The third Sunday of Advent marks a shift away from the solemn tone of the previous two Sundays which focus on longing and preparation, to a more joyous atmosphere of hopeful expectancy, reminding us that our waiting is almost over and we can hardly contain our joy. The theme of rejoicing is overwhelming in the readings for this week. First we read Isaiah’s prophecy of the joys of the coming kingdom and his declaration that “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God” (Isaiah 61:10). Again in Luke we read the words of Mary from her joyful song, the Magnificat: “My soul rejoices in my God, my spirit finds joy in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47). The passage we read from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians begins with the words “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). But I find this week’s Psalm (Psalm 126) of particular interest for preaching through the themes of Advent.
Psalm 126 is the seventh in a cycle of psalms known as the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-137). Songs of Ascent would be sung as pilgrims made their way up the mountain to Jerusalem to worship or celebrate special holy days, remembering the restoration of Zion and longing for a fresh movement of renewal from God. Songs of Ascent are meditations on God’s deliverance: “God delivered us in the past, and we know God will deliver us now and in the future.”
The psalm has two stanzas, verses 1-3 and verses 4-6. The first stanza recalls God’s past acts of restoration and the emotions of joy and celebration that accompanied those saving acts, and the second stanza rephrases these themes in the form of renewed appeals for restoration. Psalm 126 expresses profound joy at the great things God has done; words for laughter and joy occur five times in the two short stanzas. The psalm is about joy anticipated and joy remembered, and the joy is always God’s work, both in restoring Zion and renewing those who sing. But the psalm also recognizes—just like the rest of the Advent season—that the joy of the God’s deliverance has not yet fully come, and that the people of God forever live in the already and not yet.
In the beginning of the psalm, the people remember what God had done for them in the past, and they rejoice:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.
Not only has the Lord done “great things,” even recognized by the other nations, but “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” The restoration of Zion echoes the language of the prophets, particularly of Isaiah chapters 40-55. But the psalm moves from remembering God’s work in the past to asking God to restore them once again:
Restore our fortunes, Lord, like streams in the Negev. Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.
Mourning has given way to laughter and joy, but that laughter and joy is now in the past, and the community is left hoping that once again the Lord will do a “great thing for us.” Remembering God’s work in the past fuels their prayers for the present; the restoration of Zion will not be complete until the people themselves are also restored. So the psalmist shifts from remembering the past and instead longs for a similar work of God in the world now, praying that what began in tears and weeping will end with songs of joy and arms filled with proof of God’s great work in their midst.
When heard within the context of our Advent liturgies, the salient themes of hope and expectation draw our attention to the break between stanzas, the space of waiting. The deliverance or restoration mentioned in Psalm 126 may not be immediate (suggested by the period of waiting implied by the images of sowing and harvesting), but it is promised, and they live hopefully waiting for its fulfillment. We too live with the promise that our joy will be restored.
Just as generations in Israel looked back at the great things God had done for them and at the same time looked toward restoration and a time of joyful harvest in the future, Advent is also a time for us to look back as well as ahead. We remember the joy of the first coming of Christ and all the great things God has done for us, but we also look forward to the second coming of Christ and to a time when our joy will be complete. Many in this Advent season are longing for the restoration and reversal expressed in Psalm 126. They are waiting with expectation for their tears to be changed into songs of joy—and Advent reminds us that our waiting is not in vain. During Advent we remember God’s restorative acts in the past, our own joy, and the testimony of the nations to God’s deliverance. And we know that until the Son of God comes again, we will be in constant and everlasting need of God’s continued restoration. Psalm 126 reminds us that “the Lord has done great things for us,” and we are called to live expectantly, fully convinced that the tears and weeping of our day will be changed into songs of joy because the God we serve is a God of restoration and reversal. During Advent we recognize that because God has already come to us, we can trust that God will fulfill promises to bring restoration, deliverance, healing, and joy once again.