Psalm 80, Sunday 5th December, Second Sunday of Advent
Psalm 80, also Malachi 3:1-6 and Luke 3:1-6.
May these spoken words be faithful to the written word and lead us to the living word, our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Through Advent, we are exploring the psalms, set in the Anglican lectionary, for this season.
Psalm 80. A Psalm by Asaph.
Psalm 80 has this shape.
In verses 1-3, you see the opening words and the first petition.
In v4-7 we have a lament.
V8-11, God’s actions in the past are remembered and described
V12-16a – God had acted for the vine – the vine is a metaphor for God’s people – but now their current condition is described. We hear now how things really are.
V16b – end – further petitions and the vow ‘revive us and we will call on your name.’
Who do we pray to?
The Psalm begins with ‘Hear us O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock; you who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth.’ It is a beautiful combination – intimate and majestic.
Only here and in Psalm 23 is God called in prayer, ‘Shepherd’. We know the NT images, of the shepherd who looks for the lost sheep, and how Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd. The Shepherd who knows his each sheep by name, and he will look for the one that is lost and leave the 99 behind. The Shepherd who leads them to green pastures, to still waters, who will guide with his staff and defend with his rod.
That is the intimate image. Up close image.
And then there is the majestic image – God enthroned between the cherubim, these angelic beings. He is king. He is the Lord of Heavens Armies.
This image of God – intimate and majestic – we see in the opening words of the prayer taught by Jesus. Our Father in heaven. He is our Father – we are invited to call him Abba – those words, which mean Daddy, Jesus himself used. Our Father in heaven – he is separate, other, different from us. At this moment, there are billions and billions of angels who praise and worship him 60 seconds a minute, 60 mins an hour, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of our year.
God wants us to talk to him. He wants our attention. He likes our company. He listens to each of us -even though he hears billions of cries and praises from others. So Jesus words, and the starting words of this psalm reminds us as we pray – of who we talk to – intimate, close, personally involved and also the king, adored, worshipped, mighty, honoured.
Who do you pray to? Pete Grieg says: ‘’After more than 25 years in pastoral ministry, twenty of them teaching on prayer, I have come to the conclusion that most people’s biggest problem with prayer is God. They envisage him scowling, perpetually disapproving, invariably disappointed and needing to be placated or persuaded in prayer. If that is how you picture God, I really don’t blame you for trying to avoid his gaze.’’ How to Pray p.53.
When I was on retreat, I listened to part of another of Greig’s books, called Dirty Glory. He shares one time he was about to go on retreat with an Anglican minister friend, James. Greig, in the retreat planned a few books to read, some things to pray through. His friend looked at him, and suggested maybe this week was just about ‘being with God’. He went on to explain. He shared about his son. His son when he was a teenager would come home from high school and come into his Dad’s study and slob onto the couch. He would not say much, sit there for 20 mins, eyes closed or looking at his phone. He would then wander off. Later they would chat as a family around the table. James – said, that even though not much was said, looking back, he would not trade anything for those days and hours. His son was happy just to come into his presence, he was comfortable to just be there and James was fine with that and it was precious to him.
He went on to say. Sometimes our prayer times are the like the boardroom – we need to make decisions with God; sometimes it is like the dressing room, we are in the middle of the game, we get refreshed; sometimes it is a war room – fighting those spiritual battles for people and nations and so on, but other times it is the living room. We just come as we are to God. And we know he is glad to see us. We are just with him. Even if we don’t do much or talk much.
God likes it when you just turn up. We’ve got to be comfortable that it is okay just to be with God at times; and he is fine with that and loves it. Of course, there are the dressing room days, the war rooms, the board rooms…but there are the living room times.
What is going on?
As we read the Psalm, we see quickly three refrains – ‘Restore us O God make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.’
This refrain reminds us of, the Aaronic Blessing. In Numbers 6: it says
Yahweh – the name of God – Yahweh bless you and keep you
Yahweh make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you
Yahweh lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
This is a three fold blessing that the priests were to pray over the people. God said: ‘They will put my name on the Israelites and I will bless them.’ So there are words – from the priests – and the divine power which God brings to bear.
This three fold blessing.
The first blessing = the emphasis is on concrete gifts – God’s blessing and the gift of security (guarding his people).
Second blessing – it stresses the hope that God will be well disposed, favourable, to the nation / to the person (he will shine on them), and therefore not judge them but show mercy and grace.
Third blessing, it states that God will pay attention –he will lift his face – and he will provide fullness of life.
The people praying, say to God, that none of these three fold blessing are now being given to Israel. The priests perhaps are praying them over the nation and yet they see nothing of what God promised…
Firstly. God’s blessing is not seen and they no longer have security – their walls are broken down, boars – wild pigs, metaphor for enemies – are ravaging the land.
Secondly. God is not well disposed to them – in fact ‘how long will your anger smoulder against the prayers of your people’, and he is judging them – he is not providing as in the days of old with bread and water, he is given the bread of tears and bowls of tear drops.
Thirdly. God is not paying attention he is told. ‘’Return to us O God Almighty. Look down from heaven and see!’ They do not have fullness of life, ; ’your vine – Israel – is cut down, it is burned with fire, at your rebuke your people perish.’
This is the situation. Israel is in real trouble. God has been intimately involved in past– Israel is compared to a vine, who was planted, land was cleared, it was tended, and it grew amazingly. Yet now the walls have been broken down, and it – the nation – is being trampled upon, overrun.
That is what is going on.
The psalm started : ‘Hear us O Shepherd of Israel … you who sit enthroned …’ The prayer begins like normal. A bit like Sinterklaas Journal. It kicks off and you know there is going to be a problem, presents will go missing or locked away or some stupidity and well, it will all work out well in the end – it has too, or you will have some very unhappy kids today!!!
But imagine Sinterklaas journal, it ended with, well the presents were gone, Sinterklaas is missing, only coal this year for everyone… and that was it! We will try again next year! End of the show.
Imagine that was the last episode. Huh!
This psalm does the same. Hear us O Shepherd, you who are enthroned… and then – ‘awaken your might, come and save us… restore us O God, make your face shine upon us… O Lord our God Almighty how long will your anger smoulder. …’’
This is not how you talk to God, is it? What type of prayer is this?
Honesty in Prayer
This psalm is what we call a lament.
Scholar Walter Bruggemann said in his study of the psalms, there are three groups.
Psalms of orientation. These are usually praise, how all is right in the world, and God is present, helping, doing stuff. Psalm 23 – for example, the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
There are Psalms of Disorientation. These are words of prayer written in a season of disorientation. Things have changed. Maybe it was a slow dawning; or maybe it was very sudden. Our old world, our safe world, has been dismantled. Things are not how they should be. How we see life, faith, and it doesn’t seem to be working or God doesn’t seem to be doing what he is meant to. As we heard here – we need to tell God to ‘come and save us’ – why isn’t he already doing it! This disorientation can bring many feelings – such as resentment, guilt, anger, isolation, despair. These are psalms where complaint and lament are brought to God in very honest ways. ‘’ The complaint psalm is a painful, anguished articulation of a move into disarray and dislocation’’
The final group of psalms are called ‘Psalms of Re or New orientation’. When all felt like chaos, no hope, something happened. God happened. Our deliverance is only due to God. And so these psalms are ones of praise, thanksgiving, the story of where they were and where they are now is described. Or we see psalms where the situation has not changed, but the way the person sees things have – a new inner orientation has come.
Psalm 80 is a lament. It is a psalm of disorientation. Bono, singer of U2, compared the laments to blues. ‘’In his despair, the psalmist really reveals the nature of his special relationship with God. Honesty, even to the point of anger ‘How Long Lord. Wilt thou hide thyself forever.’’ Bono quoted by Grieg, God on Mute, p84.
This is really encouraging. These prayers are part of the Bible. In a very simple way, God is inviting us to tell us how it is. He is saying – don’t just pray to me, when things are going well and super – orientation. Don’t just pray to me, when I have turned things around and acted in your life or you have experienced my presence in the storms. Re-orientation. Pray to me when it is all a mess, be honest with me how you feel, what you are thinking, how, you feel I am not acting like I should. Disorientation. Be honest.
We see this reflected in Jesus. On the night of his betrayal and arrest, he prayed in Gethesemane. He invites his three closest friends – Peter, James and John to be close enough to hear him pray and by their company to encourage him. Jesus prays. This is God among us, Word made Flesh, the one who knows the plan… ‘’Abba Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will but what you will.’
We can focus on this amazing submission and commitment to the Father – not my will but what you will. But don’t miss the first words –‘everything is possible for you. Empower me and let’s get going’. No. e prays ‘Everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. ‘ Total honesty about his feelings and preferences. It is great the church didn’t cut this bit out of the gospel.
On the cross, as Jesus is dying, he prays with such honesty – ‘My God my God why have you forsaken me?’ My God where are you…
In Luke 18, Jesus has been teaching on persistent prayer – with the story of a persistent widow. Then he moves into a story which seems a surprising shift in gear, but he is talking about another part of prayer – honesty. Two men go to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee. A second, a tax collector – someone seen in the community as working for the enemy – as he collected for the Romans.
The Pharisee prayed confidently, proud of all he was and had done religiously. The tax collector Jesus said: ‘he stood at a distance, not even wanting to get close to God, he didn’t even look up when praying. He simply said: God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Jesus said ‘this tax man, not the other, went home made right with God.’
Psalm 80, and others like it, Jesus teaching of the tax collector, his own example in Gethsemane and on the Cross says, we can open our hearts to be honest with God in prayer. Pete Greig says: ‘’The thing that keeps God out of our lives is not our sin. It is our compulsion to pretend, to cover up our nakedness with fig leaves – like the first Adam and Eve…’’ God on Mute, p85.
And you know, he hears us. And before we know it, he steps through that door, into that room with us, and he seems totally not disturbed by the mess of our world, and what we are saying.
What to do with Psalm 80 – how can words to God, be God’s word to us. Honesty. How is it really going? That includes, if you feel God is acting in a way you expected or not or you are confused or upset by. This is a time of disorientation for many of us. Have you told God how you are feeling about a virus we all thought had gone away but well it is back again for a sequel? Have you told God how you feel the govt are handling things? Have you told him about the injustices you feel in this world, in your work place, in your families…
Prayer for the Nation.
A title for this psalm by a scholar is : Prayer for the Restoration of the Ravaged Vineyard of the Shepherd of Israel . This psalm, it is a community prayer for the nation. There is lament – pain shared – and complaint – over how things are. There is acknowledge of how God has been faithful and working in the past. And now they cry out to God to act. ‘Restore us O God, make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.’ Later, ‘Revive us and we will call upon your name’. They pray for him to come. Advent is a reminder about four advents of God: his first coming at Christmas, his final advent – his return as the prophets like Malachi and Isaiah spoke of;
but inbetween, there is his coming into someone’s life as Saviour, to make his home within.
And there is his coming, breaking into our world to act, as the people in the psalms cry out.
Our nation is struggling. The question is there. Are we praying for our nation, for our govt, or are we just complaining, judging, moaning. Are we calling on God ‘restore us Lord’. At the recent Open Doors Netherlands Conference, Ron van der Spoel shared about his experiences and what he had learned from persecuted Christians. One of the lessons he learned, was how these Christians, will be praying for their leaders. Some live in very hostile lands yet they pray for their leaders, as Paul commanded us to in 1 Timothy 2, they pray for their nation. He then looked at the few thousand in that room, and asked, How many of you pray for Mark Rutte. You may smile and inwardly say laugh ‘no way’. Why not? If persecuted Christians can pray for their national leaders, why not we? Jesus said – love your enemies – and what more loving thing can we do, than bring them to the throne of the King? When Paul wrote his words to Timothy, there were no Christian leaders or rulers, they were pagan, who either didn’t care or who were hostile.
We need to take Psalm 80 to heart. And come to the Shepherd, the Great Shepherd King, to come to the one enthroned between the cherubim, the majestic one, and pray for our land, our nation, our govt. Remember what Ezekiel heard – in Ezekiel 22 – that God looked for someone to stand in the gap for the nation but there was no one. I firmly believe this is one of the callings of the Church at this time, to stand in the gap for our nation.
To bring it to God. If the Church will not, who will?
‘Hear us O shepherd, o enthroned one, how long, revive us and we will call upon your name, restore us O God Almighty; make your face shine upon us that we may be saved.’’
Shall we pray…?
Come among us
Come like the wind
To move us
Come like the light
To prove us
Come like the sun
To warm us
Come like the stillness
To calm us
Come among us. Amen.