Monday, September 14, 2015

Keeping the Faith

Keeping the Faith
Psalm 146[1]
I told you last week about how difficult it was for me to go through two divorces. What I didn’t tell you was how hard and long I prayed for God to keep both relationships intact and both of my families whole. When those prayers went seemingly unanswered, I had a real crisis of faith on my hands. I had trusted God to make things work out right, and when they didn’t, I wasn’t sure I trusted God to keep his promises. As I pointed out last week, I’m sure I’m not the only one to have gone through that kind of crisis of faith. We hope and pray that if we do what is right and if we hold true to God, our lives will turn out the way we want them to. But the fact is that life isn’t that neat and tidy and predictable. We can make all the right choices and do all the right things, and still all our hopes and dreams can come crashing down. That can pose a serious challenge to our faith.
Our lesson from Psalm 146 for today addresses the question whether we can trust God to keep his promises. The answer is an unqualified affirmation that God always holds up his end of the bargain. The psalmist puts it this way: “Happy are those … whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever” (Ps. 146:5-6).[2] The psalmist makes it clear that the God who has the power to create all the heavens and the earth always keeps faith with those who trust in him.[3] That means he always keeps his promises. As the New Living translation puts it, “He keeps every promise forever” (Ps. 146:6).
The Psalm goes on to elaborate on the kind of promises God keeps forever. He “gives justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry”; he “frees the prisoners”; he “opens the eyes of the blind”; he “lifts up those who are weighed down”; he “protects the foreigners among us”; and he “cares for the orphans and widows.” These are the kind of promises that God keeps forever. They are promises of restoration and new life. They are promises of mercy and love that redeems and restores and renews our lives. They are promises that demonstrate who God is: the God who knows our deepest joys and our deepest disappointments and lifts up those who have been broken by life.[4]
You may notice that these promises are “slanted” in a certain direction. They are promises for the downtrodden; like Jesus’ beatitudes they are for the lost and the least and the left out. [5] There is nothing here about guaranteeing that those who already have more than enough will gain even more. Nor do we find anything about climbing the ladder of success or having that beautiful house on an acreage or the “perfect” marriage and the “perfect” family. I think this points out one of the reasons why we may struggle to trust that God will keep his promises: we expect God to give us what we want in life. But when we do that, we have put our faith in promises that God never made in the first place!
I think another problem with our approach to God’s promises is that we have a certain idea about how and when those promises will be fulfilled. We come to God with very definite requests (or maybe it’s more accurate to call them demands) and we expect God to deliver just what we want just when we want it. But it’s been my experience that we are notoriously bad at knowing what we really need and therefore what we can expect from our lives. And we are even worse at predicting the time for what is best for us to happen.
So what can we trust in? According to our Scripture lesson for today, we can trust that God will “keep the faith.” When the Psalmist says that the Lord “keeps faith forever,” he is affirming that God will always be faithful to us, no matter what the circumstances of our lives. He will always keep every promise: promises to “never forsake us,” to support us and sustain us with his loving presence. Promises to set right what is broken in our lives, if not immediately, then in his own time and in his own way. And what we may have to understand is that the promise may point to the ultimate future; it may be that we will have to wait for the renewal of all things in the Kingdom of God to see these promises the Psalmist outlines for us finally fulfilled for all those who hope in God.
Even if we have to wait, we have some assurances to hold onto. The first is that we’re talking about the God who has the power to create all the heavens and the earth.[6] The God who is powerful enough to make this vast and beautiful creation has the power to keep his promises. The second assurance is that our Scripture lesson speaks in terms of what God always does.[7] The wording in some translations may not bring it out clearly, but the implication in the Hebrew Bible is that these promises reflect the very character of God.[8] The only way for him not to keep these promises is for God to stop being God. And the third assurance is that even if we have to wait to see the fulfillment, it will surely come. That is the point of the final statement: “The LORD will reign forever. He will be your God … throughout the generations.” Since God is the one who reigns over all things—from creation to the final redemption of all things in the new creation—we can trust him to keep his promises.[9]
Our God keeps the faith. He keeps the promises he’s made, promises of restoration and renewal. He always has, as the biblical story demonstrates again and again. He does so now, even though oftentimes we may not understand it. And the declaration that “the Lord will reign forever” means that he always will. Our God always keeps the faith.

[1] © 2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/13/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1264, where he contrasts “wickedness,” which in the Psalms always means the decision “to trust something or someone other than God,” “happiness is not the absence of pain and trouble but the presence of a God who cares about human hurt and who acts on behalf of the afflicted and the oppressed.”
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 116: “if the revelations of God are promises, then God ‘himself’ is revealed where he ‘keeps covenant and faithfulness for ever’ (Ps. 146:6).”
[4] McCann, “Psalms,” NIB IV:1264: “In view of v. 10, which explicitly affirms the eternal reign of God …, vv. 6-9 come into focus all the more clearly as a policy statement for the kingdom of God. The sovereign God stands for and works for justice, not simply as an abstract principle but as an embodied reality—provision for basic human needs, liberation from oppression, empowerment for the disenfranchised and dispossessed.”
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 129: “the God who in his almighty power created heaven and earth is on the side of the people who have to suffer violence because they cannot defend themselves. Their rights are his divine concern.” Cf. also ibid., 130: “God, …, creates justice for the people who have been deprived of it, and for those without any rights, and he does so through his solidarity with them.”
[6] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 441: “Hope attached to his reign is founded on a reality that does not pass away. The God of Israel is king of the universe; ‘maker of heaven and earth’ is a title of the God who rules all.”
[7] Cf. Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 129: “just as in Paul the justification of the sinner becomes the revelation of God’s righteousness in the world, so in the Old Testament the establishing of justice for people deprived of it is the quintessence of the divine mercy, and hence of the divine righteousness.”
[8] Cf. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 116: “In proving his faithfulness in history, he reveals himself. For the essence and the identity of the God of promise lies not in his absoluteness over and beyond history, but in the constancy of his freely chosen relation to his creatures, in the constancy of his electing mercy and faithfulness.”
[9] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 441: “Not only does the Lord rule forever but in his rule he keeps the faith forever.”

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