Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sermon on Psalm 136 for Advent Midweek 3, "God's Never-ending Story"

*Note: this sermon is my own composition, but the idea and a couple of borrowed phrases come from the preaching series we used this year for Advent, which was from Concordia Seminary St. Louis, called "Beautiful Savior" and based on themes in the Psalms. 

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Our sermon is based on Psalm 136, a song of praise to God, with the constant refrain that “His steadfast love endures forever.” The Psalm begins by recounting God’s goodness and His superiority over all other gods and lords, and quickly moves to the wonder of God’s creation. It continues by recounting God’s wonders in redeeming His people Israel from Egypt and settling them in their land, and finally the psalm concludes by remembering how God provides for and remembers us, and finally feeds us and all living things. In proclaiming repeatedly that “His steadfast love endures forever”—and also in ending “at the dinner table” so to speak, saying “He who gives food to all flesh”—the Psalm itself seems to suggest that the story of God’s steadfast love is not over. That it continues even today, and that when this Psalm was first written, there were a great many more chapters and verses of God’s salvation story to be written. With each new chapter, God’s unfailing love would be displayed once again.
Kind of reminds me of a childhood movie I used to watch, call “The Never-ending Story.” Without recalling too many details, the basic idea was that a young boy becomes part of a fascinating story by reading it, and that the story was never quite finished, because whenever someone else picked up the story and began to read it, they too would become part of the story. In a way, it’s a fitting comparison to the way that we become part of the story of salvation history when we read the Bible, believe, and become part of the story where God has brought about redemption for us. The difference, is of course that the Bible is not fiction, and that new chapters and books of the Bible are no longer being written—they are all complete. But God’s salvation still unfolds today, and wraps us up into the story, as our lives become living examples of God’s faithfulness shown to a new generation. We too can sing new lines of the great deeds God has done for us, and how they show His steadfast love endures forever.
As we enter our final days of preparation for Christmas, how shall we prepare for the coming of Christ? In previous Sunday sermons, we have talked about the importance of repentance and faith, to greet Christ in His coming kingdom. To that, we might also add the preparation of thankfulness. The gratitude that praises God for what He has done. How does gratitude prepare us?
Gratitude, or thankfulness,  is the Bible’s prescribed antidote against discontentment, complaining, and worry. And that thankfulness is not just ambiguous thanks sent in no particular direction, but as the Psalm shows by example, it is thanks given to God. Christian thankfulness always recognizes God as Giver. And even just in this act, we see how thankfulness turns us away from discontent, complaints, and worry—because it turns our attention away from ourselves toward God! Always looking inward to ourselves, we should not be surprised to be stuck in jealousy, greed, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness. But by looking always to God, and praising His goodness, we also lift our eyes from our own circumstances and up to Him in trust and confidence. Directing our eyes to God, we contemplate our blessings, instead of our wishes.
It reminds me of another childhood book, “The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles.” In the book, someone observes that everyone is always looking down, and never lift their eyes up to the sky, or the chimneys, and that the whole world could pass them by and they wouldn’t notice. Updating it for today, we might say our eyes are never (or rarely) lifted from our phones, computers, or TVs to much the same result. In the same way, if our eyes are always downcast or distracted, we’ll pay little notice to God’s salvation and gifts as they unfold. In many ways they come quietly, without the world taking much notice. You don’t read in the weekly headlines or hear announced on the evening news that sins are being forgiven and weary and troubled consciences comforted at church on Sunday. But it’s God’s good news for sure, and if we don’t pay attention we will miss it too. Simple words and washing with water claims a new child of God in Baptism. Simple bread and wine give Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. The Word of Good News points us to Jesus and His cross, rescuing us from sin week after week. But it doesn’t feature in the headlines, and it doesn’t “go viral” on YouTube.
But if our eyes are turned upward, if we see God’s hand in the giving, if we recognize the greatness of the gift wrapped in humble boxes, we will indeed have contentment, reasons for joy and praise, and cause for courage and steadfastness ourselves. We’ve been written into God’s story as Jesus came into the world to redeem us, and wrote our names in His book of life.
If you go back to Psalm 136, and consider it as the prescription the doctor ordered for Israel of old, who were particularly prone to complaining and dissatisfaction, you see how it lifts their eyes to their blessings. As the Psalm tells us the story of creation, then of Israel’s redemption, it has this strange and steady “interruption” to the story, by having us say continually “for His steadfast love endures forever.” But instead of being an “interruption”—it rather pulls us into the story as witnesses of God’s wonder, who watch the story unfold and continue to praise God for what He has done. Then in the final verses, the Psalm takes on a more personal note, as if gradually zooming in from the perspective of all creation down to the people of God. And v. 23 says, “It is He who remembered us in our low estate, for His steadfast love endures forever; and rescued us from our foes, for His steadfast love endures forever, he gives food to all flesh, for His steadfast love endures forever.”
What does this conclusion tell us? It tells us that the great deeds of salvation that God has worked in the past are not to be left in the dust heap and forgotten, but continually called to memory as a reminder of God’s faithfulness and love. But even more than that, it tells us that God’s steadfast love has not run out or ceased, but together with the last meal that we just finished, or with the next celebration of Christmas that we mark, and the first time a child hears and believes in the Gospel story, that God is at work, keeping His steadfast love for us. We can sing of God’s love for our church here on Maui, for our school, for our families, our jobs, and homes, and realize that God’s strong hand and outstretched arm has reached us also. His providing hands have reached our tables, our homes, and our church.
His redeeming love stretched down from heaven and became incarnate—took on human flesh—in the person of Jesus Christ, and remembered us in our sin and rescued us from our enemies of sin, death, and the devil. God has remembered us. Just ponder for a moment—we, you and I—are not forgotten. Our God’s view of creation is not from 30,000 feet, with billions of faceless, anonymous humans hidden from sight below. But God’s view of creation “zoomed in” to “eye level”, when the baby Jesus first looked up at His loving mother Mary, and Joseph, her husband. From the cross Jesus saw the lost world He came to save, up close and personal. And Jesus has not retreated from this “close view” of us, but tells us that God always knows even the number of hairs on our head, and therefore intimately and personally knows His creation. And God wants that to be more than a supernatural observation, more than just His knowledge of us and all our doings—but He also wants to open up our knowledge of Him. For us to look back up to Him, recognize His gracious presence and steadfast love, and to “Give thanks to the God of heaven, for His steadfast love endures forever.” God wants us to enter into relationship with Him.
God is always at work—His steadfast love endures forever. He’s always at work giving and providing for His creation, opening our eyes to see our relationship as Recipients to the Giver. He’s always at work redeeming His people, rescuing them from their sins and enemies, opening our eyes to see our relationship as the Redeemed to the Redeemer. And He’s always at work making His people holy, setting our lives back on track when we go astray, opening our eyes to see our relationship as Saints to the Sanctifier. God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is tirelessly at work for us, and as we approach this Christmas, may our eyes more clearly see what He is doing for us and our salvation. His steadfast love endures forever! In Jesus’ name, Amen.


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