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Psalm 136 Sermon Notes

By January 16, 2022Sermon Notes

Over the past few years my grandmother has developed dementia and it has progressively worsened – A few years ago, when my grandparents were both living in their home, she called my dad in middle of day and told him that a man had fallen down at the house and needed help getting up off the ground – My dad was perplexed – He couldn’t figure out why anybody would be at their house at that time of day – So he asked, “Who is it?” – My grandma replied, “I don’t know. Hold on.” – And she pulled phone away from her ear and hollered into other room, “What’s your name?” – And then my dad heard my grandpa’s voice call out from the other room in frustration, “It’s me, Earl!”

My grandma couldn’t remember her own husband’s name or that she was even married to him – And her inability to remember past has increasingly stripped her of her ability to live in present know a way forward for future – She doesn’t just forget what she ate for lunch, she forgets who she is – And that inability to remember is devastating

In her book Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting, neuroscientist Lisa Genova acknowledges power and importance of remembering – Remembering is crucial to living life – Without the ability to remember, even the small daily tasks of life, like driving a car, become insurmountable – But forgetfulness doesn’t just have physical or mental consequences, it has spiritual consequences, too – If we cannot or do not look back and remember who God is and what He has done for His people through ages, our ability to rightly understand our present situation and identity begins to erode at its foundation – We are left swimming in turbulent seas of spiritual forgetfulness without ability or power to see way forward

But spiritual amnesia is not a new problem for God’s people – Forgetfulness is a challenge God’s people have been battling with for thousands of years – But we’re going to look at an ancient antidote this morning – This morning we are stepping away from 1 Thessalonians and we are going to look at Psalm 136 – Over time, Psalm 136 has come to be known as “The Great Psalm of Praise” – But I prefer to call it “The Great Psalm of Remembering” – Because, while it is a psalm of praise, it is act of remembering that fuels praise

Before we look at “The Great Psalm of Remembering,” let me remind you that the Psalms have been used in corporate worship for thousands of years, stretching back to Jewish worship in Old Testament period – So, as we read this psalm together this morning, know that we are worshipping God in solidarity with His people from thousands of years ago – We will join them in succession as we remember and praise God with these words

Psalm 136 begins in verses 1-3 with an Introduction and Call to Worship

Read v. 1-3

Psalm opens with three-fold summons to “Give thanks” – And “Give thanks” here is a command – It is an instruction – And you might think, “Well, that doesn’t seem very authentic…to give thanks because you’ve been commanded to give thanks” – But it is actually incredibly authentic because giving thanks to God is at very heart of what it means to be human – We come closer to a genuine experience and expression of humanity when we give thanks to God and worship Him than we do at any other time – It’s what we were made for – The psalmist, rather than compelling us to fake it, is reminding us to stop faking it and to be authentic

So, worship leader is rousing God’s people to give thanks to the LORD – To the God of gods – To the LORD of lords – And descriptions of God here are likely drawn from Deut. 10:17, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.” – These titles are intended to elevate Yahweh clearly and distinctly above any and every idol or false god that we might be drawn to worship

So, psalm opens with command to give thanks to one true God – And rest of psalm is going to give reasons why God’s people should thank Him – Two reason are given here in introduction – First, because “he is good” – Now, “good” is a very generic word, both in English and in Hebrew – We might say something is “good” because it is enjoyable or desirable or useful – We might say a person is “good” because he or she is happy or friendly or because they have high character or moral discernment

But psalmist has something much more specific in mind here when he refers to goodness of God, and what that is will become quite clear as we move our way through psalm – He is going to tell us how God is good, and he’s going to tell us over and over and over again, because we need to remember – And repetition starts here – Three times in introduction we are told to give thanks to the LORD “for his steadfast love endures forever”

Hebrew word translated “steadfast love” is ḥesed – And if there is one Old Testament concept I would encourage you to latch onto it is reality of God’s hesed toward His people – Hesed is a word that brings together ideas of loyalty, faithfulness, duty, mercy, goodness, and love – And when it is used to describe God’s action toward humans, it takes as it’s foundation a covenant promise[1]

So, if you are reading through Bible in a year, you are probably in Genesis right now – You’ve read about God’s covenant promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15, where God promises to make Abraham a great nation, to bless him, to bless those who bless him, to curse those who curse him, and to give his people a land

And what you need to see over next several months as you progress through OT, is that OT not a random collection of stories but a recounting of God’s hesed toward Abraham and His people to keep His covenant promise over and over and over again – God’s hesed is a thread that runs through OT – And the thread that ties OT with New – God’s hesed drives human history as He repeatedly displays His loyalty, faithfulness, duty, goodness, and love to do exactly as He has promised

And that is focus of this psalm: remembering God’s hesed And psalmist will begin by remembering God’s General Acts of Goodness in Creation

Read v. 4-9

When was last time you stopped on a walk and looked at a tree or a flower? – Not looked past the trees and flowers, but look at them – When was the last time you didn’t just look at a tree or a flower but said, “God, thank you for this beautiful flower? God, thank you for this wondrous oak?” – When was last time you walked outside after dark and took a moment to study stars and say, “God, you are astounding.”? – When was last time you took a bite into an apple and said, “Good job, God. Thank you.”?

If you are like me, you are probably in too much of a hurry to do that most of time – I walk to get where I’m going and I eat to put calories in my body so I can keep working – But if that’s all I ever do, I’m missing out on transcendent moments to remember God, to anchor myself in present, and allow God to establish my way forward

Genova describes memory as having two key ingredients: perception and attention – If we want to be good at remembering, we must use perception and attention – The problem for many of us, myself included, is that hurry and distraction are the death of our perception and attention – And we quickly forget about presence of God and goodness He shows us each moment of our lives

My four-year-old teaches me more about perception and attention than anyone else I know – He is full of wonder at world around him – He’s always watching, always noticing, always paying attention – One time we went on a 20-minute walk and we didn’t even make it to end of street because he wanted to stop and study every little leaf and acorn and worm and flower he saw along way – Often, if I’m honest, it drives me crazy – But sometimes, when God gives me grace to see things differently, those can become moments of stopping to remember God and thank Him

Shep brings my attention to something wonderful that I’ve trained myself to walk past, and I’ll just bring our perception of God’s goodness into that moment as well – “Isn’t that cool? Let’s thank God for that butterfly.” – When we bring attention and perception together, we create moments to remember God and worship Him and be thankful – That’s what psalmist is helping us do here, because he knows we so quickly forget

Now, in verse 10, psalmist will move from describing God’s General Goodness in Creation to God’s Specific Goodness in Redemption – He will recount goodness of God that is enjoyed exclusively by God’s chosen people – If you don’t mind, I’d like for you to help me read this – I’ll give you the easy part – You can read the refrain from each verse

Read v. 10-26

If you have some familiarity with OT, this procession through Hebrew history will sound familiar to you – If you are not familiar with OT you might be wondering, “What is all of this about?” – And that’s okay – Psalmist is leading congregation to recall succession of historical events in which God had proven His hesed to His chosen people, Israel – And you see perception and attention – Psalmist is drawing our attention to historical events of past, but he’s bringing perception of God’s presence, character, and activity into those events – He’s remembering…and the result is worship

And this exercise of remembering is practical and here is why: because remembering who God has been and what He has done helps us trust who God will be and what He will do in present and in future – Looking backward gives us courage and perspective to move forward

Most of the time when I go back to Scott City to visit my family, I go out on a run – And my run almost always takes me on a smooth, open, quite road past the cemetery – Last month, when I went home for Christmas, it was my first time running past the cemetery with my dad buried in it – And it was first time I stopped

And I went to spot where my dad was buried and, there next to him, my grandpa who died ten months earlier, and I was confronted with pain and emptiness of death – Dead men, dead grass, and a cold, biting wind – Everything was grey and dreary and dead – And then it wasn’t – Because God, in His grace, drew my perception and my attention to the warm, rising sun that made an unbearably cold morning bearable – To birds chirping in the distance – Out of corner of my eye, I saw a bright green field of winter wheat and the promise of future abundance – And I remembered God’s hesed toward me, toward His people, toward us

And that didn’t make pain go away – That didn’t make the reality of death any more palatable – It didn’t make dreariness disappear – But it did bring reality of God and promise of redemption into an otherwise hopeless situation and it opened up a way to keep moving forward, because God’s steadfast love endures forever

Remembering, giving thanks, and worship are not the fruit of an easy and happy life – They are root of an easy and happy life in Jesus – Remembering 400 years of slavery in Egypt, the hurried departure, the fear of being cornered at Red Sea, the loneliness and despair of wilderness, the terrible wars involved in taking God’s Promised Land would not have been easy, happy memories for Israel – They were moments of redemption wrought through pain and fear and uncertainty – Because, very often, God’s steadfast love shines brightest in darkest moments – Many of you are suffering in difficult situations – This is a psalm for you – A way to look backward so that you can move forward with courage

And as followers of Jesus, we acknowledge that the psalmist, who was writing around 3,000 years ago, stopped writing with verse 26 – But God’s steadfast love did not stop with verse 26 – Verse 26 might be the “hard stop” of Psalm 136, but it is only an an ellipsis on God’s steadfast love – dot, dot, dot

Now, 3,000 years later, we can look back and see so much more of God’s hesed toward His people – God has written into history what very well could be verse 27 and verse 28 and verse 29 and verse 30 – Because God’s hesed toward His people endures forever, right up to this very day

And through all of human history we see that most centrally in His coming to earth in human form in Jesus Christ, bearing penalty of our sin on cross, and defeating it in resurrection – By the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God established a New Covenant – Another moment of redemption wrought through pain and uncertainty -And in so doing He fulfilled His covenant with Abraham, that all nations of earth might be blessed through him

In New Covenant of Christ’s blood, people from every tribe, tongue, and nation have been and will be grafted into family of God through repentance and faith in Jesus – The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and New Covenant established by His blood have rightfully made Psalm 136 our history and our psalm – Jesus’s life/death/resurrection was a new and monumental verse, with same refrain – “his steadfast love endures forever”

And God has made that so abundantly clear through history of church – And now God is writing a new verse about his steadfast love in my life and in yours and in church of our generation – And, unless Christ returns, Christians hundreds of years from now will look back at church in our time, despite all its flaws and challenges, and with worship they will be able to say: “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”

But we’ve got to keep on remembering – We are incredibly fickle and fallible when it comes to remembering – We so easily forget to remember – But we must – Genova offers a couple of practical, evidence-based strategies that can help us remember:

First, cues – A cue is some internal or external prompt that reminds you to remember – It is a form of perception that snaps you to attention – You see/hear/smell/taste/feel something and it cues you to remember – Virtually anything sensory can be a cue – An alarm to wake you up in the morning – A cup of hot coffee – A sticky note on your mirror or dashboard – A reminder on your phone – A bedtime routine

You know, fasting is a spiritual discipline that people have used for thousands of years as a cue to remember God, but it has largely been forgotten in our culture – Christian fasting is not about losing weight – Christian fasting is about remembering to remember God – Hunger pangs serves as cue to remember God: to pray, to worship, to recite Scripture

It can be any number of things, but develop some cues that will snap you to attention and remembrance each day or multiple times each day – And, then, when those cues eventually lose their power to snap you to attention, change them

Second, rehearsal – Rehearsal is practice, plain and simple – What do you do if you want to learn a formula for your algebra class? – You practice it in your mind – What do you do if you want to learn how to say, “It’s nice to meet you” in Spanish? – You repeat it over and over – What do actors do to prepare for the grand opening? – They rehearse – Genova, “through the act of recalling [a memory] you are reactivating the neural pathways of that memory, reinforcing them, making the memory stronger…” – In other words, the more you recall something, the more powerful it becomes

Then, more than anything else, we need to be recalling and rehearsing the Good News of Jesus who bore on sin on cross and defeated it through resurrection so that we could have free gift of eternal life through faith – It amazes me how quickly I forget Gospel, unless I rehearse it – Take some time this week to rehearse Gospel – And thank God

Third, community – Psalm 136 was designed to be sung in gathered presence of God’s people – Remembering steadfast love of God can and should be a collective activity, not just a private one – The danger of forgetting something is that you don’t know you’ve forgotten it – So, by its nature, forgetfulness is not something we can remedy ourselves

We need a reminder – And the greatest reminder God has given us, apart from His Word and His Spirit, is His church – I need you to remind me – And you need me to remind you – And we need to do it for each other often – Because looking backward gives us courage to move forward – Who are the people who can help you remember? – And how can you make remembering an intentional part of being together?



[1] Longman, T., III. How to Read the Psalms (p. 58).

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