The Second Sunday of Advent December 4, 2005
56, 65, 353(1-3), 353(6-7)
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock; You who dwell between the cherubim, shine forth! Before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, stir up Your strength, and come and save us! Restore us, O God; cause Your face to shine, and we shall be saved! O Lord God of hosts, how long will You be angry against the prayer of Your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in great measure. You have made us a strife to our neighbors, and our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God of hosts; cause Your face to shine, and we shall be saved! You have brought a vine out of Egypt; You have cast out the nations, and planted it. You prepared room for it, and caused it to take deep root, and it filled the land. The hills were covered with its shadow, and the mighty cedars with its boughs. She sent out her boughs to the Sea, and her branches to the River. Why have You broken down her hedges, so that all who pass by the way pluck her fruit? The boar out of the woods uproots it, and the wild beast of the field devours it. Return, we beseech You, O God of hosts; look down from heaven and see, and visit this vine and the vineyard which Your right hand has planted, and the branch that You made strong for Yourself. It is burned with fire, it is cut down; they perish at the rebuke of Your countenance. Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand, upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself. Then we will not turn back from You; revive us, and we will call upon Your name. Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; cause Your face to shine, and we shall be saved!
Fellow Redeemed in Christ Jesus, our long-promised Deliverer:
He lived in a lofty stone and cedar temple—quietly awesome in its gold-covered majesty. Dim, flickering oil lamps were the only light, the air was heavy with the smell of incense, Levite musicians played outside. He was there, in a rear chamber, separated by a heavy curtain. In that room was a cabinet covered in gold, its lid spattered by the blood of animals. Fastened to the top of the lid were two magnificent angels—cherubim—facing each other with wings outstretched, almost touching.
In that few feet of area circumscribed by the angels’ wings there was nothing visible, but it was not empty. In that space between the cherubim was the dwelling place of God. This is where He met with the priest that represented God’s people, the people of Israel.
Though he had probably never seen it, it was at this place, in the Holy of Holies, that the pious Jew set his heart to reflect on God. Here, before that blood-caked cover of an ark containing the tablets of the Law and a jar of manna, is where they found peace with the Almighty.
Today we hear a psalm of people appealing to the God “who dwells between the cherubim.” It was the plea of a waiting church looking for relief, for deliverance, for peace. We also are, or ought to be, a waiting church, and since our lesson from Romans assures us that “whatever things were written before [in Scripture] were written for our learning,” we can be assured that there is much in this ancient hymn that will enrich and bless us today. May the Holy Spirit aid us in understanding The plea of the Waiting Church. It is a plea for God to I. Return to the people who confess Your name, II. Restore to them Your gracious love, and III. Revive them with the inner light of hope.
“Stir up your Strength, and come…” [v.2] The believers of Israel ask the Lord God: “return to the people who confess Your name.” But if we ask the Lord to return, it sounds as if the Lord went somewhere. Where did He go? What prompted this plea from the Lord’s people?
Psalms can be pretty vague about the circumstances that prompted the words and thoughts of the Psalmist. In a way that’s good because it does make us realize that what people experience in their own spiritual life is not all that far away from our own experience. Some people think perhaps this psalm was prompted by the Assyrian invasion that finally destroyed the Northern Kingdom. We are reminded of the vulnerability of the land when God allowed growing empires to make Palestine their playground and battlefield: “Why have you broken down her hedges, So that all who pass by the way pluck her fruit? The boar out of the woods uproots it, and the wild beast of the field devours it.” [vv.12-13]
Clearly, this was a distressing situation for people who could look back and recall how God, for the sake of a promise made to Abraham hundreds of years earlier, had “brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders” (Deuteronmy 26:8). They could recall how He had taken them like a vine, cleared the land of Canaan of its inhabitants, and planted Israel as flourishing nation. They could also reflect on more recent Israelite history, noting how under God’s blessing they had spread out from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River in the days of David and Solomon. Now, their sudden change of fortunes made them the laughing stock of the world and they found it humiliating.
What enemies do God’s people have now? Perhaps we don’t have to fear the Assyrians suddenly appearing on our horizon, but we are surrounded by not a few foes and face many hardships. Maybe it is the credit card bills piling up that have you looking over your shoulder. Perhaps it is some secret sin that bothers your conscience. It may be a bout of ill health or family trouble. All of these can make one wonder if the Lord has abandoned us, and is “feeding us the with the bread of tears.” [v.5]
There are also things we share as body of believers. We are an embattled group, a Church Militant, standing on the battlefield in a world gone mad in its rebellion against its Maker. “If the world hates you” Jesus said, “you know it hated Me first” (John 15:18). When things don’t go well for our congregation, for the synod, or perhaps the visible church as a whole, we are inclined to say: “O Lord God of Hosts, how long will you be angry?” [v.4]
The difference between believers and unbelievers is not that believers seem more fortunate than others. It is that believers, even when they are puzzled and distressed, are drawn back into the holy of holies of their faith. They approach that mercy seat covered in blood and pray for God to restore to them His gracious love.
That is the refrain, isn’t it, of this Psalm? Three times, with growing intensity, the people pray: “Restore, us, O God of hosts; Cause Your face to shine, and we shall be saved!”
These words take us back to that picture of God living between the cherubim. God gave His Old Testament believers instructions on how to conduct their worship. Central to this form of worship was the tabernacle with the fixtures that would later also go in the temple: an altar for sacrifices, a basin for purification, a lamp stand, and incense burners. Of all the tabernacle furnishings, the Ark of the Covenant was most prominent. It was here that the blood of a chosen beast was sprinkled once each year as God’s way of saying that only by the sacrifice of His chosen sacrifice would the people’s sins be blotted out. Only with atonement could they continue as God’s holy people. Only by faith in this covenant could they remain in God’s favor. Only with the covering of their sin would God’s gracious love shine forth upon them.
The faithful of Israel approached God on those terms—faith in a sacrifice of atonement that God Himself would choose. It is by God’s grace that He would shine His face on them to give them peace and salvation.
God’s face finally shone upon Israel and all the world in the Person of Jesus Christ. Salvation came by God’s Son taking human flesh to Himself and then reconciling all sinners through the sacrifice of His precious blood.
If Jews of old sang this hymn with the image in mind of God hearing their prayer and saving Ephraim and Manasseh from the Assyrians, they would be disappointed. That part of Israel was simply lost and absorbed into a larger empire. But if believers prayed this prayer for redemption with a heart that trusted in God’s faithfulness to fulfill His Word, they would find peace. God has redeemed His Israel, by grafting in His elect from all nations to form a true, believing Israel.
When we look at the trouble we are in, or the burdens we feel, or the threats that we face in this life, God would have us come to Him as we do in our liturgy, praying “Lord have mercy upon us.” Then He will show us His mercy in the Holy of Holies of the New Covenant. By Word and Sacrament God confirms for us that we have seen His gracious loving face in the person of Jesus who washes us of our sin and nourishes our souls with His body and blood. Yes, here in these words, God invites you to find yourself restored, brought into His everlasting covenant. He will remain always for you, never against you.
Near the end of the Psalm, an interesting mention is made: “Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand, upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself.” [v.17] This might seek God’s blessing upon whatever king held sway over Israel at the time, but the larger picture is too much for us to ignore. The same Person who comes as our Redeemer lives also as our King, and we wait for Him finally to come and deliver us. When we believe that we are restored as God’s people through Christ, we are revived—made alive through His life. We are thus able to live every day in joyous hope. We don’t belong in this world any longer. We are citizens of another, heavenly city. We look for our King to come and end our captivity here. Did you ever think about this: that you are most alive, when your heart is most full of that anticipation, looking forward to the sight of our Living Lord and God?
This time of year provides a fitting reminder within the Advent season. The shortening length of day; the long winter nights, make the idea of light and warmth all the more welcome. The cloak of darkness all around reminds us that this world is in spiritual darkness, which is truly pierced only where the light of God’s salvation is heard and believed. But there, in the believing heart, it brings real, productive life—a life that revives the weary and waiting Church. May God shine His light in us all. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.