Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 10, 2023
Psalm 85:1-3, 8-13 Commentary
This week’s Psalm selection for the Second Sunday in Advent is in some ways very similar to last week’s selection of Psalm 80. In both psalms there are pleas for revival and restoration, for a relenting of divine anger over sin so that restoration could come to both land and people. Insofar as Advent has traditionally been a season that involves a measure of penitence in advance of the coming of the Messiah, the confessional notes sounded in Psalms 80 and 85 make sense. And indeed, this second Advent Sunday is the one when the Gospel lesson directs our attention to John the Baptist.
Yet we don’t often think much about confession of sin at this time of the year. The traditional liturgical color for Advent is purple, the same as Lent (though I am told some churches now use a shade of blue instead). Despite the role John the Baptist plays in Scripture readings in this season, we still mostly shy away from a focus on our human sinfulness. Sin and evil seem to darken the landscape at precisely the moment when we are all trying to instead dot the landscape with colorful twinkling decoration lights. Sin and evil seem like consternating topics when what we are mostly trying to do is crank up as much holiday cheer and goodwill as we can.
But the theological facts speak for themselves. The Son of God was born a human baby for exactly one key reason: to save us from our sins. God came down in flesh to restore a fractured creation, to repair a God-intended shalom from all the ways by which sinful people have vandalized it over and over again. According to the well-meaning—but now perhaps overused—slogan: “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season.” But if so, then the reason behind that reason is our fallenness and depravity.
That is why we have to pass through John the Baptist to get to Jesus and why the penitential notes sounded in Psalms 80 and 85 are needed. These musings in a confessional modality do not darken the season but illumine its actual purpose and nature. As Fred Craddock said at the end of his excellent sermon “Have You Ever Heard John Preach?” if you try to get to Bethlehem by going around John, then you might arrive in that little town but you won’t see Jesus.
Of course, one thing Psalm 85 has that is unique to this poem is the personification of love, faithfulness, peace, and righteousness starting in verse 10. The psalmist speaks of these traits or characteristics as though they are active agents in their own right. They meet. They kiss. They spring up from the earth. They prepare a path for the steps of God. It is a very curious thing to encounter.
We can chalk it up to poetic license and that is surely part of the picture here. But then again: we are in Advent. We are in the season that celebrates the incarnation of God’s only begotten Son. So maybe we can take a step beyond what the poet of Psalm 85 could have imagined and see that in Christ Jesus the Lord, all of these traits or characteristics like love, faithfulness, righteousness and peace / shalom really did come in a personal form. Jesus just is the faithfulness of God in flesh. Jesus is the very righteousness of God with skin on it. Jesus is love incarnate. Jesus embodies within his very person the shalom for which this whole cosmos was intended in the beginning.
Jesus embodies all of those things so well as to make him indistinguishable from them. They meet in him. They embrace each other in him and through him. Jesus brings the entire Kingdom of God to us in human form and invites us to unite with him so that these things get embodied by us as well. Psalm 85:13 says that righteousness goes before God and prepares the way for his steps. Now Christ does this for us. He is all our Righteousness and leads us down paths of that same Righteousness. Even as we travel that road of discipleship with him, we also get to exude and embody faithfulness and love in lives that contribute to shalom for all.
Probably the author of Psalm 85 could not have fully imagined how his personification of things like faithfulness and righteousness would play out when the Messiah finally came. Like all authors of Scripture under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit, this psalmist told more than he knew. But to wrap up this commentary, we can connect the two main things we covered here. We have to know that Christ came to save sinners and that we cannot celebrate his advent without due confession of our own need for such a salvation. But once we are forgiven and once we are credited with Christ’s own righteousness, then love and faithfulness do meet, righteousness and peace do kiss, and the path of discipleship opens before us with shalom starting to break out all over.
[Check out our special Advent and Christmas Resources page for even more preaching and worship ideas, sample sermons, and more for Advent 2023.]
This may seem to be a stretch but for some reason the personification of things like love, faithfulness, peace, and righteousness at the end of Psalm 85 reminded me of the delightful Pixar movie Inside Out. Much of the film takes place in the brain’s emotional control room of a young girl named Riley. There the core emotions of Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness are all personified and they interact with one another to help Riley navigate her way through a tumultuous time in her young life. We don’t usually isolate our feelings or think of them as having an existence of their own yet this fun movie plays around with that idea.
Similarly to the things personified at the end of Psalm 85: we think of these things as traits a person might have but not as beings in their own right. Yet in Christ, as noted above in this commentary, they do come alive and can very nearly be seen as being active agents. These things are alive in Christ and alive in us as we gain conformity to Jesus through our baptismal union with Christ.
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