with shouts of joy…

Today we continue taking a look at the Psalms of Ascent – those fifteen Psalms that follow immediately after Psalm 119. Last week we took up Psalm 121 and this week we turn to Psalm 126. Doing so, I’d like to begin a little differently this morning. I’d like to begin by sharing, somewhat a length, a modern version of the story of the Prodigal Son – a modern version as told by the American journalist and author Phillip Yancey. I trust it will become evident why we begin in this way. Here is Yancey’s version of the story of the prodigal. [The original version is on the Christianity Today website, here and there is more on Yancey here]. 

A young girl grows up on a cherry orchard just above Traverse City, Michigan. Her parents, a bit old-fashioned, tend to overreact to her nose ring, the music she listens to, and the length of her skirts. They ground her a few times, and she seethes inside. “I hate you!” she screams at her father when he knocks on the door of her room after an argument, and that night she acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed scores of times. She runs away. 

She has visited Detroit only once before, on a bus trip with her church youth group to watch the Tigers play. Because newspapers in Traverse City report in lurid detail the gangs, drugs, and violence in downtown Detroit, she concludes that is probably the last place her parents will look for her. California, maybe, or Florida, but not Detroit.

Her second day there she meets a man who drives the biggest car she’s ever seen. He offers her a ride, buys her lunch, arranges a place for her to stay. He gives her some pills that make her feel better than she’s ever felt before. She was right all along, she decides: Her parents were keeping her from all the fun.

The good life continues for a month, two months, a year. The man with the big car—she calls him “Boss”–teaches her a few things that men like. Since she’s underage, men pay a premium for her. She lives in a penthouse and orders room service whenever she wants. Occasionally she thinks about the folks back home, but their lives now seem so boring that she can hardly believe she grew up there. She has a brief scare when she sees her picture printed on the back of a milk carton with the headline, “Have you seen this child?” But by now she has blond hair, and with all the makeup and body-piercings nobody would mistake her for a child. Besides, most of her friends are runaways, and nobody squeals in Detroit.

After a year, the first sallow signs of illness appear, and it amazes her how fast the boss turns mean. “These days, we can’t mess around,” he growls, and before she knows it she’s out on the street without a penny to her name. She still turns a couple of tricks a night, but they don’t pay much, and all the money goes to support her drug habit. When winter blows in she finds herself sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores. “Sleeping” is the wrong word—a teenage girl at night in downtown Detroit can never relax her guard. Dark bands circle her eyes. Her cough worsens.

One night, as she lies awake listening for footsteps, all of a sudden everything about her life looks different. She no longer feels like a woman of the world. She feels like a little girl, lost in a cold and frightening city. She begins to whimper. Her pockets are empty and she’s hungry. She needs a fix. She pulls her legs tight underneath her and shivers under the newspapers she’s piled atop her coat. Something jolts a synapse of memory and a single image fills her mind: of May in Traverse City, when a million cherry trees bloom at once, with her golden retriever dashing through the rows and rows of blossomy trees in chase of a tennis ball.

God, why did I leave? she says to herself, and pain stabs at her heart. My dog back home eats better than I do now. She’s sobbing, and she knows in a flash that more than anything else in the world she wants to go home.

Three straight phone calls, three straight connections with the answering machine. She hangs up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she says, “Dad, Mom, it’s me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a bus up your way, and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.”

It takes about seven hours for a bus to make all the stops between Detroit and Traverse City, and during that time she realizes the flaws in her plan. What if her parents are out of town and miss the message? Shouldn’t she have waited another day or so until she could talk to them? Even if they are home, they probably wrote her off as dead long ago. She should have given them some time to overcome the shock.

Her thoughts bounce back and forth between those worries and the speech she is preparing for her father. “Dad, I’m sorry. I know I was wrong. It’s not your fault, it’s all mine. Dad, can you forgive me?” She says the words over and over, her throat tightening even as she rehearses them. She hasn’t apologized to anyone in years.

The bus has been driving with lights on since Bay City. Tiny snowflakes hit the road, and the asphalt steams. She’s forgotten how dark it gets at night out here. A deer darts across the road and the bus swerves. Every so often, a billboard. A sign posting the mileage to Traverse City. Oh, God.

When the bus finally rolls into the station, its air brakes hissing in protest, the driver announces in a crackly voice over the microphone, “Fifteen minutes, folks. That’s all we have here.” Fifteen minutes to decide her life. She checks herself in a compact mirror, smooths her hair, and licks the lipstick off her teeth. She looks at the tobacco stains on her fingertips and wonders if her parents will notice. If they’re there.

She walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect, and not one of the thousand scenes that have played out in her mind prepare her for what she sees. There, in the concrete-walls-and-plastic-chairs bus terminal in Traverse City, Michigan, stands a group of 40 family members—brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and great-grandmother to boot. They are all wearing ridiculous-looking party hats and blowing noisemakers, and taped across the entire wall of the terminal is a computer-generated banner that reads “Welcome home!”

Out of the crowd of well-wishers breaks her dad. She looks through tears and begins the memorized speech, “Dad, I’m sorry. I know …

He interrupts her. “Hush, child. We’ve got no time for that. No time for apologies. You’ll be late for the party. A banquet’s waiting for you at home.”

————————

From Psalm 126:

            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;

            Restore our fortunes, O Lord,

               like the watercourses in the Negeb.

            May those who sow in tears

               reap with shouts of joy.

Psalm 126, like all of the Psalms, is Hebrew poetry. It is poetry rooted in the narrative of a particular people – poetry rooted in a story that is broad and deep and long. The pilgrims who sing the Psalms of Ascent on the way to Jerusalem – they know the narrative of their people – they know the narrative of God with them – they know the ways God has protected, saved, healed, blessed – and so they sing their song of hopeful joy.

When we approach various texts of scripture, we sometimes like to keep the text at arms length from ourselves – we aren’t comfortable getting too personal with the text. When we approach various texts of scripture we sometimes like to hold at a distance the realities and emotions and faith embodied in that text – we aren’t comfortable getting too personal in our spirituality.

One way of keeping the text at a distance is to approach it analytically. We hold up the scriptural text as an object to be analyzed or investigated. Perhaps looking at its grammar, or at the translation of various words, or at its poetic structure, or at its original historical context… In Psalm 126, in fact, there is much to look at when it comes to these various levels of analysis. We could take an analytical approach in order to keep ourselves safely at a distance from the text – to hold off on any personal engagement with the realities and emotions and faith embodied in that text.

But Psalm 126 is not a text that can be held at any kind of distance – like all the Psalms in fact, it is a Psalm that is intended to connect with our life, our story. In an ultimate sense, our Christian witness is that Psalm 126 connects with our lives because the restoration of which it speaks, the new day to which it alludes, and homecoming toward which it reaches have been given in Jesus Christ.

In the Negeb desert of southern Israel there are dry river beds – wadis. And for most of the year, year after year, those river beds are dusty, rocky, and sandy. But from time to time, during the winter rains, water fills those dry river beds and for a brief and amazing time, they will spring to life. Green plants and even flowers will arise where it seemed more than impossible.

Where sorrow seemed the order of the day, joy becomes possible – where alienation was our lot, we find ourselves at home – where hunger gnawed at us, food is set on the table. The pilgrims going up to Jerusalem pray, through Psalm 126: “Restore our fortunes O Lord – bless us O Lord – may our lives become like the watercourses in the Nebeg.”

            O Lord, bring joy as you have in the past.

            O Lord, provide food as you have in the past.

            O Lord, bring us home as you have in the past.

The backdrop of this text is an experience of drought and hunger, an experience of homelessness in a strange city, an experience of darkness and fear. But the Psalm points to what God has done and will ultimately do. Indeed, in Jesus Christ our hospitable and generous God has answered the prayer and longing of these pilgrims. In Christ our hospitable and generous God brings life out of death, gives joy to those who are sorrowing and puts up a banner in a dilapidated bus terminal that says ‘Welcome home.”

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;

            Restore our fortunes, O Lord,

               like the watercourses in the Negeb.

            May those who sow in tears

               reap with shouts of joy 

Ultimately, the story of the prodigal daughter is our story. And because that story, which traces a path from alienation to belonging – because it is our story, then Psalm 126 becomes your Psalm and my Psalm – our song of hope and joy and celebration. God’s restoration has come.

But of course it isn’t always evident to us that the story of the prodigal daughter is our story. In our life we may never have felt terribly far from God – we may not feel like we ever wandered away in any significant sense. In many ways it isn’t obvious to us that we are that young woman getting off the bus in Traverse City, in desperate need of a place of welcome but uncertain whether we will find it. Yet as long as we have a hard time seeing ourselves in the story of the prodigal daughter, we will also have a hard time getting personal with the joy and hope announced in Psalm 126.

What are we to do, then? Well, as I suggested last week – one thing we must do is to stay with the text – to live with the text – to find it often on our lips and in our minds and hearts. Only as live with the text and rehearse the text will it become alive to us and connect with us – only then will it become an expression of who we are. As a result, this week as last week, I have included the Psalm on an insert in the bulletin – and offered the suggestion that you make this Psalm your prayer in the week ahead.

But there’s more to say as I conclude – not only must we remain with the Psalm – letting it dwell in our hearts and minds. We should also perhaps prayerfully seek to find the point of contact  between the text and our own experience. Perhaps our life has not been as dramatic as that of the prodigal son, or as that of the prodigal daughter (though for some perhaps it has). Yet if we look back on our lives, we will inevitably be able to find those moments where the God of our Lord Jesus Christ made a homecoming for us.

Was there a moment when some experience of depression or anxiety finally passed.

Then our life was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.

Was there some moment when your family was expelled from home or country – you became displaced persons – but eventually someone else welcomed you in.

            The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

Was there some moment when you were at a loss as to where your future would take you, but God opened up a clear path in front of you.

Then our tongue was filled with shouts of joy.

Was there some moment when a broken relationships was healed, and words were exchanged for the first time in a long time. God brought restoration.

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

For each one of us the points of reference and resonance between this song and our lives will be different – but for each one of those points of reference and resonance exist. We have an opportunity to find those moment in our story, to consider them, and to respond to them with the words of the Psalm – what a resonance we will discover.

And as we find those points of contact between our story and this Psalm, we might just find ourselves with the big picture touching us in mind and heart – the big picture of a God who cares for those who are lost; of a God who feeds the hungry; of a God comforts the lonely; of a God who forgives sinners; of a God who through his love in Christ Jesus brings us all home.

Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,

shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

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