Restoration and Renewal, Psalm 126, Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 7, 2019
This morning we look at the final Lent sermon in our series on the Psalms. The Psalm prescribed for this morning is Psalm 126.
It was a bright Sunday morning in 18th century London, but Robert Robinson’s mood was anything but sunny. All along the street there were people hurrying to church, but in the midst of the crowd, Robinson was a lonely man. The sound of church bells reminded him of years past when his faith in God was strong and the church was an integral part of his life. It had been years since he set foot in a church—years of wandering, disillusionment, and gradual defection from the God he once loved. That love for God—once fiery and passionate—had slowly burned out within him, leaving him dark and cold inside.
Robinson heard the clip-clop, clip-clop of a horse-drawn cab approaching behind him. Turning, he lifted his hand to hail the driver. But then, he saw that the cab was occupied by a young woman dressed in finery for the Lord’s Day, he waved the driver on; however, the woman in the carriage ordered the carriage to be stopped. “Sir, I’d be happy to share this carriage with you,” she said to Robinson. “Are you going to church?” Robinson was about to decline, then he paused. “Yes,” he said at last. “I am going to church.” He stepped into the carriage and sat down beside the young woman.
As the carriage rolled forward, Robert Robinson and the woman exchanged introductions. There was a flash of recognition in her eyes when he stated his name. “That’s an interesting coincidence,” she said, reaching into her purse. She withdrew a small book of inspirational verse, opened it to a ribbon bookmark, and handed the book to him. “I was just reading a verse by a poet named Robert Robinson. Could it be…?”
He took the book, nodding. “Yes, I wrote these words years ago.”
“Oh, how wonderful!” she exclaimed. “Imagine! I’m sharing a carriage with the author of these very lines!”
But Robinson barely heard her. He was absorbed in the words he was reading. They were words that would one day be set to music and become a great hymn of the faith, familiar to generations of Christians:
Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace’
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
His eyes slipped to the bottom of the page where he read:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it—
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
He could barely read the last few lines through the tears that brimmed in his eyes. “I wrote these words—and I’ve lived these words. ‘Prone to wander…prone to leave the God I love.’”
The woman suddenly understood. “You also wrote, ‘Here’s my heart, O take and seal it.’ You can offer your heart again to God, Mr. Robinson. It’s not too late.”
And it wasn’t too late for Robert Robinson. In that moment, he turned his heart back to God and walked with him the rest of his days. (http://ministry127.com/resources/illustration/come-thou-fount)
That’s restoration and renewal; restoration and renewal like the one described in Psalm 126. In this psalm, the theological theme of restoration and renewal leads to rejoicing. The resulting product is one of the grandest, most eloquent prayers in the whole book of Psalm.
Psalm 126 falls within a collection of poems (Psalms 120-134) known as the “Songs of Ascents.” Most of the psalms were written during the reign of King David, but these words appear to take us to something that occurred many centuries after David, namely, the release of the Jews from captivity in Babylon.
These most likely did not all originate from a single source or for some unified purpose, but rather were collected together for common use. While scholars cannot be one-hundred percent sure, the best guess is that these psalms were put together to be used by Christians as they made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and that is probably what happened in this instance.
And although one should not press the metaphor too far, maybe we could even make a link between the ancient pilgrimages that Israelites made to Jerusalem, and the modern preparations that we make during Lent, leading to Easter.
This psalm falls quite naturally into three parts. In the first part the psalmist speaks to his fellow-worshippers in an emotional outburst expressing intense excitement and joy. Even their adversaries acknowledge the greatness of the Lord’s deeds on their behalf. Then he speaks to God as a prayer that the Lord will continue the restoration of the nation.
The picture is quite different in the final section of the psalm, when the Lord answers the psalmist. Before the harvest is gathered, before the restoration is complete, there is a lot of work to be done by the Lord’s coworkers. They must toil in the fields in the heat of the day, with the sweat of their brow before the harvest can finally be gathered in.
But first let’s look at the words of the psalmist to his fellow-worshippers. They deal with a remarkable episode in history. The psalmist characterizes this time this way:
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. (1-3)
We may rest assured that the Jews underwent a great spiritual renewal while they were in Babylon. While there, they came to see that their captivity was due to their sins, and they undoubtedly did a thorough job of repenting.
Then the good news came that they were going to be allowed to return to their homeland. The psalmist describes the torrent of joy that broke out when they received that word. He and his fellow-captives were ‘like those who dream’. The news was simply too good to be true!
He proceeds to describe the people laughing and singing. Their joy was so great that other nations took note of it and concluded: ‘The Lord has done great things for them’.
There was no doubt in the psalmist’s mind that it was indeed the Lord’s doing. He begins the psalm by giving credit to the Lord. Then he wraps up this section by agreeing with what the other nations were saying, essentially, ‘Yes, you are correct. The Lord has done great things for us.’ Then he adds, ‘and we are glad’.
The psalmist’s description of this release from captivity is a wonderful and graphic description of every episode in which God has stepped into the lives of his people to grant them restoration and renewal.
His restoration always exceeds our expectations. Renewal always opens the floodgates of joy. Restoration and renewal always leaves a profound impression on the people of God.
And so, the psalmist speaks to God. From a joyous note the psalmist moves to a somber note. His re-living of the glory of their release from captivity suddenly causes him to realize that some slippage has taken place.
In other words, the people were not now as close to God as they had been when they were released from captivity. No, they hadn’t gone back to the worship of idols, the captivity broke them of that once and for all, but they had somehow, becomes complacent about the things of the Lord.
To get a true reading of what happened with these people after they returned to their land, one only has to read Malachi and Haggai. Malachi, for instance, talks about the people keeping up the round of religious activities without any sense of enthusiasm (Mal. 1:13). And Haggai talks about the people getting so occupied with their own business that they had little interest in the house of the Lord (Hag. 1:4).
We don’t know just where the writer of Psalm 126 fits into the sequence of events that followed the release from captivity, but he had evidently seen enough to know that the elation of the release had faded and spiritual deterioration had begun to set in.
The psalmist says: Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb! (4)
In other words, he was asking God to do for him and his people something like what he had done when they were released from captivity. He is saying, ‘turn us back, O Lord, to that time’.
In the southern region of their land, drought always dried up the streams, but then the rains would come and those dry stream beds would be filled with torrents of living water. With that picture in mind, the psalmist was asking God, to do in the spiritual realm, what He did in the natural realm. He was asking for an outpouring of God’s power and grace, one that would cause them to rejoice once again.
Then the Lord speaks to the psalmist: 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. (5–6)
The Lord essentially says, ‘Do you want what you had when you were released from captivity? Do you want a spiritual flood to relieve your dryness and barrenness? Then here is what you must do, you must sow in tears. If you will sow in tears, I promise that you will reap in joy.’
He was calling them to truly repent of sins, and then the flood of blessing would come. These words ought to make certain truths very clear and obvious to us.
Firstly, if we want an explanation for spiritual decline in our world today, we don’t have to look any further than the sins we have allowed to invade into our lives. Another truth that smacks us in the face from these verses is that sin is a very serious thing, and it has to be treated as such. If we want to reap the crop of spiritual restoration and renewal, we must sow ‘in tears’.
How can we ‘sow in tears’? First off, we stop excusing sins. Call them by their right name, sin, and turn from them with a true renewal. In such times, we look back and find we are amazed that we could ever allow into our life such things that grieve God.
When a child of God experiences true spiritual restoration and renewal, the Lord will use us in sowing the seed of the gospel to others. What greater incentive could we possibly need? Our brokenness not only brings the joy of our own restoration and renewal, but also leads to the joy of seeing others come to the saving knowledge of our Lord and Savior.
It would seem to me, the words of this psalm were written by a man who had a keen memory of God’s past blessings and a keen concern over the spiritual decline in God’s people. There is much to do before our fortunes are restored. We are not yet a finished product. We continue the bitter struggle against sin, which produces tears and sorrow. We toil to relieve those who suffer from the effects of sin all around us. We labor to plant and tend the seed of the Word so that the harvest on the Last Day will be abundant, when we will be restored and renewed. Amen.