Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 24, 2021
Psalm 126 Commentary
Some of us might remember that another version/translation of Psalm 126:1 mentions specifically the time when “the captives” were brought back to Jerusalem. That framing of this psalm places this on the far side of the seventy-year exile in Babylon as the people of Israel slowly returned from captivity after Persia conquered Babylon and the Persian King Cyrus set Israel free. Names like Ezra and Nehemiah come to mind as well as a prophet like Haggai.
However, if we accept this historical setting, we have a problem. Not a lot of what you read in Ezra and Nehemiah generates a picture of people filled with laughter and singing. The picture biblically is more bleak. People lamented when they saw the fallen and decayed condition of Jerusalem and the utterly destroyed Temple. Even later when the Temple had been partially rebuilt, we are told that those who were old enough to remember the splendor of Solomon’s Temple wept aloud at the pathetic state of this new Temple over against what had once been.
To state the merely obvious, all of that is a far cry from Psalm 126. So perhaps what we find when we bring this song together with the historical reportage of Ezra and Nehemiah is that as is often true in life, we encounter a mixture of emotions. Yes, there was understandable lament and sorrow when the people returned to Zion. But surely there was also understandable glee and no doubt laughter too. The exile was over. King Zerubbabel could have echoed a leader from far into the future had he used President Gerald R. Ford’s words that “Our long national nightmare is over.” There had to be palpable relief in that. As Nehemiah oversaw the rebuilding of the city’s walls and Ezra helped to rebuild a Temple, surely there was hope in the air, too, in addition to the daunting sense of how much work was still ahead.
So we can take Psalm 126 as accenting the positive (and eliminating the negative, to coin a phrase!). And in so doing, Psalm 126 speaks the hope that all of us have in the promises of God while we still toil away in a broken, fallen world. Life has its ups and downs but on the occasions of the “ups,” we catch a glimpse of the ultimate restoration that the Gospel promises to us. True, not everything is restored at one fell swoop. Even the joy and laughter that attends answered prayers for now may not have the last word on any of our lives before we fully enter the Kingdom of God. But for now they afford a glimpse of what is yet to come.
Our colleague in writing sermon commentaries on the Center for Excellence in Preaching website, Chelsey Harmon, recently wrote a very helpful blog that reminded us of the context of the very well-known saying of Julian or Norwich, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” I encourage you to read Chelsey’s blog as it reminds us, as Psalm 126 also does, that our hope for the kind of restoration to which Psalm 126 points must and always does emerge out of a context of what we could call “this present darkness” or the sorrows that attend us much of the time.
It is probably also telling that even after the sunny opening words of Psalm 126, nevertheless there is the occurrence of the imperative mood. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord!” Yes, there had been laughter. Yes, there had been rejoicing in the return from captivity. And yes, this provided a preview of the ultimate promises of God’s covenant when the face of the entire creation would be renewed. But the urgent request of verse 4 is a reminder that even this psalmist knew they were not home yet. More was to be done. There was a long haul ahead yet for God’s people.
And that’s just life! We are so happy for what you have done for us, O God. But . . . keep helping us, keep restoring us, keep coming through for us in ways large and small. We are none of us home just yet. But Psalm 126 reminds us that as Jesus also promised, surely God is with us, always, to the end of the age when all shall be well.
In their high school religion classes (four years apart) both my daughter and son had a teacher who early on in the semester engaged the students in an exercise he called “The God Glimpse.” Each student was told to take a 2-week period of time and keep their eyes peeled for glimpses of where they discerned where God by his Holy Spirit was at work. If possible, they were also instructed to snap a photo of their God Glimpse to share with the rest of the class. The results were always interesting and in the end also downright inspiring.
Students took photos of things like classmates gathering around a discouraged student who needed a boost after messing up the final play in a close basketball game. They took note of the person in the grocery store who abandoned her own cart to help an older woman who was struggling with her cart and who could not reach items on higher grocery shelves.
One student observed that on her bus ride to school each day, they went through a neighborhood that some years earlier had been a haven for drugs and violence. Windows were broken out in most homes, front porches sagged in dilapidation, front yards were untended tangles of weeds. But a Christian organization had rehabbed the whole block and it was now filled with nicely renovated houses and yards and was populated by families with children who played safely in those yards even as older people sat on the refurbished porches to watch the young ones play. “Every time our bus goes down that block,” the student wrote, “it’s like Easter all over again!”
Psalm 126 shows us Israel’s “God Glimpse” of a renewal that gave them hope for the ultimate restoration of all things! We should all be on the lookout for such hope-filled vignettes! (Note: the following photos are from the same neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan.)
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