Sunday, November 30, 2014

Restoring Hope -- A Meditation for Advent 1B

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
    before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
    and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.
Lord God of hosts,
    how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
    and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
    our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.
17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
    the one whom you made strong for yourself.
18 Then we will never turn back from you;
    give us life, and we will call on your name.
19 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.


                We begin the Advent season reading from Psalm 80, which offers a plea for God to restore the people, that they might be saved.  As to the nature of their distress, we’re not told.  Perhaps those crying out here are the remnant of the nation of Israel that saw its demise at the hand of the Assyrians. Whatever the original context, the people are experiencing despair and God does not seem to be present.  In fact, God seems to be the problem.  Even as their enemies are pushing in on them and their neighbors look upon them with scorn, they wonder whether it is God who looks down upon them in judgment.  After all there is a long tradition of seeing God as not only the solution, but perhaps as the problem.  Could it be that they, the ones reaching out to God, are “sinners in the hands of an angry God?”

                Three times in this reading from Psalm 80 we hear the people cry out to God, asking that God’s face would shine upon them.  They are experiencing darkness, a reality that at least in the Northern Hemisphere goes along with the season of Advent.  The days are getting shorter, and thus darker and often colder (at least in my part of the world).   With the beginnings of the Christmas shopping season now begun, we are constantly bombarded by jolly songs of Christmas along with often forced greetings of Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.  For many this is not a season of joy and laughter.  In fact, many might feel that the laughter of those around them is an act of scorn.  Could it be that those laughing are laughing at me?   It is no wonder that congregations sponsor “longest night” or “Blue Christmas” services.  Losses of jobs and loved ones, illness and despair settle in around them.  Experiencing this darkness, many long for relief, for a word of hope, a word of restoration.

                As we ponder these questions posed by the Psalmist, I should note that I am writing a meditation on Psalm 80 today instead of a sermon, for we will be hanging the greens in worship today, and thus I will not be preaching.  The choice of the Psalm comes from the decision to focus on the readings from the Psalms through the Christmas season.  Looking at the Psalms with our worship chair and our associate pastor, we discerned a theme running through the Psalms of the season – that theme is restoration – a theme that is most visible in this reading today.

                We cannot consider this cry for restoration without calling to mind the events of the week, where once again it seems as if the wheels of justice have failed communities of color.  It isn’t really the lack of an indictment that troubles.  It is the realization that the divide between white and black remain firmly in place.  Being that I am white, I am part of a community that too often believes that when the justice system rules, they have done the right thing.  For too many in the African American community encounters with law enforcement and the judicial system is anything but fair.  The protests are a cry for recognition that things must change, lest the forces of violence take the lead.  The cry goes out, “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

                As is often true in the Psalms, when the cry of dereliction goes out, it expresses the sentiment that God is absent.  There is no hope, because God is not answering.  The Psalmist doesn’t give a reason for this absence, only that God does not seem to be available when needed most.    

                At the same time there is a word here of hope.  If God will answer, God’s radiance will shine, overcoming the darkness of the moment.  As Charles Wood suggests, what is being requested here is not simply light, but a theophany – as in the Transfiguration.  What is being sought is “a manifestation of the divine reality that will restore the people to the life they are meant for.  God’s energizing radiance brings not only illumination or the assurance of favor, but life itself.”  [Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1, Advent through Transfiguration: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume), p. 12].

                In our own day, do we not cry out for signs of God’s presence?  Do we not long for that encounter that will change our lives from the inside out?  “Give us life, and we will call on your name!” 

                As the season of Advent proceeds we will find ourselves busy with many things.  There may be parties and celebrations.  There may also be times of extreme loneliness and feelings of abandonment.  The nation itself is at war with itself.  The sides are being drawn up.  Where are you God?  Where is your light?  Where is your presence?  Won’t you rest your hand upon the one seated at your right hand?  And who is this person at the right hand of God?  Could it be the messianic king?  And the prayer goes forth – make him strong, and we won’t turn away from you. 

                The journey moves us toward the light.  Christmas is that moment when the light of God is present in a child in Bethlehem.  Yes, darkness will surround him.  Herod will want to have his say (Matthew 2), but despite his violence, he can’t extinguish the light.  Caesar will have his chance, but in the resurrection the light continues to be manifest. 

                There is hope.  The Spirit remains with us.  The light is within us.  The face of God shines through us.  Yes, hope will not be extinguished.  And yet, we know that in the interim, for many people, including people in Ferguson, the light seems to be flickering.  May we join together in rekindling the flame that is within us.   

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