Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 23, 2018
Psalm 80:1-7 Commentary
If you are going to choose a Psalm of Lament for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, you may as well include the most Adventy and hopeful part of the Psalm! But the RCL did not do that, choosing to break off the reading of Psalm 80 already at verse 7. Had they gone on to verse 17, they could have tucked in a verse about some “son of man” at God’s right hand whose choosing and sending would spell hope for all Israel. In any event, if you preach on this Psalm for Advent 4—and probably not too many will—keep the end of the Psalm in mind and loop it in somehow. Skipping so obvious a reference to Christ does not make a lot of sense.
Meanwhile, what we have here are plaintive words for God’s face to shine on Israel once more. This plea is plaintive indeed because it is clear that this poem was written from exile or at least from some sore and painful pre-exile period when Israel felt that far from shining on them in fulfillment of some Aaronic Benediction, the face of Yahweh was in fact turned away from them. As such, this is a pretty typical lament psalm. It is filled with dark and bitter imagery. It is written from the depths of sorrow.
All in all, in short, this does not feel terribly Christmas-like. Yet in 2018 this is the Psalm assigned for a scant 2 days before Christmas Day. Probably most preachers will opt for the alternative reading of Mary’s “Magnificat” (which I have woven into the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent in Luke 1). But when you think about it—and as I point out in that other sermon commentary—that is not a terribly cheery song either, at least not if you count yourself among the rich and powerful of the world. Because Mary will predict their utter humiliation, their being sent away quite literally empty-handed. The Magnificat is not a Lament Psalm but it’s got its share of dark prophecy in it for sure.
What both Psalm 80 and Luke 1 may have in common, though, is the idea that when God’s Great and Coming One arrives, it will spell the great reversal of all things. Power structures are going to be upended. The least likely—including perhaps in the context of Psalm 80 Israel itself—will be liberated and sent straight to the top of the heap. Absent the advent of God’s Chosen One, though, Israel will remain lost. The wrong people will stay in charge. Those who become rich by ill-gotten-gain will get off scot free and in fact increase their wealth.
Take away the one we now call the Messiah or the Christ, and things remain rather dim. Take away God’s decisive intervention in sending his Son to this world and it’s fully possible that Psalms of Lament would become all we had left to sing.
And maybe that right there is a point worth pondering. You don’t get “Joy to the World” without a Psalm 80-like song of “How long, O Lord, how long?” coming first. You don’t get “O Come, All Ye Faithful” without faithful people from previous generations crying out for mercy, for justice, for all the wrong things in life to be made right again. There is a sense in which Advent and soon Christmas are standing on the shoulders of—or is it more upon the crushed bodies of—all those who came before. We stand upon and with all those who paved the way for the advent of the Messiah by sticking with God even though there were so many times when there was no earthy good reason to do so.
It is too easy to forget as Christians—and perhaps never more so than at Christmas—that what we celebrate this season and at all times is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. In recent centuries there has been all kinds of loopy premillennial and other forms of theology that have so thoroughly messed up a proper view of Israel—conflating the current-day secular state with God’s true Israel, which is actually now the Church—that in many Christian circles we just don’t talk about Israel much at all. Period. We sort of re-set the biblical clock to Jesus’ birth and include only Christians in the picture from then on out. Israel is a footnote. We don’t even preach much from the Old Testament anymore.
But it’s not true. That we are all Israel now does not for one millisecond vitiate the vital importance of Israel of old, of the Jewish people into whom Jesus himself was born. These are our mothers and fathers in the faith, the forerunners to all that we now know and believe. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That biblical and historical continuity is something for which to be profoundly grateful at Advent and always.
And yes, that history has times of grave failure on the part of Israel (even as the New Israel of the Church has had, to say the least, its shares of ups and downs too). And so the sense of God’s anger smoldering against his people, the sense that God had to DO something to reverse the fortunes of his people due to their sin: that is all part of our history too.
If God’s face does indeed now shine on us in this Advent Season, it is because God remained faithful to his promises to Israel that never would he abandon them. God’s face in Jesus shines on us now because it shined on Israel again and again. So if it seems odd to read an old Psalm of Lament on the very cusp of Christmas Day, perhaps it is less strange than we think. The need for God to restore us despite our sinfulness is also the reason for the season. That was Old Israel’s story and it is the New Israel’s story right up to this present moment.
“Restore us, Lord God Almighty, make your face shine on us that we may be saved.” He did. He has. He does. Thanks be to God!
In a speech he once gave at Calvin College’s “Festival of Faith & Writing,” the Nobel Prize winning author Elie Wiesel talked about Psalms of Lament. He noted that the apparent courage and chutzpah it takes to yell to God and complain to God is so typical of the Jewish mentality and spirituality. A Jew, Wiesel noted, can be for God, with God, delighted in God, angry with God, against God but the one thing that can never be true for a Jew is to be with without God.
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