Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 10, 2017
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 Commentary
Psalm 85 is a fine choice for this second Sunday of Advent. Anticipating the Gospel reading from Mark 1 in which John the Baptist begins to announce that salvation is near, verse 9 declares, “Surely his salvation is near those who fear him.” In the same vein, verse 13 concludes the Psalm with words that recall the promise of Old Testament reading from Isaiah 40. “Righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps.”
Psalm 85 is also fitting because the prayers of God’s ancient people so accurately foreshadow the Advent prayers of Christians today. The Psalm begins with a recollection of God’s past deliverance. “You showed favor to your land, O Lord; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sin. You set aside your wrath and turned from your fierce anger.” Though those words could be an allusion to any time of trouble, it is likely that they are primarily a reference to the return from Exile.
Not only had God restored them to their Land, but he had also reconciled them to himself. Not only had he covered their sin (expiation), but he had also satisfied his wrath (propitiation). God had “restored the fortunes of Jacob.” The word “restored” is the Hebrew word shub, which we heard again and again last week in Psalm 80. It is that classic word for repentance, but it also means simply turn, turn again, cause to turn, restore. It is found 4 times here in Psalm 85 (verses 1, 3, 4, 8, and an allusion in 6). Because Israel had turned from the sin that led to Exile, God had turned from his anger and had returned Israel to the Land and restored their relationship with himself. They had been completely saved from all their trouble by the Lord.
But now they are in trouble again, and they beg God for help, again. We aren’t told what the new trouble was, but based on hints in the text, scholars think it might have been the opposition of enemies in the early days of the return from exile, in the days of Nehemiah and Malachi. Or it might have been a time of drought to which Haggai refers. Their plea for restoration is not part of our reading for today, but even a quick reading of verses 4-7 gives a sense of their desperation.
Those verses are the prayers of Christians in Advent 2017. We’re saved completely. Christ has come and is coming again. But in the meantime, how can we live in hope? We are saved, but life is still hard—sin remains, we keep failing, enemies surround, even nature seems to be our enemy, and it sometimes seems as though God is angry, again. Robert Davidson sums up our situation on this second Sunday of Advent. “How do we continue to live in hope, trusting in God, in a world where there is so much that seems cruelly meaningless?” (I wrote the first draft of this article the day after that horrific slaughter in Las Vegas and a few weeks after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria devastated the United States.)
Of course, the answer to Davidson’s question is, prayer. In such troublesome times, when it is hard to hope, we must pray for God to come again. But how can we be sure of an answer? I mean, Jesus came a long time ago, and we have waited a long time for his second coming. It has been a long time since we have seen the glory of the Lord in our land. How can we be confident that “surely his salvation is near?”
Well, says Psalm 85, first of all, we have God’s promise. In verse 8, the Psalmist says, “I will listen to what God the Lord will say….” In a world filled with cries for help, I will pay attention to the voice of Yahweh my God. In this season of Advent, we spend a lot of time reminding ourselves of the promises of God fulfilled in the coming Christ. The Psalmist reminds us of the importance of actually listening to those promises. One of my favorite carols asks, “Do you hear what I hear?” A prior question is, do we hear at all? Are we listening to what God says today?
The rest of verse 8 summarizes all the promises of God in one word, shalom; “he promises peace to his people, his saints….” Shalom, of course, is that comprehensive word describing the state of affairs that will prevail when God puts everything right. The chaos caused by sin will be reversed and all will be right between God and humanity, between humans and each other, between humanity and nature, and within each human. There will be no more sin or suffering or death or weeping or warring or moaning anymore. And, says verse 9, that day of shalom is not far off. “Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.”
That is the central promise of Advent, but it seems so distant, so unrealistic, so unbelievable. Of course, that is because the human folly that caused the chaos in the first place is still so much with us. Psalm 85:8b issues a strong warning: “he promises peace to his people, his saints—but let them not return to folly.” That last phrase is hard to translate, but the NIV reading seems best. And it surely fits the realities of life. It is the sinful folly of humanity that destroys the shalom of God. When we act like we are God, all hell breaks loose. When we take control of our own lives, establishing our own rules for success and prosperity, assuming that we can save ourselves, we will surely die.
That’s why the end of Psalm 85 is such a comfort and delight. It reminds us that the peace of God depends not on human effort, but on God’s character. The only guarantee that our prayers for peace will be answered is the glorious person of God. Verse 9 ends with the assurance that when salvation comes to the saints, “his glory [will] dwell in the land.” Then the following verses reveal the glory of the Lord, using all the familiar words of the covenant—love (chesed), faithfulness (emit), righteousness (sediq), peace (shalom).
Verses 10-11 are among the most beautiful description of God’s glory in the Bible, because of the way those familiar words are combined. One scholar summed them up like this. “God’s sure mercies spring from his covenant love, to which, in his faithfulness and righteousness, he remains true, and that assures his people’s shalom.” That is lovely, but how much lovelier is the picture of “love and faithfulness meeting together,” or of “righteousness and peace kissing each other,” or of “faithfulness springing forth from the earth, and righteousness looking down from heaven.”
In his landmark book, When Justice and Peace Embrace, Nicholas Wolterstorff, points out how the interests of justice and peace are often in conflict. Those who seek justice are often not very peaceful; we must make things right even if it means war. Those who seek peace, on the other hand, are sometimes blind to the concerns of justice. Wolterstorff points out that true shalom will come only when justice and peace embrace. That, says Psalm 85, is already the case in the person of God.
Human beings are always divided, not only from each other, but within ourselves. We have competing ideas, warring desires, conflicting loyalties. As Paul put it in Romans 7, “The good that I would, I do not, and the evil that I would not, that I do.” We have split personalities, have double minds, and so we are full of inconsistencies. But God is not like that. All the dimensions of God’s personhood are unified. All of God’s attributes are integrated. All of God’s thoughts and desires are in perfect harmony. Thus, we can be sure that God’s desire, intent, purpose and plan to bless his people will be fulfilled.
The closing verses of Psalm 85 look with assurance to the day when God will restore his creation to its primal goodness. “The Lord will indeed give what is good” (an echo of God’s recurring blessing in Genesis 1, “it was good”). His “righteousness (his perfect faithfulness to all his covenant promises) goes before him and prepares the way for his steps.” Thus, we can be sure God will keep his promises. And when he does, he will put everything right and there will be shalom, as II Peter 3:13 says. “In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”
We can be sure that the beautiful promises of Advent will come true, because they have come true in Christ. The lovely description of God’s integrated attributes in Psalm 85 has become an historical reality in the incarnation of the Son of God. In him heaven and earth met. In him the promises of God were fulfilled and peace came upon the earth. In his cross, justice and love intersected for the salvation of sinners. St. Ambrose read verse 7 as humanity’s cry for the Incarnation. “Show us your unfailing love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.” And he saw verse 9 as the answer to that prayer. “Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.”
That is not a far-fetched interpretation. Think of Luke 2, where the birth of Christ the Lord is followed by the song of the angelic hosts. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those with whom he is well pleased.” Or remember John 1: 14. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling (the same word as in Psalm 85:9b) among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
So, yes, we are in trouble again. And it is hard to believe that there can be peace in this chaotic world. But our hope is anchored in who God is. And we know who God is, because “God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known (John 1:18).”
Contrast the perfect unity and harmony of God’s person with the shocking chaos of human persons. After that 64-year-old Nevadan slaughtered 59 people and wounded over 500 hundred in the Las Vegas massacre, the shooter’s brother said with horrified incomprehension, “But he was just a guy. Just a guy.” A guy who seemed normal to everyone, but inside were other forces, desires, thoughts that led to the horror. God is not like that. In God, all the multi-faceted aspects of God-ness are unified, integrated, focused on blessing even troublesome humans.
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