God’s Steadfast Love Endures Forever | Thanksgiving

His steadfast love endures forever.

Our first married Thanksgiving, we decided to host both of our parents. At the time, we lived in Virginia in a tiny, three hundred square foot apartment; smaller, in fact, than my office here at the church. I was managing a dorm while attending graduate school at James Madison University.

Thanksgiving morning we woke up and began to set the table, make the food, and generally prepare. At some point, Dana and her mom went down to the dorm kitchen to fetch the turkey and get it ready to go. We had stored it there instead of in our tiny kitchen as we did not have a full-sized fridge. As they pulled it out, they knew something was wrong. The fridge was set too cold and the fresh turkey had frozen solid. Out Dana and her dad ran, running to different grocery stores, until they finally found one open that had a fresh turkey big enough for all of us.  

They came home, triumphant, and Thanksgiving was saved! That afternoon we ate with throw away table cloths on old folding tables sitting in old folding chairs in the lobby of the dorm, as our living room wasn’t nearly big enough and we did not have a dining room. The scene reminded me much of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving as the kids sit around the same kinds of tables, in the same chairs, eating a makeshift meal in the backyard; grateful to be together. 

Indeed, we were grateful to be together that Thanksgiving, to celebrate our first married Thanksgiving and for the gift of family who drove up from Georgia to be with us. 

Thanksgiving is a wonderful, marvelous, holiday, that brings the warmth of family to bear on our lives. As the air chills, we gather together to remember the good things in our lives, to offer thanks to God; a reminder of all the great things God has done in our lives.

That’s what our scripture this morning notes: the great things God has done in the history of the Israelites. And as they recall these great things, their hearts turn to praise saying, his steadfast love endures forever.

Let’s hear about those great things together as we read this Psalm responsively. It has a repeated refrain: his steadfast love endures forever. I’ll read the the first line, and then you will say every other line, as printed in the bulletin:

Psalm 136

In a cabin, somewhere deep in the woods of New York, the poet wrote. Secluded for months at a time, he would write his thoughts, staring out into the endless forest. Nearby was a lake; sometimes cause for reflection there on the banks. 

It was a beautiful, idyllic, setting, to consider the plight of humans, to think the deep philosophical thoughts that escape most of us, and then to write them down for future generations to read. 

Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, still escapes many of us. It’s one of those deep books that high school and college makes us read; one many of us suffer through in order to complete the class. 

But Walden has inspired some very quotable passages. One in particular commands our attention this morning. Thoreau at some point, while staring at the woods or sitting by the fire in his log cabin or sitting by the banks of the lake, wrote several lines about living into our dreams. Those lines were condensed into an inspirational quote that has inspired both individual lives and jewelry commercials ever since. The quote says, “Go boldly in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” 

Think back to when you were in school or, if you’re in school now, think ahead to what’s to come. During our education, the Thoreau quote is the mantra: find your dream, discover your passion, then get the education and experience to live it out. We imagine our preferred vision of the future. When I was in college, I initially dreamed of being a band director. I imagined creating marching band shows and leading those. I could see myself conducting in front of the orchestra to create beautiful, amazing, music. 

And of course you see me now and know it didn’t work out that way. Life’s that way: we go boldly in one direction and something throws us off course. Or we choose a different course because something happens that we didn’t expect. After three semesters as a music major, like many college students, I changed course. 

I made the choice of change that time and I’m sure you can relate to choices you’ve made that change the dreams, change the road ahead. But then sometimes life throws curve balls. There’s an unexpected opportunity to seize, a surprise addition to your family, an experience that changes your dream. And so, based on those joyous events, we chart new courses, setting our sights ahead on a new dream. 

Then, there are the difficulties, the challenges, the tragedies, that change the course we’ve charted; the kinds of things that threaten the life we have imagined by throwing us off the path we were going boldly down. Those seem to happen more often, changing our view of the future; things that are beyond our control.

Consider your life. All of us have these moments in our paths. There are twists and turns. There are unexpected joys and sorrows. There are amazing gifts and dreadful losses. All of it charting a path we never expected, and often leading us to a future that we never imagined. 

We hear that we are to go boldly in the direction of our dreams and live the life we’ve imagined. But whether for good or ill, whether because of joys or sorrows, we know that no one can control life that way. And we often end up going rather timidly in a direction we never dreamt of, living a life we could have never imagined. Knowing this, when we look back to our past, sometimes it’s hard to see anything but the drama, difficulty, downturns, or disasters we have known. Curve balls, the unexpected, things beyond our control, that change our path against our will, happen to us all.

So when we again arrive at the Thanksgiving holiday, and we are asked to look backwards to our past to find reasons for gratitude, perhaps what we find there is challenging and difficult. When our best laid plans don’t pan out; when we’ve gone boldly in the direction of our dreams only to discover disappointment; when we’ve lived the life we’ve imagined only to find it difficult, when we get to another Thanksgiving and struggle to find reason for gratitude, what do we do? As a people of faith, what do we do?

When I was going to seminary, I would leave my home in Macon early enough to get to Emory before rush hour. That put me on campus, usually, at 6:45 in the morning. My first class was at 8, so I would go and workout. It didn’t take me long to discover the top floor of the Woodruff Physical Education Center, three floors up from ground level, with windows all around. 

Near some windows in a corner of that floor were rowing machines. I loved them. Less for the rowing. That was kind of grueling. But for the view. Through the widows, high up on the third floor, I looked east. Most of the year, as I rowed, an orange glow would begin to envelop the rooftops, the steeple of Glenn Memorial UMC, the cross of Emory’s chapel, the terracotta roof tops of the buildings on the quad, bathing Emory’s campus in a beautiful shroud of light. I would just stare, enraptured by the glory of God on full display as the sun rose. I’d forget about my aching arms, forget about my pace, I was so enraptured. I knew, felt I could see, that his steadfast love endures forever. I would keep rowing on this stationary rowing machine.

Until I ran into someone. In fact, I ran into people with frequency, no matter how much I tried not to. The rowing machines were stationary but not secured to the floor, so they tended to drift backwards as I rowed. Sometimes, I’d run into people. There were apologies and I’d drag my rowing machine back toward the window. I never quite figured out how to fix it. Because I was too transfixed by the glory of God on full display as sunlight enveloped Emory’s campus. 

My attention was focused on what I could see, even though I was ever so gradually drifting into what I could not see. 

That’s the thing about rowing and, specifically, row boats. In a row boat, to go forward, you have to sit looking backward. 

This is important for understanding our scripture this morning. In it, the Israelites look backward to move forward. They recount all the ways they’ve seen God provide for them, deliver them, do great things for them, in their past. After each memory, they say: his steadfast love endures forever. They are convinced it is so because they can look back at their past and see how God’s steadfast love has endured for them, over and over again, providing when they needed it the most.

At the time of the writing of this Psalm, the temple and Jerusalem are almost certainly destroyed. Perhaps Nehemiah has begun the building of the new city wall to help Jerusalem stay strong against future invasion. Perhaps the priest Ezra has reinitiated worship at this point. But they’re worshipping next to the ruins of the temple, a stark reminder of their sinfulness that led to the Babylonian invasion and destruction of their holy city. All around them is reason for despair over their future. And yet, in this Psalm they look back to their past to see how God has provided and then declare with boldness that God will continue to provide. 

They have no doubt of this. They are convinced that, because God’s steadfast love has endured in the past, it will provide for them in the future. 

They know God’s steadfast love endures forever because God created all things, in the past. When God created all things, he called them good, in the past. When they were enslaved in Egypt, God delivered them, in the past. When God brought them to the land of Canaan, God gave them the victory over famous and powerful kings like Og and Sihon, in the past. These are the things they recall as they move through this responsive Psalm, chronicling the great things God has done for them in their past. That is how they find faith to move forward while surrounded by the rubble of their temple and city, surrounded by reminders of their sinfulness and faithlessness. They find faith to move forward by looking at their past, seeing the great things God has done for them, knowing that if God did those things in the past out of God’s steadfast love, God will do those things in the future out of that same steadfast love.

They tell us in their artful, beautiful, responsive Psalm: his steadfast love endures forever because it has endured forever.

To find confidence for the future, they look to the past. And there, they find much reason for thanksgiving in seeing how God’s steadfast love has endured for them.

That is how they, as a people of faith, no matter the drama, difficulty, downturn, and disaster they know, find reason for thanksgiving.

And that is how we, as a people of faith, find reason for thanksgiving: we look to our past to see how God’s steadfast love has endured for us and to find hope for a future that will be marked by God’s steadfast love enduring for us.

This time of year, it’s tempting to do the opposite; to look into the future. Many of us are already thinking about Christmas. Perhaps we’ve already done some Christmas shopping. We’re thinking about the future: what we’ll get for our loved ones and all the gifts we need to purchase. 

Or, perhaps we’re thinking about the future because we’re thankful for what we expect the coming year to hold. I’ve spent many a Thanksgiving like that. Knowing that, by the time of the next Thanksgiving, I would graduate from college, or I would be a father, or something of that nature. 

Or, and this is much more common I think, life has been bad, difficult, or left us so melancholy, that we don’t want to look backward because, if we look at the past, we think there are few reasons to give thanks. And so we look ahead to the next year, to the future, expecting that the next year, things will be different; this coming year, things will be better. 

We rest our faith in the future. A faith that this Christmas, we’ll get everything everyone wants. A faith that the year ahead holds many promises and blessings. A faith that next year will be better, next year won’t bring so much drama, difficulty, downturns, and disaster. 

But scripture is clear, and our life’s experience should teach us the same thing that scripture does: faith rests in the past, not the future. God’s steadfast love endures forever. To know that for certain, we must look not ahead to the future, but to the past.

God’s steadfast love will endure forever because God’s steadfast love has endured all the challenges from our past. 

The ancient Israelites had it right: as we move into an unknown, uncertain, unclear, future, we should be staring at the past, staring backwards even as we move forward, seeing the good things God has done in our past. That’s where we rest faith and find reason for thanksgiving, year after year; on the goodness of God we have known in the past. When the Israelites looked at their past, through all the drama, difficulty, downturns, and disasters, one truth remained. When we look at our pasts, through all the drama, difficulty, downturns, and disasters, one truth remains: “[God’s] steadfast love endures forever.” 

Looking back to our pasts to find the faith we need to move forward can be hard. It’s a big change in our thinking. And we might have to stare hard at our past. Perhaps when we look at our past, we see mostly drama, difficulty, downturn, and disaster. 

But look closer. Somewhere in your past, as the psalm says, there are “great wonders.” Somewhere, you see where God “led [you] through the wilderness.” Somewhere, you see where God gave you “a heritage.” Somewhere, even amid the debris, you see how God “remembered [you] in [your] low estate.” Somewhere is reason to “give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love endures forever.” 

No matter the drama, difficulties, downturns, and disasters I have known personally, and there are stories aplenty to tell, I can testify to you today that I know without a doubt, God’s steadfast love endures forever. And so I know that God’s steadfast love will always endure for me.

Look closer at your past. There’s reason for thanksgiving there. It might take some looking, but it’s there. And the more we look, the more reason we find for thanksgiving. 

What great things has God done in your life? How have you personally known that God’s steadfast love endures forever?

As you prepare for Thanksgiving, begin to answer that question individually or as a family: what great things has God done in your past? If you were to write your own version of Psalm 136, what things would you include? Recall those powerful memories. Let them not only turn your hearts to thanksgiving, but let those memories also fuel your faith: a faith that says you can “go boldly in the direction of [an unknown] dream to live the life [only God has] imagined, confident that God will provide for you because God has provided in the past. 

Use the template provided on the insert in your bulletin to construct your own version of Psalm 136. Perhaps do it together as a family and pray this as your prayer before eating on Thursday; maybe do it individually as an act of devotion. However you do it, let it create for you a spirit of thanksgiving and an awareness that, in your family and with your loved ones, you have indeed known that:

God’s steadfast love endures forever. 

Looking to the past to have confidence for the future is faith. Believing that God’s steadfast love will endure, just as it has always endured, is faith. 

For faith means moving into an unknown future knowing that, one day when that future has become your past, you’ll look back and see how God’s steadfast love endured forever.

Oh give thanks to the LORD for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!


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