As If in a Dream

Please read Psalm 126 in your preferred version of the Bible.  I prefer the NIV (1984) and used it to prepare these remarks.

Joy comes with God’s renewal of His people.

 Joy

       I hear concerns raised about how the Church in America is losing its influence on popular culture.  There are lots of reasons offered but I think it’s our impaired sense of humor that is a reason I don’t hear being discussed much.  We excel at “mourning with those who mourn,” but are morose about “laughing with those who laugh.”

          Realize two things: One, among all the beliefs on the face of the Earth, the Christian faith gives the greatest reasons for joy.  Two, the Bible is a book that is full of life and a great deal of what it has to say is couched in humor.

I could go on and on with examples and explanations, but it’s such a chore and time is limited, so let me offer just one example.  The humor of the Bible is situated in a time and culture that is very distant from our own.  Humor is something that is very dependent on the moment.  Have you ever related something funny that happened to you and got a deadpan reaction?  What do we say in response but, “I guess you had to be there?”

William Shakespeare wrote a number of comedies.  But to modern audiences, it’s hard to get the joke, especially when reading it.  Sir Richard Eyre, former head of the National Theatre and one of Britain’s most celebrated Shakespearean directors, said topical comedy dates “very quickly”, leaving the meaning lost to history.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/11694297/William-Shakespeares-jokes-are-just-not-funny-Sir-Richard-Eyre-admits.html

More recently, here are some 19th century American jokes, tell me what you think:
“If conceit were consumption, he’d be dead a long time ago!”
“They say that too many minors have enlisted in the army, however I think that some of the minors are doing better than some of the Majors.”

“What’s the difference between a drunkard and a condemned man? One takes a drop to live and the other takes a drop to die.”

https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-old-jokes-that-were-considered-hilarious-in-their-time-but-would-fall-flat-before-most-modern-early-21st-century-audiences

Not exactly side splitting stuff, right?  So we need Bible scholars to tell us why Bible humor was humorous, how Jesus’ reference to a plank in your eye was probably LOL to His peeps.  After all, we don’t have a “laugh track” to tell us which are the funny parts.

But let there be no mistake that the Bible has a lot to say on the subject of JOY and its perfectly obvious.  Let’s start with today’s text.

  1. Praise God for a dream fulfilled. (126:1-3)

The text offers four very descriptive signs of joy.

Joy Sign #1: WE WERE LIKE MEN WHO DREAMED.  We think of “dreams” as visions we receive while sleeping and as visions we realize while awake.

Normally, dreams are simply ways our subconscious ways our minds try to work out waking problems while we sleep.  God created dreams as a psychological “safety valve.”  Biblically, God has used dreams to reveal His will.  There is no indication in the Bible that God has ceased to do this.

On the other hand, we express our aspirations in order to give inspiration to others.  We need to be cautious here to not mix up our will with God’s.  Self-deception comes so easily we must submit these aspirations to the scrutiny of the church for affirmation.  Especially when we envision ways to do God’s will, the fulfillment of our DREAMS brings a special and abiding kind of JOY.  What we have here is a JOY so intense it feels dream-like, “too good to be true.”

Joy Sign #2: OUR MOUTHS WERE FILLED WITH LAUGHTER.  This phrase describes people who were giddy with joy, a happiness that demanded expression, one that could not be denied.  Laughter is not a sign of immaturity nor is it unspiritual if it flows out of godly joy.  The morality depends on what inspires a person to laugh: what’s in their heart at that moment.

Joy Sign #3: OUR TONGUES WITH SONGS OF JOY.  Like laughter, singing is a way we spontaneously express our JOY.  Wouldn’t it be great if life were more like a musical comedy?  We could express our JOY with singing and dancing, backed by a full orchestra!

Joy Sign #4: WE ARE FILLED WITH JOY.  They were FILLED, even to the point of overflowing, with JOY!  Anyone who doesn’t desire this level of JOY in their life is missing a vital part of a living, maturing faith.   To me there is a parallel between being FILLED WITH JOY and being Filled with the Spirit.

As verse two testifies even the pagan NATIONS noticed what God had done.  They offer the testimony of a “hostile witness” which carries extra weight because they have nothing to gain by misstatement or exaggeration.

We also need to understand the times.  People of this age were superstitious and tied their gods to their national identity.  For example, when your nation won a war, it was thought to be proof that your god was more powerful than your enemy’s.  In this instance, when the Babylonians conquered the people of Judah, the NATIONS concluded that the Babylonian gods were more powerful than the Jew’s God, Yahweh.

This means God allowed His name to be slandered among the nations in order to discipline His people.  On the other hand, later, when the people of Judah were allowed to come home, that was seen as their God’s triumph over the gods of Babylon.

Here’s what the NATIONS concluded: “THE LORD HAS DONE GREAT THINGS FOR THEM.” (2)

Here’s the people of God agreeing with the pagan NATIONS; THE LORD HAS DONE GREAT THINGS FOR US. (2)

Here’s the result: WE ARE FILLED WITH JOY. (2)

This joy was not from the pampered and comfortable, but from those who were CAPTIVES in Babylon.  There is a spontaneous kind of JOY that comes like a clap of thunder.  It is often undeserved or at least unexpected, and it departs as suddenly as it disappears.  There is also the kind of JOY that abides with you.  It comes as a sense of satisfaction after a good work well done.  It settles on your heart and warms it.  It stays with you, to some degree, and recurs when you recall the circumstances.  The first kind is exciting, the second kind, encouraging.

Those persons who, after 70 years of captivity, endured and then returned to their homeland experienced the first kind of joy when the news was announced and the second kind when the returned home and rebuilt Jerusalem.

The ones who experienced this divine JOY were the ones who remained faithful in spite of what it cost them.

The ones who experienced this divine JOY were the ones who stood against the seemingly impossible odds, travelling hundreds of miles on foot to a set of ruins.

The ones who experienced this divine JOY were the ones who persevered against the elements and their enemies to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.

This is how life works for all of us, folks.  The worldly culture around us offers flashes of happiness in return to submitting to the captivity of their “groupthink” and the slavery to sinful appetites that is called “consumerism.” Not content to only offer distractions, the world also actively opposes faith; it belittles and battles genuine devotion to God.

We will know divine JOY when we ignore the distractions and remain faithful when we face persecutions.  This is a depth of JOY as described in this passage that the world will NEVER be able to give.

  1. A prayer for dreamers. (126:4-6)

When dreams come true, there is still work to be done.  When the initial joy of hearing that they COULD return to Jerusalem, then the realization of what that would take set in.  That’s why the passage makes the sudden jump from JOY to pleading with God.

RESTORE OUR FORTUNES, O LORD, sounds to me like a plea, a heartbroken prayer spoken when the ruins of Jerusalem were finally in sight.  Imagine how those returning from exile must have felt when they saw all the work and struggle that lay before them.  As people of faith, they cried out to God to help them do what, to worldly eyes, must’ve looked impossible.  Don’t let the word FORTUNES throw you; this is not a plea for prosperity as much as it is a desperate prayer for survival!

Historically, we know the returning exiles had to overcome a great deal of adversity to rebuild their land: lack of shelter, opposition from neighboring nations; the insecurity of the lack of suitable defenses; raiders; locusts; bad harvests; an extended drought; mountainous problems inflicted by both man and nature.  They had no idea what they’d got themselves into when they arrived, but they knew enough to prompt this crying out to God.

LIKE THE STREAMS OF THE NEGEV refers to a common experience of the people.   In that climate, streams and rivers can dry up completely.  One might not even recognize a riverbed when walking on it.  However, when the rainy season arrived, flash floods were common and the streams would be restored, full of water.

This would have been a common experience in the NEGEV, a desert area in the southeast part of modern-day Israel.  The people felt like a desert-dry stream bed, so they prayed that God would RESTORE them and fill them with life, just as He did with the dry streams in the desert.

In spite of the intimidating task before them, the returnees had hope.  They trusted in God, and from that trust came this promise expressed twice in vs. 5+6.

THOSE WHO SOW IN TEARS WILL REAP WITH SONGS OF JOY.

HE WHO GOES OUT WEEPING, CARRYING SEED TO SOW, WILL RETURN WITH SONGS OF JOY, CARRYING SHEAVES WITH HIM.

The TEARS and WEEPING are the physical signs of great sorrow.  They are the trails of trials that track down our face when we have to face opposition and obstacles.

If we think of them as “seeds” we can be assured these sorrows are designed to ensure a fruitful future.  We’d prefer a gentler, kinder, experience, but that’s not the way the world works.

In ancient cultures, sowing a seed was a symbol of burial and came to be associated with grief over a death.  Both Jesus (John 12:24) and Paul (1CT 15:36) used this imagery to teach about life overcoming death.  Trust that the seed will grow; that with the harvest, there will be SONGS OF JOY.

I read a provocative statement in an article entitled “Three Absolute Truths that Determine the Harvest,” by Dr. George Bannister.  He wrote, “It has been said that the problem with Southern Baptists is that we are ‘A harvest oriented denomination in a unseeded generation.’”

His point was that there can be no harvest without sowing.  It is not enough for churches to keep their doors open and expect people to seek us out and step through them.

Ken Ham made a similar point in his new book Gospel Reset: Salvation Made Relevant.  We are living in a culture that is ignorant of the basic truths of Scripture.  The culture has dismissed the Bible as irrelevant and disregarded sin as a relative to the situation.  The Church in America is stuck in a mode where we’re answering questions no one is asking, using language they don’t understand, referencing things that have largely disappeared from our culture, except as objects of ridicule.

We want the joy of salvation.  There is no joy in this life that is sweeter than helping someone find Jesus as their Savior.  If we are to know this joy, we must plant those seeds.  There is an unmistakable connection between joyful reaping and passionate seed-sowing.

God announced this principle in Galatians 6:7, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: a man reaps whatever he sows.”  We can resist this cultural trend in media and politics, but the forces allied against us have the advantage in those areas.  Our advantage is the power of God and the truth.  These advantages are most influential in personal relationships.  Rather than assault the culture directly, it makes more sense for us to put the majority of our effort into establishing relationships and making friends with those outside our faith.

 

RESOURCES:

The Daily Study Bible Series, George A.F. Knight

Bible Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown

The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, Lawrence E. Toombs

Zondervan Bible Commentary, F.F. Bruce

https://sermons.faithlife.com/sermons/110191-three-absolute-truths-that-determine-the-harvest

Planting Tears, Harvesting Joy

advent three(From http://www.lifeway.com/Article/devotions-christmas-advent-week-three-joy.)

Please read Psalm 126 in your Bible.  I’ve used the NIV to prepare this article.

Jesus is our joy.  Our joy is our strength.

          From an anonymous author and for your Advent enjoyment, I present a “Theology of Christmas Toys.”   This humorous article answers the question, “If adults were as concerned about toys as kids are, how would different faiths think about toys?”

  • Atheism: There is no toymaker.
  • Polytheism: There are many toymakers.
  • Darwinism: The toys made themselves.
  • Capitalism: Sell your toys.
  • Communism: Everyone gets the same number of toys.
  • Islam: You can only play with my toy. Get rid of yours or else.
  • Buddhism: The world would be a better place if we all stopped asking for toys.
  • Presbyterian: These toys were chosen for you to play with and these toys were chosen for me.
  • Methodist: Consult the “Book of Discipline” for the right method of playing with toys.
  • Episcopalian: We don’t care where the toys come from, we just play with them.
  • Baptist: We have played with this toy this way for years and we’re not about to change.
  • Unitarian: There are no bad toys or bad players.
  • Pentecostal: Real toys can speak in tongues.
  • Assembly of God: Name the toy and claim it.
  • Seventh Day Adventist: Eat your vegetables and play with your toys on Saturday only.
  • Christian Scientist: Broken toys are a figment of your imagination.
  • Amish: No toys with batteries.
  • Orthodox: There is only one toy and it is in our church. It was our toy first.
  • Catholic: No, it’s our toy.
  • Televangelist: Send me $100 and I’ll tell you how to get more toys.

(Adapted from the Joyful Noiseletter, Dec. 2010.)

It turns out that the real joy of this season was wrapped in “swaddling clothes,” not in wrapping paper.  Do you want to have a joyous Christmas?  Focus on Christ.                2

  1. The LORD’s restoration is the peoples’ joy.

Restoration brings joy.  The word “restoration” is one of two key words in this passage.   It is described as A SONG OF ASCENTS; a hymn sung as people walked up the hill to the temple.

The historical occasion is the return of God’s people from their exile in Babylon. RESTORE OUR FORTUNES…LIKE STREAMS IN THE NEGEV (4).  Traditionally, this psalm is believed to have been written by Ezra, the priest who helped lead God’s people back to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and the temple.  The joy of returning home was no doubt tempered when they saw the ruins of the city and fully realized the work that lay before them.  That’s why verse four feels a bit out of place – a downbeat among all the excitement.  In the Hebrew, the word RESTORE is in the imperative voice, so it’s pleading with God (use an “!”).

In the region of the NEGEV, the STREAMS have dry up over the summer.   When winter rains fall, even just an inch results in rushing waters & flash floods.  Ultimately the water revives the land: there are blossoms in the desert.  To the first readers of the song this would have been a dramatic illustration as they would have experienced this personally.

Spiritually, this image means we are restored from slavery to sin with its deadly effects.  We are restored to fellowship with God and one another.

“Joy” is the other key word.  Their joy upon returning home was so deep, it was beyond understanding: WE WERE LIKE THOSE WHO DREAMED (1).  Have you ever said to someone, “Pinch me; I must be dreaming” and regretted it later?  Deep joy is one of those rare moments when life feels too good to be true and we are overwhelmed by joy.  It’s a more common experience to anticipate something but still be overwhelmed when it actually happens.  This passage reads like the eyewitness account of someone who’s experienced this kind of joy personally.

In verse two their joy found expression.   OUR MOUTHS WERE FILLED WITH LAUGHTER, OUR TONGUES WITH SOUNDS OF JOY.  The repetition of MOUTHS and TONGUES is for emphasis.  The point: joy is sometimes so powerful we can’t hold it in.

LAUGHTER and SOUNDS OF JOY may be the same thing, but they certainly come from the same thing: profound joy.  Whether we celebrate with laughter or song, God wants us to worship Him with joyous hearts.

This is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: LEAVE BABYLON, FLEE FROM THE BABYLONIANS!  ANNOUNCE THIS WITH SHOUTS OF JOY AND PROCLAIM IT.  SEND IT OUT TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH; SAY “THE LORD HAS REDEEMED HIS SERVANT JACOB.” (Isaiah 48:20)

The phrase IT WAS SAID AMONG THE NATIONS means the message of God’s restoring His people was spoken so widely and with such intensity of joy even pagan nations knew God had acted on their behalf.

The deepest joy flows from remembering all the GREAT THINGS God has done for us (v. 3).  God so worked on the heart of Cyrus, the Babylonian king, that he allowed the people of Judah to return to their homeland without paying any ransom.  He allowed them to take back temple treasures and even aided their return and reconstruction with generous gifts.  When enemies tried to undermine the Jew’s efforts, Cyrus took their side.

The rebuilding of the city, its walls, and the temple within was no small feat.  The Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah detail the obstacles overcome to achieve this.

Tears are “joy seeds,” as affirmed in verses five and six.  THOSE WHO SOW WITH TEARS WILL REAP WITH SONGS OF JOY (5). Obviously we don’t weep seeds, so this is a poetic, symbolic statement.  It is a promise that our sorrows are not wasted.  The tears we cry are like seeds in the sense that they will bring better days ahead.

THOSE WHO GO OUT WEEPING, CARRYING SEED TO SOW, WILL RETURN WITH SONGS OF JOY, CARRYING SHEAVES WITH THEM (6).

The Jews struggled to emerge from their captivity.  The promise is overcoming.  It will make a difference.  Tears of grief and frustration will become tears and songs of joy as God rewards faithfulness with fruitfulness.

The Bible is clear on this point: our TEARS are important to God; He sees them.  As a psalmist wrote: Record my misery; list my tears on your scroll— are they not in your record? (Psalm 56:8)  Other versions translate this verse as saying God collects our tears in a bottle.

From Egyptian times to the American Civil War and even to today, people have used small bottles to collect their tears as a sign of grief at death or parting.  These bottles are called “lachrymatories.”  (You can order them online, spending from $7 to $70.)

The agricultural metaphor implies that restoration is a gift that demands effort on our part.  As we’ve learned recently, our part is to be faithful and trust that God will make us fruitful.  For them, this involved risk; seed was buried in the ground and if it didn’t produce a crop, there would NOT be any for next year’s planting.  Faithfulness requires risk.

  1. Jesus’ birth was a joyous occasion.

The MAGI/wise men rejoiced (Matthew 2:9-10).  AFTER THEY HAD HEARD THE KING, THEY WENT ON THEIR WAY, AND THE STAR THEY HAD SEEN WHEN IT ROSE WENT AHEAD OF THEM UNTIL IT STOPPED OVER THE PLACE WHERE THE CHILD WAS.  WHEN THEY SAW THE STAR, THEY WERE OVERJOYED.

Elizabeth and unborn John the Baptist rejoiced (LKE 1:44).  “AS SOON AS THE SOUND OF YOUR GREETING REACHED MY EARS, THE BABY IN MY WOMB LEAPED FOR JOY.”

Mary rejoiced (LKE 1:46).  “MY SOUL GLORIFIES THE LORD AND REJOICES IN GOD MY SAVIOR.”

In Luke 2, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna gave glory to God when they saw the baby Jesus, which is exactly the right thing to do when we experience godly joy.

It has been suggested that we proclaim 2018 to be a Year of Joy here at Emmanuel.  Sounds good.  But proclaiming requires doing or we’ve only succeeded in exchanging words.  We’d all like a 52 week break from negativity and worldly concerns.

Theologian Huston Smith is quoted, “At the center of the religious life is a peculiar kind of joy, the prospect of a happy ending that blossoms from necessarily painful ordeals, the promise of human difficulties embraced and overcome.”
(Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/huston_smith_613775)