When you’re down for the count.
When you need a buzzer beater.
When you utter a Hail Mary.
When you’re ready throw in the towel.
When that certain lady is warming up her voice.
We’ve all had those situations. Some people are in the middle of them. And Psalm 126 takes a simultaneous backward glance and forward lean into them. Here’s the sermon that landed at this bottom line: God reverses your fortune so you will increase his fame.
You know what some of our culture’s best moments are? When someone – sports team, politician, company – is as good as dead, down for the count, all over but the crying, the fat lady is actually warming up her voice! (you fill in the cliché) and then somehow, someway snatches an improbable victory out of the jaws of certain defeat. A dramatic, sudden, cataclysmic reversal of fortune. Man I remember being 14, 1975, and our whole Texas family was huddled in front of a TV watching a playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys & MN Vikings when this happened: (AV Hail Mary). And I still remember how every male Davis in the house – and a few females as well – did somersaults of joy.
Or a lot of you remember this when NC State was down for the count against Houston: (AV ’83). The glass slipper fit! Or still for my money the most dramatic buzzer beater:
(AV Duke UK 92). And half of you here really DO still hate Christian Laettner. Improbable, sudden, I can’t believe what I just saw kind of moment. But it’s more than sports. How about this headline (AV Dewey defeats Truman). No he didn’t. Or even in corporate America. Do you know what company was left for dead in ’99? I mean DEAD? Apple. Stock was worthless, Steve Jobs was with NeXT (remember them?) & then somehow this little thing called the iPod got invented and the rest is digital history. In those & a thousand other cases fortunes which seemed to be lost were suddenly, dramatically reversed. That lady who had begun warming up her voice had to stop.
Which is sort of how Psalm 126 begins. Now, by way of reminder and context: Ps 126 is part of what is called The Songs of Ascent, a collection of 15 folk songs (120-134) that people would sing as they trekked from their farms, towns, and villages up to Jerusalem 3x a year for religious feasts: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. They went those three times because the Jerusalem temple was the central religious location for all faithful Jews then. And Jerusalem was (and is) physically at one of the highest georgraphic places in all of Israel. So the journey from those towns, villages, and farms more literally was a climb. A gradual climb but a relentless climb nonetheless. To go to Jerusalem with a crowd of fellow pilgrims was, literally, to go on the up and up.
And these 15 folk songs functioned almost like We Shall Overcome (AV) in the CR era or like This Land Is Your Land during the Dust Bowl era (AV): folks actually sang them as they marched together on the up and up. One of those sections of the bible when you can see how vividly biblical writings had a life before they made it into the bible. And within that milieu, this particular psalm has a masterful mix of glancing back and leaning forward, of appreciation and anticipation; of remembrance & revelry. Look how it begins in 126:1:
Huh? What does that mean? For some of you this will be old hat – esp if you were here during the Solutionists series – and for other it will be brand new. In 587 BC after a long period of moral & spiritual decline, Israel was conquered by Babylon and its ppl forced into exile. The descriptions of what happened when Jerusalem was overrun are downright sickening – cannibalism, child sacrifice, bestiality, famine, a 600 mile desert version of the Bataan Death March. Talk about fortunes lost, dreams dashed, as good as dead, that lady done sung!
But then, 70 years later God used a man who did not know Him – I love how the Lord works! – a man named Cyrus king of Persia to both conquer Babylon AND set the Jews free, sending them back to Jerusalem. Persia, as a lot of you know, is modern day Iran, and I’ve pointed out here before the irony of Iran doing such a favor for Israel, but that’s what happened. And so the Jews captured this sentiment – unexpected savior, inexplicable timing, improbable return and it’s like their Hail Mary pass, their buzzer beating jump shot, their glass slipper fits, their spontaneous invention of iPod. Look at 126:1b – 2a:
we were like those who dreamed.[b]
2 Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Mouths are filled with laughter, tongues with songs of joy, all with the “can you believe this?” sort of hilarity. What stands out to me is that they took time to mark and to remember. Their celebration is so much like the delirious aftermath of our house after Staubach’s Hail Mary, Raleigh after the glass slipper fits, Durham after Laettner’s perfection. When you’re as good as dead . . . and then you’re not, it’s time to celebrate.
But then the most interesting and subtle twist happens in 126:2b & 3:
Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy
See that? The concern for their dramatic reversal of fortune is God’s reputation. When they got back home, Yahweh is recognized as back on his throne. Their deliverance leads only matters because of their deliverer! The reason they write the song, mark the moment, have the celebration is the increase God’s fame. It’s a subtle shift in the psalm – but a profound one. God does the reversing so God can get the credit.
You know why I love all this? Because a lot of you know exactly what it is like to have that lady warming up her voice to sing. You know what it’s like to need a buzzer beater. You’ve been down for the count. It’s the guy here who had one more relapse and your wife told you THAT’S IT. It’s the woman here who can’t shake the memories of and anger from childhood abuse. It’s the employee(s) in this very room who is on yet another performance plan. It’s the parents who have a teen who as acted out AGAIN and you’re about ready to throw in the towel (another cliché!). The doctor’s appointment where you got the C word in your diagnosis. Yeah, you know what it’s like to be in exile and to need some kind of last minute miracle. Some of you have lived it before and a whole lot of you are living it right now.
Yet among all of those I just mentioned and way more are those people who have NO REASON why your life is functioning as well as it is now BUT GOD. Your wife GAVE you another chance and today you’re not only reconciled, you’re sober. Or you got the deep therapy you need as a survivor of abuse and now you not only survive, you conquer (kick ass). Or you got off that performance plan and got on the promotion track. Others have gone from cancer patient to cancer kicker. My favorite of all is the woman who pulled me aside and said, “I’d be insane if it wasn’t for Jesus. I spent two years in an institution, and only got here today because of God.” She & the others have had that laughter, that incredulous faith, that “can you believe that?” They’ve gotten the buzzer beaters of life! The fat lady had to put her music away and stop her singing! And you know why? You know why, according to Psalm 126, God grants such reprieves? It’s all about that subtle shift in 2b & 3: God reverses your fortune so you will increase his fame. That’s it. Not for your esteem. For his exaltation. Not so you can be happy. So he can be honored.
Because here’s what most of us do with our blessings – the dramatic ones and the mundane ones. We grain of salt them (hold up). We take our blessings, our buzzer beaters with a grain of salt. Well God has brought me here today because he longs for us to react like THIS: Pour whole carton on table; vacuum between each. So that, like Psalm 126, we take the time and make the effort to remember, to commemorate, to celebrate all the buzzer beaters God has sent our way. All the ways in which our favor far surpasses our faith. God reverses your fortune so you will increase his fame.
It’s like the guy said in AA one time, “God delivered me from alcohol 35 years ago and I haven’t gotten over it yet.” Or it’s like those awards at graduation? Cum laude. Summa cum laude. Magna cum laude. High honors, higher honors, highest honors. Hey, God is summa cum laude. He deserve the highest honors, the overflowing with salt gratitude.
So I’ve got to ask you: are you a grain of salt person or a whole box-er? Because I suspect that every one of you here knows what’s it like to have your fortunes reversed. You just didn’t know until today WHY God had done that in your life: so you could declare that he’s the one who did it. So in response to your blessings are you yawning or singing? Taking it for granted or lifting it for glory? God has a design in your reversal . . . and it’s not your self-esteem; it’s his greater fame.
Because even a casual reader of Ps 126 notes all the “joy” in it (AV circle 126:3-6). But you know the worst sermon ever? Be joyful! Have more joy! Force a smile! Bleh. Joy is not that Yes! You give God credit, you increase your preoccupation with God’s agenda, you increase his fame and joy results. It’s always the result, it’s never the cause. So I’ll never tell you to pursue joy; pursue God’s agenda, and joy happens (better than that other stuff that happens). God reverses your fortune so you will increase his fame.
You know why this matters? Because the buzzer beater you got is not the last one you need. That lady is always warming up her voice! Look at 126:4: READ. I love that! Do more of what you’ve done! See that? Verse 1: DID IT. Verse 4: DO IT AGAIN. Get this: you can never separate celebration and anticipation. Unless you take the time to celebrate how good God has been you’ll never trust how good he’s going to be! Only because up and up people take the time to celebrate the delivering God has done can they anticipate the delivering he will do. It’s all there in Ps 126! Israel returned was still Israel distressed – which is what Nehemiah the Solutionists was all about. REFRAIN
So: what do I want you to do? How increase the Lord’s fame? Listen: all of you have been down for the count at some point and God got you back up. Even the most private of you have a story to tell. Who are you going to tell it to? That’s the question. Who needs to hear of your journey to sobriety (this is your 12th step!), your healing from sickness, your restoration from abuse, your quiet assurance that when you die it’s Jesus’ arms that will embrace you? Who will you tell? Who will you let know that you don’t take the Lord’s favor with a grain of salt? Either someone who doesn’t believe so that they will or someone who does so their faith grows stronger? Who? Someone in our church decided to tell ME, and we thought her story was worth sharing with you. Here’s my friend Brooke Keaton: