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PSALMS OF ASCENT: Restoration  Psalm 126

It’s hard to imagine what that day might have been like.  My guess is that they knew that it was coming because the army was gathering and building around the outside of the city.  But that day—that day when the walls of Jerusalem (their very shield) started to come down at the hands of the Babylonians.  That day must have been like no other day they ever experienced in their life.  Every single dad was trying to protect his kids; every single mom was trying to stand in the way of harm coming.   As that wall came down, every single Israelite that stood in the city of Jerusalem knew that their life from that day forward was going to be definitively different.  It happened in 586 BC when the Babylonians came and took over.  They took all the Israelites off into exile where they were to live the rest of their days, presumably, under Babylonian rule.  Where they didn’t get the chance to celebrate their own culture, where they didn’t get the chance to worship freely their own God.  They were taken from their homes and displaced from everything that they knew and every dream that they had or hope that they saw on the distant horizon; it all vanished on that day as those rocks started coming down.  Can you imagine what that might have been like?  If you’re a parent, can you imagine what it might have been like to know that you had a journey in front of you where you had to try to protect your family and your kids, not knowing, even if you made it those 500 miles from Jerusalem to Babylon, what might be waiting for you when you got there?  Could you imagine, if you were a single person and not having protection from a family that you loved and cared for, how alone you must have felt as you made that walk?  It’s hard for us to imagine what THAT day might have been like and what THAT cloud that came over that Israelite nation might have felt like.

I wracked my brain trying to think if there were any modern-day equivalents to what happened.  The only thing I could think of that comes close is the current civil war and tragedy that’s going on in Syria.  I don’t know that the Israelites’ journey into exile into Babylon looked all that dissimilar from what it’s looked like for four million refugees to flee Syria.  Four million people to flee and half of those, at least, are children.  Can you imagine what it must be like to be one of these moms or dads holding a one-and-a-half-year-old boy.  That’s the feeling Israel felt as they were carried into Babylonian exile.  Not only did they have that emotional angst of “we’re leaving every thing we know, every hope, every dream, every thought that we’ve ever had is going to have to be rewritten and redreamed,” but they’re going and leaving a place that they’ve called home and they know it’s going to look different when they come back.  For these Syrians, that’s absolutely the truth.  (Showed picture of Syrians and Syria)  Can you imagine what it must have been like for those Israelites to be taken from everything that they knew, from the very soil that was under their feet that they knew it was going to be different when they came back.

The only thing that may be harder to imagine than being taken into exile….is coming back from exile.  It just simply didn’t happen in the ancient world.  Once you were taken into slavery, to get out of slavery would take an act of God, because your whole entire economic system started to be built on the idea of having free and forced labor.  The Israelite people had this promise from God that, while they were taken into exile in 586 BC, undergirded all of their exile and all of their pain and all of their doubt about their future — that God was going to be good to them.  Indeed He was.  In seventy years, a miracle happened.  There were people that started to come back from exile.  There was this edict by this evil king who said, “You Israelite people can go back and you can start to rebuild your land that has been absolutely pummeled.  You can start to go back and re-envision what it might look like to be the people of God in the promised land that He’d given you.”  They started to reimagine and they started to rebuild and it was this mighty, miraculous hand of God where life in the Israelite people started to be reawakened.

The only thing crazier than being taken into exile might be returning from it!  That’s what God did after seventy years.  The exiles started to come back.  When they came back, they started to write songs.  Their songs said similar things to the ones we just heard —- You make beautiful things out of dust.  God, you awaken life out of death.  God, you breathe light into darkness.  God, you are miraculous.  Tucked into these Psalms of Ascent, as the nation of Israel would sing on their way to Jerusalem, was a reminder that what is now is not what will always be.  They’re reminded that it’s okay to have hope.  They’re reminded that it’s okay to dream.  This psalm (Psalm 126) is important for us today, because it’s really easy for us to think and believe that our current circumstances will define and will be our future.  It’s easy to believe that the pain that we currently walk in, or the doubts that we currently have, or the things that press in on our life and the disappointments…..it’s easy to believe that those things will always be right in front of us.  The reason that songs and psalms like Psalm 126 are so important is because they remind us {will you look up at me just a second} that exile is never the end of the story.

Psalm 126.  Listen as these poets and songwriters invite us into these beautiful deep truths of what it means to be the people of God:  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 they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”  The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.    The psalmist starts out with “When the Lord restored……”   In the Hebrew the word (restored) carries with it the idea of God hitting rewind and bringing us back.  {Rewind was a term we used back in the day where we had these things called VCRs……..}   The Lord sort of hit rewind and He brought us back to this place of life and He brought us back to this place of vitality, and it took seventy years, but God started to breathe life into dead things.  Chip and Joanna Gaines — You’re great and “Fixer Upper” is awesome, but “Fixer Upper” you’ve got nothing on the God of Heaven, because He loves, loves, loves to take broken pieces and restore them and make them whole. He loves to take lives that are in the valley of the shadow of death and lead them to light.  He loves to take brokenness and breathe His healing.  He loves to give grace.  He loves to restore fortunes.  Therefore, in light of that, friends, I want to encourage you today to refuse, REFUSE, to allow your present circumstances to limit your vision for future potential!  It’s so easy for us to think man, we’re in this spot right now that’s difficult and we’re in this spot right now that’s painful and where sorrow seems to prevail and that’s just the way it’s always going to be.  If this psalm says anything to us, it says our God is able to take what may seem like the most desperate of situations and turn it for good.  It’s so easy to let our present reality be shaped by our current circumstances.  What the psalmist would say to us is let your present reality be shaped by God’s past faithfulness with the conviction that He will continue to be good into the future.  This is not some pie-in-the-sky, ‘I hope I win the lottery’ type of hope.  This is a historically-informed conviction that what God did, God can do.  It’s believing that His past faithfulness has to influence our present and will determine our future.  If God could bring exiles back to a land, if He could restore their fortunes…..  Listen, I know you’ve got your story today and I know you may be walking through a really difficult situation, but I’m just going to sink my anchor in the pages of history and in the faithfulness of God and I’m going to believe today that, regardless of what I’m walking through, You have been faithful, God, and I believe that you will be faithful again.  Anything is possible. Impossible is nothing for our God.

This word “fortunes” is sort of weird, isn’t it?  I sorta feel like we’re invited on a pirate ship or something and we’re searching for buried treasure.  When I fixed started to look at that I thought it must mean financial security and it must mean God restoring us to the place of physical wealth and all these things.  As you read the psalm, that’s not at all what the psalmist is writing about.  He’s going to talk about three fortunes that God restores to these people of Israel as he brings them back to the land.  Look at the first one:  When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.   When Israel was brought back to the land, when God’s hand moved mightily…..yeah, he brought them back physically, but he also brought them back spiritually. He brought them back to the place where they could start to envision that God would move mightily and would work wonders in their time like he had in the past.  God invites his people to dream.  In fact, his Spirit in us, as followers of Jesus, stirs in us to imagine what God could do.  Look at the way it’s said in the book of Acts (2:17). They’re quoting from an Old Testament passage from the book of Joel that talked about the coming and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit:  And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.    Even the old folks are going to go, “Oh, there’s a new day on the horizon.”

What they’re talking about here is not necessarily the dream you have when you’re asleep.  Those can be really powerful.  But I’d argue that the dreams you have when you’re awake are far more powerful than the dreams that you have while you’re asleep.  That the stirring in you of God, might you work in this in a way that I can’t possibly imagine.  Or you may be walking in the valley of the shadow right now and all of your dreams have fallen by the wayside because of your present circumstances.  You may have gotten the call this week that you lost that job that you loved.  Or you may be walking through a situation, relationally, that is not going the way that you want it to.  You may have gotten served those divorce papers today, so the dreams that you have, the hopes that you have, have gone out the window.  I love the fact that when God restores people, He restores the deepest things in their humanity.  The ability to, once again, think about….God, what might you do in the midst of this darkness.  Pain has this ability to shut down our dreams, doesn’t it?  It has this ability to say no, you can’t go there, you can’t think that, you can’t hope for that, you can’t pray for that.  What this passage reminds us is that God has the ability to reawaken the dreams that lie dormant inside of us.  {Will you look up at me for just a second?}  The dreams that you have in your heart and your mind have the ability to change your family, to change the direction of your life and to change the world and the Enemy would love to beat you down to the point where you let go of the dream.  I want to say to you this morning, it’s safe to dream because you have a God who invites you to trust Him in His faithfulness.

Dreams have the ability to change the world.  August 28, 1963  — “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  I have a dream today.  I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers.  I have a dream today.  I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.  (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Dreams change destinies!  They do!  When we let go of the dreams that God has birthed in our hearts and when we let the present circumstances nullify those dream, instead of having faith, as hard as it can be…..isn’t it hard?  It is HARD to have a dream, isn’t it?  Dreams demand of you.  To have a dream demands that we look at the present circumstance and we go, “We’re not okay with what currently is, we are hoping and praying for more!”   And that takes work, doesn’t it?  It’s easy to be complacent.  Dreams demand of us.  They demand that we step into arenas — they send us to places and spheres of life where we don’t know how things are going to turn out.  It’s so much easier to play it safe than it is to dream.   But, friends, you are, we are the people of God and when God restores it’s not just giving material restoration, it’s reawakening us to the possibilities of what might happen because God is for us.  Our worship pastor, Aaron Bjorklund, grew up a missionary kid and served with World Venture.  He said to me, “Ryan, one of the gifts the American church can give to the world is the ability to, once again, dream of what God could do.”   What dreams have gone dormant in you, friends?  Would you release those and let God reawaken them today?

Listen to the way the psalmist continues:  Then our mouth was filled with laughter…  I love this, this restoration!  The deepest places of our humanity being reawakened by the grace and by the goodness of God. Have you thought about laughter?  You can only laugh in the present.  You can’t laugh in the past.  You can’t laugh in the future.  You can only laugh WHEN you’re present and aware and dialed in to what’s going on around you.  Have you ever been sitting at a dinner table and somebody told a great story and everybody laughed and somebody walked to the door and asked what you were laughing about?  Everybody responded, “You had to be there!!”  There’s someone that tries to retell the story and it totally falls flat —- No, it wasn’t like that.  You really had to be there.  You not only have to be there physically, but you have to be present.  God’s saying, “I reawakened the ability to laugh in my people.

Did you know that kids laugh somewhere between 300-400 times a day?  We usually meet that quota at our breakfast table!  Adults laugh 15-20 times a day.  What happens to us as we “mature?”  I love hearing my kids laugh!  There’s nothing better to me than my five-year-old daughter’s uncontrollable belly laugh.  Nothing better!  As a dad, the thing I love about it most is that I hear her laugh and I KKNOW that she’s enjoying the life that she has.  As a dad, I want nothing more for her than to drink deeply of the grace of God and when she laughs like that I know she is.  What if we started to believe again that God loves to hear his children laugh? That God isn’t some cosmic killjoy and when we start laughing He’s like, “Let’s get serious here! This is serious business—life!”  What if we started to believe God in heaven, our Good Father, loved to hear us laugh and that laughing isn’t something that just happens physically in us, but that there’s something deeply spiritual about being aware of the moment we’re in in a way we can find the divine humor in it.  What if we believed our God invited us and loved to hear us laugh?  That’s Fortune #2.

Fortune #3 — ……our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy….   God restored Israel to the point where they able not to text with joy, not to email with joy, but where they were able to say listen, with everything we have in our deepest being, we are people who’ve recognized God, you’ve been good to us.  Our present circumstance didn’t dictate our future and so we will shout with joy, “You’ve been good!”  I love this!  …then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”  Joy is probably the greatest evangelistic tool we have at our fingertips as followers of Jesus.  I’m all about you sharing your faith and we want to train people on how to do that.  Whatever method you want to use is probably fine and will work great, but more than sharing your faith, maybe we need to concentrate on having a faith worth sharing! That we’re walking deeply with our Father and we know his goodness…..not just in the seasons of life that we can celebrate, but where we know his goodness even in the valley of the shadow.  C.S. Lewis says, “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.”  C.S. Lewis is saying that joy is heading us and leading us to the place where we can’t help but speak of it.  That’s how we step into it fully.  So the psalmist concludes by saying, “Oh yeah, and we are glad.”  God was awesome.  He’s great and we were glad.  You may be too, this morning.  You may go man, that’s where I’m at — God, you’ve restored me.  God, you’ve brought me back.  God, you’ve reawakened laughter and you’ve reawakened dreams and you’ve brought me back to the place where I have seen your hand and I know your joy and I’m unwavering in that.

But what happens if we’re on the other side of exile?  What do we do if we’re still in Babylon?  If we’re still in the land that we’ve been taken to?  What do we do with a passage like this when we get the call that we’ve lost the job? Where we find out that the husband or wife is leaving?  What do we when the relationship is broken beyond repair?  What do we do, when we’re living IN exile, with these shouts of praise from the other side?  Exile is the feeling everyone of us has felt.  It’s a place every single one of us has been.  It’s that deep and abiding feeling that we have been helplessly abandoned to the desert and nobody knows and nobody cares and nobody’s coming to our rescue.  We’ve all been there and we’ll all be there again.  What do we do when we find ourself in THAT place?  {That’s such a great question.  I’m so glad you asked that question.}  The psalmist anticipates that question because look what he says in verse 4:  Restore our fortunes, O Lord….   Some translations will say ‘Restore us again, Lord,’ as if to say this cycle is cyclical.  That we’re taken into exile and God, you reawaken things and you bring us out, but that’s never the end of the story.  We often find ourselves back in exile someday and what do we do when that happens? The psalmist invites us by his very words to say when that happens, when that’s the place you find yourself in, when you’re on the other side of exile….not the ‘we’ve been released and God your great’……cry out!  Pray!  But pray with confidence.  Pray with informed hope. History is the context of biblical hope.  We don’t hope just sort of nilly-willy, pie-in-the-sky hope.  We hope because of who God is and what God has done.  We look at his track record and we determine to sink the anchor of our present into our great God, trusting that He was good, that He is good, that He will be good.

So in the midst of hurt, how do we hold onto hope?  Well, we pray: God, would you restore us?  God, would you work?  God, would you move?  But if I were you I’d be going alright, that’s sort of easy to say, Ryan, but how can we have confidence that our present circumstance doesn’t need to dictate our future vision? {I’m glad you asked that.}  Here’s what he says:  Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb!  The Negeb is the southern region of Israel.  It’s extremely dry.  It’s a desert.  It is a desolate place.  Yet, every once in a while there’s rain that comes.  Because of that fact, there’s these river beds that are dry.  What the psalmist is saying is that there’s some dry places in our life.  There’s some places that have grown dormant.  There’s some places where life has dried up. So God, we are asking that you would move and that you would work in those dry places for the glory of your name.  The psalmist gives us a perspective in our pain.   The illustration of streams in the Negeb reminds us that although it’s dry and although it’s desolate, it is a temporary situation.  Listen to the way that the great author/pastor/poet Eugene Peterson puts it:  “The watercourses of the Negeb are a network of ditches cut into the soil by wind and rain erosion.  For most of the year they are baked under dry sun, but a sudden rain makes the desert ablaze with blossoms.  Our lives are like that — drought-stricken — and then, suddenly, the long years of barren waiting are interrupted by God’s invasion of grace.”  {How awesome is that!}  Here’s what he’s saying:  It’s safe to hope.  Maybe this morning your simple prayer is God, I need you to bring the rain!  God, I need to remember that what I’m walking through right now is not what will always be. That there is hope on the horizon.  I need to remember, O Lord, that you’ve our mourning into dancing, you’ve loosed our sackcloth, you’ve clothed us with gladness, you’ve done it before, O God, would you do it again?! That’s the perspective we hold onto in the midst of our pain. We remember in the midst of all of it, that our pain will not overtake the goodness of the gospel and the Spirit of God moving and working in our life.  Paul writes:  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. (2 Corin. 4:8-9)   The pain will not overtake you and there’s a perspective that we need to carry into the valleys of life, remembering our God is a God who works miracles and breathes hope into dead things.

He goes on: Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!  You understand the illustration?  The author is saying that the tears that fall fall into the soil of our lives, but those tears turn into seeds that give birth to good fruit, good things and eventually, joy.  Here’s his declaration:  Not only do we have a perspective in the midst of pain, but we havepurpose that’s found within our pain.  I know there’s a number of you walking through situations in life right now and your question is God, how could you work in this?  God, how could you move in this?  God, how will you show your redemptive hand in this health crisis we’re walking through?  In this situation that just seems all-consuming…..I go to bed thinking about it, I wake up thinking about it.  It presses in on every side.  God, how could you have purpose in that?  To quote the great missionary to China, Amy Carmichael:  “God never wastes His children’s pain.”  There’s a purpose in your pain.

Let me point out two things that, biblically, we God using pain to do.  You look at the story of Joseph.  Joseph walks through the valley of the shadow of death.  He’s sold into slavery by his brothers and he comes to the point at the end of his life where he says this: As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Gen. 50:20)  The saving of many lives because Joseph walked through being sold into slavery by being imprisoned unjustly, forgotten by the pharaoh and his workmen.  He goes hey, this all happened that God might be good and save many, many lives. {Will you look up at me just a second.}  I have no idea what you’re walking through, but I do know that God is bigger, that he has a purpose and that he is at work.

One of those purposes might simply be that you can be a comfort to others who will walk through pain, because as Paul so aptly writes to the church at Corinth:  (Our God) comforts us in all our affliction….  {Isn’t that great? Have you ever stopped to read some of the absolutes in the Bible?  In every affliction we walk through, God wants to be our comfort.}  …so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corin. 1:4)   God never wastes his children’s pain.

You can have perspective in your pain.  There’s purpose in your pain.  And finally the psalmist says:  He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.  I love that the psalmist doesn’t write might come home, most likely will come home, 99% chance he’s coming home.   No, here’s what the psalmist is saying: Regardless of what you’re going through, there’s a promise bigger than our pain.  There’s a purpose in our pain and there’s a perspective we can have through our pain.  He shall be good.  He will move.  It may be this side of heaven and it may be the next side of heaven, but can we step back for a moment and agree that regardless of whether or not it’s within these eighty years we might get on this earth, that that’s simply a blip on the radar of eternity.  You are an eternal being.  God says he WILL work for the joy of my people even in their pain.  The prophet Isaiah says (and Jesus quotes him in Luke): ….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. (Isa. 61:3)    

I don’t have any clue what you may be walking through today.  You may be on the side of exile where God has brought you back to the land and you’re dreaming again, you’re laughing again, you’re walking in joy again.  You might be on the other side of exile still, waiting.  If that’s you, my word for you is that, as followers of Jesus, we do not celebrate the resurrection one Sunday every single year to try to remind ourselves that Jesus rose from the dead.  We, as followers of Christ, are invited to live in resurrection reality and resurrection power every single day.  To take the dead things of our life and to lay them at his glorious throne, to believe that he restores fortune, that he awakens dreams, that he brings back laughter and that he causes shouts of joy. Friends, that’s not just a distant hope.  That can be a present reality.  So whatever you’re walking through this morning, will you, with me, REFUSE to allow your present circumstance to dictate your vision for what God might do in the future.  Let’s have, as a Body of Christ, an historically-informed hope — He was good and He will be good again.  What IS now will not always be, because my God is alive and active.  He raises the dead. He makes beautiful things out of dust, in my life and in the life of his people.

I want you to take a few moments as you watch this video to pray:  God, what are some things in me that I need you to restore?  Maybe it’s a family that’s gone off track from where you’d hoped it would be or thought it might be.  Maybe it’s some decisions that you’ve made, or that other people have made, that have gotten you into a situation where you’re just going God, I don’t see how we’ll get out of this.  Maybe it’s a phone call that you got from the doctor this week.  Whatever it is would you, along with the psalmist, pray: God, would you restore AGAIN.  We believe that you can.  In case you doubt, I just want you to see a few stories from our Celebrate Recovery Ministry that remind us that God is still on the move.  {VIDEO PLAYS}

Would you please stand and receive the benediction today.  May the God who is able to do far more abundantly than anything you could ever ask or think or imagine, may He awaken in you dreams that have gone dormant. May he bring back laughter where there’s sorrow and may he free you to walk in the joy that is yours because you are His.  In the name of Jesus we pray.  Amen and amen.