Psalm 126 is such a lyric song that it almost makes you forget that what it celebrates never actually quite happened. The first line is often translated as God’s having “restored the fortunes of Zion” but what it appears more literally to mean is when the Lord “brought back the captives to Zion,” which would make this sound like a post-exilic psalm following 70 years in Babylon. There is no other historical reference that would make sense in terms of the return to Jerusalem of any captives.
The problem historically is that if you read Ezra and Nehemiah—and if you know of what happened in Israel following the close of the Old Testament era—then you also know that the fortunes of Zion were never really restored. Life was hardscrabble at best. When a faint echo of Solomon’s Temple got built, those who could remember the original Temple wept at the sight of what had been rebuilt. It felt so pathetic. Mouths were not only not filled with laughter, as Psalm 126 depicts it, they were actively filled with sorrow. And still they were technically under the thumb of the Persian Empire—Cyrus had set them free but they were not independent. Soon enough Persia would give way to Alexander the Great who would occupy Israel and not long after that came the Roman Empire to do the same.
It is difficult, then, to track down this psalm’s lyric portrait of restoration historically. Perhaps it does reflect some measure of post-exilic joy that really was present. Some had perhaps long ago given up any hope of ever being able to leave Babylon much less return to Jerusalem. If so, then when that actually happened through the unlikely “messiah” of Cyrus the Great, it must have felt like a dream come true despite all the obstacles still facing them as they returned to a ruined city and temple.
But perhaps the best way to read Psalm 126 is in its proleptic sense. That is, Israel saw in their return to Jerusalem—incomplete though it was—more than a glimmer of the ultimate restoration that had long ago been promised by God to David. A Son of David would one day sit on an eternal throne and then all would be well indeed. And perhaps that also explains this Psalm being assigned for a Sunday in Advent in the Year B Lectionary. Because the ultimate restoration of Zion came through that final Son of David who is Jesus Christ the Lord. That is what we finally celebrate in Advent and at Christmas.
But if we are honest, then despite all the good cheer we try to crank up over the holiday season, we also still live well short of the full restoration of the fortunes of Zion. The Church is now the New Israel and we believe the witness of the New Testament that Jesus is the final Temple of God and that by his Holy Spirit each of us are now mini-temples too. The things we believe to be true about Jesus as the ultimate Temple—the final intersection point between God and humanity—are very simply startling and wonderful. It is all like a dream come true and all things being equal, our mouths also should be filled with laughter.
Except that this is Advent in the year of 2020. And if 2020 has proven anything, it is that we are all of us very far from some Promised Land. This broken world is very far from the fullness of God’s coming Kingdom. This has been a year with mouths full not of laughter but of sorrow. Our fortunes have not only not been restored, a lot of our “fortunes” have been taken from us such as they were. Lives have been lost by the hundreds of thousands. Jobs have been lost by the millions. Loved ones have died alone and in many instances, we were denied the chance for even a regular funeral.
Worse, the church has become more riven and not more united in this crisis. In-person worship became a political hot potato. Whether or not to require masks at church, whether or not it was deemed safe to sing, whether or not people were correct to deem state restrictions on gatherings as a de facto persecution of the church: all of this and more has put most pastors through the wringer over and over again. The church feels in many places to have gone backwards in terms of achieving a greater unity in Christ.
Perhaps this year more than ever we need to grab onto the aspirational aspect of Psalm 126. This is not our reality but it is what we long for. But because of the truth of what we celebrate at Christmas, our longing is not false hope. It is not wishful thinking. The one who came down here as Immanuel, as God with Us, is still with us. Always. Even to the end of the age as Jesus himself promised. Life is not where we want it to be. The Church is not where it ought to be. There remains so much brokenness.
And yet the dream persists and it is going to come true: God will restore the fortunes of this fallen Creation and when God does so, then the truth of one of Jesus’ own Beatitudes will shine through: “Blessed are those who weep now for you will laugh!”
Be sure to check out our Year B Advent/Christmas resource page for more sermon and worship ideas and links to many sample sermons as well. Visit us all through Advent!
He didn’t make it up on the spot. It was part of a sermon or a speech—and with Martin Luther King, Jr., there sometimes was not a lot of difference between the two—that he had delivered before and that colleagues had heard. But he was not necessarily planning on using those words that day at the Lincoln Memorial with huge throngs of Civil Rights supporters arrayed before him. But after he had been speaking for a bit, some of King’s colleagues behind him began to say, “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.”
And that’s when he said it. That is when he began some of the most famous words in the whole history of oratory. “I have a dream” King said. And in the coming minutes as he spooled out what that dream looked like, it somehow felt less like a dream and more like an achievable reality after all. You could see it. You could hear it. You could feel it. And when King capped what is now known the world over as his “I Have a Dream” speech, when he said that the words of the old Negro spiritual would soon come true: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty we are free at last”—well, just hearing him end the dream like that made everyone who heard him feel a bit more free already.
Dreams can do that.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 13, 2020
Psalm 126 Commentary