Great is Thy Faithfulness

The Bible tells us that Jesus was on the cross for six hours. The Gospel of Mark tells us that “They divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. And it was the third hour when they crucified him” (Mark 15:24–25).  By the Jewish reckoning of time, the third hour was 9 am. This is when the crucifixion began. Then the Gospel of Matthew tells us that “from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour” (Matthew 27:45).  Again, by the Jewish reckoning of time, this darkness lasted 3 hours, from 12 noon to 3:00 P.M. At the end of that time, “when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice,” the Gospel of Matthew tells us that “he gave up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50). Jesus was on the cross for six hours, from 9 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon.

During these six hours the four Gospels tell us that Jesus said 7 things.  The “Seven Last Words of Christ” are frequently the focus of the church’s attention and devotion on Good Friday, the day Christ died.  In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for churches to have three-hour long Good Friday services, from noon to 3, during which seven preachers from seven churches preach seven sermons based on the “Seven Last Words of Christ” –

  1. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
  2. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
  3. “Woman, behold your sonBehold your mother.” (John 19:26–27)
  4. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
  5. “I thirst.”  (John 19:28)
  6. “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
  7. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)

35 years ago was first time that I was asked to be one of those Good Friday afternoon preachers.   The service was at the First Christian Church of Houston, and the last word of Christ they assigned me to preach was #7, the last “last word” from the cross – “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  I was glad to get this word because it was already an important part of my spirituality. 

One of my spiritual role models is Charles de Foucauld, the late 18th early 19th century French Catholic Priest who lived a hidden life of sacrifice and service in the Muslim world, believing that quietly doing good and being kind to people was the most powerful way for us to bear witness to the saving love of God in Christ for us.  And so, he moved into Muslim communities in the Middle East where he could love his Muslim neighbors in specific and concrete ways. He died as a martyr doing exactly this in 1916 in Algeria, and was announced as one of the Church’s newest “Saints” by Pope Francis in May of 2020.

The entire spirituality of St. Charles de Foucault can be distilled in his prayer of abandon, a prayer that I have frequently prayed and pondered from the beginning of my Christian life until now –

“Into your hands I commend my soul; I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands, without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.”

Charles had Christ on the cross in view when he wrote this prayer of his own personal abandon to the care and purpose of God.  It was clearly an echo of that last “last word” of Jesus Christ from the cross – “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  As Charles explained, “It is the last prayer of our Master, of our Beloved… (and) may it be ours… not only as the prayer of our last moment but (as the prayer) of all our moments.”

In my preparation for that sermon that I preached on Christ’s last “last word” 35 years ago in Houston – “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”- I learned something that I’ve never forgotten. Jesus didn’t just come up with those words on the spot in that moment on the cross. In saying them Jesus was quoting Scripture, Psalm 31 to be exact.  “Thou art my rock and my fortress,” Psalm 31 prays, “for thy name’s sake lead me and guide me.”  “Take me out of the net which is hidden for me,” it asks, “for thou art my refuge.” And then it voices a final trust with the words, “Into thy hand I commit my spirit; thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God” (vs.3-5).

It has been suggested by some that the words of this Psalm were the ancient equivalent of the familiar children’s bedtime prayer – “Now I lay me down to sleep.”  Right before entering into the fearful darkness of the mysterious night, Hebrew children used Psalm 31 to name the hidden dangers that lurked in the dark shadows, to claim God as their keeper, and to consciously place themselves in God’s care.  In His last dying moment Jesus used the words a bedtime prayer that He would have learned as a little boy on the knees of His mother to put Himself into the hands of His loving Father.

“Into your hands I commend my spirit” was a prayer of “basic trust.”  The psychologists tell us that this is the first and most important thing that has to get settled for us in our development as human beings. We’ve got to decide whether or not we think that there’s someone or something out there who cares about us and who will meet our basic needs?  

It begins in infancy. When we’re hungry will someone come to feed us?  When we’ve made a mess will someone come to change us?  When we’re cold or afraid will someone come to take care of us?  When we cry out will someone come to comfort us?   When someone does, then we learn trust.  When someone doesn’t, then we learn mistrust.  And whether we trust, or mistrust affects everything else in our life. It shapes how we approach the world and how we form our relationships.  

When there’s mistrust, we feel abandoned and alone, and we’re almost always anxious and afraid.  But when there’s a basic trust, then we can face the future unafraid because we know that there’s someone there who really cares about us and who always has us and our needs in mind and heart. Psalm 145 is a Psalm about basic trust.  It’s thesis is the second half of verse 13 – “The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds.”  That’s not a bad way to summarize everything that the Bible is trying to tell us.  The God who is there is a faithful and gracious God, and a faithful and gracious God is a God who can be trusted.

Israel’s faith rested on a specific encounter with God.  God showed up and spoke to them in their history.  When they were slaves in Egypt, God set them free, and then at the foot of Mount Sinai God entered into a covenant relationship with them.  In Exodus 34, part of that story, in what has been called one of the most important passages in the Bible about who God is, the nature of the God who rescued Israel from bondage was laid out in a series of propositions in Exodus 34:6-7 –

“The Lord [is] merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…”

In Psalm 145 the Psalmist quoted these verses as the basis of his belief in the faithfulness and graciousness of God.

“The Lord is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

The Lord is good to all,

and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (8-9)

Biblical faith rests on the fact of God’s self-disclosure. God does things that show us who He is, and God talks to us telling us things about Himself.  But we are not just left with these bare statements and the decision to believe them or not. We are invited to take them out for a test drive.  We are encouraged to “taste and see that God is good” (Psalm 34:8). And so, in support of this claim that God is gracious and faithful, the Psalmist told us about some of the gracious and faithful things that God had done for him –

14 The Lord upholds all who are falling,
    and raises up all who are bowed down.
 15 The eyes of all look to you,
    and you give them their food in due season.
16 You open your hand,
    satisfying the desire of every living thing.
17 The Lord is just in all his ways,
    and kind in all his doings.
18 The Lord is near to all who call on him,
    to all who call on him in truth.
19 He fulfills the desire of all who fear him;
    he also hears their cry, and saves them.
20 The Lord watches over all who love him,
    but all the wicked he will destroy.

At one of the first churches I attended after my spiritual awakening the pastor didn’t just carve out space each week in the worship service for people to share their prayer requests, he also called each for “praise reports.”  He wanted people to talk about how God had shown up in their lives and provided for their needs that week. He knew that we would all come to trust the faithfulness and graciousness of God the more we heard stories of how God had been faithful and gracious to people we knew and loved who were sitting with us in church.  

David Miller, a Mennonite theologian, talks about this as the spiritual discipline of learning how to “track God.”  

“He employs the analogy of hunters, who often rely on clues to help them find wild game. A tuft of hair on a thorn bush, scratches on the side of a tree, a torn leaf – all point to the presence of animals passing through. So, too, (he says) God leaves subtle but visible clues. There are signs that God has been passing through an area, that God has been at work in a life.”

This is what the Psalmist was doing in Psalm 145.  He had “tracked” God.  He told us that he knew God was faithful and gracious not just because the Bible told him so, but also because he had also personally seen evidence of God’s faithfulness and graciousness in his own life and world. He’d seen God upholding the falling and raising up the bowed down. He’d seen God opening his hand to the needy and being just and kind in his dealings.  He’d seen God draw to those near those who cried out to him and watch over them who needed him.  In other words, it was the Psalmist’s very own experiences of God’s faithfulness and graciousness that were the most convincing arguments in support of his belief that God is faithful and gracious.

It’s not enough for us just to be told that God is faithful and gracious, we need some actual experiences of God’s faithfulness and graciousness if we are going to learn how to trust Him.  I’ve read that during WW 2 a group of orphaned children who had been rescued and were being cared for had real trouble going to sleep at night. Even though they had more than enough food to eat and people who truly cared about them, at bedtime each night they became terribly anxious and afraid. They had been deeply traumatized by their experiences during the war, and so they became greatly agitated when they were put to bed at night, fearful that they would wake up in the morning and find themselves hungry and alone all over again.  Nothing that anyone said could reassure them that they were safe and that things would be fine in the morning.  Finally, somebody came up with an idea. As the children were put to be at night, they were each given a piece of bread, not to eat but just to hold. With that piece of bread in their hands, those children began to sleep soundly.  That piece of bread was tangible proof that they would have something to eat in the morning.  It was not enough just to be told that they were going to be okay, they needed some concrete evidence.

Each week in my spiritual tradition we go to go to the Lord’s Table to break bread in remembrance of Christ’s body broken for us, and to pour a cup in remembrance of Christ’s blood shed for us.  Every week the Lord’s Supper tells us that God is faithful and gracious, and every week the Lord’s Supper provides us with an actual experience of God’s faithfulness and graciousness. 

It is the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup in remembrance of Christ’s loving sacrifice for us that assures us that there is in fact someone at the heart of the universe who can be trusted, and when we know this, then we don’t have to be anxious or afraid ever again because we know that the One who is there is the One knows all about us, deeply  cares for us, and always has us and our needs on His mind and in His heart.

The Lord is faithful in all His dealings.

The Lord is gracious in all His doings.

The Lord can be trusted completely.

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