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.