Restore Our Fortunes, O Lord

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Lent 5
April 3, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary : Psalm 126 is a historical psalm, probably related to the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian exile. Having experienced the release from captivity, the people need God to restore them once again. What God did for them, he can do for us.

Long before he was a U.S. Senator from Arizona, John McCain became a prisoner of war in North Vietnam on October 26, 1967. While flying his 23rd bombing mission, his plane was shot down by a missile over Hanoi. Both arms and a leg were fractured when he ejected from the aircraft. The people who found him, nearly drowning in a lake, pulled him ashore and proceeded to beat him, crushing his shoulder with a rifle butt and bayoneting him. He arrived at the "Hanoi Hilton," the main prison in Hanoi, and was refused medical treatment. He was, in fact, beaten and interrogated, and was given medical treatment only when his captors discovered that McCain's father was an admiral. Seeing the potential propaganda possibilities, they did enough to keep him alive.

McCain refused to cooperate with his captors. During his five and a half years, he did everything he could to thwart the plans the North Vietnamese had for him. While he did sign a "confession" at one point -- after repeated beatings and torture -- he received two or three beatings weekly because of his continued refusal to sign additional statements.

Along with 108 other POWs McCain was released on March 14, 1973.1

The whole experience must have felt like a nightmare, but the release may have felt like a dream.

Perhaps McCain could identify with the sentiments in 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 ...."

Shouts of joy

Life is not always filled with joy. That is certainly true, but it is also true when we've been through incredible hardships (which were never part of our plan for our lives) and come out on the other side -- different but alive and stronger -- it is a joyful thing.

The word "joy" occurs (in the NRSV) 114 times in the Old Testament and 58 times in the New Testament, for a total of 172 times. In other words, the Bible takes the topic of "joy" seriously, and in the Bible, "joy" is for real.

The book of Psalms alone contains the word "joy" over 50 times (more if you include "joyful" and "joyous"), and it occurs three times in our psalm for today.

So, we're going to spend some time today with this psalm, which speaks of real life ... including both joy and tears.

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion ... we rejoiced

There are times in our lives that are so wonderful we can hardly believe it. That's how the psalmist starts off: "When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion" -- likely a reference to the people of Judah being freed from exile in Babylon -- "we were like those in a dream," the psalmist said. It was hard to believe! For the better part of a century, the Judahites had not known freedom, due to being captives in Babylon. When we hear the phrase, "That's the stuff dreams are made of," we think about the impossible; or we think about some long-in-the-future goal that we're working toward. And when it comes true, we are "like those in a dream."

So, the psalmist goes on to say, "Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy." It's easy to understand the laughter. They woke up and the dream was true. Laughter is a natural response to a good change of circumstances. No one told them what they could eat that day; no one told them what they could do that day; no one told them what time they had to get up! And the sun seemed brighter, and the birds seemed to chirp louder, and their smiles and laughter were real. Yes, it's easy to understand the laughter.

It's in that kind of relief that the psalmist adds, "and our tongue [filled] with shouts of joy." For as much as 70 years they had toiled in slavery. During that time, they had prayed to the Lord for release and for their freedom, and 70 years is a long time for joy to stay alive with no positive answer coming. Seventy years is a long time for hope to stay alive. But stay alive it did. When their freedom finally came, joy and hope came from deep within them and found its way to their tongues.

The neighboring countries saw the good thing that had happened to the Israelites. The psalmist adds to the picture once again, "then it was said among the nations, 'The LORD has done great things for them." It was apparent to even unbelieving neighbors; there was no other way to explain it.

Like a good storyteller, the psalmist brings the happy part of the psalm -- the first three verses -- to a close by saying, "The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced." We don't have to imagine very hard to know how they felt. Living as we have in a time of pandemic, consider how happy we would feel if it were suddenly found to be true that Covid-19, in all its variants, was now completely wiped out. Our tongues, too, might be filled with shouts of joy.

... like the watercourses in the Negeb

So when they were released from captivity, the people remembered what God had done in their lives. And what they say looking forward is colored by this most stunning and joyful turn of events in their lives. That's important, for when they get back to their homeland, the fields are fallow and Jerusalem (called "Zion" in the psalm) is in ruins. But it's their knowledge of what God has just done for them that enables them to pray with hope, in verse 4, for God to restore them again. "Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb."

The Negeb was a desert region where the watercourses are dry much of the time, but when the rains come, floods course through them suddenly.

Thus, when the people pray, "Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb," They are saying, in effect, "Lord, we're living in a 'dry land' again, but we know what you've done in the past and we believe you can do it again. Like the dry watercourses that can be filled in abundance, restore us, O Lord."

Because of the past, the psalmist can imagine what's ahead for God's people. "May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves."

The psalmist is building a powerful image with those words that can speak directly to our troubles: The psalmist pictures the people weeping indeed, but then describes the tears shed as "seeds for joy." Thinking of our tears as a prelude to joy can help us realize that though we suffer in the present, things will not always be as they are now, particularly when we have a Lord to whom we can pray, "Restore our fortunes," with "fortunes" here meaning the positive course of our lives.

Tears as seeds of joy also suggest that living without all that we desire for a while can have an impact on how we welcome life when times of privation are over.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD

Over the last two years of the pandemic, it wasn't hard to feel like we were living in a kind of captivity. With restrictions, shortages and economic hardships following the pandemic, it would be easy to throw up our hands in despair.

But God, we pray ... restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

In 1874 Knowles Shaw wrote one of his last hymns, called "Bringing in the Sheaves." In that well-known hymn, based loosely on Psalm 126, he best caught the flavor of the psalm in verse 3 when he wrote, "Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master, though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves; When our weeping's over, he will bid us welcome, we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves."

When John McCain returned from his years-long ordeal as a POW, he chose to go on with life. While others in similar situations let the troubles they had endured sour the rest of their lives, John chose a different path. His long and storied career as a two-term U.S. Representative and as a six-term U.S. Senator was filled with ups and downs, including two unsuccessful bids to be the President of the United States, but he stayed true to his convictions and lived an honorable life. Did he know first-hand that "those who go out weeping, bearing the seeds for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves?" Probably so.

Some people go through times when their dreams come true. It's also true that many people find themselves in the hard times of silence from God and hard times in day-to-day life. Wherever you are on that spectrum, we would do well to pray to God often, "Restore our fortunes, O LORD. Fill our mouths with laughter and let our tongues shout with joy."


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