Faithfulness and Steadfast Love
Today we consider a portion of one of the psalms that praise and thank God for his faithfulness to us; for his steadfast love to us and this world in which we live. This is more than the expected reward for good behaviour – the ‘God is good’ line when everything is going well. The praise and thanks come about because any reading of Old Testament history, any reading of the newspaper of the day – in ancient times that might be noting the coins in use which often told the political story of the day – any reading of the human heart quickly tells us that God is faithful and steadfast in love precisely when and because we are not – even though the Old Testament people lived with God under various covenants – and the New Testament people do so under the new covenant, yet we sin and rebel against God constantly.
So we hear in another psalm about God’s steadfast love and faithfulness – Psalm 89:
If his children forsake my law
and do not walk according to my rules,
if they violate my statutes
and do not keep my commandments,
then I will punish their transgression with the rod
and their iniquity with stripes,
but I will not remove from him my steadfast love
or be false to my faithfulness. (Psalm 89:30-33 ESV)
We rely on this truth, otherwise there is no point in coming here, no point in confessing our sins, no point in living in the absolution proclaimed. God is faithful and steadfast.
The psalm apportioned for today is the second half of one of these psalms that lead us in thanksgiving and praise and focus our minds and therefore our behaviour on how to live with this kind and merciful God. We recited the second part of Psalm 33 earlier. In the first part of the psalm we – and all people – are called to praise God because he is the Creator – he has made us all and all there is – by the power of his Word. God has made us with an intellect and will and we also impact and shape the world through our plans and interactions with others – usually our neighbours – but the ‘higher up’ we go in society, the wider our circle of neighbours, those whom we affect, can be. History can seem to be ‘God absent’ – it is our story because we are the movers and shakers of this world. However the palmist reminds us that God brings about his plans for us by guiding people, by working with people and also where necessary, doing all this in spite of us.
The psalm first gets us to look up at creation. Then as we look down we will notice the horizon and we’re called look at our surroundings – our land and country and all those in power or influence. And this is where we pick up the psalm. Let’s read it responsively again.
L: Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,
C: the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!
L: The Lord looks down from heaven;
C: he sees all the children of man;
L: from where he sits enthroned he looks out on all the inhabitants of the
C: he who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds.
L: The king is not saved by his great army;
C: a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
L: The war horse is a false hope for salvation,
C: and by its great might it cannot rescue.
L: Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who
hope in his steadfast love,
C: that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive
L: Our soul waits for the Lord;
C: he is our help and our shield.
L: For our heart is glad in him,
C: because we trust in his holy name.
L: Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
C: even as we hope in you.
Last week we heard that practical Christianity is sustained and doesn’t fall into works righteousness or despair at our constant struggle with sin because we were to look up (or set you minds on things above – Colossians 3:1). This week we hear that we should look at the world and ourselves as if from above – from God’s perspective looking down so to speak. These spatial orientations – look up, look down – are of course metaphors for reminding us that we are not the centre of the universe – and that’s true for us as individuals and as a species.
The psalm talks about us as nations – chosen as his heritage from among all the people of the Earth whom he observes – and to this nation he reminds them that their salvation is not in kings or armies or military might. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be kings or armies or military might but that they have limited use. Instead God looks at this nation most personally – zeros in much than a satellite picture from above – zooms into the heart of each citizen of this nation seeking faith – those who have fear and hope in the Lord for they will be saved from death and helped in tough times. Remember, this is a psalm of praise and thanks so the idea of God watching us is not meant to be ‘scary God out to see whether you’re good or you’ll get zapped’ but rather God coming to us his people having given them all that they need – salvation, the covenants, worship, his Word – so that they can now live with him not in terror or hiding but in a relationship that trusts God to help because the people know that they have someone who will forgive and help and rejoice and rescue – not because the nation is special but because God is faithful and full of steadfast love.
Of course the people – we – never get this living part right. Because of sin, we oscillate between complacency or frenzy – between being slack in our relationship with God and being motivated at a deep level by fear alone.
Today we have it easier in one sense to follow this psalm. When we talk about God and his steadfast love and faithfulness, Christians look to the cross and empty tomb of Jesus. We are people of the new covenant – sealed with Jesus’ death – and we proclaim this death until Jesus’ comes again in glory for all to see in this world precisely because he is alive and with us now but hidden – received and perceived only through faith. So the followers of Jesus find in words, water, bread and wine means, channels, transmission, doorways, encounters with the living Jesus – we are not talking about dead history but a living proclamation – not God was faithful and merciful but God is faithful and merciful. Jesus is with us now and that is why we praise and give thanks.
But we also have it harder, I think, to follow this psalm today. It comes down to how we understand the word ‘nation’. My guess is that we automatically think of our country of birth and it would not be the worst thing for a country to give thanks and praise to God. Countries and rulers are smart enough to know that if they can have the imprimatur of a religion behind them then that social cohesion and even vision can be helpful to the future of the country – or at least of that ruling dynasty. In the Old Testament, the nation was the people of Israel and whether the prophets were in leadership like Moses or the kings like David, you had a theocracy in which God was the acknowledged ruler. This didn’t mean people always did the right thing or didn’t have other gods within the borders but the nation was linked more strongly ‘upwards’ to God than to lines drawn on a map.
When Jesus walked on Earth he left Caesar alone and told his followers that leadership is found in service (Luke 22:25,26). He told Pilate that his kingdom was not from the world (John 18:36). Because people deep down like power and control over others, we can understand the disciples still not understanding what Jesus was doing by asking him before he ascended when he would restore the kingdom to Israel and he replied by getting their eyes away from maps and borders and no doubt thrones, palaces and armies, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8 ESV). Notice the borders? Of course they exist but they are not relevant to this kingdom Jesus is establishing across borders … to the end of the earth.
So when the psalmist calls the nation blessed whose God is the Lord whom he has chosen as his heritage, the followers of this Jesus might note borders, colour of passport, and type of government they are under but what they are looking for is the water of Christian baptism as the passport into being ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy’ (1 Peter 2:9,10 ESV).
How we might live this out today in our world of nation states and patriotism where we are following Jesus as dutiful citizens but always checking and questioning with Jesus first so to speak about what we should be doing is complex and requires good theological reflection and a good theological grounding. What do Christians do when brothers and sisters in God’s kingdom are on opposite sides of a battle in this world? Our history is replete with answers and stories and we can face these sorts of things today. It is too easy to conflate nation state and church today or assume that the fortunes of a country are blessings from God and troubles are his curses.
Christians are called to think wider than borders – to what the one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church means today – while at the same time getting on with the day to day life of a congregation in a specific time and place. If nothing else, this perspective should affect our prayers on the one hand and inspires us to work for justice and peace across borders or any other demarcation lines that finds Christians on both sides.
But it is tough to follow Jesus personally, in families or congregations or communities or in society – sometimes because we are facing sin and our struggles with that but more often it is because we face choices and options. Do we stay and rent a church building or get one of our own? Do we call a full time or part time minister? Do we have Holy Communion once or twice per month or every Sunday? For whom do I vote? How do I respond in my job if my company makes profits by exploiting others? What is exploiting? Should I be green in my theology and politics and personal living for the sake of the planet and therefore for future generations and how might I do this? The answers are not necessarily found in the Bible – follow this or that verse – but we find we have a different perspective to our world – again that looking down one – which guides us to then try and do things or not do things that will bring God’s blessing to all the children of man, to all the inhabitants of the earth.
Nothing we do will build heaven on earth though hopefully we’ll make it more peaceful and just along the way. Christians are encouraged to use their ‘sanctified commonsense’ in their daily living when faced with options and they can do this because we live waiting for the Lord – to turn up – to help us – to guide us. This is not to say that God is absent, far away, but rather that we have to ‘tune in’ so to speak beyond our senses. That is why all Christian faith and life is grounded in the God’s Word – personalised in the Word made flesh – and why we read, meditate, listen to, ponder, consider the Bible each day. This is why our hearts can be glad because we hear again and again that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases! And so we put our hope in God as we roll up our sleeves for the next task and give him thanks and praise!
- Psalm 33:12 - 22