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When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.
Restore our fortunes, Lord,
like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.
If you’re one of our American readers, then today is a day of food, family, and football, otherwise known as Thanksgiving. Even though I’m no longer living in the States, this fourth Thursday of November has come around and got me thinking about thankfulness.
But I’m also, like many pastors and worship planners, in the throes of Advent planning and preparation.
So, on this day of thanks just before the Advent season kicks off, I’m thinking about Psalm 126.
Psalm 126 is one of the Psalms of Ascent. These were old, familiar psalms sung by Jewish pilgrims as they ascended towards Jerusalem for worship festivals. Each of these psalms has a slightly different accent, and this one – as evidenced by the use of the word four times – is marked by joy.
Which means, says Eugene Peterson in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, that joy is a characteristic of the Christian pilgrimage. The American author Phyllis McGinley noted once, “I have read that during the process of canonization the Catholic Church demands proof of joy in the candidate, and although I have not been able to track down chapter and verse, I like the suggestion that dourness is not a sacred attribute.”*
I love that. “Dourness is not a sacred attribute.” One who experiences the fullness of God should exhibit joy.
Now we know that joy is not the same as happiness. The psalmist isn’t calling pilgrims to be brimming with sunshine and smiles every minute of every day. Which is good. Because while there’s still plenty in life to fill our hearts with warmth and gladness, it feels like many of us are entering this Advent season carrying a decent amount of weariness and grief. Things are not as we would have them be. There’s anxiety, division, unkindness, and loss in our churches, our families, our schools, and our neighbourhoods. Far from sunshine and smiles, there’s much to make us weep.
Which makes Psalm 126 feel particularly resonant. It’s a psalm in which people in the present tense are weeping. Most scholars refer to this psalm as a post-Exilic psalm because of its opening line: “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion.” After generations had lived under Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian rule, Cyrus of Persia allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem. It’s one of the great stories of the faith, this return to Zion.
But upon their return, they discovered a land in ruin, the temple a heap of rubble, and new neighbours who didn’t particularly want them back in the vicinity. There was much to cause weariness and grief.
And yet, the psalmist speaks of joy. The psalmist speaks of joy in the past tense: “Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.” The psalmist speaks of joy in the future tense: “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.” And – even as the people are weeping – the psalmist speaks of joy in the present tense: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.”
The Lord has done great things – joy has come.
The Lord will do great things – joy will come.
And because of what we know, and what we trust, joy is ours, now, as present to us as the tears on our face or the ache in our back.
In Canada we like to poke fun at the timing of American thanksgiving. It’s too close to Christmas, there aren’t any pumpkins to harvest anymore, and the weather is often terrible. October makes much more sense.
But as I think about Psalm 126, it makes all the sense in the world to go from Thanksgiving to Advent in the span of a few days.** Because only after recounting what God has done are we bold enough to ask that God would do it again. Only in the knowledge of his faithfulness in the past are we able to hope for what is to come. Only after recounting the return from exile can the psalmist pray, “Restore us O God.”
So as we prepare for a season of longing, expectation, and hope, may today – no matter the country you’re in – be a day of recounting the faithfulness of God. May you tell stories of his goodness and his love. May you remember the times you were filled with joy, and may the trust that God is yet at work in the world sustain you even now, carrying you forward along the path in joy.
*I have this quote in my notes from a sermon study I did a few years back, but no source. If you know where it’s from, let us know!
**Acknowledging that Thanksgiving isn’t actually a liturgical day, this is also why it is right and fitting to observe Christ the King Sunday the week before Advent begins.