We will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name. Restore us, LORD God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved. (Psalm 80.18-19)
Confession, Prayer, and Promise
“Revival” is a loaded word for me, remarkable for its distinct meanings in several circles. To Fundamentalist family and friends, it’s a term for spiritual course correction. In that circle, “revival” means “back to basics.” Among creative colleagues, it means using an outdated medium or marketing technique for novelty’s sake. We file “revival” under “Everything Old is New Again.” When I’m with theater people, “revival” means restaging a previously produced play. Their revivals—the best of them, at least—uncover current relevance in outdated works. The underpinning concept of renewal applies all around. Yet nuances in each usage contain starkly unique implications. Broadly put, Fundamentalist revivals reverse; marketing revivals reintroduce; theatrical revivals reimagine. So, when "revival" turned up in tomorrow's readings, I needed to step away from the phrase and reconsider it in a new context.
The Advent thread is apparent in the readings. The Old Testament texts anticipate the coming of “God’s Son,” while the New Testament declares Jesus is God’s Son. Isaiah and Matthew (quoting Isaiah) have the Christmas edge: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son.” But Nativity’s nexus is tucked into Psalm 80’s prayer for revival. The poem repeats one chorus three times, each in subtly altered form. At first, it’s “Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.” (v3) The second calls on “God Almighty.” (v7) The final chorus begins, “Restore us, LORD God Almighty.” (v19) On its surface, the poem is a plea for salvation, not much different from other laments crowding the Psalms’ pages. Still, the refrain’s evolution tells us something is going on. The cries sound more desperate as the appellation for God gains gravity.
The poet’s energy flags as he goes. In verse 2, he writes, “Awaken your might; come and save us,” essentially asking, Don’t You see we’re in trouble here? Then, in verse 3: “Restore us, O God.” In the verse preceding “Restore us, God Almighty,” he complains of being under attack: “You have made us an object of derision to our neighbors, and our enemies mock us.” The last cry, to “LORD God Almighty,” follows the confession he's got nothing left—no confidence or strength of his own—and can’t make it without a Savior: “Let your hand rest on the man at your hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself. Then we will not turn away form you; revive us, and we will call on your name.” (v17-18) Here, “revival” transcends reversal, reintroduction, or reimagination. It begs God to reenergize our faith and stamina. Pondering the psalmist’s plea, we realize “revive us” is the Christmas message. It’s the Christmas confession, prayer, and promise.
Refuge, Rescue, and Redemption
With his circumstances growing grimmer between choruses, we question why the psalmist revises his description of God instead of revising how he describes his immediate fears. Dissecting his names for God holds the key, because changing God’s name changes the request. In verse 3 he calls on God as elohim, a plural noun portraying God as Refuge. “Restore us” and “Make Your face shine on us, that we may be saved” ask for clarity to find refuge in chaotic times. Modifying elohim with “Almighty” (tzevaovt: “hosts,” to mean “Lord of hosts”) in verse 7 adds a not-so-subtle militaristic tone imploring God to rescue us from adversaries and abusers. The third chorus invokes the ultimate, universal Power: “LORD God Almighty” (Yahweh elohim tzevaovt)— Creator and Ruler of the world and humankind, the God Who speaks light into existence and breathes life into us. Thus, the third prayer cries out for redemption by encompassing the earlier pleas: “We’re in trouble. We’re under attack. We've got nothing left. Restore us. Shine on us. We’re desperate for the clarity, safety, and certainty of Your light. Send a Savior to revive us. To renew us. To redeem us.”
We Need a Savior
Advent is, above all else, our hour of confession. We need refuge. We need rescue. Most of all, we need revival. On our own, we have nothing left—no confidence or strength to continue. We live in a disorderly, unpredictable, troubled world. We are beset by adversarial attitudes and abusive behaviors. Doubt looms on every side. The work of living depletes our reserves. We need a Savior to reenergize our faith and stamina, One Whose light will restore our clarity, safety, and certainty. The Christ Child is our Redeemer. The Babe in the manger signifies the Lord God Almighty has answered our prayer.
Matthew 1.22-23 summarizes the Nativity: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).” The Infant revives our faith in a God Who is with us in every circumstance. Mary’s Baby reenergizes our confidence and stamina to press on. The Christmas revival rekindles God’s light in our hearts. We find refuge. We are rescued. We have been redeemed!
We need a Savior—and one has come to reenergize our faith and stamina, to revive us.
Postscript: “Revive Us Again”
Ashley Cleveland, a multiple Grammy-winning artist, puts a ferocious country-and-blues spin on the old hymn “Revive Us Again.” She shakes us to remember that Christ came to reenergize our faith and stamina—and her conviction springs from having struggled with addiction until she turned to the Savior for revival. (See the second video for her story.)
REVIVE US AGAIN
We praise Thee O God
For the Son of Thy love
For Jesus, Who died
And is now gone above
Hallelujah, Thine the glory
Hallelujah, Thine the glory
Revive us again!
We praise Thee O God
For Thy Spirit of light
That has shown us our Savior
And banished our night
Hallelujah, Thine the glory...