Friday, December 27, 2019

"The Immigrant Children…Cannot Be Erased by Shopping Excursions": An Advent Sermon by Wendell Griffen

I'm happy to be able to share with readers a sermon I heard my friend Reverend Wendell Griffen deliver this past Sunday at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. Wendell has uploaded the sermon to his blog site, and has given me permission to share it here, too. Wendell's sermon, which is entitled “An Advent Prayer for Desperate People,” contextualizes Advent and Christmas in a way that Lisa Koop's Advent sermon, which I shared two days ago, also does. Both note the struggle many of us have in finding spiritual foundations and hope in a world in which much seems deeply awry, in which the powerful abuse the weak, with self-professed Christians standing squarely on the side of the powerful and cheering them on. Wendell's sermon follows.

©Wendell Griffen, 2019
December 22, 2019 (Fourth Sunday of Advent)
New Millennium Church
Little Rock, Arkansas

Psalm 80
To the leader: on Lilies, a Covenant. Of Asaph. A Psalm.
1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
   you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
2   before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
   and come to save us!
3 Restore us, O God;
   let your face shine, that we may be saved.
4 O Lord God of hosts,
   how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears,
   and given them tears to drink in full measure.
6 You make us the scorn of our neighbours;
   our enemies laugh among themselves.
7 Restore us, O God of hosts;
   let your face shine, that we may be saved.
8 You brought a vine out of Egypt;
   you drove out the nations and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it;
   it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
   the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea,
   and its shoots to the River.
12 Why then have you broken down its walls,
   so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13 The boar from the forest ravages it,
   and all that move in the field feed on it.
14 Turn again, O God of hosts;
   look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15   the stock that your right hand planted.
16 They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down;
   may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.
17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
   the one whom you made strong for yourself.
18 Then we will never turn back from you;
   give us life, and we will call on your name.
19 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
   let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Let us pray: Shepherd of Israel, may Jesus, Emmanuel and son of Mary, be more than just a dream in our hearts. With the apostles, prophets, and saints, save us, restore us,and lead us in the way of grace and peace, that we may bear your promise into the world. Amen.
Perhaps some people will consider Psalm 80 out of step with the mood of Advent.  With only days left until Christmas, people are not expecting a sermon full of complaints about God.

Make no mistake!  Psalm 80 is a lament – a statement of grief, sorrow, and regret – by people in the Northern Kingdom of Israel (as shown by the mention of Joseph, Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh in the first two verses) when the nation was threatened by the Assyrian Empire. The whole mood of the passage is summed up at verses 1 and 2 where the Psalmist called on God at verse 1 to hear (“Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel”), and at verse 2 to get up, and deliver it (“Stir up your might, and come to save us!”).

This isn’t a “Joy To the World,” “Silent Night,” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” passage because the people for whom it was written and about whom it speaks weren’t joyful or serene. Psalm 80 was written for people threatened with annihilation and exile. Their nation was under attack from a violent foreign empire, and they couldn’t see God moving to help. They were in no mood to echo CPippa’s Song,C Robert Browning’s poem that ends with the words “God’s in his heaven – all’s right with the world!” All was not right with their world and it seemed that God wasn’t paying attention.

So the Advent carol that best captures the mood of Psalm 80 is the one we sang as the hymn of meditation, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Recall the opening stanza:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the son of God appear.

Those words don’t fit a commercial jingle, but they speak truth that many people know quite well. Like the community the Psalmist wrote for in Psalm 80, the world seems to be held captive by forces of hate, fear, violence, greed, and deceit. So like the hymn, Psalm 80 fits the mood of our time in the refrain declared at verses 3, 7, and 19 which reads: Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Like the Psalmist, we see too much injustice and too many threats to be carrying on the plastic worship of our shopping-obsessed culture during Advent season.

·       The immigrant children and parents who are suffering in horrible conditions because they have sought asylum from war, violence, poverty, and calamity in their home countries cannot be erased by shopping excursions.
·       The President of the United States just got impeached for abuse of power and trying to hide evidence of his actions from Congress.
·       Members of the U.S. Senate – the body responsible for hearing the evidence of those charges during an impeachment trial and rendering an impartial verdict – have openly announced they don’t intend to be impartial about weighing the evidence on whether he should be removed from office.
·       Self-professed “Christian evangelical conservative leaders” such as Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr. Robert Jeffress, Jack Graham, and Ralph Reed are openly defending the policies and character of Donald Trump – a lifelong hypocrite, liar, cheat, bigot, misogynist, and self-dealing charlatan – despite proof that Trump, like King Herod who ordered the massacre of infants during the youth of Jesus, is a sociopath.
·       Rick Perry, the former Texas governor who serves as Secretary of Energy in the Trump Administration, said in a recent interview with Fox News that he told Trump that Trump was the “chosen one.”

There is too much proof that the world – our Israel – is full of captives in need of deliverance from addiction to empire, greed, bigotry, and fear for anyone to pretend that “God is in His heaven – all’s right with the world.” All is not right, and like the Psalmist, we have reason to lament the ways that God’s presence seems to be missing in action, including the ways that religious people are creating and supporting the hatefulness and suffering so many people face.

But the Psalmist doesn’t stop at lament, and neither should we. The Psalmist looks, with hope, to God for restoration at verses 3, 7, and 19. Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. And the Psalmist hopes with a sense that God has Someone who can do that liberating and restoring work. So at verse 17 we read, But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.

The Psalmist senses, with and for the community, that God has Someone handy who, in the words of Jude 25, is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing.

And that mood comes through in the two final stanzas of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel":

O Come, O Dayspring from on high
And cheer us by Your drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadow put to flight. 
O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of humankind;
O bid our sad divisions cease,
And be for us our King of Peace. 
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Our world is the Israel of this Psalm and that carol. Our world – including religion – desperately needs to be ransomed (saved and restored) from captivity to greed, hate, fear, violence, and deceit. So we must lament our condition. We must raise our voices in frustration, anguish, and sorrow.

Yet, we must not stop there. We must not stop with frustration. We must not stop with anguish. We must not stop with sorrow. If we do, we have counted God out. We will not count God out. We choose to count on God, and be counted alongside God in the work of liberation and restoration.

We sense – with the Psalmist – that God has Someone – a Messiah – who is able to keep us from falling apart and restore us. God’s Someone calls us to be joyful and watchful working partners and co-laborers in that restoring work.  God’s Someone has called us. God’s Someone is leading us by the Spirit of God. God’s Someone moves us from being desperate people of lament to joyful people of watchful and working hope.

Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Is – ra - el!


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