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A WORD FOR TODAY, July 21, 2021
Scriptures for July 25, 2021, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 136:1-9; Ephesians 3:14-21; Mark 6:45-56
“Now to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to him be the glory in the assembly and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:20-21, WEB
Psalm 136 is called “The Great Hallel”. Hallel is related to the word hallelujah, so this is a psalm of thanksgiving and eternal (forever) praise. It is a psalm that tells the redemptive history of Israel. Martin Luther says that we should sing and preach of God and His wonderful works. He is gracious and merciful. This psalm is nothing but grace, not human works or doctrines, they are not deserving of this worship.
This psalm reminds us (repeatedly!) of God’s covenant loyalty. God is committed to honoring His covenant with His people. All we have and all we do is centered on the endless love of God. God was and is forever reliable, kind, trustworthy, faithful and loving to His people. The psalm moves from creation in our verses in this week’s lectionary to the redemption of God’s people. The psalm recounts the creation and acts in history through which God demonstrated His enduring love and covenant loyalty. There is an order to world God created. It is not random.
There is a word in this passage that is very hard to translate into English, so there is a long list of similar though different words that are used. The Hebrew word is “chesed” or “hesed” which is often translated “steadfast love” or “lovingkindness” or “mercy”. The word can also mean: love, kindness, unfailing love, great love, loving, kindnesses, unfailing kindness, acts of devotion, devotion, favor, approval, devout, faithful, faithfully, glory, good favor, grace, kind, kindly, loyal, merciful, well. These all give us a sense of the word, but it leaves out something important. It is a word that would probably be best kept in its Hebrew form, like we do with the word “Amen.” It is actually refers to a loving loyalty based on a covenantal relationship. God’s hesed comes to us because He has established a bond between Himself and His people. When we share that hesed with others, we do so because we are in a relationship with them, but even more so because we are in a relationship with Him.
God’s hesed endures forever. This is a message we need to know. It needs to be written on our hearts. We hear it over and over again as we read today’s psalm. The passage that talks about God’s goodness, His good works, the goodness of the world He has created. He did all this because His hesed endures forever. He is God of gods and Lord of lords because His hesed endures forever. He gives us rest when we need it because His hesed endures forever.
Another word that needs understanding is the one translated “endures.” There is no word in the Hebrew for this; the word is added so that we will understand that this is about the ongoingness of God’s lovingkindness. The Hebrew would be better translated “never fails.” A bible scholar has retranslated the passage, “Because forever is His loyalty.” God will do what He has said He will do because He has established us as His people in a covenantal relationship. This is about God’s faithfulness to His promises. He is the God of gods, the Lord of lords. He has done good things for His people. He created the heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon. He kept His promise to Abraham by saving His people from Egypt. He delivered them into the Promised Land, just as He promised. He remembers His people, saves us from our adversaries, and provides for us. He is good and He deserves our thanks and praise. This is a matter of trust; we can trust God because forever is His loyalty. God’s hesed endures forever.
Hesed is a word that is filled with promise. God promised to be faithful to the covenants He made with His people forever, even while it is impossible for us to be faithful to Him.
We see human unfaithfulness in today’s Gospel lesson. This story continues what we heard last week. The disciples were excited but exhausted by the ministry they did in throughout the countryside healing the sick and casting out the demons. They returned to Jesus with stories to tell about all the wonderful things they did. Jesus tried to find a place to rest, but the crowds followed them. They weren’t just attracted to Jesus anymore; now they knew the disciples had power, too. Jesus met those crowds with compassion and teaching, and then fed more than five thousand with just five loaves of bread and two fish.
Mark tells us, “Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat, and go ahead to the other side...” The already exhausted disciples must have been even more tired after passing out that food. Though the rest did not come first, Jesus ensured they would have that rest soon. Mark often uses the word “immediately.” The ministry of Jesus was urgent and you hear that in the way Mark tells the story. While the rest might have seemed urgent after the disciples returned from their mission, the needs of the sheep without shepherds were even more urgent. But God does not forget what we need. His hesed endures forever.
But the disciples continue to show signs of doubt and mistrust. One of the most surprising lines of scripture is found in today’s Gospel passage. Mark tells us “their hearts were hardened.” How could they have lived and worked and walked with Jesus for so long, about two years at this point, and not believe Jesus could do miraculous things? The passage ties their hard hearts with their misunderstanding about the feeding of the five thousand. What did they believe happened on that hillside that day? Did they, like so many in today’s world, simply downplay the miracle because they could not explain it?
There are some, even in the Church, who have suggested that Jesus did not really feed more than five thousand people with just five loaves and two fish. They insist that others had food available on that hillside that day, like a modern pot luck meal that miraculously feeds everyone. In this way all were fed; they claim there is no reason to make this story supernatural in character. Perhaps the disciples had a similar mindset. It doesn’t explain how they ended up with twelve full baskets of leftovers, though.
This miracle is so outside our natural experience that it isn’t surprising that we moderns want to diminish the miraculous aspects of the Jesus story because we have a more thorough understanding of science and the world. Intellectually we know that five loaves and two fish cannot feed more than five thousand people. We also know that a church potluck dinner can be miraculous in the way a crowd is left stuffed and satisfied because everyone contributes to the meal, so why not believe this could be the explanation?
The trouble with this, as Mark tells us in today’s passage, is that their misunderstanding (whatever it was) of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the five thousand left them unable to believe that Jesus could do other miraculous things. They were frightened by Him when He came to them on the water. They were amazed when the winds died down after He got into the boat. They had a hard time believing the things they were experiencing with Jesus; their hearts were hardened.
We see God’s hesed in the relationship Jesus had with His disciples. They had hard hearts, but that didn’t stop Jesus from showing them who He was. He didn’t abandon them because of their unfaithfulness. He continued to pull them in His wake, knowing that they would one day have the Holy Spirit to make all things clear. He continued to let them witness His power as they ministered to the people.
God does not cast us away. Jesus continued to walk with the disciples at His side, loving them even though they did not really know Him. That hesed is not conditional. There is nothing we can do to earn it or expect it from God. It is given freely because God made a covenant with us. He loves us and we are bound to Him because of that covenant, not because we have done anything to deserve it. He offers Himself for us to know, to love, to trust and we are called as His people to respond to His hesed with joy and praise.
We need the encouragement of this text. We are no different than human beings have been since the beginning of time. We need to hear repeatedly that God loves us. He has loved us from the Garden of Eden until the end of the world. Unfortunately, it did not take very long for us to mess things up in this beautiful world that God created. Adam and Eve failed to trust in the Word of the Lord and they were cast out of the garden. They lived long lives, tilling the soil and working hard. They were obedient to God’s command to be fruitful and multiply, but the sons they bore lived at odds with one another, until Cain murdered Abel. He became a restless wanderer, sent away from the presence of God for the evil he did to his brother.
Adam and Eve had more children, but as time passed the generations of men became more and more wicked in the sight of God. Things became so nasty that God regretted creating mankind and He decided to destroy the world. However, there was one who found favor in the eyes of God. Noah was a righteous man, a man who lived in a right relationship with God the Creator. God told Noah to build a large boat, an ark, and to fill the ark with every kind of animal. God was planning on sending a great flood to cover the entire earth, to destroy that which had become so evil and destructive. The grace in this story is found in the fact that God spared Noah, his family and the animals so that they could repopulate the earth when the floodwaters dried.
Noah obeyed God’s command, despite the absurdity of the request. After all, how can one man possibly build an ark large enough to hold so many for so long? It did not help matters that the wicked men ridiculed Noah for such a silly project. God gave Noah the strength to persevere and when the ark was finished, God helped Noah to fill it with the good things of His creation. When the time was right, God closed the doors of the ark so that Noah and his family would stay dry and safe.
Imagine what it would have been like at that time, for both the eight people on the ark as well as those who were drowning outside. After all, those screaming men and women were neighbors, friends and even family. Even though they were wicked, it must have been quite difficult to let them die without trying to help in some way. But God knew that the only way to save mankind was to begin anew. It rained for forty days and forty nights until even the highest mountains were covered with water. The waters stayed for one hundred and fifty days.
God remembered Noah and his family. He stopped the rain and blew across the waters. Noah sent a raven and a dove to see if the waters had receded. The raven flew back and forth until the water dried, but the dove returned. A second time Noah sent the dove it returned with an olive leaf. The third time the dove did not return. The ark came to rest on dry ground and God ordered Noah and his family to leave the ark to reestablish the earth. The animals were freed and Noah built an altar of thanksgiving to God for His mercy. Then God promised to never destroy the earth by water again. Then God established a new covenant with His people.
We need to hear repeatedly that God loves us. He has loved us from the Garden of Eden until the end of the world. Unfortunately, it did not take very long for us to mess things up. The entire Bible is filled with the stories of how God’s people were unfaithful to Him. And though God’s people repeatedly returned to their wicked ways, generation after generation, God remained faithful to His covenant promises. We deserve nothing but His wrath, yet as we wait patiently for the final fulfillment of all God’s promises at the end of days we know that God is loyal to us now and forever.
In today’s Epistle lesson, Paul is responding to the incredible acts of God in his life, in the lives of God’s people and in the Church. God has provided salvation to individuals, reconciliation between people and unification of those who believe by the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul tells the reader that because of all the great things God has done, he bows his knees to the Father “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” God is the Father of all fathers. In this case, father doesn’t necessarily stand for the male head of a household; it stands for those who are in power and authority over others. A king or a president is like the father of a nation. A CEO is like the father of a company. A priest is like the father of a congregation. The person who is in charge is not the ultimate authority, however. He (or she as might be the case) receives power and authority from the Father of all fathers.
Verses 1-3 in Psalm 136 have different Hebrew words for God. Adonai is the way they pronounced the tetragrammaton (YHWH or JHVH) and is rendered LORD, Yahweh or Jehovah. Elohei is the singular form for God and elohim is plural, so God is “God of gods”. Adonei (note the difference in spelling) means Lord with the plural adonim, so God is “Lord of lords.” This shows us first that God is the one true God almighty and that He rules over the heavens and the earth (over gods and lords.) God is greater than anyone or anything in heaven and on earth. We are reminded that God is the center and every good thing is rooted or founded on Him. What we have comes from God. What the leaders have, including their power and authority, comes from God.
And since that power comes from God, leaders are called to lead as God leads. That which God has done is what they (we) are called to do. We can’t save anyone, at least not in the sense God has saved us, however we can meet the needs that have left people oppressed and burdened. It is not enough to simply meet the physical needs of those who suffer; we are sent into the world to work toward reconciliation between people and between God and His people. Remember, Jesus did not just feed the five thousand with bread and fish; He fed them with the Word of God.
Many leaders will keep their resources and use them in a way that continues to oppress and burden the people to whom they’ve been sent. They don’t want to lose their power so they hold on to at least a portion of their resources so that they will continue to have authority. This is not God’s way. He works through mercy, giving abundantly more than we can even imagine. So, as people founded in love, we have at our fingertips more than we imagine. God’s resources are wider and longer and higher and deeper than we can even know. He is our Father and everything He has is given for us to use to His glory. For in sharing God’s grace with others, people are saved, reconciled and unified and God is glorified.
In today’s Gospel lesson the people recognize Jesus, and they ran throughout the region to call those who were sick into His presence. People were drawn to Him wherever He went, laying their sick in His path so that they would be healed. Many even believed that all they needed was to touch the edge of His cloak (as we saw in the old woman a few weeks ago) and they begged Him to let them do so. “...as many as touched him were made well.” They seem to believe better than Jesus’ own disciples.
The passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a prayer for God’s people, that they who bear His name will experience the love of God fully and completely as He transforms our lives and makes us whole. Paul is praying for Christ to continue the work begun in and through the church in Ephesus. In this passage, the word for love is the Greek word “agape.” The love of God found in and through Jesus Christ is a deeper, more permanent love. Though agape is not exactly the same as hesed, it is a word that calls us to more than trust. It calls us to a self-sacrificing love of God and neighbor. It calls us to an active life of trusting our Father Yahweh, the God of gods and Lord of lords. In this passage, Paul is reminding every Christian that God’s grace is bigger than anything we can even imagine, a love so permanent that we should praise God forever.
We are comforted by the story of the disciples because we see that God’s loyal love is forever even when we our hearts are hardened by our inability to believe. We see the crowds flocking to Jesus, seeking His grace, but we are reminded that they did not all continue to walk with Him to the cross. The disciples on that boat saw Jesus do the impossible, and they struggled with knowing Jesus as He. In the end, though, those disciples trusted Him all the way to and beyond the cross. The disciples, that rag-tag bunch of misunderstanding misfits, may have had hard hearts in this story, but they stayed the course and followed Jesus anyway. They trusted Him long enough to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit so that they might know Jesus and experience His hesed in a very real way. May we stay on that same course experiencing His grace daily and trusting that He will always be lovingly loyal, providing us with all we need daily to love Him and one another. He is able to do more than we can ever imagine, and despite our hard hearts, let us remember always to give Him the glory by sharing His story over and over again for every generation from now until the end of time. Then, we will all join together with the hosts of heaven to glorify Him forever and ever. Amen.
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