Advent 2023: Make some noise
December 17 | 3rd sunday of advent |Year B
Echoes of a Dream
Psalm 126 | Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 | 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 | John 1:6-8, 19-28
What’s the historical context?
A Song Celebrating the Return from Babylonian Exile
The book of Ezra recounts the return of 50,000 exiles and their entourage from Babylon after Cyrus the Great conquered the land and issued a decree in 538 BCE allowing the repatriation of the captives to their Judean home. Psalm 126 is part of a section of the Psalter called the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134). They were the traveling music of the caravans of pilgrims who ascended to Jerusalem for the three required annual festivals: Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (Tabernacles). When the choral jukebox raised its collective voice to sing song number 7 (Psalm 126) on the playlist, the hearts and minds of the pilgrims would have rested with their forebears whose ascent to Jerusalem in the sixth century spanned nearly 900 miles/1500 kilometers and six months of travel.
A Song of Dreamers
Psalm 126:1 says, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed.” The first thing the exiles do when they return is give thanks to God by rebuilding the altar and reestablishing the system of sacrifice. They then turn their attention to clearing the ruins of Solomon’s temple and laying the foundation for a new one. While the glory of the former temple would never be fully restored through Zerubbabel’s construction, at the laying of the foundation, Ezra records the reaction of the returned, “…many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of the temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy” (Ezra 3:12). For a band of brothers who were forcefully carted off to captivity as children and young men, this moment of laying the temple’s foundation was the echo of a dream they could hardly believe was materializing before their very eyes. God was indeed “restoring” the fortunes of Zion. It was a pinch-myself-I’m-dreaming moment for them which elicited emotions of sorrow and joy, rivulets of tears and roars of delight.
How do we point to Jesus?
A Dreamer of Spiritual Restoration
Fast forward half a millennium. Jesus would ride into Jerusalem with the throng of pilgrims ascending Jerusalem’s slopes on their way to the temple during Passover. With the songs of ascent ringing in his ears, the dreams of his forebears achingly echoing in his heart, Jesus would near the city and weep over the ancestral and spiritual home of his people and say,
Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children with you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation (Luke 19:41-44).
The messianic age that Jesus intended to initiate was the fulfillment of a dream of spiritual restoration when God would visit his people, the same prophetic echoes of Isaiah 40:1-5 and Malachi 3:1. The temple and its city were merely shadows of the real fortune of the people of Israel, the love and presence of their God and king.
A Life of Exile and Return
Psalm 126 says, “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” (vv. 5-6). While most of us run from allegory and rightly so, it is not too far a stretch to imagine that Jesus himself is the representative exile who sows with tears, going out weeping with seed to sow in his hands. He is the suffering servant of Isaiah, “despised and rejected by humanity, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised” (Isaiah 53:3). John 1:11 says, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” In his work on the Psalms, Dietrich Bonhoeffer indicates that Jesus is the only one who most fully experiences the Psalms in every low and high of human grief and glory.
It is one thing to experience a collective exile as a people harassed by the hard hands of a conqueror, but it is quite another to experience exile from within your own tribe. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is one of increasing sorrow and captivity that meets its lowest point of despair in the cross he carries and on which he dies, “smitten by God and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4b). Jesus’ forlorn cry of Psalm 22 puts him at the center of all human experience of exile, the feeling of being abandoned by God himself, but his weeping, his sorrow, and the seeds which he carries are not buried for nought. His exile results in a triumphant return in his resurrection from the grave on Easter morning as the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). He returns with songs of joy, reaping a harvest of resurrection life, a restoration of God’s creation.
How does this impact us today?
Loss & Restoration of Home
In the winter of 1942, my father-in-law, along with his three older siblings, was smuggled by his mother and aunt from a small town in former Prussia, three hours north of Warsaw, to a safer haven as they sought to outrun the oncoming Russian army. They hid in abandoned homes and searched for any food that might sustain them. The young refugee women with whom they traveled put ash in their hair and donned the clothes of older women to deter the lustful eyes of soldiers they might unexpectedly encounter. When news reached them that the larger army had passed through their home and were now a safe distance away, they returned to find their town in ruins and that the men who had remained had been gathered and executed. They were forced to seek asylum in Hamburg, Germany, exiled from their home, from their farm, from their roots, and from their way of life.
In the summer of 2015, we visited Neumalken (now the Polish town of Woszczele) with my father-in-law and his brother. We toured their family farm, the home in which they had lived, and heard the stories of pain and loss, joy and sorrow. The soil which their families had tilled and the place which they had called home was no longer a reality for them.
Historically, Psalm 126 represents the fortunes of a home restored for the people of Israel, but more symbolically, for us, it represents the hope and joy of every generation of people displaced from their home both physically and spiritually. Subsequent centuries have seen the displacement of millions from home and hearth, the loss of familiar places never to be seen again. The diasporas of people around the world exiled by rogue powers and reckless rebellions, natural disasters and man made catastrophes, beg for God’s presence to comfort and restore.
The Hope for a Spiritual Home
We all long for home in one way or another, the place in which we are known, loved, comforted, and accepted. Spiritually, many of us, like the prodigal—unknown, unloved, afraid and dismissed—wallow in the spiritual mud of a life of hurt, pain, sin, and sorrow while we pine for the Father’s house. May we this Advent become as dreamers who in confidence in the One who was exiled and restored, through the tears and pain of displacement, wait in hope and with joy for him who will return us home; may our weeping endure only for the night as we await our morning joy! And may we, this Advent, with hope and joy, be fully aware of Christ’s visitation.
Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.
—Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., The Poet at the Breakfast Table, 2007, p.33.
Joy is not the absence of darkness. Joy is confidence that the darkness will lift.
Without exception … all try their hardest to reach the same goal, that is, joy.
—Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Book X, Chapter 21.
Homecoming & The Hope of Resurrection
In her book Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home, Jen Pollock Michel reflects on the nature of home in a transient age. In this short excerpt, Michel describes the central longing in both Tolkien & Lewis’ fiction:
In their stories of hobbits and orcs, fauns and beavers and Father Christmas, Tolkien and Lewis told the story of home as the Scriptures tell it: the world has fallen from its original perfection, but it will one day be restored. The enduring legacy of these stories testify to the resonance of their hope.
Humans long for the thaw of winter and the return of the king.
They want to go home. Acquainted with the early grief of losing a mother, both Tolkien and Lewis knew the longing for a world in which death and injustice did not triumph.
Devout Christians, both men knew the consolation of that desire in the story of Jesus Christ—because Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. As the Zaleskis write, “When Sam Gamgee cries out, ‘O great glory and splendor! And all my wishes have come true!’ we are not in the realm of escapism, but of the Gospel, in all its strangeness and beauty.”
- Have you ever experienced the loss of home or at the least found yourself in a place far from the familiar? What thoughts and emotions did that displacement create for you?
- Many of the exiles of Israel thought that they would never again see their homeland, but by God’s grace through Cyrus’s decree a number were granted the ability to return. Why do you think those who saw the temple’s foundation laid, those who had been plucked from this place as young men, wept and cried for joy? Was the weeping for what had been taken away from them, for the desolation of the place, or was it something akin to tears of thanksgiving?
- Do you think it is legitimate to see Jesus as the representative exile and returnee of Psalm 126, that his life represented a similar pattern to those of the nation of Israel in his suffering and rejection and restoration in his triumph over the cross and the grave? If so, what difference does that make for us this Advent?
- Does suffering hold a necessary role in our joy? Does the human experience really need to be both one of suffering and joy? In what ways does the Christian message regarding suffering and joy contrast or conflict with the larger cultural view of these human experiences?
- In what ways have we already experienced a spiritual homecoming brought about by God in our own lives in which we could pinch ourselves and say, “We were like dreamers?” Give an example of how God has brought you from a place of spiritual, physical, relational, or emotional homelessness to a place of home?
Call to Worship
Hear now these words from Isaiah 61 as declared by Jesus, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to declare the year of the Lord’s favor.” Friends, let us come before our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the confidence that God’s favor rests with all who are weary and in need of rest, for all who are left out, left behind, left in darkness, left in bondage, and left without. Come, let us worship the God who saves!
Adapted from Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 by Scott Bullock
Prayer of Confession
Father, we confess that our witness is weak. When asked to give glory to Your name, we often give glory to our own. Unlike John the Baptist, who sought neither adulation nor accolade when asked to reveal his identity, we too often ask for both and then some. You have given us life and salvation and we give you sorrow and silence. Forgive us for not pointing to you and your way so that others may hear, see, and believe. Lord, have mercy on us.
Provide time for silent confession.
Scott Bullock, inspired by John 1:6-8; 19-28
Assurance of Pardon
The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
Psalm 103:8-12, adapted by Scott Bullock
Brothers and Sisters, Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, adapted by Scott Bullock
Die trauernden Juden im Exil by Eduard Bendemann in 1832, oil on canvas.
A group of Jewish people mourn their captivity in Babylon.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
More Quotes: Advent 3
More Illustrations: Advent 3
Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.