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Psalm 126: A Psalm For Captives Set Free

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion” can also be translated, “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion.” We who have just been set free from a pandemic lockdown can just barely relate to the captives who returned from Babylon who composed this psalm. It seems like forever since we’ve been able to gather together in church, or go out to eat, or go to a playground, or go to school, or get our hair cut or our knee replaced, or watch sports, or shop for anything other than “essentials.” We’ve seen travel grind almost to a halt.

We will always remember the toilet paper panic; we never thought we’d see the day when the market price of a roll of toilet paper would be higher than the market price of a barrel of oil. The saddest part has been that we’ve seen so many businesses shut down, so many farm animals and so much milk gone to waste, so many proms, graduations, weddings, and funerals that never really happened, and so many of our liberties suspended, all based on guesses and fears that turned out to be highly exaggerated.

What we’ve been thru was nothing, compared to what the people of Judah went thru. The folks who sang this psalm were ripped out of their homeland and dragged 800 miles away to resettlement camps in southern Iraq. They had spent 70 years in exile. Probably few of the original exiles who remembered Zion were still alive. Most of them were children and grandchildren who had never known any home other than Babylon.

Not everyone chose to go home again. For most of them, Babylon was the only home they’d ever known. It was not “home sweet home,” but many of the Judeans had prospered and become successful in this foreign land. Why leave? But some of them never lost their passion for their homeland and never gave up their hope of someday returning home again.

So when Cyrus king of Persia comes along and conquers Babylon and decrees that the Jews are free to go home (“the lockdown is over!”), the news was too much to take in. It took the exiles more than 15 years to snap out of their “stuck-here” mindset and get organized and hire the moving vans to make the trip home.

When they arrived back in the land of Judah, the song says, “We were like those who dream.” The people say, “This is unreal – this can’t be happening. Is this really the land for which we longed this past 70 years? Pinch me!” We have a clue how they felt. Can it be we are now free to move about the country? Did all this really happen? It must have been a dream!

Since when had an exiled nation ever been set free to go home? This was unprecedented in the ancient Near East! Even the Exodus from Egypt was not quite the same. No wonder it says, “Then they said among the nations, The Lord has done great things for them!” The singers of this psalm agree: “The Lord has done great things for us. We are glad!”

Now is the time for us to remember and give thanks. The Lord has gotten us thru this bizarre interruption in our lives. The Lord has protected us from an invisible threat to our lives, a threat we could reduce but never truly eliminate. Only God can protect us from every possible way a virus could break thru to us, and if we get sick, only God can keep such an illness from shutting down our lungs. And only God could overcome the barriers that have kept us from opening up again. For all these things, we can give thanks and be glad.

It’s not like we haven’t been here before. The Spanish flu, two World Wars, and the American Civil War come to mind. Each of these disasters we survived, but in each case, life would never again be the same. The same is true today. How long until we will be at ease without so-called social distancing or the constant washing of hands?

Life would never again be the same for the returned exiles of Judah, either. They returned to an absolute mess. Their Temple and their holy city had been bulldozed, and their lands had been given to others. (Likewise, Jews released from Nazi concentration camps returned to find that their homes were occupied by new owners.) For the folks in Psalm 126, Judah was their ancient home, but even if they could find title to their land, their economy and infrastructure were in ruins. How do we survive here in this desolate land that was once ours, now that we are back home again?

And so, from the gladness they felt because of the freedom God had given them to return to see their homeland once again, the singers of today’s psalm turn to the second half of their song: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord!” We need help! There is so much we need to rebuild. And resources are hard to come by. And without a crop in the field yet, we are constantly 3 meals away from meltdown.

Today, the challenges we face are nowhere near as monumental as the challenges faced by the returned exiles in Psalm 126, another reason we can be glad. And yet we too can sing with the folks in Psalm 126, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord!” All of us who have lived thru this pandemic have endured a major setback. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost who needn’t have died. And even more livelihoods have been irreparably damaged. How many jobs have been lost? How many small businesses will never come back? (How much of this damage was absolutely necessary? And how much of it was too much trust in experts whose advice was more guesswork than science?) And how much damage has been done to our Constitutional freedoms? Who knows how soon we might be here again, with leaders demanding that we give up our freedoms for the sake of an emergency? How do we balance lives and livelihoods?

Just as we prayed for God to protect the lives of those threatened by this unpredictable and often deadly disease, now we must pray for God to help us rebuild the livelihoods of the huge number of those who have lost jobs and businesses because of this plague. Printing money won’t do it. Wise leadership decisions may help. My family has eaten out 3 times as much as usual, to help local restaurants survive. But there is only so much we can do. Here we see that, just as ultimately only God can heal the human body, ultimately only God can restore an economy. Only God can pour out the resources on which we depend for our lives.

And so both we and the singers of this psalm join together to sing: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like wadis in the Negev Desert!” Flash floods in the desert are dramatic. But it takes a flood to recharge the thirsty ground. The newly-returned exiles needed all the rain they could get to grow a crop to survive on. Likewise, it’s going to take a flood of economic forces to restore our economy to where jobs and productive businesses and livelihoods can flourish once again.

“May those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of joy!” Back then, the local Canaanites had a weird ritual of weeping while they sowed grain, a fertility ritual for a dying and rising god. So as they planted seed in the ground, they wept. Yahweh throws Baal out the window, but the weeping habit survived. We don’t weep when we plant seed, although if you’re not sure whether it’s going to produce, it’s hard to bury that seed in the ground because that means the less grain you have to eat. But if you had a special seed, like a bristlecone pine, or a seed from the olive orchard in Gethsemane, it’d be hard to bury that seed in the ground. What if it doesn’t grow? (And if you’ve planted tens of thousands of dollars of that seed, I might cry, too.)

We have no problem identifying with “those who sow in tears.” Times are tough right now. People are hurting. People are grieving for lives that have been lost, jobs and small businesses that have been lost, and celebrations that never happened. And none of us can see the future clear enough to know that our livelihoods are going to recover.

So today’s psalm ends in faith by declaring that “those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy.” It says, “The one who goes out weeping, bearing the bag of seed, shall most certainly come with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves.” (This psalm is our source for our famous hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves.”) The last line of the psalm uses a verb form that triple-underlines the verb: “He shall most certainly come with shouts of joy.”

What a declaration of faith, in the face of economic devastation in Judah in the late 500’s BC! And what a declaration of faith for us, we who do not have it anywhere nearly as bad as they did. I don’t want to minimize the fact that times are tough for the moment, but we need to sing with the folks who first sang Psalm 126, “The Lord has done great things for us. We are glad!”

We are thankful to be alive and well today! We are thankful that with God as the One from whom all blessings flow, we have what we need to rebuild our land. And we are so thankful that we are here together again to celebrate the Holy Supper of our Lord! To do so online gave Christ an opportunity to break the barrier of distance and be present with us as we took the bread and the cup, but to be present here and share from the bread and the cup together is everything that God intended the Lord’s Supper to be.