His Hesed Endures Forever

The Crucifixion by Georges Rouault (c. 1920s)

Here is the sermon I preached yesterday at Eternity Church in Richmond, VA:

“His Hesed Endures Forever,” March 27, 2022, by Jesse Joyner

Scriptures: Psalm 136, Micah 6:8, and 1 John 4:7-12

The Ironman

I have been a fan of the game of baseball my entire life. My mother got me into it. She herself grew up in Detroit and was a Detroit Tigers fan as a little girl. She was so dedicated that she would secretly listen to games on a handheld radio under her pillow at night, adjusting the volume to the sweet spot where it was loud enough that she could hear but soft enough that her parents thought she was getting her rest for school the next day. For her, it was worth breaking a few of life’s rules in order to enjoy a good baseball game. When I grew up, we lived here in Central Virginia, and the closest Major League Baseball team at the time was the Baltimore Orioles. Due to their proximate nature, by default they became “my team.” I rooted for them, followed their progress in the newspapers, and on special occasions, our family would make the three hour trip to Baltimore to see them play in person.

I can still remember the first game I ever attended. It was the summer of 1988 and to my memory it was the largest gathering/stadium I had ever seen in my seven years of life at that point. We had tickets in the nosebleed section because my father was on a pastor’s salary. But that didn’t take away my joy in the moment because it was enough to just be there. I vividly recall the moment we found our seats and I peered down on the tiny-looking ball players on the field. Standing in the shortstop position was a familiar figure I had only seen on my precious collectible baseball cards – my favorite player: Cal Ripken, Jr. Now, you may or may not have heard that name before, but in 1980s baseball, Cal Ripken, Jr. was kind of like today’s Lebron James or Tom Brady or Serena Williams. He was a superstar athlete who played hard, played exceptionally well, and played consistently.

In fact, Ripken is best known for that last trait – consistency. His nickname was and still is “The Ironman.” He holds the matchless distinction as the player who played the longest career without ever missing a game. He played 2,632 consecutive major league baseball games – that is a span of sixteen years of playing a sport at the highest level and never missing a game – a game where players are frequently benched for underperforming, getting injured, taking performance enhancing drugs, or otherwise taking time off from their team’s schedule. And during that time, he didn’t “just show up.” He showed up every day and played with skill, proficiency, respect for others, and respect for the game. In sum, he was both good and dependable.

See where I’m going with this? God is both Good and Dependable, this time with a capital “G” and a capital “D.” God’s love is consistent, steadfast, enduring, merciful, and compassionate. This morning I don’t want to praise Cal Ripken. His story of endurance represents merely a faint shadow of the reality that is the enduring and pursuing love of God towards us. I want to talk more about this love and what it means. I want us to learn together about this great love God has for us and how he calls us to extend that same love to those around us.

Psalm 136

If Psalm 136 sounds especially familiar to you here at Eternity Church, it is because Pastor David preached on “steadfast love” just six weeks ago. “Steadfast love” is the repeated refrain of Psalm 136. I asked Pastor David if I could carry on the theme of steadfast love in this sermon as a kind of “Steadfast Love, Part 2” and he said something along the lines of, “Of course, that’s the whole point of steadfast love is that you can’t get enough of it.” I agree. The steadfast love of the Lord goes on and on. We could do a sermon on God’s love every week for the rest of our lives and never reach the end of it. 

Psalm 136 is an antiphonal song – that is, it is meant to be sung back and forth between two parties. In this Psalm, one party declares a characteristic or work of the Lord. Then the other party sings back “his love endures forever.” This pattern is repeated 26 times. You may be familiar with the modern take on this Psalm from worship leader Chris Tomlin (sing a short portion of the song: “Give thanks to the Lord, our God and King….His love endures forever…”).

Repetition is found throughout Scripture, and for good reason. We as forgetful humans need all the reminders we can get about the nature of God – especially his love. Think about your own endearing human relationships – those with whom you are the closest. Have you ever said to them, “you don’t have to tell me that you love me or that you’re there for me anymore, you’ve already told me that enough times.” Of course not! We need to hear “I love you” on an endless loop. We never really reach the end of that road in terms of our need for love. Why? Because we are made in God’s image, who is perfect and complete love. And the only one who can fully satisfy our deepest longing for being loved is God himself.

Hesed

Psalm 136 is thus one of God’s gifts of love to us – itself a ceaseless reminder of his love for us. In fact, the key term in the repeated phrase, “his steadfast love endures forever” is arguably, “steadfast love.” The Hebrew term here is hesed, which is loaded with meaning that stretches beyond the sometimes ambiguous English term “love.” We say in English, “I love pizza,” or “I love the VCU Rams.” But that is not hesed.

Hesed is enduring love embedded in faithfulness. One of my college professors translated it as “covenant love.” In their best attempts, English translators over the years have named hesed as “lovingkindness” or “steadfast love.” I think those older sounding phrases actually do capture the meaning of hesed better than the simple term, “love.” Again, hesed is about promise, loyalty, and commitment (See the entry for “hsd” by R. Laird Harris in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 1, edited by Harris, Archer, and Waltke [Chicago, IL: Moody, 1980], pp. 305-307). But it is also a love full of desire, enjoyment, and gladness. That is the love that God has for us. His love is the perfect co-mingling of promise and passion – a blend in which we as humans so miserably fail. Theologian James L. Mays says about Psalm 136: “The coordination of the items in the recitation with the refrain make it clear that hesed is action; the wonders are a performance of hesed.” He goes on, “The making of the universe and the salvation of the people of God are together a history of hesed. The Lord’s hesed is everlasting and fills all time” (James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), p. 420).

Gematria

I want to point out another interesting detail about Psalm 136 that comes from Jewish literary traditions – something called gematria. Gematria is a type of numerology. It is a way in which a Hebrew word communicates meaning through the use of its letters as corresponding to certain numbers. While finding codes and meanings in letters and numbers in the Bible has the potential for abuse and interpretation beyond the author’s intent, gematria is definitely a thing in the Bible and we can learn from it when applied appropriately (Matt 1:17; Rev 13:17-18; see Ronald Youngblood, “Divine Names in the Book of Psalms: Literary Structures and Number Patterns,” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 19.1 [1989], p. 177). For example, you may already know the significance of the number seven in Jewish tradition – the number of completeness and fullness (See Elaine Goodfriend, “Seven, the Biblical Number” [https://www.thetorah.com/article/seven-the-biblical-number]). And seven is the culminating day of the week after God made the universe. Even Jesus uses numerology when he encourages Peter to forgive not just seven times, but seventy times seven times (Matt 18:22). He is not telling Peter to literally utter “I forgive you,” to his offender exactly 490 times (or 77 depending on the translation you’re using). Jesus is rather telling Peter to forgive with an enduring and longsuffering love – the same deep and wide forgiveness extended to us by God (R.T. France, Matthew: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995], p. 277). If I may, it is a hesed forgiveness.

So back to gematria. Again, gematria is taking a Hebrew word and assigning a number to each of the letters. Those numbers then add up to a sum total number that communicates something to the reader. Matthew used gematria in his genealogy of Jesus when he went to great lengths for his primarily Jewish audience to point out that “there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile of Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to Christ” (Matt 1:17). The number 14 is the sum total of the numbers that correspond to the letters found in the Hebrew name for David (France, p. 75). Matthew wanted his readers to know in neon lights that this baby Messiah came from the house of David, which was previously promised in the Jewish scriptures (2 Sam 7:12-16; Is 11:1; Jer 23:5-6). In fact, in 2 Samuel 7, the Lord speaks to David through the prophet Nathan concerning David’s offspring: “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam 7:13). The Lord continues, “my love [hesed] will never be taken away from him” (2 Sam 7:15).

Have I lost you yet? Here’s where I’m going with all this: There is gematria in Psalm 136. Remember how many times “his love endures forever” is repeated? Yes, 26 times. Guess what Hebrew name’s letters add up to 26? Yahweh – the name of the LORD. Thus, we have in Psalm 136 Yahweh’s very personal and repetitive reminder of his enduring, steadfast, merciful, and passionate love for us.

Hesed Towards Others

The hesed love of God is not just something that God extends to us. He summons us to pass that hesed on to others. In one of the great summaries of Scripture, Micah 6:8, the prophet Micah tells us that the Lord is not looking for obligatory offerings from His people, but rather three things: for us to (1) act justly, (2) love kindness, and (3) walk humbly with our God. When Micah says that second item, “love kindness,” he is using hesed for “kindness,” which means we are called to love hesed. I take this to mean that hesed is not only a character trait of God, but it is also a calling upon all of us – to love God’s enduring love so much that we share his hesed love with the world around us. How do we do that? We find the answer in our New Testament reading, 1 John 4. According to John, we are conduits of God’s love to the world around us. We love only because he first loved us. Love begins with God, flows to us, through us, and into others around us. Likewise, we receive the love of God from others around us who are the conduits of His love. I’ll read 1 John 4:10 again to let it sink in: “This is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

Not A Single Bone Shall Be Broken

When I speak at children’s events, I tell the story of Jesus and his ministry on earth. I point out that Jesus was the only human in history who lived a perfect life – because he was both God and human at the same time. I then explain to them the story of how Jesus was betrayed, arrested, put on trial, and subsequently put on a cross. I tell them that the cross was a terrible way to die – it was the punishment back then that was reserved for the really bad guys. Then I ask them, “but was Jesus a bad guy?” They say, “No.” That’s when I say, “So, Jesus did not die on the cross because he deserved to. He died on the cross because he loves you.” That’s 1 John 4:10: God’s love is that he “sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” What is propitiation? Some versions use the terms “atonement” or “sacrifice.” Propitiation is the act of satisfying the wrath of God, in this context, against the sin of the world. We also know that Jesus accepted this call, albeit with reluctance in his humanity. He told his father in prayer, “If you are willing, take this cup from me” (Luke 22:42a). But we know Jesus did not maintain this reluctance. For the very next thing he said was, “yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42b). We further know that Jesus died out of enduring and hesed love for us because of a small detail John leaves us in the crucifixion account. You see, shortly after Jesus and the two criminals beside him were placed on the crosses, the Jews petitioned Pilate to speed up the process so that no bodies would be left on a cross during the Sabbath, which was fast approaching. Pilate sent guards to do just that. What did they do to speed up the process? Break the legs of the crucified. That would accelerate the death of the punished because as long as their legs worked, they could still push themselves up a little to gasp for every last breath of air in an effort to stay alive. John says,

So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs (John 19:32-33).

John himself interprets this as a fulfillment of Scripture, from which the Israelites were given instructions not to break the bones of their passover lambs (Ex 12:46; Num 9:12; see John 19:36). I also see something very telling in this physical detail. And I could be wrong about this, but I have a guess based on the evidence we do have in Scripture. My guess is that Jesus physically accepted the consequences of the cross without trying to fight back against it. Here’s what I mean: The two criminals were still alive when the guards approached them to break their legs. Jesus was not. What is the difference between the criminals and Jesus? The criminals were probably trying to extend their life and breath as long as humanly possible, as if to try to reverse their punishments if even for a few more moments. You see, once a crucified person’s legs are broken, their body weight shifts from being held by the legs to being held by the “shoulders and chest, and the prisoner would suffocate in a few minutes” (Michael Card, The Parable of Joy [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995], p. 228). Jesus, on the other hand, gave himself up for us before the guards even got to him for this final blow. He did not fight against his Father’s calling. He lovingly poured out his hesed for us on that cross. Again, not because of anything he did, but rather because his love for us is that great. That is one reason why I think when they came to Jesus, they did not have to break his legs. 

The Jumbotron

I want to take you back to Baltimore for a moment. Years after my first visit to an Orioles game, my mother took me back for a mother-son date. For several years in my preteen and early teen years, my Mom had a tradition of treating me to a trip to an Orioles game for my birthday. We would drive up to the game together, go out for dinner overlooking Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and then walk over to the Orioles game. And just like my first trip, even these birthday trips were in the nosebleed seats. I never complained about that because for me it was a birthday gift enough just to attend an Orioles game with my mother. The trip experience for my 13th birthday was a memorable one and I’ll tell you why. At the start of the game, we found our seats in the far left field section – in the upper deck. We were so far from the game that you needed binoculars to see the batters and you could forget about seeing all the player stats and replays on the jumbotron in center field. Only the expensive seats had a straight on view of the jumbotron. At around the third or fourth inning (there are nine total), my mother started acting restless and suggested that we get up and find some better seats in another section. This was a bit out of character for Mom. She was, after all, the woman who raised me to be an honest person who follows rules and stays in their assigned seat. I was becoming a teenager, and thus I was old enough to know that you can’t just get up and take seats in another section at a Major League Baseball game. That was essentially stealing a more expensive seat from the Orioles franchise. I was a fan, and I wasn’t about to take from my team’s earnings. I also knew they had ushers in each section who would check your tickets, especially so in the nicer sections. I told my mother I was fine sitting in our seats and that I was having a great time. But she persisted. Another inning or two went by – she kept saying, “let’s get up and move over there,” and I kept saying, “Mom, I’m really good, I can see the game from here.” But she endured. By the sixth inning, she said, “Get up, Jesse, we’re going to a better section.” She grabbed her things and headed for the stairs. So as not to be alone on my birthday, I followed my mother in all of her disobedient behavior. She led us to a nicer section indeed. A mid-level tier with a superb perch over third base – and a straight on view of the flashy jumbotron. She scurried past the ushers with me in tow, acting like she owned the place so as not to make it appear that we, in fact, were not mid-level tier paying customers. She found two empty seats and plopped us down just in time for the middle of the sixth inning. I felt rushed and confused, but at least we were sitting down with some better seats. Then my mother said, “Hey, look at the big screen.” I paid attention to the jumbotron. Suddenly, the in-park speakers blared out, you guessed it, birthday music. And there it was, in large letters, for thirty thousand Orioles fans to see (and maybe even Cal Ripken himself), “Happy 13th birthday, Jesse Joyner, love Mom.”

I sat there in shock and gratefulness. My name was in lights at Baltimore’s Camden Yards. I felt so loved and thought of. And in an instant, all of my mother’s strange behavior and persistent insistence that we move made perfect sense. When she originally bought tickets for this special occasion, she did not know that our seats would not have a view of the jumbotron. She needed to change that for the occasion to be special. I can’t help but get emotional recalling that moment because it was such a simple gift, yet it was given with the endless love of a mother. You could say it was the hesed love of a mother. She wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. She broke a few of life’s rules out of great love for her son. On top of all that, she spent extravagantly considering our low family income at the time. Whatever that message cost her, it was certainly more than we were used to getting as kids growing up.

God is that kind of father to us. He chases us. He endures for us. He is constantly and lovingly calling us to a better place – even when we are comfortable and content with where we are. He shows us that there is something better on the other side of the stadium. And we won’t know what that is until we get up and follow him and sit with him. He might even shatter your understanding of norms and man-made rules along the way. That is the hesed love of God. May we grow in our understanding of it, receive it, and share His hesed with those around us.

A New Prayer About God’s Hesed in John

In closing, I want us to respond to this message of God’s unfathomable love for us by doing our own version of call and response with the phrase, “his hesed endures forever.” This is the fourth Sunday of Lent, so I am going to read out twenty-six expressions of the love of Jesus found in his years of public ministry leading up to the cross. I gathered these moments, more or less chronologically, from the book of John, which is the Gospel that most explicitly describes the love of God. After each one, we as a congregation will collectively recite, “his hesed endures forever.” I believe that the life and story of Jesus is the embodiment, or more accurately, the incarnation of Yahweh’s hesed love for us. Are we ready? This might take a few moments, so settle in and allow these narrative testimonies from the life of Jesus shape you and form you as you recite this liturgy:

To our Lord who called the disciples to follow with your compelling glance of love, and who also calls us with your patient face of grace and kindness…

His hesed endures forever

To our Lord who enthusiastically parties with us and celebrates covenant love by making an average wedding an awesome wedding…

His hesed endures forever

To Christ our Lord, who is jealous for the sanctity of his Father’s house, who tears apart consumerism to make space for prayer and worship in our lives…

His hesed endures forever

Give thanks to Jesus, the only begotten Son of the Father, who gives us new birth in the Spirit…

His hesed endures forever

Who broke customary rules to speak to the Samaritan woman and offer her living water… 

His hesed endures forever

Who said to the royal official, “Your son will live” and it was so…

His hesed endures forever

Who said to a man unable to move for 38 years at the pool of Bethesda, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk,” and it was so…

His hesed endures forever

Who took a boy’s lunch and turned it into an abundant feast for thousands… 

His hesed endures forever

Who traversed over water like it was a marble floor… 

His hesed endures forever

To Jesus who promised that whoever comes to him will have streams of living water flow through them… 

His hesed endures forever

Who double-healed the man born blind by opening both his physical eyes as well as his spiritual eyes… 

His hesed endures forever

To Jesus our good shepherd who calls us by name, leads us out, and lays down his life for us… 

His hesed endures forever

Who called out to a dead Lazarus and with the two words, “Come out,” displayed your resurrection power for all to see…

His hesed endures forever

Whose very presence calls for gratuitous offerings, like Mary’s perfume…

His hesed endures forever

To the humble and victorious king, who rides triumphantly on a donkey… 

His hesed endures forever

Who kneels down and washes the dirty feet of your followers… 

His hesed endures forever

Who promised us the empowering presence of your Holy Spirit… 

His hesed endures forever

Who calls us to abide in you… 

His hesed endures forever

Who gives us eternal life… 

His hesed endures forever

Who prays that we may be one as you and the Father are one… 

His hesed endures forever

Who abides in us… 

His hesed endures forever

To Jesus who accepted his call to the cross out of love for us… 

His hesed endures forever

Who suffered unjustly… 

His hesed endures forever

Who died a criminal’s death, though not a criminal…

His hesed endures forever

Who cried, “It is finished”…

His hesed endures forever

To him who willingly gave his life for us out of love, who did not fight for survival on the cross, but rather accepted the call of his Father, to the point that the soldiers did not have to accelerate the death sentence by breaking his legs, as it is written: “Not one of his bones will be broken”…

His hesed endures forever. Amen. 

Published by

Jesse

Dr. Jesse Joyner travels nationwide as a speaker and entertainer. His primary role is that of a performing juggler spreading joy and the love of learning to family and kids events. H earned his PhD in Educational Studies at Trinity International University (Deerfield, IL). He enjoys playing the piano, bird watching, and old houses. He lives in Richmond, VA with his wife, Sarah, and their three kids - the perfect number for juggling children.

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