Advent Week Four - The Big Event "Restore!"

This Sunday is the 4th Sunday of the Season of Advent.  It's the last Sunday before Christmas Eve, and the end of a long season of expectation.

The passage of scripture that I am preaching from this week is from Psalm 80.  I don't often get the chance to preach from one of the Psalms, so it's kind of a treat.  I have a BA in English Lit, which I don't get to use a whole lot in my current gig.  But when I dig my hands into the Psalms--which are essentially poetry--it really gets me going and brings out my inner Bible/Lit geek.

There's a refrain in Psalm 80 that is repeated throughout the psalm in one form or another.  It goes something like this:  "Restore us, God Almighty; make your face shine on us that we may be saved."

As I read that refrain and the rest of the psalm as well, I found myself asking a question:  "What does it mean to be "saved?"  I mean, it's obvious that being "saved" is pretty important to the author of this psalm and presumably for anyone who sings/prays it.  Lots of Christians use the term "saved" to describe their eternal status---as in "I am saved, and will spend eternity in Heaven.  You, on the other hand, are not saved and will spend eternity in Hell." 

When you pray to God and ask to be saved, what do you really mean?

I was a kid when I prayed what Christians commonly call "the sinner's prayer," and became what my community of faith described as a "Christian."  My motivation for doing so was based entirely on the fear of spending eternity swimming in the Lake of Fire--the place where the people in my church assured me I would go if I died before "accepting Christ."

The fundamentalist churches that I attended when I was young believed that it was an absolute necessity that their members "witness" to anyone and everyone for the purpose of getting them "saved."  I remember my pastors and youth pastors preaching extensively on the subject--berating the "lukewarm" Christians who didn't share their faith, and challenging each of us to do more to "share the Gospel."  Their belief (which was not at all based in Scripture) was that God was somehow throttled by his own rules and desperately needed Christians to tell people about Jesus.  If we didn't, we were told, these people would go to Hell, and their blood would be on our hands.

You can imagine how awesome that was for a little kid to hear.

We used to hand out these tracts that were made by Chick PublicationsJack Chick was a visionary.  Decades ago, he realized that one of the most effective ways to witness to people wasn't with words, but with pictures.  His trademark tracts were essentially tiny comic books.  I want you to see an image from a particularly winsome Chick tract about a missionary couple returning home from Africa.  They have been serving for 50 years and are retiring.  On the plane ride home they sit next to a young student who is a Christian.  The plane crashes and everyone is killed.  Angels come and airlift the missionaries and the young man to Heaven where they stand before God.  The student is given a hero's welcome to the Pearly Gates, but the missionaries are told that their "good works" didn't amount to anything and they are tossed into Hell: 


Awesome.

But is "fire insurance" really salvation?  Is being a Christian nothing more than the memory of praying a prayer and getting admitted into the club?  And how does this whole "being saved" process happen?  What are we "saved" from and for?

If you believe what the Chick people (and countless other Christians) are selling, then it really doesn't matter how you live your life.... as long as you got your "Get Out of Hell Free" card, you are set.  Who cares about the poor?  Who cares about the needy?  Who cares about caring for the Earth?  Who cares whether you are completely immersed in Materialism and Consumerism?  Who cares about living as Jesus lived?  At least we ain't going to Hell!  

Mahatma Gandhi famously said to a Christian who asked him what he thought of Jesus: "I like your Christ... I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."  I also read somewhere that he once said that if Christians had actually acted like Jesus that India probably would have become a "Christian" nation. 

How many real Christians do you know?  If I am being honest with myself, I can't really call myself a real Christian.  I had a buddy in seminary who felt the same way.  He used to wear this t-shirt all of the time. 

I remember asking him once why he would wear a shirt that read "Unsaved" on it.  He told me that he would rather be identified with the "unsaved" people than the "saved" ones because he thought that would bring him closer to being more like Jesus.

I think every Christian should own and wear this shirt.  It would make a huge statement to the people that we are supposed to be sharing the good news of Jesus with, wouldn't it?

This brings us back to Psalm 80 and the key phrase that we mentioned earlier: "Restore us God Almighty; make your face shine on us that we may be saved."

At the time this Psalm was written, the Assyrians had invaded the Northern Hebrew kingdom of Israel after an insurrection against their empire by Israel's king failed miserably.  Assyrians were brutal to those who defied them.  They had mastered the art of flailing people alive---tying them up in a public place and beating them in such a way that their skin would essentially fall off while they were still alive.  Refugees were pouring into the Southern Hebrew kingdom of Judah, and this psalm reflects the trauma that the Hebrew people were feeling.   John Calvin called this a "sorrowful" psalm.

Hear us, Shepherd of Israel,
   you who lead Joseph like a flock.
You who sit enthroned between the cherubim,
   shine forth 2 before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.
Awaken your might;
   come and save us.
 3 Restore us, O God;
   make your face shine on us,
   that we may be saved.
 4 How long, LORD God Almighty,
   will your anger smolder
   against the prayers of your people?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears;
   you have made them drink tears by the bowlful.
6 You have made us an object of derision[b] to our neighbors,
   and our enemies mock us.
 7 Restore us, God Almighty;
   make your face shine on us,
   that we may be saved.

17 Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand,
   the son of man you have raised up for yourself.
18 Then we will not turn away from you;
   revive us, and we will call on your name.
 19 Restore us, LORD God Almighty;
   make your face shine on us,
   that we may be saved.

While there is something sorrowful about the plight of the people who were singing this, there's something beautiful about it, too.  The people who are singing are singing from the depths of a dire circumstance.  They sang about the goodness of God to God's people and remember the history that God has of delivering them in the nick of time.  This prayer concentrates with a single focus on one thing: "The Divine Thou."  This is a song about God's glory, grace and goodness.  It's a song about how God alone is the author and finisher of faith and salvation. 

The word hasibenu, which is translated here as "restore" literally means "cause to return."  In the middle of their calamity, the people of God beg God to compel them to turn around and face Him once again---to return to the way they were intended to be.  "Make your face shine on us," they sing--words that are echoed in the Aaronic blessing from Numbers.  When we turn to face the Divine, the psalm seems to be saying, His face shines upon us and we are saved. 

This is a painting with words that depicts human weakness clothed in divine strength. 

So how does this help us answer our salvation questions? 

There is an outline to the path of salvation that can be seen in this song.  First, there is the recognition of God's sovereignty and goodness.  When we realize that there is a God and we're not Him... that's a moment of clarity.  The ancient Hebrew people at least gave lip service to the notion that regardless of the circumstances, God was in the midst of them.  We hear this echoed in Job's words, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord." 

Second, along with the realization that God and God alone is "in charge" there comes a realization that nothing we can do on our own can truly restore us.  God compels me to "return" with what John Calvin called "irresistible grace."  It's hard to understand, but in some mysterious way what feels to us like a choice is nothing more than our weakness covered in God's divine strength. 

Third, the restoration that comes through God is expressed most fully when we repent of what we have become and embrace Jesus Christ as our way of knowing what God has created us to be.  The witness of the Scriptures teach us that only through Jesus Christ can we obtain our true identity in God. 

Finally, when we embrace a life pursuing Jesus and his example, we find renewal with the hope of what God has yet to do through Christ... and through his followers.  Jesus told his disciples that they would "do even greater things" than he was able to do.  It sounds ridiculous, but he obviously believed it.  If you think about it, the greatest miracle of all of Jesus' miracles is the way that people seem to find him in spite of the way his followers act. 

Do you want a definition of a Christian?  A Christian is someone who dares to see the reign of God through Jesus and expects miracles where others see only chaos and expect nothing. We have been saved from ourselves and the ways that we separate from God.  But we are saved for something far greater than fire insurance.  We are saved to defiantly declare God's favor when it seems that all is lost.  We are to be identified with Jesus in such an unmistakable way that people will know we have been with Him. 

And like those ancients who sang Psalm 80 with all of the strength as they watched their world fall apart around them... we proclaim the goodness and grace of God when it seems illogical to do so.  We cry out with all of the saints of the ages, "Restore us God Almighty; make your face shine on us that we may be saved."

We say these words, and they are mercy to us because they are the truest words ever spoken.

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