A sermon based on Exodus 4:10-12 and Psalm 103 preached August 16th, 2015
There are just some ideas out there that are so big—so magnificent—that they demand a new word to describe them. It’s a good thing, then, that the English language is fluid. It’s constantly changing. We make up words all the time!
One of my favorite TV shows from the 90’s was Mad About You with Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt. It’s some of the funniest comedy writing there ever was. Every once in a while, the Paul Reiser character would make up a word that fit so well and makes so much sense that you would have to wonder why nobody ever used it before. My favorite example of this was when he was he was trying to pay a compliment to a train steward. When everyone else was only complaining to this poor guy about how terrible the trip had been, Paul Reiser’s character speaks up:
You’re doing a great job! I’m not sure what these people are angry about. I’m not disgruntled at all. In fact I’m gruntled—I’m extremely gruntled. Keep up the good work!
Paul Reiser was once asked in an interview,
What’s your favorite word?
And he replied,
This is my favorite thing that needs a word: You know when you floss and a little something always lands on the mirror? That. That needs a word.
Comedians like Paul Reiser tend to pay attention to those small things we overlook and have no words for, but sometimes we don’t have words for things because they’re too big for words. Sometimes there’s an ideas so big, so allusive, so filled with awe, that no word we could ever make up, no matter how big it is or how great it sounds, could ever do it justice. And when we bump up against the outer edges of our language like that—when we find there is nothing we have that offers justice to such a wondrous thought—that’s when we resort to poetry. And that’s where the Psalms come in. The Psalms are filled with visions that—even though they’re brought to us with words—are so much bigger than anything we could ever say. That’s because praise is bigger than language.The praise we offer to God—the praise God is always worthy of—can never be uttered with human lips but can only overflow from our hearts. Sometimes, though, we must try to put words to our expansive praises, and Psalm 103 wants to do that twice. It has two new words to teach us: Hesed and Nephesh. Hebrew scholars have tried to translate the Hebrew word Hesed at their own peril. In our reading for the day, it’s translated as “faithful love.” It’s a word reserved throughout the bible to describe God’s great love for us. Some other translations take a stab at it with the phrase “loving kindness,” but it also has a sense of loyalty to it—it means that God is always loving and merciful and kind and loyal. And because the word hesed means so much all at once, some people simply leave it untranslated, because no other words can do it justice.
The second word in Psalm 103 we need to wrestle with is Nephesh. It also is too big for any of our words, but I think our reading puts it well. Nephesh means “our whole being”—everything we’re made of.
Let my whole being bless the Lord! Let everything I’m made of bless God’s holy name!
That’s how Psalm 103 starts, and in a way it’s what the entire 22 verses are about. This psalm is an attempt to put words around God’s all-encompassing love and what our appropriate response to such a big love should be, bringing our whole being—absolutely everything we are, our entire selves—to God in praise! And this is where I start making up words: This psalm is about allness. And because God has given God’s allness to us, we are to bring our allness to God.
Helen Keller was born with the ability to see and hear, but at 19 months-old she contracted what may have been meningitis or scarlet fever and it left her both deaf and blind. With the sudden loss of her sight and her hearing, she relied upon her 6 year-old friend, Martha Washington, who somehow understood the signs Helen made and translated them for her family.
Helen had a hard time learning sign language. She didn’t understand that every object had a word uniquely identified with it, but her big breakthrough came the day her teacher ran her hand under cool water then made the sign for water in her hand.
After that Helen demanded the names everything around her. Her thirst for knowledge became insatiable. Helen Keller grew to be a teacher; an author; and an activist. She once wrote,
My heart cries out with longing to see these things. If I can get so much from mere touch, how much more must be revealed by sight.Yet, those who have eyes apparently see little. The panorama of color and action which fills the world is taken for granted. It is human, perhaps, to appreciate little that which we have and to long for that which we have not, but it is a great pity that, in the world of light, the gift of sight is used only as a mere convenience rather than as a means of adding fullness to life.
Helen Keller also became a highly sought after speaker. She learned how to speak by touching people’s lips as they talked and placing her hands on peoples’ throats so she could feel the vibrations speech made.
You could say that although blind and deaf (and for some part of her life, mute), Helen Keller made her way through the world seeing and hearing more clearly than any one of us. Her blind eyes saw more than sight can give us to see, and her deaf ears heard more than our hearing can give us to listen. Helen Keller’s witness makes me wonder what we miss looking for because we see too much—what we do not listen for because we hear too much.
Moses had a thick tongue and a slow mouth. Moses was sure he wasn’t the one God needed for a spokesperson. He was the exact wrong choice for that job. God heard all of the excuses Moses threw out there, and God had a comeback for each and everyone. God replied to all of Moses’ objections by saying,
Who gives people the ability to speak? Who’s responsible for making them unable to speak or hard of hearing, sighted or blind? Isn’t it I who do that?
God told Moses He would help him speak. God promised to Moses all the gifts he thought he lacked, and God promised to be all that Moses needed.
God told Moses,
I’ll help you speak, and I’ll teach you what you should say.
And as our psalm says,
God made His ways known to Moses.
This psalm is about God’s all-inclusive and far-reaching greatness. It’s even 22 lines long, a line for each of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet, so even in its form, this poem is complete—it’s an A to Z song of praise to how complete God’s love of us is—how comprehensive God’s power is, how all-encompassing God’s promises are! I think that’s deserving of a new word like Allness.
But this psalm isn’t just a song of praise, it also demands something of us. We can’t read a song like this and just say,
Well isn’t that a nice thought.
The Psalms don’t want us watching from the sideline, they want us to jump in with our whole being and live them out over and over again in our own lives. Psalm 103 doesn’t simply praise God for giving us His all, it demands from us that we give our all to God. This psalm asks us to take our whole being and every bit of our lives and offer it as a form of praise to God. To bless God with every choice we make and every bit of who we are. With the words of this song, we are challenged to love others with the same allness that God loves us with. God’s all. Our all. The way we love is simply an echo of the same love that God has always shown us. It’s simply an outgrowth of the joy we have when we spend our lives praising God. We make Psalm 103 come alive again when we throw all of who we are into unrestrained praise.
It’s almost time to cover up our pools and pack up our summer for another day. Fall is ahead of us. My favorite time of year!
In the coming months, the leaves will change colors and make the world a brighter place, and our views a little sweeter. The changing colors of Autumn, the bright oranges and yellows and browns, are like Fall’s fireworks, popping out of every branch on every tree—giving us something magnificent to be in awe and wonder about… that’s if we slow down enough to see them—to really see them. Sometimes, that’s a big if. But we with eyes to see such things must take the time to do so. Helen Keller could see more than we see—hear more than we hear because she took slow time to notice the small wonders around her, and she let it all astonish her!
Psalm 103 begins and ends with praise. The psalmist declared aloud for all around her to here:
Let my whole being bless the Lord!
God has given His allness for us. Let’s give our allness to God. In grateful response to the good news of this psalm, let’s walk slower.
Let’s take a page out of Helen Keller’s playbook and see more, listen everywhere we go, and take slow time to be astonished by the small wonders around us, and may we utter new words of praise to our God!
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!