Sermon: “A Psalm of Hope” (October 25, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“A Psalm of Hope” (Psalm 126)
October 25, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today I am preaching on Psalm 126. In the Book of Psalms, Psalms 120 through 134 are known as “Psalms of Ascent” or “Songs of Degrees” because these psalms were recited or sung by Jewish pilgrims who were climbing upwards toward Jerusalem for one of the three annual feasts the Israelites celebrated there—the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. In the midst of these psalms is Psalm 126, a psalm of hope—hope based not on what the Israelites could do or had done, but rather hope based on what God could do and had done. The first four verses of Psalm 126 describe this:

     When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
          then were we like those who dream.

     Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
          and our tongue with shouts of joy.

     Then they said among the nations,
           “The Lord has done great things for them.”

     The Lord has done great things for us,
          and we are glad indeed (Psalm 126:1-4, BCP 782).

And yet this psalm was written during a season in which Israel needed help again from God. That is why these first four verses about God having already done great things for Israel are followed by this simple, to-the-point prayer:

     Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
          like the watercourses of the Negev (Psalm 126:5, BCP 782).

This simple prayer is “restore our fortunes, O Lord” not “Help us restore our own fortunes, O Lord.” It is a simple prayer that places all trust in God’s power, not our own. But what are “the watercourses of the Negev”? In his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson describes this:

The Negev, the south of Israel is a vast desert. The watercourses of the Negev are a network of ditches cut into the soil by wind and rain erosion. For most of the year they are baked dry under the sun, but a sudden rain makes the desert ablaze with blossoms. Our lives are like that—drought-stricken—and then suddenly, the long years of barren waiting are interrupted by God’s invasion of grace (99).

Even though as Christians we know that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit the Lord has already done great things for us, and even though many of us can point to specific great things the Lord has done in our individual lives, we still may find ourselves at times back in seasons in which we need God to help us again—“drought stricken seasons” of “long years of barren waiting” in which we need God “to restore our fortunes.”

As we rode in my truck to a clergy retreat at Honey Creek a few weeks ago, Dan Shoemake and I listened to the last album recorded by The Beatles, the classic Abbey Road. On the second side of the album there is a medley of several short songs that differ in melody, tempo, and style that nevertheless Paul McCartney and producer George Martin brilliantly wove together. Toward the end of this medley are the short songs “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry that Weight.” In “Golden Slumbers” Paul McCartney sings:

Once there was a way to get back homeward
Once there was a way to get back home
Sleep pretty darling, do not cry
And I will sing a lullaby

Golden slumbers fill your eyes
Smiles awake you when you rise
Sleep pretty darling, do not cry
And I will sing a lullaby

Once there was a way to get back homeward
Once there was a way to get back home
Sleep pretty darling, do not cry
And I will sing a lullaby

Then the medley shifts into “Carry that Weight” and the other Beatles join McCartney as they sing:

Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight
Carry that weight a long time
Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight
Carry that weight a long time

I never give you my pillow
I only send you my invitation
And in the middle of the celebrations
I break down

Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight
Carry that weight a long time
Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight
Carry that weight a long time

These short songs from the medley connect to the final two verses of Psalm 126, two verses filled with hope for the future:

     Those who sowed with tears
          will reap with songs of joy.

     Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed,
          will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves 
          (Psalm 126:6-7, BCP 782).

Perhaps some of you in your own way have sowed with tears or gone out weeping, carrying the seed. Maybe this is the case with some relationships in your life, or with your job, or with a personal problem that appears to defy solution—lots of sowing, lots of crying, no reaping. It is like the scene in the award winning 1994 film Forrest Gump in which Forrest and Lieutenant Dan are on a small shrimping boat in the Gulf of Mexico laboring for hours and hours in the hot sun only to pull up their nets and rather than shrimp, finding rusted license plates and broken toilet seats and other discarded items. Perhaps these areas of your life may feel like disjointed little songs that could never be woven together into a medley that makes any sense at all.

And when that is the case we may try to find our own ways to restore our fortunes—again, back to Eugene Peterson:

A common but futile strategy for achieving joy is trying to eliminate things that hurt: get rid of pain by numbing the nerve ends, get rid of insecurity by eliminating risks, get rid of disappointment by depersonalizing your relationships. And then try to lighten the boredom of such a life by buying joy in the form of vacations and entertainment. There isn’t a hint of that in Psalm 126 (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction 100).

And sometimes not even other people are very helpful in these seasons. Last week a friend emailed me a link to a video of the 2015 commencement speech legendary college football coach Lou Holtz gave at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. It was a great speech in which he hilariously quipped, “Don’t tell people about your problems, because 90% of them don’t care and the other 10% are glad you have them.” Funny, but sometimes true—although I hope that here at Christ Church we mirror the words of Paul in his Letter to the Romans—“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

Psalm 126 meets us with hope—placing our hope neither in our own ability to restore our fortunes nor in other people, but in the One who has already done great things for us, the One who has already restored the fortunes of Zion, the One who promises that those who have sowed with tears will in fact reap with joy— as the sixteenth century reformer John Calvin wrote in his commentary on Psalm 126:

Our life is, in other parts of Scripture, compared to the seed-time, and as it will often happen that we must sow in tears, it becomes us, lest sorrow should weaken or slacken our diligence, to raise our minds to the hope of the harvest…In order then that joy may succeed our present sorrow, let us learn to apply our minds to the contemplation of the issue which God promises. Thus we shall experience that all true believers have a common interest in this prophecy, that God not only will wipe away tears from their eyes, but that he will also diffuse inconceivable joy through their hearts.

Moreover, Jesus echoed this promise in Psalm 126 in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

But Jesus did more than that, much more. Scripture tells us “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are” (Hebrews 4:15). In other words, Jesus knows exactly what it is like to sow with tears. Jesus personified these words of nineteenth century poet Walk Whitman, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person” (from his poem “Song of Myself” from the Modern Library version of Leaves of Grass 85).

In fact, in his account of the gospel John notes that just prior his raising Lazarus from the grave, Jesus wept.

And shortly thereafter Jesus and his disciples began their own ascent to Jerusalem. They may have sung Psalm 126 themselves as they climbed up toward Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover, or at least may very well have heard other Jewish pilgrims doing so. Imagine what Jesus was thinking and feeling as they sang or heard these words: “Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves…”

On Good Friday Jesus went out weeping, carrying his cross to Calvary—and Jesus carried that weight a long time. Jesus sowed his blood and tears, until he wept his final tear and breathed his final breath—and the “long years of barren waiting” for the whole world were indeed “interrupted by God’s invasion of grace.”

So if you are in a season in which you need God’s help again, may Psalm 126, a psalm of hope, encourage you—“Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.”

“Once there was a way to get back homeward…Once there was a way to get back home”—the good news of the gospel is that there still is. Jesus is your way back homeward. Jesus is your way back home. And when the Risen Jesus returns with songs of joy, you will find that smiles will indeed awake you when you rise.

This means you can take the weight you have been carrying a long time and lay it down at the feet of the One who will restore your fortunes again in his time. So “Sleep pretty darling, do not cry”—for Jesus will weave all the disjointed songs in your life into a lullaby.

Amen.