Sunday, August 14, 2016

May God’s Face Shine Upon Us - Sermon for Pentecost 13C

Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19

“Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel . . . Stir up your might and come to save us!” In ages past, the Shepherd of Israel took a vine out of Egypt and planted it in a new land. This vine spread out covering the land from sea to river. It grew strong and powerful. Unfortunately, over time the vine lost its luster. For some reason the Shepherd had failed to properly care for the vine, or at least that’s the view of the Psalmist, who asks God to repent and look down upon God’s people and restore the vine to its former glory. Yes, Lord, make your face to shine upon us once again!

The message revealed in Psalm 80 is similar to the message of Isaiah 5, which is the Old Testament reading for today. In Psalm 80 the people share their lament about their treatment at the hands of God, while in Isaiah it’s God who speaks and its God who is frustrated with the people of God. Let me share a portion of the reading from Isaiah 5:
Let me sing for my beloved
   my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
   on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
   and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
   and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
   but it yielded wild grapes.
 (Is. 5:1-2).
In Isaiah the one who plants the vineyard, which is Israel, complains that in spite of the effort made by God’s “right-hand” the vine produced wild grapes rather than wine grapes. Therefore, this vineyard offered very little value, and that doesn’t make God very happy!

It would seem that there are two sides to this story, but for today we’re going to focus on the Psalmist’s lament about the state of affairs in Israel. Things have gone badly of late, and the people are hoping that God will restore their fortunes. The message of this Psalm is simply this: “Let your face shine, that we might be saved.”

I don’t know much about vineyards, though I’m married to the daughter of a farmer who had a vineyard. While his grapes usually ended up as raisins, I think I caught enough about vineyards to know that grapes require a lot of attention if they’re going to produce a proper harvest. They will also require lots of sunlight to grow and thrive. Unfortunately, in this case, it appears that God failed to properly tend the vineyard. Marauding forces have torn down the walls and plucked the fruit as they’ve trampled the vineyard. They’ve also let the wild animals come in and feed off the vines. Because Israel is the vineyard, it appears that this land is in mortal danger. They have only one hope and that is for God to set things right. What they want is for God to restore their land and make God’s face shine upon them.

Every biblical text has a context. There’s a reason why the Psalmist is demanding God to repent and pay attention to the nation. If, as scholars believe, this Psalm was written sometime late in the 8th century B.C.E. by someone living in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, then the people would have been concerned about the troop movements of the Assyrian Empire that was moving in their direction. In fact, it wouldn’t be long before the Assyrians destroyed Israel. So, this is in many ways a prayer rooted in a deep concern about the future. They wanted God to rescue them so that they could return to the way things were when God first planted the vineyard. Knowing that they were helpless in the face of such a great enemy, they were hoping that God would “stir up your might and come to save us!”

Over time this lament would take on new meanings. It seems to have played a role in the reforms of Josiah a century later, and then it became part of the messianic hopes that emerged in the years after the end of the Babylonian captivity. They people kept hoping that someday Israel would once again be a great nation. Once again the vine would cover the land from sea to river.

But what does this have to do with us? Well, don’t we ever dream about going back to a better time. Haven’t we thought about returning to a time when God’s face seemed to be shining on us?

When we think about restoration, there’s a tendency to look back to some golden age when life was better. Our denominational founders—Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone and Walter Scott—wanted to restore a first century golden age for the church. They wanted to get back to the “New Testament Church,” which they believed wasn’t corrupted by the world. Of course this restoration effort has proven difficult to implement. Apparently the first century church wasn’t as pure as people thought. Then there’s the idea of returning to Eden. Wouldn’t it be great if we could return to the innocence of Eden? But then if things were so “Edenic” why did Adam and Eve decide to get themselves evicted?

Many of us envision our childhood as idyllic moments, when life was simpler  and more innocent. Of course, this wasn’t true for everyone, and we may have blocked out the bad parts and only remember the good.

The Psalmist points back to the Exodus and the entrance into the land. When God shepherded the people out of Egypt and planted them in Canaan, the people experienced a new freedom to live outside the bonds of slavery. That was good news, but unfortunately this wasn’t good news for the people that lived there. It’s important that we don’t miss the statement about clearing the land and driving out the nations. In order for Israel to take possession of the land, they had to suppress the indigenous population. Today we would call what they did “ethnic cleansing.” This practice wasn’t new then and it’s not new today. So what was good news for Israel was bad news for the people of Canaan. Those of us of European ancestry who helped “settle” this land, need to remember that this land was inhabited when  Europeans took possession, often by force of arms.

If we’re to receive a word from this lament, perhaps we should steer clear of  such images and consider other forms of restoration. So, for instance, if you’re sick or injured, you might speak of being restored to health. That is, you want to be restored to a state of health similar to that which you had before your sickness or injury. You want to be healed or made whole. Or maybe you’ve experienced a broken relationship with a friend or family member, and you want to see this relationship restored. You want to experience reconciliation.

Last Sunday I closed my sermon with our denominational identity statement, which proclaims that we are a “movement of wholeness in a fragmented world.” If we’re a “movement of wholeness,” then we’re a restoration movement!

While we Disciples usually don’t speak of being part of a Restoration Movement, our siblings in the Churches of Christ and the Independent Christian Churches do use this kind of language, though they usually are thinking in terms of restoring a first century church order. While we may have given up on that form of restoration, if we embrace the call to pursue unity within the Body of Christ and healing of a fragmented world, then I believe we will be engaging in a movement of restoration.

While we can think in terms of restoring a body to health, we could also think about restoring a house. Restoring old homes has become popular. Old homes often have a certain character to them, and so people try to restore them to their original glory. They glue and nail boards together. They replace and paint weather-beaten siding. They put on new roofs. What emerges is a house that resembles the original, only it’s better. That’s because in the process of restoring the home, they bring it up to code. They make it more livable. As followers of Jesus we can participate in restoring the Temple of God.

Here we stand, crying out to God, requesting that God would restore us and make God’s face shine upon us, so that we might be saved. And by that we mean, we want to be made whole so that we can produce a good harvest!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan 
Pentecost 13C
August 14, 2016

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