1 When the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better,
it was like we had been dreaming.
2 Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter;
our tongues were filled with joyful shouts.
It was even said, at that time, among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them!”
3 Yes, the Lord has done great things for us,
and we are overjoyed.
4 Lord, change our circumstances for the better,
like dry streams in the desert waste!
5 Let those who plant with tears
reap the harvest with joyful shouts.
6 Let those who go out,
crying and carrying their seed,
come home with joyful shouts,
carrying bales of grain!
Israel’s long history included incredibly low times of misery at the hands of tyrants (notably slavery in Egypt—cf. Exodus 1:8-11, and exile in Babylon—cf. 2 Kings 24:13-14, 25:11). But it also included God’s action to deliver them in the Exodus and in the return from exile. Psalm 126 poetically recalled the joy they felt when God lifted them up from their lowly status, and prayed trustingly that God would again allow them to live in the joy of divine deliverance.
Lord God, thank you for the times—like Jesus’ first coming—when you did great things for your people. Help me to live in the confidence that, sooner or later, you always act to lift us up and bring us joy. Amen.
Finding joy is a daily practice. Finding joy in our day to day lives is a kind of pilgrimage we begin each morning. We do not need to travel to distant locations to encounter joy, new insights, or find spiritual awakening. Rather, a pilgrimage is a practice or journey--sometimes painful or difficult, often wonderful and full of mystery--toward the heart of God.
Recently, members of the church excitedly introduced themselves to me after worship to tell me that we had passed each other on one of the local walking trails. I was running in the opposite direction as we waved to each other. I remember running past my pastor one morning in college and thought how odd it was to see my pastor running. Now, I am that pastor! Running is something that gives me a lot of joy. How can this be, you might ask? Isn’t running painful? Well, yes, it can be. However, at the end of an early morning run I find a sense of accomplishment, life-giving joy, and the belief that anything is possible. A recent article in Runner’s World suggests that running can improve mental health, help manage depression and anxiety, and even change the chemical reactions in our brains. It also has great physical benefits.
As much as I love running, it is also a daily pilgrimage and spiritual discipline that leads me into the heart of God. It takes time. Some days my legs are sore. Some days are too hot while others are too cold. And, the first step is usually the most difficult.
Living with joy is also a daily pilgrimage. It is not always easy. Finding joy in the face of adversity or remaining hopeful in despair is a challenge, but it is possible.
The Israelites understood the significance of pilgrimage. Fleeing from slavery in Egypt, Moses led his people through the wilderness in search of the Promised Land. Generations later, after the destruction of Israel, then Judah, the Israelites became exiles in Babylon. There was little joy to be found in leaving their homes and land. Roughly 50 years later, the Persian King Cyrus allowed the exiled Israelites to return home. They traveled the 800 miles and in the subsequent years, about three or four waves of exiles made this pilgrimage home. They would find joy at long last! However, the temple in Jerusalem needed to be rebuilt, the city lay in ruins, the walls of the city needed to be restored. I imagine the Israelites losing hope and struggling to find joy against the obstacles before them.
The 126th Psalm is important because it captures how, through pilgrimage, the Israelites return to the heart of God to find joy. The Psalmist wrote first in the past tense, “When the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better, it was like we had been dreaming. Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter; our tongues were filled with joyful shouts.” The writer recalled how God intervened to help them. They were exiled, but God had not forgotten them. Then, facing new obstacles upon the return to Jerusalem, the Psalmist changes the tense of the request by saying, “Lord, change our circumstances for the better!” The pilgrimage was not over--it was just beginning. It was a daily practice as they rebuilt and learned to worship God again in their homeland.
What is significant is the belief that joy and hope are possible even if the present circumstances are not ideal or preferred. The Psalmist points to the hope and promise of restoration. In the season of Advent, this Psalm reminds us that God’s people find joy in remembering how God intervened in our life and world while looking toward a future hope in the promise of renewal and restoration.
The question, then, is: what daily practice or pilgrimage leads you to the heart of God where joy is found?
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