Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Harvest and Homecoming

11/07/2010 Bethany, Homecoming, All Saints, Holy Communion, Vets

Psalm 126

The psalm writer begins with a memory. It is one of those events that you never forget, a life-changing moment to which you anchor your trust. Things were going badly for Israel, for “Zion”. We don’t have the details – was it an economic collapse, a food shortage, a military failure? In some translations, this return is phrased as a return from exile or captivity. Most scholars now prefer the more general translation “restored the fortunes” rather than a reference to exile. What we do know about this restoration is that God “restored their fortunes” in a dramatic and powerful way. It was so amazing that they had to laugh. It was so powerful that they shouted and hollered out with joy. It was so dramatic that even other nations were telling the story: “The LORD has done great things for them!”

We love comeback stories, restoration stories. There’s usually an element of hard work involved. And, there’s often a surprising moment, something unexpected, that accelerates the comeback. In the late 90's, Hush Puppies shoes made a surprising comeback. It started with some surprising events – Harry Connick Jr. wore a pair on The Tonight Show and Tom Hanks wore them for Forrest Gump. And, the company was prepared with new colors, some updates to the old fashion, and were able to ride the wave. “Restore our fortunes”.

The psalm writer begins with memory, memory of restoration. But that’s not where the writer is now. Now, we need that restoration again. Now, “restore our fortunes”. Now, we have fallen on hard times once more.

And there are two images or metaphors for the prayed-for restoration. One is surprising, sudden. The other is hard work and perseverance.

Surprising and sudden: “Like watercourses in the Negeb”. The Negeb is an arid, desert region in the south. The watercourses are empty and dry, ditches and gullies left behind by heavy rains. But when those rains come, they fill up with rushing water and the barren landscape blooms and supports animal life – seemingly overnight.

Hard work and perseverance: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.” It is about the transformation of our troubles into blessing, a recognition that perseverance and toughness will be honored. It doesn’t eliminate the tears, it doesn’t minimize the tears ... it transforms them. I don’t understand how God does this – and I know that not every tear is transformed – but I have experienced in my own life God’s transforming power, from tears to blessing. And, much of it has happened through the church.

We’ve been collecting stories, stories of what God has done in our lives, stories of how the church has been a blessing to us. One of the common threads is how so many of them relate to a great struggle, a time of “sowing in tears”. Listen in to some of the stories [read aloud by others]:
I am so thankful that I grew up in a good Christian home and we were very active in the church. I thank God for helping me now that my husband is terminally ill.

The church “family” is so important to me since I have no immediate family nearby. I know there would be someone there to help in case of need. I have many friends here that have certainly enriched by life.

Bethany has sustained our family through difficult struggles. On the tough days, the prayers, cards, and other expressions of support helped us keep moving forward.

When Jack was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm on October 2, 2001, my faith was tested. . . . During this three-month ordeal, had I not had my “faith foundation” I do not think I would have been able to handle this crisis.

Sleep is easy now.

It has given me an extended family, a place to call my House of Worship. I'm happier, don't feel lost anymore.

Our lives have become rich with the blessings of family….Church Family. We have been amazed at the generosity of those at Bethany who not only talk the talk of being Christians, but walk the walk.
As the psalm-writer remembers the deliverance of the LORD, he or she declares, “Then it was said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.’” God did something wonderful – and everyone knew about it. How? Surely not the world wide web or evening television news. The news traveled then by the way it still travels best today – word of mouth. One scholar remarked that the primitive church grew by gossip. We have a story at Bethany, you have a story in your life, and it is a story worth telling. It is worth telling not because we are the main character but because Jesus is the center.

And, the stories are worth telling because there will come a day when we must remember them. It will be a day that demands hard work and perseverance, a day in which we long for deliverance with every fiber of our being, a day in which the memory of God’s work anchors us to that dream that is no wishful thinking. No, that dream is anchored in reality: God has delivered us, and God will save us yet again.

Our dry and barren watercourses will flow with life-giving water. Our bleak and arid landscapes will yield a harvest. And, we will come home. Dirk Gotwalt, one of our long time members, now 82 years old, lives in Delaware. Once a month, he comes to York to eat lunch with his school buddies and to stop by the church. The last time he stopped in, I was here and was able to show him the new lifts and give him a ride. He raised his hand and pressed the palm to the wall. After a moment, he brought his arm back to his side and said, simply, “This is home.”

The last verse of the psalm has a remarkable parallel structure and other interesting features that don’t show up in most English translations. For one thing, the verb for bearing (seed) and carrying (sheaves) is the same verb. For another, the descriptive terms “weeping” and “shouts of joy” are parallel. And, finally, the main verbs of each clause, “go out” and “come home” are each doubled, first the infinitive then the action, as in, literally: “To go out, the one who goes out” and “to come home, the one who comes home”. The doubling is a way of emphasizing the action. The verse can be translated to reflect this emphasis and the more comprehensive parallelism. “Those who surely go forth weeping, carrying the seed bag, shall surely come home cheering, carrying their sheaves” (see Derek Kidner on the doubled verb, Psalms 73-150, Tyndale OT Commentaries, IVP and The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament on “meshek zara” in BibleWorks).

The “fathers” of the church, when they reflected on this psalm, particularly on this verse, moved its promise forward in time to the return of Christ Jesus, to the final reward of God’s saints (see Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scriptures, Psalms 51-150). They read the sheaves in terms of Jesus’ parable about the harvest as “the end of the age” (Matthew 13:39), and they read the homecoming in light of Israel’s return from exile (as Zephaniah 3:20 and Zechariah 10:10) as well as in terms of the final homecoming. Interestingly enough, the final homecoming, in biblical terms, is not us going to God but God coming to us, in a marriage of heaven and earth, Jesus and his Bride – the Church.

Revelation 21:1-4: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."

That will be a great day. And, it will mark the completion of promise of the psalm: “Those who surely go forth weeping, carrying the seed bag, shall surely come home cheering, carrying their sheaves”. But the reason why I can imagine – and it’s only dimly imagined – that great day of promise is because I have experienced that promise here. I have seen the restoration of God in the life of the church. I have experienced the restoration of God in my own soul, in my own family. And I’ve heard some stories from you and from the saints who have preceded us into the land of promise. Restore our fortunes, O LORD!
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