Monday, November 28, 2011

A Psalm for the Dissatisfied

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance,
and we shall be saved.

Perhaps when historians look back on 2011 they will tag this as the year people got fed up with the way things are. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement, there is a cry rising around the world that something in this world has got to change. It is not a new complaint to be sure. The Tea Party Movement got a jumpstart on it a couple years ago and while its solution may be very different from the Occupiers’, both groups – and most of us – agree that something is wrong. If you could choose only one word to describe the mood of our community, our commonwealth, our nation, and our planet, a strong contender would be “dissatisfied.”

There is a psalm for those of us who feel this way. Biblical scholars cannot identify the author of the 80th Psalm, which we read moments ago, nor can they pinpoint the particular context in which it was written. The strongest possibility places its origin in the period of the Exile. If it is not from this era then it harkens back to it in the face of a similar situation. You can imagine how dissatisfied a people living in exile would be. Torn from their homeland, having the fabric of their culture ripped apart, staring at the reality of losing what it means to be a people, their cry goes out, “Restore us” – make us what we used to be.

The reformer John Calvin called this “a sorrowful prayer.” We might want to note that it is also a shepherd psalm. While not nearly as well known or comforting as “The Lord is my shepherd,” none-the-less it is a prayer directed to the “Shepherd of Israel.” Readers recite its refrain three times:

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance,
and we shall be saved.

Its first imperative is translated in our prayer book with the word “restore,” but is more accurately understood as “cause us to return.” Addressed to a shepherd, it pleas for a regathering of the flock and presumes this can happen only if the shepherd gets to work. “Show us the light of your countenance” is a prayer that God will be present to God’s people.

The idea of God’s presence is central to this psalm because its author complains that God is in fact absent; a notion reinforced by the image of bread. God was said to dwell in the Holy of holies - the central place in the Temple. It was here that God sat on the image of cherubim, which were crafted upon the top of the ark that contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments. A wooden table was placed in front of this throne and on its top there was always bread; bread known as “the bread of the Presence” – God’s presence. From the author’s perspective, rather than being fed with this bread, the Shepherd of Israel had given the people only the “bread of tears” by the bowlful. It is a powerful and evocative image of God’s perceived failure as the Shepherd of Israel.

The power of the 80th Psalm lies in its proclamation that while God is at the root of the problem God is also at the heart of the solution. The psalmist contends that if God will only arise and shine forth then all will be well.

But what might God’s shining forth look like? The psalmist envisioned it as the restoration of statehood and the Davidic monarchy:

Let your hand be upon the man
of your right hand, *
the son of man
you have made so strong for yourself.

Even before the advent of Christ, this verse was always understood as a plea for a messiah, one who would be anointed by God to make things right. The psalmist hopes for a warrior king, but for Christians who for centuries have been reading this scripture in Advent, the Man of God’s right hand is anything but. As the church year unfolds we will trace again our Messiah’s steps toward the Cross, where in death and defeat Jesus reigns in glory.

If the 80th Psalm is a Psalm for the Dissatisfied, what does it say to us in 2011… we who are so unhappy with the political, economic, social, moral, and spiritual circumstances of our time?

The second thing it tells us is to beware of false messiahs, of putting our hope in the wrong things. A few years ago I was driving on I95 into Richmond. As I crossed over the James River I encountered three objects lighting up in the night sky. The first was a giant billboard announcing the lottery had topped $300 million dollars. The second was a search light from under the bridge designed to attract travelers to a “gentlemen’s club.” And the third, rising up larger than any cathedral in the world, was the sprawling complex of the Medical College of Virginia Hospital. There, in a stretch of a quarter mile, were the most important things in our society – money, entertainment, and health.

Notice how all of these are aimed at the individual… How can I have all the money I need? How can I never be bored? How can I live forever? Its like we have abandoned any thought of the common good and converted the plea of “restore us” to “restore me.” We who are so dissatisfied have given up on a messiah for the world and sold out for personal trinkets. How else can you explain the public fascination with the newest technology, miracle sex pills, and Black Friday shopping?

Restore me, O iPhone; *
Give me the speed of 4G,
and I will be happy.

Well, if turning from false messiahs is the second thing we can take away from this psalm, the first is this: God is God and no other is God. God may or may not be the cause of our dissatisfaction, but God is certainly the answer. The only question is are we ready for God’s answer? Are we ready to move from “restore me” to “restore us?” Are we ready to pursue justice more than self-satisfaction, compassion more than self-interest, self-sacrifice more than self-promotion?

I am not looking forward to the 2012 election season because more and more these events de-evolve into messianic campaigns where candidates proclaim themselves to be the answer to all of society’s woes and their opponents to be hell spawns bent on our destruction. The truth is this: it does not matter whose hand God is upon if we of the flock don’t want to be restored by anything beyond what I consider to be my own good.
God’s ultimate act of restoration is seen in the giving of God’s self through the Incarnation. It is seen through Jesus’ acts of service – teaching, healing, feeding, forgiving, blessing – acts aimed at benefiting others, not himself. It is seen through Jesus’ prophetic critiques of corrupt social structures – the state and the church being his most consistent targets. And it is seen most clearly on the Cross, where Jesus completely rejected any and every sense of “restore me” in order that “restore us” might be possible.

So here is ultimate question… if this Messiah is our Shepherd then what kind of sheep are we to be? If the flock is dissatisfied and if this is who our Shepherd is, how will we ever be restored if being restored means for us little more than give me what I want for me?

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance,
and we shall be saved.