Advent 4, Year A
Advent 4, Year A
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Sermon by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Most—if not all—of us have experienced times in our lives when we have really listened with care and empathy to someone’s story. In a lot of cases, such people often express their gratitude to us for listening to them. Our listening was all they really needed of us—consequently; they felt there was someone who really took the time to hear them out. In so doing, they felt cared for and loved by us. Most likely one-half to three-quarters of life’s problems or issues are resolved by being able to speak with someone else whom we can trust and who listens with care and empathy.
On the other hand, most—if not all—of us can remember occasions when we have failed miserably to listen with care and empathy to someone’s story. Unfortunately, this happens with those whom we need to listen to the most—our loved ones, the stranger, the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. How many times have we been so preoccupied with reading the newspaper, rather than listening with care and empathy to our spouse or child? Or how many times have our thoughts wandered in a thousand places, while our family seeks our listening ears during dinner conversation? Or how often are we so determined to emphatically make our point, while at the same time shutting down the voices of others?
In Psalm 80, a lamenting Israel; an Israel who has been invaded by the enemy and now languishes in Assyrian exile; turns to The Only One Whom They Can Trust, crying out: “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel.” In the desolation of a foreign land; after losing land, possessions and livelihood; suffering one loss after another; Israel turns to their God for help—trusting that God will give ear; God will and does listen to them. Just as a good shepherd cares for and is willing to lay down their life for their sheep; so Israel’s God will hear them out with care and empathy.
In this community lament of Israel, the people feel that they have suffered and lived in grief long enough. Their neighbours and enemies treat them with scorn and laughter. How much more could they take? How long would God allow Israel to suffer and live in shame, torment and humiliation? Was God really listening to their prayers? Would God answer them? Israel’s lament reflects an utter honesty with God. They are not afraid to let every thought and emotion out—holding nothing back—knowing and trusting that their God will listen and does hear them. It is precisely in this knowing and trusting that God does “give ear” to Israel; that they feel loved by God; loved enough to share with God absolutely anything and everything.
Is this not one of the greatest expressions of God’s love to us—that God listens to us not only with care and empathy, but in all times and places, unconditionally? God’s ears are always open—unlike ours. God, unlike us, is not sidetracked and preoccupied. God’s ears—unlike ours—will not misunderstand, distort and misinterpret our words. We can come into God’s presence, like ancient Israel, knowing and trusting that God will hear us. Theologian Paul Tillich, once said that: “The first duty of love is to listen.” God is always fulfilling love’s “first duty,” since God is always “on duty,” hence, always lovingly listening to us. Might we, as God’s people, created in God’s image, not also strive to model our listening after God’s?! How many of our relationships with our spouse, our children, our parishioners, you name them, would be restored and saved through careful, empathic, loving listening?
However, the love of God is affirmed in another important way in the refrain of Psalm 80—which is repeated by the Israelites in verses 3, 7, and 19. In these verses, the theme of God as The One who restores and saves Israel leaps out at us. If ever there were a time in history for Israel to be restored and saved, surely that time was now, they had suffered long enough in Assyrian exile. They deeply longed for their homeland; where they could worship, love and serve their God without reserve or persecution. A place of peace and prosperity for all; an environment of future hope for their children and grandchildren. The days when the LORD would bless all Israel; when Israel, in response to God’s love and covenant; could also become a blessing to all the nations of the world.
We too are no different than ancient Israel, suffering in a land of exile. We, like they, deeply long for restoration. This past year has been a most disturbing and turbulent one for the whole world. For too many, life came to a tragic end due to the terrorist events in the United States. The conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians has also escalated this past year—with both sides losing far too many due to suicide bombings and an endless series of revenge killings. In Afghanistan, thousands of innocent people are left homeless and destitute due to the war there. In other poor nations of the world, millions of people continue to suffer from the imbalance of power, with the attendant lack of fair, equitable distribution of resources; which unjustly favours the affluent Western nations. Then, there are other kinds of situations all over the world, as well as right here in Canada that yearns, more than ever, for God’s restoring love. There are those who will face this holiday season without: health, or a job, or loved ones. Others suffer from emotional, physical, mental and spiritual conflicts or abuse. These, along with a host of other situations cry out, like ancient Israel: “Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”
Deep within us all, we long for better days, a restored life of God’s shining presence, a Saviour who will come and live among us. Do we not all desire health, prosperity, peace, meaning and wholeness in our lives? In love, our God has come, is coming, and will come again to restore and save us. As Advent comes to a close for another year, we anticipate, more than ever, the coming, restoring, saving love of God. It’s there as we gather for worship, pray, participate in Advent devotions at home, and prepare our hearts, minds and lives for the celebration of Christmas. The air is filled with excitement as we await God’s restoring, saving event of Jesus’ birth. He is God’s Chosen One, whom we Christians believe restores and saves us personally, collectively as the church, and indeed, the whole world.
His restoration is love at work among us because it is precisely in his incarnation—his humanity—his willingness to take on the sufferings, condemnation, punishment, sin and evil of humankind by nailing all of this to a cross; that we are freed and saved. In his human presence among us we are restored and saved. Who is better to restore and save us but someone like us, one with whom we share everything in common? Someone who speaks our language; shares our history and experiences fully and completely. Who better to restore and save us than The Very One who existed from the beginning and all things—including us—were created through him? The one who designs something will certainly know best how to repair or restore whatever he or she designed in the first place. So it is with God and us—we were designed by our God and surely it is God who is best able to restore and save us.
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