Saturday, July 9, 2011

Every Step Along The Way , God's Love Endures Forever (A Reflection On Psalm 136)

Psalm 136 is hard to read isn’t it? With that constant refrain again and again, “God’s love endures forever”,  disrupting the flow.

It was meant to be read antiphonally. The leader reads out the phrase and the congregation replies. Even then it becomes monotonous. ‘God’s  love endures forever’.  WE don’t do chants like that very easily in our culture.

Maybe it would be easy if we simply read it without the “God’s  love endured forever”   Let face it other psalms and other scriptures don’t need the constant interruption of “God’s  love endures forever”. I mean check out Psalm 135 right next to it verse 8-12 with the exception of parting the red sea tells the same story the same history using the same words, almost, without the interruption of  “God’s  love endures forever”

Psalm 136 is what’s called an Imperatival Psalm one that commands us to give thanks to the Lord. That’s how each of the first three lines start as they name God, “give thanks to the Lord”. That’s how it ends. Maybe that refrain repeated again and again like the lyrics of some silly modern pop song detracts us from hearing the imperative we only hear ‘God’s love endures forever.’

Yet if we were to do that to ignore it, write it off as a badly written Psalm, placed close to the back of the collection after all the good ones,  we’d lose something. We’d miss what is at the core of this psalm, ”God’s love endures for ever’, we’d miss the reason why we as God’s people are being commanded to give thanks “God’s  love endures forever”.  The Psalm asks us to give thanks to God because of his consistent grace and constant love shown to us. ”God’s  love endues forever”. Every step along the way .

His grace and great love is shown to us in creation. V4-9 explains it and draws us a picture of what God has done. Each of God’s amazing and great works is an example of the fact that his love endures forever.  God creating it all is not only as an example of God’s power but also of God’s love. Its purpose is to be enjoyed and we are to praise God because of its wonder and beauty and bounty.

By his understanding he made the heavens.  You know only now are we getting to terms with the cosmos. Rather I should say that humans are getting to look out further and further and maybe get out heads round how big and grand and vast the universe is.  Even at the peak of our science we  have come to the point of understanding how little we know. I mean scientists talk of dark matter and dark energy that make up about 70% of the universe. It’s called dark matter and dark energy because we do not yet have the instruments or the technology to actually see and observe it let alone comprehend it, we simply have calculated that for it all to make sense it’s out there.  But God in his understanding made it all. God knows its purpose, God knows the answers to the big questions we are only now being able to ask.

Who spread out the earth upon the waters?

Our Earth is a privileged planet. It’s amazing how everything works together to make life possible on this planet. Water the sun the moon all work together to make this planet the wondrous life sustaining place it is.  Science marvels at that, how we are close enough to the sun to give us the warmth we need but not close enough to be turned into a waterless barren wasteland. All these things the psalmist wants us to know is a sign of God’s constant love. It’s Shown in creation:  Way back as it was all being created and made. “God’s love endures forever”.

Then the psalmist moves on to show how the Lord’s constant love and grace has been shown through history. For the psalmist the focus of that was Israel. But that is only after we have seen it shown on a more universal scale in creation. In what we call general revelation, now we see it in God’s special revelation in the saving of Israel.

It may not start sounding very gracious in verse ten particularly if you were an Egyptian parent. But the psalmist remembers what God has done to get Pharaoh to release Israel from captivity. That the battle should go to such lengths. Then the LORD being with Israel through the red sea, through the wilderness, helping them to defeat an awesome array of enemy kings bent on their destruction and bringing them into the land. Every step along the way Israel is reminded that it was not their own strength their own ability, it was not by might or by power, but by my spirit says the Lord. It was grace, God’s undeserved, unwarranted love. Every step along the way from slavery to  freedom, was grace. God redeemed Israel, God saved them, God protected them, God lead them, God established them in the land. God’s love endures forever , every step along the way. Therefore they should praise God and give God thanks.

Then in verse 21 we move from the past to the present ‘God’s love endures for ever’ does not simply become a remembering of what has gone before, it steps into our lives. God remembers us in our low estate and freed us from our enemies. ‘God’s love endures forever” it wasn’t just way back then  it’s here and now.  It’s in our situations as we struggle with things that would bind and enslave as we wander in the wilderness.

WE can look back at our history and see God’s saving and redeeming grace moving on from Israel and on to Christ. God’s  love endures for ever’ A new covenant relationship in Christ’s life and death and being raised to life again. “God’s  love endures forever’.

The Holy Spirit, poured out on all who believe, being with men and women down through  the last two millennium as they have faithfully witnessed to Jesus. God’s  Love endures forever. To our own lives and our own times when we can see that God has considered us and saved us from the enemy of our soul from the power of sin and death, from situations that were trying to bring us down. Facing and dealing with social injustice. Every step of the way it was God’s grace, God’s undeserved love. “God’s  love endures for ever’.

We step into the frame.  It’s us. We see God’s  love endures forever in our lives. We should then give God thanks for all God has done for us, for God’s constant grace,  that is what the psalmist commands us to do. Don’t forget it ‘every step of our way “God’s  love endures forever’. That is why it’s there again and again, to be indelibly etched in our minds .

Even verse 25 which seems so out of place and says ‘ he gives food to every creature’ shows that God grace shown in creation is still being worked out  in God’s provision. Jesus picks this up to encourage us not to worry about money and provision, but to put first the kingdom of God, when he says the birds of the air do not sow and reap but God feeds them. Jesus uses God’s providence to encourage us to be unbiased in our love just as God is, observing that God makes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the just and the unjust. 

The historian who is the main character in Leon Uris’s novel “Mila 18’ about the Warsaw Ghetto  ponders and wrestles with the question why he had been left alive so long as the Germans had slowly taken the Jews from the ghetto to the extermination camps and gas chambers. He wonders what was so important about writing down all that had happened. Just before the bunker he is hiding in is unearthed he comes to the conclusion that it is so that what has happened will not be forgotten. He says that for the Jews to remember was to believe, to have faith. We remember and so we can live on. Here lies something behind the repetition of the phrase ‘God’s love endures for ever’ so we can look back and remember  and believe and have faith. Even there in that dark place of death ‘God’s love endures forever’ and for the first time in over two thousand years the star of David flew over Jewish held territory foreshadowing the reestablishment of Israel. The myth of the superhuman is destroyed, as it as with pharaoh and Egypt.

The roman poet Horace says ‘I store and lay beside that which shall stead me in aftertime”.  We remember and find hope in that memory.

New Zealand biblical scholar EM  Blaiklock commenting on this psalm says “the past can be a refuge and retreat from the tensions and terrors of the present. The mind can steady itself on memory.” But as Sorren Kierkegaard says we make sense of things with hindsight but we must move forwards in faith.” We don’t try and live in the past hold on to the past and hope that things will not change rather we steady our minds to go forward.

In another ruined city, surrounded by the horrors of a war amidst shattered buildings and the stench of dead bodies, The spectre of Jews being dragged off to the uncertainty of exile another poet sits down to write a psalm, this one totally different a lament an expression of despair and grief. In Jewish poetic form right in the middle is the important thought and in the middle of him pouring out his woes with vivid metaphors of suffering he remembers one thing and has hope. He remembers that phrase repeated again and again, almost hypnotically. This I remember and have hope, says the writer of lamentations “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end”. Even in the midst of this devastation there is a way forwards as he remembers, “God’s  love endures forever”, and can wait on the LORD. We remember God’s  love endures forever and we can wait on the LORD and move forward in the face of anything.

 “God’s Love endures forever” we remember it and we can move forwards.
“God’s  love endures forever” We trust that and we can face the uncertain times and move on into the future with the certainty that God has our future in his hands as God  did our past from before the beginning.

 “God’s love endures forever”. Those things that would try and keep us captive and hold us fast, he is able to overcome: Individually as a people and systemically.

“God’s  love endures forever”, We need to change and to change is to live, but God’s love is the constant through those changes.

“God’s Love endures forever”, therefore in whatever circumstance, whatever comes our way we are commanded to praise God. Our creator, saviour and sustainer, Father, Son and Holy Spirit 
 Why? ...

God’s Love Endures Forever”

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