Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the new church year. Happy new year, everyone! Advent isn’t just about preparing for Christmas, although of course in our culture that’s what December – and, increasingly, November too – is all about. Yes, in Advent we go back to the Old Testament prophecies of the coming of the Messiah and try to imagine ourselves waiting in expectation and longing for God to fulfil them. But in Advent we also look forward to what the New Testament writers called in their language the parousia – the appearing of Christ at the end of the age, the time when (as the creeds say) ‘he will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his kingdom will never end’.
It’s really appropriate that Psalm 80 is our psalm for today. Psalm 80 is a psalm of longing – or even a psalm of desperation. The second half of verse 17 in the BAS version says ‘Give us life, that we may call upon your name’. ‘Give us life’ is translated in many Bibles as ‘revive us’ and this verse became a great theme for revival movements – times of great spiritual power in the history of the church, when the Holy Spirit seemed to work in a special way among the people of God. Revivals often led Christian people to share their faith with their neighbours so that new people came to faith in Christ. But the revivals didn’t usually start there; they started with a reawakening of faith in the hearts and lives of Christian people. And that’s what Advent is meant to be all about, too.
If you’ll look at the psalm on page 812 of your BAS, the first thing I want you to notice is the refrain that’s repeated three times, in slightly different form each time. Verse three says, ‘Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved’. This is repeated in verse seven. Verse 19 adds the name ‘Lord’: ‘Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved’.
But I want you to look carefully at a different verse, 14: ‘Turn now, O God of hosts’. The word ‘turn’ here stands for a Hebrew word that we often translate ‘repent’. Normally in the Bible the word ‘repent’ is applied to human beings; we’re called to turn away from our sins and turn back to God. But occasionally in the Old Testament it’s used for God; God is said to change his mind and repent of his anger toward his people. That’s what the people of God are praying for here. “God, your face is turned away from us. Won’t you turn back to us?” This ties in with the phrase that’s used in the second half of the three refrains: ‘Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved’. The ‘countenance’ is simply ‘the face’. We might paraphrase this as “God, won’t you smile on us again? It’s been so long since we’ve seen your smile!”
I suspect we all know what that feels like. Sometimes you might go to a close friend and ask “How are you?” and they reply, “Well, I’ve had better days”. We can all identify with that in one way or another. Small communities are having a hard time surviving in these days of urbanisation. Many churches are struggling and they look back nostalgically to the days when they had full pews and big Sunday Schools. And for us as individuals, too, there are times when God seems a long way away from us. We go through financial struggles and problems at work – maybe even loss of a job and a livelihood. Many of us are feeling the effects of advancing age. We go through debilitating illness. We lose people we love. We have worries about our kids and our grandchildren. We go through family conflict and heartache. Yes – ‘we’ve seen better days’.
In Psalm 80 the community reminds God of those better days in verses 8 to 11. Israel was like a grape vine that God brought up out of Egypt and planted in the good land of Canaan. The people filled the country and flourished, and for many years it seemed God was really blessing them.
But now what has happened? Verses 12-13 say ‘Why have you broken down its wall, so that all who pass by pluck off its grapes? The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, and the beasts of the field have gazed on it’. This sounds like one of the invasions that took place in the eight and sixth centuries B.C., when God’s people were defeated in battle and many of them taken away into exile. We can imagine the writer of the psalm standing in the ruins of Samaria or Jerusalem, looking around and shaking his head. “God, why have you done this to us? Why have you abandoned us? We are your flock and you are our shepherd. We are your vine, and you are the owner of the vineyard. We are your firstborn son. How can this have happened to us?”
Other passages in the Old Testament give an explanation for this. They talk about how Israel turned away from God to worship false gods and practice injustice and oppression. But this psalm doesn’t go there. It doesn’t assign blame, or if it does, it throws the blame on God. We can hear the anger in the people’s voices. “God, where are you? How come you didn’t help us? Please, come now and rescue us from this desperate situation we’re in. How long are we going to have to wait?”
So what is the psalm calling us to today, as followers of Jesus? Three things.
First, the psalm is calling us to prayer. The psalms are the prayer book of the people of God. We use them as prayers, and also as models for prayer. Are you afraid to tell God how you really feel? The psalms encourage you not to be afraid. Are you wondering if your little troubles are important enough to pray about? The psalms encourage you to pray about everything. And the psalms speak for us when we can’t find the words to speak. I’m grateful to have been praying the psalms in church and outside church for as long as I can remember. The psalms are my school of prayer.
And we need to learn how to pray, don’t we? Every single one of us, at one time or another, has felt that life is just too much for us. And we know, deep down inside, that human planning and ingenuity can only go so far. Sometimes the changes we need are just beyond our power to achieve. We’re desperate for help. And that’s a good place to be. Ole Hallesby once said that the two essential conditions for prayer are faith and desperation. I’m sure most of us don’t have any difficulty supplying the ‘desperation’! But we might feel intimidated by our lack of faith, so Hallesby adds that if we have enough faith to turn to Jesus and ask for his help, that’s all we need!
So this psalm is calling us to prayer. Second, this psalm is calling us to turn. As we’ve seen, in verse 14 the people beg God to turn back to them: ‘Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine”. “Turn to us and let us see you smile on us again”. But the turning is a two-way street. In the refrain, the people ask three times “Restore us, O God of hosts”, but the Hebrew word translated ‘restore’ includes the little syllable ‘shub’ – repent. In fact, you could translate it ‘Make us to turn, O God’.
This might seem strange to us. After all, we’re familiar with the call to repent. We know we need to turn away from our sins and distractions and turn toward God and his will for us. But we usually see it as something we have to do. But here it’s a prayer we pray to God: ‘Make us to turn, O God’.
I would suggest to you that this is an honest and realistic prayer. Change is hard, whether it’s the change of trying to lose weight, the change of trying not to be so bad tempered, the change of learning patience, the change of being more careful about how we talk to other people. Those habits have created neural pathways in our brains, and they live there like deep ruts on a gravel road – the car tires just keep falling into them!
One of my favourite writers, Francis Spufford, describes sin as ‘our human propensity to mess things up’. Actually, he uses a much stronger word than ‘mess’ – one I won’t repeat in this pulpit! But when I first read that phrase I gave a grunt of recognition. That’s me! I have an incredible talent for messing things up, for hurting people, for spoiling relationships. And I find it incredibly difficult to change! So any hope that’s based on my ability to do things differently isn’t going to get me very far, because that ability is severely hampered by human weakness.
So the psalm acknowledges that we can’t do this alone; we need God’s help. “Make us to turn, O God”, isn’t a cop-out. It’s not asking God to do something that we should do ourselves. It’s a humble acknowledgement that if we want to change our lives, our human strength isn’t up to the job. We need to come to God in desperation and faith and cry out for God’s help.
So the psalm encourages us to pray, and the psalm encourages us to turn to God. Finally, the psalm encourages us to hope in Jesus. You need to look carefully to see this, but once you’ve seen it, it’s all over the psalm. It’s actually quite striking how Jesus takes up metaphors in this psalm and uses them for himself and his work.
‘Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock’ (v.1). ‘Shepherd’ in the Old Testament is a metaphor for ‘king’. But who is the Good Shepherd in the New Testament? It’s Jesus, of course. In John 10 he says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”. He talks about calling his sheep by name, leading them out, guiding them, feeding them. In Psalm 23 David prays ‘The Lord is my shepherd’; in the New Testament ‘the Lord’ is Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Jesus has been called ‘the human face of God’. So when the people pray, ‘Make your face shine on us, O God’, Jesus is the answer to that prayer.
And what about the ‘vine’ metaphor? The psalm talks about Israel as God’s vine, planted in the land to produce good fruit. But who is the true vine in the New Testament? Again, it’s Jesus. He says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (John 15:1). In the Old Testament the prophets talk about God looking for good fruit on his vine, but only finding bitter grapes – in other words, his people didn’t produce the fruit of good and holy living that he was looking for. But Jesus is the fruitful vine. And what does he say to us? “Abide in me as I abide in you”. To ‘abide’ somewhere means to make your home there. So we make Jesus our spiritual home. We live in fellowship with him. We listen to his words and put them into practice, and with his help – and only with his help – we can produce the fruit God is looking for.
The third metaphor is the ‘son of man’. Verse 16 says ‘Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, the son of man you have made so strong for yourself’. In the original context this is a metaphor for Israel – Israel is God’s firstborn son – but in the gospels Jesus takes it and uses it for himself; it becomes his favourite way of talking about himself. In other words, Jesus is the true Israelite; he’s the chosen one of God. He’s the one who shows us what it means not just to be God, but also to be truly human. When we look at Jesus, we’re looking at God’s dream of what a human life is like. In him – as we make our home in him – it’s possible for us to truly repent, to truly love, to truly pray, to truly be faithful to God.
So let’s go round this one last time. This psalm calls us to pray – not just as individuals, but as a community. We pray as desperate people, people who realize that life is often too much for us, that we aren’t up to the task, that we need help. But we also pray as people of faith, people who know we’ve been invited to turn to Jesus and ask for help. Are you desperate? Have you got enough faith to simply turn to Jesus and ask for help? Then you can pray!
This psalm calls us to turn – or, to be more accurate, it calls us to ask God to help us turn. We know that often we get distracted by too many things, and sometimes our lives are consumed by stuff that’s got nothing to do with loving God and loving our neighbour. So we ask God to help us turn from that, and turn back to God.
Advent is a time to be more faithful in prayer and to be more intentional about turning to God. But lastly, it’s a time to look to Jesus. He’s the human face of God. In him God has shown the light of his countenance to us – he’s made his face shine on us – we’ve seen the smile of God in him. He’s our Good Shepherd. “My sheep hear my voice”, he says. So we take care to hear his voice, and where he leads, there we follow.