Like Those Who Dream
Psalm 126

Psalm 126, A Song of Ascents.

1 When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 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.”
3 The LORD has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.

4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5 May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
6 Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.

I can still remember the terrifying clang of bars slamming behind me. It was while I was serving as a prison chaplain one summer during seminary. And that summer, every day I walked out of there I thanked God. I thanked God that those bars were behind me and not in front of me. I thanked God that I could walk out into the sunshine above me, that I could drive home to my friends, that I could speak and touch those I loved. Every day I was thankful that I was able to leave that place.

Some days being inside of there would make me shudder. I’d visit with men who had just arrived. Men who didn’t know when they would leave. Men who didn’t know what jobs they could ever have again. Men who were missing their children, their wives and their families. Men with no possessions, no one to listen to them, no one to see them as human. These were talented, brilliant, gifted men. But their hope, their promise seemed long forgotten. I could see it in men’s eyes. I could see men just resigned to their situation. It was hard to see any joy. It was hard to see any dreams.

Except… on Sundays. Sunday morning was a whole other story. Every Sunday morning about seventy men would fill our dark dusty unclean auditorium to worship. And they didn’t tiptoe in and quietly take their seats, like proper Presbyterians. After checking in with the guard, every man present had to give at least five bro-hugs. (You know where two men grab each other’s hand like they are about to arm wrestle, pull each other in to bump chests, and pound the other guys back a couple of times).

As the men walked to their seats, smiles lit up their faces. And the smiles got bigger as they saw more and more of their friends, their brothers in Christ walk in. One group of men were in charge of the setup. Every week, before I could ever get to it myself, the microphones, the stands, and the speakers were all ready and hooked up. Nothing was going to stop them from worshipping God.

Then the men would bring out the piano. It was an old dusty out of tune piano, with some keys missing. But it looked like the red sea parting when it got wheeled out. The men present would clap their hands and cheer, and the biggest smile of all belonged to our piano player, nicknamed Security. Security was a huge man who some days looked like the whole world rested on his shoulders. Instead of protecting him, his size made him more of a target inside in this prison. And many, many days his own demons and struggles attacked him.

But to see him sitting at the piano on Sunday mornings you’d think he was in Carnegie Hall. He would glow, literally glow, while playing it. Even on that out of tune piece, his melodies would make us bump up and down with him. And he was gifted. He didn’t need to know what song they were singing ahead of time. After the first line, he figured it out and was soon leading us all along.

He also had a lot of fun with it. I remember one Sunday, in between hymns, he snuck in the Simpson’s Theme Song, just to see if anyone would notice. It was there at the keyboard that God was meeting him, filling him with hope and joy and peace again. By the end of the service we had to pry the piano away from Security’s fingertips. On Sundays I don’t think he just heard the gospel. I think he felt it coursing through those keys.

And as Security was playing the seven men who made up the choir would get up, sing, and stomp their feet, and a minute later half the auditorium was up doing the same. Joy was just pouring out of them. Even I was clapping my hands (probably a beat or two behind) and stomping my feet. And every time they shouted during a song, I could hear it in their voices, I could see it in their eyes, I could feel it in the electricity of the room. These men truly were joyful. They had hope. They had something to dream about.

On Sunday mornings they remembered God’s promise, God’s presence, God’s hope. They could taste a little bit of freedom. It was there that they could dream and know that they weren’t alone; they weren’t forgotten. God also had dreams for them, plans for them. On Sundays, these men truly believed there was something better, something greater than what they experienced in that prison. They knew that God had remembered them.

You may wonder, how could they be so happy in that place? This is prison. It’s where there is no freedom, no dignity, no value. Even the room they worshipped in was dark, filthy, and unbearably hot (I didn’t have a dry spot on me as I left the room each day). There’s nothing around them that they should be celebrating. Things aren’t going right for them. It’d make more sense to yell at God in this place than to praise God. So why was there such jubilation?

Psalm 126 may offer us some understanding. This is a psalm of ascent. It is about going up to the Lord and returning to the place God has promised God’s people. Jewish pilgrims recited this on their way to Jerusalem because it contains so much joy and anticipation. Like the prison on Sunday morning it starts off with joyous celebration. People are laughing. Their tongues are shouting for joy. They are being returned to their homeland, free after being held captive for decades. Everywhere people are talking about God’s goodness, about God’s action in the world. Even the enemies of Israel are telling people about God’s good works. The people who don’t follow the Lord, who don’t know the Lord the way the Israelites do, these people can’t stop spreading the news of how good the Lord is. Everything seems so perfect. Surely everything is going right here.

Then we get to the second half of the psalm. We quickly find out everything is not right. There are tears rolling down people’s cheeks. They are weeping, seeing all their crops fail. They are wondering why they are failing and how they are going to survive. There are still people in captivity back in Babylon, people who have not returned yet. This is not the perfect situation we expected. There still is suffering, captivity, hardship.

But there is also something else. There is an expectation, maybe a realization by this writer. The psalmist knows that God isn’t done. God’s work hasn’t stopped. There is still more. Our Lord hears the people’s cries, knows their situation. Our God is going to change those tears into shouts for joy. All people will be returned home one day, in this life or in the next. The earth will produce fruit. The world will be transformed. There is hope ahead of us.

The psalmist has seen God already start that work in the first half. People have returned to their homeland. People have been freed. And now there is laughter, now there is joy. Now people can once again dream – make plans, believe that those plans can come true, and expect that goodness will prevail in their world and in their lives. It’s true that everything is not perfect now. There are serious problems and struggles still surrounding them. But God is at work. God is with them.

The psalmist and God’s people have decided to live in this time not with fear, but with shouts of happiness, with laughter, with dreams for the future. So they sing this song of ascent, this song of going up to God, this song filled with the joy of remembering God’s amazing work. And remembering that God’s promises will be fulfilled.

And I think that’s why every Sunday the men in the prison were so joyful. They weren’t blind to their situation. They knew exactly how horrific it was to live inside of a prison. They knew their experience with prison life. But they also knew their experience with God. They knew how much God loves them. They had felt God move in their lives and guide them in their faith and understanding. They had seen transformations in their lives when the Holy Spirit moved. They knew that our Lord came down to earth as Jesus and became just like us.

And because of what God had done, they had hope. They were able to dream again that their lives were going to change, and that God was going to be there to bring about that change. They could believe in bigger plans and greater things to come. They could celebrate the joy Christ already placed in their hearts. And that joy was incredibly contagious. Even I, who believed I was there to minister to them, couldn’t help but be moved by their joy, be served by them. They became witnesses to me of God’s goodness. Their tears turned into laughter and their laughter turned into Joy. And that joy spread and spread and spread.

In Advent, we are called to be witnesses of God’s goodness. We are called to sing out God’s great love in Christ. In this season, we remember that even in such a messy and broken world as ours, God chose to come and live as one of us, to teach us, heal us, save us, and claim us as beloved children. And we remember that Christ is coming again.

So in this season, let’s pay attention to those glimpses of hope we have for our world. Let’s seek the way of Christ’s peace and restoration. And let’s sing out those songs of joy. We have a message the world is hungering for. Wherever you are, whatever you have done, whatever pain or loss you have experienced, God hasn’t forgotten you. Christ has already come and Christ is coming again. To love us all. To make us whole. To free the captives and heal the sick. To share good news and lift up the lowly. To offer a seat at the table of grace.
To bring us back to joy. Amen.