Planting Seeds in the Desert

The Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.

Then was our mouth 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, *
and we are glad indeed.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.

Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.

Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Psalm 126

“Planting seeds”. This was a phrase said too often at the rehabilitation home. It was more often sighed than said, usually accompanied with a small head shake and slumping shoulders. It was a phrase of quiet resignation, disappointment, and grief. “Planting seeds” is what we would say when one of our residents would lose themselves to their addiction, relapsing and leaving the program. It was a two-word funeral for the one that we had lost: filled with the sadness of loss, and the hope of resurrection.

“Planting seeds”. It was sometimes all that could be said for someone who was still lost, and all we could say to give us the courage to pick up and carry on. And we had to carry on, there was always someone else knocking on the door, desperate, hoping for a chance to start their life again, and that open spot was the chance they needed. The loss of one was suddenly the miracle for the other. But that was the beginning of a new season. Before any of that work began, when we still knew only grief and hope, “Planting seeds” was our only comfort. In that small space of two words, there was no time, only dreams and memories, time past and hope to come, in a moment and an eternity.

“When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream.

Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”

So proclaims the psalmist. The song begins with a recollection of LORD restoring the people to their homeland. The people are in ecstasy, their dreams realized, they cannot keep themselves from laughter and shouts of joy. They are drunk on happiness and relief. The great ordeal is over, the exodus complete, they are returned from exile, things can finally go back to normal. Only the story doesn’t end here. In fact, it doesn’t end at all, rather living in a liminal space of “already not yet”.

Psalm 126 is a peculiar psalm, especially in its sense of time. It is part of a collection of fifteen psalms known as “Psalms of Ascents”, beginning with Psalm 120 and ending with Psalm 134. Scholars are relatively certain that the fifteen psalms were meant to be collected together, but the date of their authorship, their purpose, who would have sung them, and of course, their interpretation, are lost to time. A popular theory is that these psalms were part of a liturgy at the recently rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. Another theory, noting that they are short enough to be easily memorized, and several containing “call & response” sections, suggests they were songs sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for a festival. Though it is up for much dispute, this collection of psalms is believed by many to come from shortly after the Israelites return from the Babylonian Exile.

Psalm 126 sits at an odd prominence in this group, its subject matter and tone shift from its predecessors, and it is likely the beginning of a new section in the larger collection. Within the psalm itself the transition is made. The first three verses recounting a time when the nation was delivered from great distress, especially the collective joy that followed. Yet the final four verses shift to a cry for help. Their dream did not materialize as they hoped it would and they once again are calling for rescue. The psalms that follow all bear a tinge of sadness that the dream was not fully realized.

If this psalm was written with the Babylonian Exile in mind, it is a reminder that the story does not end when the people finally return from Exile. We learn from Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles, and other books within the Bible that the return from Exile was not a “happily ever after” ending to the story of the Israelites. For all the suffering, bitter lessons, humility, and calls to return to God and righteousness the Israelites experienced during their exile, when they returned, they became little better than their Babylonian captors. The dream of returning home, returning to normal, after a generation and a half became a nightmare to the people the Israelites found. While the exiles returned and were still dreaming, blinded in their own ecstasy, they cast into exile the “foreigners”, forcing a mass divorce of the mixed families, and driving the widows and orphans into the desert. The Israelites did not live up to the justice, righteousness, and faithfulness to God that they so craved in exile. They became much like their captors.

In time even the staunchest nationalists were roused from the dream. They had not returned to the glorious kingdom of David and Solomon, but a vassal state tossed to and fro by the winds and whims of far larger empires. And so once again they sang hoping for their fortunes to be restored, that the tears they sowed would be sheaves of joy.

But like any good song, the psalm is timeless. It may have been written long before the Babylonian Exile, or even during. The psalm deliberately plays with the ambiguity of time. In Hebrew, tense is implied, meaning the way the psalm is structured, it could mean the past, present, future, or both. Verse one can be translated as “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,” “LORD, restore the fortunes of Zion,” or even “When the LORD restores the fortunes of Zion,”. These different options and several combinations can be applied throughout the whole psalm, changing its meaning to a song of sorrowful lament, of hope for the future, of thankfulness, of praise, of petition, of remorse, of resolve.  

Of the many meanings that we may choose from, the lessons are the same from all times, all places, and to all people. We have been saved, we will be saved, and we are still being saved. We are in liminal space, the already not yet of advent, of human history, and our present exile. We stand at the edge greatness, if we choose to learn from our exile and return to God’s justice, righteous, and faithfulness. At this edge we are equally close to falling back into our old ways of selfishness, fear, and hate.

Even so, the LORD has done great things for us. Even so, the LORD will restore our fortunes like the watercourses of the Negev. We will sow with tears, knowing that one day we will reap with joy. Though we struggle to be faithful to God, God has always been faithful to us.

The watercourses of the Negev were a series of stream beds that were dry most of the year. It was part of an arid desert south of Israel often considered too dry to be hospitable. Yet a people also displaced by the Babylonian invasion of Israel, the Nabateans, were able to build an entire civilization around the watercourses. This was possible by the geography of the Negev, the smallest rains would collect in the watercourses, cascading into streams capable of supporting people and agriculture. The water was carefully managed to divert into farmland, and extra sent to cisterns. Though no matter how careful the planning, how diligent the preparation, it is always an act of faith to sow seeds in the desert. Many tears are shed when sowing seeds in the desert, as no one knows when the rain will come.

“Planting seeds” was what we said when whenever we lost a resident to their addiction. The work was hard, walking with them through deserts of poverty, shame, despair, trying to help them eek out a new existence in a harsh, unforgiving land. We were never sure what would grow, sometimes it was a watered garden, sometimes it was bitter resentment. But we still kept planting seeds, knowing that even those we would no longer see would sprout and grow one day. It was our reminder that we were only part of their story, that all we did was plant seeds. Often we never knew what happened to them, all we knew was that we planted seeds of hope, forgiveness, righteousness, and joy. We knew that the Living Water had come, is coming, and will come. We hoped that they would soon shoulder their sheaves of Joy. Though we do not often see the results of our labor, by God’s faithfulness, we know that all the seeds we plant will spring out of a harsh earth. And so, we continue planting seeds in the desert. And so, we keep singing.

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