Sermon for 1 Lent Yr B

1st Sunday in Lent Yr B, 21/02/2021

Ps 25:1-10

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“God the loving, merciful, and gracious teacher”

My NRSV Lutheran Study Bible gives the original superscription-title of Psalm 25 as “Of David.” The Good News Bible has “By David.” The REB is different in that David is not credited as the author, and so it is titled: “For David.” According to biblical scholar, Claus Westermann (The Psalms: Structure, Content & Message, p. 17), Psalms 3-41 represent a collection attributed to David. Besides their common superscription, another characteristic is that they are all psalms of an individual. Hymnwriter Paul Gerhardt may also have been inspired by the words of Psalm 25 when he composed his hymn “Nach dir, mein Gott, verlanget mich,” loosely translated: “For thee, Lord, pants my longing heart.” 

The Lutheran Study Bible also titles Psalm 25 like this: “Prayer for Guidance and Deliverance.” The Good News Bible has the following title: “A Prayer for Guidance and Protection.” According to my NRSV Lutheran Study Bible (p. 850), this psalm is one of the eight acrostic poems in the Psalter. An acrostic or alphabetical poem starts each line with a succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet. However, a careful reading of Psalm 25 reveals that it is a rather “mixed bag” in terms of the type of psalm it is, along with its variety of themes. In addition to it being an acrostic poem, it is also a prayer for help, and a wisdom psalm, and a lament. 

The opening three verses focus on trusting in God for protection against his enemies whom he seems to feel threaten him, and petitioning God not to be put to shame. The contrasts between those who trust and wait for the LORD and those who are enemies and are “wantonly treacherous” are emphasized in these verses. However, the REB renders verse 3 like this: “No one whose hope is in you is put to shame, but shame comes to all who break faith without cause.” Rendered in this way, the language is similar to Proverbs and the wisdom psalms, and highlights the psalmist’s confidence in God. 

In verses four and five, there is a shift in thought. Now the psalmist makes his request that God would teach him to know God’s way, God’s path, God’s truth. Knowing the way to go and following the right path is very important in life. For example, if you are driving in a strange city and do not pay attention to signs, maps or GPS, you can easily get lost. Or if you refuse to see or read a road sign that says: “Danger Do Not Enter,” you might risk getting into an accident. The same is true of our life of faith. We can willingly learn God’s way, God’s path, God’s truth by reading and studying the Bible, praying, attending worship, loving God and neighbour. All of these help us to learn and know God’s way, God’s path, God’s truth, and to grow in our faith and life journey. 

In verses six and seven, the psalmist makes an intercession for God to be mindful of and to remember God’s mercy and steadfast love, and to forget the sins and offences of his youth. 

Both the Greeks and the Hebrews used many words where we have been satisfied with one. As there are many words for our one love, so with mercy. The Hebrew chesed is seen over and over again in the Psalms, and Coverdale frequently translates it as lovingkindness,[our NRSV renders it steadfast love] that continued forbearance shown by God even when his chosen people are slow to keep his commandments and swift to turn to foreign gods. 

Another Hebrew word for mercy is rachamim, which has to do with tender compassion, the care of the shepherd for the stray lamb, the pity shown to the weak and helpless. And there is chaninah, a joyful, generous mercy, loving and kind. 

So mercy, as all the other Beatitudes, is a Christ-like word, and I must look for understanding of it in the small and daily events of my own living, because if I do not recognize it in the little things I will not see it in the great.1

Most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, likely regret some of the sins of our youth, and perhaps they may even rear their ugly heads when we are adults. That reminds me of the following story. 

A Catholic priest living in the Philippines was a much-loved man of God who once carried a secret burden of long-past sin buried deep in his heart. He had committed that sin once, many years before, during his time in seminary. No one else knew of this sin. He had repented of it and he had suffered years of remorse for it, but he still had no peace, no inner joy, no sense of God’s forgiveness.

There was a woman in this priest’s parish who deeply loved God, and who claimed to have visions in which she spoke with Christ, and He with her. The priest, however, was skeptical of her claims, so to test her visions he said to her, “You say you actually speak directly with Christ in your visions. Let me ask you a favour. The next time you have one of these visions, I want you to ask Him what sin your priest committed while he was in seminary.” 

The woman agreed and went home. When she returned to the church a few days later, the priest said, “Well, did Christ visit you in your dreams?”

She replied, “Yes, He did.”

“And did you ask Him what sin I committed in seminary?”

“Yes, I asked Him.”

“Well, what did He say?”

“He said, ‘I don’t remember.’”

This is what God wants you to know about the forgiveness He freely offers you. When your sins are forgiven, they are forgotten. The past—with its sins, hurts brokenness, and self-recrimination—is gone, dead, crucified, remembered no more. What God forgives, He forgets.2

Verses eight to ten of our psalm repeat the themes the psalmist made in the previous verses regarding: God’s way, God’s path, God’s steadfast love (chesed), God’s faithfulness. Again the language in these verses is very similar to Proverbs and the wisdom psalms. Here the psalmist is receiving the benefits, the blessings of God’s love, mercy and grace by responding in keeping his covenant. 

Keeping his covenant involves serving others in everyday living. God wants both justice and love for the world. Justice may involve something as practical as the fairness of standing in line at a store; if someone slips in ahead of us, we know how unjust that is. 

Love and justice belong together. Many people from hungry countries, including Christians there, have been thanking us for the love we have shown in their lands, but they are asking us to be more just as well. They point out several international trade practices which could be fairer for them. 

While we have given them shiploads of food, we have taken from them many more shiploads of resources at cheap prices—copper, bauxite for aluminum, chrome, cotton, clothes, sugar, coffee, oil, crafts, and now even meats and produce, to list some of them. It’s not that we shouldn’t have bought these goods—international trade is a good thing—but the hungry countries tell us we need to be paying a fair price so that they can gain buying power too. 

They tell us we have slipped in line ahead of them at the resource stations of the world. While they were trying to recover from the burdens of colonialism, slavery, and confinement on reservations, we gained control over the mineral supplies and many of their food-growing lands. As they tried to catch up, they were forced to sell cheap to gain what exchange they could. 

We may think sometimes they are ungrateful asking for more justice. We wonder, Why can’t they see how much our investments in their countries have helped them, and how risky those investments are? Why haven’t they used our aid to help themselves and get ahead? Why do they let their grain spoil in storage? Why don’t they kill their sacred cows? Why don’t they work as hard as us? Why isn’t our love enough? 

But maybe we have not had a chance to hear their side. They wonder about us, and may ask, Why do they demand such a high rate of return on their investments? Why do they take so much of the profits? Why does so much of the plastic that they use end up polluting our oceans and killing the marine life there? Why do they throw away their aluminum cans and left-over restaurant food? Why do mining companies come and destroy our environment? Why don’t they work as hard as us? Why aren’t they more just? 

The problems of international trade are very complex, however God’s principle of justice must be applied in every way it can. It is an attitude which changes our worldview. 

During this season of Lent, may we like the psalmist, confess and repent of our sins; willingly learn from God our loving, merciful and gracious teacher; and respond to God’s love, forgiveness and grace by treating others justly and humbly, lovingly serving them. 

1 Madeleine L’Engle with Carole F. Chase, Glimpses of Grace: Daily Thoughts, And Reflections (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996 & 1998), pp. 268-269. 

2 James S. Hewett, Editor, Illustrations Unlimited: A Topical Collection of Hundreds Of Stories, Quotations, & Humor For Speakers, Writers, Pastors, and Teachers (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1988), p. 216. 

Sermon for 5 Epiphany Yr B

5th Sunday after Epiphany Yr B, 7/02/2021

Ps 147:1-11, 20c

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

God’s just and compassionate reversals”

The last five psalms of the Psalter are Hallel psalms. They all begin and end, functioning kind of like bookends, with the Hebrew word Hallelujah, translated into English as Praise the LORD! My NRSV Lutheran Study Bible (p. 849), identifies Psalm 147 as a Hymn of Praise, and biblical scholar Claus Westermann, identifies it, along with all five Hallel psalms as a Psalm of Descriptive Praise. They are psalms of descriptive praise because they are responses to God’s love, grace and justice by giving specific reasons for praising God. Westermann states that: this sort of descriptive praise could be raised whenever the assembled congregation wished to honor its God: at the major festivals, at sacrifices, and at worship services of all sorts. This is true of worship taking place in the temple as well as (and especially) at family celebrations of such events as the Passover, the beginning of the Sabbath, and numerous other special occasions (The Psalms: Structure, Content and Message, p. 83). The title that myLutheran Study Bible gives Psalm 147 is “Praise for God’s Care for Jerusalem.” The Good News Bible has the following title: “In Praise of God the Almighty.”

Psalm 147, as I count them, provides six reasons for offering God a hymn of praise. However, I’m going to focus on four of them, which, I think, have a similar theme, namely, God’s reversals of justice and compassion. These four reversals in today’s psalm are: i) the LORD builds up (restores) Jerusalem; ii) he gathers the outcasts (brings back the exiles) of Israel; iii) he heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds; iv) he lifts up the downtrodden (he raises the humble) and casts the wicked to the ground.

When I looked at the other Bible passages for today, I also discovered that each one of them highlighted in some way this theme of God’s just and compassionate reversals. In Isaiah 40:29, the prophet writes the following concerning God’s just and compassionate reversal—encouraging his people who were in Babylonian exile and likely feeling defeated, depressed, and wondering if God had now permanently abandoned them: “He (i.e. God) gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.” In our second lesson, the apostle Paul, describing his ministry says, in 1 Corinthians 9:22: “To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak.” In today’s gospel, Mark 1:34 describes Jesus’ public ministry by reversing the powers of evil by ushering in God’s kingdom. Jesus’ public ministry is described like this: “And he (Jesus) cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.”

So, as you can see, God’s just and compassionate reversals are found in all of these Bible passages, and indeed, throughout the Bible. God’s just and compassionate reversals reflect who God is and what he is doing among his people and in the world.

The ultimate reason for commitment to the poor and oppressed is not to be found in the social analysis we use. As Christians, however, our commitment is grounded, in the final analysis, in the God of our faith. It is a theocentric, prophetic option that has its roots in the unmerited love of God and is demanded by this love.

In other words, the poor deserve preference not because they are morally or religiously better than others, but because God is God, in whose eyes “the last are first.”1

To believe you can approach God without drawing nearer in compassion to suffering humanity is to fool yourself. There can be no genuine personal religious conversion without a change in social attitude. Compassion and justice are companions, not choices.2

So, it is clear from today’s Psalm and our other Bible passages that two central themes are found in the Bible regarding justice. First, God’s all-encompassing love, concern, and mercy are for all human beings. Second, our responsibility to love God’s creation and care for God’s people—especially those who are outcasts, exiles/refugees, brokenhearted and wounded, and the downtrodden—is to respond to God’s grace.

There are many Jewish stories told by rabbis about the prophet Elijah. As you recall, Elijah did not die—rather, God took him up to heaven in a chariot of fire. So, out of this biblical story, the rabbis told more stories about how Elijah came back to this world to help others in need. These stories often emphasize that God loves and cares for those who are poor and needy, as is the case in the following story.

There was a poor but pious man who scarce could keep alive, and he had a wife at home, and sons who numbered five. “How long can we go on like this?” the pious man’s wife said. “We haven’t anything to eat, not a single crust of bread! You’ve studied Torah and that’s fine, but now what will we do? Get you to the marketplace, and may God pity you!”

But how,” her husband asked her, “can I go anywhere,” when I have neither cloak nor coat nor anything to wear? I have no money, either, not a penny to my name—Why, send me to the market and I will die of shame!”

And so the woman hurried to her neighbours, borrowed clothes, and gave them to her husband, may God save him from his woes. The man went to the market and stood there teary-eyed; then heavenward he cast his glance and to the Lord he cried: “O Master of the Universe, You know I’m all alone, little children have I five, but food to feed them none. Please, dear Lord, I beg of You, either pity me, or let me die and put an end to all my misery.”

Now as he stood there weeping, who should the poor man meet but Elijah, bless him, coming up the street! “There, there,” Elijah told him. “Wipe your tears, my son. Pretend I am a slave of yours and sell me to someone.” “But Master,” said the pious man, “how can I sell you? And anyway, who’ll take me for a rich, slave-owning Jew?” “Fear not,” Elijah said to him. “Do everything I say. Give me a penny when I’m sold, and that will be my pay.”

And so the poor man led Elijah to the market. Everywhere he went, people took him for the slave and Elijah for the master, and Elijah had to keep telling them, “He is the master—the slave is me!” Just then an official of the king’s passed by, liked the looks of the man for sale, and bought him for eighty dinars. Elijah took a penny for himself, gave the rest to the pious Jew, and said to him, “Here, this is for you and your family. You’ll never have to be poor again.”

Then Elijah went off with the official, and the man returned home, where he found his wife and children faint from hunger. He put food and drink before them and told them the whole story, to which his wife said, “It’s a good thing you listened to me, because had you waited any longer, we would all have been dead!” And from that day on, the Lord blessed him and made him a wealthy man who never lacked for anything.

Some time later, the pious Jew met Elijah and told him, “You’ve saved my life!”

Give thanks to God the Creator, Who has done this great kindness to you,” declared Elijah, of blessed memory.3

May we along with the psalmist, heed Elijah’s exhortation in this story, and offer God our thanks and praise for his just and compassionate reversals to bless those in greatest need, as well as us. And let the congregation sing: “Praise the LORD!” Amen!

1 Marc H. Ellis & Otto Maduro, editors, Expanding The View: Gustavo Gutierrz And The Future Of Liberation Theology (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988, 89, 90), p. 14.

2 Wm. Sloane Coffin, Credo (Louisville & London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 51.

3 Pinhas Sadeh, translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin, Jewish Folktales Selected and Retold by Pinhas Sadeh (Toronto, et al: Anchor Books Doubleday, 1989), pp. 124-126.