1 Thessalonians 5.16-24
+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
It’s hard to think of a better psalm for our times than Psalm 126.
“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.”
This was more-or-less my emotional reaction to the announcement of the first successful vaccine for the Covid-19 virus! The realisation that after months of clinging to a rather indefinite hope that sooner or later medical science would get on top of this problem, here we now had a definite solution that could be practically implemented within a comprehensible timescale.
But then of course came the realisation that we still have several months of restrictions to get through, and, after that, a rather nasty bill that will take a generation to pay. Yes, we are certainly seeing the beginning of the restoration of our fortunes, but there is still a long way to go, and there is a continuing need for prayer.
And so the second half of the psalm echoes the first half, but takes the form of an urgent supplication rather than a joyful thanksgiving: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb”.
We find this phenomenon in more than one of the psalms, where what at first appears to be a psalm of thanksgiving becomes a psalm of supplication, or where the thanksgiving is offered in advance, anticipating God’s positive response to prayer, or where God is as it were reminded of previous kindnesses as a kind of prelude to a prayer for assistance.
Living in an in-between time, a time between the past fulfilment of hopes and promises, and a longed-for future deliverance from trouble, is the position of this and many other psalms. It also describes pretty accurately the Christian life in a general way, the life of the church militant here in earth, as we recall the saving works of God in the stories recounted in sacred scripture, and most especially in the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and we look for the day when that work of salvation will be perfectly fulfilled.
And perhaps it has a particular pertinence for the Church of England in our present moment. Yes there have been glorious moments of redemption and restoration for our Church throughout the centuries, yes there have been times when all seemed lost, and yet the strange twists of history brought about a restoration of the Church of England with its order and its liturgy and its powerful testimony to the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ in this nation. And yet, now we well may cry, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb”.
The Negeb is the region to the south of Jerusalem, a desert region characterised by wadis, seasonal streams that come to life with the winter rains, and become strips of green running through the wilderness. There is a remarkable diversity of flora which clings on in such an inhospitable environment.
The psalm begins with the recollection of and thanksgiving for God’s salvation in the past, and it continues with a heartfelt plea that God would once again bring about a restoration, like the watercourses in the Negeb which miraculously return to life with the winter rains. But it concludes not with this note of heartfelt petition, but rather with a note of confidence: “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
The reference to the wilderness region of the Negeb and its watercourses may perhaps bring to mind another wilderness and another watercourse, the wilderness of Judea inhabited by John the Baptist, and the river Jordan where he baptised. John the Baptist is spoken of as making the way straight in the wilderness, rather than renewing the watercourses of the Negeb, but the idea is essentially the same: it is a vision of renewal and restoration.
The particular emphasis in the account of the ministry of John the Baptist in John’s gospel is not the preaching of repentance, as we find in the other three gospels, but rather the power of John the Baptist’s witness and testimony to Jesus. “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him”. Just as the Psalmist testifies to the saving works of God in times past – “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then we were like those who dream” – John the Baptist testifies to the coming works of God in Jesus: “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me”.
We see that the plea for renewal and restoration is a common prayer throughout sacred history. Time and again God’s people have found themselves in difficult times, and have cried out to God for help. Living with the tension between the great things that God has already done, and longing for the fulfilment and completion of that work of salvation and restoration, living with this tension is not an easy thing to do. But we can at least take great comfort in knowing that our current predicament is really nothing new, and whatever the current travails of the Church of England, we are not being overrun by the Assyrians or deported by the Babylonians or enslaved by the Egyptians or persecuted by Emperor Nero. It really could be a good deal worse.
But important as it is to see our current predicament in a proper context, this is by no means the principal source of comfort and hope in today’s readings. The principal source of comfort and hope, in fact ultimately the only source of comfort and hope, is the saving work of God. It is this that both the psalmist and John the Baptist point to in their different ways. Confidence in the saving work of God is the beginning and the end of Psalm 126, and it should also be the beginning and the end of the life of the church. In the middle, there is a heartfelt plea for salvation, but it is the confidence in God’s ability to save which frames this plea, just as it is confidence in the coming Saviour which focusses the ministry of John the Baptist in John’s gospel.
There is surely a lesson here for the Church of England, with its strategy documents and its managerialism and its deep anxiety for the future. No amount of corporate angst will restore our watercourses, no amount of fussing about the internal affairs of the church will bring forth the blooms of the wilderness, neither reorganisation nor rebranding will bring people flocking to our churches as they flocked to hear the preaching of John the Baptist in the wilderness. All we can do is to be true to our task, and to point people to the saving works of God in Our Lord Jesus Christ, past, present and future.
So let us pray in confidence with the psalmist:
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.
+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.