Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Sowing in tears, reaping in joy"

Message preached October 26, 2003
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Psalm 126

Order of Worship

            I had been in bed for several days with the measles. Outside my childhood home on Melvern Drive, the world went on. My friends went to school, and afterward played in the same places, doing the same stuff we had always enjoyed together. I remember standing at the front door of my house once the measles had run their course and I was about to make my first steps back into my childhood world. Somehow, though, it didnít seem quite real. It was almost like a dream...

            "When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream." (126:1) So begins the seventh "Song of Ascents" in that hymn and prayer book of the Bible called the Psalms. Like the other fourteen Psalms which bear this same superscription, this is a pilgrim song. These are words for the road, if you will, a melody familiar to those who are trying to walk with the Lord on a path that eventually leads upward.

            Now, we could interpret this Psalm in terms of the journey that pilgrims used to make to Jerusalem in order to worship in the Temple, and to bring their sacrifice to the Lord. Built upon a high place, this sanctuary did, indeed, involve an ascent . In order to get to the top of Mt. Zion, one had to march up a rather steep incline through the city from the Kidron Valley below. And that was just the arrival part of the trip.

            Remember, however, that travel has not always been as smooth an effort as it is today. For many of us, getting to this place from where our homes are now located would have been a much more involved journey one hundred years ago. I have to think of those Amish folks we encounter crossing the Susquehanna river on our way to Lancaster. Going to church means getting up a lot earlier for them than it does for us. A horse only travels so fast. And then you have to worry about all the other people who share the road.

            In Bible times, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was no day picnic. There were no buggies, let alone automobiles. Public transport was the two feet on the end of your legs, and such journeys were not made in a day. Furthermore, remember the story Jesus told about the "Good Samaritan?" Within it is revealed a very real peril of travel in that day, even for those on a pilgrimage. Robbers, wild animals, the weather ... it was an uphill climb in more ways than one, going and coming.

            The "uphill" of it, though, was more than the physical terrain. A pilgrimage is really a "spiritual" climb... By the way, Thanksgiving is a month away, and many people will be making a pilgrimage to the place they call "home." The day before Thanksgiving is the number one travel day of the year in this country. The journey involves more than the actual trip, however. For a lot of folks, Thanksgiving is a highly stressful experience. Family getting together can be both heaven and hell for some folks, as unhealed wounds and unresolved disagreements lie just beneath the surface. For it to truly be a time of thanksgiving to God, each person needs to go on their own spiritual journey before they arrive.

            "Can I let go of that grudge Iíve been nursing since last year?" "Will I choose not to respond in the same ways I always have?" "Lord, help me take the initiative and reach out with love to my brother." "May this jealousy wither within me, to be replaced with joy." "Help me to see the best in these people, and in me, instead of the worst." ... Itís a spiritual pilgrimage coming up for many, whether they travel by plane, train, or automobile.

            Psalm 126 is a psalm for pilgrims. Those who see no need of making such a journey may not get much out of this "song of ascents." However, you donít need to be heading to Jerusalem, or "over the river and through the woods to grandmotherís house" to be on a pilgrimage. Let me remind you of two words Jesus spoke many times - "follow me." Our very life in Christ is a journey, a pilgrimage. Along the way, yes, "our mouths are filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy." But not every day is like that. Some days, in fact, are rough.

            In the middle of a forest, there was a hiker who was suddenly confronted with a huge, mean bear. Full of fear, he turned away and started to run as fast as he could. Finally, he ended up at the edge of a very steep cliff. His hopes were dim. But, he got on his knees, opened his arms and said, "Dear God! Please give this bear some religion!" ... A lightning bolt shot through the air and the bear stopped a few feet short of the hiker. It had a puzzled look for a moment, and then looked up into the air and said, "Dear God, thank you for the food I am about to receive..."

            Pardon the pun, but some days we just grin and bear it. We go through things far worse than childhood measles. Of course, you know that once upon a time childhood measles was a killing proposition. Tombstones in many an old cemeteries reveal untold stories of parentsí grief over this an other diseases. Folks "sowed in tears." They still do.

            Grief, my friends, is a part of life. Many of our steps along the way involve tears. We may try to avoid "sowing in tears," but reality catches up. Thatís just how it is. In another Psalm we find this reminder, which brings us back to reality: "The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away" (Psalm 90:10). Of course, a few of us have inched that upper limit a bit, havenít we. We know, however, that these bodies werenít intended to live forever. Iíve never been too enamored with the "toil and trouble" part of that verse. Iíd rather focus on the positive. Even so, believers down through the years have chosen to hear a promise rather than a curse in those words, "and we fly away."

            Speaking of believers, there is "toil and trouble" that goes beyond just the usual cost of living. When Jesus said, "follow me," he wasnít inviting people to Cancun for a vacation in the sun. Walking with Jesus led some believers, for instance, to the Roman Colosseum where they faced very real lions, tigers, and bears. And it was no joke. Following the Lord has never been an easy pilgrimage. Our spiritual ancestors faced execution, imprisonment, or expulsion (by other Christians, even!) for simply believing. Even today, in many parts of the world, those who follow Jesus experience persecution for their faith. Religious freedom, in general, has taken some bad hits in recent years.

            Whether through oppression, or the "toils and troubles" of everyday living, thereís more than enough "sowing in tears" out there ... in here, too. What makes Psalm 26 a real "song of ascents" is that it doesnít end with the "sowing in tears." Iíve come to love this Psalm, even though on first glance it may seem a bit depressing. When you think about it, the words are not an after-the-fact celebration that all has turned out well along the journey of faith. There is a plea within this song for God to "restore our fortunes ... like streams in the desert." Unless I am missing something, folks donít need their fortune, their prosperity restored unless theyíve lost it.

            Even so, mixed with this plea for God to make things right when they appear very wrong, is a living memory and a promise. The memory is of how God has proved faithful in the past. There are things we ought not to forget, even though when trouble hits we are sore tempted to forget them. When Jesus taught to pray "lead us not into temptation," one of the biggest temptations for the early Christians who heard those words was to give up, to let go of the faith in the face of persecution. Itís easy for us to just give up, also, when we hit trying times.

            The encourage of this song is to remember how God has helped work things out in the past. We so often choose to forget the blessings we have already received. I challenge you, every time you face some "bear" of a trouble, to remember the times when things worked out for good, "when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion," when laughter and joy were very much a part of your experience, and you knew that God was faithful. I seriously doubt most of us would be here today if we couldnít remember such times. Itís what keeps us keeping on, even in very dark moments. "Yes, the Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad!" Remember. Make it a living memory.

            Of course, we connect these personal memories with our Biblical memory, the faith story of how God has proved faithful - releasing the Hebrew slaves from their bondage in Egypt, returning the exiles from their captivity in Babylon, saving the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is living memory. "Yes, the Lord has done great things!"

            But this song of ascents is more than remembering. I hope you hear the promise, a benediction that propels us forward when tough times hit. If it were only a matter of remembering, weíd stay put when facing difficulty. After all, the more steps you take forward, the further back the events are that you want to remember. Itís only natural for Godís people to get stuck in place if all we had were memories. However, itís the promise that moves us forward. Did you hear it? "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." Thatís a promise! and not an empty-handed one at that. They shall come home "carrying their sheaves."

            This is harvest language, folks. Are we so removed from the farm that we donít know that "sheaves" represent the goal of sowing. What once was but a tiny seed is now a giant pumpkin, a tall corn stalk, a field full of produce - all a sign that even when Winter comes weíll make it. God will provide. Thatís a promise to live by. Itís also a promise to die by. No matter what, God is faithful. The saints of old counted on it. So do the saints of today, who are not just super holy people on some list canonized by the Pope. The "saints" were and are ordinary folks like you and me who simply live by faith. For those who believe in Christ Jesus - that he died for us, and rose from the dead - this is a resurrection song. "May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy."

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Psalms.


©2003 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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