I’m growing to appreciate the Psalms more than I might have in the past. I appreciate their honesty in the variety of feelings and human experience they bring to God, and the simplicity and directness of the faith they express.
Like the psalm this morning – Psalm 85:
4Restore us again, O God of our salvation,
and put away your indignation toward us.
5Will you be angry with us forever?
Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
6Will you not revive us again,
so that your people may rejoice in you?
8Let me hear what God the Lord will speak …
As we’ve heard, this psalm was written and shared among the people in a time that should have been happy for them, but wasn’t.
The situation is that they have finally returned from the Great Exile. Years earlier – generations earlier, they had lost everything as a kingdom. Because of their foolishness as a people and because of the corruption and misdirection of their leaders, they had lost their kingdom and had been taken into exile – as forced labour, really – into Assyria and then Babylon. And they have come to understand and accept all that. They can see how they brought their misfortune and downfall on themselves.
But now, by what they can only describe as an act of God, they are back home. What they come home to is a mess. The city of Jerusalem – including both the royal court and the holy temple, have been destroyed. The land around – farms, villages, small industry, are in ruins. But now that they are home, they can do something about it. They have a chance to rebuild what they let fall down; they can regain what they lost and threw away.
Except, it hasn’t happened. Some years have passed. The people made a little start. But then they stalled. They started arguing about how they should rebuild, and what should come first. They divided into factions and started to fall back into old ways – the ways that had got them into trouble in the first place. It seems nothing is really better. Under the veneer or the cover of what should be a happy and forward-looking time, they are still a shambles and in ruins as a people.
It’s kind of like this past Friday’s Spectator. I picked up the paper first thing Friday morning and what I saw on the front page, covering three of the four columns, is the headline “Burlington’s Christmas Cheer” with a three-column full-colour picture of a house on Spruce Avenue in Burlington all decorated and lit up for Christmas. All above the fold. And before my first cup of coffee.
What a start for the day – Christmas joy – I thought of silent night, and peace on earth, good will among men, and women, and children, and all God’s scattered and sundry beasts and creatures. ‘Tis the season … And isn’t that what we want to feel? And do feel?
But then I noticed the headline beside this one, also at the top of the page, in the one right-hand column that remained: “City Hall: Council hears new approach to noise complaints” – a story about a plan to send by-law and police officers together to investigate noise complaints between 1 and 7 am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. It seems peace on earth – at least peace and quiet in some neighbourhoods still isn’t quite here, doesn’t come naturally. Disturbing the peace is still a problem looking for an answer.
And then inside, starting on page three, the avalanche of other stories:
· two stories about different groups of First Nations people seeking redress for what they see as lies and betrayal, and cultural genocide practiced as recently as the 1960’s and 70’s right here in Canada;
· a story about a Hamilton man pleading guilty to stabbing his father; another about the need for a culture of peace at City Hall; another about Canadian political leaders taking pot shots at each other in the media;
· and from around the world stories about ten police officers in Chechnya killed by militants; the fragility of peace in Afghanistan; protests in the States against the Grand Jury decision not to indict a white police officer caught on video in the chokehold death of a black man.
I went back to the first story about Burlington Christmas Cheer to recover something positive, and read the sub-headline under the picture of the Christmas house: “People (well, almost everyone) love the light display that electrifies the neighbourhood.” Some are upset by the traffic and noise the display brings into their neighbourhood.
And isn’t that what we and our world are really like – still like, even now in the month of December as we start to plan for, and look forward to Christmas? Like the people of Israel back in their own land, wanting to sing songs of rejoicing, but knowing that under the cover of a happy time of rebuilding and forward-looking planning, a lot is still in shambles and in ruins?
So the psalmist cries out:
1Lord, you were favorable to your land;
you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
2You forgave the iniquity of your people;
you pardoned all their sin.
3You withdrew all your wrath;
you turned from your hot anger.
4Restore us again, O God of our salvation …
6Will you not revive us again…
7Show us your steadfast love, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.
It’s interesting that the psalmist here does not ask God to make everything better – to fix what is still broken, to do the people’s work for them. He begins by recalling the beginnings. With the reference to Jacob, the people’s ancient ancestor who because of the foolishness and sinfulness of his sons ended up in slavery in Egypt, the psalmist brings to mind the whole story of how God created the people of Israel in the first place by leading them out of slavery in the exodus, leading them to the Promised Land, and along the way – in the middle of the story, with the Ten Commandments giving them instruction in how to live rightly with one another and other people once they are in the Promised Land.
God didn’t solve all their problems for them. But God gave them what they needed to be able to live rightly, and gave them freedom and a place where they could do that – where they could grow up from being slaves and like children in the world, to live as real human beings, mature in their wisdom and in their relations with others.
And that’s what the psalmist asks for in this time of distress as well. As you did for them, O God, may you do for us. Restore us; revive us again. Free us from the foolishness and sin that still bedevil us, speak to us again about right living, and give us time and space and a chance to start again.
And isn’t that what Christmas is? Isn’t it an answer to that prayer, and an answer to the universal prayer of the human heart for another chance to live rightly, another encouragement to learn to grow into the maturity and wisdom God wants us to have as human beings?
We sometimes wish, sometimes believe, and sometimes fear that the ultimate truth about God is that in the end God will come down from heaven in irresistible power, angry at sin and with belt in hand, to set things right and put an end to what’s wrong. “Don’t make me come down there!” is the cleverly worded threat we see sometimes on billboards and church sign-boards, to encourage us to smarten up and play nice.
But, the thing is, God has come down, and it hasn’t been in that way. In Christmas, in the coming of God in human flesh, in the birth of Jesus God comes not with belt in hand and forceful voice to whip us into shape but as a baby put into our hands to draw us out of ourselves and whatever mess we have created, and into loving wonder. And from that baby and the kind of life he grows into and lives out in the world, we receive as gift what we need to know about right living and how the world is made good.
Restore us, O God, and revive us again. Forgive us our sin, free us from our waywardness and illnesses and addictions and private and public foolishness. Speak to us again of your way of right living. And give us time and space to grow into it – one more step, one more day, one more season, one more year.
As we gather each year around the manger and take the Christ-child into our hands and into our hearts, we are given again what we need to catch on to God’s way of being, and to grow just a little bit more into living it out. Because Christmas is not just about the birth of Jesus. It’s about our birth as a new and renewed people. It’s about our growing up just a little bit more as human beings.
And that’s worth celebrating. That’s worth decorating and lighting up a house for.