October 11, 2020

The Lord has done great things for us

Passage: Psalm 126

Thanksgiving 2020 …

I don’t know about you, but for me it feels timely to celebrate thanksgiving this weekend. Something in me longs to give thanks. This has been such a difficult year! And it is not over yet. Covid-19, Black Lives Matter, Political tensions, Out-of-control wildfires in many places … not to speak of the many ways in which all of this affected each of us personally. Covid-19 disrupted our lives; stopped the world in its tracks; closed our church buildings; exposed how vulnerable we are. We have been pivoting and adjusting a lot; most of us have suffered loss of some kind; many are experiencing grief, isolation, loneliness, anxiety, financial hardships … And for you, as a congregation there has also been the retirement of Dennis after a fruitful ministry. It is yet another loss and transition.

But this weekend we pause to remember (the good, the bad and the ugly), to count our blessings, and to give thanks. As Christians, we especially want to remember what the Lord has done in our lives.

This is what happens in Psalm 126. The people who exclaim, “The Lord has done great things for us”, were no strangers to pain and darkness, to suffering and confusion, to fear and worry. Their prayer in this Psalm holds together the big tensions of their lives – what they believe (memory of faith) and what they pray for (hope of faith); their current experience and their longing for Gd to restore their fortunes; the weeping of the sowers and the joyful songs of the harvesters.

The Psalm helps us to name God in the midst of these tensions.

We don’t have to be master detectives to find many pieces of evidence that God is present and actively involved in our lives. God’s fingerprints are all over our lives. Each of the many things that we take for granted come from God’s hand: daily bread, friendships and love, work and the strength to work, answered prayers, solutions to problems, healing for bodies and minds, the healthcare we receive in Canada …

The Psalm helps us to remember God. It is good for us to recall the Lord’s work. Why do I say this?
• Because there is plenty of suffering in life. We have more than enough reason to be anxious and worried. Jesus reminds us that we can be concerned over many things. We are concerned with what we shall eat and drink, with our appearance and the impression we make; we are worried about the future; we are anxious to perform well and have an influence on the world around us. These worries can overshadow our sense of thanksgiving for the blessings of the Lord.
• Another reason is that remembering God’s work and noticing God’s presence can help us remember where things come from. It is easy to forget, to take our blessings for granted, to become complacent. Most of us don’t have a close connection with the land anymore. We’ve lost our connection with the natural processes of sowing, cultivating and harvesting. We also have little or no connection with the processes of designing and manufacturing. We don’t know the farmers and farmworkers who grow the produce we eat; we don’t know the people who make and package the products we buy. And at the same time, we lose our awareness that God is the provider of all things, that God is involved in the mundane day to day business of our lives. We depend too much on ourselves.
• A third reason for remembering God is that life can feel so out of our control. Remembering God, helps us remember that we are not at the mercy of our circumstances; life is not a series of coincidences or merely the result of our good or bad timing. Life has not been predetermined in such a way that it just ticks off to the end. Our lives are hidden in God. We are in God’s hands.
The Scriptures have a marvellous message about God. We meet God as the Father, a caring and loving Father who feeds the birds and clothes the lilies, who knows all our needs and takes care of us. The Psalm reminds us that God is involved in our lives. He has been involved in the past, he is involved today, and he will be involved in our lives and the lives of the people after us tomorrow.

Psalm 126 was first sung by pilgrims who travelled to Jerusalem to participate in the annual feasts of remembering and worshipping. The post-exilic time in which they lived were difficult years: a severe drought threatened the land, social problems abound, hostile opponents made life difficult, the people were spiritually poor, the rebuilding process took for ever. In the midst of all these uncertainties and difficulties, these pilgrims told the stories of their faith. They recalled how the Lord changed the course of history and made it possible for the exiles to return home. The return from exile was completely unexpected. This miraculous intervention of the Lord was like a dream. It happened a few years ago, but it still felt too good to be true. How was this possible? Well, they declared, “The Lord has done great things for us. We are glad.”

In the midst of daily struggles and an uncertain future, they hold onto God’s intervention in the past. And that gave them confidence as they faced their own circumstances.

God is involved with us. He does not leave us alone for one second. God is not far away. He does not have better things to do. He is not asleep. He is fully aware of us. He is with us. He is the covenant God who loves us. He is powerful and great, more powerful than all the forces of this world, more powerful than any force in nature, larger than any one of us. God restored our fortunes in the past and God can do it again. God will do it again, even though we may not see it yet.

“Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like streams in the Negev.
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.”

They are in great need, but they do not run away from their troubles, they do not deny them, nor do they try to escape reality. They turn to God in remembrance.

Eugene Peterson wrote,  A common strategy for achieving joy is a change of scenery. Eliminate the things that hurt. Get rid of the pain by numbing the nerve endings. Get rid of the insecurity by eliminating the risks. Get rid of disappointments by depersonalizing your relationships. Then try to lighten the boredom of life by buying joy in the form of vacations and entertainment. There isn’t a hint of that in Psalm 126. Those who went off with heavy hearts come home laughing, with armloads of blessing. There’s plenty of suffering in life for everyone. The joy comes because God knows how to wipe away the tears and create the smile of new life. This joy isn’t dependant on our good luck in escaping hardship. It isn’t dependant on our good health and our avoidance of pain. Christian joy is actually in the midst of pain, suffering, loneliness, and misfortune.

”Their words are a witness that we too can experience joy in the midst of a pandemic when we remember God’s work in the past and pray on the basis of our memories.

What do we see when we look back? We see the hand of God. “The Lord has done great things for us.” The people of Israel had a rich history with the Lord. Their most recent experience was the return of the exiles in 538 B.C. God brought the mighty Babylonian empire to a fall and used the Persian king Cyrus as his servant to let the people return. Imagine that! Amazing! But their story went back much further than that, all the way to God’s involvement in the life of Abraham, God’s providence in the life of Joseph, the salvation of God’s people from slavery in Egypt, water that poured from a rock, manna in the wilderness, protection from enemies, the collapsing walls of Jericho, the prophecies of Elijah, the throne of David and much, much more.

We too have much to remember. We have our own memories and events in our own history that speaks of God’s intervention. And we have centuries more of the Bible story to recall. The story of Jesus Christ is our story. We remember Jesus of Nazareth, his life and work, his suffering, his death on the cross, the empty tomb, a fish bbq on the beach, his ascension, the tongues of fire as the Holy Spirit came upon the believers. We hear Paul preaching to the early church and to us.

A good memory of the Lord’s work is important for Christians. History is filled with the footprints of the Lord. His fingerprints are all over our lives. God is present. He restores. He brings about change. He provides in all our needs. He comforts us when we are distressed. He calls us to follow him in faith.

The Old Testament is a wonderful account of a people who did just that. The people of Israel kept the stories alive. Time and time again in every new situation they remembered the work of the Lord, reinterpreting it for their own time, drawing strength from it, and passing it on to their children. “The Lord has done great things for us.”

A Christian practice that could help us is to make time to notice and remember God’s presence through the prayer of examen. You could do it daily or weekly, in the morning or in the evening. With the prayer of thanksgiving, we review the day/week and we invite God to reveal to us what God wants us to see about him, about ourselves, about our lives with others. It works like this,

we open ourselves to God in silence and invite God to show us what God wants us to notice.
First, we scroll through our memories of the day, noticing times and experiences where we sensed God’s presence, a growing sense of freedom, a greater capacity to love, more joy…
Then we give thanks for God loving presence and guidance.
Next we invite God to bring to mind attitudes, actions or moments where we fell short of exhibiting the love of the Father, the grace of Christ, or the fruit of the Spirit; those places where we are in bondage to the sinful old self.
We confess our sins before the Lord and ask for forgiveness.
And we express your desire to be transformed in the image and love of Christ.

This positions us to walk with the Lord today. God has not changed; he is not less interested in us than he was in the people of Israel; he is not less able to restore this world than when he restored the fortunes of Israel; he is not less powerful today than he was when he raised Christ from the dead; he is not any less caring than when he opened the rock and made water pour out for the people.

And God will be with us tomorrow, as he has always been with his people. He will hold us in his hands. Tomorrow will bring its own worries, its own disappointments, its own pain, its own sins, its own joys; but God will be there too, transforming lives, working salvation

Like the sowers in the psalm, we constantly live in the tension between sowing and harvesting. There is a lot that we do not know. There is much that we have little control over. But we sow in faith, waiting and hoping for the growth that takes place in the unseen places.

And God is faithful. His work always precedes and exceeds our work. He will bring forth a crop of joy, even from the seeds of suffering, pain, and emptiness. Our lives are from beginning to end in the hands of God. For that we give thanks.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negev.

Gerard Booy
Langley PC – October 11, 2020