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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Psalm 126
“Restored Joy”
December 14, 2014 - Third Sunday in Advent

         I saw tears glistening in my daughter’s eyes this past July as she stood looking at the man she was marrying and spoke the vows they had written together. They were not tears of sadness but tears of joy. But that’s an odd idea, when you stop to think about it. Don’t we cry when we are sad or in pain? Why should there be tears when we are experiencing joy?

         There was a Psychology Today article last year that talked about crying when we’re happy. There was some stuff about the autonomic nervous system and its parasympathetic branch and overload of the hypothalamus as it gets strong signals from the amygdala, which triggers the response we call tears. In the end, though, the writer, who talked about her own tears at her wedding, said that no one really knows exactly why we cry in our moments of deepest joy.

         One reason, of course, we cry when we are joyful is that many of our joys are mixed. The tears in Beth’s and my eyes at both our daughters’ weddings were not those of pure joy, but of joy mixed with the bittersweet realization that we are not the parents of little girls any more and that some joys we had in the past, like their childish delight in Christmas decorations, are really and completely over.

         That mixture of tears and joy is the perspective from which Psalm 126 speaks to us today. The first three verses are a vivid and sweet memory of past joy. Once again, like last week’s Psalm 85, this song comes to us from that post-exile time in Israel’s history.

         Jerusalem was captured by Babylonians in 597 B.C. and some of the people were deported to Babylon. The city was attacked again in 587 B.C., the temple was destroyed, and more people were taken away to Mesopotamia. It wasn’t until nearly 50 years later that Babylon itself was invaded by the Persians and their king Cyrus allowed Jews to return home to Jerusalem. Now the singer of Psalm 126 remembers that return like it was a beautiful and glorious dream.

         Verses 1 to 3 remember the joy of that return, the joy of the restoration and rebuilding of Zion, which is another name for Jerusalem because of Mt. Zion in the middle of the city. There are no tears in these verses, just shouts and laughter and pure, unmixed joy. God brought them home and restored their city. It’s the kind of incredible miracle that  is hardly hoped for by all the Ukrainians who’ve fled from Russians in Crimea and by all the Syrians and Iraqis who’ve fled from ISIS. To be able suddenly to come home when you never expected to again is an amazing thing.

         That release from captivity was the first fulfillment of the prophecy we ready from Isaiah 61 this morning. Isaiah was anointed to “bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” And he prophesied that “They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations, they shall repair the ruined cities…”

         When that prophecy actually came true and God brought His people home it was like a dream because it seemed too good to be true. It’s how Kenneth Bae must have felt when he learned he was being released from North Korea. It’s how African Americans must have felt when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The unexpected good things they barely dared to hope for have actually happened.

         It was so unexpected and unusual that even other countries noticed and were amazed, as verse 2 tells us, “then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’” We know from the book of Nehemiah and other places in the Old Testament that the nations around Jerusalem gave them a hard time, but they were still forced to admit that God had done something great and unprecedented. So verse 3 simply confirms and repeats what those surrounding nations said, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”

         You and I are at the same sort of point in the history of the world and of God’s dealings with human beings. We are here today worshipping because it is also true for us that God has done great things for us. We celebrate Christmas because it is the beginning of the great thing God has done for us. We will look forward to and celebrate Easter because it is the high point of the great thing God has done for us.

         Jesus took those words from Isaiah about God’s favor and captives being set free and applied them to Himself. He was born into this world to bring us the good news of God’s love and grace and to set us free from the captivity of sin. God sent His Son Jesus to give His life and rescue us from our exile into hopelessness and death. Through His Cross and Resurrection, Jesus has brought us home. So we come here every Sunday and wake up every morning to rejoice in that great thing which God has done for us.

         Notice that what God did back then for His Jewish people caused it to be “said among nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’” But now in Jesus Christ and in His church that verse has become even more true. As Christians all over the world rejoice in Jesus Christ, there is not a nation on earth where people can’t observe God’s work and say, “The Lord has done great things for them.”

         And you and I can say verse 3 for ourselves, just like the very first Christian did. When Mary learned that she was to give birth to the Savior of the world, the first words out of her mouth were, “May soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations shall call me blessed; for the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

         Now because of the birth and death and resurrection of Mary’s Son, in the traditional order for evening prayer Christians all over the world say with Mary, “The Almighty has done great things for me.” That’s who we are as believers in Jesus Christ, not great people, but people for whom God has done great things. That’s what we’ve got to be happy about. That’s the joy of Christmas, the fact that God has done these great things for us, has saved us and given us hope and a future and a home with Him.

         I’d like to invite you to remember that joy this Christmas. You may have lots of other joys as well. You may be with beloved family. You may get or give some nice presents. You may sit down to some truly delicious food. You may enjoy a beautiful Christmas tree or other decorations. But the true joy, the great joy of Christmas is the great thing God has done, the gift of His Son to be our Savior.

         O.K., so there we are, right with the people of Jerusalem in verses 1 to 3 of this psalm, as they celebrated and remembered how God saved them and brought them home. Here we are believers in Jesus Christ celebrating how God has saved us and… wait a minute… hasn’t quite brought us home yet. Has he?

         No, that’s part of the reason we observe the season of Advent. God has done great things for us. Yes He has, great things like you only dream about. He came as a Baby like all of us are born. He lived among us like all of us live in this world. He died on the Cross like we all will eventually die. And then He rose again… like we are all still waiting to be raised again. And there it is. We are waiting for something more. We observe Advent because it teaches us to wait.

         God has done great things for us, but those great things are not quite finished. We are waiting for the last chapter, for the conclusion, for the completion. We are waiting for Christ to come again and raise us all up like He was raised up, so that we can live and rejoice with Him forever. Our joy has been restored, but we are still waiting for it to be completely and finally restored.

         That’s why there’s a second half to this little psalm. Verses 4 to 6 are the Advent part of the story for those Jewish people who can remember and rejoice that God has done great things for them, but who also know that it’s not finished yet. They suffered for decades in a foreign country. They cried many tears. But the tears are not done yet. Much of the land is still in ruins. Their spiritual lives are in chaos. The promise of a redeeming, saving Messiah has not yet been fulfilled. So even as they remember how God restored their fortunes, they still pray in verse 5, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negev.”

         There in the south of Israel, like the southwest of our country, many streams were seasonal. The flowed in the winter when the rains came, and dried up in the heat of summer. Look at a dip in a road out in the Arizona desert in early July and you may laugh at a sign warning you that the little ditch on either side might flood. But two or three weeks later when monsoon season arrives there will be a river running there and you will know it’s no joke. The water comes back, just like it comes back here every winter.

         God’s people prayed for Him to restore their fortunes with the same confidence they had that water would return to dry stream beds across their land. God has done great things for us and He will do great things for us again. That’s what gives them the hope and confidence to trust that tears will only lead to joy.

         In the ancient Mideast it was typical to associate the time of planting, of sowing crops in the ground, with sorrow and sadness. Partly it was just hard work, going out and scraping furrows into hard, dry ground so that precious seed could be covered out of the reach of birds. Partly there was a sense that we find Jesus mentioning when He says in John 12:24, “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.” Something is getting buried, getting lost and there’s a kind of grief to that.

         It’s that same sense we get from John the Baptist in our Gospel lesson from John 1 this morning. As he waits for Jesus, John knows what he says more explicitly a little later on in John 3:30, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John understands that his role is only preparation. “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” John is going to fade into the background. He’s going to die. But Jesus the Messiah is coming and it’s all good. John was not the light, only a witness to the light. But the true light was coming into the world.

         So there is some sadness in our waiting. That’s why several of our Advent songs are in a minor key, with somber words. It’s a way of remembering that we are not there yet, the great things God has for us are not done yet, no matter how great and grand what He’s already done is. We celebrate the first coming of Jesus with great joy, but we also look forward to an even greater joy that is still to come, after all the tears have been cried.

         We have joy and we have hope of greater joy being restored. But in between there are some tears. That’s part of what we recall in Advent, that the tears are real, but in the end they will give way to joy.

         I read an article this week by Kay Warren, the wife of Rick Warren who wrote The Purpose Driven Life and pastors a huge church in California. You may remember that their son Matthew committed suicide last year. Her article wrote about how devastating it was at Christmas 2013 to receive dozens of cheery Christmas cards with messages like “Hope you have a great Christmas,” or family newsletters full of pictures of smiling children. Many, many people sent their cards without acknowledging the grief that had come to the Warren family.

         Kay said she eventually had to leave the card-opening to her husband Rick. It felt to her like people were asking her to simply forget her pain and be happy at Christmas. She wanted them to acknowledge her tears and take the time to express condolences and love, not ignore it as if Christmas joy should automatically make everything good and happy again.

         The Christian faith has a place for tears. That’s because we have a joy and a hope of joy that runs deeper and stronger than our tears, because Christian joy can accept our tears in the hope and trust that God will do great things with them. Just as all the labor and pain of planting a crop leads to the joy of a good harvest and plenty to eat, so the grief and tears of our lives will lead to a joyful harvest of new life in Christ our Savior.

         Just before her son’s death Kay Warren wrote a book entitled Choose Joy: Because Happiness Isn’t Enough. I haven’t read it and I don’t know if she would change anything she wrote because of the loss of Michael. But I do know that there is a real difference between fleeting, transitory moments of happiness and the abiding joy and hope which God gives to us even when tears are running down our cheeks. So, like her, I would invite you to choose that joy this morning, a joy which God gives and which God promises to restore.

         My wish for each of you would be that this Christmas, this very day would be filled with the greatest joy. You have good reason for it in the great things God has done. He has come and lived and died and risen again, for you. Yet I also know that those great things are not quite finished yet. You and I haven’t been raised up to live in joy forever yet, nor have those we’ve lost and miss at Christmas and all year. We haven’t yet been set completely free from our sins, so we keep causing others and ourselves lots of grief. Despite my wish for joy, you may have tears to shed and some pain to feel in this season.

         So my prayer, rather than my wish, for you is that you will receive and know the real joy of Jesus Christ our Savior, who Himself went out to the Cross with tears, and came again risen with joy. May your tears give you hope that you are headed in the right direction, out into the field where the seed is being planted that will grow up into the joy we will have when Jesus comes again. That’s the joy we’re singing about now, that’s the true joy God wants to restore in us this Christmas.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated December 14, 2014