The faithfulness, gentleness, understanding and willingness to set aside one’s individual needs for the other throughout a long and healthy marriage relationship can still be a way of understanding God’s love affair with us. My boss in Hickory, NC, Dr. Wallace Johnson, loved to stop at the window at the end of the hallway just before it was time to enter the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. Our offices were on the second floor, so he could look down and see the people parking their cars across the street and walking into the building for worship. I know he used the time to pray for the individuals, couples and families as he watched them make their way into the church. More than once he commented about a particular older couple who had been married for over 50 years who still walked close together, holding hands. It was a beautiful reminder of the power of faithful love that lasts, and my boss was repeatedly touched by the tenderness, the support, the faithfulness to one another that he could see in that couple in just those brief moments. A metaphor of the relationship between God and the world. It is a love affair that never stops, full of faithfulness (at least on God’s part), care and support.
The two psalms we read this morning are samples of the many psalms which celebrate God’s love, which express deep trust in God’s love and which hold onto hope for God’s love for the world. We can learn from them an outlook on the world from a disciple’s perspective, as followers of God, recipients of God’s love and a giver of love to others. The psalmists and other Old Testament writers use the Hebrew term hesed to describe the kind of love God has for us. Hesed is translated steadfast love, or faithful love, or unfailing love. Hesed is love in action. It is love in the context of a covenant relationship between God and the people. It is merciful love extended to someone in need. The core idea communicates loyalty or faithfulness within a relationship. God demonstrates this steadfast love again and again to the people of Israel— some examples of this steadfast love are: paving the way for Joseph to be a success in Egypt so he could keep his family (and many others) from starving during the seven years of famine; leading the people to freedom from slavery in Egypt by walking safely through the Red Sea; identifying, calling, and then sending prophets out with God’s message for the people. Through the psalms, hesed is often spoken of with terms like faithfulness, compassion, grace and mercy. They are important pieces of this steadfast love.
Psalm 33 is a hymn of praise to God, a hymn that describes a great and awesome God who is worthy of praise. It is a call to the people—Rejoice in the Lord! Praise the Lord with instruments, sing to the Lord a new song, and so on. And here we find that string of words together: God’s work is done in faithfulness, he loves righteousness and justice; and the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord. It is the hesed, the lasting, faithful, active love of God for the world.
The communal hymn of praise celebrates God’s love in the past and present—God as the creator who gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle, the one who spoke and the world came to be. The people of Israel always look back to their time in the wilderness as a time when God guided and protected them, when God fed them and cared for them, when God taught them how important it was to depend on God alone.
Psalm 90 comes at this hesed from a different perspective. This psalm lays out the temporariness, the finitude, of human life in contrast to the permanence and eternity of God. Mortals are turned back to dust, we are the ones with no lasting power or impact on the earth, swept away like a dream, like grass that fades and withers by evening. The psalmist recognizes how fragile we human beings are, how much in need of God we are. The contrast between God’s time and our time is vast—a thousand of our calendar years for God passes like a watch in the night—fleeting. The writer sees God’s wrath toward the faithless people as the boundary that defines their day-to-day existence. He says: all our days pass away under God’s wrath, our years come to an end like a sigh.
The writer seems to echo the writer of Ecclesiastes, who basically threw up his hands in helplessness, saying that everything is useless—work and play and love and even human life—he asks again and again, what sense is there in it all, as none of it gains us anything of lasting value? It is all vanity. This psalmist says—whether we live 70 or 80 years, it doesn’t matter—all of the years are full of toil and trouble. Even though he and his congregation are feeling helpless, useless, overwhelmed by God’s disappointment in his people, the psalmist nevertheless trusts in God’s steadfast love enough to ask for it. This is the petition at the end of the psalm: “satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days”. It is God’s steadfast love, God’s hesed, which will sustain and satisfy. It is God’s steadfast love which can be trusted. There is a similar sense of trust in God’s love at the end of Psalm 33: “let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.” In this congregational plea for help, the psalmist and his congregation are going through a time when hope is so thin that they can’t see beyond their human limitations and mortality. They reach out for hope of God’s love to be poured out, to be visible in their lives, trusting that it is there for them. We will sing these words of trust in God’s love as we sing the words of a familiar hymn based on Psalm 90 in a few moments, “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past, our hope for years to come….”
Hoping in God’s steadfast love gives strength for keeping on when times are tough. Being a disciple during the psalmists’ day and during our day requires hope that God’s love does continue in the future, understands that we can trust in God’s love because of our previous experiences with God’s steadfast love, and celebrates God’s love affair with the world with songs of joy and praise. We understand this steadfast love of God as most visible in the life, ministry and death of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. In the New Testament, this kind of love is often called agape, or unconditional love. I think the Hebrew writers and the Greek writers are describing this same kind of love from God. It is the kind of love God still has for us: love that is characterized by faithfulness, love that never abandons us, love that agonizes over our mistakes, love that pushes us to live as faithful disciples, love that cheers us on through the difficult times.
It is fitting that we close out our Summer with the Psalms series on God’s love, the steadfast love which is a characteristic of God recognized by Old Testament and New Testament writers alike, and by inhabitants of this globe throughout history. God’s love affair with the world has continued way beyond the last strokes of the writing utensil used to pen the words of our Scriptures. God’s love affair with the world continues today. I like to remind myself of the title of Rob Bell’s short book: Love Wins. Period. Love runs through us, in us, around us. Love calls us to respond in love toward the God who loves unconditionally, who loves with a steadfast, faithful, compassionate, active love, and in love toward our neighbors. Thanks be to God: love wins! Amen.