Preached: November 23, 2011
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The Holy Spirit works thanksgiving in our hearts through these words from Psalm 136
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever. (Psalm 136:1).
This is the word of our Lord.
We know those words well. We often use them to give thanks at meal time. And that phrase, “For his mercy endures forever,” is, in fact, the theme for the whole Psalm. Each of the twenty-six verses closes with that refrain.
Let’s think about one of the words in that refrain, the word mercy. As you know, the word God gave the Psalmist to write here was a Hebrew word, not an English one. It’s the word חֶסֶד (khesed). Translators have struggled how to express it English. Traditionally we’ve used mercy. More recently translators have suggested faithful love, loving-kindness, steadfast love, grace, and similar words.
But maybe the best way for us to understand the Lord’s חֶסֶד (khesed) is with a picture. Go back to the ancient east to the days of emperors whose every word was law, whose courts were ablaze with wealth, the richness of color, bedazzled with jewels, gold aglow, sweet fragrance all around. This emperor leaves behind his palace and goes out into the desert. He heads toward a squalid encampment. The stench of filth and decay greets him. The indigent and diseased are the best this camp offers. But vagabonds, charlatans, thieves, and even cut-throats have gravitated there.
Why would such a grand emperor go to such a place, except to rid his land of this vermin? But no! He has come because of his חֶסֶד (khesed), his mercy. And moved by his חֶסֶד (khesed) and mercy, he calls out, “Come, and be my people, my family, my children and heirs. Live with me under my care and protection. This is my promise, my free gift to you.” What mercy! What loving-kindness! What חֶסֶד (khesed)! Think about this picture when you say, “For his mercy endures forever.”
You know, doesn’t this picture what the Lord actually did when he brought Israel out of Egypt? He came and rescued them from slavery under Pharaoh. How the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea clearly showed him to be the mighty Emperor stretching out his arm to take this lowly, undeserving people as his very own. What חֶסֶד (khesed), loving-kindness, and mercy! In fact, the whole Old Testament is a real, factual account of the Lord’s חֶסֶד (khesed).
Now all that I’ve said so far pales compared to what the Lord God has done for you and me. The glorious Son himself exchanged his splendor for the cross. He came down and rescued us rebels to be his very own people, to be God’s children and heirs. What חֶסֶד (khesed), grace, and mercy!
And unlike an earthly emperor whose mercy may at best last only a lifetime, the Lord’s mercy, his חֶסֶד (khesed) , endures forever. For he is the Lord, the eternal I AM. He does not change. He does not fail. He keeps his promises. He is the Lord. His mercy endures forever. What grand thoughts for you to contemplate every time you say those words. Yes! What mercy comes from the Lord, our God! That’s the sermon theme, tonight. And because of his mercy, dear friends, remember his goodness (part one), and proclaim your thankfulness (part two).
“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good” (Psalm 136:1). God is good. That’s one of those basic principles, hard-wired in us. God is good. But just because that is a self-evident axiom, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ponder it, cherish it, rejoice in it.
What comes to your mind as you ponder the goodness of the Lord? Maybe another picture would help us here. Look at the altar with its Thanksgiving decorations. See the cornucopias, filled with good things, the fruits of harvest, sustenance for another year -- apples, wheat, corn. They’re not just filled; they’re overflowing. Such bounty! Such goodness! How bountiful the goodness of the Lord! Another Psalm proclaims: “You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (Psalm 145:16 NIV1984) -- so good is our Lord whose mercy endures forever!
Later this week read through all twenty-six verses of Psalm 136. In concrete terms it describes the goodness of the Lord. His goodness created the world, the sky and earth, the sea and land, the sun, moon, and stars. His goodness rescued his people from slavery in Egypt bringing them through the waters of the Red Sea, drowning Pharaoh’s army. His goodness brought them safely to the promise land, defeating the powerful kings like Sihon king of the Amorites and Og king of Bashan.
Likewise for us today. From the bounties of his creation, the Lord’s goodness has provided all we've needed this past year. His goodness rescued us from sin through the waters of Baptism, delivered us from the devil and his legions, drowning our sinful nature. His goodness has lead us safely through the desert of this life, protecting your faith against the attacks of false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins. What great goodness flows from his mercy, his חֶסֶד (khesed), his loving-kindness and grace!
Yes, more bountiful than any cornucopia, the goodness of the Lord our God overflows. He has created you and still preserves you richly and daily, dear friend. He has redeemed you from sin and rescued you from it’s slavery. He has sanctified you for life everlasting, keeping you together with the holy Christian Church in the one true faith. Such goodness from the Lord, our God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Remember his goodness to you, his goodness that flows from his חֶסֶד (khesed), his mercy. What mercy comes from the Lord, our God!
Yes, what mercy! So the Psalm calls on each of us to gives thanks to the Lord, our God. Such goodness! Such mercy! How else can we respond but with thankfulness?
Now thanksgiving is not a mumbled acknowledgment, leaving the person wondering what was actually said. Thanksgiving is not a practiced politeness, leaving in doubt how much warmth was really behind those words. Such thanksgiving may be the best a child can manage when he gets a shirt and tie for Christmas instead of the BMX dirt bike he’d been begging for. But the Lord our God gives us the best gifts of all. We’ve already summarized them in part one. How can thanksgiving not burst forth from deep within our hearts like a geyser spouting up for all to see? Proclaim your thankfulness.
Yes, thanksgiving to the Lord is a public action. It’s praise that sounds out for others to hear, proclaiming the good things the Lord’s mercy has done. It sounds out when we gather publicly as the body of Christ in this building. It sounds out by the way you live your life in the world out there, as your actions show the kindness, love, and mercy that comes from the Lord, your God. Thanksgiving sounds out through your words as you make it clear that your joy and hope are centered in Christ Jesus. For without your words how can others know the reason for the hope you have? Thanksgiving cannot help but share the wonderful things our God has done for us. Christ has died for us. Christ has risen. And he will come again for us. What mercy comes from our God! Proclaim your thankfulness.
Now I realize, because I struggle through the same thing, that we don’t always feel thankful. We see what others have and feel neglected. We look at our difficulties and feel rejected. Self-pity, perceived unfairness, depressing failures all work to plug up our thanksgiving.
But, dear friends, dear Christians, recall where we started here tonight. Recall that picture of the Lord’s חֶסֶד (khesed). What mercy comes from the Lord, our God! He, who is greater than any emperor, came for you and me, who are worse than any encampment of villains and vermin. What mercy, what חֶסֶד (khesed), he has shown you! Be confident that whatever comes your way in life, even death itself, cannot stop his חֶסֶד (khesed). For his mercy endures forever. So dear friend, as you listen to his gracious invitation, as you take to heart his words of mercy, as you follow him through the desert of this life to his heavenly palace, count on his mercy. How that moves us to give thanks always! For his mercy endures forever -- his mercy toward you. Remember his goodness. Proclaim your thankfulness. Amen
The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.