Sunday, December 8, 2013
Second Sunday of Advent
“Please help the King be honest and fair just like you, our God” (Psalm 72:2).
“The king rescues the homeless when they cry out, and he helps everyone who is poor and in need. The king has pity on the weak and the helpless” (Psalm 72:12-13).
What is Psalm 72 saying? What are we seeing in Psalm 72? How does it tie to Jesus and to his birth? Of the 150 Psalms, Psalm 72 is one of only two are related to King Solomon, the son and successor of King David. Possibly, this Psalm read aloud in the ceremony or coronation for Solomon.
“God give your justice to the King.” The prayer asks God for prosperity for the new king. The prayer expresses hope for the expansion of the nation under this king’s rule. There is prayer for the king’s endurance, long life. The one praying hopes God will subdue the King’s enemies. But please note how the prayer starts. Please, help the king be fair. Give the king justice.
I appreciate the comments of Pastor James Howell. He writes,
The Psalm begins by asking God to “Give the king Your justice… and Your righteousness… May he defend the cause of the poor, and give deliverance to the needy.” Such a campaign in our day would be lambasted as “liberal,” and a debate would be touched off about governmental programs versus private sector aid or, more likely, the conversation would drift toward blaming the poor, and insisting they get busy and take care of themselves. [i]
The cluster of Hebrew terms used in these phrases is telling. “Justice” is not fairness or the good being rewarded and the wicked punished. Rather, mishpat (“justice”) is the Bible’s subversive term for God’s desired state of affairs: mishpat is when the poorest are cared for. A society is just to the degree to which every person has enough and is lifted up; a king is measured, not by hordes of chariots or the gold in the treasury, but by whether the cause of the poor was defended, whether the needy were delivered. Similarly, “righteousness” isn’t smug goodness; zedekah (“righteousness”) is being in sync with God’s ways, embodying God’s will.
The most fascinating verse in Psalm 72 is the verse 11: “May all kings fall down before him.” Israel was a small time power, forced into subservience more often than relishing independence. The other kings most certainly would not be falling down before him! Was this national pride? A fantasy? A sick dream? Or a Messianic hint, that in God’s good time, God’s king would be the one before whom all would bow (Philippians 2:10).
But notice why those kings in verse 11 will bow down: “For he delivers the needy when he calls… He has pity on the weak… From oppression he redeems their life” (verses 12 and 13). Other kings never do such things; but one day the truth will be made palpable, and they will realize the wisdom, wonder, and grace of God’s way.
Christmas magnifies the pain of those who are desperately poor. Sometimes the church helps them, but governments, kings, and people of power rarely use their resources to elevate downtrodden people. When help is offered, it does not often actually lift someone out of the suffering imposed by economic hardship.
Yet Psalm 72, the coronation prayer, calls for justice. What is justice? Justice is the king, the one with the most power using what he has to help the weakest in society. That is Biblical justice. It is not getting what one deserves. Biblical justice is the one with power and resources sharing with and uplifting the one who is poor and vulnerable. Yearning for that justice, working for it, and most importantly, praying for it – that is Advent prayer. In our anticipation of Jesus and our celebration of his coming, we are reminded to pray for justice.
As we do, recall King Herod. He was ruling in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth. Visitors from Persia, star gazers whom we refer to as the three wise men even though we don’t know how many there were come to Herod. And Herod is scared to death. What does every first term president want? A second term. What does the king want? He wants to hold onto power. Herod killed his own sons in his lust for it. He would not tolerate any competitor.
Wise Persian astrologers come looking for the new born king and Herod feels the threat. So he tries to enlist the visitors from the east. But they have been guided by a star from God and have come to worship this baby king, not help get him killed. The God would led them by a star, speaks in dreams and they do not help the wicked, unjust king.
He is so desperate to wipe out this new threat that when he cannot figure out which 2-year-old in Bethlehem is the one he kills every 2-year-olds in Bethlehem. Why doesn’t God stop him? Why doesn’t God simply impose justice on the world? We need it!
When God made us in God’s image, we were made with a free will. We can choose. Humans choose evil – it happens with everyone. We don’t always choose to sin. We have the mark of God in us. We often choose beauty, love, and hope. But we just as often hurt and lie. When my sins and your sins stack with the millions and billions of sins of the millions and billions of people in the world now and from all time, then the world is fallen. If God were to simply force all the pain out we would lose our free will and our ability to choose to worship God. We would no longer be His followers. We’d be God’s robots. God’s wants relationship.
The Psalm prays that the king would “vindicate” the afflicted; in another version it says the king is to rescue the homeless (72:4). This is the prayer for the king who serves under God. King Herod was the bringer of affliction. For the sake of power, he committed genocide.
But he did not last. Paranoid kings never last. He missed his target. Jesus grew and became the man, the savior, who died on a cross, rose from the death and is now the eternal king. Holding the two kings – Jesus and Herod – side by side, Lutheran seminary professor David Lose offers this perspective.
The presence of these three magi and their quest for God’s messiah announce that the world is changing, that God is approaching, and that nothing can remain the same in the presence of God’s messiah. The arrival of these wondering astrologers signals that the reach of God’s embrace is broadening considerably, that there is no longer “insider” and “outsider,” but that all are included in God’s plan for salvation. This isn’t a new theme in Judaism, as from the very beginning of the story God promises to bless Abraham that he may, in turn, be a blessing from the world. But now it is happening – all distinctions between people of different ethnicities and religions is dissolving. All are becoming one in Christ, and who knows what may change next.
This is what is at the heart of Matthew’s darker, more adult-oriented story of Jesus’ birth: the promise that is precisely this world that God came to, this people so mastered by fear that we often do the unthinkable to each other and ourselves that God loves, this gaping need that we have and bear that God remedies. Jesus isEmmanuel, God with us, the living, breathing, and vulnerable promise that God chose to come live and die for us, as we are, so that in Christ’s resurrection we, too might experience newness of life.[ii]
We can read Psalm 72 and see that it is dream, a fantasy. No king could live up to what is depicted there. Jesus did. Jesus does. We see problems – war in Syria; drug addiction in all circles of society; rising teen suicide rates; unchecked terrorism; our own government run by appeasing politicians in search of re-election instead of true leaders that the he good of the nation in their hearts. We see it all and it appears unfixable. People sink to depths where there is no hope.
But then we remember that Christmas is the birth of Jesus, the one who offers real hope. Lives are changed when His church realizes He is the king who does all that the Psalm describes. He is the answer to the prayer that is raised in Psalm 72.
Which king do our presidents and governors and senators look like? King Herod or King Jesus. Our leaders have the same sin nature in them that we have in us. Our governing officials make the same mistakes we make. They may not repeat Herod’s evils, but they are fatally flawed. Our hope is in the king born in the manger.
That does not mean we just give up on our leaders, cross our fingers, and hope things won’t get too bad. Psalm 72 is a call to prayer and the coming of Jesus reminds us that God hears us when we pray. God answers. Psalm 72 calls us to turn our faces to God, fall to our knees and say, “Oh God, give the president your wisdom and your justice.” It does not matter if we like him or hate him. In our country, the king changes every 4 or 8 years. God wants us to pray blessing for the president.
As we do, we set our hope in Jesus. We commit our lives to him. And daily, we give of ourselves to help hurting people because we know this is the King’s justice.
[i] James Howell, workingpreacher.org - http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1520
[ii] David Lose, December 30, 2012 - http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1509