Third Sunday In Advent
2020 has been a difficult year for every person in this world. Very little has gone according to plan. Our lives have been disrupted in countless ways. In normal situations, Christmas is a difficult time for many people. Struggling with the coronavirus is making this time of year even more difficult for all of us. Joy seems to be in very short supply.
Now having said that, let me make it absolutely clear that the coming of the Christ child into this world, the birth of Jesus in the tiny town of Bethlehem, is nothing but joy. It is pure unmitigated joy. It is joy in holy fulfillment. When the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, encountered the angels, the message delivered to them was that the coming of Messiah was good news of a great joy for all the people. Nothing about this joy has changed. It is joy for all persons. It is all inclusive. It is the joy of the whole world.
So in the midst of all of this absolutely astounding joy, why do some people lose hope at Christmastime? I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist. But this I do know: the bad feelings are real. The sorrow is deep, and the dread is overpowering. Telling someone to “cheer up” at this time of year, probably isn’t going to be a cure.
Psalm 126, then, offers us some hope when we discover that hope is running thin. Psalm 126 is what we, in the minister business call a post-exilic psalm. Now just knowing that, doesn’t that just fill all of us with the holy shivers, not to mention all of the overwhelming joy and hope and peace that comes along with it? I thought so. Post-exilic psalms have the power to do that for us. So what in the world is a post-exilic psalm, and maybe more importantly, who cares what a post-exilic psalm is in the first place?
Well, it turns out that God’s people were held in captivity by other nations at least twice in biblical history. The first time was in Egypt, where the people of God were kept as slaves. And Moses, that great, but reluctant hero, managed to point his fellow Hebrews in the direction that God wanted them to go. The Exodus is remembered by our Jewish friends as the greatest act of God’s salvation in all of history. The Jews celebrate Passover with the same awe and exuberant joy that we celebrate at Jesus’ resurrection.
But sadly, God’s people do not remember the Exodus in their hearts as well as they did in their traditions, and so many years later, because of the sin of unfaithfulness, God allowed them to be defeated by the Babylonians. And, once again, they were enslaved by a foreign nation in a foreign land.
But, because of God’s grace, and ever-abiding love for his people, God put it into the heart of a somewhat compassionate king named Cyrus, to allow God’s people to return to their homeland. The people were free to go if they wanted to go. And many did. But it was tough going for those who returned. Jerusalem had been utterly destroyed. While it was good to be back home, things were just not the same as they were in the good old days, when God’s blessing and the people’s prosperity seemed to go hand in hand.
Just the same, though, there was a spirit of peace and determination and hopefulness among the people. It did not matter so much that things were going to be tough for a while. It did not matter so much that everything needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. What mattered was that the people understood that God was among them, and that they were home.
And so the psalmist, looking back on the return from exile says, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…” You know something, that sounds a whole lot better than reality doesn’t it? Returning to a broken and demolished homeland must have carried with it no no small amount of grief and sorrow. The damage that they witnessed on returning must have been devastating to their hearts. Blood ran thick through the streets of Jerusalem, and thousands of people were slaughtered by the Babylonians. Surely the sight of the destroyed city must have evoked some horrible memories of how their forebears had been so utterly defeated.
And yet, that horror of sight and memory is only one half of the reality. The other half of the reality is the joy that comes from being in the place where one belongs. And so the psalmist can say with full joy in his heart, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”
Sometimes there is great value in looking back. We don’t do it to ponder the good old days, when things were all better, we don’t do it to pine for things to be the way that they once were, but we do it to remember that God is always at work in our lives, always sustaining us and always providing for us, and always carrying us through difficult times. And when we look back, and see that God has been at work in us and in our world, we can rejoice with fullness of heart. We can say that the Lord has done great things for us, because it is always and absolutely true. God has restored our fortunes.
The psalmist, however is not content to only spend time looking back over history. There is living to do today. Like all of us, the psalmist can’t feed forever on the bread of memories. Over the past few months much has changed for us. Much has been lost. We must not dwell on those losses, however severe they have been, because God has been at work even among and through those losses.
And so the psalmist opens his eyes to the present reality, and he sees pain and sorrow. And he realizes that a fresh infusion of hope, a fresh infusion of God’s grace, and a fresh infusion of God’s mercy is desperately needed. And so he prays for the restoration of fortunes. And, as the psalmist prays, an agricultural metaphor comes to his mind.
I am not somebody who has a lot of experience in agriculture. But generally, I know that seeds tend to be small things. I also know that they don’t look much like the things that eventually come from them. In fact, they look kind of dry and dead. Our Lord himself has mentioned this. But in spite of all of that, a seed is a promise of wonderful things to come. But it takes time. And patience. And a whole lot of dependence upon God to make it happen. God’s people needed to understand this as they stood amongst the ruins of their home, and we need to understand it also.
And perhaps that’s where some of us need to take ourselves this morning. It has been a difficult year for everyone. Perhaps we’re feeling small, tiny, puny, dried up, insignificant, disconnected and out of place. Perhaps we are grieving and lost, struggling to learn to live in a world of fast and unending change that makes us feel trapped in exile, or caught in a bad situation that seems hopeless. Like the sowers in this psalm, we are weeping as we make our way from day to day.
If that is us, then we need to lay hold of the promise of the seed. A seed doesn’t grow without a lot of input from God. And neither will we. God nurtures that seed with soil, and rain, and sun. And if God cares for the seed, how much more does he care for us? If God nurtures the seed, will he not also nurture us? If God keeps all of creation moving from season to season, and from seed-time to harvest, how much more can we expect him to nurture and sustain us?
When life is difficult, and even when it seems hopeless, the psalmist says, go ahead, go about your way with weeping. Weeping carries with it no shame at all. Weeping is OK. In our case, our tears can be the seeds of promise of which the psalmist speaks. But as our tears fall to the ground, we must also be willing to allow God to do his work because without trust, and dependence in God, our tears will never produce anything. The goal, of course, is to come home with shouts of joy.
And coming home is the goal to which we must all aspire. Home and homeland and a sense of place was absolutely essential in the life of the Hebrew people. Home was God’s promise to them. The psalmist, then, calls his readers to come home; set your faces in the direction of home and start moving. Begin the process. For God’s ancient people, home was certainly the land. That’s why it is called the Promised Land. But home also has a deeper meaning that goes far beyond the hardscrabble dirt and rocks that the land of Israel is. Nobody would choose to live there; there’s really nothing there, but God’s blessing. Home, true home, then, is being in relationship with God and with God’s people. This is the essence of home now and the substance of home forever.
This is also what home for the follower of Jesus is. Home begins right here: it begins in God’s presence and among God’s people. Right here is where we see God’s seeds growing every day. Right here is where God’s promise is made real to us. Right here is where God’s people have the privilege of weeping for what has been lost. Here is where we have the joy of seeing our brothers and sisters coming home day after day with shouts of joy. Even when we cannot be together, this is home.
And so, come home, come home to God. Shed the false promises of comfort and security and peace, and lay hold of the joy that is God’s true promise to us.
The blessed mystery of Christmas is that God has chosen to come home to us. The chosen dwelling place of of God is with those whom he has created. God has made this plain to us in the coming into this world of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is home. It is home now and it is home for eternity. God is at home with us and in that there is joy; inexpressible joy.