A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Lent 5 ~ Psalm 126 Communion
On one level, our text today, Psalm 126, is simple to interpret. The psalmist is clearly in one of those in-between places in life, remembering when life used to be great, and how it felt like God did all sorts of wonderful things for them, but currently things aren’t so great and they need God to do it again, but they still have faith and trust that even though today they have tears they know that in time God will bring joy.
Things used to be great, they’re not now, I want them great again, I trust God will help.
Simple. Of course, we’re going to dig a little deeper than just that.
As we’ve seen with many psalms there’s a major turn in the middle of Psalm 126. The first three verses are teeming with joyful memories of God’s Presence and blessings. Then, out of nowhere verse 4 pleads, “Restore us!” Clearly, the joy is gone! The remaining three verses are all about tears, and hope, and not knowing, but trusting.
Where does trust come from?
What makes you likely to trust that God will again feel Present and bring joyfulness?
The psalmist starts with remembering how God moved before. That’s intriguing. It means that the psalmist was aware of God’s Presence before, “noticed” it, identified it as being God, embraced it as being God, and expressed gratitude for that Presence.
You can’t ask God to “do it again” if you’ve never had an inkling that God did it before!
And according to the psalmist God really did it before! It’s impossible to say if the psalm is about a specific incident but it’s likely referring to the return of the exiles from captivity. Israel was invaded and all their leaders and movers and shakers were marched away into exile, captivity, leaving only the poor behind as essentially slave labour. Eventually those exiles were returned – and the people of Israel thanked God for moving!
Now, I doubt any of us have ever been exiled or held in captivity!
Or have we? Maybe not politically, or physically, but we’ve all certainly be held captive by prejudice, or inexperience, and certainly by bad theology!
So this all begins with a sense of awareness that once we were captives, and it was unpleasant, and then somehow God moved in our lives and we were no longer held captive by whatever and it was joyful! Our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy! (v.2)
Sounds great! But what do we mean by “God moved in our lives?”
Some folks are really comfortable with that language and if you hear them talk you’d think God was actively responsible for every single thing in their life. “God gave us a beautiful day today. God blessed me with good health today. God helped me find my car keys!” – every aspect of life is infused with God’s movement for them.
Others among us are pretty skeptical about that kind of language. They’d probably never ascribe actual actions to God but would name God’s Presence in situations and be grateful for it – a more metaphysical approach.
I’m not taking sides – and there’s a whole spectrum of ways you might think of God moving between those extremes. But on some level, as people of faith, we need to find a way to acknowledge that God has moved and is moving in our lives.
What really intrigues me about this is that verse 2 suggests that God’s movement was so powerful, and so obvious, that even “the nations,” meaning others, outsiders, could see it and would exclaim that God moved there. It would certainly be noticeable if all of a sudden all those powerful people who had been exiled came strolling back into town!
But what about less dramatic things? Is God’s movement visible to outsiders?
Has God moved here? In Canada, at Faith United?
Is God still moving? Here?
Have the people “out there” noticed? What would make the people in these surrounding neighbourhoods look at us and say “The Lord has done great things for them?”
However you look at it, the psalmist is saying that for them God has moved in their lives, they noticed, it made a wonderful difference, they’re grateful, and they rejoice in it. And that’s what they want to be restored to – because obviously, somehow, somewhere, they lost that lovin’ feelin’!
Let’s go deeper still.
Psalm 126:4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
Restore us. Do it again! How? Like the watercourses in the Negeb!
What the heck does that mean? It’s a reference to a desert place that is often dry and barren but has a history of being a place where sudden storms form and gush down rain and quite literally out of nowhere bring that barren place back to life. One minute there’s nothing but death and devastation, and then, in an instant, a storm comes and miraculously there’s water and life.
The point of the analogy isn’t about the miraculous-ness of the movement it’s about the speed!
What do we want? Restoration!
When do we want it? Yesterday!
It’s a very human response. I want relief now. I want my fortunes to change now. I want things to be better now. Things used to be good – they’re not now, I don’t like it – fix it now!!!
Can you relate?
For me, this is where this simple to interpret psalm becomes really deep and insightful. Here’s where we shift from the understandable, ordinary human response to the counter-cultural, highly extraordinary, deeply faithful response. And I suspect that compared to when it was written the message I’m about to convey is even more powerful, and more needed, in today’s culture.
We live in an instant gratification culture that the psalmist could never have imagined. We demand convenience and relief instantly. We have the means to buy just about anything we need – and the things that sell the best are the things that instantly meet whatever need we’re feeling – especially if it’s an unpleasant one.
Got a problem? Not for long! Buy the answer! Today! Now!
And into that instant gratification culture I’m going to stand here, draw on ancient spiritual wisdom, and say, Nope. That ain’t how important things work.
We don’t just sit back lamenting and praying that God will magically make it all right. It doesn’t just happen automatically – we still have work to do, sowing to do, we have a part to play in the restoration. It’s the polar opposite of instant gratification – it’s not a quick fix, it’s a slow grow.
The psalmist acknowledges the very human desire for the quick fix, “Restore us Now, O God!” – and then the next verses go like this:
Psalm 126:5-6 May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
We’re not dreaming of flash floods anymore – now we’re talking about sowing and harvesting. That’s significant. Even if you know precious little about gardening or crops [raises hand] you know that it takes a long time between the planting and the harvesting.
And not only does it take a long time, the really important stuff is happening beneath the surface where you can’t see it.
From the outside it looks like nothing is happening at all.
And then when a tiny shoot actually pokes through and you see something it then takes another really long time for that growth to mature. It takes a lot of trust to sit in that in-between time, waiting.
Why would you be willing to wait?
Because experience has taught you that harvesting will come in time.
Just like the psalmist’s experience of God’s blessings tell them that in time blessings will be felt again.
So it takes a long time, and we can’t see any progress happening for the most part, and on top of that we have the circumstances of the sowing.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Let’s go beyond the literal crop planting metaphor.
The spiritual insight here is that we may be in tears as we sow, but sow anyway.
Our circumstances may not be great, and we may feel utterly lost and alone and abandoned by God, and we might even wobble and doubt whether things will ever be better again – sow anyway – pray anyway, worship anyway, serve anyway, love anyway. That’s the stuff we sow.
People of faith, people with the experience of sensing and savouring God’s Presence, know that tears are not forever, and that joy will be in the harvest.
The harvest will never come fast enough for our instant gratification culture, and it may not come in the shape that we’re expecting, but it will come.
God will move. God is always moving – luring us into wholeness and fullness – shaping us in ways we can’t understand.
And sometimes, with the benefit of hindsight and prayer, we might see that even though we were sowing in tears we were actually creating the possibility of the joyful harvest to come.
Once upon a time there were two churches called St. Andrew’s Oshawa, and Courtice United. Those churches experienced some trouble. They saw a diminished or threatened future and decided to take a leap of faith and create something new together – Faith United!
But in order to reap the joyous harvest that this place is – and look around folks, God has moved and is moving here! – in order to get here those original churches had to be sold. Folks had to let go of the dreams and experiences and life events that were intimately entwined with those physical buildings and those previous communities of faith.
Not everyone made the move from the previous places to this one.
The loss of buildings and congregants caused more than a few tears.
But they sowed anyway.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
There was a time in the wilderness, worshipping in a school, an unsure future.
Then, a property was found, and renovations happened, and construction of the new sanctuary, and the waiting continued.
And ultimately, there was a harvest – a restoration – those who were in captivity and exile made the journey down the street and into this new place, filled with hope and possibility – and there was much rejoicing in the harvest!
And then along the way Harmony United had a similar chapter in their faith journey, sowed some tears as they let go of what was, and embraced a new future.
The joyful harvest continues.
And today, while church attendance in North America continues to dwindle, and it seems like the world may have passed us by in many ways, this place is a vibrant and vital testimony to possibility and hope. And I guarantee you that as people drive by on a Sunday morning and see that parking lot full they are, on some level, aware that there must be life in that place, and in their own way they’re saying “The Lord has done great things for them!”
Of course, we wish they wouldn’t just drive by, but drive in!
And we don’t wish that because we need the numbers – we yearn for it because we know how wonderful, and empowering, and inspiring, and comforting it is to realize that God is indeed with us, is Present, and has blessed us.
And we have something that would really help them.
We have an insight that is the perfect remedy for our instant gratification culture that is starving in superficial shallowness.
We have something really, really deep.
We have faith. We have trust.
We know that tears are natural, expected, even necessary. They aren’t just swept away – they’re transformed!
And we know that the space between those tears and the restoration of joy is sometimes long and uncomfortable.
And the best thing we know is that the waiting is easier when we know we are not alone, when we know the joyful harvest is coming even when we can’t understand it or see it, and when we have a song of faith to sing as we journey on.
And that song is grounded in gratitude for the blessings we have known, that have filled us and renewed us, and deepened our love for God and one another.
What a privilege it is to be able to stand on such a solid ground of lived blessings.
And what a comfort it is to have the faithful confidence to say,
“Thank you God, for all the blessings I’ve known. You have moved mountains in my life, in ways I cannot fathom. I am grateful. Do it again!”