So we have come to the end of our current look through Songs of Life. Remember at the beginning I said that one way of entering into the psalms is to see them falling into three broad groups – orientation, disorientation and re-orientation. This last psalm we are considering reflects all of those stages. This cycle of orientation, disorientation and re-orientation, was one that the people of Israel went through on more than one occasion. Remember the psalms were written over many years by different people, reflecting the circumstances in which they found themselves and particular periods of their history. However, they also transcend the years and speak into our lives – and Psalm 126 does just that.
I could have called this the Dreamer’s Psalm. It is a community thanksgiving psalm that looks back to the time of restoration and looks forward to when God will do it again and the nations will say, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ So before we begin, what dreams do you have for the future? Dreams express hope and often keep us motivated and moving forward. They may never materialise completely, but they keep us focussed and sometimes even give a reason for getting up in the morning. Before last Sunday evening, England had the dream of winning the Cricket World Cup and did so by a whisker. However, it was a dream that had sustained successive teams and building of teams over many years. The dream now is to win the Ashes. Without that dream, without the hope, then the players might as well have stayed in the changing room. It is the dream of cures for diseases that drive people to research and seek a pain free future. It was the dream of reaching the stars that people landed on the moon, and continue to dream of returning and populating space. These dreams give people a reason to face each day and provide purpose for their lives. However, ultimately they do not answer the question why we are and why we should bother.
When people have lost all hope then the only thing left is despair. That is where Psalm 88 leaves us. Without hope people wither. As Christians we have the ultimate hope of the return of Jesus; we dream of this happening in our time, although if you consider Revelation it will be a challenging and difficult time for all.
This psalm worships from a re-orientation of their understanding and with a dream for the future. It comes in two parts: 1-3 is looking back; 4 and the first part of the other verses reflects disorientation; then 4 and the second part of the other verses reflects worship in the new understanding – the now but not yet we often talk about in relation to the coming of the Kingdom of God. In looking back there is recognition of what God has done for the people and it is the basis for hope for the future. The time reflected here is probably the return period of Ezra-Nehemiah. The psalm reflects the excitement as it talks about the laughter and the joy expressed in song. It was as though they were walking in a dream – were they really going to be allowed to return to their homeland and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and the temple? Could this really be true? It was so astounding that even the nations recognised it, although as we read in Nehemiah, they weren’t particularly pleased and tried sabotage tactics including the spreading of mis-information to the emperor.
As I have said previously, remembering and reciting the acts of God is a valid form of worship. It recognises the involvement of God in the world; it places thanksgiving in the right place; it encourages us to look forward and to dream; it reminds us that we have a heritage that spans the ages and will stretch into the future. It lifts our heads in the present when we are feeling that things are not what they used to be and perhaps God has stopped working. Looking back to what has been done gives the confidence to ask God to act again.
What are the markers of God’s action in your life to which you look? I can think of very clear times when I know God has been at work, has gone before us and on that basis I trust Him for the future. At the times when I am not feeling as positive as I could be, Wendy reminds me of what God has done and how he has led us as a family and impacted our lives. It is important for us to be able to do this. However, we can’t live in the past. Nostalgia is enjoyable for a time and a helpful reminder, but always looking to the past prevents us from dreaming for the future. Churches can get very nostalgic about what we used to do, forgetting that our grandparents did exactly the same thing when we were young and their parents and grandparents did it when they were young. Yes we praise God for what has been done in the past, and we look forward to what God will do now and in the future. Churches can rest in the laurels of their history and the name they have established, without realising that time has moved on and so has the context in which we are worshipping and living as Christians.
So Psalm 126 looks back and worships God for what has been done in the past and it pleads with God for restoration or revival for the future. When the people pray ‘Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb!’ Things are not brilliant and they are calling out to God for a miracle of new life, because things look pretty dead at the moment. This is the comparison with Negev. It is the wilderness and everything is dry and arid until suddenly there is a downpour and for a while the desert blooms. Bringing the wilderness back to life is impossible without God. It looks an impossibility, but God can do it. There is a sense in the cycle of the psalms that each generation needs to call out to God for restoration, for revival. Real faith and trust in God has no grandchildren. Each generation has to respond themselves.
This psalm could be a picture of the church in Britain. We have in the past rested on our laurels and our Christian history and we have even expected the state and do expect the state to defend a Christian outlook. This is often represented in our desire to see Britain as a Christian country again, but which Christian era are we talking about? Is it that of 1970s or 1950s? Is it that of the time when thousands flocked to hear Spurgeon preach or are we thinking of the Wesleyan revival? Perhaps it is what we do at Emmanuel: we rest on the laurels of the past and look fondly back. But we aren’t in the year 2000 or 1990 or 1980.
Like the people of the psalm we need to call out to God to move in us, but it all begins with the local church. We look at what God has done, and then pray that God will move again in 2019 Britain, Gravesend, Emmanuel Baptist Church; but what was appropriate then will be very different now – although the message and the call to repentance remain the same. Revival means different things to different cultures, but the revival for which the psalm is praying is for the people of God – that is where it begins. Let’s discover again the excitement and the passion of being a follower of Jesus Christ now, not looking back to the past. We need God to act in our time in a way that reaches people now, not in the way that was appropriate for a bygone era.
So the psalmist dreams of that miracle of restoration using farming imagery. It is the picture of the labour intensive process of going up and down the field sowing the seed, and perhaps it is with a history of failed or weak crops that the farmer sows in tears. However, he looks to rejoice before God because the harvest is abundant. It is in the context of what God has done before, calling on God to work a miracle now that the psalmist is able to lift his head to the future. Surely that is what we do as we choose to worship, because God is God.
As Christians we are dreamers. We are dreamers based on the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of his future return. Paul reflects this as he talks about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. We look forward to that glorious time of resurrection described by Paul:
What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
The reason we have confidence in the resurrection, is because Jesus was raised and he promised that he would take us to be with him. We look forward to the restoration found in the new heaven and the new earth described in Revelation, in which we enjoy the presence of God for eternity.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
We celebrate this through communion and we pray for its fulfilment.
Don’t forget the psalms – they are songs of life for all time. Don’t avoid the difficult ones – wrestle with them. Write your own song of life rooted in your experience and as an expression of worship to God – and perhaps share it as a testimony with the church. Dream for Emmanuel Baptist Church, pray for God to be at work among us, and be willing to be part of what is happening. As Paul said to the Christians in Rome:
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.