This being Reformation Sunday I thought it appropriate to depart from our morning series of sermons on the Gospel of Luke to preach a text apropos this annual remembrance. One commentary on Psalm 126 entitles the psalm “God Can Do It Again.” [Allen, WBC, iii, 169] Hence the selection of this text for this particular Sunday morning.
v.1 You will notice that this is one of the so-called “Songs of Ascents”, a classification that includes the psalms from 120 to 134. Apparently these were grouped together as “Pilgrim Psalms”, to be sung by pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem to worship at one of the great feasts of the Jewish liturgical calendar. It is not necessarily the case that each of the psalms in this group was originally composed for that purpose, but for one reason or another they came to belong to this small selection of hymns used for this purpose. They could, of course, be used at any other time of the year.
The psalm writer does not identify the historical background of this particular psalm. “Restored the fortunes,” for example is used in Job 42:10 to describe Job’s restoration to health and prosperity. (Here the focus is on the people as a whole.) It might refer to any number of events in Israel’s history. But v. 4 indicates that it was written at a time when there was great need for the Lord to restore his people’s fortunes. Verse one recalls the renewal of the Lord’s favor in the past as a reason for hope for the future. John Newton’s verse is not great poetry, but it is sound biblical theology!
His love in time past
Forbids me to think
He’ll leave me at last
In trouble to sink:
Though painful at present,
Twill cease before long,
And then, oh! how pleasant
The conqueror’s song!
“We were like those who dream” suggests almost delirious happiness and relief. It was so wonderful as to make people pinch themselves and ask, “Can this be true?”
v.2 Sometime you are so happy you can’t help but laugh out loud! It is the ancient equivalent of the fist pump! [cf. Hakham, iii, 318]
v. 4 Wadis in the Negeb, the arid southern part of Judah (the word Negeb means “dry” or “parched”), were dry in the summer and remained dry until they were filled with the winter rains. When the rain fell the desert became a place of grass and flowers overnight.
v.6 The tears and the weeping are a reminder that those times during which the people of God are bereft of the Lord’s greater blessing can be very painful, heart-breaking indeed. But, as we read in Psalm 30: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
If the first metaphor suggests sudden transformation of Israel’s fortunes — a dry river bed becoming virtually at once a torrent of water — the second is more pedestrian. Here the farmer must sow his seed and wait until it is time for harvest. But in either case, however the Lord provides renewal, whether suddenly and dramatically, or as the fruit of the church’s labor, toil, and patient waiting, the man of faith is sure that the Lord will not leave his people to pray in vain. So think of v. 5 as an image of the sort of explosive revolution in the fortunes of the church that followed Luther’s publication of the 95 Theses. Think of v. 6 as a description of the Reformation as the eventual and inevitable consequence of the sowing done in the previous centuries by Wyclif and his Lollard preachers in England, John Huss in Bohemia, Savanarola in Italy, and the Brethren of the Common Life in the Low Countries. There was weeping to be sure as some of these men lost their lives to sow the seed, but the harvest came in due time.
It is one of the great mysteries of life, of your life and mine, and of the life of the world and the church of God, that life is so cyclical; that we never reach a point where life is only good or that the good continues without being sooner or later overwhelmed by the bad. It is perhaps not so difficult to explain this in the case of the world. Her sin and her ingratitude to God may easily enough explain why her blessings decompose in her hands and why her victories so soon ring hollow and leave her in a state that seems much more like defeat than victory.
But what of the kingdom of God and the church of the Lord Jesus Christ? Shouldn’t blessing build upon blessing until there is nothing but blessing? Shouldn’t victory follow victory until believers no longer can remember the taste of defeat? Shouldn’t grace in the life of parents lead to more grace and an easier and sturdier life of faith and uninterrupted happiness in the life of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren? Shouldn’t the experience of salvation in one generation lead to ever greater experiences of salvation in the generations that follow?
It might seem so; but we know it is not so. The momentum of grace in the lines of generations seems in virtually every case eventually and, alas often quite soon, to be exhausted and the line of salvation in a family comes to an abrupt end. How many Christian families have kept a vital faith in Christ through six or seven or ten generations? In Christian institutions this is an all too well-known story. How many Christian colleges, from Harvard and Yale to much younger schools, still maintain the commitment to Christ and the Word of God upon which they were founded? For that matter, how many churches — congregations or entire denominations — are still faithful to the gospel after hundreds of years? The great churches of American history are largely lost to the biblical faith of their founders. Faith Presbyterian Church exists in a denomination that is, in effect, starting over, because the church our parents belonged to abandoned the Christian faith.
It is not only here in Psalm 126 that we encounter the reality of the day of small things. Holy Scripture is, in many ways, a history of days of small things interrupted only from time to time by a day of the Holy Spirit’s power. You remember the old gospel song refrain: “mercy drops round us are falling, but for the showers we plead.” Well, God’s people have been making that prayer in one form of words or another virtually from the beginning. There have been days of kingdom power often enough to prove that God can and will alter his people’s circumstances for the better dramatically from time to time; but still it is only from time to time. Most of kingdom history is routine, unspectacular, and often a difficult slog for the people of God who find themselves in such times as strangers in the world that has no enthusiasm for them, a world that makes a distinctively Christian life much more difficult to live. And, then, suddenly, all is changed and the people of God find themselves riding on the heights of the land and feeding on the inheritance of their father Jacob. No longer oppressed by the world, they carry the world before them.
Think of Israel as a family going down to Egypt at the height of Joseph’s power as second in command of the world’s most powerful nation. But then came another Pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph and long years of slavery and hard labor followed. Then after generations of hardship suddenly came the appearance of Moses, the plagues, the triumphant departure from Egypt, and the conquest of the Promised Land. But soon thereafter came long years of miserable weakness on Israel’s part as she dallied with the idolatry of her neighbors and was subjugated by nearby powers — with only short periods of freedom from oppression under this judge or that — the once great nation reduced to little more than the vassal of stronger peoples.
But then came David and Solomon and for a century Israel was the greatest nation in that part of the world, perhaps in the entire world. But how quickly the subsequent generations frittered away that great inheritance and at last reduced the mighty kingdom of Israel that had stretched at one point from Egypt to the Euphrates River to little more than the city of Jerusalem and its suburbs. Along the way, of course, there were times of spiritual advance, or at least times in which the decline was for a time arrested and pushed back. Think, for example, of the reforms under Kings Hezekiah, and Josiah. But finally came the Babylonian captivity and thereafter the return of a few thousand people to pick up where their parents had left the remnants of Israel.
Centuries followed in which the Jews were a subject people, at the beck and call of great powers, living her life in hope of things to come but able to see nothing of her once great fortunes. But then the Messiah came, and after his death and resurrection, the Spirit descended at Pentecost, and suddenly the gospel was spreading through the world at lightning speed, sweeping up hundreds, then thousands, then millions into its net. It had reached China and had thoroughly overspread Europe and North Africa by the 7th century, but persecution or invasion clipped its wings and a long period of stagnation and retreat followed.
It was then in Western Europe, in the early 16th century, that the Reformation restored the vitality of the Christian church in Europe, a movement that really did not run its course until near the end of the 17th century. But it was followed, once again, by a period of spiritual decline and theological declension until arrested by the great revival we know as the Great Awakening in the English speaking world or as Pietism on the continent of Europe. And so it has continued into our own day, long periods of stasis or spiritual doldrums penetrated by the occasional day of advancement, sometimes more local sometimes more national or transnational, some shorter, some longer in duration. And so we find ourselves in October 2012, in a day of spiritual stagnation in the kingdom of God in the United State of America, though, thankfully, it happens to be a day of dramatic advance in other parts of the world. I do not, of course, mean that nothing happens during days of smaller or even small things. Some are saved, God grants his promised blessing to his people to be sure. But comparatively the blessing is less, the kingdom advances only a little or not at all. It is not enough if our lives are happy. We Christians have been saved to think about not simply of personal issues of our own lives, but the interests of the kingdom and the cause of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Psalm 126 is for us. We remember great days in the past and long for them again. We need another Reformation which was both a renewal of the church’s mind, her thinking about her faith, her understanding of the teaching of the Word of God, on the one hand, and, on the other, a revival, a renewal of her heart of love for God, for Christ, for the gospel, for the lost, and for her calling to be the Lord’s witnesses in the world. We need, in other words, what the Lord has given his people many times before, but which he does not give every generation of his people, and certainly does not give us all the time
So we are left waiting for him, wondering whether it will come, when it comes, as a cloudburst in the desert or as the harvest that rewards the patient, hard-working farmer.
On a smaller scale, each of our individual Christian lives is this way: composed of seasons of life, more of them routine but some of them, and, alas, the shorter of them, the power of God to awaken the dead, to thrill the soul, to flood our dark minds with bright light, to warm our cold hearts with the heat of the glory of God. It has certainly been so for me. Has it not been for you as well? We ache for the arrival of another day of the Spirit’s power as the small faithful remnant of Christians in the 15th century ached for the appearance of Martin Luther!
Why is this so? Why has it always been so? Why does God not give his people sustained victory? Why does the gospel run out of steam in a place or a time? It is very easy for us to think that it would be much better if it did not do so. But it does, repeatedly; invariably. The Christian faith has been for several generations in decline in North America. There are fewer of us today than there were years ago, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the total population. Many evangelicals have compromised their faith by adjusting it in one particular or another to the orthodoxies of modern Western culture, a sure recipe for still greater weakness in the generation to come. Why does God allow this? Why does he not prove his truth and power by making the gospel a juggernaut that neither Satan nor the world can withstand?
Well, who can say? But surely the general answer to those questions is this: God is a person. He has reasons, aims, and plans. He is a very great person whose reasons and plans, while perfectly obvious and sensible to him, are inscrutable to us, small as we are, limited as our perspective must be. God has a purpose and that purpose is somehow served by these cycles of advance and retreat, of growth and decline.
On the airplane Thursday afternoon I finished Thomas Nagel’s new book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Nagel is a professor of philosophy at NYU and sits near at or near the summit of the professional guild of philosophers in North America today. It is a book getting a lot of attention, as you can imagine, because, though Nagel is an avowed atheist, he is very skeptical that the theory of evolution by genetic mutation and natural selection can explain the world we live in. He doesn’t concentrate on the evidence against Darwinism at the level of chemistry or micro-biology, which is ordinarily done by skeptics of the theory of evolution, he simply says that, in his view it is now clear that the likelihood is vanishingly small that the fantastically complex, information rich life of the cell could have arisen by chance from chemicals alone.
But the book is not about that. What interests Nagel the most is what we might describe as personhood. What evolution has not and does not, and Nagel thinks cannot explain, are three things: 1) consciousness — the self-awareness of human beings, their capacity to observe the world as apart from themselves, to perceive and evaluate their perceptions, and so on; 2) cognition, or what we might call “reason,” the ability to evaluate evidence, to fashion an argument, to apply logic to thought, to draw conclusions that we regard as correct or incorrect notwithstanding our feelings about the subject, and so on; and 3) what he calls value, by which he means moral judgment, our sense of right and wrong, the place of love and hatred in our lives and so on. It is these powers that make us persons and these powers, therefore, that evolution must account for. Nagel doesn’t think it can. He doesn’t merely think evolution hasn’t explained these things; he doesn’t think it can.
Now Nagel admits that one coherent explanation for personhood as we all experience it — what makes our life human life and what makes it so important and precious to us, more important than food or drink or even survival — is that men and women have been created in the image of God and that they have these powers because God has them and has bequeathed them to his creatures. But he does not believe in God. Indeed, in the book he says that he prefers explanations that do not require a personal God. That is his preference so he hopes that there may be some explanation for human beings as we know them that does not invoke a personal God, though he admits that he doesn’t know what that explanation might be.
Reading Nagel while thinking about this sermon reminded me that we are, after all, dealing with a person, an impossibly great person, a person of infinite wisdom, justice, power, and love. A person who has reasons and plans and aims, who knows what he is doing and why. So if we do not understand why God rules the world as he does, why he gives and withholds as he does, why he blesses greatly at one moment and much less so at another, is it not finally because God is a person? Think of a child whose father and mother sometimes reward, sometimes punish; sometimes give, sometimes withhold, yet always with a view to blessing that child, helping him or her to reach honorable, holy, and happy adulthood. He may not understand their ways, but they do!
When Peter tells us that it is hard for the righteous to be saved, we can certainly think of reasons why it is and must be so. The Devil works against us at every turn, our own sin is a dead weight that we must drag through our lives, likeness to God is a goal so high above us that it is understandable that we must labor mightily to attain it. But it might not be so hard; it won’t be in heaven, after all. And why does God make it hard in the particular way in which he has made it hard for you or hard for me? So, if we ask why only relatively rarely does the Lord restore the fortunes of Zion, perhaps we might think of some reasons of a general sort. He wants his people to learn to live by faith and not by sight and life in a day of the Spirit’s power is more like sight than faith. Much of what the Lord does in our lives requires difficulty and hardship. If the Lord is pruning his vines as he says he is, obviously there must be plenty of winter as well as spring and summer. Still so much lies shrouded in mystery because God is a person who makes choices and orders events according to his plans and aims that are not known to us.
As many of you know, I was in St. Louis for two days this past week for the burial of my mother. Florence and I stayed with our son and his wife and their dog, Roxy, a Rhodesian Ridgeback. Roxy is a sweet dog but like most dogs she lives a simple life. She loves her parents but does not understand the decisions they make for her. She wants to go wherever they go but she must stay home. In fact, she is put in her crate when they leave the house because otherwise she explores the house when they are gone and makes a mess. She loves butter and has eaten whole sticks and broken the butter dish while her parents were gone. So now she goes into her crate when they leave the house. It pains her. She doesn’t understand it. It isn’t fair! Or so we imagine her thinking. I found myself on several occasions attempting to explain matters to her, but to no avail.
Well, we are like Roxy, are we not? The Lord makes many decisions in ordering our lives and the life of his church that we do not understand. They do not make sense to us. Actually, we understand less of his ways and reasons than Roxy understands of her parents’ reasons, so great is God and so high above us are his ways. But if we wonder why only now and then is there such a thing as a Pentecost, a Reformation, a Great Awakening, or even a Jesus Movement of the 1970s, if we wonder why we must plead with the Lord to restore our fortunes when it seems perfectly obvious to us that the United States of America needs nothing so much as a revived, rejuvenated Christian Church adorning the Gospel with its life, witness, and worship; if we wonder why he has come to our aid in great ways in the past but is not coming to help us today, all we can say is that God knows why and it should be no surprise to us that we do not.
I don’t know the answer to those questions and you don’t either. It may be that the hour of judgment has come and the church cannot be restored until she has first been judged for and purged of her sins. It may be that the church cannot be restored until the nation she lives in has been judged for its sins. It may be that God is even now preparing a new day of the Spirit’s power but that there is work for us to do such as Wyclif did and Huss and Savanarola — the sowing in tears of which we read in v. 5 — before that day can dawn. It may be something else altogether. What we know is that it was the Lord who restored our fortunes in the past and it will be he who will do it again for reasons sufficient to himself. There is no formula here, no predictable pattern to which we can compare our circumstances and predict when the Lord will come again to restore our fortunes either as individual believers or as the whole church. Sometimes churches languish for generations; sometimes there are long periods of advance with only relatively minor interruptions. Who can say? Only the Lord: who knows what he will do, when he will do it, and why.
So on this Reformation Sunday it is good for us to recall, as did the writer of Psalm 126, the way in which the Lord restored the fortunes of his people in days gone by, especially in the 16th century, and in that way remind ourselves of what the Lord can and will do. It stimulates us to pray more urgently for a new day to dawn, as it did at the Reformation and as it had many times before that and as it has many times since. And it reminds us to work for it, in our own hearts and in our work and witness. Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy! The Lord will restore our fortunes. How soon we do now know. How and in what way we cannot say? But his having done so dramatically and powerfully so often in the past is proof enough that he will do so again. When he restores our fortunes it will not be quite like the Reformation. We know the doctrine of justification by faith as the church did not know it in 1517. Perhaps it will be more like the Great Awakening or perhaps something different altogether. Who can say?
But he will restore our fortunes and someday restore them perfectly and forever.
I watched my mother being buried on Wednesday. My father’s grave had been opened. A new concrete vault sat on top of my father’s and was standing open. The casket was lowered into it. The lid of the vault was dropped gently into position. The little tractor filled the hole, the dirt was compressed with a machine, more dirt was added, it was raked, seeded, and covered with a straw mat. And after singing the doxology and talking with one another for a time we all turned away and went home. And what now?
Well, it is our faith, our whole faith, that we love and serve a God who restores the fortunes of his people. All of these other restorations, from the Exodus to David and Solomon to Pentecost to the Reformation to the Great Awakening to the explosive growth of the church in Africa and Asia in our day are all anticipations of something greater still. And on the great day, someday soon, the church’s fortunes and yours and mine will be restored like streams in the Negeb. We will be unable to control ourselves; we will be shouting for joy. We will be like those who dream. Can this be real? Can I be here at last? Is that really the Lord Christ come to get us?
With that introduction before us, let us, you and I, pray this beautiful prayer together, for Psalm 126 is a prayer. Read it with me now, whatever translation of the Bible you have in your lap.
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…”