Second Sunday of Advent – Year B
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
1 YHWH, you have been favorable to your land,
you renewed Jacob’s fortunes.
2 You carried your people’s waywardness,
you covered all their offenses. Selah
8 I will listen to what YHWH God will speak,
because he will speak of shalom
to his people and to those committed to him,
those who must not turn to folly.
9 Yes, his deliverance is near for people who are in awe of him,
so that his honor may settle in our land.
10 Commitment and truthfulness—they have met;
faithfulness and shalom—they have embraced.
11 Truthfulness—it springs up from the earth;
faithfulness—it has looked down from the heavens.
12 Yes, YHWH—he will give good things;
our land—it will give its increase.
13 Faithfulness—it will walk before him
as he sets his feet on the path.
The psalm for the Second Sunday in Advent is at first blush rather unassuming. It is almost docile. The first two verses roll easily off the lips of someone like me, a white American evangelical protestant male. Indeed, it is easy for me to agree that God has been favorable to the land in which I live and that in Jesus Christ, God has covered all my offenses.
But this only betrays a lazy, superficial reading of the text which ignores the psalm’s historical and cultural contexts. I make the grave error of equating YHWH’s land with my country, of Jacob’s fortunes with my bank account balance, of reducing the offenses of Israel to my own individual sin, errors evangelicals make too often when approaching the Hebrew scriptures. In doing so, I turn the psalm into an affirmation of my individual piety and miss out on the astonishing claims of the psalm for God’s beloved community.
Listening with the ears of the people of Israel unveils a much more stirring moment on display. The psalmist is here recalling a time when the people of Israel had repeatedly failed to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” with YHWH (Micah 6:8). YHWH sent dozens of prophets to warn the people that YHWH’s anger would only be sated so long. The people did not listen. They did not change their ways. So, YHWH gave the people over to foreigners. had them carried off into captivity, first by the Assyrians, then by the Babylonians. They were estranged from the land they were promised; their fortunes were plundered by their captors.
Yet they didn’t perish in captivity, as they must have feared they would. Instead, as the psalmist recalls, YHWH brought them back and restored them to their land and their fortunes. YHWH’s anger was gone. The people rebuilt the temple and began worshipping YHWH again. But things didn’t stay that way.
The psalmist is speaking of days gone by, indicating that the situation of restoration no longer exists. But, the psalmist asserts, looking back at YHWH’s past deliverance may provide cause for hope in the present. So the psalmist says s/he will listen for YHWH to speak, because YHWH speaks words of shalom—well-being, wholeness, peace.
If the people will be committed to, and stand in awe of YHWH, then deliverance will certainly come. That’s how YHWH has acted in the past and it is how YHWH will certainly act again in the future. When the people are truthful (when “truthfulness springs up from the earth”), YHWH will be faithful (“it will look down from the heavens”). The psalmist dares the people to lay hold of YHWH’s faithfulness yet again.
Certainly this psalm was ringing in the ears of the first century Jews who were earnestly hoping for a messiah to deliver them from their Roman oppressors. It fits nicely with the other readings for this Sunday which talk about preparing the way for the Lord’s anointed one to come, for through him comes deliverance. There is a sense of hope and expectation that what God has done in the past, God will do again in the near future.
This year the psalm is especially poignant. The tragic deaths of Michael Brown, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and countless other black men in this country, have many people wondering where God is and where justice is in 2014. We look back to when slavery was abolished in America and say, “God, you were faithful. You were Deliverer.” We look back to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and say, “God, you were faithful. You were Deliverer.” Today, we look at the systemic racism that riddles our justice system and we wonder where that faithful Deliverer is. The psalmist dares us to believe that God will continue to be faithful and bring deliverance again, even though we cannot see how and we ache from waiting.
The psalmist reminds us that our part in this is truthfulness. In this psalm, YHWH’s faithfulness is linked to the truthfulness of YHWH’s people. Truth is never silent. Truth is always vocalized. It is time to be truthful, white friends. It is time for us to realize that our justice system is broken and we need to do something about it.
It is time to stop focusing solely on individual sin (we evangelicals have that down) and understand that there are systemic sin issues that we must confess to and repent from. We must stop cowering in the corner, afraid of what it will cost us, and realize that our brothers and sisters of color are paying too high a price for the sins of our fathers and mothers.
God’s faithfulness and deliverance is coming. Let us join in telling the truth. Let us refuse to remain silent. Let us stay woke this advent.
This post is part of the Stay Woke Advent syncroblog. Each week during advent, different bloggers are reflecting on the four readings that Sunday, examining them in light of faith and justice in American today.
Photo credit: Michel Filion, “Two Candles” (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The translation of the verses from Psalm 85 above come from John Goldingay, Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Seminary, via his excellent book Psalms for Everyone, Part 2 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).