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Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

As a young pastor, I once learned a helpful model for leading my small congregation in weekly prayer. It is often called the ACTS prayer, named after the acronym formed from the first letters of the four movements reflected within it: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.Through adoration, we praise the Lord for who God is. Individually and collectively, we’re called to confess our sins while also learning to confess with our tongues that Jesus is Lord. Likewise, we offer thanks for what God has done for us before making our needs known to God through supplication.

One of the things I have especially appreciated about this particular prayer model is that it makes great sense theologically. We begin our prayers first with praise because God is holy, the only one worthy of human glorification. Confession follows logically because it offers us a means of restoration from the gulf caused by the ravages of human sin. Having been restored, thanksgiving is our natural expression for God’s loving actions in our lives, and in our world. And while it’s our habitual human tendency to focus first on ourselves and on other pressing needs, supplication is the appropriate choice as we put our own wants and needs after all other things. While experientially counterintuitive, this sequence is theologically correct.

Leading these kind of prayers in communal worship are great opportunities for pastors to exercise their priestly roles, and they offer ministers a model for teaching parishioners a helpful way of engaging with God in prayer. But rather than using this model in my pastoral prayer every week, I added it into my rotation on an occasional basis. Over the years, I have found it helpful in my journey, both personally and professionally.

In this week’s Scripture focus from Psalm 104, the Psalmist begins, as the ACTS model teaches us, with adoration, followed closely by thanksgiving. The all-wise God is worthy of our praise with works that are many and diverse, evidenced even by the creation—including Leviathan, a seemingly immense creature defying human understanding to this day. In verses 27-28, thanksgiving pervades as the Psalmist acknowledges God’s care with gratitude. And in verse 29, the Psalmist shudders to think of the converse: when God’s face is seemingly turned away from us, death is the ultimate outcome. Fortunately, verse 30 resolves the Psalmist’s dismay as God’s life-giving Spirit offers restoration to the creation, even renewing the face of the ground itself. In light of this progression, we should not be surprised by the Psalmist’s declaration in 104:31a: “May the glory of the LORD endure forever.”

But what follows in 104:31b is mind-boggling: “may the LORD rejoice in his works.” It’s one thing to praise God for the Lord’s enduring glory. But it’s quite another thing to think that the God of all creation might ever rejoice over us! For the Psalmist, and for us, it’s understandable to imagine the very creation trembling under God’s gaze, or for it to burst into flames by one divine touch (104:32).           

But as God’s feeble, fallible creatures, what is required for us to believe the Lord might ever be able to rejoice over us? How could we ever think of ourselves in the light of verse 31b? This is both the preacher’s greatest task and opportunity in Psalm 104.

Perhaps the ACTS model offers us a helpful pathway forward between the Psalmist’s twin foci of adoration and thanksgiving. Confession offers us a missing key to our conundrum, opening the door for restoration to God and the unbelievable notion that God might actually rejoice over us. This kind of restoration is transformative and empowering, inspiring the redeemed to lift their voices wholeheartedly and continually: “I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the LORD” (104:33-34). It’s no wonder that today’s lectionary text concludes with this praiseworthy affirmation in 104:35b: “Bless the LORD, O my soul. Praise the LORD!”

But before preachers take undue pride in unlocking this psalm fully, wise homileticians must admit that the Revised Common Lectionary offers us a reprieve that the Scriptures do not. While the lectionary offers preachers and congregations an immensely helpful framework for shared pastoral study and corporate worship, editorial choices at the committee level sometimes seem to slice and dice lectionary texts from time to time.  In some places like this particular Psalm text, lectionary preachers sometimes feel a reprieve from wrestling with a difficult verse or pericope. After all, in todays’ text the lectionary excises Psalm 104:35a from today’s reading: “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more,” before concluding with the Psalmist’s praiseworthy conclusion in 35b.

Perhaps the NRSV’s translation of verse 35a is our problem. After all, the New International Version seems to make things a bit more palatable than the NRSV: “But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more.” Preachers with a bent toward resolution might argue that the earth’s wicked sinners in the NIV could vanish through redemption, not necessarily through annihilation.

Choosing a text’s most difficult rendering is often a preacher’s most prudent policy. In the NRSV, the Psalmist’s words in 35a almost read permissively: let the wicked perish. Apart from confession and restoration to life by God, this is often our natural tendency as sinful human beings: though we’ve found redemption, others deserve what they get.

Perhaps you’re like me and you’re tempted to wish at some level that the Psalmist or our canonical ancestors would have followed the lead of the RCL and had excised 104:35a from this text. Nevertheless, it remains on the biblical page. Read carefully, it reminds us of our own tendencies to forget alienating sins of our pasts, and to be less charitable to those still living in the state that once marked our own lives. For those who choose to wrestle with this psalm in its entirety, perhaps it will serve to remind us of this human frailty. More importantly, perhaps it will move us to supplication—to pray for those who desperately need God’s redemptive touch today.And in these moments, I believe God rejoices over us.