August 29, 2021 Rev. Beckie Sweet
The Psalmist sings:
“When Yahweh brought back those who returned to Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with singing and joy!” (Psalm 126:1-2)
The background of this Psalm relates to the Babylonian Captivity. Long story, short, under the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and took the brightest and best of the Jewish population to Babylon. The old and infirmed were left behind to die.
The Babylonian Captivity lasted seventy years. None of those who were carted away lived to see their freedom. They died in captivity. That captivity ended in 537 B.C., when Cyrus the Great let the people go back to Judea.
You can imagine the celebration when he did. The psalmist says it was like a dream, too good to be true. As the shock wore off and reality set in, the people rejoiced.
“Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with singing and joy!”
I don’t know this for a fact, but I think you’ll find that elation is proportionate to despair.
Do you remember, a few years ago, the news about the mountain climbers who were trapped in the snow on Mt. Hood? The weather was worsening. The chances of rescue looked slim. Tension mounted by the moment as the world watched and waited. Then the news we’d all hoped for came over the wire – they’d been reached. They were on their way down, safe and sound. Jubilation filled the air. Broad smiles and laughter told the story. What seemed to be a hopeless situation proved to be nothing short of a miracle.
You can judge for yourself, but I think it’s true – the worse the circumstances, the more dramatic the response when the situation is reversed. Had the climbers been delayed momentarily – say, they were thirty minutes late reporting in – their loved ones may have had a few anxious moments and then let out a sigh of relief, but it wouldn’t have caused a nationwide celebration.
Now, translate that into the Babylonian Captivity and you can appreciate what the psalmist is saying. After hoping and praying to be released for seventy long years, the people of Israel were able to go home. “Unbelievable!” “Pinch me, I must be dreaming.” It was that kind of moment in history.
As I prepared for today’s worship, I kept remembering the remarkable Nelson Mandela. He was born and raised in South Africa in the early 20th Cent. After receiving his education (including once being expelled from school for participating in a student protest), Mandela joined the African National Congress and founded its Youth League whose purpose it was to dismantle apartheid, a system of racial segregation that the National Party’s white-only government had established. Mandela was arrested and jailed several times for “treasonous” activities, until he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1962 for conspiring to overthrow the state.
During the 27 years that Mandela spent in prison, the state never released any pictures, and tried to squash any reports of Mandela’s activities. And yet the majority black population projected its hopes for freedom and equality on him. The anti-apartheid movement grew as Mandela’s mythic status helped transform him into an international icon.
It would be impossible to overstate the electric sense of anticipation that coursed through South Africa as then president F.W. de Klerk prepared to release Mandela from prison. Although apartheid was still the law of the land, de Klerk was promising sweeping changes to dismantle the system of racial segregation. Again, to make a long story short, Mandela was released, on February 11, 1990 as Black South Africa exploded with joy. A raucous crowd of some 100,000 blacks squeezed into the Grand Parade Grounds outside Cape Town’s City Hall, infusing it with the energy of a rock concert. His first words to the crowd: “Comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom. I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you the people…”
After being cut off from society for more than a quarter century, Mandela had grown into one of the wisest statesmen of the era. And in 1994, during the country’s first all-race election, Mandela was elevated to the presidency.
What does that have to do with us? Just this: the more you know about the power of sin, the depravity of humanity, the horrific circumstances of some people’s life on earth, the more we can appreciate God’s redemption. Even after the many situations of God’s salvific power displayed and told in the Old Testament, God still needed to prove to humanity that God valued them/us enough to send God’s own child as a Savior for the people.
Our reading from the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry found in John’s second chapter reminds us that God provides for us beyond our expectations. Despite how extravagant weddings can be in our day, they are nothing compared to the lengthy wedding celebrations of Jesus’ day. Tim Keller, in his book Encounters with Jesus provides some background when he states:
“The purpose of a marriage was not primarily the happiness of the two individuals but instead to bind the community together to raise the next generation. … The bigger, the stronger, and the more numerous the families of a town, the better its economy, the greater the military security, the more everyone flourished… Each wedding was a public feast for the entire town because marriage was about the whole community, not merely the couple… It is not a surprise, then, that ancient wedding feasts went on for a week at least. And with this background we can see that our text opens abruptly on a great disaster.
Just a day or two into the festivities the family ran out of wine, the single most important element of an ancient feast… This was not a mere breach of etiquette but a social and psychological catastrophe, particularly in a traditional honor-and-shame culture.”
As you have heard Phyllis read the rest of the narrative, we can make no mistake about it: WHEN GOD ACTS, PEOPLE NOTICE, EVEN PEOPLE OF LITTLE OR NO FAITH! Turning water into wine IS a miracle! Provision beyond expectation ~ It’s like a dream…too good to be true.
Then, as the psalmist sings:
Then will our mouths ring forth with laughter,
and our tongues with shouts of joy;
Then will we sing our songs of praise,
to You, O Beloved of all hearts.
For gladness will radiate out for all to see;
so great is your Presence among us.
Rejoice and be glad. Amen.