At Memorial we have a standing goal in wintertime, whatever the weather, as long as we can get into the parking lot, we aim to be there, and worship with whoever can come, just be safe and wise about your own circumstances when it comes to deciding whether or not to come to church.
That said, as you know, this past Sunday was a doozy. Not just with the snow and ice that had already fallen, but in light of the continuing precipitation, it didn’t seem wise or safe to hold services. So here’s the text of the message prepared for Sunday, for those who would like to follow along.
The Faithfulness of God
Scripture: Psalm 33:4-5, and drawing on Psalm 25:1-5 (which was our Call to Worship)
A few weeks ago, someone I know from way back shared a sarcastic meme online. It said, “I prefer the Greek gods, because they were like a soap opera, they were imperfect, they fought, there was drama. Christians, on the other hand, say that their God is all knowing, and all powerful, is everywhere, is perfect. In other words, Christians have invented a mary sue”; an idealized fictional character.
The thing is, I don’t think this meme has thought it all the way through. If he’s right, that the real gods are like the ones in Greek and Roman mythology, petty and capricious – we’re all in trouble. More to the point today, if all of this is just fiction that we’ve made up to feel better about life, then there is no such thing as a purpose to this life that we don’t make up, that’s not ultimately futile, shouting into the wind.
Paul’s message about the kind of God he had come to know, and ultimately revealed in the person of Jesus, the Son of God, this was good news to people in Paul’s time, and it’s good news to us. But what is it, exactly, that we are saying about God when we describe who God is:
If someone were to ask you, as a believer, what is God like, what would you say?
How would you describe the person, the character of God?
Ok, now I want to follow up on that. As words or images come to mind, let me ask a second question:
Why? Why do we believe that about God – what shapes our image of God’s character?
This morning, I want to connect those two questions through one of the key words in the Old Testament, a word that English has kind of a tough time translating.
In Psalm 33:5, the NIV says “the earth is full of his unfailing love.”
The NRSV says “steadfast love”
New King James reads: “goodness”
The New American Standard Version says “lovingkindness”.
The Hebrew is ‘chesed’. ( חֶ֫סֶד )
Chesed shows up over and over through the whole Old Testament, across centuries of writing by different authors, to describe the character of God they had experienced and seen at work in their lives and as they looked back on the ways God had dealt with them and their people.
Chesed is about the character of God that is revealed in the ins and outs, the ups and downs of life. Chesed is about strength, but not just any kind of strength, a strength that is directed by love. And it’s not just a passing good intention, but shown steadfastly over time.
Chesed is shown relationship, particularly in the context of covenant, which reminds us that relationship includes commitments. It’s the kind of commitment where we look to God for protection and blessing, but with the understanding that we’re not in control. It’s the kind of commitment where God has promised to do so, but retains freedom in how God fulfills those promises. This covenant language echoes the kind of treaties between a king and that king’s people, or between a stronger country and a weaker one.
But Chesed goes deeper than a kind of formal treaty or agreement – it implies personal involvement, personal connection and investment that binds us together. These promises are made by God out of love, and because of who God is, the Chesed of God is experienced as grace and mercy.
What that means is that God’s character is expressed in a commitment to humanity; demonstrated in various ways throughout time, but personally and particularly in relationship with a group of people we know through the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. We make these claims about God in part because of we have come to know God through history as witnessed in the lives of people who lived and wrote the scriptures which ultimately point to Jesus the Son of God. In the Bible, chesed isn’t a theoretical idea, but the declaration that God’s commitment is and has been and will be expressed in concrete action, redemptive action. Critically, we make these claims not only because of scripture, but because we too, having trusted God revealed in Jesus, can look back on our lives, and see how God has been faithful to God’s purposes and promises, including us in the larger story that is unfolding.
This faithfulness of God matters because as we read back through that story, and as we think of our own story, we realize that the good news isn’t located in our ability to keep our end of the covenant or reciprocate, but it is rooted in the character, mercy and purposes of God. Over and over through scripture, we read about people giving up on God when things got tough, on letting God down with their actions. They ran around and deserted their commitments when they were inconvenient. We, along with them, have grieved God by giving credit for all we have and are to false gods of our own making and ignoring the one who created us. We lie to ourselves and to God about what’s really going on inside of us, shifting the blame anywhere else, and hurting the people around us in the process.
In the framework of covenant, God could just walk away. But throughout human history, through the whole story of Israel, throughout the whole of our lives, God remains faithful, not just to the covenant, but to God’s own character of a mercy that goes beyond the letter of the law. As Paul declares in Romans 3:3, their faithlessness, our faithlessness doesn’t nullify the faithfulness of God. God’s love and mercy goes beyond the economy of this world. It is not about our capacity to reciprocate, but is located in who God is.
A little over a week ago, Gabrielle and I had the honor of hearing the crew of Apollo 8: Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, speak at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. This was part of a book release about that mission, and it focused not just on the mission, but on the decision to go, and critically, it highlighted the critical support their wives gave, and the sacrifices they made in all of this. In some ways, this book was also a love story. This particular crew was the only one in all of the Gemini and Apollo programs where each crewmember’s marriage survived the experience. But was one part of this story that deeply moved me, and I think it speaks not just to what we’re talking about today, but on things many of us can connect with. Frank Borman is 90 years old. I think he fell asleep once or twice during the panel discussion, but he was sharp as a tack responding to the questions and engaging with his crewmates and the author. He commanded the first manned mission to orbit the moon, and could have gone on to walk on the moon in a future mission. But he didn’t. He chose to leave at that point for the well-being of his family. I knew that part of his story. But what I hadn’t known is that for a number of years, his wife Susan has suffered from Alzheimer’s, to the point where she doesn’t know who he is anymore. But he gets up every morning at 5:30 to exercise, to stay healthy so that he can visit and care for her as long as he can. His love isn’t located in her ability to reciprocate, but in the fact that she is beloved. Love isn’t 50% 50%. That’s chesed.
But love, God’s love does seek to draw the very best out of us that we are capable of. And the covenant nature of chesed reminds us that God is not just acting unilaterally, but invites us to reciprocate, calls on us to respond, as we read in Hosea 6:6 “For I desire steadfast love (chesed), not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings”, and Micah 6:8 “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness (chesed), and to walk humbly with your God?
In the beginning of our worship service, we heard the beginning of Psalm 25; a prayer of humility before God, relying on and trusting in God to provide. Asking God for guidance. Asking for God’s forgiveness according to God’s character, which we find described in the verses from Psalm 33 we started with.
What is God like? God is good, God is faithful, merciful, strong – not just when we deserve it, but all the time. When everything else fails, we can trust in God either to shield us from it or carry us through it. How do we know this? How can we trust this? Because we’ve seen it. We’ve experienced it. It is the story that goes before us; in scripture. It is the living story that shaped the lives of the disciples, the story that strengthened the generations that went before us. It is the reality that we have experienced, looking back on life and seeing God at work. And out of that reality, God beckons us to live. To extend that kind of loving faithfulness to those around us. To allow God’s Holy Spirit to create space that operates in redeeming grace that seeks righteousness, pursues justice, and does so in faithful, steadfast love.