A sermon by Greg Ledbetter | December 14, 2008 | Third Sunday in Advent
Text: Psalm 126
I'd like to invite you to get out your Bibles … did anyone bring their own Bible to worship this morning? … Carrie? No? No-one? (in fact, some 5 or 6 folk were actually packin' Bibles—better than I'd guessed.--GHL) … Hmmm … OK, the Bibles are the red books in front of you … that's a Bible … OK, let see if we can find the psalms … they're in the Old Testament … the Hebrew scriptures ... let's find Psalm 126 which Rick read earlier.
Oh, we haven't done this in a very long time. For generations, Baptists have been known as "people of the book". Let's not be strangers to this book.
I want to draw your attention to the first half of this beautiful psalm. One of the better guesses is that this psalm was spoken aloud as the faithful made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Like the last word in the second line, there is an almost dreamy feel to this first half of the psalm. Perhaps we could read it aloud together:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
'The Lord has done great things for them.'
3The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
Let's take note that the first half of this psalm is all dreamy joy … it's all festivity and happiness. These joyous cries of pilgrims became, in time, liturgical words of celebration that got repeated many times within the worship of the Temple … of ancient Israel. In worship, it was important to recount the mighty acts of God … to tell of God's goodness and faithfulness … to recall the times when God tore open the heavens and came down, answering the cry we heard from Isaiah in the first week of Advent. These recollections of God's presence and God's power were important acts of worship. This was nourishment for the faith of the worshipping people. This was how the people of God bound and re-bound themselves to God's own being: by reminding themselves that God had been good to them … that God had been faithful to them … that the living God had acted on their behalf.
We see this elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures. In the midst the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5, the children of Israel are reminded:
Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm;
And so the people sang and prayed aloud: When GOD restored the fortunes of Zion. They recognized that this was not their own doing, their own wiliness and skill and strength. GOD had acted and the people rejoiced.
There are such things as "gilded memories" … memories with a rosy glow … of good times … better times … you know it's interesting that many people look back at the most difficult times of the depression with a surprising warmth. It's not simply that they have selectively remembered this time—though some of that occurs. Sprinkled among the harsh memories are quite a number of legitimately good ones. There really were some upsides to that very down time … some blessings and benefits among the economic wreckage. Families drew closer, the littlest things could become luxuries, far less in life was taken for granted. And when the depression ended … it was as though a time of exile was over.
The real sharp ones here will remember Franklin Delano Roosevelt's campaign song in his successful bid for the presidency in 1932—not that any of us here were of a voting age yet, though Sue Smith and Bea Lewis were. FDR's campaign song was a song written just as the stock markets failed and the economy was tanking and entering a tail-spin that would last for a decade. Many fortunes were lost and socialites and stockbrokers could be found in soup lines. But just as this was beginning, a couple of musicians teamed up to create a bouncy, optimistic song that went:
So long sad times
Go long bad times
We are rid of you at last
Howdy gay times
Cloudy gray times
You are now a thing of the past
Happy days are here again
The skies above are clear again
So let's sing a song of cheer again
Happy days are here again
Think of the famous photos you've seen of wars ending—particularly World War II … sailors grabbing kisses from flag-waving bystanders, people dancing in the streets … in one voice, people sang songs like: "Happy Days are Here Again". (Following worship, Stu Harris shared with me that while searching an ancient wreck (c.e. 350) in the Mediterranean Sea, they found a Roman coin with Constantine's image on it and an inscription that read: "Happy days are here again." True story.)
Think of the passage of Civil Rights Act … or the granting of women's suffrage … the signing of peace treaties or anything that signaled the end of a period of decline or decay or oppression or suffering—in these times we do well to sing: "Happy days are here again …" and we come close to understanding the genuine, unfettered JOY of Psalm 126. And in times such as these, as people of faith, we do well to sing with the psalmist and the worshippers in the Temple and with the people returning from long, painful exile: "When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were our mouths filled with laughter … the Lord has done great things for us."
That's the first half of Psalm 126 … this song of pilgrim joy, the song of returning exiles. But let's take a look at the first line of the second half of the psalm.
4Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5That phrase in the middle of Psalm 126 that helps us "locate" the psalmist—or at least helps us locate the one who put the finishing touches on this psalm as we now have it. The first half of the psalm is clearly an expression of unfettered JOY. But now, the second half that's meant to be of a piece with the first starts with: "Restore our fortunes, O Lord …". Listen carefully to those words. Something has changed.
I'm sure you've seen this with people … with friends and acquaintances … a subtle, but unmistakable change in demeanor that lets you know that former good fortunes have changed. "How're doing?" "Oh … not bad." And that gap between "Oh" and "not bad" opens up in you, if you're paying attention, an awareness of some shift in the person before you. "Are things OK?" "They're … alright." And you want to say: "Yeah, but things were GREAT not so long ago …"
The first lines of the psalm speak of God having restored the fortunes of Zion … and now the psalmist is in that somewhat difficult and awkward place of needing that restoration once more. Things have changed. Fortunes have changed. There's a new problem, a new challenge, another exile, another threat, another gloomy prospect on the horizon. Times have gone bad again and the frustration is setting in.
The happy days are gone … again … the clouds of doubt and frustration have returned, blotting out the sun, and threatening the hope and the faith of the people.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
Hopefully most of us know well the wonderful Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof. It first hit Broadway in 1964, but has had a number of revivals over the years. The story is about a simple man and his family living in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 1900's. They are Jews living in a small village under the control of the Russian Czar. They live every moment of their lives deeply aware of how insignificant their lives are to those in power. We don't have to injure our brains to think of others who fit this sad statement.
Tevye and his family and fellow villagers are Jews of the "diaspora" … or "the dispersion." The Jewish diaspora occurred when the Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed some 40 years after Jesus' death and Jews scattered across the earth seeking a place to live and practice their faith in peace. It's not hard for us to make the translation here: This is a new exile … the people taken away from their land and their Temple and barely clinging to their traditions in new, unfamiliar and often inhospitable places.
And now we are in Anatevka … it's a shtetl … that's a Yiddish word for a village largely made up of Jews. The residents of that place know not to get too settled in this or any place. They never knew when the Czar would wake up one morning and decide that the Jews under his watch were getting too settled … and move them along somewhere. It was this sad fact that made Tevye explain that "this is why we always wear our hats." They never knew when the next step of their never-ending journey of exile would begin or where it would take them. And while this sermon is NOT about the challenges in the Middle East, we do gain some sense of the significance and importance of ending their exile … their diaspora … and "coming home" to the land they believed was promised to them. Never mind, of course, that in so doing a new diaspora was begun among the land's other non-Jewish occupants.
Fiddler on the Roof takes its name from a painting by Marc Chagall that shows a fiddler merrily fiddling away on a roof in a snowy little village. Chagall was, like Tevye, a Russian Jew living in diaspora. And the village in his painting could have been the shtetl, Anatevka. Chagall included a fiddler in a number of his paintings of Eastern European Jewish life, because the fiddler was a well-known metaphor for survival: survival through tradition and joyfulness, amidst lives of uncertainty and imbalance. You can imagine how precarious it would be to try and fiddle while standing atop a steep, slippery roof. Such was the bitter-sweet, twinkling-eyed humor of those in exile.
Perhaps in our times of exile … our times of feeling and being scattered and blown about … we could use a fiddler on the roof. I believe Marion's available for any kind of occasion—though good luck getting her on your roof. Like Tevye and his villagers, like the too-often exiled people of Israel, and like the psalmist who knew both the past deliverance of old exiles and present pain of new exiles, we need reminders of God's abiding presence that can help us survive in times of trial … times of fragmentation … the lean times of mind, body and soul. And we need more than chirpy little songs like "Happy Days are Here Again", though I'm quite certain that at times it has been sung with an almost sacred joy.
The psalmist ends the psalm with an agricultural vision … a vision of farming … the scattering of seed upon the land in the age-old hope that the seed will bear fruit and insure the survival of those who depend on it. But what funny farmers … these are farmers who are so uncertain of their prospects … so unconvinced of the success of their efforts and the hope of survival … that they carry out their seeds to the field … weeping. They till the earth and set the seed in a state of agony and grief. Their tears water the soil where the seeds have been planted. And they return home with heavy hearts certain that this effort will be their last.
Such is the feeling of those in exile … ANY exile … the sense of hopelessness and despair--even the natural rhythms of nature seem depressed to the point of failure. "O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down" cries Isaiah. "How long, O Lord, how long?" sighs the prophet.
I have dear, but embattled friends who live among us all … but who feel as though they live in an exile of a fashion … who feel not fully at home except perhaps when AT home … friends who long to NOT live in exile within their society … their culture … within their church. They long to live without any particular distinction except for the ways that they are unique like we are all unique. And when these friends find one another, and romance blossoms as it will between two beloved people, they'd like to be … married … just like normal folks … because they ARE normal folks … like you … like me … like us ALL. And though a brief, 6 month window of normalcy opened for them … sadly, at the end of that time … "the people spoke" … "the will of the people was made clear" … and the window slammed shut. And the exile of a fasion that briefly ended began again. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. How long, O Lord, how long?
How do we weather these times? … these times of exile that can come upon any of us at nearly any time? Through the words of the psalmist, we are invited to root our hope in God in our memories of God's faithfulness. We're given this wonderful image of weeping farmers who return to their fields for the time that should've been a season of joyous and grateful harvest … and what to their wondering eyes should appear? Fields that are mature and ripe and full and ready for harvesting. 'How could this be? We'd given up hope. We were sure that we'd been forgotten. We were sure this was our last act.' And instead, with fiddle music swelling up all around them, they sprint back to the village with their arms full of sheaves of wheat … rich, ripe wonderful wheat … their arms full of that which will save them … their arms full of this gracious reminder of God's eternal, everlasting, abundant care and provision that is meant for ALL.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall return with SHOUTS of JOY bearing their sheaves. These are the ones who, in spite of their pain, in spite of their exile, in spite of their memories of past losses, harbor also memories of God's great faithfulness and with these sacred memories ablaze in their hearts, like a Yule log in a fireplace, continue to act in great trust in God … and their trust in God is not in vain.
I received an e-mail this week. This e-mail tells of one great soul who has the faith of a psalmist … the faith of an Isaiah … the faith of young Mary, the mother of Jesus. This is a great soul who has within her deepest places, her inner "holy of holies" the memories of God's great goodness and faithfulness that sustain her against her pain and her losses—and this pain and these losses have been great. I speak again of my cousin Connie. Nearly a year now since her mentally ill son killed her husband and nearly killed Connie. As you might guess, it's been a long exile of a year that saw her finally getting to visit her son, now committed for life to a psychiatric hospital. And where now for Connie? Well … apparently south.
Connie does mission work in Guatemala … serving among the very poor … and this zany cousin of mine, with a whimsy that even her painful exile could not kill, decided to pack some Bellingham, Washington snow all the way to Guatemala so her friends … her Guatemalan family and loved ones, could have a white Christmas.
She writes in her e-mail:
Hola donde Guatemala (¿see me using my great Espanol skills?), (apparently bad "Spanglish" runs in my family),
I just want everyone to know that it is impossible to take snow Guatemala......but....With God, everything is possible! Snowmen were made today in David's home, and he was hit in the shoulder by a snowball!! No one in his family had ever seen snow, or dry ice. A tiny bit of the dry ice was left (David almost touched it with a wet finger!) so we had a fog show on the floor (this made the tiny niño cry). The snow in the tub directly under the dry ice was so cold and hard that it couldn't be removed (it will probably be just right by tonight or tomorrow) but the tub by the vent was just right
I'm having a great time and I love you all!
Connie (the abominable snow sponsor)
Connie says: "With God, everything is possible." And I think she would know. This is, in a phrase, the message of the psalmist to us this day in whatever exile we find ourselves or face: "Take hope … for with God … everything is possible."
This affirmation I'm about to share was not written by Connie … or the psalmist … or my long-suffering friends. But it could have been. It's an Advent affirmation of faith for those who wonder and wait:
When the cold white ice of winter grips me,
when the white shimmering heat of summer melts me,
and I doubt that anything can survive
the extreme of this world's harshness,
I still believe.
Somewhere in the depths of my soul,
despite the evidence, I believe.
I believe that the ruins of life can be rebuilt.
I believe that the tears I shed will water seeds of joy deeply buried.
I believe that the green shoots of God's justice will bear fruit.
I believe that the light that enlightens the world
will pierce the winter's longest night
and eclipse the sun's brightest moments.
I believe that in all circumstances the Light
radiates hope and joy, peace and love,
so that even at my lowest points
I can see.
Even in the palest light of faith,
I can find my way through the shadows.
And for that I give thanks.