Sermon – Ps 103:1–5
Baltic Bishops’ Meeting, Haapsalu Cathedral
24 August 2020
Urmas Viilma, Archbishop of the EELC
Dear fellow bishops, spouses and assistants from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia,
Please allow me to welcome you from this pulpit of the Haapsalu Cathedral, which is a fitting symbol for the restoration of independence of our countries, our churches and peoples.
On 24 December 1990, this church was among the first to regain its status as a place of worship after spending 50 years under the oppression of the communist regime. For 30 years, we have been working consistently in Estonia on restoration and recommissioning of ruined church buildings, as well as on constructing new ones. Thanks to God, a total of 55 places of worship have been rebuilt from ruins or anew over the past thirty years, including Lutheran churches as well as sanctums adopted for ecumenical use (for instance, chapels of the Defence Forces and prisons). This does not include church buildings that have been in continuous use and are in need of renovation; I am only talking about those that were restored from ruins or built from scratch. Several new church buildings are still in construction. It is a sign of God’s holiness and majesty that so many places of worship have been erected and commissioned in an environment of a secularist ideology that is close to becoming a religion in and of itself, in a country with arguably one of Europe’s largest percentages of population that has been estranged from the church.
I am reminded of the words of Psalm 103 of David: “Praise the Lord, my soul, all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits” (Ps 103:1-2). Whenever I read this psalm, I can hear in my head the words of one of the best-known Taizé songs: Bless the Lord, my soul, and bless God’s holy name, which are based on the very same psalm of David.
I am also reminded of my visit to the Taizé monastery a year ago. It is a place founded by a Protestant layman, whom we remember as Brother Roger, together with a few like-minded associates in a small French village after the Second World War. It is a peculiar place that attracts hundreds of thousands of young people and young adults every year as they search for God or try to improve their understanding of God. The Taizé Community is a marvellous example of God’s love that knows no boundaries, as well as of the realisation of the Christian aspiration of unity. At the same time, the Taizé brothers are quite candid in speaking about the religious or denominational arrogance or scepticism that they encounter everywhere in Europe, as well as about the instances of looking down on each other that can be seen between different brothers and sisters – however, mostly among official church leaders or clergy members. When we were at the monastery, the brothers talked about how some Catholic priests in old Catholic countries of Southern Europe regard them, and the entire Taizé Community, as representatives of the Protestant movement and, consequently, as something strange or sometimes even sectarian. At the same time, some pastors in other European regions that are predominantly Protestant, tend to see them as a Catholic movement. Even I was surprised to learn that the first Catholic brother joined the Community only about two decades after it was established. For the first couple of decades, the Taizé Community was made up only of Protestants – lay brothers from the Reformed, Lutheran and Calvinist churches.
Today, the Taizé monastery is a richly blessed growing bed of new Christians in Europe. It is a place where tens of thousands of young people, irrespective of church or denomination, find a boost and internal awakening for their religious life, reinvigorating them as they return to their home churches. It is now only two weeks from the day when two minibuses full of young people from our Lutheran church returned from their visit to the Taizé monastery in France, and they are about to complete their two-week period of self-isolation. I asked one of our clergy members who accompanied the youngsters, whether COVID-19 had had any effect on the monastery. The answer was that there have been no significant changes – the Community continues to breathe and function in its regular rhythm. However, they are trying to follow all the official guidelines – wearing face masks, keeping a distance of one meter during prayer services, and limiting the total number of people allowed in the monastery to 2,000. But the spiritual and liturgical life continues in the usual manner.
Indeed, in the context of the coronavirus that has rocked the entire planet over the past six months, we are greatly comforted by the knowledge that ours is a healing God. At the end of verse 3 of Psalm 103, David notes that we have a God who “heals all your diseases” (Ps 130:3). While in normal circumstances we might think about our personal ailments and diseases as we read this verse, we can now find solace in the knowledge that God has the power to put an end to any epidemic and pandemic. And he can also prevent them from returning. However, there is always the nagging question that I have been asked many times over the past months: Why does God allow evil and injustice to occur at all?
In the context of yesterday’s Day of Remembrance for Victims of Communism and Nazism (23 August), I am reminded of a conversation with the wife of a former Estonian presidential candidate. She admitted in an interview that she had lost her faith in God when she and her family were deported to Siberia while she was still a little girl. Now, decades later, she was still unable to forgive God for allowing this injustice to happen. Thus, refusing to believe in God seemed to her the only way to remonstrate with God. Some time later, I asked this well-known woman if she had ever thought about thanking God for this little fact that, unlike many of her compatriots, she was able to return from Siberia, alive. Or for being able to lead a very privileged life under different regimes by finding a favourable position in society and collaborating with the authorities. Until this day, she, together with her husband and children, has been able to enjoy a significantly higher standard of living and social status compared to many hundreds and thousands of others who perhaps were not even deported to Siberia. My conversation partner had never recognised the possibility that God may have played a role in her coming back from Siberia alive and then living for decades among the social elite, both before and after the restoration of independent statehood.
As Christians, we are strengthened by the conviction of God’s holiness and his sovereign authority over permitting or refusing various things and events to occur for individuals, countries and nations – the entire humankind. Indeed, we know that God’s plan and perspective surpass any notions that we might have. He would also know why the coronavirus disease had to spread over the globe to claim nearly 800,000 lives throughout the world, while infecting some 23 million individuals according to the official figures. There are many people who hold God responsible for all that has happened. However, there are other figures as well. For instance, more than 15 million people have recovered from the disease.
As Christians, we see God as fighting against the spreading virus – preventing evil and violence because, like the Psalmist, we believe in the God who “heals all your diseases” (Ps 103:3). To express my gratitude, I would like to borrow the opening words from Psalm 103: Praise the Lord, my soul, all my inmost being, praise his holy name (Ps 103:1).
Here, the word Praise!, which can be translated in some other languages also as Bless!, does not mean a polite, procedural or protocolary expression of gratitude. It is not an applause or formal presentation of an official letter of appreciation. It means praising and lauding God from the bottom of the soul. The emphasis is on soulful praise that arises from within – I must praise God with all my inmost being. Praise God’s holy name.
Name is the only thing that makes God somewhat visible and tangible, which is why using God’s name was regulated in the Law of Moses. God’s name is holy. The threefold praise, Holy, holy, holy is our God, the Lord Zebaoth, is heard in the liturgy of the Eucharist after the Preface prayer. Our sermon hymn today was “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty” (KLPR 142). Every time I hear this threefold acclamation of Holy!, I get this discrepant association with the shouts that preceded the crucifixion of Christ: Crucify! Crucify! Crucify! (see Luke 23:21, John 19:6). In the Bible, the threefold Holy, holy, holy is sung by seraphim (Is 6:3) and the four mystical creatures of the Book of Revelation (Rev 4:8). Are we as humans even worthy of singing the threefold praise to the Lord? Especially after we pointed fingers at Christ, shouting: Crucify! Crucify! Crucify!
The church teaches us that, actually, the opposite is true. The fact that Christ died on the cross is the reason why we can acclaim, Holy, holy, holy is our God, and why we can sing with David, Praise the Lord, my soul, all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits” (Ps 103:1-2). It is God’s holiness, the greatness and boundlessness of his grace, that enables us as sinners to call out to him. If we stopped praising God, it would be a sign that we are about to forget his holiness and goodness. Or that we are starting to perceive the greatness of God’s mercy as a matter of fact – a normality. If something seems ordinary, or normal, we do not think about it as special. But God’s goodness, graciousness, care and love are special! They are special by virtue of the very fact that we do not deserve them. We do not deserve them because, unlike Christ who loves sinners and those who are lost or oppressed, calling them to him, we are in the routine course of our lives rather keen to condemn our neighbour and to shout Crucify!, just like the generations that preceded us. Our nature has been corrupted by sin…
We need to praise and thank God, not because God needs it but because praising, thanking and praying to God is necessary for us. This is how we follow the Second Commandment. This is how God’s name, that is holy in itself, can become hallowed among us, like we plead in the Lord’s Prayer. It is not us that make God’s name holy – God’s name is holy even without our prayer, but can we truly appreciate the sanctity of God’s name?
One aspect of God’s holiness is his ability to show mercy and forgive people. This is what David sings in the third verse of Psalm 103: “He forgives all your sins.”
Reading this, God may seem quite terrifying in his holiness, because the unfathomable scope of his holiness will always remain beyond our grasp as unworthy sinners. As sinful human beings whose minds have been corrupted, we cannot come to terms with God’s authoritative and sovereign right to forgive all sins. How is it possible? Does he really forgive all sinners? This grace sounds radical to the extreme! I cannot imagine God forgiving any Nazi or communist murderers. But who am I to judge the greatness of God’s grace? Who am I to doubt the impartiality of God’s justice or his sovereign, autonomous right to forgive all those who, in my opinion or according to the church’s doctrine, are sinners or are destined for a place in hell? Who am I to doubt God’s sovereign right to justify those who have committed atrocious crimes and injustices in their life and with their deeds?
But God’s radical grace is also a source of hope for myself! I hope that he will forgive my inability to be as forgiving and loving as he is. However, the most important aspect of this radical grace is that I sincerely believe in God’s fair judgement. I really hope and believe that this fair judgement will be applied to Nazi and communist criminals as well as anyone else who commits atrocious and violent injustice. In fact, God’s judgement is the only thing that can give us peace of mind when we think about such situations. However, God’s justice also makes me anxious, because I know that, as a sinner, I do not deserve anything but punishment.
Thus, we need to find ourselves under God’s grace in our faith and life, instead of seeking adulation from the world. The followers of Jesus do not need the endorsement of society in a secular/humanist/hedonistic world that is hostile to Christ. This was something that was known to and experienced by the very first apostles of Jesus, including Bartholomew, whom we commemorate today. Knowing this, it is comforting to think about the words of the Apostle Paul from verses 9, 12 and 13 in Chapter 4 of his First Epistle to the Corinthians that we heard today. It sounds like music to the ears of faithful Christians when Paul writes: “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world – right up to this moment.” (1 Cor 4:9,12–13)
We have no reason to ever doubt God’s holiness. But we need to keep in mind that we are holy as well. Through Christ’s blood, we have been liberated from the clutches of death and sin. We have been redeemed by God’s radical grace that is realised through faith in the Lord Christ. This is true even if the world sees us as the scum and the garbage. It is this scum that Christ loves; and it is this garbage for which he was crucified, so that all who are redeemed could acclaim: Holy! Holy! Holy!