October 11, 2015

Restore Our Fortunes, O Lord

Passage: Joel 2:21-27, Psalm 126, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Matthew 6:25-33
Service Type:

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

I usually think of colouring books as the domain of children. However, in June of this year a colouring book for adults was number 9 on the UK Amazon bestselling books page. I have to say that I was surprised. The popularity of these colouring books is in some measure due to their use as a way of reducing stress. The business of people’s lives—running from one task to the next—ramps up our anxiety and stress. Art therapist Saba Harouni said that “these coloring books can act as a reset button for adults who are moving too quickly from one responsibility to the next, or trying to do them all at once. The repetitive motion of colouring can be both cathartic and meditative, and you can focus on filling in the lines on the page. You're giving your brain some space and something to focus on that's meditative, that's containing." So the next time you see you child sit down to colour, feel free to sit down next to them.

An author named Shirl Cooke in a Christian publication shared the story of her two nieces. “My nieces Jessica, age five, and Stephanie, age three, were chatting with their mom when Stephanie asked, "Mommy, does God really make rainbows?" "Of course he does," my sister replied. Jessica nudged Stephanie and explained, "Only God has such big crayons."

The theme of the 126th Psalm is God’s restorative work in our lives. The Psalm begins by recalling a day when the Lord had restored the fortunes of his people and then prays for a current restoration of fortunes—“restore our fortunes, O Lord.” Apparently the Psalmist is in a moment of need; is experiencing the depression of downward spiral.

Are you feeling in need of some restoration today? We have touched on the need for restoration from the stress of the pressures of life. We could also think of times when we have gone through an illness and need restoration. The church seems to be in decline and we remember days of strength and long for a restoration. This Psalm shows us that it is appropriate to pray for the restoration of fortunes. God is interested in how we are doing and welcomes our prayers for a display of his help in our lives. Sometimes we think it a little tawdry to be asking for such help.

It is instructive to note how this Psalm was used by our Hebrew fore parents in faith. In the Hebrew home a prayer of blessing for the evening meal was said following the meal. This grace customarily begins with the recitation of a Psalm—Psalm 137 during the week and Psalm 126 on Sabbath or feast day. Sabbath—the seventh day—was the day when God rested from his creative work; it is also the day when life begins in the sense of to the full, in that creation was now completed. God’s restorative activity on our behalf is woven into the fabric of creation.

Further this Psalm was prayed as part of the Sabbath afternoon service during winter months. Anticipating the coming season of planting, and growing, and harvesting God’s people prayed the prayer for restoration of fortunes. Adult colouring books and other stress releasing activity have their place but true restoration comes as the gift of God and prayer will help us much with our restorative needs. Restore our fortunes, O Lord.

1. Psalm 126 is considered to be a lament; lamenting the situation they find themselves in needing their fortunes restored. On the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem he lamented the state of the city. “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” (Luke 20:42) “Restore our fortunes, O Lord;” it is the tacit acknowledgement that things are not as they should be or could be. The human rebellion against God has rendered the world a place of contrasts—we see good and evil. We also see that contrast running through our own hearts.

The creation story in Genesis one tells us that God finished creating on the seventh day. God finished creating on the Sabbath, not prior to the Sabbath. God climaxed and crowned his work on the seventh day, and for this reason hallowed the Sabbath. In other words “rest” in scripture isn’t “doing nothing.” “Rest” means “completing, crowning, bringing to fulfilment.”

In the wake of the Fall a good creation now devastated on account of sin has to be restored. Therefore in the wake of the Fall “rest” means “restoration.” “Rest” is now “fulfilment by way of restoration. “Rest” means a restoration that is essential if the creation’s God-intended fulfilment is to be recovered.

In Matthew 11 Jesus says, “Come unto me all who are weary and worn, sick and tired, frazzled and frantic and fed up; come to me and I will give you rest.” Jesus does not mean he will give us inactivity. “Come to me and I will restore you so that God’s intention for you, the fulfilment of his purpose for you; all of this will be recovered. In Hebrews 4 we are told, “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” God has promised his people that restoration which is nothing less than the fulfilment of his purpose for us recovered in the wake of our fallen condition.

We might ask why, in our lectionary readings, a psalm of lament was chosen to be read on thanksgiving Sunday. While I am not aware of all the reasons, I can observe with you that thanksgiving is never to paper over the actuality of difficulty. When Paul asserts that “thanksgivings should be made for everyone” he isn’t asserting that “everyone is beautiful in their own way”. Rather, Paul calls for such prayer because of God’s great love for people and God’s desire that “everyone be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.” (! Timothy 2:1-3)

This past August Valerie and I had the joy of travelling to China and visiting with my step-son Shane. He has been there a number of years teaching in English language studies. We visited the training centre/school that he along with others have established. It was encouraging to see it firsthand and offer our words of congratulations on the achievement. What I know also is that in the midst of what looks to us a significant work, Shane knows the challenges of operating such a school—recruiting students, marketing the school, meeting payroll. Thanksgiving—taking joy in what is joyful—is never to say that all things are perfect. Psychiatrist Theodore Rubin noted that “the problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.”

2. Another reason I think it appropriate to read this Psalm on Thanksgiving is the harvest imagery that is evoked as metaphor for restoration. “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.” (Psalm 126:5-6)

I can recall from my experience of farm life that seeding time was bleak in some respects. We poured all this seed onto a field with a seeding machine and the field didn’t look much different after our work than when we began. In fact there was little evidence of our work. The hope was that it would look much different by early summer and that there would be a late summer or fall harvest. But when you stood at the field at the end of seeding day these things were only a hope. Yes, hope based upon experience of previous seeding and harvest; still only a hope.

And so the Psalmist takes up this imagery and refers to the day of deep need for restoration as the day of “sowing in tears”; of “going out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing.” We sow seeds in hope of the harvest. God who gives to every seed its life is the one who brings it to fruition for to joy of the harvest. We plant seeds then, looking forward in faith to what God will do. We know that it is God’s desire that all would know the Saviour and so we plant seeds as we proclaim the gospel. We remain faithful as a congregation singing the praises of our Lord trusting him that there is a harvest of joy to come. We know our Lord as the great physician so we sow seeds of prayer for health and recovery even in the long night of waiting. Our Lord promises that those who mourn will be comforted so we plant seeds where we can anticipating a future time of his comfort.

Robert Lewis Stevenson gave this advice. “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.”

The Psalmist stands between two joys. There is the joy of remembering past days of restoration and then the anticipated joy of the future days of being restored (harvest). There is help in remembering how it was in past days we experienced the restoration of fortune at God’s hand after a time of reversal. The God who has brought us thus far will see us all the home.

In recalling past joy it is likely that the Psalmist has either the Exodus in mind or the events of the return of Israel to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. “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 Psalmist directs us to take our clues for life from what God has done to know what God is doing and will do.

Recall our Lord in the garden of Gethsemane who prayed for the cup the pass from him. The writer of the letter Hebrews wrote “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of* the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2) What is the joy that was set before him? That God would bring glory even through this his sacrifice on the cross. For the Lord’s people, there is always a great joy to come. We have known lesser restorations in the course of life that point the great restoration when all will be set right. Every recovery form an illness here in this present life points to that great future when death will be more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor pain.

Imagine having a peak into the future that God is preparing for us—how would that impact the way you live today? If you caught just a glimpse of eternal joy freed from all that inhibits life now there would be a spring in our step. If you could just have a brief taste of that future when love will reign and will give way to only more love our hearts would soar in anticipation.

The Apostle Paul speaks of his experience to the congregation in Corinth about being, “caught up to the third heaven.” He means “Admitted to intimacy with God, an intimacy whose intensity defies description.” Again he described it as “Caught up to paradise”: he means “Given, amidst the savagery and sorrow and frustration of this earth, a vision of God’s final restoration of the creation, all of it enveloped in an ecstasy no language can capture.” I am convinced that his experience fired his apostolic work for the rest of his life. Whenever he was ridiculed, slandered, beaten up all he had to do was recall the event of his immersion in the innermost depths of God and his zeal for the gospel was renewed again.

We have been given that peak into the future in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus from the dead. His resurrected life gives us a picture of that future that awaits. The believer has received in her being the glimpse of that future as the resurrected Lord has made himself known to her. Such is the case for every believer. We have come to know our Lord not because the preacher is unusually convincing but because we have been apprehended by him; because we have received the gift of the Spirit of God who makes our Lord known to us even as he frees us from the power and penalty of sin.

All of our thanksgivings are ultimately rooted in the love of God. Our Lord taught us that God pours his blessings of sun and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44-45) Gift after gift after gift is poured out upon us by God unasked. The greatest gift being the gift of his Son who while we were yet sinners died for us—we were not looking for a Saviour because we are blinded to our sin by our sin. God discloses our disease to us in the open handed provision of the cure. It is God’s love seen most profoundly in his self-forgetful self-giving on the cross that opens our eyes to see God’s loving hand in creation.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. We serve a God who restores. Earlier this summer Valerie and I were away for a couple of days and when we returned our potted plants were looking very thirsty. In less than thirty minutes after watering these plants they were already visibly looking much happier. Now who created such life? The one who consistently restores fortunes at harvest time each year.

Thanksgiving is an appropriate day to give thanks to God who restores. To bless God who has restored us on many past occasions; all those times when we look back and wonder how we got through this of that difficulty and at the same time know who it is that saw us through. Thanksgiving Day is a good day to pray for restoration, pray for restoration in our lives, pray for restoration in the church, even as we look forward to that great day of full restoration that is to come and live in its energizing power today. Restore our fortunes, O Lord. Amen.