Grace Presbyterian Church
March 13, 2016, Lent 5C
Psalm 126; Luke 12:1-8
A Psalm of Remembering
It might be labeled in your Bible as “A Song of Ascents,” which on the surface might not make much sense. After all, there is not any particular thing in the text that seems to suggest ascending or going up.
In this case, that heading is actually a practical instruction: this is a psalm deemed suitable for that point in a Temple service at which the liturgical procession goes up, or “ascends,” to the altar. In effect, it’s like those headings you might notice on the hymns in our hymnal, headings that indicate a particular occasion or part of the service or theme for which the hymn might be particularly suitable.
Loosely, such a term becomes metaphorically applicable outside the immediate context; for example, an occasion on which a person might have traveled to Jerusalem, especially for a particularly momentous event or occasion, might get likened to that ascent in the Temple. Jesus’s final journey into Jerusalem, for example, might be considered an ascent as well, particularly as Jerusalem is set on a hill. Thus today’s psalm is deemed appropriate for pairing with today’s gospel reading, in which Mary (sister of Martha and Lazarus) breaks out an expensive oil and anoints Jesus’s feet with it, an act hinting at the death that would mark the culmination of Jesus’s forthcoming ascent to Jerusalem.
Still, the psalm does have its own message for us, but one that is easily misinterpreted or misconstrued. It is a psalm that calls us to remember, but not to be imprisoned by what we remember. It seems to hint at lament that is not made explicit, but calls us to experience not only the tears, but also joy – joy for what, we do not yet know.
Psalm 126 divides pretty neatly into two parts, of three verses each, which seem to be in contrast to one another but are ultimately dependent on each other. The first three verses have a clear focus: remembering, calling to mind the provision of the Lord for the people and rejoicing in the Lord’s great deeds.
In its original context the psalm seems to evoke the return of the people of Israel from exile. That first verse is a vivid evocation of the experience of the returning exile, who after years in captivity can hardly believe her or his sight at the home from which the people had been forcibly removed so many years before. “We were like those who dream,” indeed, but the sight was oh, so real. Mouths filled with laughter, tongues overflowed with words of rejoicing. The nations looked on and saw, and chalked it up to the God who had “done great things for them.” In all the perceivable ways of the world, it was an amazing time to be one of the Israelite people.
Somehow, by the time we get to verse 4, things are different. When your first word is ‘restore,’ it’s a pretty good sign that something is amiss.
At this point many preachers and churches and authors would launch into a sermon about our need to go back. We need to “get back to the Bible” (whatever that means). We long for the glory days when churches were always full. Maybe we even decide that we need to “make the church great again” (again, whatever that means). We somehow decide that the answer is in something behind us, whether that something even truly existed or not. After a little more than a year here I’ve started to hear some of those stories about the glory days of this congregation, the full sanctuary, the busy preschool, the robust choir, all the ways in which the church thrived. It’s inevitable that there will be a longing to “go back” to those days, to restore that golden age.
That’s not what the psalmist says, though. That’s not what Jesus does in the gospel reading. And that’s not what Lent teaches us, as we draw towards its close. What needs restoring isn’t some past golden age; what needs restoring is us.
We are like a dried-out riverbed, in the Negeb. That’s a desert region in the southern part of Israel. It is rocky and arid. For a large part of the typical year, June until October, the region gets no rain. There are riverbeds that run through parts of that desert region, even though they remain dry and empty for so much of the year, though.
But when the rains do come, what once was dry and arid and seemingly lifeless suddenly springs to life. Waters rush through the wadi. Plants and animals appear and are nourished by the flowing waters. Such is the restoration for which the psalmist cries out. Restore our fortunes? Restore our lives. Restore the rains by which we are nourished by you.
It’s not as if God intentionally cuts us off from such refreshing, though. It’s like the old hymn (the one we’ll sing after this sermon) says: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it/Prone to leave the God I love.” We aren’t so good at being faithful. We get caught up in our own desires, our passions, maybe our nostalgia for those dimly remembered glory days. We cut ourselves off. We dry up. Life ebbs from us spiritually even as we keep walking around bodily.
So we call out for the Lord to “restore.” We cry out to be able to sing songs of joy again. We remember. And this is what the Lord does; the Lord restores, but not by going back in time. The people of Israel don’t get to go back in time and return to the experience of those first returnees from exile; they are restored to go forward. And so are we, no matter how much we might wish to go back.
Howard Wallace, an Australian pastor and biblical scholar, puts it this way;
In this Lenten season, Psalm 126 leaves us with a call to be like dreamers, those whose lives are shaped not by the limits of our experiences but by the hidden reality of what God has already declared will be. It also leaves us with a tremendous sense of joy in ‘coming home’ as we journey with the tears of this earthly experience toward Easter.
Our remembering is not driven, when we’re doing it right, by an urge to return to our past; it is driven by the desire to be restored by God to live in God’s present.
After all, was that golden age we remember so well really that golden all around? For example, it’s not that uncommon these days in our civil discourse to hear the suggestion that our country needs to be restored to some past time when it was, oh, let’s say “great.” Maybe different people have different ideas about when that was; sort it out for yourself. But there’s a pretty good chance, given the history of this country, that this remembered “greatness” didn’t extend to everybody; that some significant portion of the country lived in a special kind of hell when the rest of us were living high off the hog.
So it is with the church, and maybe even with our church. All too often the remembered “golden ages” of the church universal or particular or local were times in which the church was more factional than universal, when Sunday morning worship hour earned its designation as the most segregated hour in the country, and when the church took all that influence and wealth it accumulated and spent it on tall pointy steeples and Sunday blue laws and making sure the poor were safely hidden out of sight, lest our delicate sensibilities be offended.
Get this if you get nothing else: God has zero interest in the church or our church returning to those times. None. The only “glory days” in which God has an interest for the church are days yet to come.
Jesus doesn’t turn around from Bethany and go back to the itinerant-preacher life in Galilee; he leaves Bethany and goes to Jerusalem, knowing how that ascent would turn out even before Mary’s pungent reminder. The psalmist doesn’t call the people to live off past crops and indulge in nostalgia; we are charged to sow this year’s seeds, to bring in this year’s harvest, and to do it with joy. And if we truly remember to be restored in God, that’s what we’ll do.
This church has no idea what’s next. I wish I did, but apparently prophecy isn’t one of my spiritual gifts. It will be different, though, if for no other reason that the town around us will be different. The neighborhood around us will be different. The county and state and country around us will be different. We can no more stop that than we can go over to Daytona Beach and stop the tide from coming in or going out. And a 1950s church would be utterly pointless in 21st-century Gainesville.
We remember because God has been and is and will be faithful to us. We remember because we have been rescued and restored and returned from exile in ways we probably don’t even realize. We don’t remember to go back; we remember because it’s time to go ahead, led by the Lord who has been and is and will be faithful.
As another biblical scholar, Beth Tanner, says:
We know that Easter comes every year, but what will be the content of the shouts of joy we are waiting to say? How will God return to us and/or restore us? We will follow the ascent to Jerusalem to discover what God has in store for us.
There’s a new harvest to be gathered. Let us remember the Lord who restores us, and go to it.
For remembering that drives us forward, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH ’90): “From All That Dwell Below the Skies” (229), “When God Delivered Israel” (237), “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” (356), “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley” (80)
Sowing with tears, reaping with shouts of joy