With Shouts of Joy

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on December 11, 2022.

            When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,

                        we were like those who dream.

            Then our mouth was filled with laughter,

                        and our tongue with shouts of joy;

            then they said among the nations,

                        “The LORD has done great things for them.”

            The LORD has done great things for us;

                        we are glad.

            Restore our fortunes, O LORD,

                        like streams in the Negeb!

            Those who sow in tears

                        shall reap with shouts of joy!

            He who goes out weeping,

                        bearing the seed for sowing,

            shall come home with shouts of joy,

                        bringing his sheaves with him (Psalm 126).[1]

Joy is not an achievement of the Christian life but a fruit of it. Nor is joy an acquisition but the produce of living by faith and obedience to the Spirit of Christ. Yet, some may feel as if joy is fleeting. If you are a Christian and wonder where your joy has gone, it would be wise to look to the robber baron of sin, your flesh. Like a thief who breaks in on Christmas Eve to steal all the presents under the tree, sin stealthily steals the gift of joy. And when we awake and realize it’s gone, we often look for it in all the wrong places.

The legalist believes joy can be commanded. The consumer believes it can be purchased. The organizer believes it can be arranged. The average American might think it can be entertained right back into you. As one pastor observes,

We pay someone to make jokes, tell stories, perform dramatic actions, sing songs. We buy the vitality of another’s imagination to divert and enliven our own poor lives. The enormous entertainment industry in America is a sign of the depletion of joy in our culture. Society is a bored, gluttonous king employing a court jester to divert [him] after an overindulgent meal. But that kind of joy never penetrates our lives, never changes our basic constitution. The effects are extremely temporary—a few minutes, a few hours, a few days at most. When we run out of money, the joy trickles away. We cannot make ourselves joyful.”[2]

Joy cannot be commanded, purchased, arranged, or entertained, but as it is received, it can be restored.

Think of David’s prayerful psalm of repentance (the fifty-first psalm) in which he confesses and repents of his sin and then petitions the Lord for what only God can give: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Ps. 51:12a). Repentance and obedience are our Spirit-enabled part; restoration is God’s. We see this clearly in this psalm from a past, present, and future perspective. The psalmist looks to the Lord’s restoration in the past, reflecting on his faithfulness:

            When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,

                        we were like those who dream (126:1).

And the psalmist prays for the Lord’s restoration in the future, rejoicing in his provision:

            Restore our fortunes, O LORD,

                        like streams in the Negeb! (126:4)

The story of the Christian life has a bookend on one side of the acts of God’s faithfulness and a bookend on the other side of the hope of God’s provision. In between these two bookends is the joy of living as a child of God: present joy is past and future. It is not a fleeting emotion, but a Spirit-yielded fruit rooted in what God has done and will do for the good of his people and for his glory, and we must learn to apply our minds to this contemplation, beginning by reflecting on God’s faithfulness.

Reflect on God’s faithfulness

The psalm begins looking backward. Literally translated, the psalmist says, “The LORD turns with a turning,”[3] a turn initiated and accomplished by our sovereign God. Conceptually, it is a statement of return to well-being, a restoration of good fortune, a testimony to God’s steadfast love and plentiful redemption. Practically speaking, it was a return from a decades-long exile in a foreign land, an exile resulting from generations of unfaithfulness to God’s covenant and disobedience to his commands. Yet even as Israel was faithless, the Lord remained faithful, for that is who he is (2 Tim. 2:13). And so, in the providence of God, Cyrus king of Persia decreed Israel’s return, rebuilding the temple in Zion, resettling Jerusalem, repopulating the land.

We can imagine the celebration of finally coming home, “like those who dream,” like a dream come true! It was a time of laughter, with shouts of joy, a time to treasure, even nurture, and a time to remember and reflect on the faithfulness of God. Each verb in the first three verses connotes the past: “the LORD restored,” “we were,” “our mouth was filled,” “they said,” the “Lord has done.” The psalmist is teaching Israel to remember, reflect, and recount all that God has done. Let us take note and do the same.

This is one reason it is so important to consistently reflect on the gospel: joy flourishes in the redeemed heart recounting the acts of God’s sovereign grace. Reflect on the fact,

you were at [one time] separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Eph. 2:12-13).

Remember that if you confess your sin to God, he is faithful and just to forgive you and cleanse you (1 Jn. 1:9). Remember that you have “an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 Jn. 2:1). These are just a few examples from Scripture, but the point is that the reality of our relationship with the Lord is we too can pray, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Ps. 51:12) and know that he is faithful to restore it, like the fortunes of Zion.

Realize your witness

The Christian life is not lived in a vacuum, and we are not the only ones who witness the Lord’s faithfulness. The world is watching. The joy that God gives is a demonstrable joy, a joy that leads the nations to say, “The LORD has done great things for them” (Ps. 126:2). This was not Israel’s agenda in resettling the land, but it was the Lord’s. As Isaiah declared,

            Arise, shine, for your light has come,

                        and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

            For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,

                        and thick darkness the peoples;

            but the LORD will arise upon you,

                        and his glory will be seen upon you.

            And nations shall come to your light,

                        and kings to the brightness of your rising (Is. 60:1-3).

We of course know that this prophecy was ultimately fulfilled in Christ, the true and perfect Israel. But it is also true that the testimony of the Lord’s faithfulness to his people and our joy in it is telling.

What is the story of your life telling? Is it the joy of the Lord? Is it one of alienation or community? One of hostility or love? One of condemnation or grace? One of rejection or restoration? One of legalism or liberty? One of sin or joy? The apostle Paul’s metaphor of “fruit,” representing evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in our life, is a perfect one: A Life lived by faith in conformity to Christ will produce evidence of the Spirit’s presence.

Nothing in Scripture, however, advocates the life of an imposter, living one way in public and another in private. Instead, we are called to live as we confess: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). A crucified life gets noticed, not by tweets or posts, not by selfies or self-promotion, not by celebrity status, but by the selfless, gentle and quiet life of Christ’s reign, testifying to the life of the resurrected One and bearing the fruit of his presence. Those who witness true fruit will testify, “The LORD has done great things for them.”

Rejoice in God’s Provision

Between verse three and four, there appears to be a transition. Those who were confessing,

            The LORD has done great things for us;

                        we are glad” (126:3),

are now praying,

Restore our fortunes, O LORD (126:4a).

Those who were laughing are now crying; those who were shouting are now weeping. What happened between verse three and four? Life, life happened. Sometimes our joyful shouts are tempered by the reality of life. The exiles returned home to their land: Welcome home! It’s a wreck.

But reality does not warrant a masquerade. I think sometimes Christians feel like joy is a mask to be worn, a uniform to adorn, rather than a fruit to be borne. You may fake it ‘til you can make it, but your fooling no one but yourself. Please, for the sake of Spirit-filled joy, come to terms with the reality of life: The garden of life turns out to have thorns and thistles; the daily bread we pray for doesn’t fall from heaven but comes by the sweat of our brow; and the meaningful life we strive for ends in earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust (Gen. 3:18-19).

What joy is there in a life of thorns and thistles, sweat and toil, dirt and dust? If your happiness is rooted in this land, joy will grow wings and fly away. If your happiness is rooted in your work or what you do, joy will crumble in your hand. If your happiness is rooted in all this life can offer, joy will slip away like sand through a sieve. In contrast, the psalmist teaches us to pray expectantly, to sow in tears, and reap with shouts of joy.

The psalmist begins by praying for the Lord’s blessing,

            Restore our fortunes, O LORD,

                        like streams in the Negeb!

Figuratively, they are in the field, working an unkept land. Not in a lush Garden of Eden but the Negeb (or Negev) in Judah’s arid south, where the dry, sunbaked ground yields nothing without the winter rains. Irrigation ditches carry scarce water to fields, but there is no water to carry if rain never falls. The difference between a barren wasteland and a flowering oasis is the Lord’s provision. The psalmist prays for God’s blessing like rain in the desert.

And the Lord answers his prayer, but perhaps differently than some might expect: sowing in tears, going out weeping. In the field of life, hardships do not go away when we come to faith in Christ, in fact quite the opposite. We do not encounter trials for a lack of faith but because of it.

In fact, it is in the field of life that God grows us from seed to sprout to fruit to maturity, often through the droughts, hard soil, and failed harvests of daily life. Christian joy then can never come from temporal conditions but eternal realities. For this reason, the apostle Paul could write from prison, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). Rightly, does James tell us to “consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (Jas. 1:2-3). The restored fortunes for which we pray are often answered on the Lord’s anvil of trials.

Sorrow is not incompatible with joy for the child of God:

            Those who sow in tears

                        shall reap with shouts of joy!

            He who goes out weeping,

                        bearing the seed for sowing,

            shall come home with shouts of joy,

                        bringing his sheaves with him (126:5-6).

Christian joy is known in the midst of the Lord’s fruit-producing work in us. Yes, we may “sow in tears,” but consider the seeds God is planting through them. Yes, we may go “out weeping,” but consider the “sheaves” God promises for our good and his glory, the great harvest of being conformed to Christ, a harvest already begun but not yet completed. Never-ending joy awaits us without tears, without sorrow, for he who restores promises,

Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away (Rev. 21:3-4).

Therefore, let us not look for everlasting joy in the land of Adam’s curse but in the land of Christ’s promise:

            No more let sins and sorrows grow

            nor thorns infest the ground;

            he comes to make his blessings flow

            far as the curse is found.[4]

As exiles, we are headed to our Promised Land, the new heavens and earth, where we will not sow in tears nor go out weeping, but we will shout with joy. Think of it; that’s what Calvin advises:

“In order then that joy may succeed our present sorrow, let us learn to apply our minds to the contemplation of the issue which God promises. Thus we shall experience that all true believers have a common interest in this prophecy, that God not only will wipe away tears from their eyes, but that he will also diffuse inconceivable joy through hears.”[5]

The joy of heaven, inconceivable joy: Now, that’s worth shouting about!

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 90-91.

[3] Psalm 126:1, “NET Notes” 3, NETBible, accessed December 7, 2022, https://netbible.org/bible/Psalms+126.

[4] “Joy to the World! The Lord Is Come,” Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee: Great Commission Publications, Inc., 1990), 195.

[5] Quoted in Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 912.

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