A sermon on Psalm 136 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 5 September 2021
Today we are looking at Psalm 136, and straight away you must have noticed its unique feature. Out of all the psalms, it has a repeated chorus at the end of each line.
His love endures forever.
And it could prompt someone to ask the question, “Why did the writer go out of his or her way to write the most boring psalm ever?” But the question’s unfair because although the psalm is repetitive and the writer did on purpose, it doesn’t mean that it has to be boring.
Psalm 136 was written for public worship. It wasn’t written to be read in silence, in the privacy of your home. It wasn’t written to be read via the app on your phone. I don’t mean you can’t do those things, but it wasn’t written for that purpose. It was written to be sung by the people of God gathered together in the name of their Lord to worship him and praise him. The leader of worship would sing or chant the first half of each line, which is different in each verse. And then the rest of congregation would sing or chant the second half of the line, which in each verse is exactly the same.
For two very good reasons. Firstly, because your general member of the public is not a trained singer. I’m not a trained singer. Most of you aren’t either. We are enthusiastic amateurs. So what Psalm 136 does is it gives us one job to do. We’ve got one job. And it’s not too hard. It’s so easy we can’t mess it up. To chant the same line over and over again. Psalm 136 was written to include regular folks in the public worship of God. It’s not so complicated that you have to be an expert. It’s simple enough for us all to be able to join in. It’s just a shame that with us all here on Zoom, if we tried to do it we’d all say it at a different time and it would be a mess.
But secondly, it is written to be memorable. Psalm 136 has two simple messages from beginning to end and they are both spelled out in the first verse and the last verse.
Give thanks to the Lord. Give thanks to the God of heaven.
Because his love endures forever.
And that’s going to be hard to get out of your head. In fact., I guarantee that over lunch today you will be telling yourself, his love endures forever. When you get up tomorrow morning, the thought will come to you, his love endures forever. Sometime during this week you might even ring me up and complain, “Why did you preach that sermon? Now I can’t get it out of my head. His love endures forever.” So that when you need to remember it, when life gets you down, when lockdown seems to drag on, when you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep, when you are facing an operation or an important interview, the thought will come to you, “His love endures forever.” The Lord’s love doesn’t run out like a tank of petrol or a pantry full of food. Instead, it comes from an unlimited supply, like a river than never runs dry. It keeps on keeping on, so that it is there for you when you need it.
Psalm 136 begins,
Give thanks to the Lord.
It is a command to God’s people to praise their Lord. ]To acknowledge him and his goodness and his gifts. To do the opposite, to refuse to praise him. To remain silent in sullen ingratitude, robs God of what he deserves and makes us miserable. It makes us think that we are on our own without a friend in the world, and we’ve been left to our own resources so that we can’t be sure if we are going to cope. But worse, it is a sin against our creator. We don’t like to be overlooked. We don’t like to be taken for granted. But when we fail to give thanks, we are treating God the same way.
Psalm 136 is full of good reasons to give thanks to the Lord. But one of the best is in verse 1. He is good. God is good. He isn’t cruel or vindictive or self-centred. He isn’t absent minded or complacent or untrustworthy. He is good and kind and dependable and forgiving and generous and merciful. Because God is good the world is full of good things. Sunsets and laughing and pelicans and barbeques and games and homes and health and family and spring. God is good and the world is full of good things, because he made it. Because
He is the god of gods. He is the Lord of lords. He is the one who does great wonders. And by his understanding he made the heavens.
Just after sunset on a clear night you will see two bright lights in the sky. The planet Venus low in the west, the brightest thing after the moon, and the planet Jupiter higher in the east, the next brightest thing in the sky. And they are beautiful. Because they are good and they reveal the nature of their creator because he is good. And the flowers of spring are beautiful too. Their beauty brings us joy because we have been made to enjoy what our good God has made good. And doing good for others makes us feel good too. We don’t have to feel embarrassed or ashamed about that as if only doing bad things would make us feel good. Doing bad things makes us feel bad. Doing bad things leads to regret and shame. Because we are made by the good God too. He has made us to be good, to do good and to enjoy what he has made good.
Unfortunately, grief and sadness can rob us of our joy. We experience the loss of something very significant and it hurts and that pain can blind us to the joy all around us. It’s only natural. We are only human. Pain is like that, it demands our attention. It refuses to be ignored. It’s like a loud siren going off in our brain. But the world is still full of good things. It’s just that for a moment, we can’t see it. But above the clouds the sun and moon and Venus and Jupiter and all the stars still shine.
Verse 4 to 9 show us how God is good in his work as creator. Verses 10 to 24 remind us how God is good in his work as saviour as they retell the story of how the Lord rescued his people from their slavery in Egypt. They had gone to Egypt in the time of Joseph to escape from famine. But a couple of generations later and a king arose in Egypt who did not know or care about the great good that Joseph had done. And he saw these strangers living in his land and he used the cruelly to build his monuments, hoping to weaken them and to profit from their labour.
But God remembered his promises to their ancestor Abraham and he sent his servant Moses to say that the Lord says, “Let my people go.” And when he wouldn’t let them go, Egypt was afflicted by terrible plagues, until the king forced the Israelites to leave and immediately regretted it and chased after them in his chariots until he saw the Red Sea open for them and his whole army raced in after them and was drowned by the returning waters just as soon as the Israelites made it to shore. And God led them through the wilderness for forty years until he brought them to the land he promised and gave it to them as their inheritance.
It’s a great reminder that we who follow Jesus are on a great journey too from our slavery to sin to the promised land of the kingdom of God. But sometimes that journey can take us through a wilderness of being misunderstood by our family or of losing our first enthusiasm or of having to stand firm while our whole culture falls away or of being a lone voice pointing out an injustice that everyone else ignores, or of taking the side of the marginalised and facing criticism from every side, or of experiencing disappointment or chronic illness or the effects of ageing. And they are the times that we need to be reminded of where we’ve come from and of where we are headed. Saved from the slavery of sin which promises so much but does not deliver on any of them, and headed toward the peace and joy of the kingdom of God where every tear will be wiped away and every wrong put right.
What we need on that journey through the wilderness is to remember the faithfulness of God. He made the universe out of love and out of the joy of making good things. And he saved us out of love and out of the joy of restoring things gone wrong. He was good and he is still good, because his love endures forever. Even in lockdown during the pandemic when we are isolated and restricted. God is good and he is faithful and his love still caries all things. Like a father who caught you last time and whom you can trust to catch you this time and every time.
Give thanks to the God of heaven, because his love endures forever.