“Lest we forget” are words engraved on memorial stones around the world. Most often they are found on military memorials which recall battles and wars and those who fought in them. This reminder is necessary because the passage of time makes it easy to forget the people who gave their lives, the lessons we should learn, and the fact that war in any form causes tremendous suffering and loss. The words are even more meaningful when you know their original context. In 1897 Rudyard Kipling composed a poem for the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee called Recessional. His poem expressed pride in the accomplishments and prominence of the British Empire, but it also expressed the fear that the Empire might go the way of all previous empires. As a student of history, Kipling recognized a recurring theme: when nations rise to power they tend to become proud and forget God. With this background, here is the second verse of Kipling’s poem: “The tumult and the shouting dies; the Captains and the Kings depart, still stands thine ancient sacrifice, a humble and a contrite heart. Lord, God of hosts, be with us yet, lest we forget – lest we forget!”  “Lest we forget!” Kipling points out that while it is tragic to forget the lessons we should learn from the people who have gone before us, it is a far greater tragedy to forget the lessons and promises of our God. “Lest we forget” or “Let’s not forget” serves as a fitting theme for Psalm 111 because in it, the Holy Spirit speaks to us about remembering: how God remembered his covenant and how God wants us to remember his covenant.
While Psalm 111 is not the most familiar psalm among us, Martin Luther was familiar with it, and he gives his thoughts on the context of this psalm: We know that God instituted the festival of Passover among the people of Israel as an occasion for them annually to praise His wonderful acts and to thank Him for their deliverance when He led them out of Egypt…therefore it seems to me that this psalm was composed for the Passover festival. (LW 13:354) As we look at the Psalm, it seems that Luther is correct. The first words in Hebrew are: הַ֥לְלוּ יָ֨הּ Translated: Praise the Lord! And then the psalm writer goes on to list reasons to praise the LORD, reasons that call to mind one specific event: the Exodus from Egypt.
In the OT, the Exodus was the standard by which all of God’s other works were measured by his people. For good reason. In delivering his people from the hand of the mightiest nation on earth, the LORD proved himself to be the living God and exposed the pharaohs, armies and idols of Egypt as nothing. In reading this psalm, we can’t help but think of the plagues that God brought on Egypt and angel of death that brought misery and destruction to Egypt; salvation and freedom for Israel; how God parted the waters of the Red Sea and provided manna from heaven as the Israelites traveled through the wilderness; how he led them into the Land he had promised them, giving them possession of Canaan, even though it belonged to other nations. In doing these things, God proved himself to be a covenant-keeper. He had promised Abraham – when he was already old and yet childless – five centuries earlier: I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you…To your offspring I will give this land. (Genesis 12:2, 7) And in leading hundreds of thousands of Abraham’s descendants out of Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land, God proved that he had not forgotten his covenant.
But God’s covenant with Abraham involved more than just leading the Jews out of slavery; it pointed to a far greater exodus, a greater redemption. God had also told Abraham: All peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:3) God had promised Abraham that one of his descendants would redeem people from every nation – not from slavery in Egypt, but from slavery to sin and Satan and the doom of death and hell, and bring them to the true Promised Land of heaven. God remembered that promise. When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. (Galatians 4:4-5) Tonight, we see that promised Savior gathered with his disciples in an upper room to celebrate the Passover one last time; before that OT sacrament would be replaced by the NT sacrament of Holy Communion. This night is the hinge of human history because on this night Jesus proves himself to be both the true Passover Lamb, and the Lamb of God sent to carry the sins of the world to the altar of the cross and take them away forever.
And so, just as the Passover Lamb reminded the Israelites that God had not forgotten his covenant with Abraham, this meal reminds us that God has not forgotten his covenant with us. What is that covenant? The Lord spelled it out through the prophet Jeremiah: “the time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant…I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31, 34) Here, at this table, God demonstrates that he has remembered his covenant by inviting all who who are weary and burdened with sin and guilt to come and receive tangible proof of forgiveness in the body and blood of his Son. As our Psalm says: He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever. God did not forget his covenant to Abraham and he has not forgotten his covenant with you. He has remembered it. And he gives us proof in this meal. Do this regularly, so you don’t forget how the Lord remembered his covenant – his promise to take action to remove and forgive every one of your sins.
But “lest we forget” applies to more than the one who made the covenant; it also applies to us, the recipients of that covenant. Psalm 111 puts it this way: He has caused his wonders to be remembered. When I was at the Seminary in Mequon (a center of Judaism), around Easter (Passover) the grocery stores would carry unleavened bread, roasted lamb – even butter molded in the form of a lamb – to make a proper celebration of the Passover meal easily accessible for observant Jews. It wasn’t that easy for their forefathers. In the seven days leading up to Passover they had to clean all the yeast out of their homes and eat only unleavened bread (Exodus 12:15); they were to find a specific lamb – a year-old male without defect (Exodus 12:5); they had to care for this lamb, make it part of their family for four days (Exodus 12:6); and then they were to slaughter this lamb, paint its blood on their doorposts, roast it over a fire, eat it (Exodus 12:7-8) – all while hearing again the story of the Exodus. Why did God command his people to go through all that for 1500 years? It was more than a memory trick, and just going through the motions wouldn’t benefit the Israelites at all – these rituals were intended to create and strengthen faith in God’s promises. Our psalm says great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them.
In the same way, our remembering of God’s covenant is more than just a memory exercise and simply going through the motions will not save us but actually harms us. In order to receive this sacrament to our benefit, we must believe the promises God attaches to it. Our Lutheran forefathers wrote in the Augsburg Confession: Christ commands us, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Therefore, the Mass [the Communion service] was instituted so that those who use the Sacrament should remember, in faith, the benefits they receive through Christ and how their anxious consciences are cheered and comforted. To remember Christ is to remember his benefits. It means to realize that they are truly offered to us. It is not enough only to remember history. (The Jewish people and the ungodly also remember this.)” (AC XXIV 31-33)
To remember God’s covenant first means believing that all he has done, he has done for us. While we no longer call it the Mass, the words and songs surrounding the Sacrament serve us by reminding us of the great things God does for us here. The words of institution remind us of the what and the why. What do we receive here? The very body and blood of Christ – in, with, and under the bread and the wine. (Matthew 26:26-28) Why do we do this? Because Christ our Savior, on the night he was betrayed said: do this. (Luke 22:19) Then, unlike being dismissed from any other table, when you leave here, you are reminded that you leave your sins behind. (Matthew 26:28) Because all of the wonderful things God wants to give us in this meal can only be received through faith, Paul commands us to prepare for it: a man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Corinthians 11:28-29) Never forget, when you are getting ready to come forward to receive the Lord’s Supper this is no ordinary meal; Christ is truly present here for you, for the forgiveness of your sins. Believe it and receive it.
And when you leave this meal, never forget that just as God didn’t just remember you – and then go on twiddling his thumbs in heaven, but instead he took action to save you – so God feeds your faith in this meal so that you may leave and be active in living for him. James reminds us: do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. (James 1:22-24) God feeds our faith here so that we can produce fruits of faith out there.
Maundy Thursday calls us to be very specific about the type of fruit God produces through this heavenly food. Jesus once told a story about a man who didn’t remember – he called him the unmerciful servant. (Matthew 18:21-35) This man had received unconditional forgiveness of his debt – 10,000 talents worth. But he forgot. Or at least, if he did remember, it didn’t show in his life. He refused to forgive a man who owed him a far lesser debt. Jesus finished his lesson this way: shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you? In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each one of you unless you forgive your brother from the heart. (Matthew 18:33-35) As you leave here tonight, never forget: you are forgiven – fully and freely, even though you don’t deserve it; so that you can be forgiving – fully and freely, even and especially to those who don’t deserve it. That’s how we remember God’s covenant long after we leave here.
Luther wrote one more thing about this Psalm to encourage us to receive the Sacrament joyfully and faithfully: Here you learn that Christ did not institute his remembrance or Sacrament out of anger or displeasure. It is not to be poison for you. He will not devour you or stand over you with a club when you go to the Sacrament. He lets himself be called the gracious and merciful Lord, so that it might actually be pure grace and mercy…Now, if you are afraid to go to the Sacrament, and your conscience frightens you, as if you were unworthy, put this verse into your heart and on your lips. Then you must hear and feel how sincerely he calls and invites you. He is here and is waiting for you with hands and heart wide open, for you to take and receive grace and mercy…Whoever is inclined to put pictures on the altar ought to have the Lord’s Supper painted, with these two verses written around it in golden letters: ‘the LORD is gracious and compassionate. He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever.’ (LW 13:373) Why do we need so many reminders? Lest we forget!
In a few minutes your Lord will invite you to come forward to receive his body and blood with the words: do this in remembrance of me. (1 Corinthians 11:24) Let’s not forget how God remembered his covenant and let’s not forget how to remember God’s covenant. Amen.