Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 3, 2023
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 Commentary
The Lectionary directed us to Psalm 80 not long ago during Year A on October 3 and now here it is again at the head of Advent for Year B. If you want to see the commentary on this from just two months ago, you can click here. For this commentary we will look at Psalm 80 through an Advent lens.
If you do look at the previous commentary, you will see a focus on the thrice-repeated refrain in Psalm 80 about asking God to make his face to shine upon us and revive us again. The Lectionary may have chosen this for the First Sunday in Advent partly because of that. After all, we believe that the human face of the incarnate Christ is the face of God now in human form. There is a sense in which Jesus came to let God’s face—his own face—shine upon us and save us. Remembering John’s Gospel and its opening words, we know that the Word of God made flesh was the light that shines in the darkness. That Word-made-flesh was also said to have light within him and that that light is our very life now.
Or think of the conclusion of Revelation and the vision of the heavenly city that descends onto this new earth. We are told there by John of Patmos that the city will not need a sun to shine on it because the Lamb of God will be its Light, its source of all illumination. And in between John 1 and Revelation 22 we get also the Transfiguration in which Peter, James, and John saw the truly blinding nature of Christ’s glory as it shone from the face of the glorified Jesus.
All of that has Advent and Christmas resonances for certain. But one suspects that another reason for connecting Psalm 80 to Advent is from what we read in verses 17 and 18 where the psalmist asks God to let his hand rest upon the head of the one at his right hand, on “the son of man whom you have raised up for yourself.” Did this psalmist have it in mind that the Messiah would one day be identified as the “son of man”? Likely not. There are references throughout the psalms, starting already in Psalm 2, to a figure associated with God and called a “son.” But in the immediate context of the composition of the Psalms, probably this was a reference to David or to a king of Israel in the line of David.
The full-blown connection to the ultimate Son of Man and Son of David, to the one we now identify as Jesus born in Bethlehem, was at best nascent in something like Psalm 80 and it is mostly in retrospect that we now go back to those passages and reinterpret them in the light of Christ. But that is not necessarily imposing a meaning on those words that we are shoe-horning in whether they fit well or not.
After all, the Church has long believed that under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the human authors of Scripture told more than they knew. Or to put it another way, they were conveying more than they could fully grasp in the moment. Their words had both an immediate application to and resonance with their surroundings and the time in which they lived but they also ended up having multiple applications to things yet to come. A prophet like Isaiah might have mostly had one mountain peak of prophetic fulfillment in mind on some of the things he predicted but his prophetic words ended up having multiple peaks of fulfillment in multiple places and persons for centuries to come. A given biblical writer may have been seeing just the one mountain peak but we now get to look farther and see the entire mountain range of many peaks. So reading something about the son of man back into Psalm 80 and connecting it to the child born in Bethlehem seems to be a warranted exercise in hermeneutics.
And indeed, we do believe that in the person of the incarnate Son of God and Son of Man and Son of David, God’s face shines on us now in ways never before possible. Because Christ made his righteousness our own, there is no need to fear that God’s countenance will ever again darken when looking at us. We do not live under a divine scowl but a divine smile that really is like rays of sunshine on our faces. And since a key theme in Psalm 80 is the plea to revive the people again after a time of judgment on their sinful lives—and since verse 18 talks about that revival and how the son of man will be the one to make sure that God’s people will never turn away from him ever again—this too can be seen as the fruit of Christ’s saving death and resurrection.
To quote a stanza of one of the most-sung Advent and Christmas carols of this Advent Season:
O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light.
[Check out our special Advent and Christmas Resources page for even more preaching and worship ideas, sample sermons, and more for Advent 2023.]
In one of his sermons Neal Plantinga told the (likely apocryphal) story of a farm couple who lived in a very rural area in the days before electricity. The woman was pregnant and sometime soon after midnight one morning went into labor. The husband sent for the doctor who arrived soon and began to help the woman deliver her child while the husband held a lantern aloft so the doctor could see what he was doing. Soon the child was born. But then the doctor said, “Wait a moment! There is another one coming. You have twins!” And sure enough another child was born. But then . . . “Wait a minute! It’s triplets! Another one is coming.” Soon the farmer began to edge out of the room. “Hey, come back here with that lantern” the doctor shouted. “Oh no,” the husband relied, “It’s the light that attracts ‘em!”
Christmas is often called a “Season of Light” and although in much of the world this gets mostly caught up these days with Christmas lights and quasi (if not actual) neighborhood competitions to see who can put up the most holiday lights—think of the Griswold family in the well-known Chevy Chase movie pictured above—in the end every bulb that twinkles goes back finally to the One born in Bethlehem’s stall, all meanly wrapped in swaddling cloths but who was, even in that moment in that dim stable, the Light of the World, the Light that shines in the darkness but that the darkness cannot put out.
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