Psalm 126 is one of my favorites. It is eloquent and bursting with imagery, rich in metaphor and meaning. It also speaks to me when life is good and life is not so good.
The psalm divides very neatly into two sections, each three verses long. In the first section the psalmist is looking back at an experience of God’s deliverance. We’re not sure, but it was most likely referring to how God brought the people out of bondage–not the first time, out of Egypt, where they had been slaves, but the second time, out of Babylon, where they had been exiles.
Remember that when Babylon defeated Israel, and everybody who was anybody was shipped off to Babylon. The people believed this was God’s punishment for their sins. They had rebelled against what they knew was right. They had followed after other gods. But whether it was God’s punishment or the consequences of their bad choices or merely the political reality of a bigger nation taking over a smaller, the result was the same: The nation was destroyed, and the people lost their religious and communal identity.
After at least 70 years in exile, the Israelites were eventually set free and were told they could return to Israel. This first half of the psalm is most likely reminiscing about that time. Listen to verses 1-3:
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 it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’
The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
I love this passage because I’ve been there. I have felt like my soul was in exile, my body separated from all that was real, and I have been restored. God has done great things for me. This is a comforting and comfortable passage for Thanksgiving week, when we try to focus on those things for which we are grateful. But I also love the second half of this psalm because I’ve been there, too. In the second half, something bad has happened— perhaps their return isn’t as wonderful as they thought it would be. The people come back to a land that has grown wild, even to homes that have become occupied by others during the generation that they and their ancestors were away. Whatever the situation is, things are no longer good. Something bad has happened between verse 3 and verse 4. The people have experienced God’s deliverance in the past, but they need it again.
Listen now to verses 4-6:
Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
“Restore our fortunes” doesn’t mean money or land. It means we need a radical change from the way things are. And God did it before. Verse 1 recalls it. The people are saying, “Please, Lord, do it for us again. Bring us a radical change from the way things are. Bring us back into relationship. Let us hear you again.”
But notice the way they ask, the metaphor they use. “Restore our fortunes, O God, like the watercourses in the Negeb.” The Negeb was a dry region with very little water. But the Northern area of Negeb was known for its wadis—dry riverbeds. When the region did receive rain, tiny rivulets would come together from distant areas, and those dry riverbeds would become powerful streams. Yes, the flooding sometimes brought destruction, but it also brought life-giving water to the arid landscape. These watercourses would bring what the people needed for life. And then it would dry again.
The watercourses were crucial to the people’s survival so they must have watched closely, waiting to see when the waters would start and stop. Today the once-dry bed is rushing with life. Today the rushing river has slowed to a gentle stream. Now the stream is a trickle. Now the water has stopped coming, but the ground is still muddy. Now the ground is dry and cracked. Now the cracks can break off in your hand and be crushed into dust that scatters on the wind. Now the crops are withering and the livestock are failing. Now my lips are cracked, and my nostrils are caked with dust. Now . . . oh God, will it ever rain again?
If it were me, when the water was high, I would mark the edge of the river so I could see it later. If it were me, when the water was gone, I would walk across the wadi while it was still muddy. I would put on my boots and stomp around and make deep footprints, prints that would remain as the ground dried and cracked. That way, I could come back and see the proof with my eyes when I couldn’t see it with my heart … that the ground had once been wet, that it had rained before. It would help me believe that it would rain again.
Sometimes our spirit flows with the water of life, and sometimes we’re in drought. We go to the river, and we think . . . Today I feel like God is far away, but I know God is near. Today I feel alone, but I know God is somewhere. Now I feel lost, and I don’t know where God is. Now my soul is cracked, and my hopes have turned to dust. Now . . . oh God, will you ever be near me again?
And that’s when we look for the boot-prints. We look back for those signs of God’s faithfulness in the past. We remember when we were brought back home from exile. We remember the times when we were like those who dream—when we heard God’s voice, when we were strengthened and renewed. And we know . . . that God has flooded our lives with living water before, nourishing our souls and refreshing our spirits, and God will do it again.
For the last few weeks we have used this piece of fence as a placeholder, as a symbol of change and transformation. We have tied a variety of things to this fence. On the first week, the fabric represented some hate we held in our hearts, or a hate we hoped to confront. The second week, we tied a strip of fabric onto the fence to represent our righteous anger, and a justice issue that we were willing to fight for. The next week was All Saints Day, and we tied fabric to represent loved ones, saints who had pointed us toward the Divine. This fence holds it all—hate and love, righteous anger and ungodly feelings, saints and sinners and all of us. The image you saw on the front of the bulletin the last few weeks was an image of a fence, but also the fence breaking apart, transforming into birds and taking flight . . . a fence experiencing radical change, going from something intended to keep you out, to something that can set you free to fly. We can take flight only when we are willing to make change. We can take flight only when we bring our all—the good and the bad and the ugly. Our stewardship campaign asked the question, “What shall we bring?”
We bring it all.
We bring our generosity and our stinginess.
We bring our rejoicing and our fear that we will never rejoice again.
We bring our dry river beds and our watercourses streaming with new life.
We bring it all . . . to the fence, to the church, to the cross.
In a few minutes, after our Stewardship moment, we will sing a hymn and the offering plates will be passed again. I ask you to put in the plate your pledge card for 2019. I pray that it will represent your best gift, your highest hopes, and all that you are. In the plates you will find a bookmark, with that image of a fence breaking apart, taking flight. Whether you put in a pledge card or not, I hope you will take a bookmark and keep it with you, reminding you of what awaits if only you will be open to the changes God longs to bring.
But first I offer you this poetic paraphrase of our scripture, called A Harvest of Joy.
Remember feeling amazing!
Remember a time of celebration –
that was the Lord God at work!
Laughter rang out,
everyone was happy,
everyone laughed till they shook with joy!
The Lord has done great things for us
and we reply with shouts of joy!
Remember feeling sad?
Remember tears running down your face –
God was with you then.
Your pain planted seeds
and your tears watered them.
The seeds grew in the tender mercy of God
growing fruit of wisdom
fruit of kindness.
Gather the fruit, and celebrate.
Those who go out weeping
shall come home rejoicing.
The Lord has done great things for us
and we reply with shouts of joy!
This Thanksgiving, I wish you a harvest of joy. And always, I wish you the freedom to fly.
 http://streamsinthenegev.com/school-of-fish/streams-in-the-negev-and-the-return-of-the-jews-to-israel/ and https://books.google.com/books?id=AMtoyNxWw0UC&pg=PA26&lpg=PA26&dq=watercourses+in+the+negeb&source=bl&ots=cCHes3_9uj&sig=lkf6dddEDICqmJldYvPJmWL4sdo&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjBpZ7MstneAhWxneAKHR83DyAQ6AEwFHoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=watercourses%20in%20the%20negeb&f=false