Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

In the first clause of the Apostles’ Creed, God is described as being “almighty.” This term has plenty of synonyms, but often our imaginations gravitate to the sense that God’s almightiness means that God is powerful, unable to be bested in a test of strength, or capable of doing anything. We might even repeat logical conundrums to illustrate this, such as “Can God create a rock too heavy for God to lift?” Likewise, when I ask my students to tell me what comes to their minds when they consider that God is almighty, they highlight God’s power to do whatever God wants to do. As they sometimes say, God’s will is bigger and stronger than any other will. I found myself returning to the Creed and these observations as I read the appointed texts for this Sunday, because while they do speak of God’s “almightiness,” they also challenge our prevailing understanding of this notion.

Both the psalm and the Old Testament reading point toward God’s actions as evidence of God’s power. Psalm 146 speaks of the God “who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them” (Psalm 146:6). Nothing was made that was not made by God. Isaiah – in a text that seems to speak from something closer to exile than an established kingdom – encourages the people of Judah to recognize that God “will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you” (Isaiah 35:4). The psalm even concludes by extolling God’s eternal reign (Psalm 146:10).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus displays this almightiness in a peculiar manner: by healing the hearing and speech of one person. This certainly fits into our prevailing notion of God’s almightiness; that is, even the oddities of the natural world – tragic or otherwise – can be affected by God’s will and power. The crowd’s exclamation, “He even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak” (Mark 7:37) echoes the Old Testament reading and the psalm, where similar physical afflictions are healed (Isaiah 35:5; Psalm 146:8). Nonetheless, there is more here to be seen. In other words, the point is not simply about what God is capable of doing.

In his wonderful book Tokens of Trust, Rowan Williams discusses this opening section of the Apostles’ Creed. Commenting on the prevailing notion of “almighty,” he writes, “If ‘I believe in God the Father almighty’ means ‘I believe that there is somewhere an unlimited power that can choose and perform anything it likes, and I need to be on the right side of it,” that . . . could be very unsettling indeed” (p. 15). Instead, he offers “seeing [almightiness] as a way of saying that God always has the capacity to do something fresh and different, to bring something new out of a situation – because nothing outside himself can finally frustrate his longing” (p. 16).

In this light, the healing of the deaf and mute man reveals something of God’s character, an insight that reframes other aspects of the psalm reading. God is the one who “executes justice for the oppressed,” who “gives food to the hungry, and who “sets the prisoners free” (Psalm 146:7). The Isaiah passage gives a broader eschatological picture of a world where not only the deaf, blind, and mute are healed, but also one where water springs forth from the desert (Isaiah 35:6-7).

The provision for the dry ground (both literal and metaphorical) and the concern for justice are found in the New Testament epistle reading as well. James challenges the favoritism of the congregation not with a generic principle of equality, but with the actions and character of God: “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him” (James 2:5)? In fact, he tips the scales toward the poor since the rich oppress the poor and defame the church (James 2:6). Indeed, as the psalmist declares, God “watches over the strangers” and upholds the orphan and the widow” (Psalm 146:9).

Moreover, when we move to the famous discussion of faith and works, we do not find remarkable feats of strength as evidence of faith. Instead, the works that are credited to faith are caring for the poor and hungry – activities that highlight the fullness of the kingdom promised to God’s people. The James passage, then, extends from the Gospel reading to draw the church into view. That is, the faith that is alive when accompanied by works of mercy is the collective faith of the church.

When taken together, we see in these texts something more than an abstract philosophical discussion of God’s capabilities. We see more than an argument about whether faith or works is effective for individualistic salvation. And we see more than a historical recounting of Jesus’ actions during his ministry. Instead, in these passages, we see a description of God’s almightiness and an invitation for the church to participate in what the almighty God is doing in the world. To do so – to paraphrase Williams – we must look to make something fresh out of what has gone stale, to repair and restore what has been broken. However, this requires that our eyes are opened, our hearing is healed, and our tongues are released so that we can truly bear witness to God’s coming kingdom.

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