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November 23, 2020

Restore us, O God, make your face shine on us, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80:3).

We open the first week of the church year next Sunday with the first week in Advent.  Our lectionary studies this year will focus on the fast-moving gospel of Mark, written by one of the younger disciples.  As we begin the new church year in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the focus is on Jesus, the heart of Christmas.  

We pick up Jesus’ story as he is entering Jerusalem for Passover.[1]  The city streets were crowded with people who had come to Jerusalem for Passover, one of the three great feasts, remembering the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt where they had been enslaved for 400 years.  The theme of the Scripture texts is the oppression suffered by the Israelites, and their high expectations for the Messiah, who they were counting on to return them to self-rule. 

When Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time in AD 32, the Israelites were under Roman rule; they were ready to be freed from years of oppression by foreign powers.  Except for the six-year blip during the Maccabean Revolt (166-160 B.C.), they had been under foreign rule for hundreds of years. 

The psalmist pleads with God three times to restore them so that they could be saved: “Restore us, O God, make your face shine on us, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80: 3, 7, 19).  The Israelites were under Assyrian rule when Asaph wrote this psalm.  The psalmist confirms that God is our only hope of salvation.  He is the only one who can truly set us free.

The freedom-seeking theme is continued in Isaiah.  Isaiah pleads with God to “come down” to free them from the Assyrian threat.  The expectations for the Messiah were great.  He would rid them of their earthly foes and would set the record straight: “Come down to make your name known to enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you”(Isaiah 64: 2-3). 

Rome increased its military presence in Jerusalem during Passover because of the large numbers of Jewish pilgrims who poured into the city to commemorate the freeing of their ancestors from their Egyptian oppressors.  The crowd reached a feverish pitch when they saw Jesus riding through the streets on a donkey. The significance of Jesus riding a donkey was not lost on this scripturally literate crowd.  They were familiar with Zechariah 9:9, where Zechariah predicted that the Messiah would arrive on a donkey.   Already filled with patriotic fervor, the people hailed Jesus as the conquering Messiah who would rout out the Romans and return Israel to home rule.  “Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.  Hosanna in the highest’” (Mark 11: 9-10).  Hosanna is a Hebrew expression that means “save.”  They were greeting Jesus as their conquering hero who would save them from the Romans, their most recent oppressors. 

But the popular hysteria over the Messiah was quelled by the time Paul wrote his letter to the church in Corinth. They knew by then that the Messiah was not sent to conquer earthly armies, but instead, to win hearts and souls for eternity: “God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord”  (1 Corinthians 1:9).

The Israelites were thinking too small. They were focused on how an earthly Messiah would free them from earthly tyrants.  But God’s plans are eternal.  His plans for us are not limited by time.  Fully divine and fully human, Jesus came to save us from ourselves, from our sin.  

Jesus was born to set us free in this life and in the next.  Remember that when you are persecuted, harassed, slandered, or discriminated against by tyrants in society, in your workplace, or elsewhere on account of your race, religion, gender, nationality, or for any other reason.  We are free to worship God in our hearts and minds.  We are free to love him whatever our circumstances—whatever our position in life.   He has loosed the chains of eternal oppression and set us free.  Celebrate that freedom this Christmas season.  Celebrate the fact that God has his eye on you and has saved you.  Jesus, your Savior, is your most precious Christmas gift.  Merry Christmas!

Prayer: Gracious God, forgive us for thinking of you as a tiny God—for slapping a label on you and putting you in a box.  We are in awe of you.  We know that you cannot be contained.  You are the eternal, all-seeing, all-knowing, and ever-present God.  You are the creator of the universe and everything in it and are not restricted by the limitations of our puny minds.  Open our eyes and hearts so that we can truly see you without bounds.  Your love for us is boundless. You never take your eyes off us. You are ever present, guiding us with your sure and trustworthy hand.  Thank you for sending your Son to set us free from the oppression of our sin.  In your precious name we pray. Amen 

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan


[1] The Scripture texts for the First Sunday in Advent are Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 11: 1-10.  A similar version of this blog was published on this website in December 2017.

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