we’ve become too comfortable with the cost of our redemption and that’s the reason we become forgetful; neglecting to always praise God as we should.

Whatever debt is owed by us to God is once and for all paid.  The indiscretions of youth, our lack of love for our neighbor, the rage of the mother at her children, the inattentiveness of a father – all these, and many more, were covered 2000 years ago.  The penalty is over, as God the Son bore our penalty.  All we have to do is believe; therefore we have reason to praise, as we are now forgiven.  This also means that our preservation is completed in our coronation.

Redemption is wonderful; our debt is paid.  But that’s not the end of the good news.  It doesn’t end there. We’d have reason enough to praise knowing that the debt is paid, that we are taken from the negative and restored to neutral, but we’re also given a new status.  There’s also a positive.

We’re taken from the jailer’s pit to the throne room of the King.  There a crown awaits us.  When we think of a crown, we think political power, might and authority.  This coronation is certainly one of honor, but not in world’s terms.  Here it’s the Father’s love and compassion that are placed on our heads.  And anytime we lose sight of this tremendous prize, we lose the ability to praise our God.

One football team owner calls it “the single most impressive symbol of being a champion in all of sports.”  He’s talking about the NFL’s Super Bowl ring.  The rings on the most recent Super Bowl champions are worth $5,000 each!  Can you imagine losing something that valuable and irreplaceable?  Former Raiders champion Gene Upshaw can.  To keep his Super Bowl ring safe at home, he put it inside a bank that looked like a Pepsi can.  The problem:  he forgot to tell his housekeepers.  They mistook the bank for an empty pop can and tossed it out, ring and all.  It was a costly mistake – a treasure was trashed because of the container it was in.  It’s a mistake many people make.  

The treasure many trash is their standing in Christ, tossed aside as they forget the benefits of all Christ has done for us and decide they need to earn that standing on their own.  But God has graced us with His love and compassion, something we can never create within ourselves.  Next, our provision satisfies our needs.

While Mick Jagger can’t “get no satisfaction,” in Christ we have all we need.  This is the natural end point.  If we forget anything above, we’re left with discontented and disgruntled lives.  It’s odd that so many people waste years seeking happiness, but always end up short.  You can’t create happiness; it’s given to you.  Because of Christ, God has for us the greatest satisfaction ever.  In light of forgiveness, eternal health, redemption and crowns – what could provide greater satisfaction?  The psalmist here reminds us in verse 5 that He satisfies our desires with good things.  But we must be careful here.  If this verse is read incorrectly, it could sound like I get what I want.

Some will read this thinking, whatever I desire, He is forced to give it to me.  But that isn’t the case.  The word “satisfy” here describes the response to a delicious meal.  Think back to after a fine Thanksgiving feast when the turkey is no longer stuffed but you are.  That sense of belt loosening, couch potato napping satisfaction – what God gives us, is an infinitely greater contentment.  Rather than a promise of getting all you want, this is a promise that what God gives, is good.  This means that our provision renews our lives.  The good that God gives empowers us, strengthens us, and restores that which is old and tired.  The image used here is that of an eagle.

It may be that the ancients saw the molting of the great birds as a renewing process, causing them to remain forever young, or that their powerful and seemingly tireless flight was to be envied as they soared higher than the rest.  This same image is used in Isaiah 40 in the passage made more familiar in the movie “Chariots of Fire,” when Eric Liddell reads from this passage while we see images of Olympians faltering and falling as they compete.  The application here is that as a Christian, we will be sustained throughout life.  Yes we will grow weary; of course we grow old, but with God’s sustaining help we have a promise that takes us to the heart of the benefits of the gospel.

At the beginning of the service we had our confession of sin.  We confessed our lack of love and action.  We confessed that we have turned from God and given ourselves over to the power of sin.  It’s a list that by itself should tire us out, and we can easily become weary thinking about what must be done.  Because of our sinful nature, we find ourselves at times asking, how can I forgive?  We hold grudges tighter than Scrooge holds his money bags.  But the answer is simple – I’ve been forgiven, and as I look in faith to Christ as my only hope and my only help, God renews me so that by His grace alone, I can forgive.

And anytime we forget that, there will be little to praise God for as we labor to make God happy with us.  Instead, the gospel calls us to praise and not forget.  We’re called to respond with gratitude for all He’s done for us.  God’s pardon, preservation and provision should produce praise.  But the trouble is…we forget.  But in gratitude we must remember.

It was gratitude that prompted an old man to visit an old broken pier on the eastern seacoast of Florida.  Every Friday night, until his death in 1973, he would return, walking slowly and slightly stooped with a large bucket of shrimp.  The sea gulls would flock to this old man, and he would feed them from his bucket.  Many years before, in October 1942, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was on a mission in a B-17 to deliver an important message to General Douglas MacArthur in New Guinea.  But there was an unexpected detour that would hurl Captain Eddie into the most harrowing adventure of his life.

Somewhere over the South Pacific the Flying Fortress became lost beyond the reach of radio.  Fuel ran dangerously low, so the men ditched their plane in the ocean… For nearly a month Captain Eddie and his companions would fight the water, and the weather, and the scorching sun.  They spent many sleepless nights recoiling as giant sharks rammed their rafts.  The largest raft was nine by five.  The biggest shark…ten feet long.

But of all their enemies at sea, one proved most formidable:  starvation.  Eight days out, their rations were long gone or destroyed by the salt water.  It would take a miracle to sustain them.  And a miracle occurred. Captain William Cherry, “read the service that afternoon, Rickenbacker later wrote, “we finished with a prayer for deliverance and a hymn of praise.  There was some talk, but it tapered off in the oppressive heat.  With my hat pulled down over my eyes to keep out some of the glare, I dozed off.  Something landed on my head.  I knew that it was a sea gull.  I don’t know how I knew, I just knew.  Everyone else knew too.  No one said a word, but peering out from under my hat brim without moving my head, I could see the expression on their faces.  They were staring at that gull.  The gull meant food…if I could catch it.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.  Captain Eddie caught the gull.  Its flesh was eaten.  Its intestines were used for bait to catch fish.  The survivors were sustained and their hopes renewed because a lone sea gull, uncharacteristically hundreds of miles from land.  You know that Captain Eddie made it.  And now you also know…that he never forgot.  Because every Friday evening, about sunset…on a lonely stretch along the eastern Florida seacoast…you could see an old man walking…white-haired, bushy-eyebrowed, slightly bent.  His bucket filled with shrimp to feed the gulls…to remember that one which, on a day long past, gave itself without a struggle.  (“The Old Man and the Gulls” from Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story by Paul Aurandt, 1977)

How much greater and further reaching was the sacrifice of Christ, His life given to us so that we might live?  How much more should we never cease to be filled with praise for that One who died the death so that we might live?  Many of the psalms we read give us the opportunity to not forget but to praise God for His limitless love and mercy.  With King David, let us sing in the assembly, “Bless the Lord O my soul and all that is within me bless His holy name.”


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