The Steadfast Love of God (Psalm 33:12-22)

Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord,
    the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.

The Lord looks down from heaven;
    he sees all humankind.
From where he sits enthroned he watches
    all the inhabitants of the earth—
he who fashions the hearts of them all
    and observes all their deeds.
A king is not saved by his great army;
    a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
The war horse is a vain hope for victory,
    and by its great might, it cannot save.

Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,
    on those who hope in his steadfast love,
to deliver their soul from death
    and to keep them alive in famine.

Our soul waits for the Lord;
    he is our help and shield.
Our heart is glad in him
    because we trust in his holy name.
Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
    even as we hope in you. (New Revised Standard Version)

God is in control of the world. I am not. Neither are you.

Although the myth of self-sufficiency and self-reliance completely permeates individualist societies, this in no way lessens the immense transcendence and sovereignty of a hugely big God.

In today’s psalm, the scene of God looking down from heaven portrays the Lord as above all, firmly in control, clearly seeing the big picture of the entire world. And yet, the Lord is also attentive to all that is happening on the earth.

Individual human creatures subscribing to a narrative of personal independence will inevitably run into the Creator God with a story as big as history itself.

Success may give us the illusion that our own strength, intelligence, and/or ingenuity has brought us the good things we possess – not God. “I worked hard for my money and I will do whatever I want with it!” and the even more crass, “It wasn’t God who put food on my table!” are just a few of the power delusions I have heard from others, as if personal accomplishments are unconnected to any other force in the universe.

What’s more, looking at individualism from the converse angle, our lack of success may cause us to pause and wonder if God is really observing all our deeds, or not. Perhaps the Lord is reclining in his La-z-God chair and watching old baseball game replays of the Angels.

More likely, we have become so expectant of satisfactory service and immediate results as consumers in a capitalist culture that we fail to discern the virtue of patience – that God is not slow in keeping divine promises as some would understand it.

The sheer fact of the matter is that we need God. And God feels no compulsion from us to be hurried along with divine purposes for humanity. Since God is the ever-present gravity in this world, the way of realizing the good life on this earth is to conform ourselves to the Lord’s purposes, and not the other way around.

When we learn to exercise the inherent gifts of hope and patience which a gracious God has fashioned in our hearts, then we begin to discover persevering trust, enduring happiness, a settled sense of gladness, and steadfast love. We awaken to the true passion of God for us. Rather than a capricious or indifferent deity, the Lord God looks upon us with endearing faithfulness.

God’s heart is forever drawn to us. Therefore, there’s no need to take every matter into our own hands, as if we are alone in the world. If we can see a vision of God high and lifted-up, observing us with a gaze of delight, then our spirits open to mercy and we find grace to help us in our time of need.

The Lord your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory. He will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing.

Zephaniah 3:17

God labors on our behalf. God has our back. God establishes a safe environment for us. And never forget: God delights in you. And so much so, that, this very minute, the Lord is singing songs of joy over you.

Trust and hope cannot be coerced by another or willed into being by the mind; it can only be generated through the deep conviction of God’s broad love for you and me.

The best self-help program I know of is not self-help at all – it is the self-care of opening to a loving God and allowing God’s joy and delight to fill us. God is watching us, and it is the gaze of adoration, not condemnation.

Dear God, the One who watches all, love comes from you. Anyone who loves is your child and knows you. And anyone who does not love does not know you, for God is love. Thank you for showing me love by sending your one and only Son into the world so that I might have eternal life through him. 

Precious Lord, since you loved me that much, I surely ought to love others. May you live in me and may the love of Jesus be brought to full expression in me through the power of the Spirit. Amen.

A Mountain of Good News (Isaiah 25:6-9)

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
    of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
    the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
    the covering that is spread over all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
    and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
    “See, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
    This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” (New Revised Standard Version)

Mountains are a prominent and symbolic part of Holy Scripture.

Abraham sojourned to a mountain where he exhibited the pinnacle of faith in radical obedience to God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac. (Genesis 22:1-19)

The Law was given to Moses on a mountain. (Exodus 19:1-20:17)

Elijah traveled 40 days and nights to meet God on a mountain. (1 Kings 19:11-18)

Jesus preached the most famous sermon ever on a mountain. (Matthew 5-7)

Because of such references, we routinely refer to extraordinary events as “mountaintop experiences.”

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
    your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains;
    your judgments are like the great deep;
    you save humans and animals alike, O Lord. (Psalm 36:5-6, NRSV)

The mountain is a contrast and antithesis to the valley of death below. It signifies God’s power and reign over all earthly rulers. On the mountain we enjoy a great feast of the soul, not to mention an actual meal full of celebration. After all, food and celebration always go together in God’s kingdom.

Whenever healing and/or emancipation happen, it’s time for a celebration. To celebrate significant events, and ritualize them so we remember them, is wise and much needed.

For the Christian, Jesus is the fulfillment of all God’s good promises. In Christ, we have deliverance from guilt, shame, death, and hell. Because Jesus Christ is risen from death and has conquered the grave, our salvation is assured and made possible. And so, along with the prophet Isaiah, we proclaim the good news of peace through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
    who announces salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (Isaiah 52:7, NRSV)

Celebration of the good news keeps any sort of spiritual amnesia at bay; and when future difficulties arise, because of our joy in salvation, we are able to recall the mighty acts of God and embrace hope for the future.

If we consistently practice celebration, the redemption experienced in the past is constantly fresh, like a sumptuous meal before us in an endless buffet of goodness. We can eat anytime we want.

Banquets are rightly associated with hospitality, generosity, and fellowship. Meals in the ancient Near East culture were much more than utilitarian; eating together was (and, frankly, still is in most parts of the world) a deeply spiritual event which communicates acceptance, encouragement, and love to one another.

God is the ultimate host. He throws the best parties. God ensures that there is plenty of food, fellowship, and fun. God’s joy knows no bounds. In the middle of a world beset with sadness, loss, and grief, God’s boundless generosity swallows up people’s disgrace and mourning.

At God’s Table, no one cries alone; everyone is comforted; nobody walks away hungry; and, every person is waited upon, no matter who they are or where they have come from. Indeed, there is always room at the Table.

Through Christ’s resurrection, death has been swallowed up in victory. (1 Corinthians 15:54)

Death no longer has any power to control, humiliate, or shame us into submission. Death’s threats are empty.

The Grim Reaper’s teeth have been pulled and his scythe has been broken. He is the party-pooper who is barred from entry.

There is life and abundance for all who ascend the mountain and feast with God at his Table. The invitation has gone out. The Table is spread. We need only to come.

In the joy of your Son, Jesus Christ, through his mighty resurrection and in expectation of his coming again, we offer ourselves to you, Almighty God, as holy and living sacrifices. Together with all your people everywhere and in every age, we proclaim the mystery of the faith:

Christ has died!

Christ is risen!

Christ will come again!

Send your Holy Spirit upon us, we pray, that the bread which we break and the cup which we bless may be to us a sacred communion, a holy celebration of Christ’s body, blood, and victory over death. We declare:

God has spoken!

God has acted!

God has provided!

May you gather all into your hospitable and abundant kingdom; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One benevolent God, now and forever. Amen.

The Love of God for You (Song of Songs 8:6-7)

God Is Love, by Voss Creative

Place me like a seal over your heart,
    like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
    its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
    like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
    rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
    all the wealth of one’s house for love,
    it would be utterly scorned. (New International Version)

Throughout most of church history, the Old Testament poem of Solomon’s Song of Songs has been interpreted allegorically as the love between God and God’s people.

A more literal hermeneutic views the Song as an actual relationship between a man and woman – which has it’s merits in that it acknowledges and affirms our bodily nature.

Yet, no matter what interpretive grid one uses for the Song, this wondrous and unique biblical book is an Ode to Love, lifting the centrality and power of Love as the greatest force in the world.

As for me, I believe it’s likely that the Song purposely has both the literal and allegorical in view. There are many places throughout Holy Scripture which have intended double and even triple meanings to the text. However one chooses to see the Song, love begins with God, and gives shape to our own human love for God, one another, and one’s lover.

“God carries your picture in his wallet.”

Tony Campolo

We learn a great deal of love from God. The Lord is a jealous God. That doesn’t mean the Lord is some weird stalker deity with insecurities about losing the devotion of worshipers. No, instead, divine jealousy is the positive quality of showing steadfast love and commitment, being completely devoted to following through with divine promises and presence.

The Song is far from the only place in Scripture which likens the relationship between God and God’s people as a marriage of lovers. In fact, God’s covenant relationship with people is at the heart of understanding the whole of Scripture.

In the prophecy of Hosea, God expressed a longing for Israel to remain faithful, because the Lord loves her. Hosea had an unfaithful wife, and throughout the book of Hosea the relationship between him and his wife Gomer mirrored the relationship between God and Israel. Just as Hosea kept showing faithful love to Gomer, even though she was brazenly unfaithful, so too, God looked at Israel with affection and steadfast love, not bearing to give her up.

“If you have never known the power of God’s love, then maybe it is because you have never asked to know it – I mean really asked, expecting an answer.”

Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

The love of God shall always win the day, despite our own human love, which can wax and wane according to mood or circumstance. Grace, mercy, and love are deep in the nature of God; Love is who God is, not just what God does.

The one marrying you is the one who made you—
    the Lord of heavenly forces is his name.
The one redeeming you is the holy one of Israel,
    the one called the God of all the earth.
As an abandoned and dejected woman the Lord has summoned you;
    as a young wife when she is rejected,
        says your God.
For a brief moment I abandoned you,
    but with great mercy I will bring you back.
    In an outburst of rage,
    I hid my face from you for a moment,
    but with everlasting love I have consoled you,
    says your redeemer, the Lord.

These are like the days of Noah for me,
    when I promised that Noah’s waters would never again cover the earth.
    Likewise I promise not to rage against you or rebuke you.
The mountains may shift,
    and the hills may be shaken,
    but my faithful love won’t shift from you,
    and my covenant of peace won’t be shaken,
    says the Lord, the one who pities you. (Isaiah 54:5-10, CEB)

As the Old Testament draws toward the end, God’s love remains constant, desiring the people to hold fast to their Lord:

This is what the Lord All-Powerful says: “I have a very strong love for Jerusalem. My strong love for her is like a fire burning in me.” (Zechariah 8:2, NCV) 

Into the New Testament, the love of God continues to burn for God’s people. In the Gospels, Jesus showed committed love to all sorts of people, going so far as to be the ultimate martyr, giving himself as sacrifice of atonement on behalf of a world who mostly rejected him.

“Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:44-47, NIV)

One of Christ’s disciples, the Apostle John, learned to channel his passionate anger into passionate love. John knew that people’s needs are supremely and fully met through the Lord who loves them – and not through alternate avenues of love:

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. (1 John 2:15-17, NLT)

God knows that going elsewhere to satisfy our needs, ultimately gets us nowhere, especially our need for love. God yearns, passionately, for us to find our pleasure and enjoyment in him. God waits with loving patience to show grace and compassion.

“The Love of God” by Frederick M. Lehman, 1917

The love of God is greater far
than tongue or pen can ever tell;
it goes beyond the highest star,
and reaches to the lowest hell.
The wand’ring child is reconciled
by God’s beloved Son.
The aching soul again made whole,
and priceless pardon won.

O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure—
the saints’ and angels’ song.

Monday of Holy Week (Psalm 36:5-11)

The Via Dolorosa (Latin: the way of sorrows) is a narrow path through the streets of the Old Jerusalem, the final route traveled by Jesus of Nazareth on the way to his crucifixion.

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
    your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains;
    your judgments are like the great deep;
    you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
    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.

O continue your steadfast love to those who know you
    and your salvation to the upright of heart!
Do not let the foot of the arrogant tread on me
    or the hand of the wicked drive me away. (New Revised Standard Version)

The desert journey is almost over. The sojourn with Jesus in his life and ministry will soon culminate in the ultimate experience of sorrow and joy. The Christian season of Lent is nearly at the end. We are in it’s final days, known as Holy Week.

We have a Holy Week because of love. There is yet another journey we must take, along the Via Dolorosa to the hill of Golgotha, because of God’s steadfast love.

Love suffers. Every parent knows this. Because of a parent’s committed and faithful love toward a child, they feel not only the joys but also the sorrows and pain of their children. I can say that this feeling does not go away, even with adult children. And it’s compounded with grandchildren. Just as our love is big enough to hold multiple children and grandchildren, so our capacity for experiencing deep emotion for their welfare is equally large.

Holy Week reminds us that God’s committed parental love suffers. It is because of God’s immense and steadfast love that there is a road to the cross and a tortured death for Jesus. The cost of our salvation involves a very bloody affair. Deliverance comes at the price of horrible violence. Jesus Christ lived and died for us, because of love.

He suffered much because he loved much.

God’s people, walking in the way of love, quickly discover that it is simultaneously walking in the way of suffering. From Old Testament times through the New Testament era and into the present day, the faithful have always experienced suffering as a central part of their piety and devotion in showing steadfast love. 

The medieval mystics of the Church understood quite well the connection between suffering and love. They could not imagine a Christian life without hardship, difficulty, and persecution. Thomas à Kempis, a sort of pastor to pastors, wrote in the fifteenth century:

“Sometimes it is to our advantage to endure misfortunes and adversities, for they make us enter into our inner selves and acknowledge that we are in a place of exile and that we ought not to rely on anything in this world.  And sometimes it is good for us to suffer contradictions and know that there are those who think ill and badly of us, even though we do our best and act with every good intention….  When men ridicule and belittle us, we should turn to God, who sees our innermost thoughts, and seek His judgment….  It is when a man of good will is distressed, or tempted, or afflicted with evil that he best understands the overwhelming need he has for God, without whom he can do nothing….  It is in such times of trial that he realizes that perfect security and full peace are not to be found in this world.”

Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

And yet, it is because of love that suffering is transformed and endured as something wholly other than sheer pain or hurt. Thomas à Kempis went on to say:

“Love is a mighty power, a great and complete good; Love alone lightens every burden and makes the rough places smooth. It bears every hardship as though it were nothing and renders all bitterness sweet and acceptable. The love of Jesus is noble and inspires us to great deeds; it moves us always to desire perfection. Love aspires to high things and is held back by nothing base. Love longs to be free, a stranger to every worldly desire, lest its inner vision become dimmed, and lest worldly self-interest hinder it, or ill-fortune cast it down…. Love knows no limits, but ardently transcends all bounds. Love feels no burden, takes no account of toil, attempts things beyond its strength; love sees nothing as impossible, for it feels able to achieve all things. Love therefore does great things; it is strange and effective; while he who lacks love faints and fails.”

Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

Holy Week’s message is certainly one of suffering love. Jesus went to the greatest lengths possible to give Divine steadfast love to humanity. So, let us not shy away from the cross, but journey with Jesus to Golgotha, embracing the love of God for us. In so doing, we will find the inner resources needed to love the world, even in all its unloveliness.

Grant, we pray, almighty God, that, though in our weakness we fail, we may be revived through the Passion of your Only Begotten Son. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.