Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 18, 2016
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 Commentary
On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, just a week away from Christmas, it is easy to imagine those shepherds already in the fields keeping watch over their sheep, completely unaware of what is going to happen to them in just a few days. But we can’t go there yet. It is not Christmas yet; it’s still Advent, this season of waiting, expectation, hope, and, often, more than a little desperation. That is certainly the mood of Psalm 80, where the people of Israel turn to their Shepherd King and beg him to “awaken, come, and save” his flock.
The passionate tone of this Advent Psalm is clearly out of touch with my favorite little secular carols that bounces “over the valley and through the woods” to grandmother’s house. This desperate prayer for revival will prepare us for the coming of the Son of Man, so that we can have a much deeper and more joyful celebration of the Father’s gift to the human race. I call this a prayer for revival because of its thrice repeated refrain. With growing urgency (note the additional names for God in each successive petition), God’s waiting people pray, “Restore us, O God, make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved (verses 3, 7, 19).” Verse 18 in the NIV even uses the word revive; “revive us, and we will call on your name.” On this last Sunday before the Big Event, the lectionary leads us to pray for revival.
Now I am well aware that “revival” is a bad word in some circles. We have this Elmer Gantry picture of revivals—you know, big tents with sawdust floors, organs on full tremolo playing “Just As I Am,” large florid evangelists in full tropical sweat. When we hear the word revival, some of us imagine emotional, manipulative, often dishonest and money-grubbing displays of the worst in fundamentalist Christianity.
Others of us will hear that word and recall John Calvin’s teaching that the entire Christian life is to be a daily renewal, a constant revival of our walk with God, a continual conversion. Those of us who know that understanding of the Christian life are theologically uncomfortable with the big one-time revival events.
Well, I share all of that discomfort with the word “revival,” but I want to suggest to you that we should nevertheless put this prayer before our people not only in this season of Advent, but all year long. Let us pray regularly for personal revival, church-wide renewal, spiritual restoration, using this thrice repeated prayer. “Restore us, O God, make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.”
The fact that it is repeated three times in this short Psalm tells us that the ancient people of God had no question about their need for revival. They had been wonderfully blessed by God. He had rescued them by miraculous force from bondage in Egypt, led them through the howling wilderness of Sinai giving them bread from heaven and water from the rock, and then planted them like a vine in the rich soil of Palestine. By the blessing of God, they had overrun that land, until they filled it from the north to the south, from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates River (verses 8-11). That had been the Golden Age of Israel.
But now the gold had faded, as verses 12-13 so painfully describe. A great nation from the north was plucking their grapes, conquering this city and then that village, taking away this tribe and then threatening another, so that the whole Kingdom of God was in mortal danger. Refugees clogged the streets of Jerusalem, reports of further enemy invasions filled the air, the sound of weeping was everywhere, and the future of God’s chosen people, his Old Testament church, was very much in doubt. Many scholars think the reference here is to the Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom.
The worst thing about their situation was their knowledge that God was behind all the trouble, as verses 4-6 and 16 so clearly say. For part of their history, Israel had the crazy thought that they were a self-made nation, that they didn’t really need God, or at least that God wasn’t as important as the prophets said he was. Well, we don’t hear any of that kind of talk in Psalm 80. By now they knew that the God who uprooted them from Egypt and planted them in Canaan had now ripped them up and exposed them to the power of the enemy from the north. They sensed that God’s frown glowered behind the clouds of invasion and war that loomed off there in the north. They even felt that God was angry with their prayers (verse 4), or at least that God’s anger wasn’t swayed by their prayers.
So with a sense of desperation they cry out to God, “O God, let your hand rest upon us, revive us, restore us, make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.” They knew that they needed revival more than anything. But do we? That is the biggest question for your sermon on Psalm 80. Is this a prayer we need to take on our lips? Do we need revival? I hear very different answers to that in the church today.
On the one side are those who believe that the church is in terrible shape, in mortal danger of being overrun by the enemy. Some think it’s because the church has torn loose from its historical biblical/doctrinal roots, while others believe it’s because the church has gotten stuck in a rut and refuses to follow the new leading of God’s Spirit. But all of these people think the church is in trouble and that something needs to be done about it. There are myriad opinions about exactly what that “something” might be.
On the other side of this revival question are those who think the church is just fine. Folks in my last church often said, “Look, we’re gaining members, we have wonderful worship, we offer a wide variety of programs, we support missions enthusiastically, our people are engaged in works of justice and mercy and witness all over the city, we raise our children to follow Jesus, etc., etc.” Such people say, “The church has never been better. Don’t beat up on us again just because you have a bee in your bonnet.” We don’t need revival; we’re just fine.
So, there’s the question. Do we need to pray for revival? I’ve been thinking and praying about this for some time now, and I’d like to share some thoughts I’ve gleaned from here and there to stimulate your thinking and preaching. In a book entitled Reclaiming the Church: Where the Mainline Church Went Wrong and What to Do about It, John Cobb (himself a mainliner) charges the mainline church with lukewarmness. That, of course, is a reference to Rev. 3:16, where Jesus said to the church at Laodicea, “because you are lukewarm—neither hot not cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
What does lukewarmness amount to? Cobb says it is a “low intensity of shared feelings… a low degree of passionate interest and a low valuation of faith and church.” Ask him what that means and he answers that a truly alive church is one that is culturally engaged, a church in touch with its world, speaking and listening to it and ministering to the needs of the world. The church needs to be revived, says Cobb, because it is so lukewarm that it isn’t passionately involved with the world.
Others suggest that the trouble with the church is precisely that it has gotten so involved with the world that it has become just like the world. Louis Dupre, a professor at Yale, says, “We have all become atheists, not in the hostile, antireligious sense of an earlier age, but in the sense that God no longer matters absolutely…, if God matters at all.” He says it is harder to be a Christian in our secular age than it has ever been in the history of the world, because Christianity has become simply one element of civilization among many others, and by no means the most important. So we can be Christians in the same way that we are Republicans, and stamp collectors, and Cubs’ fans, and golfers. Rather than being the very center of life, God has become one small part. We don’t love him with heart and soul and mind and strength.
And that, for me, is the greatest sign that we need revival, and need it desperately. Do you remember the final words of Mother Theresa, that frail little woman who had wrestled with many a dark night of the soul as she went about doing good in Jesus’ name. As she breathed her last, she said, “Jesus, I love you. Jesus, I love you.” Would those be your last words? Are they the constant prayer of your heart right now? In Rev. 2:4, Jesus said to the church at Ephesus, “I hold this against you. You have forsaken your first love.”
That was Israel’s first sin and great sin, and it may well be ours. Alas, it is a sin of which we are scarcely aware. Here’s how Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch theologian and statesman, put it in his classic devotional, Near Unto God. “Let’s face it, heinous public sin—adultery, murder, theft—prompts its own regret. We know we’ve done wrong. Shame tells us as much. But who among us really feels himself or herself in violation of the command to love God with everything. Very, very few.” And that is the heart of the problem—why we don’t put God at the very center, why we aren’t passionately involved in saving God’s world, why we need revival. We have lost our first love, and we don’t even know it.
What are we going to do about it? What can we do about what’s wrong with the church? How can we make people, including ourselves, love God more? How can we put God back at the center? How can we get rid of this damnable lukewarmness that dulls the passion of God’s people for God and God’s world? There are many things we can do; many people are doing them. We can feel bad about it all and get depressed and weep. We can talk to each other and to our allies and to our leaders. We can complain and caucus and lobby and protest and picket. We can re-tool, re-engineer, re-program, re-vision. Or we can withhold our funds from the church and simply leave the whole mess behind. But will any of those things create love for God, or committed faith, or passion for the lost, or any of the things we think of when we talk about revival?
Here’s what Psalm 80 tells us about revival. First, it begins with repentance. The word translated “restore us” has the deep sense of “cause us to turn.” The only way we can be revived is if we turn from our sins back to God, back from our secondary loves to our first Love.
But second, that very prayer acknowledges that we cannot make that turn on our own. “Cause us to turn.” That means revival ultimately comes from God. We can’t manufacture it or program it. That’s why Psalm 80 focuses from first to last on God, the Shepherd of Israel. Revival will come when he once again becomes the focus of our lives.
Verse 18 suggests that our focus must be on Jesus. I know, the reference there to “the man at your right hand, the son of man whom you have raised up” was first of all about Israel. But later Judaism came to see that verse as Messianic. And we Christians know the Jesus is the Son of Man, who is now at God’s right hand. Revival comes when the church once again makes Jesus the center of its life.
How can we make such a dramatic shift in our attention, our commitments, our loves? Psalm 80 tells us that we need to pray. “Restore us, O God, make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.” Yes, I see the great problem there. How can we pray such a prayer if we are lukewarm? How can we pray for revival if we are so spiritually lifeless that we don’t even know we are? Maybe the three fold repetition of this prayer gives a clue. You’ve already seen how it grows in intensity. We begin simply, with a modicum of faith, hope and love. God is simply “God (verse 3).” Then as the Spirit begins a deeper work in us, God becomes “God Almighty (verse 7).” Our awareness of God’s power grows as we pray for revival. And then by God’s grace, God becomes “O Lord God Almighty (verse 19).” “Lord” is Yahweh, the covenant name of God, the name we use when we are keenly aware of our unshakeable relationship with God.
On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, let us commit ourselves to pray for revival, wherever we are on the scale of spiritual vitality. Whether God is simply “God,” God as an idea or a distant person, or “God Almighty,” God as a force to be reckoned with, the One whose almighty hand and outstretched arm have redeemed his people, or “Lord God Almighty,” God as the Shepherd of his people who laid down his own life for his flock—wherever we are with God, we can pray for revival and by his grace he will “awaken, come, and save us.” He did it on Christmas Day long ago. He can do it again in our lives in this season of Advent.
What can we do to be revived? Consider this quote from Simone Weil. “There are people who try to raise their souls like the man continually taking standing jumps in the hopes that, if he jumps higher every day, a time will come when he no longer falls back but will go right up to the sky. Thus occupied he cannot look at the sky. We cannot take a single step upward toward heaven. It is not in our power to travel in a vertical direction. If however we look heavenward for a long time, God comes and takes us up. He raises us easily.”
Or here’s another way to look at it. Revival cannot begin until we realize our need, our desperate condition, our distance from the God we supposedly love. Consider this story told by Kierkegaard. “In a certain village the school bell rang at 8:30 AM to call the children to class. The boys and girls left their homes and toys reluctantly, creeping like snails into their school, not late but not a second early. The bells rang at 3:30 PM, releasing the children to homes and toys, to which they rushed at the very moment of the tolling of the bell. This is how is was every day, with every child, except one.
She came early to help the teacher prepare the room and the materials for the day. She stayed late to help the teacher clean the board, dust erasers, and put away materials. And during the day she sat close to the teacher, all eyes and ears, for the lessons being taught.
One day when the noise and inattention were worse than usual, the teacher called the class to order. Pointing to the little girl in the front row, the teacher said, ’Why can’t you be as she is? She comes early to help, she stays late to help, and all day long she is attentive and courteous.’
‘It isn’t fair to ask us to be as she is,’ said one boy from the rear of the room. ‘Why?’ ‘Because she has an advantage,’ he replied. ‘I don’t understand. What is her advantage?’ asked the puzzled teacher. ‘She’s an orphan,’ he almost whispered as he sat down.”
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