Shepherd of Israel, listen, you who lead Joseph like a flock; enthroned on the cherubs, shine on Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh; rouse your strength, come to us and save us! Yahweh Sabaoth, bring us back, let your face smile on us and we shall be safe. Yahweh Sabaoth, how much longer will you smoulder at your people’s prayer? Having fed us on the bread of tears, having made us drink them in such measure, you now let our neighbours quarrel over us and our enemies deride us. Yahweh Sabaoth, bring us back, let your face smile on us and we shall be safe. There was a vine? you uprooted it from Egypt; to plant it, you drove out other nations, you cleared a space where it could grow, it took root and filled the whole country. It covered the mountains with its shade, the cedars of God with its branches, its tendrils extended to the sea, its offshoots all the way to the river. Why have you destroyed its fences? Now anyone can go and steal its grapes, the forest boar can ravage it and wild animals eat it. Please, Yahweh Sabaoth, relent! Look down from heaven, look at this vine, visit it, protect what your own right hand has planted. They threw it on the fire like dung, but one look of reproof from you and they will be doomed. May your hand protect the man at your right, the son of man who has been authorised by you. We shall never turn from you again; our life renewed, we shall invoke your name, Yahweh Sabaoth, bring us back, let your face smile on us and we shall be safe. (Psalm 80, Jerusalem Bible)
Advent is a time of reflection. We join Israel in her darkness as she waits for God’s restoration. Israel is broken apart; ravaged by war, internal strife, and exile. She sits in weakness hoping God keeps his promise to bring her glory that surpasses even the time of David. Israel, however, doesn’t let the darkness consume her. Israel uses the time of darkness before the advent of the Messiah for introspection. How did her destruction come? How had God been moving within her suffering? And, how could she better live into God’s holiness now and in the Kingdom he was brining in the future?
Further for us, Advent is the time of the Christian year where we listen with Israel to the Prophet Isaiah and the future he — through the Holy Spirit — calls us to. We remember that, like Israel, our world is broken. We, too, wait in weakness for God to make things right. We, too, reflect on our part in the brokenness; how we could have and can live into the life of holiness God provides for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Messiah Jesus.
Or do we? To my eyes, the time of Advent has been replaced by a season which seeks to avoid introspection of pain and weakness. Instead of bringing our pain and darkness before God and seeking his guidance for what a life of peace and light might look like, we are guided by the contemporary American culture to burry our feelings and take on a façade of happiness and prosperity. We wrap the pains of sin, loss, hunger, loneliness, and so much more behind twinkling lights and colorful paper. We escape our reality and live into the fantasy of joy secular, American Christmas gives us.
Today’s sermon is not a critique of American Christmas or Santa Claus — though my wife will attest that I could easily go there. It is, however, a call on this final Sunday of Advent to turn our hearts toward the mind of Israel and to remember why the coming celebration of the birth of Jesus is the source of our true joy.
Today’s Psalm is a Psalm of lament. There are many such Psalms in the Bible and they are among my favorites. Why? Well, it is easy to buy into the lie that we are supposed to be happy, happy, happy all the time. The culture around us supports this lie at every turn. The lament Psalms, however, remind us that pain, hurt, and despair are real. They remind us that God is not just a God of joy, but also a God who stands along side us in our sufferings. In today’s Psalm I hear the cry of many in today’s America and many in our McKendree Village community.
“Bring us back!” “Smile on us!” “Come to us!” “Save us!” These are all calls for God to look on our sufferings and bring aid. Our health concerns. Strife in our families. Conflict in our McKendree Village community and the world. At times our current state doesn’t look so great. I know I can’t be the only one who asks God, “How much longer must we wait?” “How much longer will you smolder at your people’s prayer?” Is God listening to our prayers? Why doesn’t he send help?
There was once greatness in our nation, our lives, the church. Now it seems as though at times everything is falling apart. As the Psalmist laments, the fences that once protected us, seem to have been torn away. Our denominations are splintering. Politically, the nation is more divided than ever before. Further, amongst this larger pain, we sit with those in this very sanctuary who have lost husbands, wives, and children. Many have lost their independence. At times it seems God allows just anyone to come and take from us and those around us. I don’t know about you, but I cry with the Psalmist, “Please, [God], relent! Look down from heaven, look at [me, look at us], visit [us], protect what your own right hand has [made]!”
Like the Psalms of lament, Advent is a time when we can take off our masks and reveal ourselves before God. Before God we can declare our fear, our pain, our loneliness. We can tell God how we struggle to be faithful, how hard it is to love our neighbor. We can look back on our lives and be honest with God about the moments we are not so proud of, when we have fallen short of his will for holiness. In Advent we can let God know how scary it is to see the world change around us. We can reveal our feelings of weakness against the tides of time and change.
Advent is not just a time of reflection, however. It is also a time of expectation. The Psalmist expects God to send a human, a “son of man”, to come and protect Israel. This man will bring a renewal of holiness to the people of Israel and answer their calls for safety, strength, salvation, and — most of all — God’s favorable smile. So many years ago in the least important city in the least important corner of the Roman Empire, God came to Israel in a way so far beyond their expectations that we are still trying to understand exactly what he did. This, too, is part of Advent.
“Conceived by the Holy Spirit” and “born of the Virgin Mary” Jesus entered our world. Fully God and fully human, he assumed our humanity and humanity’s disease of sin. By his death on the cross and resurrection on the third day, Jesus overcame death and sin, revealing the openness of God’s love and God’s desire for the world to enter into and participate within his eternal relationship of love.
Because we know that God sent his Only Begotten Son into the world in answer to Israel’s calls for salvation, we know he will come again in glory and power in answer to our calls for salvation. This is the expectation of Advent. God will answer our calls for salvation!
A promise of Jesus’ eventual and final return is great, indeed, but our God is greater than even that. Not only will God in Jesus come to fully and visible reign in the world as the great season of Advent reminds us, but God is with us now. We stand in the age of Advent, the age in which Christ has already come and already reigns and, yet, doesn’t. Though the powers of darkness continue to visibly rule the world around us, do not doubt for a moment God’s ability to reign in your heart during this time of waiting.
Like David and the great Prophets of the Exile, God comes when we call his name. God stands beside us in our suffering and continually renews and rebuilds those who live with him further and further into his divine image. God comes to us at the table as we come together as the Living Body of Jesus Christ. God binds himself to us in baptism, raising us to his new life as the water washes over us. Though at times this life makes little sense and we are often surrounded by darkness, Advent reminds us that the eternal Triune God of love is always at our side.
May God bless you in this final week of Advent. May he open your heart to reflection. May he reveal his presence in your life. May you open your heart to his love and allow him to transform you into his image.
No matter how young our old you are, no matter where you are in your journey with God, call on him in your despair. “Yahweh Saboath [Lord God of Hosts], bring [me] back, let your face smile on [me]!” “Come to [me] and save [me]!” Call on the name of Jesus and he will come. This is the promise of Advent.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.