"Help the World Rejoice"#91-07
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on October 15, 2023
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Psalm 80
Mother Superior is afraid of Dolores Van Cartier, and for good reason. Dolores is a mess, but she needs a sanctuary. She's got nobody. Dolores never knew her father. "He walked out on us," she told an acquaintance once. "And all I ever heard about him was how bad he was." Now Dolores dates men who are bad. Her acquaintance can't help but notice the pattern. Dolores Van Cartier is a singer, aspiring, but still undiscovered. Her latest edition was after hours at the nightclub, the seedy joint owned by the married man she's currently dating. He listened but said she wasn't ready to sing in his club. Later that night when she left, she took the door to the alley. She hears a gunshot, witnesses a murder. Her boyfriend just shot one of his henchmen for squealing on him to the cops. Now she's a witness on the run and needs a sanctuary.
She ends up in a witness protection program. The police hide Dolores, the loudmouthed lounge singer, in a convent. And Mother Superior says that while Dolores is here, safe within these walls, she must behave as a nun. "This," Mother Superior says, "is a sanctuary. Outside, life's a mess. No one's pure of spirit any longer. There's no wrong or right, just wrong and wronger. People have amused themselves to death. But here within these walls, days are filled with grace. God is in His place, His wisdom still respected."
That's from Act one, Scene five of Sister Act, the musical. The onstage version of Sister Act is a musical adaptation of the movie version with Whoopi Goldberg, which was set in the early nineties. The onstage version, however, is set in 1977. Time Magazine notoriously labeled the 1970s as the "me" decade. And the character Dolores Van Cartier, larger-than-life lounge singer, embodies the spirit of her age. "I'm a diva, I'm a goddess," she sings. "I'm meant to be where the spotlight shines. Born to be on display, built to be dressed to the ninety nines, ready to stand and say, 'Me.' I'm fabulous, baby."
Dolores speaks for her generation. She says, "Me, myself, and mine." Mother Superior speaks for her Lord and says, "Deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow Me." Dolores says, "Mother Superior, you know why people like going to theaters and they like going to casinos, but they don't like going to church? Because church is a drag." And she continues. "And I don't need you lecturing me about my life. That wasn't part of the deal, you lecturing me about my life. My life is great." Mother Superior says, "In a city with over a million people, you don't have a single friend who would take you in. In a time when success in the music business is blossoming, you can't get a job. And when your married lover finds out what you have done, he will try to kill you. God has sent you here within our walls for a reason. Take the hint." But Mother Superior does not yet fully appreciate the mystery of God's reason, because it seems God has sent Dolores and Dolores is about to be breaking down the walls like a wild boar in the forest. And it starts with the choir.
Dolores hears the sisters singing half-heartedly, "Adoramus te ... Laudamus te ... Glorificamus te." And she says, "Sisters, when you got a song that's worth hearing, there's one thing to do. Just keep your fear from interferin' and let that sucker burst through. Raise your voice, blast it, blare it, stand up and share it. Help the world rejoice," she says. Help the world rejoice. And before we know it, Dolores is bringing the whole scummy world inside the sanctuary in God's vineyard and the riffraff are trampling down the vine, eating all the fruit, and there won't be nothing left, just as Mother Superior feared. It's a fear of religious people everywhere. I know. I'm one of them.
I can relate to Mother Superior because look what happens when we don't protect ourselves from the world. We start to look like the world and we're tired of the world. We know what the world is like. We've been there. In the world, everything comes back to the unholy trinity of me, myself, and mine. In the world, we end up isolated, lonely, empty, fatherless, without a friend who will truly take us in, desperate for a sanctuary. But here within these walls, days are full of grace. We have a place with God. And why should we waste that on an ungrateful world.
Mother Superior has good reason to fear the world. The world makes a mess of things. Fear of the world's mess goes way back. Almost 3,000 years before Sister Act's playwrights imagined the outlook of a fearfully religious nun from South Philadelphia, a Hebrew poet from southern Israel expressed the same fears in a poem known today as Psalm 80. It's impossible to know the precise historical context for the poem. It seems to have been written during a time when ancient Israel was divided between the Northern and the Southern Kingdom.
Now, Israel, remember, was the name given to Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. Jacob got the name Israel after an all-night wrestling match with God. At the time, Jacob had two wives, well, four actually. There was Leah and Rachel. They were sisters. They'd become rivals. They got into a rift with each other over who was loved more by Jacob and who had given Jacob more children. So caught up in this competition, they each give their female servants to be Jacob's third and fourth wives, Bilhah and Zilpah. See Genesis 30:4-9. And Jacob, of course, he is all too happy to go along with this arrangement. You see what happens when people get messed up in the world? Or maybe the world's mess was already in them.
Anyway, this poem, Psalm 80, seems to have been written shortly after Israel, Jacob's family, was divided along the lines of that same old family rivalry. The lands of northern Israel belonged mostly to the descendants of Jacob's second wife, Rachel, her sons, Joseph and Benjamin, grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh. So the poet of Psalm 80 mentions them by name at the beginning because around this time their land had gotten into trouble. Their leaders were corrupt. They had mixed with the world, traded with the pagan nations. Trade relations went sideways, and it all came crashing down on their heads. God was angry with them, for good reason. He sent prophets to warn them. And after they refused to listen, then he let them suffer the consequences of their choices. And in the year 722 B.C., it all came down on their heads. The Assyrians invaded, broke down their walls, trampled their sanctuary, scattered the people.
The author of Psalm 80 probably lived in the southern part of Israel when all this happened. He hears about it and vocalizes his prayer to God in a poem. The poet compares God's people to the vine and their land is like the vineyard, God's vineyard. And like Mother Superior from Sister Act, he doesn't understand why, why God, the Ruler of the heavenly armies, why on earth God would let the world invade his vineyard?
So he says, "Shepherd of Israel, give us Your ear, You who lead Joseph like a flock. You who are enthroned above the cherubim, above the angels. Shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up Your power and come to save us. Turn us again, O God. Let Your face shine and we will be saved. O Lord, God of the heavenly armies, how long will You be angry with the prayers of Your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears. You have given them tears to drink by the liter. You have made us a source of contention among our neighbors, and our enemies, they laugh among themselves. Turn us again, O God of the heavenly armies. Let Your face shine and we will be saved. You once brought a grapevine out of Egypt. You pulled out the nations and planted it. You prepared the ground for it. It took deep root and filled the land so the mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. It sent out its branches to the sea and its tendrils to the great river. Why then have You broken down its walls so that they pluck its fruit, everyone who passes along the way. A wild boar from the forest tears it apart. All that moves in the field feeds on it. Return to us, O God of the heavenly armies. Look down from heaven and see. Take care of Your vine, the root Your right hand planted, the son You made strong for Yourself. Your vine is burned with fire. It is cut down. At the rebuke of Your face, Your people perish. Let Your hand be on the man of Your right hand, on the son of Adam You made strong for Yourself. Then we will not turn away from you. Revive us and we will call on Your Name. Turn us, again, O Lord God of the heavenly armies. Let Your face shine and we will be saved."
The famous film critic, Roger Ebert, gave Sister Act, the movie, two and a half stars. I don't know if he ever saw the musical, but he said the movie, "plays like a missed opportunity." Ebert thought it could have been funnier. But there's something deeper in his insight, another opportunity missed. Because the story of Dolores and Mother Superior presents a profound opportunity to discover what it means to look into the face of God. But when the moment comes, in the musical anyway, all we get is another look in the mirror, another look at ourselves.
The musical's main characters do undergo a transformation. They are transformed to a degree. Dolores starts out as an insecure individualist, and she becomes a small but important part of a family, of a community. Her breakthrough moment comes when she realizes that she doesn't need the spotlight. She doesn't need the applause for herself. What she needs is to be called out of herself and into something bigger. She needs a community. And for Mother Superior, transformation comes to her when she finally lets her walls down and welcomes Dolores in, even with all her worldly mess.
At the end when the bad guys are all carted off in handcuffs and the dust begins to settle, Mother Superior and Dolores are left alone. Dolores says that even though it's all over, she plans to keep on coming to church. "To pray?" Mother Superior asks. "To sing," Dolores says. She says that something powerful happens to her when she's singing with her sisters. Mother Superior says, "Perhaps one day you will know that that is God." Dolores says, "Perhaps one day you will know that that is just being human." "Or, perhaps," Mother Superior says, "one day we will realize that it is both, and they are the same thing."
Here the playwrights have brought us right to the threshold of the sanctuary, only to turn us back into ourselves, to miss the opportunity. And this is an opportunity that the poet of Psalm 80 will not let pass by unnoticed. There's this refrain he has. You heard it, right? "Turn us again, O God. Let Your face shine and we will be saved." Because only the face of the living God will satisfy our longing; only favor with God will keep our fears from interfering; only the friendship and Fatherhood of God can truly give us meaning. It's not just that we need more community or more family. Communities and families are just as sick and manipulated and self-serving and fearful as the individuals that comprise them. Community on its own just gives us more of ourselves and sometimes the worst of ourselves.
But when the Creator turns us back to Him, when we hear His voice in Jesus, when we find His eyes, we're not looking in a mirror anymore. Instead, we see the dark-skinned face of a first-century Jewish Man, the Son of a peasant girl named Mary. We see Jesus, who said in John 15, "I am the Vine." The One envisioned in Psalm 80. He is the Man of God's right hand, the Son of Man, the Son of Adam, God's Son become human to be the One who unites us to be His brothers, His sisters, His branches.
The world is a mess, and so is every one of us. And it all came crashing down on Jesus. He let Himself be trampled, cut down, crucified. And with power and reason and wisdom that makes sense only in God, Jesus rose from the dead. He broke down the wall and He welcomes us in, all of us. "I am the Vine," He says. "You are the branches. If anyone remains in Me and I in them, they will bear much fruit." Enough to feed the whole world.
The climactic scene in the onstage version of Sister Act comes after Dolores's old boyfriend breaks into the church with the nuns and is pointing a gun at Dolores's head. Mother Superior stands in between them offering herself as a sacrifice instead. And then all the others come and build a human-divine hedge of protection around their sister. And it's not just because they're all part of one great sister act. It's because they are servants of the living God, the God of the heavenly armies, sisters in Jesus Christ, God's Son, His branches, who have learned that if we think God will stay behind the walls we've made for Him, we'll always be trying to keep somebody out. And if we think being human is the same thing as being God, then we'll never have anyone who can truly call us out.
But if we see in the face of every human someone for whom the God-Man, Jesus, died, and rose, and lives to be the vine, then He's the only protection we'll ever need. And all that's left is to be a witness, like Dolores says. "When you got a song worth hearing, there's only one thing to do. Just keep your fear from interferin' and let that sucker burst through. Blast it, blare it. Stand up and share it. Help the world rejoice." In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Reflections for October 15, 2023
Title: Help the World Rejoice
Mike Zeigler: We are visiting with Dr. Timothy Saleska, a professor and author of a commentary on the psalms of the Old Testament. Welcome back, Tim.
Tim Saleska: Thank you. Good to be here.
Mike Zeigler: We've been talking about reading the psalms, understanding individual psalms for several weeks now. These are the greatest hits, the poems of the Old Testament. How have these 150 psalms been collected as a single book, and how should we think about them? Is it like they're telling a story with a beginning, middle, and end, or is it just like a random scrapbook, and there's no rhyme or reason to their assembly?
Tim Saleska: So I personally don't think they tell a story from beginning to end. I like to think of them more as an anthology. And so while no one knows for sure how this all happened, I am assuming that psalms or group of psalms were in smaller groups and that were eventually collected together into one book, and there's some evidence to support that notion of the psalms.
Mike Zeigler: It's not a story, but it's not a random scrapbook, it's an anthology. It's greatest hits, but every album's got a title track. What would you say? Is there a title track that really captures that lament to praise movement?
Tim Saleska: I think it's probably what we've heard before, that our Lord reigns over all things. So the fact that He's the Almighty God who gives His promises, gives His grace to His people, and He's in control. If you had to ask me one thing, that would probably be the one I would answer.
Mike Zeigler: In the Gospel of Luke 24, after Jesus has been crucified and has risen from the dead, He tells some of His followers that, "Everything written about me in the Law, in the Torah of Moses, the prophets and the psalms will be fulfilled." So when I try to understand what Jesus means by that, is He saying the psalms had some prophecies about the Messiah that He fulfilled, or is He saying everything in the psalms and the rest of the Old Testament is ultimately about Him? What do you think?
Tim Saleska: Just like when we read the prophets, there are some outstanding examples of the psalms like Psalm 110 or Psalm 2. Those are the most widely quoted psalms in the New Testament in which the psalm, in talking about the "king," you see this fulfillment aspect directly in the life or death and resurrection of Jesus. But it'd be very difficult to take every psalm as directly to Him. "I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me," is just one verse that would cause some theological problems. And the New Testament doesn't ask that we do that. The New Testament uses psalms all over the place. So in testifying to Jesus, Paul in Romans 3 puts together this whole chain of psalm references to show that we're all sinners, for example. So you can use them to make various doctrinal points. You can use them as your language of prayer and praise to God. It's just like the prophets. Not every single verse is a prophecy of Jesus. The correct or better move to make is that we read the entire Old Testament and the psalms in the light of Jesus, which means that who Jesus is and what He has done sheds light on the significance of the verses in the psalms and the events and people and places of the Old Testament.
Mike Zeigler: I was telling you before when we embarked on this project to do some preaching on the psalms, sermons on the psalms, I was a little intimidated. But now, having been doing it, I really love it. I love how the psalms open up, like you were saying, the complexity of life, and it lets me see all of life. There's nothing that's off limits in the psalms.
Tim Saleska: Yeah. There is nothing. You're right. There's nothing that's off limits. Luther saw that, Calvin saw that, the early church fathers saw that, so they delighted in that. Augustine preached a lot of sermons based on psalms. It's pretty amazing. When I look at his Old Testament preaching, he used psalms extensively in it.
Mike Zeigler: There's a verse from the letter to the Romans 15, "Everything written in the past is written for our encouragement that we may have hope." How do you see the psalms doing that for Christians?
Tim Saleska: Oh, yeah. So the psalms, very much like I said, if you think about those individual psalms as they take us to dark places, but they don't leave us. They're always leading us. They're always shaping us and forming us and form us in regards to our faith as we read them in the light of who Jesus is and in the light of who we are as people that have received the promise of God's grace in Jesus. And that's why they never will run dry. They never will cease to mystify and cause wonder and awe and questioning and all those things that we as humans experience as we engage with these challenging texts, but also as we engage with the questions that life throws our way.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you again for being with us, Tim.
Tim Saleska: Sure.
Mike Zeigler: And as you're listening, we do pray that these psalms would become a great treasury for you to invite you deeper into that mystery of life with God.
Tim Saleska: You're very welcome. Thanks.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"A Multitude Comes from the East and West" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.