Psalm 80 is perhaps best described as a communal lament. And although it shows up every year in the list of Advent readings, nothing in it, at least at first glance, screams “Advent!” Not surprisingly (as I am no expert of the Psalms), I did not know that this text showed up in the lectionary for Advent until I sat down with a colleague of mine a few months ago to organize the service of lessons and carols at Columbia Theological Seminary. Since our vocations prevent us from having services on campus for the days of Christmas and Easter, this is one of the most well-attended services of the year. The better part of 150 members of the community gathered a few weeks ago on the last week of classes to celebrate the coming of our Lord and Savior.
We decided to do this setting of Psalm 80 as a confession of sorts and used the Zephaniah text that you and I read a few weeks ago as the Assurance of Pardon. For me, however, (and I suspect that I am not alone in feeling this way) this musical setting of Psalm 80 was the most powerful part of the entire service. Perhaps it was the fact that it was not sung by me but in fact sung by two vocalists of much more talent! One female and one male traded off the verses that I just chanted and the entire congregation sang that intimate and heartfelt refrain that we just sang together. It was a powerful moment indeed.
I believe what makes Psalm 80 such a powerful cry is that it is so very raw. It does not beat around the bush. It does not gloss over the sharp edges. It does not whistle “always look on the bright side of life.” No, it is a very blunt prayer indeed and, perhaps, those are the most faithful if not always easiest. In fact, many of us don’t do so well with such blunt prayers. As I was doing research for this sermon I stumbled across a story by Shawnthea Monroe. The Ohio pastor tells a story of how during a clinical chaplaincy internship she spent time with a woman who had recently been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. She writes, “as we held hands, I cautiously picked my way through a prayer, asking for peace, for strength, for healing of body and soul – nothing controversial or unattainable. When I had safely concluded my prayer, the woman squeezed my hands and added, ‘Almighty God, I want you to take this cancer away from me. I know you have the power, and I want you to do it. I want to be healed and I want to go home. Amen.’ When she finished, she looked into my worried face and said, ‘Don’t be shy with God. If I don’t ask for what I want, how can I hope to get it?’” Don’t be shy with God…the wisdom of that woman is the wisdom of Psalm 80 who cries out to God. It is the wisdom of the staggerers, wanderers, sitters, and loathers of Psalm 107. It is the wisdom of Hannah who cries out to God for her womb to be restored. These prayers of lament and petition are perhaps difficult to read but in them is a liberating word that gives us the vocabulary to speak of our communal and individual faith journey.
Another favorite story of mine is from one of my professors at Columbia, Christine Yoder. She told us of a time when she read a difficult passage in worship; you know, one of those passages that the preacher reads as quickly as possible in hopes that the congregation will miss it? Christine read the following passage from Isaiah 54 in which God is speaking to the Israelites after the exile: “For a brief moment, I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment, I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you…” As she spoke these words, a woman in the congregation became visibly upset and left the sanctuary. After the service, Christine found the woman and said, “I saw that you were upset when we read that passage, would you like to talk about it?” “Oh, those weren’t tears of sadness, they were tears of relief,” the woman said. Christine was certainly taken aback for the words from the text very clearly state that God had abandoned (which is not a verb that we usually like to attribute to God). The woman continued to tell Christine of the incredible hardship that had been in her life in the past year. She described how the most painful part of the whole experience was hearing her friends saying “there, there, it’s not really so bad…God hasn’t abandoned you…when there was only one set of footprints it was when God was carrying you…” and so on and so forth. The woman explained how her friends, though kind and speaking with the best of intentions, unknowingly denied her the lament she was experiencing. The woman explained to Christine how the text from Isaiah, in its speech of God abandoning and hiding his face, gave her the vocabulary to speak of her grief. And that, ironically, was not traumatic but therapeutic.
Friends, the language of Psalm 80, blunt and raw though it is, is healing language. It is healing language for it gives us the vocabulary to speak of our pain. It is healing language for, whether we know it or not, a powerful trust is needed even to utter its words. For within the difficult language is found a steadfast trust that the God to whom we cry for justice where there is none is none other than the very God who alone is our only hope of salvation. Yes, Psalm 80 is a communal lament. But even more so is it a cry for God to act! It is a cry for God to break down the fourth wall and to come and do something about it. Restore us, O God, let your face shine upon us that we may be saved! God, your move!
Read Luke 1:39-55 here. It is my opinion that this passage is best read by a female liturgist.
So there we have it! God has heard our cry for restoration and responds, curiously enough, with childbirth. And the emotional depth of this passage echoes the wonder of this perhaps unconventional divine response. Now, as a male preacher, for me to go on about the feelings associated with pregnancy is awkward at best and perhaps even arrogant at worst. Therefore, last week I asked several of the female members of the Sunday school class to describe the feeling of having a child kick for the first time within the womb. Many described the first kick as a moment of sheer elation, of indescribable joy and wonder. It is a moment of happiness and excitement even when you are not carrying the son of God within your womb! Others described the kicking (or leaping as today’s passage would describe it) as being wonderful at first but uncomfortable at times, especially when sleep is the desired goal! Either way, the recognition of life brings forth wonder and praise.
As such, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps within her at the sound of Mary’s voice. You and I know this child to be John the Baptist, who though still growing in Elizabeth’s womb was somehow able to call us to repentance last week (still not quite sure how that works!).
At any rate, both John the Baptist and Mary move in this passage from recognition to response. John the Baptist hears of Jesus’ coming and, quite literally, cannot wait be born so that he might respond to it. It is perhaps fitting, then, that Mary responds with a voice that John the Baptist does not yet have. She sings what is now known as the Magnificat (the Latin phrase for its opening words “my soul magnifies the Lord”). She sings this glorious alleluia because the Lord has looked down on the lowlinessof his servant. As a scared, pregnant, teenage girl on the margins of society, perhaps the cry for help of Psalm 80 was not foreign to Mary’s lips. For she knew in that moment, that something miraculous was about to happen. A new (and unpredictable) thing will happen when one cries out to God for help. Indeed something so new and so unpredictable that the life given to Mary in her womb is not simply her own but rather a gift of life for the entire world! And as such, a song is in her heart and perhaps it is not a song too foreign to our own heart.
For this congregation has had its “Psalm 80 moments.” You and I have had our home congregations split in two: restore us, O God! Far too many of God’s children sleep on the streets and have no food to eat: restore us, O God! You and I have seen the darkness of human tragedy in recent weeks: let your face shine upon us, Lord! You who are Silver Creek Presbyterian Church are being reoriented towards a new and unpredictable day: restore us, O God, that we might be saved!
But today we are reminded that, like Mary, we have had our “Magnificat moments” as well! You have seen the Presbytery join you in your hour of need to grieve and praise with you: your soul magnifies the Lord! You have provided a very grateful young seminary student a loving community to continue his growth as a pastor: my spirit rejoices in God my savior! You have seen new life breathed into a congregation that has endured so much: for God has looked with favor upon the lowliness of his servant! You have gathered together as the Body of Christ to provide meals for local families in need: for God has filled the hungry with good things!
So Sisters and Brothers in Christ, you and I are caught in a healthy tension between lament and praise. And as we journey together in these final days of Advent, we will be propelled towards a new day where God is doing a new thing, a new thing that causes us to sing for God is about to stir things up and we will never be the same!
We join with Mary and make her song our own because we have journeyed through Psalm 80, we have cried out to a God who hears our every cry. And although it might not be done in a way that we might have wanted or predicted, God has responded and is responding and will continue to respond forever more. God will send to us Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus our Savior and friend who will journey with us through our every joy and our every sorrow. And, friends, I announce to you this day that this Christ-child will be no less that our God who is with us all, amongst us all, and, most importantly, for us all! Restore us, O God! Amen!