Scripture: Psalm 111
The Work of God
Depending on your generation, this phrase may invoke an image of Bugs Bunny or a series of beer commercials that celebrated friendship.
But for a lot of folks–especially those of roughly my generation–this has just become how we greet one another.
[pantomime with phone]
RING RING! “Hello?……Oh, hey! What’s up?”
It’s how we move the conversation from the initial greeting (“hello?”) to its purpose (what are we going to talk about).
But it’s a very multifaceted question, really. We use it to inquire about someone’s health, about how work’s going, about what they’re doing at that precise moment, about what they need from us–to name just a few. It can express concern, compassion, camaraderie, and a whole bunch of things that don’t start with the letter C but I’m a preacher and can’t help myself sometimes.
In an average day, who knows how many times we ask one another “What’s up?” But I wonder how many of us–at any point in the day–ask God the same question.
It’s actually the question that is at the heart of Psalm 111–our scripture reading for this morning. In it the psalmist lays out some descriptions of the kinds of things God is up to–he paints a picture of what the work of God looks like, and it’s a picture that includes both descriptions and examples.
“Great are the works of the Lord;
they are pondered by all who delight in them.
Glorious and majestic are his deeds,
and his righteousness endures forever.”
(Psalm 111:2-3 NIV)
The work of God is described as “great,” “glorious,” “majestic,” and “righteous.” But it’s also not immediately or easily comprehended. The work of God is something we must contemplate in order to comprehend it more fully. We should–we must!–use our full creative capacities as we ponder and wrestle with the question of what God is up to in our lives and the world.
“He has caused his wonders to be remembered;
the Lord is gracious and compassionate.”
(Psalm 111:4 NIV)
The work of God is memorable. It is defined by grace and compassion–two of the characteristics that are at the heart of who God is. Jesus will state that it is “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt 12:34; Lk 6:35 NRSV), and “You will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:16, 20), so we can indeed know the heart of God by paying attention to what God does. The “fruits” of God’s work demonstrate that “the Lord is gracious and compassionate.”
“He provides food for those who fear him;
he remembers his covenant forever.”
(Psalm 111:5 NIV)
As an illustration of the compassionate and gracious nature of our God, the psalmist offers this example: God is a god who feeds the faithful. And while you could certainly take this completely literally to mean that God provides food for us, I’m pretty sure the psalmist actually intended “food” here in the “daily bread” sense of the Lord’s Prayer. God is involved in providing the ordinary things that are required for life in this world: food, yes, but also covering/sheltering/protecting/healing our bodies, assisting us in getting to and from the places we need to go, and all the other mundane things that make up the ordinary business of life.
“He has shown his people the power of his works,
giving them the lands of other nations.”
(Psalm 111:6 NIV)
The work of God gives space and place. It’s easy to narrow our focus down to Old Testament times and talk about how having a land of their own was important to ancient Israel. Without a land of their own, they didn’t believe they could be a proper “people,” and thus they couldn’t be who God called them to be: a light to the nations.
But the fact is that space and place is just as important today. It is terrible to feel out of place. It is soul-wrenching to experience that there is no space for you to be yourself–that unique creation God has crafted you to be. Communities of Christ such as this one should have such hospitality at their heart and identity that everyone can find their place here, and everyone can have the space to “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling,” as Paul says in Philippians 2:12.
“The works of his hands are faithful and just;
all his precepts are trustworthy.
They are established for ever and ever,
enacted in faithfulness and uprightness.”
(Psalm 111:7-8 NIV)
At this point, the psalmist again moves back to adjectives instead of actions in talking about the work of God. The work of God is faithful, just, trustworthy, and enduring. What is God up to? What is God crafting? Well, we can be sure God is acting in a way that is faithful. God is pursuing justice–a concept in the Old Testament that involves righting wrongs and lifting up and protecting those who are most easily taken advantage of. We can indeed trust God to act this way, and we can have the confidence that the work of God is not aimed at temporary gains, but rather eternal permanence. What God has in mind is nothing short of the redemption of all of creation, a facet of which the psalmist mentions in the next verse.
“He provided redemption for his people;
he ordained his covenant forever.”
(Psalm 111:9 NIV)
The work of God (moreover) is redeeming and relational. Now redemption is a complex term in Hebrew. It is used to talk about being liberated from slavery, about being saved from marauding enemies, about being “bought” out of jail, and about escaping the consequences of bad decisions, to name a few different shades of meaning. But however we imagine redemption, it invariably involves being freed from things that hold us back so we might live into who God desires us to become.
And this liberating work of God happens because God created us as friends. We were made to be in relationship–with God and with each other. And this relationship God desires with us is something that undergirds the work of God as well as secures it for all of eternity.
Of course, this talk of friendship and redemption can’t help but lead me to Jesus. He famously insisted to his followers in John 15 that they are not his servants but his friends (John 15:14-15)–a fact that they should have already realized because “friend” is the way Jesus greeted almost everyone. That Jesus invites us into friendship continues to be one of the most challenging and rewarding mysteries of the Christian life.
But I’m also reminded of another teaching of Jesus–a teaching that talks about the work Jesus himself is going to be doing. And Jesus’ work sounds an awful lot like the work of God as described in Psalm 111 (which we ought to expect). In Luke 4, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry–in fact, this is the very first “teaching” that Jesus does, according to Luke’s gospel–Jesus goes to synagogue (that’s like Jewish church). He was invited to read and preach, and he chose a text from Isaiah 61–verses that I believe are Jesus’ theme verses for life and ministry. We’ll read from Luke’s account:
‘When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”‘ (Luke 4:16–21 NRSV)
Here–at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry–Jesus tells the world what kind of work he’s going to be doing. It is good news to the poor. It involves liberty for captives. It involves the restoration of those who are not whole. It involves fighting against oppression. And it involves initiating a kind of “jubilee year,” when everything goes back to the way it should be, and the playing field is leveled in a way it has not been in ages–if ever.
This is the work of Jesus–and as the most complete revelation of God the world has ever known, it is not surprising that the work of Jesus and the work of God are one and the same.
Fear of God
Which brings us back to the psalm–and back to us. Our psalm today ends with a verse that is rather familiar–an adage of sort that we sometimes parrot around. In v.10, we read:
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all who follow his precepts have good understanding.”
Now, some of you know of my background in biblical languages. And if I had the ability to change just one thing about every single translation in existence, I would change this word “fear.” It’s not that I don’t like what the Bible is saying–it’s that the bible isn’t saying what we’re translating it to say.
In the English language today, fear means “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined.” Some version of this is the #1 definition in any dictionary you look to. But distress is the polar opposite of what the psalmist intends. The psalmist intends us to recognize with awe and reference and respect the reality of who God is. It’s not that being afraid of eternal condemnation is the beginning of wisdom, but rather that truly recognizing the place God should occupy in our lives and world–that is the beginning of wisdom.
The reason so many translations still use “the fear of the Lord” in places like this is because of tradition: it was that way in the King James Version 400 years ago and people liked it, so we’re going to keep it that way. Unfortunately, language changes and evolves, and the term “fear” here is just one such example of how we can misunderstand scripture if we do not change and evolve along with.
Here, the psalmist insists that recognizing the reality of who God is prompts in us a discovery that is called “the beginning of wisdom.” This recognition and discovery is the foundation of everything God intends for us and creation. And it drives us toward following the way of living that God has marked for us throughout the Old Testament, and which Jesus demonstrated most fully for us in the New Testament.
If we recognize God rightly, it will have consequences for how we live–we will “follow God’s precepts,” as the psalmist says. Or jumping to the New Testament: “Now by this we may be sure that we know him [that is, Jesus], if we obey his commandments.” (1John 2:3 NRSV).
You see, if we are following in the way of Jesus–if we really recognize the one true God–then we’re going to be involved in the same kinds of things that Jesus and God have done and continue to do in the world. We too will:
bring good news to the poor.
proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
let the oppressed go free,
and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (cf. Luke 4:18-19)
If we mean what we say when we confess Jesus as Lord, then (alongside our God and savior), we too will:
act with grace and compassion
feed those starving for survival, and support each other in the mundane requirements of the day
create the spaces and places for people to discover God, to pursue their walk of faith, and to experience welcome.
pursue justice for those on the margins and invest in the things that endure
will be involved in the redemption of all of creation, working alongside God in the re-creation of all things new.
May God help us to be about the work of God that has already been initiated around us. May our work reflect that of our Savior and Maker.