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

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Psalm 85
“Restored Peace”
December 7, 2014 - Second Sunday in Advent

         Thursday afternoon I went by Knight Library at the University of Oregon to return some theology books. In the quad I saw a line of students carrying posters with bright red stars marching in a circle. At first I thought they were demonstrating in sympathy with protestors of the failure to indict the New York police officer who took down Eric Garner, but then I heard striking graduate students shouting, “Union! Power! Union! Power!”

         Mediation between university administration and the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation has failed to produce agreement and peace. The larger protest around the country centers on the fact that peace has broken down between white police and black communities. So shouts of “Don’t shoot!” and “I can’t breathe!” echo in many cities now.

         It’s tempting for us to echo that plaintive cry attributed to Rodney King during racially charged riots decades ago. “Can’t we all just get along?” Can’t we just go back to the way things were and live at peace?

         Our psalm today teaches us we can’t simply going back to a previous time and way of life. It’s not the way to real peace. The only way to restore peace is to go forward into a new day that God has for us. Psalm 85 is split into three sections that look at the past, the present and the future of God’s people. And what we hear is that the present is a situation for crying out, for protesting, for looking back, but then looking forward.

         Like last week’s psalm, it’s hard to be sure when it was written and what the historical context was. One idea is that it’s the time following the exile in Babylon, after Jewish people have come back to Jerusalem and the land of Judah. So then verses 1 to 3 are a prayer of thanksgiving for that restoration. “You restored the fortunes of Jacob.” “You forgave the iniquity of your people.” In other words, God forgave all the sins of idolatry and injustice for which He let them be exiled, and brought them home. “You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your anger.” But that’s in the past now.

         So verse 4 to 7 are the present situation. The people are back in Judah, but they still have foreign rulers, Persians instead of Babylonians. They’ve rebuilt a wall and a Temple, but they aren’t much better at getting along with each other. Read the book of Esther and Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi about those times. They are planting fields but not harvesting much. Everything they earn seems to fall through a hole. They have enemies who hate them and they are insecure in the midst of larger nations. They are not honoring God. Men are divorcing their Jewish wives to marry foreign women. God has been good to them, but there is still no peace. So they pray, “Restore us again, O God of our salvation.”

         Then verses 8 to 13 look to the future. They’ve remembered what God has done for them in the past. They’ve prayed about what is happening right now. Then the psalmist invites them to wait and listen with him to hear what God will say and do in the future.

         This psalm reminds us that we as human beings live in that seam between past and future which we call the present. We look back and learn from our history. We look forward with hope or fear. But what demands much of our attention is here and now.

         We all know people who live in the past. Beth and I have been laughing about the technological “dinosaur” in the “Dilbert” cartoons this past week, who blithely claims, “All I need is my flip phone, my Windows XP, and my basic cable television.” My wife has also been known to long for the good old days of radios with just two knobs. On the other hand, you probably know some geeks who live in the future, like our son-in-law. Andrew took years to buy a new Apple laptop he needed because he kept looking ahead expecting the next model to be even better than what was available now.

         I would guess that kind of backward and forward look happens in football as well. As the Ducks went into Friday night’s game there were probably fans who could only think of their defeat by Arizona in October. Now on the happy other side of Friday, I’m sure there are fans looking way ahead and already celebrating a national championship. But Friday’s game happened and needed to be played in between, in the present.

         The present is where we live and where we pray and call out to God for what we need. The difference for us as God’s people is that our future is much more assured and hopeful than whatever glittering new device Apple is going to announce at some tech show in Las Vegas next year. And as tough as Duck fans might find it to believe, God’s future for us is way better, more exciting, and much more certain than a Rose Bowl win.

         Verse 8 says, “Let us hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.” That elusive gift of peace which escapes negotiators at the university and which seems so far away to police and protestors in Ferguson and New York, is what God has to say about the future for those who turn their lives to Him.

         God promises peace to His people in our reading from Isaiah 40. I’m going to follow the King James version of that text we sang last week in a hymn and read verse 2 literally to hear God saying, “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished.” In other words, the time for war is over, peace has come, and just as we heard John the Baptist preach in the Gospel reading, God has forgiven His people’s sins. God is restoring that peace His people remembered from the past.

         Part of the assurance of God’s future of peace is that, as we’ve been hearing N. T. Wright teach in a Sunday School class, our salvation begins now. Verse 9 tells us, “Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.” Yes, there is a good future promised, but the fulfillment of that promise has already begun. That’s the message John the Baptist came with, calling people to get ready for God’s salvation now. As Wright keeps saying, the hope we have for the future makes a huge difference in how we live in the present.

         Unlike our son-in-law’s approach to the blessings of technology, we don’t need to postpone taking hold of and sharing the blessings of God gives us now because we’re waiting for something better. No, we have confidence that the gifts and blessings of God’s salvation can and do come to us now as we come to Him in faith and service. That’s the gist of verses 10 and 11 of our psalm. They’re poetry showing how God’s grace meets and blesses our acceptance of that grace. They show God’s part and our part in salvation.

         The first part of verse 10 says “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet.” That’s the steadfast love of the Lord which never ceases, as Jeremiah tells us in Lamentations, and it’s the faithfulness of God’s people when we receive that steadfast love, are forgiven and change our lives as John the Baptist told us to do.

         Then the second part of verse 10 has that beautiful image that “righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” Here the righteousness is our righteous response to God, our faithfulness in doing what He desires, like sharing with others. And His gift to those who live righteously is peace.

         So verse 10 is a form that Covenant Bible scholar Nils Lund first identified in Scripture, a chiasmus, from the Greek letter chi, shaped like an X. The two subjects of the first line change places in the second line, crossing each other in that X form. First God’s love then human faithfulness, next comes human righteousness followed by God’s peace. It’s a literary style you can find all over the Bible once you are looking for it.

         In verse 11 this meeting and coming together of God and humanity is perfectly clear as we read that “Faithfulness will spring up from the earth,” that’s human beings living faithful lives, while “righteousness will look down from the sky,” that’s God in His perfect holiness seeing us from heaven.

         You could go off the rails here and think those two verses make God and us into equal partners, the way they are paired off. We do our part, God does His, and life is full of peace and blessing. A lot of popular religion teaches and even some good Christians fall into thinking that way. It’s like we’re in some bargain with God. We behave ourselves, pray, come to church, give offerings, and God’s job is to respond by giving us peace and happiness. It may sound good, but what about all the times we fail God, when we sin or just get angry with Him, or doubt or fear? What happens then?

         Verse 12 comes in here to teach us we’re not bargaining with God. We don’t earn God’s peace by doing what’s right. Instead, “The Lord will give what is good.” All good, all peace comes from Him. We don’t make God give us peace by being good. We only let ourselves be ready to receive that peace when He gives it. Being faithful and doing what is right helps us be ready to receive, but it’s all still God’s gift.

         That’s why John came asking people to confess their sins and be baptized for forgiveness. He wasn’t teaching people to earn salvation. He invited them to prepare to receive salvation when Jesus brought it. John did what Isaiah called for, to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John did what our psalm pictures in verse 13, “Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.”

         Our righteousness simply gets us ready to accept the good which God gives, to accept the peace He restores between us and God, between us and each other. Remember what Paul says about Abraham in Romans, “he believed God,” he had faith, and it was counted as righteousness. That faith which is counted as righteousness is a willingness to believe and trust that God will give us peace and then to live in that peace right now.

         If you are not at peace with God or with someone else, then take the first step is to admit it, like the psalm does in verses 4 to 6, admit you feel like God is angry with you, and then pray for Him to restore your peace. But then get ready for peace. Believe and turn to God in your heart as verse 8 says. Accept forgiveness for your sins and be at peace with God, and be at peace with others by offering them forgiveness.

         African Americans identify with the history of Israel, from the old spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “promised land” speech. They identify now with this psalm. Like verses 1 to 3 they can look back and see how they’ve been restored and given peace in the past, release from slavery in the 19th century and restored civil rights in the 20th century. But now in the present, in the 21st century they cry out “Restore us again,” because it’s still much more likely for a young black man to be shot by police than for the same to happen to a white man. And as I said a couple weeks ago, black people still experience all sorts of small and large injustices that whites rarely worry about. There is a huge need for peace to be restored between races in our country.

         The path to restored peace is the same it’s always been, to listen and hear the peace God speaks in the living Word Jesus Christ. That’s whom we prepare for when we get our hearts and lives ready like John the Baptist asked, confessing our sins, receiving forgiveness and changing how we live. It’s Jesus that Isaiah promises will come and comfort His people with peace, feeding His flock like a shepherd and gathering the lambs of every color in His arms. It’s that Word who is Jesus which will stand forever and who will restore our peace.

         Our reading from I Peter promised that new day of peace in fiery terms of the melting down of heaven and earth and a new creation, but the point of that new creation is God’s gift of a place, “where righteousness is at home.” Our ultimate hope is for God to restore peace by making our world a place where His goodness is as much at home as evil is in the world today. In the meantime, Peter invites us to trust in Jesus while we wait for that time, and to “strive to be found by him at peace.” It’s not just then. It’s now. Let’s get ourselves ready for the peace of Jesus Christ by living now at peace with Him and with each other.


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

Last updated January 5, 2014