1 Corinthians 1.3-9
Today being the First Sunday of Advent, we are at the start of a new year in the Church’s calendar. And a new year means a new cycle of readings on Sunday mornings. The Church of England for the most part works from a system of reading the Bible on Sundays which it has largely in common with many other churches, and it works on a three-year cycle: a year of Luke, a year of Matthew (which we’ve just finished), and then a year of Mark and John, which we begin today.
You will realise that I have now been around long enough as a preacher to have preached my way through this cycle a couple of times, and so this year I have decided that it is time to refresh my approach. Through the coming year I am going to pay particular attention to the psalms set for Sundays. I will of course continue to preach on the gospel, but you will find me giving more attention to the Psalm than I have in the past.
Why the psalms?
The first reason is variety. A change of approach will, God willing, keep things fresh and interesting for you and for me.
But there are particular reasons to attend carefully to the psalms. The Book of Psalms is the longest book in the Bible. It is the great common hymn book of both the Jewish and Christian people. The recitation of the psalms has been the bedrock of Christian worship throughout the history of the Church, from the Desert Fathers of Egypt to the Benedictine Monks of western Europe to the old fashioned English parson faithfully saying Morning and Evening Prayer. They even pop up now and again in modern worship songs.
But more importantly still the psalms are also the prayer book of Jesus. The words of the psalms are frequently on Jesus’ lips in the gospels, and from the very beginning of the Church, Christians interpreted the psalms as having a special connection with the life and person of Jesus.
Today we get off to a good start, from my point-of-view anyway, because Psalm 80 happens to be one of my favourite psalms. I love the alternation of lament and simple trust in God: the repeated refrain of “Restore us O God, let your face shine, that we may be saved”, interspersed by heartfelt lament for the sufferings of Israel: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it… Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?” The alternation between despair and hope, between reproach of and trust in God, is familiar to anyone who has faced a tragic situation whether as an individual, a family, a community, a church or a nation.
The emotional honesty of this psalm is one reason for its appeal. This might be particularly important for us at the moment. In all sorts of ways we have been through a pretty rough time these past few months, and there are going to be some rough times ahead too. It is healthy to be honest about that. It has been a pretty rough time for the Church in particular, partly because of Covid-19, but also because of many other largely self-inflicted problems that have befallen us. The psalmist teaches us not to hide our pain from God, but to name it before God, to be honest before God, and to acknowledge the depth of our need for God’s saving love.
So its emotional honesty is one thing that I love about this psalm, and we find the same quality in many of the psalms, and we will find over the coming year that the psalmist is prepared to bare thoughts and feelings and desires before God that most of us would seek to conceal even from ourselves. But another reason to love this psalm is that it brings us close to Jesus. Vines and vineyards of course frequently appear in Jesus’ parables, and when we stop to think about it, we realise that this psalm is quite a lot like a parable, specifically the part about the vine, which stands for Israel. But as well as this similarity in language, as well as this sense of a shared imaginative religious vocabulary, there are still deeper pointers to Jesus in this psalm.
In Jesus the Psalmist’s prayer is answered: “let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself”; these words cannot but remind us of Jesus, who as the Creed puts it is seated at the right hand of the Father.
And “Let your face shine, that we may be saved” cannot but remind us of Jesus transfigured on the mountain top, it cannot but remind us of the glory of the risen Christ, it cannot but remind us of the promise of His coming in power and glory at a day and hour that no-one knows. “Let your face shine, that we may be saved” might perhaps even make us think of Jesus’ face shining with tears in Gethsemane, shining with sweat and blood on the Cross.
And when we pause to think about it, we realise that the emotional honesty before God that we have already noted in this psalm is also something deeply connected with Jesus, who chooses words from Psalm 22 to express His sense of abandonment from the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”; and yet who also expresses His trust in God from the Cross using words from Psalm 31: “Into your hands O Lord I commend my spirit”.
Since I’ve already talked to you about one of my favourite psalms, I might as well talk to you about another of my favourite things, which is an advent sermon of St Bernard of Clairvaux. We all know about the first coming of Jesus as a baby, born of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We should also know about the expectation of the Second Coming that we heard about in today’s gospel, the hope that there will be a final restoration, that His face will again shine upon us, that our salvation may be complete. But St Bernard in this favourite sermon of mine teaches that there is also a Third Coming which is in some ways a hidden coming, namely the entrance of Jesus into the heart of the believer.
Advent is a time of hope and expectation, but hope and expectation comes from a place in which at best something is lacking, something is not perfectly fulfilled or realised; at worst, hope and expectation is something that we cling too in the face of tragedy and despair. As we prepare for the celebration of the first coming of Jesus as the baby of Bethlehem, we pray with the psalmist “Let your face shine, that we may be saved”. We watch and wait for the coming of Jesus in power and glory. We struggle perhaps at times to understand what this will mean, what this will look like, we struggle perhaps at times to understand why it hasn’t happened already, we wonder what God is waiting for, sometimes perhaps we even cry out in the great tradition of the psalms and the Old Testament prophets: “O that you would tear the heavens and come down!”.
Advent is a time of hope and expectation, but it is also a penitential season, an emphasis which has rather gone out of fashion in recent years. But Psalm 80 like so many of the psalms shows us the essential relationship between honesty before God and the hope of salvation. Right now many of us are running on empty, many of us are feeling pretty low and mean and angry, we are out of patience with this virus and the restrictions we are living with, and we are thrashing around looking for people to blame. This Advent could be for us a space for honesty before God, a time to remove the curtains we put up within our hearts to hide away those dark corners, a time to stand before God in humility and admit the pain of our wounds and the depth of our need.
And as we look forward in humble honesty and in hope to the time when the Son of Man will come with power and glory, we may also discern the ways in which He is present with us now, and welcome Him afresh into our hearts, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages.