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Do Not Despair, Do Not Give Up

December 10, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Advent, Human Rights Day, December 10, 2017. This was a brief reflection for the day, after which we celebrated a couple renewing their wedding vows after 50 years together. 

 Psalm 85:1-2, 8-11 (Justice and Peace Kiss)
Mark 1:1-8 (John the Baptist)

It has been another long, difficult week, hasn’t it?

  • The Republican tax plan has continued moving forward, sparking protests across the country;
  • Dreamers occupied government offices to protest planned deportations;
  • Our president announced that Jerusalem would be recognized as the undivided capital of Israel, contravening international law, world opinion, and making a mockery of any peace process, throwing the Palestinian people under the bus, yet again. In protest, there will be no Christmas lights in Bethlehem this year;
  • At the same time, our president removed protections from two million acres of two national monuments to allow for coal mining, and the Senate voted to authorize oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge;
  • Accusations of sexual assault have led to several more resignations by male politicians and men with power over the lives of others, rightly so, while Roy Moore continues (apparently) to be a viable candidate for public office;
  • Fires continue to ravage California;
  • And in Honduras, protests of election fraud last Sunday led the incumbent president (who supposedly ‘won’ of the election) to declare martial law, followed by a refusal of the police and then military to follow his orders to repress the people, followed by a call for new elections.

Given this past week, how do we read this psalm? About God speaking ‘peace’ and salvation being near at hand?

One option would simply be to embrace denial – to use the Psalm as an escape to imagine a better world, even if it is only a pipe dream, an alternative fact used to comfort us on Sunday morning. But God would not have us turn from the world to a fantasy. This world was created through God’s word – God’s very being. To turn away from the world in denial, is to turn away from God.

To read the psalm as a poem and a prayer provides us a better way forward. Here we can receive its contrary-to-fact condition as an expression of hope that another world is possible. Must be possible. Here we can enter into the life-giving rhythm where heaven and earth meet when land and people flourish. The psalm looks to the past as a promissory note for the future. Historically, this psalm was written during the time of exile – when the people were far away from their land, when they were vulnerable and the future was uncertain. This Psalm is a cri de coeur – a cry of the heart against all that stands against them – including God. “Will you be angry forever” it pleads; it challenges?[i]

The Psalm is particularly fitting for advent because it is one of anticipation. It is clear that the God who the Psalmist describes has intervened in the life of the people in the past to save them from forces over which they had no control. That is, indeed, the basis of their trust. But new perils are present, fresh exigencies from which no power of their own is sufficient to shield them. And in the urgency of this moment, fresh initiatives from God are required. Yet [for the psalmist] divine help has not so far arrived; it is out there in the arena of unfulfilled promise.[ii]

Can you relate? I can relate.

But at last, in verse 10, God speaks, whispering “peace.” And we hear good news that “God’s salvation is very close to those who honor God.” Very close; not here yet, but close. How close? Very close. How long? Not long.

Soon, the psalm proclaims, those qualities which define the life of God will become tangible in relations between people. Faithful love and truth, justice and peace; it will be as if the very qualities of God have become incarnate and lived among them.

For these are the signs of God among us:

Faithful love and truth embrace;
    righteousness and peace will kiss.
Truth springs up from the ground;
    righteousness rains (gazes) down from heaven (CEB)

The Psalm concludes with a triumphant herald,

“justice walks before God, making a road for God’s steps.”

12

Image: Walking in Palestine

The image of justice preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah may strike some Christian hearers as odd. Wait, isn’t the messiah the one who comes to establish justice?

But justice doesn’t exist in the abstract – it exists only in relationship; in the relationship of people to one another and in the covenant-practices or systems that shape our economic and social relations. For if the psalm is not an escape from reality, if it is a poem and a prayer for a better world, then it is finally, also a task and an invitation. Indeed, it is our willingness to live justly, steadfastly, truthfully and peacefully that makes a way for God. God speaks peace; we must try to listen.

This psalm does not promise that it will be easy.   Nor does the psalm promise that it will be safe. What the psalm promises is that when we live this way, God will come; God will be with us. And we will see, a Job says, salvation in our flesh.

We do not know the day, nor the hour – but we do know what we must do, regardless of the day or the hour, regardless of how difficult or uncertain, regardless of whether we are praised or pilloried. We know we must, to the best of our ability, live justly, steadfastly, truthfully and peacefully in the face of whatever stands before us. And we do not despair and we do not give up. We walk with heads held high, encouraging each another onward, with arms outstretched to embrace our neighbors, singing “Faithful love and truth have met; righteousness and peace have kissed. Behold, Our God is coming!”

[i] “Psalms 84-89: From Joy in the Temple to Personal and Corporate Despair,” in W. Derek Suderman “Psalms” in Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The old Testament and Apocrypha (Fortress Press, 2014).

[ii] James Newsome, et al. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Cased on the NRSV – Year B. (WJK, 1993).

The image above is from Walking in Palestine, a website and program of sustainable tourism in the West Bank. 

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