Whom to believe?
1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock.
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth.
2 Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh,
stir up your might and come to save us!
3 Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved!
4 O Lord God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
6 You make us an object of contention for our neighbours,
and our enemies laugh among themselves.
7 Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved! (Psalm 80:1-7 ESV)
We return again to the psalms this Advent. Another song to the Choirmaster – sung possibly to a tune called ‘Lillies’ by the levitical choir named Asaph. The lectionary compilers suggest we read or sing or note only the first section – a community lament – crying to God for help. We go to verse 7 but the psalm continues to verse 19 and from verse 8 we hear what God has done in the past for his people as they continue to cry for help and salvation.
God is not unfamiliar to those who cry out. They know him as the Shepherd of Israel – who speaks and cares for them through kings and prophets – though he is infinitely better than his human representatives. They know God is with them – abiding with them through worship – dwelling in tabernacle and temple – sitting on his throne between the cherubim on the ark of the covenant. He is not distant but close by … yet now he is silent, it seems, which is why they’re crying out.
Scholars suggest that the reference to the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh might mean that the psalm was dated prior to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians. And that must give us pause for thought because we know the outcome here – and it isn’t good.
In 2 Kings we read: Yet the Lord warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets” (2 Kings 17:13 ESV). We know the outcome that Israel doesn’t repent and is wiped away by the Assyrians. You’d think southern Judah would learn but even Jerusalem eventually will fall and the people will go into exile.
The choir – the faithful ones perhaps? – sing to God ‘restore us’ – it is like a refrain interspersed among verses ‘Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!’. This word ‘restore’ or ‘turn’ comes from the same word group as God used when he called his people back to him time and time again (‘Turn from your evil ways …’). So the psalm is a cry to God to help all the people – most of whom are rebellious towards God – even if they give lip service to him. How do you live faithfully towards God if the majority of the people around you do not and act in such a way as bring on the consequence of their rebellion (which you may suffer as well)?
Alternatively we might have people crying to God for help because life is tough – things aren’t going as they wish (they never get the parking space they need!) – but they still have the view of God as cosmic vending machine and are oblivious to the truth that sin has consequences – that repentance must be more than words – that worship and ritual should not be robotic and mechanised – that faith is to be genuine – ‘Lord, be merciful to me a sinner’. In this case they are deaf to God’s Word and only want a God of their own image and so they even say many right words about God and to God but their hearts are far from him and they wouldn’t dream, as it were, that the issue / the problem is with themselves rather than a ‘distant silent God’.
However you might think of the situation behind the words of the psalm, the truth is that we have a prayer for help – a lament that things are tough. And if this psalm is anchored in the context of the Northern Kingdom then it might be argued by some – I’m thinking the world that rejects God and scorns his followers – I’m thinking God’s people on a ‘bad day’ when doubts and sufferings get the better of them – that God didn’t answer these people’s cry as the Assyrians wiped the Northern Kingdom from history.
‘See! There is no god!’
Such is so much of life that we can interpret it almost any way we like. You see we live by our interpretation and perception of things more than we realise – and might not that be also called faith in other contexts? Our view of history or politics or good manners shapes how we view events and people. We might regard our view as certain and true – until we meet someone who views the same thing differently. This is nowhere more contentious than in religion with all its competing claims.
So our Psalm today might be used as evidence that God is fictional – they prayed and got wiped out anyway – or it might be used to show that God is nasty and vindictive – or it might be used to show that God did and does answer prayers but in his way and time. It is so easy to make God in our own image when what we need to do again and again is return to God’s Word – 5 minutes a day sort of thing – regularly – daily – so that God will speak to us – shape us – give us his view on things.
This is even true if God were to turn up now visibly in front of us. For us as Lutherans, God would have to be consistent with his Word for us to listen to him and follow him. We might crave a spiritual experience but how do you honestly assess it? I suspect we’d get it all wrong. Eyes trump ears. Experience trumps faith. New trumps old. And so if God turns up and we’re dazzled we default into thinking that this experience is now ‘my defining moment’ and act accordingly.
But not for Lutherans – and I would hope all Christians. While we might crave the supernatural and the experience, everything is subjected to Scripture. We live by Scripture alone; faith alone; grace alone – and so even this moment – even God himself – will be consistent with what he has revealed – there is no new revelation for we have all we need in Jesus and the story from the very beginning of God’s rescue operation to save sinners.
Part of that story tells us of a young woman, Mary, and her encounter with the angel Gabriel, and while we can imagine the experience, what we admire about Mary is her trust in God’s Word. She is obedient – accepting a course of action that the world today still rejects and mocks – and she is given no help to face the world or Joseph – she trusts God and leaves the rest to him as well. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have problems or issues or concerns – God didn’t give her a daily planner with what to do each hour – nor a magic wand or mirror to call Gabriel back for advice – she’s still got to live her life – and now with a baby on the way – what does she do?
She runs away! Off to a relative in the country. Elizabeth. Perhaps she’ll know what to do as she’s also got a strange pregnancy. And I think God gives Mary a wonderful affirmation that she’s not alone when Elizabeth and her baby rejoice at what God is doing in Mary’s life – actually in Mary – before Mary could begin ‘Look what I’m about to tell you seems strange but I swear it’s the truth …’.
Our psalm points out that life can be tough. It reminds us that when we sin, we make life not only tough for ourselves and for others but also miserable and it all finally leads to destruction. Yet God can still be called upon by the congregation, by intercessors, by individuals – and he will act – even if we think he is deaf or slow. Life is lived by faithfulness – by trust – and this is a lifestyle not a mind game. This is true whether we’re talking about sticking to our studies when we’re at school or any promise we’ve made, sticking to our marriage vows when we’re apart, sticking to our faith in God which means trusting his words grounded in the Bible; the water that wet us and the words spoken ‘In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit’; and the bread and wine given to us according to Jesus’ last will and testament.
All Mary had was God’s Word – the word made flesh within her – and the words of Gabriel and the Old Testament in her ears and heart. There’s no Joseph guaranteed at this moment, no wand in her hand to make life easier, only trouble and scandal ahead. But God’s Word is enough. That is what the cross of Jesus and his empty tomb proclaim.
And it’s the same for us. We live with the words of Jesus’ cross and empty tomb ringing in our ears. That shapes us and how we life.
- Psalm 80:1 - 7