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His Steadfast Love Endures Forever

December 22nd 2013 by Joel Schultz

Our sermon series on the creation/ new creation continues today as we look at Psalm 136 and the continued blessings our Lord pours forth into our lives. Read or listen to find out more...

Advent 4A – “His Steadfast Love Endures Forever!” – Psalm 136 – December 22, 2013 If you’re a fan of old movies, especially “holiday classics,” you have probably seen Irving Berlin’s 1954 movie, “White Christmas,” staring Bing Crosby. The setting of the movie is a remote and snowless and therefore all but empty Vermont ski Lodge. At one point in the movie, Bing Crosby croons a lullaby to Rosemary Clooney’s character who is worried about the ski lodge and can’t sleep. That song has a bit of advice I would like to call to mind. In the song, Bing asks what do you do “when you’re worried, and you can’t sleep”? The answer: “Just count your blessings instead of sheep.”

This song is not my text for this morning, but it is a good starting point for us to work our way toward our text: Psalm 136. Although the song has schmaltzy Hollywood romance written all over it, even our popular culture can admit the value of gratitude for blessings received. The song’s logic is that gratitude – knowing our lives are filled with gracious gifts – can hush the voices of worry and anxiety, letting calm and contentment soothe us into peaceful sleep.

Comparisons of the Apostle Paul with Bing Crosby are a bit unusual to be sure, but Paul, too, knows the value of gratitude, even better than Bing did. He writes to the Colossians, in chapter 2:6‒7, instructing them: “As you received the Christ, Jesus the Lord, so keep on walking in Him, now that you are firmly rooted in and are being built upon Him, and constantly being confirmed in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

Paul’s hearers walk as live men, they take root like a tree; they are built up like a house. They grow firmer all the while. Paul is optimistic concerning the outcome in Colossae. If they do these things, they will naturally be abounding in thanksgiving.

Paul’s concern is not that the Colossians will spend another sleepless night because of their worries and anxieties; his concern is much more serious. Someone or something has been trying to persuade the Colossians that the Christ, their Lord Jesus, is not enough. Paul urges his hearers – for their own protection – to keep on walking the “Christ Path,” the “Jesus Road.” And also for their own protection he urges them to continue to walk in gratitude. Abounding in thankfulness will remind his hearers of all that is theirs in Christ Jesus. What or who could then steal them away? That you and I may be vulnerable to such temptations is probably illustrated by the fact that we’ve been spending a lot more time lately counting wishes than we have counting blessings. Paul’s words serve, then, as a necessary exhortation to us, as well.

We are not the first among God’s people to know the dangers of “shallow thankfulness”; nor were the Colossians. Israel of old also struggled with this problem: their grumbling in the wilderness is one of the most memorable examples. For their “protection” our psalmist provided them with the same remedy Paul prescribes: gratitude, a theological and biblical counting of blessings. “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Ps 136:1).

Notice where this hymn of thanksgiving begins and ends. The psalmist begins with God, the only God and only Lord, timeless in glory, eternal in love, the only true wonderworker. He then takes us back to the very beginning of God’s wonders in our world, the creation of our cosmos itself. In artistic strokes the psalmist repaints the creation story, practically turning it into a musical, and places us right in the middle of the story as witnesses of God’s wonder and steadfast love.

Politely omitting (but assuming we know) the story of how Israel ended up in captivity in Egypt, a story of human jealousy, hatred, pride, and attempted murder, the psalmist keeps our eyes firmly fixed on the steadfast love of God which holds the whole story of human history together, keeping it from crumbling into dust and ash in spite of humanity’s untiring desire for self-destruction. The sheer length of the psalm is impressive, but, at the same time, each verse evokes new memories for the speaker of this psalm, a thousand other ways in which God has manifested His forever-enduring love.

Notice also where the psalm ends: with today’s dinner. The psalmist does not intend for us simply to recite the glories of some bygone age, some long ago time when God still performed wonders; he brings the story right to the here and now, right to our next meal. God’s steadfast love was not exhausted by bringing His children to their promised land. He continues to show His love for us through the millennia that have passed between Og of Bashan and the Cheerios you had for breakfast. Who could sing the ballad of such an unrelenting and faithful love and then doubt that in the Lord our God we find our sufficiency for all things and our whole hope for the future?

At some point, of course, the psalmist ate his last meal, no doubt beginning and ending it with a prayer of thanksgiving, and then he died. He passed on to join the eternal chorus that never ceases to sing thanks to God. But the story continued. God’s love did not stop, and the psalmist’s final verse serves as his invitation and plea and command that we help him continue the song. For there is one God and one Lord and one Worker of wonders. The wonders that we have beheld since the psalmist’s day are part of one and the same love song, and it is now our turn to take up the refrain.

As we do that, we begin to experience the full wonder of the story we’re trying to tell. Even if we weren’t doing this on December 22, there are words in Psalm 136 that would already suggest the wonders we read of in Matthew 1 and in the opening chapters of Luke. Here is the God who puts down the mighty from their thrones and regards the low estate of His people – even the lowly estate of a young virgin.

Rehearsing the wonders of God in the past is also a corrective to our easily warped hopes or fearful worries. In one sense, Paul’s psalm-like outburst in Romans 8 is his attempt at continuing the story our psalm is telling. God has given up His own Son for us – His steadfast love endures forever – what then can separate us from that same steadfast love in the future?

We, God’s people, are the one honestly hopeful group on earth: we know why we can be hopeful. Our hope is not grounded in trust in ourselves nor in our shortsightedness nor in our naïve and blissful ignorance. Our hope is founded upon the wonders of God from creation to cross and from empty tomb to eternity. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus because His steadfast love endures forever.

Please join with me in adding our own verses to the Song of the Steadfast Love of God: It is He who remembered the low estate of His handmaiden, for His steadfast love endures forever. Through dreams and warnings and the care of a noble foster-father, He preserved the life of the infant Redeemer, for His steadfast love endures forever. He became flesh and dwelled among us, our Emmanuel, for His steadfast love endures forever. He took our illnesses upon Himself and bore our diseases, for His steadfast love endures forever. He died for us, the Righteous for the ungodly, for His steadfast love endures forever. He rose victorious, conquering death and grave forever, for His steadfast love endures forever. He sent His witnesses forth to bring the Good News to every nation, for His steadfast love endures forever. He preserved this gracious message for generation after generation, for His steadfast love endures forever. He has made us His own in the waters of Baptism, for His steadfast love endures forever. He feeds me with His own body and blood at His table, for His steadfast love endures forever. He gives food to every creature, for His steadfast love endures forever. We know He will come again for us so that we live in His presence forever, for His steadfast love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of heaven, for His steadfast love endures forever. Amen.

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