Introduction to The Reading

The Psalms, from Psalm 120 to 134, are the sacred songs that the Hebrew people sang as they went up to Jerusalem for the three worship feasts of the year.[1] Concerning authorship, David wrote Psalm 122, 124, 131, and 133. Solomon wrote Psalm 120. The rest of these Psalms, including the “Song of Ascents,” which is Psalm 126, remain anonymous. Yet, these psalms, whether written by David or Solomon or by the Sons of Korah or Asaph or another, remain equally significant sacred texts for the ascent—the upward journey—before each of us. The message of this great psalm, along with the other Psalms of Ascent, speaks to the variety of emotions that come to us as we make our way home, winding our way to Jesus’ second Advent.

Give attention, then, to the inerrant and the infallible word of the living God is found in Psalm 126.

A Song of Ascents. 

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; 

then they said among the nations, 

“The Lord has done great things for them.” 

The Lord has done great things for us; 

we are glad. 

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, 

like streams in the Negev! 

Those who sow in tears 

shall reap with shouts of joy! 

He who goes out weeping, 

bearing the seed for sowing, 

shall come home with shouts of joy, 

bringing his sheaves with him.[2]

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

“All flesh is like grass 

and all its glory like the flower of grass. 

The grass withers, 

and the flower falls, 

25 but the word of the Lord remains forever.” [3]

Let pray.

Introduction

To paraphrase Solomon in Ecclesiastes, “there is a time for sad songs and there is a time for joyful songs.” To be more biblical, we should quote from Romans 12:15, which says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

Of course, the important part is knowing when to do one and when to do another.

There are some songs that are just really good highway songs, road songs, traveling songs.  I guess some of my fondest memories have been traveling across the country with the window down, the radio blasting out a good road song, and feeling the freedom and joy of the journey. This past week my son was helping to move his friend from Washington DC to Ohio. I sent him a link to a song by the folk singer-songwriter, Tom Waits: “Ole 55.”  The song, recorded later by the Eagles, as that familiar refrain which is such a good traveling song, “now the sun is coming up, riding with Lady luck, freeway cars and trucks . . .”  Yeah. That’s a good one.

When you’re talking about road songs, Psalm 126 is a good one.

The text of Psalm 126 is most likely referring to the post -exilic restoration of Jerusalem and, thus, of Israel’s place, Israel’s home. After Babylonian captivity, Psalm 126 affords an expression of pronounced joy in being able to worship God unreservedly. This is a traveling song. This is a road song. And this is a jubilant song.

The truth is that when Jesus Christ came he brought joy to the journey for all of those who trust in him.

To affirm the Biblical truth that Jesus brings joy is not to deny the tears of life, weeping that might happen as a result of trials and tussles along the way. Rather, this song gets at the core of the gospel: that the very things that seek to destroy us become the very things that God uses to save us. As the text says, “those who so in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!”

I can’t help but think of my friend, Michael Card, and his wonderful song, “Joy in the Journey.” The lines that Mike wrote are so powerful and reflect the Songs of Ascent:

There is a joy in the journey,

There’s a light we can love on the way.

There is a wonder and wildness to life,

And freedom for those who obey.

All those who seek it shall find it,

A pardon for all who believe.

Hope for the hopeless and sight for the blind

To all who’ve been born of the Spirit

And who share incarnation with him;

Who belong to eternity, stranded in time,

And weary of struggling with sin.

Forget not the hope

That’s before you,

And never stop counting the cost.

Remember the hopelessness when you were lost?[4]

Now I’m not being Pollyanna. I know that the road of life is filled with unexpected detours, existential road construction, and unforeseen accidents, even, abrupt pile-ups with other people, and head-on collisions with the “devil, the flesh, and the world.” Highway carnage as well as fender-benders abound. But I also know that there is a God who is with us along the way. There is a God who came to us in human flesh and who said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” He is God who is with us along the journey. If you have trusted in Jesus Christ and received him as your Savior and are following him as your Lord, then you can be assured he is with you in the journey in his advent into your life certainly brings joy in the journey. Now. How so? The passage before us in Psalm 126 reveals two great manifestations of Jesus’s advent that brings joy in the journey.

The great manifestation of His Advent that brings joy in the journey is this:

1. Jesus gives joy in the journey through his redemption. (Versus 1-3)

The Psalmist enjoins the people of Israel to remember how God has “restored the fortunes of Zion.” In fact, I can say from the text, that God’s redemption of Israel was a veritable dream come true. Look at the latter part of verse one: “we were like those who dream.”

The psalmist says that as a result of God’s restoration of Israel out of her bondage — her redemption by the hand of God – their mouths were filled with laughter and their tongues with shouts of joy. More than that, the redemption created testimony to the nations. It is so very true that the most effective mission to the ends of the earth happens when God has redeemed our own souls from the auction block of sin. It is then that we are motivated by what God has done in our own lives to share his good news with others.

Now I must say that I cherish verse three. It says, “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.”

Do you remember the story of the Man of the Tombs?  In Mark chapter 5, Jesus had crossed over the Sea of Galilee to the land of the Gadarenes. There, our blessed Savior encountered a wild-man that everyone else avoided. As the singer-songwriter Bob Bennett called him in the title of his wonderful song, this was the “Man of the Tombs.’  This was a poor chap possessed by demons who called themselves “Legion,” for they were so many. This poor fellow cut himself on the ragged side of the tombstones.  We can imagine that with hair mangled, slashes and bruises all over his naked body, and wailing out mournful noises — existential cries from the depth of his soul, cries like a wolf howling at the moon without any understanding whatsoever about what he is barking at – this prisoner of Hell lived in abject isolation, the cemetery, the land of the dead, being the only fitting dwelling place for this zombie like creature. His own sorrows devoured his soul, like a horrible infectious disease eating away at his flesh. The Man of the Tombs hated himself and he hated others. Yet, when Jesus Christ came to him, and the demons cried out against Jesus, recognizing his authority, the Lord have mercy and cast the demons out and sent them into the pigs who went over the cliff. And that man of the tombs, once naked and running through the graveyard, became of right mind. His soul, which had been boiling over with self-loathing, was stilled as Christ stilled the angry waves of the sea. What did this fellow do? He came before Jesus and he said “I want to be with you. I want to go with you wherever you go.” But Jesus knew that the best thing that could happen to him and to others was for him to return clothed and in his right mind; returned to his own family and his own community. And he did! And what we read? “And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.”

The folk and gospel singer-songwriter, Bob Bennett, wrote a remarkable song, “Man of the Tombs.”[5] “Man of the Tombs” is a song which began as a dirge but ended as a praise.  Throughout the song, the refrain reveals the soul of the singer, “man of the tombs I am.” But that is not how it finishes.  The closing line brings the Biblical “rest of the story:”

“Underneath this thing that I once was

Now I’m a man of flesh and blood

I have a life beyond the grave

I found my heart, I can now be saved

No need to fear, I am not afraid

This Man of sorrows took my pain

He comes to take away our sin

And bear its marks upon His skin

I’m telling you this story because

Man of the tombs I was.”

“Man of the tombs . . . I was.” [my emphasis]

My beloved in Christ, Psalm 126 verses one through three do not disregard nor deny the dirge that is so often marking the movements in the journey of life. It speaks of captivity. It recalls the bondage that they were in. Yet it moves from a dirge to a song of joy: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad”

“Man of the tombs I was.”

The great hope of the Christian faith is that we do not remain as we are. If you have trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ you may have some detergents in the past, but because of your liberation from the auction block of sin, because of the restoration of the fortunes of Zion in your own life, there is a vibrant new movement in the Magnus opus of your life: a song of joy, song of redemption, a song that concludes with the words “we are glad.”

If it seems like such a dream, the vision of the new life that you only imagine that you’re not sure could ever be, then you really can relate to Psalm 126. Or even the holy author of this sacred song began by saying “we were like those who dream.” I present this text to you on this third Sunday in Advent so that you can dream: dream of your redemption song, dream of the sure and certain day when you shall sing, “the Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.”

There is a second manifestation of the advantage of Jesus Christ that brings joy in the journey.

2. Jesus gives joy in the journey through his restoration. (Versus 4-6)

Verse four is a bridge from redemption to restoration: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev!”

Once again, we see that the Bible does not dismiss the icy-dark shadows of life when it speaks of the warm-golden sunbeams of light. The Bible does not ignore the pain when it announces the promise. Rather, the Word of God is categorically concentrated on life’s realities, good and bad. We cannot even understand the fullness of what joy really means unless we have experienced sorrow and the sadness that precedes it, longs for it. The phrase “streams in the Negev,” is referring to fresh channels of life-giving spiritual water carved out by the grace of God in the dry riverbed days of trials in the deserts of our lives. The Negev is the desert and semi-desert part of southern Israel. Most of the land is infertile due to the harsh, dusty-dry environment. However, just as the seemingly lifeless desert can bloom with a myriad of unusually picturesque wildflowers, so, also, can the wadis, the sun-bleached, bone-dry rocky valleys, be transformed from dry riverbeds to fast-running rivers; literally, “streams in the desert.”

Thus, God says to you “he who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” What a blessed promise! We begin the days with only seeds. We conclude our days by bringing in the bundles of fruitful grains—the sheaves—of blessings. How did the American frontier Gospel song put it? “Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves, we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”[6] Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, appearing in time, witnessed by poor shepherds and Gentile kings, accompanied by the glorious refrains of heavenly angels accompanied by the quiet lowing of cattle, the contented bleating of sheep, is the fulfillment and the personification of “streams in the desert.”

Someone once came to me and spoke of her difficult childhood of pain and loss. She spoke of her past as if the past were with her “world without end.” She told her story as if the little girl inside—the broken, wounded, lost little girl—was speaking. I thought of the Sarah Bareilles song from her Broadway play, “Waitress:”[7]

. . . I still remember that girl

She’s imperfect, but she tries

She is good, but she lies

She is hard on herself

She is broken and won’t ask for help

She is messy, but she’s kind

She is lonely most of the time

She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie

She is gone, but she used to be mine.[8]

As I sought to assess, diagnose, and Biblically treat this woman’s spiritual wounds, I told her, “I believe that based upon the gospel of Jesus Christ that the very little girl —the child who is wounded and hurt, the child who lingers at the door of your life like a beggar—is a gift of inexplicable grace who is here to take you by the hand and lead you to the foot of the cross where you will find restoration. The little girl who haunts you is the child who leads you to the place of healing.” I could tell her that — I proclaimed this to you with certain hope — because this is the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The cross, sign and symbol of pain and defeat, has become the symbol of salvation and the very things that come against us, through faith in Jesus Christ and through His power unleashed in us, become the things that leads us home.

Conclusion

Psalm 126 is a wonderful Psalm of Ascent, a traveling song, a song that lets you roll down the windows on your journey of life, feel the wonder and wildness of life’s wind in your face, and listen to the promises of God turned up and booming from your soul: “He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”

There is, indeed, a season for singing a sad song and a season for singing a glad song. And knowing when to sing one and when to sing the other is important.

Well, you would certainly think that after a life that was capped, not by a long retirement with good health and happiness, but, rather a cutting off of life by a year started with the announcement of a dreaded disease that led to suffering and an “early” death, the most fitting song would be something akin to a lament. But our friend had followed the Lord Jesus Christ along the road. His passing was but a journey through a mysterious portal that leads to everlasting life. Though his body failed him, his heart overflowed with the triumphant promises of his God and Savior Jesus Christ. At his funeral, by his request and request of his family, the last him that was some was a joyful song, a glad so:

O victory in Jesus,

My Savior, forever.

He sought me and bought me

With His redeeming blood;

He loved me ere I knew Him

And all my love is due Him,

He plunged me to victory,

Beneath the cleansing flood.[9]

No matter where you are on the road of life — maybe you’re just beginning your journey, maybe you are finding yourself in the desert of the journey, or maybe you feel your approaching the conclusion of your journey — I have a “link” to a good road song for you: a “Song of Ascents”, a song of redemption, and a song of restoration. And I have an invitation for you to come: Come join the band of fellow travelers as we follow Jesus who is truly the One who is our “joy in the journey.”

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] “Three times thou shalt keep a feast unto me in the year.  The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep: seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, at the time appointed in the month Abib (for in it thou camest out from Egypt); and none shall appear before me empty: and the feast of harvest, the firstfruits of thy labours, which thou sowest in the field: and the feast of ingathering, at the end of the year, when thou gatherest in thy labours out of the field.  Three times in the year all thy males shall appear before the Lord GOD” (Exodus 23:14-17 KJV).

[2]  The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ps 126.

[3]  Ibid., 1 Peter 1:24–25.

[4] Michael Card, writer and artist, “Joy in the Journey,” in Scribbling in the Sand: The Best of Michael Card, Live, Michael Card, M2 Communications, LLC, 2002, CD. ℗© 1994 Sparrow Records.

[5] Bob Bennett, “Man of the Tombs,” recorded 1989, in Lord of the Past: A Compilation, Bob Bennett, 1989, vinyl recording.

[6] “Bringing in the Sheaves,” by Reverend Knowles Shaw (1834 –1878).

[7] The 2015 Broadway play written by Sarah Bareilles. See Lorne Manly, “Sara Bareilles Takes Her Slice of Broadway With ‘Waitress’,” The New York Times, March 17, 2016, accessed December 17, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/theater/sara-bareilles-takes-her-slice-of-broadway-with-waitress.html.

[8] “She Used to be Mine,” by Sara Bareilles and Jason Mraz, writers, What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress, recorded September 25, 2015, 2015, CD.

[9] Words and Music by E.M. Bartlett © 1939. Administrated by Integrated Copyright Group, Inc. All rights reserved.