Yr B ~ Advent 1 ~ Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
I have a love/hate relationship with December. I love Christmas and all the festivities, but for me it all starts much too early. I’m not really in Christmas mode until around the 20th of December. Until then I’m in Advent mode. I love Advent, the tone of it, the themes, the preparation, the waiting. But I hate that it puts us so out of step with the world around us that’s in full blown hoopla all month – but I love that we offer an alternative to the crass commercialism and the hype.
One thing Advent lets us do is be real.
I wish everyone’s Christmas looked like the commercials and the holiday specials and the beautiful Hallmark cards.
I wish going home for the holidays was a source of absolute joy for everyone and not a challenging time navigating broken relationships.
I wish the season brought only memories of decked halls, hung stockings, and crowded dining rooms and not reminders of loss, or change, or distance.
Christmas is all about celebrating the birth of the Christ child – the light of the world. But if we start there we miss a hugely important part: the why!
Why do we need the Christ child anyway?
Why does the world need light? – Because it feels like we’re in darkness a lot of the time, that’s why!
While the mall is all lit up with flashing extravagance and artificial light we take the time to dare to name what’s real.
It feels pretty dark sometimes.
We’re not all that merry, thank you very much.
Now, we don’t want to wallow in it and be a wet blanket on the party, but we certainly do want to remember vividly that Christmas is an answer to a deep need, not an excuse to trot out our wish list for stuff.
Darkness is real.
Twinkling decorations and Rudolph’s red honker ain’t gonna cut it!
We need some true light to shine!
[since we are God’s hands and heart in the world we are also God’s face – so the bold “shine” was a congregation cue to turn to one another and “shine” as God’s face!]
So today we begin Advent with a lament – a heartfelt, gut-wrenching plea for God to enter into the trouble and darkness we find ourselves in and shine!
We’re going to spend the next few weeks looking at psalms. Reading a psalm is like reading a person’s diary. It’s filled with emotions, and opinions, and lays bare the questions that are swirling inside a poet’s head. A psalm is not a refined theological argument – it’s a love letter, or a rant, or a question, or a lament, or sometimes all those wrapped up in one poem.
For the psalmist God is ‘right here’ on one line and ‘terrifyingly absent’ the next – life is great then life is awful. Psalms are about real life, and wrestling in the muck of life, and sometimes they aren’t very pretty. But God always comes through in the end, albeit often in unexpected ways. Psalms are literally songs for worship, songs designed as intimate and sometimes corporate expressions of prayer.
So, when a psalmist says “God is angry with our prayers” or “God has turned God’s face away” we shouldn’t take it as a fact but a feeling.
We should insert the words “it feels like…” in front of those kinds of statements in a psalm.
It feels like God is angry with our prayers.
It feels like God has turned God’s face away.
Just because you say something in your diary doesn’t mean it’s factually true – it’s just the way the world looks to you at that moment in time.
Now, if you think you’ve got troubles, you should see what the psalmist was dealing with. Quick history lesson.
Back in the day the Jewish people consisted of 12 tribes named after the sons of Jacob. United under King David and then divided under his son Solomon – over tax issues! – they became two kingdoms – the Northern, called Israel which was 10 of the tribes, and the Southern, called Judah which was 2 tribes. The power was in the south!
Psalm 80 came from the Northern kingdom and was written while the country called Assyria was breathing down their necks and would eventually wipe them out. So when the psalmist says the world seems pretty dark they meant it! They figured if their political fortunes were bad that God must be punishing them for their sins, which is not how it works, but that’s what they thought, so they pray for restoration – that “it felt like” God had turned God’s face away from them and they knew they needed to see God’s face shine again.
The psalmist wants to be saved. What does that mean? What does it mean to be saved in this context? Well it doesn’t mean a ticket to heaven and a dose of fire insurance. To be saved means to be delivered from your troubled state of being. Listen carefully, because this isn’t what we usually hear from Christians on the TV or radio.
To be saved means to be delivered from your troubled state of being – it does NOT mean to be delivered from your troubles! There’s a huge difference.
If you think salvation means your life will be trouble free, that God will swoop in and give you a million bucks, take away your illnesses, and make your life all sunshine and unicorns you’re in for a very unhappy reality check. That’s not what being saved means.
Again, it means to be delivered from your troubled state of being.
It’s salvation from your frame of mind.
It means salvation from yourself!
It’s curious that they feel like God has turned God’s face away but their prayer isn’t for God to turn back it’s for God to turn them back!
They know that God is always for them.
They know that God is always open armed and longing to embrace them.
And they know that the reason they’re feeling the darkness so profoundly is because they themselves had turned away.
So their prayer is “restore us – turn us back.” It’s the same root word as ‘repent’ but the power for the turning back comes from God. I get the sense that they don’t know how to do it so they ask God to turn them back – and they know that is what will save them.
Now we’re ready.
What does it mean to be saved?
What does salvation look like?
What does deliverance look like?
It looks like God’s face…shining!
When darkness is all around the best thing in the world is God’s face…shining!
In the midst of lament, when the world’s caving in, when nothing seems right, salvation is to feel the warm glow of the love of God’s Presence piercing through the gloom and …shining on you!
Here’s the thing though. It sounds so easy – just ask God to turn you around and boom, God’s face lights up your life.
But it’s not easy. It’s really hard work. Really hard work!
In fact, if you read this carefully you might wonder whether the psalmist and the people really want to do the hard work. It seems like they’re more interested in the magic wand solution. Sound familiar?
But God wasn’t born yesterday. God’s heard it all before. Imagine God’s reaction to verses 17 and 18:
“But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself. Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.”
Oh God, if you just get me out of this, I promise I’ll never…
And then they climb the whining ladder with their refrain. They’re like a kid trying to get something they want from their mom. You start out: “Mom” then it’s “Mommieee” then it’s “Mommmmieeeee-eeee-eee!!!!!!!!!”
In verse 3 it’s “Restore us, O God” then in verse 7 it’s “Restore us, O God of hosts” then in verse 19 it’s “Restore us, O LORD God of hosts!”
God! Great God! Really Great God! We reeeeeaaaaallllyyyyy mean it!!!
It’s not that their prayer and plea is wrong. It’s not that they’re being unfaithful. And for all I know they may be the most sincere and theologically grounded people on the planet. But it feels like they’re bargaining to me. I think their lament is honest and valid. I think their prayer is spot on – turn us around, and save us by letting your face shine upon us.
We just need to do it without the magic wand part – without the bargaining – without the ‘if you just get me out of this’ bit.
Advent is a long season because light doesn’t come with the flick of a switch on demand. We need to prepare ourselves to receive it. It can’t be bought at a Black Friday sale.
The hard work is our humble heart.
The hard work is opening our closed hands.
The hard work is realizing we’re not the centre of the universe.
The hard work is admitting that there is darkness and your own power is insufficient to light it.
The really hard work is understanding that salvation and deliverance may not include solving your immediate issue. Deep faith is basking in the glowing face of God whether you win the war or not, whether your health improves or not, whether your wallet’s full or not.
Turning and being lit through and through by the face of hope empowers you to thrive in life whatever your circumstances. Christmas lights twinkle on the surface; the light of the world fills you to your depths so fully and completely that you yourself ooze light from every pore of your body and you become the face of hope for others.
That’s worth waiting for!
And so our Advent waiting begins:
waiting for openness,
waiting for awareness,
waiting for the courage to allow God to turn us around,
waiting for the shalom of seeing the face of hope,
waiting for the warm glow of basking in the light of the world,
waiting for God’s face to look upon us…and shine!