For our faith ancestors, Psalm 126 was traditionally known as a “Psalm of Ascent,” which meant that it was sung by travelers as they made their way to the Temple. Of particular interest is the understanding that this is not a Psalm of David, but one that was probably written during the return to Jerusalem around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. However, one caution would be to hinder the usefulness of the Psalm by tying it too tightly to its historical circumstances. While historical context is enlightening, God’s people are always in need of salvation and the Lord’s strength to restore us from our chaos and terrible choices.
126:1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 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.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.
4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the Negeb!
5 Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
6 He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
A Note about the Streams of Negeb (or Negev in the NIV) - These streams are well-known for being dry and being dry often. However, these stream beds can suddenly be rushing floods when the seasonal rains arrive. So, we can see the imagery here of a lack of hope suddenly turning into the arrival of life-giving deliverance.
The point of this Psalm is that we as God’s people live by both memory and hope. During this Christmas time, we remember the story of Jesus’ birth and what his coming means for us. We reflect on the cross and the resurrection as we take the Lord’s Supper. We hear the teachings of Jesus proclaimed and lived out as we interpret the Scriptures. We try to become like him as we live in the community of the church. And yet, through the tears, sorrow, and hard times—we hope. We hope that Christ is coming again, and our memory of what Jesus has done compels our belief in what He will do! Like the memory of Jesus burst on the scene unexpectedly and without warning, so we prepare ourselves for the hope of Jesus’ coming that will complete all things. Within these boundaries, we are a glad and joyful people!
This is the time of year we hear much about “good news” and “glad tidings.” We sing about comfort and joy, and we think about hope and peace and joy again! And I want to give my affirmation that these words, and the ideas they stand for, are at that the heart of the Christmas season. I also want to ask a series of questions, like:
Listen to the prophet Isaiah, chapter 61:
1 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion--
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
If we listen carefully to the words of the prophet, we know that Jesus himself reads from this very passage as he begins his ministry in Luke 4. I also hear some of the Beatitudes from Matthew 5 and ideas echoed in the Magnificat of Mary in Luke 1. Let’s reflect on a few more verses of Isaiah 61:
8 For I the Lord love justice;
I hate robbery and wrong;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their offspring shall be known among the nations,
and their descendants in the midst of the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge them,
that they are an offspring the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to sprout up before all the nations.
So, let’s reflect and briefly answer the questions above:
Who was the target of the good news proclaimed by the prophets and Gospel writers?
The good news is for the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, and the mourning -- good news that includes "the day of vengeance of our God." Why is that mentioned? None of these folks would get much good news in the ancient social order unless that order was destroyed and replaced with a new Kingdom. When that order was destroyed, rebuilding God's "ancient ruins" could begin (vs. 4). In the meantime, the prophet rejoices, clothed in the hope this good news brings (vs. 8-11).
Who would have seen this news as not-so-good-news?
It seems fair to notice that those who were considered oppressors, captors, and those loving the life of the world would see the good news as not so good news. When the prophet claims that God “hates robbery and wrong,” I hear more than those who are labeled as thieves, but those whose greed moves them to take more than they need and those whose power allows them to exploit others for their own benefit. If the Lord comforts those who mourn, then we might flip the statement to suggest that God also evokes mourning for those who are comfortable.
Who might have categorized this news as “fake news?”
Well, this isn’t hard to speculate because in the Gospel stories the chief priests, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees seem to think Jesus is fake and the stories regarding his power and ministry are also false. I think it is safe to say that those who have the most to lose in accepting any “news” are the quickest to label it and try to prove it “fake.” Herod sure doesn’t like the notion that there is another leader and King in town. So much so that he kills John the Baptist, the one who proclaim’s Christ’s coming.
Do I really think that the good news is actually good news?
I think this is the real question…because to answer it I have to admit that I am quite comfortable in my life. I have to admit that my bank account is ok and that I have everything I need—plus some. My belly is full and my wants are vast. Can I truly follow a King who is the leader of the oppressed and depressed, the anxious and the addict? Can I trust in a God who loves justice so much that it confronts my life and calls me to question the ways of my culture, government, and my own mind and will? Do I want to live as an example of the contemporary “American Dream,” or do I want to be an oak of righteousness that brings glory to God? Is there a scenario where I can even try to accomplish both or are these two lifestyles diametrically opposed to one another?
O Lord, help me join the prophet who proclaimed…”I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…” Our life in the Spirit of God makes the good news actually good news!
40:1 “Comfort, comfort my people,”
says your God.
2 “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.
Tell her that her sad days are gone
and her sins are pardoned.
Yes, the Lord has punished her twice over
for all her sins.”
3 Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting,
“Clear the way through the wilderness
for the Lord!
Make a straight highway through the wasteland
for our God!
4 Fill in the valleys,
and level the mountains and hills.
Straighten the curves,
and smooth out the rough places.
5 Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
The Lord has spoken!”
6 A voice said, “Shout!”
I asked, “What should I shout?”
“Shout that people are like the grass.
Their beauty fades as quickly
as the flowers in a field.
7 The grass withers and the flowers fade
beneath the breath of the Lord.
And so it is with people.
8 The grass withers and the flowers fade,
but the word of our God stands forever.”
9 O Zion, messenger of good news,
shout from the mountaintops!
Shout it louder, O Jerusalem.
Shout, and do not be afraid.
Tell the towns of Judah,
“Your God is coming!”
10 Yes, the Sovereign Lord is coming in power.
He will rule with a powerful arm.
See, he brings his reward with him as he comes.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd.
He will carry the lambs in his arms,
holding them close to his heart.
He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young.
Hear the 3 cries of the prophet in this verse today:
First, there is the cry to prepare the way for the Lord (1-4). Are you tired? Why? What are the main stressors? Has life been hard? Hasn’t gone the way you wanted? Are you hurting? Another year has come and gone, yet the same old routines and “stuff” are dominating your life? The Lord speaks COMFORT upon us. Not instead of our hurt and anxiety, but in the midst of it. Over and above all the noise and shouting, violence and oppression is someone with the boldness to tell us the truth…the Lord is coming! Not from a throne or your favorite city, not on the clouds or up from the ground…but out of the wilderness. Why? You see, our Lord knows what it means to be tired, hurt, and in pain. Often, from a theological lens that place in which we sometimes find ourselves is known as “wilderness.” Yet, the Lord has survived it and overcame it. Therefore, the prophet speaks hope that since we have a Lord who has overcome, so too can we. When I hear the distant cry of “Prepare the way of the Lord,” I am reminded that God is on the way!
Second, there is the cry that we are here only a little while but the Word of God remains forever (5-8). It might seem strange that after a comforting message of hope to the people, the prophet seemingly pulls the rug out from beneath us. We are like grass…we fade…shout it with me now! It seems…depressing. However, we are summoned by the prophet to build upon the hope we have that the Lord has not abandoned us and that we have beheld His glory. I think we all need a good reminder that the hope of the Lord is not rooted in me or you, but in the WORD that spans the ages and provides life, instruction, and promise to each generation. I remember Christmas mornings when the whole morning revolved around my sister and me. Now Christmas mornings truly revolve around my kids. I look forward to the day when, Lord willing, Christmas morning will center on my grandkids. Why? Because I am fading and my purpose is to pass on the spirit of Christmas and gift giving to my kids and then to their kids and so forth. Moving from the realm of Christmas to the realm of faith, we are fading and the church’s main work to preserve and pass on the WORD so that the glory of God can be revealed to the next generation…until “forever” in this passage is but a memory.
Last, there is the cry to proclaim the Lord’s victory in the midst of a reality of ruins and pains (9-11). Again, it seems strange that while the city lies in a heap of destruction that the order would come to proclaim victory. This passage puts the notions of victory and good news in the context of a people forgotten and oppressed. To whom is the victory given? To whom is the good news proclaimed? I think it is fair to argue that the people receiving the message of victory and good news are those who are outcasts in the world’s system of domination and violence. Listen again to the end of the passage… He will feed, He will carry the lambs—holding them close to his heart, He will gently lead. Hmm…seems oddly otherworldly to me.
Isaiah points us to the coming of the Lord in which we both experience and anticipate, knowing that the victory is secured and coming in full; so we wait for it while we live and rest in it when we die in assurance that the Word of the Lord guides this world out of the chaos of sin and death, and into the Kingdom of God.
There are many times I wonder why it is that study of the Bible has been a part of the life of faith, encouraged since the time I was young. You see, there was a time in our world in which many people attended the worship service came to hear the word of God read to them, to hear it explained, and then spent very little time reading on their own. It wasn’t because they were unfaithful, it was because they were illiterate. So, there was a dependence upon the church to tell the larger story of God—through the Bible—so that the people would know what to look for and do in their lives.
This is not my experience, in fact, as a young man I thought that reading the Bible was a chore. Maybe you have a hard time getting into the word of God, but I want to suggest that we are living in a shifting time for the church, because for the past 50 years or so many evangelical churches assume that their people are reading and studying on their own. This is one of the biggest difference between some of the earlier, more liturgical churches and many of the more recent, populous movements of the 18th and 19th century. The newer church groups, like the one I’m a part of, are beginning to realize that people are not choosing to read their Bibles. The scholars call it a post-literate world in which we can read, but choose to explore other forms—for us those forms are multi-media and digital.
So, there is a shift back to wanting more scripture presented in the worship service, reminding us of the story of God that we rarely engage in Monday-Friday. And while we can argue what people OUGHT to do, there is a difference in all of our lives between what ought to happen and what seems to really happen! (Am I right?!?!?)
However we engage, we need to focus on the larger story of God because it is God’s historical faithfulness that helps us in times of trouble, both individually and collectively as a church. Listen to the words of the psalmist Asaph:
1 Please listen, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph’s descendants like a flock.
O God, enthroned above the cherubim,
display your radiant glory
2 to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh.
Show us your mighty power.
Come to rescue us!
3 Turn us again to yourself, O God.
Make your face shine down upon us.
Only then will we be saved.
4 O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies,
how long will you be angry with our prayers?
5 You have fed us with sorrow
and made us drink tears by the bucketful.
6 You have made us the scorn of neighboring nations.
Our enemies treat us as a joke.
7 Turn us again to yourself, O God of Heaven’s Armies.
Make your face shine down upon us.
The Psalm points us to a refrain, “Turn us again to yourself, O God. Make Your face shine down upon us. Only then will we be saved.” This refrain speaks of the ever unfolding story of our God. “Turn us again to yourself” looks backwards at all the times God has abruptly stole our attentions away from other things. God interrupted our world and turned our heads around. God did it in Egypt, at the Sea Crossing, and by protecting his people over and over again. “Make you face shine down” focuses on the present situation in which the psalmist cries out for help. The Psalmist knows that he can ask God for help because God has acted before, but presently there is a need for confirmation of God’s presence. Then, there is a statement of faith in future deliverance…”only then will we be saved.”
For the church, of any generation, this message is one centered on Christ. Through this Christmas season we teach and focus upon the birth, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. We ask to know the Lord’s presence in the midst of our congregations and on a daily basis in our lives. We long for the second coming, the time of redemption and full salvation from this world. It is these verses below that Asaph wrote so many years ago to provide new meaning in our hearts today, he wrote this to God:
17 Strengthen the man you love,
the son of your choice.
18 Then we will never abandon you again.
Revive us so we can call on your name once more.
19 Turn us again to yourself, O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies.
Make your face shine down upon us.
Only then will we be saved.
God, tell us your story from Alpha to Omega, beginning to the end, so we can see your power, know your faithfulness, and stand in awe of your love. For today, we ask to feel your presence and know your Son Jesus because we want to be saved, we want to be his people on the day of his return. God, make us your people because we don't deserve it but your grace and mercy provides a relationship between us. Amen.
I’m not sure if you believe in omens or signs, but you will at least get a laugh out of this one. Yesterday morning I woke up and I have been having some stiffness in my right ankle. As a result, I tend to grab both handrails and gently lower myself down the stairs each morning to make coffee and try to wake up. I managed about five steps before my left foot slipped off and I found myself laying at the bottom of our staircase with a sore little toe on my left foot.
There I was, on the floor, and all I could do is laugh at myself, get up, and wonder what in the world would happen during this week…because when you fall down the stairs on Monday morning, it can’t be a good sign! (about a half hour later I hear the thud, thud, thud, sound again and my daughter yells, “I’m OK.” on Monday, my family had a 50% chance of falling down the steps…we were 2 for 4 that morning—Not Good!
Now, that was a funny story, but the Advent reading from Isaiah 7:10-16 is in the middle of a very serious political landscape. I will not take the time to go into detail here, because if you can navigate to this page on a computer then I am sure you can look up the background of this text explained by far smarter persons than yours truly. However, one point is necessary here. Ahaz, the King of Judah (the southern portion of a divided Kingdom), has trusted other kings and given his allegiance to the Assyrian king meaning that Ahaz has not trusted God or sought God’s guidance as Judah was being threatened by Israel (the northern portion of a divided Kingdom) and Aram. Yet, God offers Ahaz a sign to help him in his distress, and well…here’s the way Isaiah tells the story…
10 Later, the LORD sent this message to King Ahaz: 11 “Ask the LORD your God for a sign of confirmation, Ahaz. Make it as difficult as you want—as high as heaven or as deep as the place of the dead.” 12 But the king refused. “No,” he said, “I will not test the LORD like that.”
13 Then Isaiah said, “Listen well, you royal family of David! Isn’t it enough to exhaust human patience? Must you exhaust the patience of my God as well? 14 All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). 15 By the time this child is old enough to choose what is right and reject what is wrong, he will be eating yogurt (more like curds or butter) and honey. 16 For before the child is that old, the lands of the two kings you fear so much will both be deserted.
For Ahaz, this is a bittersweet sign from God. We connect to the first part in that the birth of Immanuel means that God will continue to be with the people and God has not forsaken them even in the midst of Ahaz poor decisions. This child is the hope of the future of the Kingdom (Judah) for sure. However, Isaiah also indicates here and later in chapter 8:1-4 that Assyria will be violent with Ahaz and Judah, and this happening is God’s judgment against them.
Immanuel, God with us, such a reassuring image in that the virgin will conceive and bear a son who bears that name. This passage is a Messianic prophecy, that is it points us toward Jesus and is picked up in Mathew 1:22-23 because there is a connection between this image and the image of Mary as virgin conceiving and bearing Immanuel. It is a beautiful image, but we must not forget the continuing image of Messiah through the book of Revelation in which Jesus is portrayed as the king whose return we long for, coming in full apocalyptic glory, as both judge and savior. At this time, we are invited to hope, pray, and long for this revelation—but also to evaluate our faithfulness and allegiances and make sure that we are ready for such an event.
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.