by Elaine Maust
Advent 3: God’s Unstoppable Purpose Restores
December 11, 2005
Psalm 126 was written for and about refugees. We might call it, “the song of the evacuees” or “a prayer for the displaced.”
But God’s people were more like prisoners of war than evacuees or displaced persons. Their hometown, Jerusalem, had been sacked, and they and their children had been carried off to Babylon where they tried to begin a new life. You remember the Old Testament stories of Esther’s people. Or Daniel and his friends, Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego. They lived and worked and even became part of Babylon. But always in the hearts of these folks was the deep desire to go home.
Yesterday I was at a party that included several evacuee families from St. Bernard Parish. They talked about their new lives in Picayune and Meridian. They are doing very well, but they want to go home. Moves to a new part of the country are hard enough when you want to go, when you prepare to go. But being forced to leave and on short notice, that turns hard into very, very tough. Down deep, there is this longing to go home.
Back to Psalm 126… (v1a) It’s time to go home. Ezra and Nehemiah led the people back to the old country, to their hometown, Jerusalem. The people returned in waves, not everyone at the same time. I wonder what it was like for them as they got closer to the decimated city. Everyone who was raised there had died. Now there were only passed-along memories and stories. It must have been bittersweet as they got closer, thinking of their grandparents and the stories they told of their real home. Now they were coming home. The Lord had restored their fortunes. (Zion is another name for Jerusalem)
(v1) They stumbled in and out through the rubble of the streets as if in a dream. Could this be real? It was wonderful and terrible at the same time. Wonderful to be home. A “too good to be true, we must be dreaming” moment. Yet at the same time it was shocking to see Jerusalem in such shape. Unfortunately we have images of empty city in our own minds to help us understand their disbelief.
Then slowly as if they began to thaw, the wonder of the situation penetrated. They were home! They had survived. Their grandparents would be so proud! It was Jerusalem! It was their city, the hometown they had never seen. (v2)
And the people around took notice too. Their neighboring nations in general and their enemies in particular. (v2b) Oh yes, God had done amazing things for them! “and we rejoiced.”
They rejoiced and went to work. Stone by stone they tore down the walls and built them back. I wonder if they had black mold to bleach? And they rebuilt the temple. They began to reestablish their lives and families back home in Jerusalem. God had restored their fortunes and they began restoring their city. Barclay says that “God has done great things for us” should really be translated, “God has done great things with us.”
But as in other restoration efforts, they ran into problems. That’s the transition between the first three verses and the second three. Notice the change in the tone between the first and second stanzas of this poem. Verse 4 begins, “Help us!” The space between these verses represents an 18-year delay. I frankly doubt if there were squabbles with the insurance company or FEMA red tape to deal with, but they had enemies who slowed the reconstruction effort. Talk about a long, slow recovery effort. If I have to wait 18 years until we get MS and LA rebuilt, I will be 65! (47 if you are doing the math).
(v4) When I was a kid I used to walk along a muddy little creek, more like a ditch really, along the cotton field across from the house where I grew up in Noxubee County. Most of the time it was just a cracked empty ditch. The black ground smooth where the water had dried. But when we got the big rains in the spring, I had my own private creek.
Some of the desert streams in the Negev outside of Jerusalem were like that. Every year the streams in the Negev went dry. Then, even though it was a desert, they would get a downpour and water would pour down through those watercourses. I imagine that this prayer writer of Ps. 126 was a farmer who was out during one of the downpours to plant his garden. Beside his field ran a ditch that now had water running ankle deep. He threw out another hand full of seed and looked toward his city and prayed (v4).
I imagine that as he planted, rain splashed against his face and the dirt and it splashed up on his feet. I think he was crying. They had lost so much. The rebuilding job was overwhelming. What if they had begun something they could not complete. What if his city would never be livable again? Maybe, if we could have seen the farmer that day, it might have appeared that he was planting tears. Maybe it was his tears that were watering his seeds. He was “sowing in tears.”
At least the rain has made it possible to plant and for seeds to germinate. The brave souls who were returning to their town would have something to eat. I guess the fast food restaurants probably hadn’t opened back up in Jerusalem yet.
Then he prays “like those who dream” (v5-6).
It’s been three months and two weeks since Katrina, and we’ve been doing a lot of sowing in tears, haven’t we? Shall I speak for myself? I cried as we discovered that friends on the coast were still alive. I cried as we watched pictures of New Orleans on TV. I cried as we heard the stories and saw the pictures from friends who have lost so much more than we have.
It’s been like a dream, hasn’t it? Maybe we feel a little bit like the Israelites returning to Jerusalem, (1) stumbling around through the city, incapable of calculating the damages, uncertain where to begin.
Initially, as we recovered from our shock, we rejoiced. (v2a) We were amazed, Tuesday morning, that all of our houses were not smashed flat. We were deeply grateful that so many folks on the coast got out in time. Every time we heard from someone or saw someone for the first time, we gave thanks. Remember those days? (v3)
But it’s been three months and New Orleans is still a wasteland. On the Gulf Coast there are still people living in tents. Even here in Meridian, this far north, we learn every week of someone who is living in half a house. It’s been three months and we are still grieving as we work. We are still sowing in tears as we pray. (v4)
We are also, however, like those who dream. Here’s what I mean.
I believe our state, our region, our own community will be stronger after Katrina. And already I am seeing it. Every week I go to meetings of Rebuild East MS, our long term recovery effort for Lauderdale, Kemper, Newton and Clarke counties. I sit at this table with the Episcopal and Methodists and the Nazarenes and the Catholics. With pastors from the Ministerial Alliance, a coalition of 30 African American churches, with staff from Wesley House and Habitat. With folks from MultiCounty and Greater Meridian and with folks from the City of Meridian and Rush Hospital. We sit there together and we work together to meet the unmet needs of the folks our four counties. And it is inspiring. We are like those who dream.
When I look around that table, I can dream of how God will use Katrina to do all that we have hoped and prayed for our city. I know that we are working not only to restore our community from a hurricane, but also to create coalitions that will last to solve the problems we had before Meridian got hit by category 1 winds. I believe that 20 years from now I will say this: “it was back right after Katrina. That’s when things changed. That’s when we really started working together. That’s when we stepped up and proved to ourselves what our community can do when we cooperate. That’s when it started. After Katrina.” (4-5) “Restore our fortunes, O Lord.”
This theme that we have for the third Sunday of Advent, God’s Unstoppable Purpose Restores, has become personal for me this Advent. I hope the sights and sounds of Christmas will be triggers, not only to remind me that I don’t have all the shopping done yet and that, once again, I did not send out Christmas cards. I hope that when I see the Christmas lights hanging from the eaves of the houses along Old 8th Street, I they will remind me of God’s Unstoppable Purpose and that His power restores.
Here’s what I mean about God’s power to restore. I think of Grandpa Pete’s paint cabinet. About five years ago my parents were cleaning out the attic of their barn. Yes, barns can have attics too… Anyway one of the things they pulled down from this attic was my Grandpa Pete’s paint cabinet. Now my Grandpa Pete loved to paint. No matter what other jobs he had throughout his life, he was an insurance salesman for many years; he always painted on the side. Stories of his painting escapades were legendary. In his basement, Grandpa had an old cabinet full of gallon paint cans. Along the top was a row of nails for hanging brushes. I think the cabinet was pale green with lots of interesting features from the paint cans of many colors that had dripped onto the shelves. My parents were nice enough to give me Grandpa Pete’s paint cabinet and I took it to a local furniture restorer here in town. Under all that paint was a beautifully carved piece of solid wood furniture that now sits in my kitchen.
That’s the kind of thing that God’s restoration power can do in people. I’ve talked about restoring and recovering from the hurricane a lot this morning. It is never far from my mind. But I realize we need restoration in lots of areas in our lives, don’t we? What part of your life needs restoration? What are your tears watering these days? What are the dreams for which you pray this Advent?
Fredrick Buechner says something like this about hope: “To wait in hope is to begin to have what we hoped for already being to happen in us.”
I am proud of our community right now. And I am proud of Mississippi. (I don’t know if the other nations are taking notice or not, but people in other states certainly are). As proud as I am of how people are working together and how no one cares who gets the credit, I remember this. Restoration happens because God’s power and purpose is unstoppable. It can’t be blown down, wiped out or flooded over. It’s God’s unstoppable purpose that rebuilt and restored Jerusalem. And it is God’s unstoppable purpose that will restore MS, and that’s what gives me hope this Advent.