I want to invite you to close your eyes for a moment. As you close them, I want you to imagine heaven on earth. What does it look like? What does it smell like? Feel like? Who is there with you? What are your greatest hopes for this future? Okay, you can open your eyes now. I want you to hold that image in your head as we hear this psalm. Psalm 146 is the beginning of the last five psalms known as the Final Hallel because each begins and ends with that hallelujah which is translated as Praise the Lord in our translation! Hear now Psalm 146.
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Did your vision of heaven on earth match what the psalmist envisions? What was the same? Different? The psalmist is calling us, the people of God, to a beautiful vision of the world. We know that the world does not look like this vision right now. We see wars and climate change and greed and racism run rampant throughout. But part of faith is hope. Hope in a better world. And not a passive hope, but an active hope that works in our own individual and collective ways to build this new world. But you can’t build unless you have a vision!
In the Hebrew, the language that this psalm was originally written and sung in, the psalmist uses the same verb, (ʿāśâ), to describe God creating the world, (yoseh) the world, and God’s giving of justice, (yoseh) of justice, for the oppressed. God’s creation and God’s liberation are tied together. The psalmist vision for the world and our participation in liberation are tied together. To create the new world we also need liberation for the current one.
This psalm gives us a beautiful and compelling vision of a world healed, people restored, and all of creation becoming whole. As people who live in this world but also have a vision for a better world where all are cared for, we have to keep this vision in front of us. We are given promises of God’s creative and liberative actions that we can hold on to on those days when it just seems out of reach. We can pray the Lord’s prayer with assurance that God is working for earth as it is in heaven.
One of my favorite literary genres is fantasy and science fiction. In the last two years I have learned about a subcategory of these genres called speculative fiction or visionary fiction. This genre uses fiction to help people dream about a better future. It calls us to imagine what the world could look like in different futures. It might also be used to show us futures that could happen if things do not change. Think about Star Trek for the positive view and Handmaid’s Tale for the negative view. But this genre is being used today in organizing spaces for justice. Check out Octavia Butler, Ursula le Guin, and adrienne maree brown. It is being used by people long oppressed to envision a different future. To give us hope. To give us courage. To give us the determination to make it happen. (adrienne maree brown “All Organizing is Science Fiction.”)
Verse 5 of this psalm begins with the word “happy.” “Happy are those whose help is in the God of Jacob…” Professor Nancy deClaissé-Walford showed me this week that this Hebrew word for happy, ‘ešer, which is used 26 times in the psalms, is probably derived from a word that means “to follow a particular path.” (Nancy deClaissé-Walford.) This shows us that the happiness that the psalmist speaks of is one that comes from following the right path. From choosing the path of creation and liberation. Choosing the path that tries to find heaven on earth. The path that dreams and works for a better world for all.
So church, we see that the psalmist encourages us to envision heaven on earth. The psalmist shows us that God’s creative action of making this beautiful and wonderful world is working in tandem with God’s liberative actions of justice for the oppressed. Even as we enjoy the fruits of this world we also see the oppression and in God’s world the fruits of the world and the freedom of prisoners go hand in hand. And this is where we come in. We have a vision to work toward. We have a promise that God is working with us. So we must become the hands and feet, the eyes and ears, the muscles and organs of Christ to start this work together. We must envision the future and turn that fiction into reality.
We are encouraged by activist and speculative author, adrienne maree brown, who reminds us that we are living inside someone’s imagination. The systems we have. The divisions we have. The boundaries we have. These were all created by people. So if we are brave enough to imagine something new, then perhaps we can start to work with like minded folx to build that future. Hold onto your visions. Build upon them with your neighbors. And experience the happiness of God as we follow the path to flourishing of all!