Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Restore Us O God! a Reflection on Psalm 80


Psalm 80 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
To the leader: on Lilies, a Covenant. Of Asaph. A Psalm.
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.
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
    you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
    it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
    the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea,
    and its shoots to the River.
12 Why then have you broken down its walls,
    so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13 The boar from the forest ravages it,
    and all that move in the field feed on it.
14 Turn again, O God of hosts;
    look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15     the stock that your right hand planted.
16 They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down;
    may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.
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.

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The Psalm chosen for the First Sunday of Advent in Year B is Psalm 80. The Revised Common Lectionary has divided the Psalm, inviting us to read verses 1-7, and the 17-19. While the first section speaks of God as Israel’s shepherd, to whom the people cry out in some distress. Described by commentators as a communal lament, the people ask that God will restore them to some sense of normalcy. If, as some suggest, this Psalm was written near the time of the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom, perhaps by refugees, one can understand the frustration and concern the people have. Won’t the shepherd of Israel act on their behalf, by making God’s face to shine upon them.

            The Second section, verses 8-16, turns to a different image—that of the vine, with God being the vintner who had planted Israel in the land, after taking the vine from Egypt. But, why did the vineyard keeper take down the walls so that the boars and others might trample the vines (that is Israel).  The request is that God will rebuke the invaders.  That the metaphor changes might be a reason for its elimination for a liturgical context.

            Then, we come to verses 17-19, which seems to fit well with either set of images, but it fits nicely with the idea of God the shepherd. In verse 19, we see the third refrain (vs. 3, 7), that speaks of restoration of Israel by God. Yes, “let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

            Reading this Psalm in the Advent season, liturgically, invites reflection on our own longing for restoration. Even as we experience a season of brokenness, we look forward to the time of healing. Thus, with the Psalmist, we begin Advent with a song of lament. But, as Leonora Tubbs Tisdale notes, the Psalm does speak a word of hope. God can act through God’s “Right Hand,” which in that context was the monarch, and in Christian thinking points to Jesus as God’s Right Hand (Mark 14:62). Tisdale writes:
The psalm implies that, for renewal to take place, our communities need leaders who are genuinely committed to the good of all. And members of the community are important here. Robert Putnam notes that “if decision makers expect citizens to hold them politically accountable, they are more inclined to temper their worst impulses rather than face public protests” [Bowling Alone, p. 346]. In Advent, a preacher can encourage the congregation to make public officials accountable for policies and behaviors that are truly just. [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 3].
In this lament the people seem to hold God accountable, or at least God’s Right Hand. Perhaps, with Tisdale we can envision this Psalm speaking to Jesus’ ministry and to the community’s engagement with our own leaders, especially in this time of such discord and disarray in the world (the United States especially). 
            Yes, Lord, may your face shine upon us that we might be saved!

           


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