Thanksgiving: His Steadfast Love Endures Forever

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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. 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. Dana’s parents arrived soon and began to help. 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 of the dorm fridge, 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. You’ll say that each time you see it on the screen. And let’s stand for it so that we can get into it. Don’t mumble; if you really believe God’s steadfast love endures forever, don’t be afraid to say it, even with gusto! Let the scripture recall for you how God has provided, done great things, for his steadfast love endures forever.

Psalm 136

His steadfast love endures forever.

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 whatever the assignment is. 

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 or concert band to create beautiful, amazing, music. 

I could see my preferred vision of the future and was moving boldly in that direction, having spent the first three semesters of college as a music education major. 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, I wanted to throw my trombone down and never play it again. I was tired of having to be so technical with my playing. I could have been a music theory major, but I was done with the performance aspects. And so I changed course. 

I made the choice that time and I’m sure you can relate to choices you’ve made that change the dreams, change the road ahead. And 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 of going boldly in the direction of our dreams. Those seem to happen more often, changing our view of the future.

Or sometimes even destroying our view of the future. The path forward that we’ve been following, holding that preferred vision of the future in our minds, that dream, evaporates. There is no path any longer. We’re stuck, looking hard for a new path, feeling disoriented all the while.

Consider your life. All of us have these items in our paths. Perhaps some of us have realized a dream we’ve had since a child, but even if that describes you, the path from your childhood to realizing your dream wasn’t straight. 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. 

And that can be terribly disorienting.

We can go boldly in the direction of our dreams to live the life we’ve imagined. But if we are brave enough to be authentic this morning, we know following that advice often leads to those disorienting moments of life where our dreams and direction are suddenly thrown off course.

Life throws curveballs with tragedy and surprise. Whether for good or bad, these sudden changes that throw us off our paths can be terribly disorienting. 

Life is disorienting. 

His steadfast love endures forever.

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. Below was the outdoor running track I ran when the weather permitted. Past that was a full view of the seminary building. Behind it was the giant cross from Emory’s chapel standing upright, looking over campus. Beyond that, I could see the rooftops of buildings on the quad and the steeple of Glenn Memorial UMC, the Methodist Church on campus. 

And most of the year, as I rowed, an orange glow would begin to envelop the rooftops, the steeple, the cross, bathing Emory’s campus in a beautiful shroud of light. I would just stare, enraptured by the glory of God on full display in the sun rise. 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 hit someone. In fact, I hit people with frequency, no matter how much I tried not to. The rowing machines were stationary but not secured to the floor. Even though they were designed to be stationary, they still tended to drift backwards as I rowed. Eventually, as my legs and arms thrust me backward, I’d hit someone. There were apologies and I’d drag my rowing machine back toward the window. 

And row and row, again enraptured, until I either wore out or hit someone again. This hitting someone was a problem! And I never quite figured out how to fix it. Because I was too transfixed by the glory of God on fully 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. Picture yourself on a row boat in a lake. As you row and move forward, your eyes are looking not ahead toward where you’re going, but behind you, looking toward where you’ve come from. 

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 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 foreign 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, 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, because God’s steadfast love has endured, it will endure forever. 

In other words, the Israelites were too busy looking backward to do what we do: “go[ing] boldly [forward] in the direction of [our] dreams.” In looking to their past, they found faith for the future. They moved forward in time by looking backwards; a bold lesson for all of us this morning.

We think of time as linear: a straight line moving forward. We walk that line, all of us, moving forward, with our eyes focused on what’s ahead, even though we can’t see it. That’s how we think of time; it’s how we’re enculturated. It’s what the Thoreau quote calls us to do as he says to go boldly in the direction of our dreams to live the life we’ve imagined. It’s all about imagining our preferred future.

And it’s not at all how the Israelites thought of time. They thought of time like rowing a row boat. Yes, you’re moving forward into the future, but as you move forward, you’re looking backwards. 

Just like in the scripture this morning. They give thanks to the Lord because they know that God’s steadfast love endures forever. How do they know that? Not by projecting it into the future. Not by trying to gaze into the future. Not by looking forward. 

No, they look behind them, all while rowing their way forward into an unknown 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.

This time of year, it’s tempting 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, for those we’re obligated to buy gifts for, and what we’ll get for ourselves. 

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 so bad, so 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, or 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. 

In other words, God will because God has. 

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; 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 of their past, 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.” 

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, invite those gathered with you to answer this question: what great things has God done in your life? 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. 

Go around your thanksgiving table, or go around the kitchen as the meal is being prepared and family members are socializing, and get a list of the great things God has done in the lives of your family and individual family members. Once you’ve got a list, put those items in the blanks on the worksheet provided for you and available for download off our Facebook page and website. By doing so, you’ll create your own version of Psalm 136 that can be used as the Thanksgiving Day prayer around the table before you eat with your loved ones. Let it create for you a spirit of thanksgiving and an awareness that, in your family and with your loved ones, y’all have indeed known that:

God’s steadfast love endures forever. 

Looking to the past to have confidence for the future is faith. Knowing that God will because God has is the basis of our 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.

Look to your past for the great things God has done. Record them and pray them back to God around your Thanksgiving table. Then you and your family together will be able to say with the words of Psalm 136:

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

Amen.

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