Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
November 30, 2014
Psalm 80: 7, 14-19
“Let Your Face Shine!”
Thanksgiving is behind us, Black Friday as it is called has thankfully passed and there are just a few morsels of turkey and pumpkin pie left. It was a good holiday for many and the stock market will soon let us know if the retailers were happy with our spending spree on Friday; and they shall predict how much we will or what is hoped for as we go and spend on Christmas gifts. I am a good citizen of these United States; a strong believer in free enterprise; I practice the ritual of gift giving and I get just as excited as any toddler when someone gives me something I really want! No question about it, I love the Christmas Season. (Note: I did not say I love the Holiday Season!) I love the Spirit of Christmas! I love that everyone starts to think about giving and I enjoy the festive lights, decorations and the vast opportunities to remember the ancient stories, our beloved traditions, that remind us of how God came to live amongst us; and it all started with a baby named Jesus born out of poverty in Bethlehem! Yes! I love the Christmas Season!
As we begin our annual ritual toward Christmas, with all its tradition and custom it is important for us to remember that the Hope, Peace, Joy and Love that is lifted up during Advent, all circle around and radiate from the presence of the Christ candle that shall be lit on Christmas Eve! Symbolizing of course the main character: the Baby Jesus, the Christ Child, the Son of God, and the Son of Man! We all think and focus on the birth of Jesus as the main event, the beginning of our faith. Yet, this is not exactly where it started.
It started a long, long, time ago.
To experience the hope of the baby’s birth you must have felt the despair. To understand peace you need to have experienced unrest and the uproar of human life! Before you can know joy you must know the depth of sorrow and sadness that being mortal – shall sometimes – shatter our spirits and cause us to stumble and fall. Love is better appreciated when you have been witness to the likes of human hatred, bigotry and anger. To welcome Christ into the world; to welcome the birth of the baby Jesus you need to have wanted to be freed from the bondage of your own humanness, your own failings and short comings.
One scholar puts it this way: “This week, on the First Sunday of Advent, we hear from two writers in the Old Testament who seem filled with both dread and hope: the deep longing of the poet of Psalm 80 and the sorrowful questions of the prophet Isaiah. Both were writing in the midst of, and out of, the suffering of their people, God’s own people, Israel.” /Kate Huey/ The laments of the psalmist give us an indication as to how long ago people first began longing for a savior, a Messiah. The Tribes of Israel were oppressed and persecuted as their historical journey is told throughout the books of the Old Testament as we call these ancient writings. /Psalm 80:7/ “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” From the prophet Isaiah we here his lament on behalf of his people: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” /Isaiah 64:1/
The theologian Kate Huey continues her thoughts, motivated through the words of the psalmist and the prophet, on our behalf. [Where are you, God? Why don’t you act to fix this awful situation we find ourselves in? Why don’t you “come down” and make things right?] She goes on to tell us that [The psalms are a book of prayers that hold back nothing in the heart of Israel: praise and thanksgiving, but also anger, doubt, guilt, even demands. How long, O Lord, how long will we have to wait for you to ‘give ear,’ to ‘stir up your might,’ to ‘restore us,’ to ‘turn again’ and ‘let your face shine’ upon us?] Perhaps we as a people do not want to start Advent with such earthly laments and agony, yet, we must. To do otherwise would cause us to miss the full magnitude of the Christmas miracle, of which we make such a fuss over every December 25th!
Earlier in my life I often spend my vacations hiking around the likes of Mount Washington up north in New Hampshire. One of my last excursions I was carrying a 27 pound pack with my hiking supplies. I wore the best of outdoor gear, especially my hiking boots. After stowing my car in a parking lot I would head up a properly marked trail. As I started off, I often lamented how I no longer could see the mountain top as I had when I was miles away from the site. Up close and now very personal, the Mountain View was now hidden by the woods, the rugged terrain and the valley I would need to cross before I would begin the steep rugged hike to the top. Only through experience had I learned the harsh truth, in order to fully appreciate the joy of making it to the top of the mountain and get to enjoy the thrill and excitement of the view from the top of places such as Mount Washington, or Mount Adams, I must first make the exhausting hike through the valley; and then step by step pull myself over rocks and rugged trails till final I had gotten past all the false peaks along the way and stand on that highest summit upon that particular mountain top. And oh… what a view! It was always worth the sweat and pain to get there!
I do pray and hope for each one of us here today, that we are standing on the summit, the high point in our journey of life. I pray we are not in the dark valley that will take countless nights of pain and anguish to overcome. Yet, I know, and so don’t you, that many are not on the summit of life. Many, a great many are still struggling through that valley. And yet, here we are on this first Sunday in Advent ready to proclaim the hope of what the Christmas season brings to the hearts of millions of Christians who believe that the Christ Child is indeed the coming together of God’s promise to save us! The birth of the baby Jesus is our God incarnate, born into human flesh.
By the time I entered into seminary, I had been through some personal struggles that, in a sense, had left me wounded. My supervisor, Sister Kay, during my second summer working through what is called Clinical Pastoral Education, assigned for me to read “The Wounded Healer” written by Henri J. M. Nouwen. If you feel wounded, I strongly recommend the book to you. Throughout the book he focuses on teaching and helping the reader to see how through one’s own brokenness, or wounds, we are able to ‘with great insight’ help another through their struggles in life. At one point he goes on to talk about how difficult it is to pass the news of deliverance that comes with the birth of the baby Jesus. “To announce, however, that the Liberator is sitting among the poor and that the wounds are signs of hope and that today is the day of liberation, is a step very few can take. But this is exactly the announcement of the wounded healer: ‘The master is coming – not tomorrow, but today, not next year, but this year, not after all our misery is passed, but in the middle of it, not in another place but right here where we are standing.'”
The challenge for those of us who have reached a summit that sits above some of our earthly struggles, is to remember what it was like and then take the effort to ‘reach down’ or ‘reach out’ to the one who has not yet seen the mountain top; and through the fullness of our own experiences help them to remain hopeful for the day has come, help has arrived. We all seek after the same basic things, even though they seem quite different.
The psalmist speaks for us as he laments to God, “But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.” /Psalm 80:17/ Yes, the psalmist is speaking to God, on our behalf, and yes this reference, I believe, is that Christ has always sat at the right hand of God and the Psalmist is asking God to reach out to us; this is a request from the psalmist to send forth the Messiah. We can take this a step further and we can use these words ‘literally’ as wounded healers. We can reach out to others through the mercy and grace we have already experienced through God’s love. Yes, we can, we can be the hand that carries the saving grace of God to another!
The psalmist is making a pact with God on behalf of the tormented and broken nation of the scattered tribes of Israel. Simply put the psalmist is saying to God ‘come and save us, save us your people, come to us through Christ and’ “Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name. Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” /Psalm 80: 18 &19/ The psalmist has put forth an expectation on behalf of the people of God.
Our United Church of Christ theologian, who regularly prints her reflections in an article called the ‘Weekly Seeds’ for us pastors to reflect on each week, says to us: “That ‘expectation’ is the word for Advent.” She then asks this simple question: “In what way can people of faith ‘expect’ God to act?” /Kate Huey/
The question is a great one and can stimulate any Bible study class to have a hearty discussion. The answer of course depends on where you find yourself on this journey of life. A pastor might have an expectation that God will help him or her teach well or pray well in hopes that their efforts will help restore faith to a broken spirit; perhaps the pastor expects God to use their efforts to bring the non-believer to a time of new faith and new hope. Whereas the expectant mother may expect God to assure the health and wellbeing of her unborn child. The doctor may expect God to answer the call that his hands will be steady during surgery; yet, the patient may expect God to take away their fear and trepidation. Today, we each have an expectation of God as we find ourselves propelled into this season called Advent.
What is your expectation? Have you reached out to God asking God for one thing or another; for yourself, or perhaps someone else. Today, let us find some sense of solace, some sense of peace, love and hope, with the expectation that it will lead us to the ‘Joy’ of the ‘saving grace’ and ‘mercy’ of God through ‘Christ’.
Let us now hear and receive the words of Jesus, found in these verses of scripture, from the Old Testament in the Book of Psalms, chapter 80, verses 7, and 14 thru 19.
7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. 8 You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted 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.
Allow that God may bless your hearing and your understanding of these ancient and holy words of scripture.