Advent 4 (A): How Long, O Lord?
By: The Rev. Kim Jenne
By the time the Fourth Sunday in Advent rolls around, if you have been able to resist the pressure to focus on baby Jesus lying in his manger, you’re a better pastor than me. Thankfully for those committed to the lectionary, by the fourth Sunday, we finally arrive at what everyone’s been waiting for in Matthew’s short description of how God entered the world as the Human One:
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus (Matt. 1:24-25).
You can hear it now. Pastor, will you finally let us sing Christmas songs? The traditional emphasis on Advent as a penitential season of watching and waiting, anticipating the return of Christ Jesus’ coming, typically caves to the overwhelming attention paid to the Incarnation.
Many a local church pastor or priest must wrestle with this tension between tradition and culture; between an encouragement to deeper discipleship for more mature followers and an invitation to “come and see” for those unfamiliar with the Way. This balance is appropriate for the season of Advent since it is all about tension. This pressure has been known to invite creativity to worship planning such as moving Advent to the four Sundays in November as historian of Christian worship Lester Ruth once suggested.
But this essay is not intended to argue for a lectionary revision or even unpack the Matthew’s Good News. Rather, it seeks to explore how the oft overlooked psalm lection might enhance a preacher’s approach to the gospel. The 80th Psalm makes an appearance in every Advent season, no matter the liturgical year. The psalm follows the traditional lament form on behalf of the entire community, encompassing persistent and ongoing persecution and pain. This could be hard for some in the congregation to hear on a morning when most eyes are set on the Christmas tree and on children who can hardly sit still with anticipation about the forthcoming visit by St. Nick.
And yet, even among the sentimentality and romanticism, there is a place for someone to name the in-between time. Many members of your community will need to hear that it is okay to wonder, “is this really all that there is?” Part of the role of the Church is to teach the counter-cultural lesson that expectation is not simply wishing. When you are young, you often just don’t know the difference. The psalmist here is the master teacher. The psalms, along with the other lections in Advent, are meant to point the hearer toward the promise of God coming into the world to save. Psalm 80, paired with the Matthew text, offers a way to share the overarching narrative of God’s story intersecting with ours – one that bridges expectation with hope and promise.
Biblical scholar Gail O’Day once reminded a room of my classmates of what most expectant parents quickly come to realize, “you cannot prepare for what is coming in Advent.” Neither can a local church pastor prepare for the coming brokenness found in the missional field in which they find themselves. The experienced pastor will season the Sundays of Advent with wisdom about the gray edges, the what ifs, doubts, regrets, and the sometimes anguish of the faith journey. Psalm 80 can help do the heavy lifting even if the congregation doesn’t realize they need to hear it.
Psalm 80 is a prayer for a hurting community. Consider your neighborhood over the course of the past year. Has the unemployment rate spiked once again because the local manufacturing plant has laid off hundreds just in time for Christmas? How many deaths due to opioid addiction have occurred in your county? Have you experienced a rash of suicides among young people and middle-age men? How many homeless people do you pass on your way to the office? How many mornings do you wake up to the headline of yet another young person’s death at the hands of gun violence?
Many communities have discovered that spiritual melancholia has come home to roost. While culture has been touting Christmas since the Halloween candy went on sale, many in your flock are wondering if they can get by without putting any decorations up. Tucked in between festive potlucks and caroling, pastors often find ample work in holding the hand of someone wondering if God is even listening. How long, O Lord, will you be angry with your people’s prayers (Ps. 80.4)? Psalm 80 offers a suggestion on how we might pray during lingering conflict, heartache and hopelessness.
If you serve a community that has been in crisis for some time, offering introductory words linking their hurt to the Psalmist’s context may help in peeling back the façade that everything is all right. Opening immediately with petitions, some in your congregation may sit a little straighter in their pews if the poetry is read with conviction. The Psalmist, on behalf of the people, expresses frustration with a God who has been deaf to their cries, “Wake up, Yahweh, and do something already” (v. 3)!
The people, feeling God is angry with them, have subsisted on a diet of tears. Eugene Petersen paraphrases the Hebrew poetry for contemporary ears:
You put us on a diet of tears,
bucket after bucket of salty tears to drink.
You make us look ridiculous to our friends;
our enemies poke fun day after day (vv. 6-7).
Who, in the face of great grief, hasn’t wondered the same thing? For those of us watching with clinched hands and gritted teeth at the world on fire, we ask, “How long, O Lord? Pay attention to us!” To motivate God into action, the petitioner focuses on different aspects of the divine-human relationship: caring for the sheep (vv. 1-2), tending the vine (vv. 14-15) and the obligations of a sovereign toward a sworn allegiance (v. 17).
There is no mention of repentance in this psalm. As Nancy R. Bowen says in Psalms for Preaching and Worship, “it is a bold promise of obedience, but one that is conditional on survival.” The Psalmist may qualify his prayers but there is unreserved expectation that God can save God’s people. Like the shepherd that protects and the military leader who has the unlimited force, it is only through God’s power that the people will survive.
This saving action is why the psalm makes its appearance in the season of Advent. As God is born in the person of Jesus, Emmanuel (“God is with us”), the people, even a hurting and despondent people, need space within communal worship to remember this promise of salvation.
 Gail O’Day, “Advent Lectionary” Lecture, Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA, 13 November 2009.
The Rev. Kim Jenne serves as Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Conference of The United Methodist Church. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Boundaries, Communications, Conferencing, Discipleship Ministries and Safe Sanctuaries. Before her current appointment, Kim served as pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus. She is slowly learning to keep company with God on a more regular basis.