Sermon Seeds: The Lifting
Sunday, February 4, 2024
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany | Year B
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Isaiah 40:21-31 • Psalm 147:1-11, 20c • 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 • Mark 1:29-39
Focus Scripture: Psalm 147:1-11, 20c in conversation with Isaiah 40:21-31
Focus Theme: The Lifting
Series: Arise! (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
Lifting can be challenging work. Parents and caregivers of young children often develop stronger arm muscles because young people like to be lifted or need to be carried. Objects used in construction often require the use of a crane, pulley, or other devices. Sometimes we lift to remove items that are obstacles, unnecessary, or harmful. Other lifting moves needed items into place. We may lift ourselves, otherwise known as climbing, or be lifted by others like the man whose friends lifted him above the crowd and the place where Jesus was staying before being lowered through a hole in the roof to get to Jesus. Sometimes you have to go up in order to go down.
Lifting can take time, energy, and strategy to achieve the desired elevation. The new position may result in a change of status or privilege. After all, not all lifting takes physical form. We think of social climbers as moving in relational circles. Being lifted out of poverty reflects a betterment of economic conditions. Reaching the mountaintop may indicate the achievement of a significant goal, extraordinary success, or an ecstatic experience. Generally speaking, lifting evokes positive connotations and advancement even though the process entails hard work and often intensive struggle.
Psalm 147 is one of the psalms of praise that closes the Psalter. In fact, the psalm’s content, composition, and progression suggests that three separate literary pieces have been combined into one. Still, those three sections are knitted together. This week’s focus passage contains two of the three sections. Verses one through six emphasize the Holy One’s work in human history. Versus eight through eleven turn toward both natural and cosmic wonders. Through it all, the psalm encourages praise and thanksgiving as the human response to the Sovereign’s creative and redemptive acts.
In fact, the psalm is entirely concerned with rhetorically lifting the Holy One. God is not addressed yet serves as the subject and object throughout the passage. References to humanity and creation point back to the character and nature of the Holy One.
The allusion to creation generated by a reference to naming the stars (Gen. 1.14-18) emphasizes God’s power and indicates that the process of redemption described in the psalm is a divine act that is initiated by God, by virtue of his infinite power. Additional rhetorical elements in this stanza reinforce the idea: (a) no verb in the stanza is attributed to humanity; (b) people are described as helpless (heartbroken, exiled), in contrast with the healing powers of God; (c) God is described as omnipotent: ‘Great is our Lord and full of power’ (v. 4) and his control over the distant heavens is contrasted with humanity, who can be brought ‘down to the dust’ (v. 5).
Psalm 147 reinforces that God has a singular nature that deserves special acknowledgement and recognition in the form of praise. The being of the Holy One as well as the actions compel that response. Humanity may marvel that the same God who “lifts up the downtrodden” also “covers the heavens with clouds.” As the saying goes, “God sits high and looks low.” Elevation in the kindom does not denote separation, distance, or disinterest. Rather, it provides a more expansive perspective and wider sphere of concern and action. Unlike human paradigms that equate elevation with isolation and privilege, the reign of God positions elevation with inclusion and belonging.
The absence of the second element—the rebuilding of Jerusalem and ingathering of the exiles—creates the impression that the focal point is not nationalistic, and that God’s praise is not linked with the redemption of Israel, but rather with his control over nature, while emphasizing the boundless abundance he provides for every living creature: rain, grass, and food. Humans are absent from this description, which instead focuses on providing sustenance for all living creatures including the raven’s brood. Presumably humanity’s survival stems from these as well. The allusion in v. 8 to Ps. 104.3, 13-14 emphasizes the kindness to all creatures; in contrast with Psalm 104, there is no reference here to human toil, only to God’s pure and altruistic kindness. The absence of humans in the third element is metonymically parallel to the absence of the national element in the second stanza: just as the nation of Israel is part of the world of nations, humanity is part of the natural world. Thus, humanity’s absence from the third element correlates with the absence of the second element—the national element—from the entire stanza.
The psalm counters any temptation to attribute the Holy One’s favor to any one nation or people group. When God singles one people out, it is because the human story is specific. God is concerned with the tangible, real lives of living creatures. The covenant is a promise of companionship, which requires God to be with us in the particulars of human lives and history. At the same time, the promise is not exclusive to one group. The psalm repudiates any sense or justification of a Christian nationalism. The reign of God is the kindom, which cannot not be contained within any artificial and arbitrary boundary and barriers that humans construct like lines in geographical territories, ethnic affiliations, or racial identities.
God and God’s love are too great to be constrained. The psalmist affirms that the same God who builds Jerusalem has another construction project going in another part of the universe that humanity can neither envision nor grasp. Rather than consider that reality to be diminishing, humans should delight in the One who holds it all. Further, if Creator can handle the heavens, humans can trust them with the cares and concerns of their lives.
Additionally, the demand presented in the fourth element that humans should place their trust in God stems from the acknowledgment that God sustains the universe, as described in vv. 8-9. Humans should therefore never erroneously assume that their own power can sustain them. The acknowledgment of this divine trait should lead to fearing and depending upon God; therefore, this stanza also presents a direct link between the moral demand expressed in the antithetical closing verses and the previous description of God’s rule over nature. However, in contrast with the emphasis on the distance between humans and God expressed in the third element in the first stanza, here the emphasis is on the proximity between God and humanity, who is aware of God’s direct providence, which leads to fearing God and depending upon him.
Psalm 147 and Isaiah 40 pair well as lectionary selections as the psalmist and the prophet respectively share a consistent message.
What God has done reflects what God does. (ongoing action in creative and human history)
What God does reflects who God is. (character and nature)
Who God is invites human response. (praise/trust/hope/waiting)
As a psalm of praise, its intended use is for a congregation to encourage one another in the context of worship. The prophet directs the message toward the people. Both remind audiences that the faith journey and covenant depends upon human to human relational participation. Faith is communal as are the promises, work, and even character of God. Humanity was created to be mutually and interdependent, with each other and with God. Both the psalmist and the prophet deemphasize the mechanisms and symbols of human strength, elevation, and power in favor of human connection and explicit reliance on divine provision and protection.
The concluding acclamation of verse 20 likely pertains to the entire psalm and not simply to verses 12–20. As is the usual case, the psalm easily combines cosmic claims and the particularity of Israel. Although we might think of a tension in that process, no tension is signaled by the psalm itself. All of these realms stand together as a single realm over which YHWH presides in faithful sovereignty.
Walter Brueggemann and W. H. Bellinger, Jr.
The Holy One elevates not based on human ability, accomplishment, or acclimation. Rather, the God who redeems, repairs, and restores lifts based on human fear/awe/reverence that God is God and trust/hope/faith/rest as the faithful response to the being of the Holy One. Praise God!
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics. It is rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other. The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys. Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion. Males cannot love themselves in patriarchal culture if their very self-definition relies on submission to patriarchal rules. When men embrace feminist thinking and practice, which emphasizes the value of mutual growth and self-actualization in all relationships, their emotional well-being will be enhanced. A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving.”
― bell hooks
For Further Reflection
“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.
“Today I choose life. Every morning when I wake up I can choose joy, happiness, negativity, pain… To feel the freedom that comes from being able to continue to make mistakes and choices – today I choose to feel life, not to deny my humanity but embrace it.” ― Kevyn Aucoin
“The greatest act of faith some days is to simply get up and face another day.” ― Amy Gatliff
Brueggemann, Walter and W. H. Bellinger, Jr. Psalms. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Schwartz, Sarah. “Bridge over Troubled Waters: Psalm 147.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 42, no. 3 (March 2018): 317–39.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
During the season after Epiphany, invite the congregation to respond with public witness of faith. This Sunday would be an opportunity to elevate a ministry partner in the community.
Worship Ways Liturgical Resources
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (email@example.com), also serves a local church pastor, public theologian, and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.