Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Never Ending Love

Never Ending Love
Psalm 36:5-10[1]
I think many of us are people who are searching. We’re searching for the right break or the right person or the right situation or the right place. We seem to believe that if we can only find whatever it is we’re looking for, we’ll finally be happy. We’ll be fulfilled in life. The problem with this approach to life is that we look for that fulfillment in people and things that are finite. By definition, they cannot provide the happiness we seek. Whatever it is we think we’re looking for, when we find it we will inevitably feel let down at some point. Don’t get me wrong—I think we’re meant to find peace and joy in life. But it seems one of the hardest lessons for us to learn is that we cannot look to anyone or anything in this life to provide ultimate fulfillment.[2] There’s only One who can do that.
I think that may be one of the most important lessons the Psalms have to teach us. Repeatedly the Psalmists point us to God as the one who is the source of wellbeing in life, all of life, for all of us. They do it in a wide variety of ways, from reflecting on the experience of God’s presence in worship to the fundamental awareness that God is the one who provides everything that supports us in life—even the sun and the rain. From top to bottom, our lives are constantly in God’s loving care, whether we are aware of it or not.[3]
I believe that is the point of our lesson from Psalm 36 for today. It is one of the classic passages of Scripture affirming God’s unending love and goodness. In an effort to express the ideas behind some of the theologically loaded terms, my translation reads: “Your unfailing love, O Lord, extends to the heavens! Your trustworthiness reaches to the clouds! Your determination to set things right is as firm as the strongest mountains! The healing works of your justice are as vast as the waters of the sea!” (Ps. 36:5-6). I must add, however, that there is probably more going on in these two verses that any translation can adequately express.
In effect, the Psalmist is attempting to summarize God’s character with the words “steadfast love,” “faithfulness,” “righteousness,” and “justice.”[4] I’m afraid, however, that these words are so loaded with significance in the Hebrew Bible it may be hard to grasp all that they’re saying. And yet this description of who God is serves as the basis for just about everything the Scriptures have to say and everything we believe. The Psalmist begins by describing a God of “steadfast love,” a love that never fails and never ends. This is the quality of God’s love: God loves us with a love that will never let us go.[5] That’s where the Psalmist begins in pointing us to the One who is the source of our life: God’s never-failing, never-ending love.
“Faithfulness” is the next affirmation about God. In a world where promises are meant to be broken, we may have difficulty grasping the idea that the God who loves us is absolutely trustworthy. But this is another of those foundational declarations about God: God is the one who never, ever gives up on us.[6] God may let us experience the consequences of our choices, but God will always be there for us. And so this is another basis for looking to God as the source of our life: the promise that God will never give up on us.
The Psalmist also praises God for his “righteousness” and “justice.” Again, these concepts are full of meaning in the Scriptures. God’s “righteousness” is what “sets right” everything and everyone.[7] Theologians call it “salvation” or “justification,” but what it boils down to is that God gives us life! The idea of God’s “justice” may give us more difficulty.  We have difficulty getting past the notion that “justice” equals punishment or condemnation. But in the Hebrew Bible, God’s justice sets out to rescue the helpless and the hurting. Even when it comes to those who may be in the wrong, God’s justice comes to them as grace and mercy rather than condemnation. God’s justice makes us whole! God’s justice gives us life![8]
And so in affirming God’s righteousness and justice the Psalmist affirms that it is God’s intention to give us life. And that intention is as strong and immovable as the tallest mountains. It is as deep and strong and vast as the oceans.[9] In other words, nothing can stop God from carrying out his plan to give us life. And nothing limits God’s plan—it extends to all people and even to all life. As the Psalmist puts it, “you save humans and animals alike, O Lord” (Ps. 36:6). And for those who may doubt that God really is this kind of God, the Psalmist insists: “All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (Ps. 36:7-9).[10]
This is where the Psalms point us in our quest to find fulfillment in life. They point us to the God who loves us with a never-ending love, to the God who never gives up on us, and to the God who is determined to give us life that is full and free and joyful. But the Psalmist is aware that life doesn’t always reflect God’s purposes. In fact, the setting of these verses is a prayer for deliverance from enemies who threaten to harm him. Yet the Psalmist knows something that I think we may sometimes forget. No matter what threats we may face, God’s grace will have the last word.[11] Because of that, as we continue our search for a life that will be filled with peace and joy, we can trust that there is a place where we can find it. We find it as we turn continually, day after day, to God’s never ending love.

[1] © 2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/17/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 125, where he speaks of “the limitations of human relationships”: “When we are lonely and look for someone to take our loneliness away, we are quickly disillusioned. The other, who for a while may have offered us an experience of wholeness and inner peace, soon proves incapable of giving us lasting happiness and instead of taking away our loneliness only reveals to us its depth.” He says that the answer to this problem is that we must recognize continually that (p. 136) “We are God’s beloved daughters and sons, not because we have proven ourselves worthy of God’s love, but because God freely chose us.” Cf. also Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 25:  “The only true joy on earth is to … enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings … in the core of our own souls.”
[3] There is some discussion about whether the safety and the refuge the Psalmist experiences takes place in the context of the Temple. See, for example, H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 398. It would seem, however, that the all-inclusive language of Ps. 36:7-9 would argue against that interpretation.
[4] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, Theology of the Psalms, 42-46; James L. Mays, Psalms, 33, 311.
[5] Cf. James L Mays, Psalms, 157, where he discusses the Hebrew word hesed, which is translated as “lovingkindness” or “steadfast love” or “mercy.” He says, “God’s hesed is manifest in the way in which humankind depend on God’s saving help: he provides shelter (v. 7b), food (v. 8a), and drink (v. 8b), and so is the source of life (v. 9). Cf. also Kraus, Theology of the Book of Psalms, 44, where he indicates that hesed refers to “unexpected and amazing goodness and kindness” that are not simply spontaneous but result from faithfulness of God’s commitment to Israel.
[6] Cf. Kraus, Theology of the Book of Psalms, 45, where he says that God’s faithfulness refers to God’s “dependability,” in which “his hesed is demonstrated and validated”; he summarizes: “it is a matter of dependability in all that Yahweh says and does.” Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 112-120, 143-148: “God is the same God all the way from promise to fulfillment” (115).
[7] Cf.  Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.1:375-84: “According to the witness of the Old and New Testaments, the love and grace and mercy of God, …, are the demonstration and exercise of the righteousness of God” (384); cf. also Jürgen Moltman, Theology of Hope, 204: “The ‘righteousness of God’ is God’s faithful love directed toward the goal of setting all humans right with God, with themselves, with each other, and with the whole of creation; thus it refers to God’s redemptive purpose to bring about a new creation.” H. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 135, where he points out that God’s “righteousness” in Paul’s theology “definitely refers to salvation and redemption.” He continues, “the element of judgment is not absent,” yet “this judgment is turned into grace through Christ’s reconciling death” and “precisely in this way God’s righteousness triumphs.”  
[8] Cf. Kraus, Theology of the Book of Psalms, 43, where he points out that “in the execution of justice and the process of judgment” God demonstrates his “righteousness” and “his salvation, his grace.” Cf. also Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 76: “in the Bible justice is the social form of love.”
[9] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 156: the “attributes of the LORD are said to be cosmic in dimension. Heavens and clouds mark  the upper limit of the world; mountains of God and the great deep are terms of immensity.” Cf. similarly, Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 399, where he says that the “range” of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness “corresponds to the reality of God.”
[10] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 156: the psalmist speaks of the attributes of God’s character, steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice, “as manifest in God’s salvation of all living things—man and beast—and by salvation means God’s ongoing providential care by which he preserves life.” Cf. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 399: the Psalmist sees “the help of Yahweh … stretched out to its full extent over the world of human beings and animals … . The effect of the ‘goodness’ is universal.”
[11] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 158: “In the face of the threatening shape that evil takes in the character of the wicked, this prayer rehearses and renews the vision of existence as a great system of grace. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not put it out.”

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