This is a sermon for the first Sunday in Advent. The Scripture it references is Psalm 80.
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
That’s George Herbert’s poem, Prayer. In it, he piles image on top of image to try to give an impression of all that prayer can be, might be, if we would give ourselves to it without reserve. (I don’t understand all of the images, either; what does he mean by saying that prayer is “the land of spices”? Does he mean we might discover both the bite of chilli and the sweetness of vanilla?)
But I did catch the mention of the “heart in pilgrimage;” the heart on a journey to some sacred place. And perhaps because I’ve been thinking about change, which is a process of getting from here to there (wherever there is), and – at least in the church – change ought to be a pilgrimage of sorts, that image of prayer as “the heart in pilgrimage” seemed like it was worth spending some time on.
So between now and Christmas, I’ve decided to preach on the psalm each week. And I’m thinking of that as a sermon series on “songs for the journey.” I think that might help us to think about what we’re doing, on a number of levels.
Because of course, the idea of “being on a journey” can describe different things. On one level, we’re journeying towards Christmas; with all the things – sacred and secular – which go into making Christmas special. On another level, each of us is on the long journey of a lifetime, with its various seasons and themes.
There are other journeys too. Every time we meet for worship, that’s a journey, of sorts; we’re supposed to walk out the church door not quite the same as we came in, having encountered God and one another in a way which will change our lives in some way. And the psalms themselves are each a journey; they have a beginning, a middle, and an end; and the habit of praying them is supposed to move us along with the words so that we’re not unchanged.
So, many journeys; some long, some short, some individual and some shared; but all having this point of connection as we come together Sunday by Sunday for worship. And all, hopefully, finding themselves as some expression of pilgrimage; all seeking something sacred.
And when we think about what sustains us on those journeys, what helps us to know who we are, gives us our ethical frameworks, and so on… a lot of that comes from the fabric of our culture. From the stories we tell, the books we read, what we watch on TV, and – at least in church, still – the songs we sing together.
(I always try to remember that people will be humming a hymn from Sunday during the week, long after you’ve forgotten anything I said in the sermon. Singing engages much more of the brain that just speaking and listening, and it helps embed things much more deeply in us).
And as part of all of this, we have the psalms; with all their requests, complaints and praises; all the breadth of human experience which they bring into our worship, and which help us to recognise and give voice to where we are in our various and shared pilgrimages.
And this morning, the repeated cry of the psalm is for God to “restore us.” To fix us; even, perhaps, to make us new. There’s a cry from a heart in pilgrimage; journeying towards a sacred place of healing and wholeness, and praying that God would help us find it.
That’s what Christmas should be, of course; a sacred moment of healing and wholeness; but it isn’t that for everyone. Domestic violence shelters get more calls close to Christmas time than other times of the year. The strain of poverty is more keenly felt, as our society goes into its annual consumerist orgy. And grief is sharp as people remember the faces who are missing from the family gatherings. That’s part of why, a few days before Christmas, we’ll have a quiet service of evening prayer for people finding Christmas difficult; it doesn’t matter why it’s difficult, but even just being able to come, and be, without being expected to be all jolly and merry, can be a sacred encounter for people who are doing it tough.
The cry for God to “restore us” works at other levels too. Every week we begin our worship with the prayer that God would “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts;” that whatever baggage we’ve picked up through the week, that’s weighed us down or distorted our love of God or one another, that we’d be relieved of that and, once again, be restored to love and worship as we ought. That’s not trivial; it’s an important part of what Herbert called the “plummet sounding heav’n and earth;” taking soundings of what’s really going on in our hearts, and straightening what’s turned crooked.
Paul wrote about this pilgrimage of the heart, this journey towards the sacred, using a different image when he said that “the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
Well, bringing something to birth is also a journey of many months, and yet Paul seems to think that we’re at the interesting end of that; with ourselves and all creation gripped in labour pains which are soon going to bring to birth restoration of God’s good creation.
We might come back to that idea at Christmas. But for now, here is the question for our hearts in pilgrimage, this week: what is it in our lives – in your life – that needs restoring? What would make you feel, tomorrow, that God’s face is shining on you just a little brighter than it is today? What do you dare hope for?
Don’t be shy to bring those things to God in prayer. The psalmist wasn’t, and Paul wasn’t, and even Herbert the poet wasn’t; and we shouldn’t be either. “Restore us” can definitely be a song for the journey, even as we look forward to what is coming.