A sermon delivered by Dr. David M. Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on November 27, 2011.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

It’s hard to imagine our planet earth without the sun.  We simply take it for granted that the sun will rise and fall every 24 hours, that its rays will warm our planet and light our days and through the miracle of photosynthesis oxygenate our and energize our earth.  Without the sun we would not only be in the dark.  We would be dead.            

The people of ancient Israel viewed God much like the sun.  They pictured, God’s face shining even more brightly than the sun.  You’d know when God’s presence filled a room because so would the Shekinah or the brilliant radiance of God.  When Moses visited with God in the famous “tent of meeting” he would always emerge from the tent with his face shimmering with the light of God’s glory. 

Those were the days of wandering in the wilderness when God showed himself in dramatic fashion.  By day God would lead the Israelites with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire.  There was no mistaking the presence of God and the whereabouts of God.  He was as visible to the Israelites as the sun in the sky.

That was then.  By the time an unidentified Psalmist wrote Psalm 80, a lot of murky water had gone under the bridge. 

Many of us associate “The Shining” with a horror movie that debuted in 1980.  This movie starred a wild-eyed Jack Nicholson, and featured paranormal activity like telepathy, or the ability to read other peoples’ minds.  “The Shining” refers not only to telepathy but to an ominous presence of supernatural evil that seems to haunt the hotel that serves as the movie’s setting. 

The people of ancient Israel obviously knew nothing about cinema, but they were living out a horror movie of their own.  Psalm 80 seems to have been written soon after the Northern Kingdom of Israel goes down in defeat to a foreign army.  A nation supposedly chosen and favored by God has been utterly vanquished and reduced to rubble.            

The Israelites have not only lost their nation.  They have lost their sense of pride and prominence in the world.  Their land is gone, and so is their dignity.  Most importantly, their sense of the shining presence of God has been extinguished.  The one who warmed their hearts and gave light to their lives, the one who oxygenated their hopes and energized their sense of destiny was no longer to be found. 

It was like living under a sky with no sun, moon, stars, or any shining bodies.  Or like inhabiting a haunted hotel.  It was utter darkness.

Out of this desperate, dark place The Psalmist writes the 80th psalm, which biblical scholars classify as a lament.  An entire community wandering in a barren  wilderness of utter darkness cries out to the God of light.  Those days the Israelites knew all too well that side of God we explored last week called the “Gruff Shepherd” who turns his back on his people when they disobey or ignore him.   The Israelites call for the return of the “Good Shepherd” who once upon a time guided them through the wilderness. 

            Shine forth, they plead. 

            Restore us, O God;

            Let your face shine, that we may be saved.          

Shine forth can literally mean in the Hebrew, “Show up!”  “God,” the Israelites are saying, “we don’t know where you are.  Show yourself.  Shine in the darkness so we can see light again.”

But not just any light.  They hope to see the light of God’s face, that face that shines like the sun. 

So they beg God to restore them, to return them to their proper relationship with him.  As it stands, they can only see God’s back, and can only feel God’s absence.  It is as though the sun in the sky has been permanently eclipsed, and they dwell in the dark valley of the shadow of death. 

They plead with God to reposition them so they can once again view the light of his face.  Interestingly enough, they offer to turn themselves to God (the root meaning of “repentance”), but they ask God at the same time to “repent,” to turn himself toward them.  And then they pray,

            Let your face shine, that we may be saved. 

If this language sounds familiar, that’s because it mirrors the most famous benediction in the Bible, recorded in the books of Numbers.  Through Moses and Aaron God one day says to his beloved Israelites,

            The Lord bless you and keep you;

            the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you;

            the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace(6:24-26).

The greatest blessing we can experience is for God’s Shekinah to radiate among us,  for his very face to shine upon us like the sun from the sky.  When God is present with us in this way we experience the warmth of his love, the radiance of his grace, the comfort of his peace.  It is this presence, this light, that literally sustains us day by day, minute by minute. 

One does not live by bread alone, says Jesus, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4).  “And,” we might add, “by the light that shines from God’s face.” 

If we fast-forward to today, November 27, 2011 we find ourselves still living with a measure of darkness.  Some might even say we are stuck in our own modern horror movie—economically, politically, perhaps even spiritually.  Maybe that makes our celebration of the First Sunday of Advent, and the Hanging of the Green even more significant than usual.

            As the Psalmist concludes his lament 2700 years ago, he prays,

            Let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,

                        the one whom you made strong for yourself.

Many theories abound about how to interpret this verse.  But at the end of the day, Christians cannot help but look back at this verse and see a reference to the one whose birth we are about to celebrate, the one whose life (says John’s gospel) was the light of all people, the one who says of himself,  “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life”(John 8:12).

Friends, I will not deny that these are difficult, even dark days for many people.  But I want you to see that the people of God, and followers of Christ believe in the light, and anticipate the light, and follow the light even in the darkest of days.  It wasn’t just the star in the East that shone brightly the night Jesus was born – so did God’s face.  And his face still shines brightly through the heart of every believer who bears the presence of Christ into the darkness and doubt of our world. 

And so on this First Sunday of Advent, when we light our candles and hang our green despite the darkness, listen again to these words spoken by the very God who made you, and saved you, and loves you more than you know:

             The Lord bless you and keep you;

                        the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you;

                        the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

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