Our Scripture tonight is from Psalm 126; Psalm 126. It’s in your pew Bible on page 517-518 so if you’d turn with me there. And before I read, let us go to the Lord together in prayer. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, we pray that You will strengthen us by Your Spirit through Your Word this evening. Give us eyes to see Christ by faith. Make us to know His love better. Make our hearts attentive to Your Word and may we behold wondrous things from Your Law. Lord, we thank You that we can meet together at the end of the Lord’s Day like this. We thank You for friendships. We thank You for our family. We pray, Lord, that You would give us this encouragement as we close this Lord’s Day, that as we move into the week, Lord, that we would remember the things You have taught us and that You would comfort us, especially those who are hurting, Lord. We pray this for Christ’s sake. Amen.
Hear the Word of the Lord from 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 Negeb! 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.”
The grass withers and the flower fades, but God’s Word remains forever.
First of all I just want to say what an honor it is to open up God’s Word with y’all this evening. The last three years, y’all have been a great encouragement to our family since we moved back to Jackson and I speak on their behalf to you just to say thank you. In fact this time here, these evening worship services, is some of our sweetest encouragements along the road in ministry. So thank you; thank you so much. We also had the privilege of working at your camp at Twin Lakes where I was also a camper when I was little, and we had a wonderful time. I was the camp pastor and my wife also worked with the female counselors and it was fun getting to see your children and really children from all over the south come to Twin Lakes to have a fun week at camp and to also hear the Gospel. It was a great honor to get to do that. And I can tell you, y’all have a wonderful full time staff there year round and it was a great summer of counselors there as well.
Called to Remember
Tonight, our psalm is about remembering; our song is about remembering. I love The Chronicles of Narnia and in that sixth book, The Silver Chair, it begins this way: Aslan the lion is telling Jill what she and Eustace are to do. He’s giving them a quest, an adventure to accomplish while they’re in this world of Narnia. And he says this, “I lay on you this command, that you seek this lost prince until either you have found him and brought him back to his father’s house or else died in the attempt or else gone back to your own world.” Narnia is its own world apart from the world we know in the books, and when they came into the world Aslan explained to them that in Narnia there was a lost prince and it was their job to find the lost prince. And Jill, the girl who’s just met Aslan, says, “But how?” And Aslan says this, “I will tell you child, these are the signs by which I will guide you in your quest,” and then he proceeds to give her these four signs. The four signs sound sort of random as he’s telling her the signs. They’re just different things that she’ll know when she gets there what they mean. But after he’s told her the four signs that will guide her on her mission he says this; he gives her this warning. He says, “Remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain” – they’re on a mountain when Aslan is talking to Jill – he says, “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain the air is clear and your mind is clear but as you drop down in Narnia the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look when you meet them there. That is why it is important to know them by heart and to pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”
I love that beginning to an adventure, and when you look at our psalm, Psalm 126, when it says that title, “A song of ascents,” the people who originally sang this were in a sense on an adventure. They were on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. That’s what that title refers to. It refers to these songs. Psalm 120 through 134 all have that title and it’s a reference to the context in which they would sing these songs. It was on their way to Jerusalem to worship. And sometimes that trip could be a little daunting. It wasn’t just like – hop in your car and drive down to church! But it was sometimes a trip that would take several days and it could be hazardous. And they had this group of psalms as a way to reorient themselves about what they’re doing and why they’re doing what they’re doing and to reorient themselves to the Lord and to remember what God has done for them. Verse 1 says, “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” See, it’s almost nostalgia. They’re recalling what God has done for them but it’s more than just to kind of remember the good old days. We need Psalm 126 more than just if we wanted this feeling of comfort. We actually have something terribly wrong with our spiritual memories; we have something terribly wrong with our spiritual memories. Psalm 10:4 says this, “In the pride of his face, the wicked does not seek God. All his thoughts are, ‘There is no God.’” You may have heard the NIV translation of that verse. It says, “In all his thoughts there is no room for God.” Isn’t that vivid? “There is no room for God.” And the same is true for our memories – that often we are very short-sighted, near-sighted in our memories, that we don’t remember the things that God has done for us.
There was an article I read in The Washington Post that made me think of our spiritual condition and it’s titled this – “A Baffling Medical Puzzle: How a Man’s Trip to the Dentist Cost Him the Ability to Form New Memories.” Now I know we have dentists in the congregation and it’s not – Dr. Story is very trustworthy! But this exact case, a man called “Woe” by his physicians, woke up the morning of March 14, 2005 at his military post in Germany. So it’s a man who was in the military and he was posted in Germany. And he headed to the gym where he played forty-five minutes of volleyball then returned to his office to answer some emails, and then he went to a routine root canal treatment. He got into the reclining chair, put on tinted glasses, felt his mouth go numb, and then every day since when he woke up, no matter what the actual date happens to be, “Woe” – again what the physicians call him – wakes up thinking it is the morning of March 14, 2005. Ten years ago. He is still in Germany and that is the day of his dentist appointment. His life is something of a Groundhog Day in reverse. While the rest of the world moves on, Woe is the only person who isn’t aware of time passing. Starting from that moment in the dentist chair a decade ago, he hasn’t been able to remember almost anything for longer than ninety minutes.
The Struggle to Remember
Now I use that as an example because that is what we are like spiritually. It’s like every ninety minutes somebody hits the reset button and we can’t remember what God has done for us. They describe Woe as this. They say, “He’s forever adrift in the present. He has lost the ability to remember episodes and string them into a narrative.” That is us. We are always adrift in the present. It’s as if our memories are written on the sand and every few minutes, every few moments the water of our worldly cares, of anxieties, of ambitions, come and they wash away what we have learned about God. That is why in psalms like 103 it says, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” We have to battle to remember what the Lord has done for us. In Woe’s case, in this case in The Washington Post, they couldn’t figure out what happened. They’re not even for sure it was what happened in the dentist chair that made him have this condition because his brain looks perfectly fine and that’s what’s so puzzling.
But in our case, we actually know why our spirits are like this. You see, Adam and Eve broke their ties with God in rebellion against Him in the Garden and they decided, in a sense, that they would erase all their own mental files about God’s goodness in order to believe Satan’s lie, to believe the lie that they could, apart from Him, find fulfillment and happiness and that they would find satisfaction. It’s as if they erased their hard drives about God. And we inherit that circumstance. We inherit that condition. And so Psalm 126 gives us this model of remembering. “The LORD has done great things for us and we are glad.” That is what verse 3 says and it’s very simple but it’s very profound because it’s very hard for us to remind ourselves of that day in and day out. “The LORD has done great things for us and we are glad.”
Eugene Peterson in his book, A Long Obedience In the Same Direction, says this about this psalm. He’s talking about those first couple of verses where it says, “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.’” What is it talking about? We’re not sure; we’re not sure the exact event in the nation of Israel that they are referring to and it’s intentionally left broad, it’s intentionally left general because if you read through the Old Testament you can find all these stories that fit that description. And this is what Eugene Peterson says. He says, “What happened that was so wonderful? On nearly any page of the Bible we find the allusions and stories. There is the story of God’s people in a long, apparently interminable servitude under the shadows of the Egyptian pyramids and the lash of harsh masters and then suddenly and without warning it was over.” He’s talking about the exodus. One day they were making bricks without straw and the next they were running up the far slopes of the Red Sea shouting the great song. Isn’t that a beautiful picture of God restoring the fortunes of Zion, of restoring the fortunes of His people?
Fast forward and we have David and Goliath. We have that story of David overcoming Goliath not only just two men fighting but David representing Israel and winning the victory so that Israel had victory over the Philistines and David eventually becoming king. Fast forward and you have way down the line in Israel’s history you have their return from exile. In Ezra 1:1-4 it says this amazing thing. It says, “In the year of Cyrus, king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled. The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and put it into writing.” And it says that he said, “You can go home now.” That’s what he said to the captive exiles. “You can go home!” And that’s unheard of that a king who had conquered another nation moved them into his territory would say, “Guess what? You can go back!” But that’s what happened. That’s what they’re celebrating here in Psalm 126. They’re celebrating that the Lord has done very specific things for them in space and time and they have reason to be glad. This is another quote from Eugene Peterson. He says, “Joy has a history. Joy is the verified, repeated experience of those involved in what God is doing. It is real as a date in history, as solid as a stratum of rock in Palestine. Joy is nurtured by living in such a history, building on such a foundation.”
Testimony of His Steadfast Love
You know what it’s like as families when we get together and we tell those same old stories that we always tell. My parents and my sister are here tonight to hear me and we know the stories we tell again and again and some of them are just funny and some of them are more serious and solemn and some of them are very happy. But that’s what we are to do as God’s people and that’s what we do day in and day out, week in and week out, as a church. We are recalling the stories of what God has done for us. Two weeks ago at Twin Lakes we were talking about on the last day all of the things and the ways that God did during the course of the summer to take care of us – the patience He extended, the small and big ways where He preserved us with His care, where no one was seriously injured. And at the last day we read Psalm 136 and Psalm 136 is a responsive reading that recounts the deeds of the Lord. And between each act of God it says, “For his steadfast love endures forever.” We need that because of our condition. We have to remind ourselves, “What has God done and what does it tell us about God?” It tells us that His steadfast love endures forever.
This summer I also got to teach summer conference. I got to teach a seminar entitled, “Covenant Theology,” and I got to talk to Dr. Robertson about it because I used his book and I was very nervous about taking on a topic like covenant theology but the good thing about that topic is that basically what you’re trying to do is show how all the stories build on each other in the Bible until you get to Christ, and what Christ does for us on the cross is a fulfillment of all that has gone before. And that is the ultimate story we are called to remember. And that’s why a few weeks ago we had the Lord’s Supper. We are to do the Lord’s Supper. We are to take Communion because we are to do that in remembrance of Him. Memory – we have to battle to remember and it’s important that there’s this physical aspect to it, that we’re eating real bread and drinking real juice because we’re saying, “As real as this bread is and as real as this juice is, is as real as Christ’s sacrifice and atonement is on my behalf.” And that’s as real as His resurrected body is now in the heavens. We need that. We need to remember those things. Romans 5:19 says, “For by the one man’s disobedience” – back to Adam – “the many were made sinners. But also by the one man’s obedience” – Christ – “the many were made righteous.” That is good news and that is what we have to come back to. Are we remembering what Christ has done for us? Do we remember it in such a way that our mouth is filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy?
As I thought of that imagery in verse 2, “Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy,” I just couldn’t help but think about last fall, right, when all our football teams were doing so well! You know, you just had that buzz like, “Can you believe it? It’s like we’re dreaming!” And it’s true! We just couldn’t believe, whether you’re an Ole Miss or a State fan, you couldn’t believe that good news that we could be doing that well in the middle of the season. This summer I had another example of this where we were coming in from an evening night program and the leaders of Twin Lakes, by surprise, decided to surprise all the staff and the campers that were there that week with snow – literal, artificial snow in the gymnasium! And they had Christmas songs and they had Santa Clause there and they had Christmas cookies and it was like we were dreaming. You know, we were just sitting there in the middle of the gym with snow falling down upon us, everybody dancing to Christmas songs, and it was like “we were those who dream. Our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy.” Those are examples of joyful memories but we have to keep bringing ourselves back to that core memory. Some of you may have seen “Inside Out” this summer and they talk about core memories that really shape us. Well that core memory is that about what Christ has done for us on our behalf, that nothing else gives us identity as much as what He has done for us on the cross. Not how well we’ve worked or how bad we’ve worked, not how much money we have or haven’t, not who we know or don’t know. It’s about what Christ has done for us. That is the basis of our community. That is the basis by which we have fellowship. “The LORD has done great things for us and we are glad.”
Hope & Perseverance
But this psalm moves into a more difficult theme. If you look at verses 3 through 6, excuse me verses 4 through 6, there’s a second part of this psalm that implies that life is now difficult. At first you have this command – Remember the Lord’s salvation – but in the second half the theme is to persevere, persevere and hope. Listen to verse 4. “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb! 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.” See, whoever wrote this psalm is now seeing himself or herself in a desert. They are seeing themselves in a place where there is no water, where there is no help. He says, “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb!” There was, the Negeb was south of Israel and it was a vast desert and the water courses of the Negeb were a network of ditches that were cut into the soil by wind and rain erosion. And most of the year they were just bone dry. It was a desert. But every now and then you’d get this huge flash flood that would wash over the Negeb and out would pop even flowers overnight. So what they’re talking about here in Psalm 126 was a real phenomenon. It would happen! And yet you get the sense of what they’re saying. Have you ever had a prayer like that? Maybe literally if you’re a farmer, a prayer for rain. “Lord, send rain. Lord, help. I’m dying here.” I know you have. Over the course of just these years that I’ve known you, I’ve known you’ve walked through dark times. And there are times in the course of the life of this church and there are times in the course of us as individuals where life feels like verse 4. “LORD, restore our fortunes like streams in the Negeb!” It just feels all alone. It feels like everything that the Lord did on our behalf is in the past and all we have now is just stretches and miles and miles of desert.
And yet what we’re seeing here is what we are to do. We are to cry out for help. We’re not to just fall into this sadness of, “Well it was good back then but it will never be like that!” No, we have to say, “No, the Lord who is God of those times that were so beautiful and so wonderful, well He’s still God now and I can cry out to Him as my Heavenly Father and know that He hears me. Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb!” If you’ve ever wondered if something is too big to pray about, well you have your answer. We are to pray big prayers. We are to cry out to God and say, “Help, Lord! Work miraculously; heal miraculously. Please, we need You!” That is what we are seeing here in this psalm and so we are to persevere. We are to remember, and remembering leads to this longing and this hope and this prayer.
But then in the last part we are to persevere. We are actually called into the battle. It’s not just about remembering and it’s not just about praying, but look at verses 5 through 6. It says, “Those who sow with 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.” It’s the harvest metaphor. All of a sudden, you know we were talking about these miraculous things happening and God doing things on our behalf in this great triumphant way like He’s done in the past, but then the harvest metaphor takes over and it’s the sense in which now we are called to work; we are called to get our hands dirty. We’re called to sow in tears. He’s saying that all of work in this world, all of life, any endeavor is going to have pain with it. There’s going to be suffering involved. If ever you’ve endeavored to do ministry in any way you know that. You know that it’s a long process and it’s slow. “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.” We have this promise that though there is pain, though there is suffering, there will be fulfillment, there will be happiness, there will be satisfaction.
I’ve been reading a book about the Wright brothers by David McCullough and it’s interesting to read even in their experience – you know you kind of think of the Wright brothers as maybe just sort of in their office making designs for a plane and then going out and flying it and then you have the airplane! But as you can imagine it’s not like that. And it talks about how on their second trip to Kitty Hawk they had been so encouraged by their first trip out there but on their second trip as they brought their model plane out to make it fly that it was a terrible disaster. Nothing that they had measured, nothing that they had worked on worked the way they were planning to. And Wilbur Wright is quoted as saying this, “Not in a thousand years will man ever fly.” Not in a thousand years will man ever fly.
And maybe that’s how you feel about life. Maybe that’s how you feel about that desert scenario I painted earlier. “Not in a thousand years will my marriage look the way it’s supposed to. Not in a thousand years will my family work and operate the way that God intended it for. Not in a thousand years will my ministry bear fruit.” Maybe that’s the voice inside your head and yet here we have in Psalm 126, “He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” We do know the end of the story that Orville and Wilbur Wright accomplished their task and now we have planes everywhere, don’t we? Well that’s true spiritually and you know people in this congregation who had done that – who have sown in tears; who have gone out and done something very hard for the sake of Christ. And at first it seems like a total failure, but then as years pass you see how God brought about their good and His glory in what came about.
I loved singing, “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken” because I love the stanza. It says, “Soul then know they full salvation, rise over sin and fear and care, joy to find in every station something still to do or bear. Think what Spirit dwells within me. Think what Father’s smile is thine. Think that Jesus died to win me. Child of heaven can’st thou repine?” And that word “repine” refers to like fretting or being worried. And the writer of that hymn is saying, “How can you fret or how can you worry or how can you be anxious when all these things are yours in Christ?” The Spirit dwells within thee, the Father’s smile that is thine, that Jesus died to win thee, child of heaven can’st thou repine? We must move forward with that hope. We must remember the Lord’s salvation and we must persevere in hope. And we won’t always see the dots connected at the end but we can have this confidence that at one point, whether it’s in this life or the next, as we look back we’ll be able to say, “The LORD has done great things for us and we are glad.”
I love those photographic mosaics that you may have seen, those computer generated mosaics where it has a portrait of somebody and if you look closer at the portrait it’s made of all these tiny little pictures. And that’s what our life is like – all these pictures, all these things going on where we are trusting and sometimes failing and sometimes beaten down, but trusting and moving forward. And as we look back we’ll see this beautiful mosaic, you know from a bird’s eye view, and we’ll see that the Lord’s hand has been at work and we’ll be able to say, “The LORD has done great things for us and we are glad.” Let me pray for us.
Father, I know there are many in this congregation who have gone through terrible trials and I pray that You would give us this holy remembering, Lord, that we would be able to reminisce about what You have done in our lives, what You have done in the life of this church, and more importantly what You have done for us through Christ. I pray that You would also give us this holy longing that we long to see the day when Your name is held up high and where all things make sense, Lord. And we pray that You would enable us to be a part of this adventure, that You would enable us to be a part of Your ministry that we would go home with shouts of joy bringing our sheaves with us. We pray this for Christ’s sake, amen.
© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.
This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.