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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
“Restored Hope”
November 30, 2014 - First Sunday in Advent

         I’m normally not very interested in what celebrities or sports stars have to say, but I appreciated what Benjamin Watson of the New Orleans Saints wrote on Facebook Monday night after his team played against the Baltimore Ravens. He responded to the events in Ferguson, Missouri and around the country that night by voicing his feelings. It was mostly a list and explanation of negative emotions. He was angry and frustrated and fearful and embarrassed and sad. He was offended, confused, and then near the end, hopeless.

         Watson said he felt hopeless “because I’ve lived long enough to expect things like this to continue to happen. I’m not surprised and at some point my little children are going to inherit the weight of being a minority and all that it entails.” Watson went on to say that he also felt hopeful and encouraged, and I’ll get to that later. But right now I want us to feel that feeling of hopelessness.

         Hopelessness fuels a good part of the anger and violence in reaction to the decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson. It’s the feeling that black people have been mistreated for centuries and that mistreatment is not going to end anytime soon. It’s very much like the feeling expressed throughout our psalm for this first Sunday in Advent, especially in that question asked in verse 4, “How long?” The protestors want to know how long discrimination and injustice will continue. Ancient Israel wanted to know how long God would allow them to be defeated and disgraced by their enemies.

         It’s a very human and ordinary question. I went to buy a pair of tires last week, looked around at all the customers waiting already, and asked the salesperson, “How long?” I’m sure Will is asking that question each day as he wonders how long it will be until some of his peripheral vision returns and the pain and discomfort from his surgery goes away. You may be asking “How long?” about a job, or an illness, or a family fight. And as we look around at our world like Benjamin Watson did Monday night and think about Ferguson and Iraq and Ukraine or about homelessness and child slavery and world hunger, we all might join Asaph the psalm writer in asking “How long?” and feel a bit hopeless about the answer.

         Our Gospel lesson is from the end of Mark 13. Go back to the beginning of that chapter and you will find four of the disciples in verse 3 asking Jesus the same question, “when will this be?” How long until these horrible things happen? That’s a little different from Watson and Israel and you and I asking how long until the horrible things are over, but the hopeless feeling in the question is the same.

         It’s hard to be sure just what the occasion was for Psalm 80, but it’s written with some focus on northern Israel, the ten tribes who joined up with King David and stayed with King Solomon to be one united kingdom of Israel for about eighty years. When Solomon died, those ten tribes split back off and called themselves Israel. Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph, were two of those tribes.

         After about two hundred years of independence, Assyria invaded those ten northern tribes, took them captive, scattered them to the four winds, and obliterated them as a kingdom any longer. The little tribe of Benjamin, which stayed with Judah, was right on the southern border of Ephraim. So it’s possible that refugees from Ephraim and Manasseh fled there when the Assyrians came, just like refugees from Syria have fled into Turkey in the face of ISIS.

         So this psalm lets us hear the voice of an Ephraimite, sitting there in Benjamin territory, looking over the border into a home devastated and ruined by an invading army. That’s why he cries out with that question, “How long?” and why he prays three times that prayer in verse 3, “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” He’s praying for and wondering how long it will be until God notices and comes and restores their home and saves them from their enemies.

         All that pain and frustration in Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh makes this psalm a song for God’s people whenever and however we are feeling devastated and wondering how long it’s going to last. It’s a psalm for all those Ferguson protestors who wonder how long racism is going to be part of this country. It’s a psalm for the tiny groups of Christians left in Iraq and in Gaza, wondering when their persecution will end. It’s a psalm for every child slave working in cocoa plantations, many of whom have never even tasted the chocolate their labor provides for the world.

         One other feature of northern Israel’s suffering is that they brought it on themselves, which makes it a little different from all those modern suffering people I just identified. The history of Israel in the books of Kings makes it clear that those ten northern tribes pretty much abandoned their faith in God and worshipped idols. They sinned in all sorts of ways and so God let them be defeated and overrun by Assyria. That actually makes this psalm more universal, a song for people like you and I.

         This is a psalm for anyone who has experienced the consequences of your own foolishness and sin, whether it’s was as simple and obvious and short as a hangover or the lifelong pain of disobeying God in some major and ongoing way like choosing a non-Christian marriage partner like my mother did. This psalm cries out to God for all of us who know that at least some of our hurt and sorrow is our own fault. “O God, restore us and save us from our own sin and stupidity.” It’s a prayer I need to pray often.

         The prayer is “Restore us, O God.” God’s salvation is a restoration project, not a total demolition and rebuilding project. Both on a personal and a cosmic level, God saves us and our world by restoring what He meant us to be in the beginning. God created our world and us good in the beginning. Our salvation in Jesus Christ is meant to restore that goodness, give us back what we lost through sin.

         In the part of the psalm we skipped, Asaph compares Israel to a vine for which God cleared the ground and built walls to protect it. God planted something good when He brought Israel into the Promised Land. God planted something good when He made you. So being saved means that God restores that good for Israel, He restores that good in you. He doesn’t tear it all down or rip it all out and start over.

         Don’t get me wrong. Restoration is not a painless process. If you’ve ever restored a house or a car or, like the psalm pictures here, a garden, you know there’s plenty of ripping out and destruction to do. My point is just that it’s not total. You rescue your overrun garden by ripping out weeds and even some good plants that have gone wild. But you save your rosebush and your daffodil bulbs and your rhododendrons. You keep the good and wreak havoc on the bad. That’s the work of restoration and salvation that God wants to work in you and me, and in the world.

         In our Gospel lesson, the disciples asked “How long?” because at the beginning of the chapter Jesus had predicted that the Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. Jesus worked up to an answer by talking about events surrounding the destruction of the Temple, the invasion of Rome, the persecution of Christians, the dark days when people would flee from the city into the mountains around. “After that” is when our reading picks up in verse 24 and Jesus talks about a day when it would all be restored, not just Jerusalem, but the whole world, the whole universe.

         That’s why in Mark 13:24 and 25 Jesus talks about dark days when the sun and moon won’t shine and when stars will fall out of the sky. It doesn’t mean God will wipe the slate clean, and totally destroy heaven and earth. It means that He will do the painful hard work of tearing out the weeds and breaking down all the evil that’s been done, so that He can restore the good world and good life He created in the beginning. That’s what we’re praying for when we pray with Asaph, “Restore us, O God.”

         It’s important to grasp the context of the Gospel lesson to get what Jesus says right. It’s only after He talks about the very end times, that Jesus gets around to the disciples’ question about the destruction of the Temple. So when we read verse 30, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place,” He’s not talking about what we call the “end times.” He just telling the disciples that Jerusalem will be torn down in their lifetimes. And it was, about forty years later in 70 A.D.

         So we don’t need to go through any linguistic gyrations regarding the word “generation” to make it mean something unusual to make sure it’s still true that “this generation” will not pass away until the end of the world. No, all we need to see is that Jesus is bringing together two things with similar characteristics, the destruction of Jerusalem so that God can restore a better Temple in the Body of Christ, and the devastation of the end times so that God can restore us and our planet.

         Notice that the psalm prayer for restoration is prayed three times. And notice that each time it gets a little more intense in how it addresses God. In verse 3, it’s simply, “Restore us, O God.” In verse 6, it’s “Restore us, O God of hosts.” At the end, in verse 19, it’s “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts.” First just the generic name “God.” Then he adds a mention of God’s power, His hosts of angels. Finally, he puts in that very personal name of God, which we translate “Lord” in the Old Testament, Yahweh, that holy, intimate, sacred name which only Israel has for God.

         They knew that only God could save them, could restore them. They didn’t pray for more weapons or for new walls or for some powerful human allies from another nation. They prayed for God to be there and restore them.

         Israel is like that picture in the middle of the psalm, a plant, a grape vine in the middle of a ruined and overrun vineyard. So what do they pray? Let the sun shine on that plant. Let powerful rays of sunlight bring strength and vigor to its wilted leaves and drooping stalks. Restore us by a miraculous process of divine photosynthesis. “Make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.”

         That’s the true hope for us and our world, that the light of God will shine down through our darkness and restore us, get us living and growing once again. Go out and look at the wooded area on our church property. Last Sunday I saw children running around in there between the trees like my kids and some of your kids did years ago. But as I mentioned to the great work crew that came out in September, it wasn’t always that way. Twenty years ago that nice open grove of oaks and other trees was solid vegetation, lots of it blackberry and other vines that had grown up all over and between the trees.

         We decided to cut through it so our church building could be seen from Bailey Hill Road. An arborist in our congregation, Jeff, went through and started marking what we wanted to save, mostly small oaks that were just saplings then. Jeff said they were good, native trees, we want them. They just couldn’t get light and grow any more until we got rid of the rest of the stuff. So over the next couple years, work parties ripped out blackberry and hacked down worthless trees until it opened up and the light shone in, and those little oaks were saved. That’s how the light, the presence of God comes to us. He cuts away all the worthless junk we bury ourselves in so that His light can shine through.

         Ultimately that light, our hope of restoration, our hope of salvation is the same whenever we pray for it. It’s the same hope the psalm writer expressed in the 8th century B.C. It’s the same hope Jesus gave the disciples in the first century of our era. It’s the same hope we have to believe and share now in the twenty-first century. It’s there in verse 17 of the psalm. “Let your hand be upon the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself.”

         What did Jesus promise in our Gospel reading would happen when the sun went dark and the stars fell down? “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” That “Son of Man” is Jesus Himself, and He is the hope and light of the world. He was the hope and light of those decimated tribes of Israel. He was the hope and light of those first century Jewish people who couldn’t imagine their Temple being destroyed. And He is the hope and light of anyone who wonders how long and prays, “Restore us, O God.”

         Remember I said that Benjamin Watson wasn’t just hopeless, but also hopeful and encouraged? That’s because he has that exact same hope in Jesus. Here’s what Watson said,

I'M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. BUT I'M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind. One that's capable of looking past the outward and seeing what's truly important in every human being. The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It's the Gospel. So, finally, I'M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope.

         There is hope restored. Hope gets lost when young people die tragic deaths, gets lost when people are run from their homes like Ephraim and Manasseh back then and Syrians and Iraquis and many other people now. Hope gets lost when you and I get so discouraged by our own sin and failure that we can’t see how there will ever be anything good for us again. But then the face of God shines in the face of Jesus and we hear Him promising to restore us and save us, and our hope comes back.

         We are going to read two more psalms this Advent that talk about God’s restoration of His people. We will follow the Advent themes and hear how Jesus restores not only hope, but also peace and joy. As we go along, let this season be one where you look to the face of Jesus. Clear away the junk, whether it’s spending too much or scheduling too much, and just look for His light that brings hope. And then find a way to clear a path for the light of Jesus to shine on someone else. Let hope be restored.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated November 30, 2014