Sunday, November 4, 2012

Worth Repeating

Texts: Psalm 136; Romans 8:31-39

       O GIVE THANKS TO THE LORD, FOR He is good:
        for His steadfast love endures forever.

Is this a statement worth repeating?  Our spiritual ancestors the ancient Israelites thought so.  All through the books of Kings and Chronicles, at times of celebration at the Jerusalem temple, frequently when the armies of the Lord go out to war, we read of this call and response being made between priest and people. It stands as a confession of faith for the Old Testament church.  And since the Lord's church is one church, it is a confession of faith for us.  The Lord is good; His steadfast love endures forever.  This is a confession we should take upon our lips daily.  We should find it marvellously worth repeating. 

    But what happens when the goodness of the Lord seems to fall short?   What if we feel that His love isn't exactly steadfast, or not exactly what we'd define as love?

    I was moved to preach on these two passages a couple weeks ago, long before a hurricane called Sandy began making its way up the Atlantic coast.  Around here we got off pretty light.  But elsewhere--!  Even now there are still people in New York and New Jersey who are cold and hungry and suffering.  They have no heat and no running water and they're short of food.  Ordinary people just like us in a terrible situation.  What if that was us?  Would we still be able to respond, "His steadfast love endures forever!"?  Would we want to?  Today's readings teach us that not only should we want to, even in the worst of circumstances, but through that same steadfast love of God, we can.

    The first step is to understand what this steadfast love is.  It goes way beyond a feeling or preference, it includes the active kindness and mercy of God toward men.  The word is hesed, and it describes how God is in Himself and also how God behaves as He reaches out to us in grace and favor.

    But here's our problem: We get the idea that if somebody loves us they should give us exactly what we think we want right now, whether it's the best thing for us or not.  And if he or she doesn't give it, it means they don't love us after all.  This attitude can make it hard for us to repeat that "His steadfast love endures forever!"

    I hope you and I aren't so childish as that.  I pray the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to see that God shows His steadfast love towards us first and foremost in giving us a relationship with Himself, in allowing us to catch even the reflection of His greatness.  The psalmist proclaims,

        Give thanks to the God of gods,


        Give thanks to the Lord of lords.

Think of it!  Only we among the creatures are made in His image.  Only we are privileged even dimly to recognize who He is. The animals, the rocks, the trees: they worship God in being what they are, but they are totally unaware of the splendor and majesty of their Creator.  But Lord God has granted that we should see His glory, and in His love He has enabled us to enjoy Him in worship.  This is a privilege that nothing can take away from us, for God in His splendor always remains God.

    But as we see from verse 4 through 9, this loving God is more than great in Himself, He is also the Doer of wonders who made heaven and earth and all that are in them.

    And that includes us.  Our very existence is proof of the Lord's steadfast love!  He didn't have to create us.  He wasn't forced to give life to you or me in particular. We breathe and inhabit this earth out of the loving mercy of the Lord, and this should call forth our thanks-- even when that existence is threatened, because even in danger our lives are in His loving hands.

    For He knows our trouble and frailty.  Our God is not a wicked king who takes delight in being a tyrant over his subjects.  Our Lord is a God who shows His steadfast love in saving His people.  Verses 10 through 15 speak of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt.  That was the great founding event in the history of the Old Testament church. At the Red Sea God displayed His power and salvation right there in human history and forged the Hebrew people into the nation of His choice. A Jewish friend recently asked me how we could know that the God of the Bible exists.  I reminded him that the God of the Bible has actually acted in loving acts towards real people in real time to real effect.  As a Jew this friend isn't particularly faithful to the Scriptures, so I don't know how much my reminder convinced him.  But for us who are under His New Covenant, these verses about Israel's salvation from Egypt should move us to thanksgiving, for they remind us of the greater salvation the Exodus looked forward to.

    For as great as God's victory was over Pharaoh and all the gods of Egypt, even greater was the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ when He triumphed over sin, Satan, and death on the cross of Calvary.  As wonderful as God's love was when He safely brought His people Israel through the Red Sea, even greater was His love when He brought His Son through death to resurrection.  This was love shown to us, for we know that when Jesus rose from the dead, all of us who were chosen in Him from the foundation of the world were raised with Him as well.

    God shows His steadfast love for us in salvation.  But like the people in Staten Island and Queens, we want to be saved now and saved the way we want to be saved.  We can't judge those storm victims for being in the state they're in.  Even if they had evacuated, they couldn't have gotten far and they'd still be in dire straits.  And who of us can really visualize a fifteen foot tidal surge slamming up and washing away homes and taking out the power supply?  But when it comes to my sin and your sin and the sin of all mankind, we must judge ourselves.  I must give thanks for God's lovingkindness in salvation, because I myself am a sinner who needs to be saved.  No, none of us is Adam or Eve who first rebelled against God in the beginning.  But every day by my human nature and by my sinful acts I follow in my first parents' footsteps and I am covered in guilt.

    And so are you, and every human being who ever lived.  We do not deserve God's steadfast love or His favor.  In fact, it was the sin of mankind in Adam that disrupted creation so that superstorms like Sandy are so terrible and devastating.  In our chapter from Romans if we read verses 19 to 22 we see that creation was subjected to frustration and is in bondage to decay, because of the sin of mankind.  God in His steadfast love decreed that the creation should not be freed until we His elect are revealed as His glorious adopted sons.

    And this is what God has predestined us to be.  Our God doesn't merely rescue us and let us go where we will; He also guides us to our new home in Him.  This is what we see in verses 16 to 22 of Psalm 136.  Especially significant are the verses about the defeat of Sihon king of the Amorites and Og king of Bashan.  We can read their stories in Numbers 21.  The Israelites always knew they were going to have to fight the Canaanite peoples on the other side of the Jordan.  But Sihon and Og ruled on the east side of Jordan, and both of them attacked Israel with no provocation.  Oh, no!  Do we see terrible situations coming at us like that and conclude that God's love isn't steadfast and doesn't endure forever?  No!  That's when we like Israel stand strong in the power of the Lord and trust His steadfast love to help us overcome the foe. 

    Verse 23 and 24 tell us how even after Israel entered the Promised Land there were still times when, due to their disobedience and sin, they suffered humiliation and attack by their enemies.  But even then God's merciful love towards them prevailed and He saved them again and again.  And that's how God acts towards us who belong to Him through Jesus Christ.  In His steadfast love He keeps on forgiving our sins and redeeming and repairing what we destroy in our own foolishness.  It is worth repeating: "His steadfast love endures forever!"

    Let us never forget: God's salvation isn't something we deserve, it's something we need.  And in God's perfect timing, there it is for us!  Even as we cry out "How long, O Lord, how long?" we can also affirm that His steadfast love endures forever, because our God is a God who keeps His promises.  Did you know that the Lord told Abraham that his descendants would be oppressed for four hundred years in Egypt, and then He would save them?  Four hundred years!  All that time, God was working out His perfect plan, making the conditions just right.  It was the same in the centuries before Jesus won our salvation on the cross.  But what about all those who died before Moses?  Who died before Christ?  God's loving kindness extends to them as well.  All whom God has chosen are included in His great salvation, no matter when they lived and died.  The One who made the moon and stars is capable of seeing to that!  And one thing we must learn and hold onto: The salvation of God is not limited to this earthly life.  Its goal and purpose is to bring us into His presence in the life of the world to come.

    And so in the midst of storm and trouble; yes, even as "the nearer waters roll; while the tempest still is high" we can respond "For His steadfast love endures forever!"  Because we know that God in His grace and wisdom is working all things out for our salvation; and not only for our salvation, but also to make us holy and wholly glorified in Jesus Christ.

    For as we read in our verses from Romans 8, it is actually in the midst of trouble and persecution that we can lift up our heads and repeat that "His steadfast love endures forever!"  For above all we see His love displayed in His Son Jesus Christ, who suffered trouble, persecution, and death for our sakes.  The loving Father God who has saved us from our sins will certainly not let us be overcome by those who hate and harm us because of our salvation!

    It is sad, tragic, even, that so many Christians have been falsely taught that as soon as you ask Jesus into your heart all your troubles will be over.  And when trouble comes, they conclude God doesn't love them or isn't faithful, and they fall away.  Our unbelieving enemies sneer at us on the strength of this lie:  See, they say, your God isn't so powerful or loving after all!  Will we listen to their trash?  Will we let their attacks and taunts make us doubt the steadfast love of the Lord?  When we suffer  "tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword" for the sake of Christ, shall we conclude that all this means that God has forgotten us?

    No!  "In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us."  It is no mere mantra or affirmation when we repeat that God's "steadfast love endures forever"; we know it's true because of what Jesus Christ did for us.  In Him God is totally, irrevocably, and lovingly for us, so who or what can be against us?  He has given us His Son Jesus Christ!  What an immense and unfathomable act of enduring love!  Truly, "His steadfast love endures forever!"

    And lest we falter, lest we forget, our Lord has given us this sacrament of the Lord's Supper.  Here at His Table we have physical elements that we can see and touch and taste.  Here God confirms that just as surely as we take this physical food into our bodies for our nourishment, just as surely His Spirit nourishes us with the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ our crucified and risen Lord, to the nourishment of eternal life.  Brothers and sisters, as you partake of this holy meal, remember that no matter what happens, God's love is faithful.  For

    . . . neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen.  So give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.  And let God's people repeat: "For His steadfast love endures forever!"

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