1st Sunday of Advent
The deficit-reduction supercommittee, stuck in a partisan deadlock, faces an almost certain collapse—raising the threat of disruptive military spending cuts and a resurgent public anger at Congress as it struggles with the basic tasks of governance. Barring an unlikely, last-second breakthrough, the committee is expected to announce Monday that it failed to reach its mandated goal of writing a bipartisan bill to reduce deficits over the next 10 years by at least $1.2 trillion. That expected failure injects a greater uncertainty into the nation's political and economic landscape heading into a volatile election year.
That’s from the Wall Street Journal’s online edition, and I only vaguely understand it. I am a citizen and a voter. The Congress talked about in the article is comprised of senators and representatives who serve because enough of us voted them in. Yet, they cannot agree that it is bad that our nation is in debt and has deficits that are unfathomable – $1.2 trillion. Do you know how many zeroes that is?
What I don’t get is the connection; how does the deficit touch me personally, my spending, my bills, my work …
I don’t understand that, but there is someone I do understand. I understand the guy who is up at night, kept awake by questions. He made ‘X income’ in 2008. And it was enough. He and his wife and their preschooler went on a nice beach vacation. They bought Christmas presents for extended family members. They saved for retirement. They paid all their bills. They did not miss a meal. They did not have to dig into savings to do all they wanted to do. They did not have to talk about his wife going back to work just to make ends meet.
The next year, insurance went up. His town added a local tax. Rising fuel costs made every purchase more expensive – heat, gasoline, groceries. And his wife got pregnant. His income stayed the same.
The next year it all repeated. The baby was healthy, thank you God. But, he needed major surgery. So added the story were some medical costs and missed work time. And the income stayed the same. They did save money by skipping the beach and toning it down on the Christmas shopping.
Now it’s 2011, and the income this year is the same – rising expenses, same income. He’s got additional medical issues. His wife is pregnant again. And he wonders … Life is so much more expensive now, and more tiring. We do not have more money. He wonders … last year, we had to dig into savings, just a bit. What’s next?
Author-pastor Eugene Peterson knows the church response to this man. There is only one answer to be found when the people of God gather in the name of Jesus Christ. Sure we do financial management classes. Yes, we have the Helping Hands ministry that gives out money to help when it is needed and we have the money to give. Yes, these ministries and others have their place. But for the man sitting awake at 2 in the morning, wondering, there is but one answer from church. Other places offer other solutions, and church gives more than just this answer, but everything church stands for stands on this one answer. We pray. [i]
We are praying people. The man and the family I described are not suffering – they have not missed a meal or went a week without heat or sold a car and got on with just one. But, he lays awake wondering if significant economic change is just around the corner for his family. And he wonders, if that change is coming, what will it mean? He doesn’t know it, but his forlorn, uncertain, silent heart’s whisper what’s next is a prayer; an Advent prayer.
I feel this pray as I read Psalm 80, a Psalm which does all Psalms do – give us words for prayer. We pray the Psalm no matter what we’re going through. So our friend with the wife and the two young kids sits and wonders and we ponder the circumstances of our lives, and we sit and wonder.
1Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
2before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!
3Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
Restore us? What does restoration look like in my life or in yours? Does the man finally get a raise so that he has more money for the higher insurance and the rising cost of live and the mounting medical bills? Maybe that happens, but that’s not the prayer. From what’s next to Restore us O God – this is not about money or creature comforts. We don’t understand this prayer if we think it is answered because we can afford that beach vacation this year.
Restore us, O God. An Advent prayer. Why? When this prayer is answered, we know it is well in our lives and we see God’s face shining. We know we are saved. Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
I can know the guy who has to stretch his dollar because he has the same amount as always, but prices have gone up. He’s not suffering, but his life style is affected. Anxiety gnaws at the edges of his soul.
I hurt for the person sitting across the aisle from him, the one who has been hit harder. She’s lost her job. That was two years ago. One hundred resume submissions, 90 ignored, 5 rejections by email, 5 after a brief interview, and she can see the bottom of her checking account. It’s not completely empty. A little money is left. But she can see the bottom and she’s scared. I hurt for her acknowledging that I don’t know what it is like to be her.
She comes to church and hears calls for offerings and mission trips to other countries and fundraisers for the youth group. Wait a minute, now! She has so much to offer – time, talent, love. Two years ago, she would have been first to sign up. Two years ago she would have paid the way for a teenager to go to Mission Serve. She is as alive in the church and in the Spirit as ever, but does it mean she has to be less involved.
And how does her pain injure her, but also us. When one of us hurts, we all hurt.
She used to love this season. Now, she turns on November radio and after hearing the latest pop star sing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” she hears the reminder of all the sales at the mall. She’s got a list of people she loves, people’s she’d like to surprise on Christmas morning. Does this mean she can’t participate in Christmas, not like before?
I don’t think it means that, but right this second, we aren’t talking about Christmas as much as we are talking about worship and church, God and pain and people in pain. What is there for this dear woman, this saint of God, who’s been cut off at the knees by unemployment she didn’t deserve and did not see coming?
From time to time, we offer personal finance coaching. Generous folks here will help people when help is needed. These and other ministries are good, but lots of places not called “church” do the same thing. We are called to pray and we turn to the Psalms so we can know what to say when we pray.
The man we’ve been talking about, who is us, prayed Psalm 80. This unemployed woman we are talking about – she is us. What do we do? What do we pray? She needs to go deeper in Psalm 80. She needs a little more and the prayer is there and the answer that worked for him works for her.
7Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
He cried out to God, she to God, the God of hosts. In the Message this is rendered God of the Angel Armies. In the NIV, God, the Almighty. For him it’s anxiety, for her fear, and so she needs more of God. The Psalmist’s prayer which is hers and yours and mine, is reminder that this God is not just any god, but the Almighty before whom all beings in the heavens will bow down. What are the specifics of the salvation God of hosts gives to her? I don’t know! But we trust that it is enough that his face shines and we see it.
Until 2008, I had not seen it, not like this. Any pastor who has more then one month on the job has taken the phone call. Someone is in terrible difficult financial straights, and he swallows his dignity and pride, and he calls. Can the church help with this month’s light bill? He’s a hard working man, ashamed that it’s come to this. What else can he do? To whom else can he turn? We do as much as we can for as many we can while still functioning as the church we believe God has called us to be.
But in 2008, that type of call, which previously might have come in 3 times a month shot up in number. We’ve received 5 times and 6 times as many, so many that we now have a standard, much-practiced procedure for responding. Again, we pray with the callers; we offer as much compassion as we can; we invite everyone to church – people coming for help; people coming to the church to sell us office products; students who rent parking spaces. Through the wise oversight of our helping hands team, we give money to help people.
Every pastor I’ve talked to, and I am pretty tight with 20-30 pastors in North Carolina/Virginia/South Caroline, has experienced the same uptick in this type of activity. In a down economy, those already in poverty have a rough go, and many who were just barely above the classification “poor” find themselves further and further behind. They sink into financial crisis. I have never been in that situation. I don’t know what it is like. I do know God calls – the body of Christ, the church - to respond with the love Jesus shows.
There are many things we can do. We can protect the dignity of all who come through our doors recognizing and declaring that we are all sinners made new by Jesus. We can, as we spend time out and about in town, treat people with great respect and approach others with a posture of humility and love and grace and deference. We can open our doors and open our hearts, and we must.
Ultimately, we are the church and the church prays. I can’t tell the my friend who battles the burden of poverty how to pray. I can’t say what will happen when he prays. What we do is come together, walk to the Psalms together, join arms with one another, pray together, and pray expectantly, truly believing God is going to do something.
The man with the shrinking income prayed Psalm 80, praying to God. The unemployed woman went deeper in Psalm 80. She needs more of God, and she discovered that the deeper into our hearts that we go and the deeper into the Psalms that we pray, the more of God is found. She prayed to God, the Lord of Hosts, the Almighty. Now, the poor need more still and so they go to the well prayer and go deeper, again with Psalm 80 providing the words for the What’s next prayer.
17But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.
18Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.
19Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
We pray to God, the God who is over the angels, the heavenly host; he is also Lord, master of all creation. We pray desperate prayers for the brother or sister in Christ who is sinking in poverty. Will the shining face of God be enough? We can’t say until we have prayed Psalms from the depths of our being.
We do know one thing, as we worship together on the first Sunday of Advent, a time of expectation, waiting on the coming of God. We do know this. The Psalmist prayed without have any idea of the specifics of God’s salvation. The Psalmist said, “Restore us, O Lord God.” God came, a baby in a manger, a carpenter in Nazareth, a prophet killed on a cross, God in human flesh. For all people, to all people, out of love for all people, God came.
For better or for worse, hopeful with much joy and not too much pain, we’ll participate in American Christmas this year. We’ll participate in church Christmas. Now though, today, as God’s gathered people, we pray. “O God, restore us.” “O God of hosts, restore us.” “O Lord God of hosts, restores us.” We pray not knowing exactly what restoration looks like. But even not knowing, we pray, and we put arms around one another, and we pray together. And we do know that the God who hears our prayers came and will come again.