Weekly Seeds: The Works

Sunday, January 28, 2024
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany| Year B

Focus Theme:
The Works

Focus Prayer:
Wise God, demonstrate the work of your hands and use our hands for your works. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Psalm 111
1 Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2 Great are the works of the Lord,
studied by all who delight in them.
3 Full of honor and majesty is his work,
and his righteousness endures forever.
4 He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;
the Lord is gracious and merciful.
5 He provides food for those who fear him;
he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6 He has shown his people the power of his works,
in giving them the heritage of the nations.
7 The works of his hands are faithful and just;
all his precepts are trustworthy.
8 They are established forever and ever,
to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9 He sent redemption to his people;
he has commanded his covenant forever.
Holy and awesome is his name.
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding.
His praise endures forever.

All readings for this Sunday:
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 • Psalm 111 • 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 • Mark 1:21-28

Focus Questions:
What type of work do you do, have done, or aspire to do?
Does your work define you or reflect you, and if so, in what ways?
What is the work of ministry?
What works do you recognize as act of God in your life and/or community?
What work do you hope to see realized?

By Cheryl A. Lindsay

In most books of the Bible, the division into smaller units, usually chapters, was imposed upon the text centuries or millennia after the works were compiled. They introduced common reference points once the text began to be mass produced. The Psalms, which have divisions rather than chapters, are different. Each psalm is its own unit to be used, typically sung, in communal worship. Their contextual origins are intentionally deemphasized so that they transcend the moment that inspires their creation. Psalms take various forms such as psalms of thanksgiving, lament, wisdom, or praise as well as calls to worship and prayers for protection.

Psalm 111 is a psalm of praise. In an era of church life when the words praise and worship are used synonymously, it’s helpful to distinguish between the two. Worship is directed toward God. Praise is about God but addressed toward other people. Hallelujah literally means “praise the Lord.” It’s an exhortation to speak well of God in the assembly or gathering. It’s the difference between bragging about your spouse to your friends and telling them directly how much you love them. Both have meaning and reflect admiration, respect, and appreciation, yet they are distinct actions. In the psalm of praise, God is included in the third person.

Psalms 111–112 function together to describe YHWH and the benefits for those who fear him. Both begin with halelu yah (111:1; 112:1; cf. 146–150) and then follow a twenty-two-line acrostic pattern, where each begins with the subsequent letter of the Hebrew alphabet (cf. 119). The final verse of Psalm 111 and the first of 112 hinge the psalms together, with wisdom reflection on the “fear of the LORD [YHWH]” (111:10; cf. Prov. 1:7; 9:10) leading to “Happy is the one who fears YHWH”; similarly, “all those who do them” (111:10) anticipates delighting in “his commandments” (112:1; cf. 1:2), linking “fear of YHWH” to torah observance (cf. 19:9; 119). These psalms portray those who “fear YHWH” as mirroring divine attributes, including righteousness (111:3; 112:3, 9), graciousness and mercy (111:4; 112:4), justice (111:7; 112:5); uprightness (111:8; 112:2, 4), and enduring forever (111:3, 10; 112:3, 9). Finally, those who fear YHWH trust in God (112:7) and reflect divine concern for the poor (112:9; cf. 82:4; Mays, 359–60). These psalms end with the prominent wisdom motif contrasting the righteous and wicked, though here the “desire of the wicked” perishes rather than the wicked themselves (112:10; cf. 1:6).
Derek W. Suderman

While these two psalms may be paired as part of a tandem, it is worth noting that the first part of the group focuses attention on the Holy One and their works, which are anthropomorphized. God’s works are associated with God’s hands even though God is understood as being Spirit not body. A people accustomed to working with their hands would relate to a divine power’s creative actions emanating from the hand. Unlike the voice, another representation of the creating and active God, the hand gets closer to the creation. The hand touches, feels, moves, and holds. The hand signifies proximity and presence from a God who is still transcendent. The tension between these two seemingly conflicting yet mutually occurring positions are captured within the words of praise. The concluding verses of Psalm 111 transition to invitation to be the people who reverence the awesome nature and works of the Holy One.

This recitation provides the context in which v. 10 makes sense: “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” The Lord is the one who has done all these wondrous deeds for the sake of his people that the psalm has just recounted; to fear the Lord is the proper response to God’s covenant (Deut. 6:2), one of reverent submission and loyalty. The content of the psalm should prevent anyone from feeling that such “fear” is craven; rather, the psalm presents this fear as a privilege, and a response of gratitude. Further, “wisdom” here is hokmâ: a crucial notion of this term is that of “skill” (the nuance in (Exod. 28:3), particularly skill in choosing the right path for the desired result. Since the covenantal framework defines what is proper in both the path and the result, we may call this “covenantal wisdom”: skill in the art of godly living. The “beginning” of this skill is the reverential response to Yahweh.
Jack Collins

Wisdom as a skill becomes something that can be worked. In Psalm 111, the assembled body remembers that God’s works are tangible, concrete, and material. Wisdom is not merely an intellectual condition or attribute, it has substantive impact and outcomes. God’s interaction and intervention in human history is not solely spiritual, they make a demonstrative and visible difference in the lives of God’s people, which are all people as verse 6 affirms:
“He has shown his people the power of his works,
in giving them the heritage of the nations.”

[quote] The rhetorical function of these liturgical songs is to shape what C. S. Lewis famously called the “chest”—that is, “emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments.” Of course, those sentiments may be noble or base, depending on who does the shaping and for what cause; and this is why the “inspiration” of the psalms has mattered so greatly to the people of God. We may call this system of likes and dislikes the affective side of the worldview (one’s basic stance toward God, the world and life, held in what the Bible calls the heart); we can further recognize how crucial it is, if the people of God are to exhibit in their lives the beauty of God’s will.
Jack Collins

In the text from Deuteronomy, Moses speaks to the people with assurance and promise that the Holy One will send another prophet to them. Of the four books that share the Exodus story, Deuteronomy reads most like a valedictory. Moses reflects back on the journey and retells the story found in Exodus. In his role as leader, he served as prophet and priest who followed the direction of the Holy One and led those following him to do the same. As Christians, the temptation is to make that promise about Jesus, yet Moses is clear that the prophet will be like him. It is a reminder that God works through people, like Moses, like Joshua who will succeed him, and like Mary the mother of Jesus.

The Holy One’s commitment to using human beings to enact change in human history is amplified that in the most compelling and interventionist act of God in the world–the Incarnation–God comes into the world as a human being to bring the restoration and redemption that no other strategic, gracious, and powerful initiative has done. Jesus will later be sent into the world, after a long line of faithful and prolific prophets, known and unknown, have given voice to God’s perspective in the world. Jesus was not the last prophet, but they were the model one, inviting all to share in the ministry of reconciliation, justice, and love.

Like Moses will transition leadership to Joshua, Christ sends the Holy Spirit to form “all those who practice it” into the church, the body of Christ–collective eyes, ears, voice, and hands of God at work in the world. That’s good news. Arise and shine for the works.

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.
“There are writers who write for fame. And there are writers who write because we need to make sense of the world we live in; writing is a way to clarify, to interpret, to reinvent. We may want our work to be recognized, but that is not the reason we write. We do not write because we must; we always have a choice. We write because language is the way we keep a hold on life. With words we experience our deepest understandings of what it means to be intimate. We communicate to connect, to know community.”
― bell hooks

For Further Reflection
“The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.” ― Émile Zola
“Have regular hours for work and play; make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well. Then youth will bring few regrets, and life will become a beautiful success.” ― Louisa May Alcott
“Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at //ucc.org/SermonSeeds.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), 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 below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.