Surely by now you’ve heard the song It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year on a commercial, tv show, your car radio or random Spotify playlist. Or maybe like me, you heard it all the way back on October 19th when your spouse turned on the Christmas music (there were 5 inches of snow on the ground in central Iowa). Whether it’s Pentatonix, Amy Grant, or Andy Williams (the best version, by the way), It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year is peak muzak. It’s easy to name the contrast between muzak and the songs that should be reserved for Advent and those that are reserved for Christmas Eve and Christmastide. With this said, I read Psalm 85 and a line from this song popped in my head, mostly because its puzzled each and every time I’ve heard it: “They’ll be scary ghost stories/and tales of the glories/of Christmases long, long ago.”
Since when do ghost stories have anything to do with Advent or Christmas? Only Dicken’s Christmas Carol conjures up stories of ghosts for most. Apparently, it was a Victorian Christmas tradition to gather around the fire and tell stories of the ghosts of Christmases past. I am not suggesting that we replace our Christmas Eve service candlelight traditions with creepy tales of specters; but I am interested in the temporal aspect of this Psalm, and how Advent season calls us to confront the past and present to hope for a healed alternative in the future. Surely there will be folk in our congregations who will be confronted of the skeletons of hurts, pains, confusions, frustrations, anger and sin patterns that are conjured up simply by the way our consumeristic and hurried culture has coopted this season. As we confront the ways we have been formed, the way that our sin has held a grip on us, we can look the one who has come and who is and who will be to bring us into new wholeness.
Many of our creeds and confessions cover the tenses: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. The vision of heaven in Revelation 4 gives vantage to the heavenly creatures who cry out, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come” (Rev 4:8). Mysteriously, God occupies all forms of time. The psalmist recognizes this.
The form of the Psalm is interesting in how it addresses who God has been, what God does presently, and who God will be and what God will do. The past is reframed into the memory of the people: God has showed favor before. God has restored before. As much as the Psalmist is reminding God in prayer, it serves too as a self-reminder to them. The lection then skips to all the beautiful poetry to dream of the possibilities in God’s future. The promises of 85:8-13 are what we’re all dying for right now. As I write this, a Hurricane is bearing down on Louisiana, Oklahoma is under a sheet of ice, California is on fire, and the most contentious election in my lifetime will come to pass in one week’s time. Oh yes, and we’re in the midst of a global pandemic where the single day case counts are reaching record levels in the United States. How badly do we need steadfast love and faithfulness to meet? What would we give to experience righteousness and peace kiss each other?
This may be one of the most challenging Advent seasons for any of us who are called to preach the word. How is it that we can find hope when things are so dire? I propose that our way ahead is to ground ourselves in the place of this Psalmist who first remembers God’s faithfulness and dreams of what God will do. The call to preach this advent season, more firmly than any other time, is to narrate salvation on behalf our congregations – exchange the story of despair for the story of hope. Tell the story of what God has done for your congregation. Tell the stories of the people who have found redemption. Tell how God has acted in a time that was dire. Even through these troubled times I think about how the Lord has come through again and again. As the Psalmist calls on God to be who God has promised to be, we can stand with them and it can become our prayer.
Always notable is what the lectionary leaves out. In this case, the petition is absent. Perhaps there is a link worth exploring here – in the anticipation of the Christ child the petition has been answered. In the incarnation we have a definitive yes that God has restored us, God has put away all displeasure toward us, God is not angry with us forever, it is not prolonged through generations, God is out to revive us, we can indeed rejoice, and the unfailing love of God has been demonstrated to us. This is a story worth telling over and over again to our congregations as well. This time of year, and in this year of ALL years, may bring out the ghosts of the past and present. But God has answered this in Christ – we are being restored.
May this Advent season be an opportunity for us to pause, reflect, wait, and get new scripts to see the world differently. Through Christ, our pasts have been redeemed. In him we have the peace and goodness of his presence. And his future hold promises love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace.