Deliverance

Psalm 126

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 it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”

The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.


John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

            When was the last time you felt like you were caught up in a dream? When the very thing that seemed most unlikely to occur defies everyone’s expectations by happening anyway and you have to pinch yourself just to be sure it’s really, really happening. When the very material out of which life is built seems to sparkle and shimmer with hope and expectation and you have to rub your eyes and look again just to be sure that what you’re seeing is actually real. When what you know should be happening, given the reality of a situation, actually isn’t happening and something far, far better is happening, defying all expectations.

            Like the day I awakened on the west coast to a text message saying that the Supreme Court just legalized same-sex marriage nationwide and I had to blink really hard to be sure I was reading the message correctly.

            Or when you applied for a terrific job that you knew was a real long shot and the letter that you just know is a rejection letter comes in the mail and it is an offer letter instead and you sit at the kitchen table and read it over and over again just to be sure it really says what you think it says before you dare tell anyone.

            Perhaps it was when the first Black man to be elected U.S. president gave his victory speech and the profundity of that moment in our nation’s history settled into your mind for the first time.

            Or, after months of grueling treatment, when the test results come back and your doctor gives you a clean bill of health and you have to look at the paperwork yourself just to be sure, even though you don’t even know how to read lab results.

We were like those who dream,” the psalmist says.

Psalm 126, a Psalm of Ascent, most likely comes to us from the post-exilic period – that time in the life of Israel when the people exiled into Babylonia were finally returned to the land of their ancestors. Beth Tanner says, the Israelites were “rarely allowed to direct their destiny after 598 BCE. This is a song from people who are part of an empire where they have no voice nor ability to impact imperial policies…They lived in an empire that barely knew of their existence.”[1]

Words of joy and laughter proliferate in this Psalm as the writer reflects on the dream-like state of the Israelites returning to their land, able to restore the ruins of Jerusalem. These are strains of joy first sung when all of the dim expectations created by the experience of exile are defied by the utter unbelievability of return, restoration, deliverance from captivity.

“We were like those who dream,” the psalmist says.

            But something happens in the tense of the verbs between the first three verses and the last three verses in this Psalm that create some dramatic tension in the song. Maybe you noticed…

            In verses one through three, all of the verbs are usually translated in the past tense:

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 it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”

The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

But beyond verse five, the verb tense shifts to the future tense. It seems that in verse three, the singers of this Psalm begin praying for God to do exactly what they were giving thanks to God for already doing in their past.[2]

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

For reasons unknown, they moved from celebrating the activity of God’s deliverance on their behalf – restoring the exiled to the land of their ancestors – to praying for God’s deliverance for their future. What seemed most certainly a done deal suddenly shifts into a hopeful and uncertain longing.

            “We were like those who dream,” becomes, “Were we just dreaming?”

            I imagine you know that feeling, too.

Like the day you realize that even amid all the gains in rights for LGBTQ people in the country, there are still scads of LGBTQ teens living homeless on our very streets in Harvard Square, and multitudes who continue to contemplate suicide, and trans people in our own state without protection from discrimination in public spaces and you rub your eyes and wonder, “We were just dreaming?”

Or when you receive a call a day later from that dream job informing you that, while you are their top choice, the company has instituted a hiring freeze and it’s unclear when they’ll be able to make the offer official. “Was it just a dream?”

            Or when the first Black U.S. president comes to the end of his two terms in office and unarmed black men continue to die at the hands of police and there are arguments over whether or not Black lives really do matter and the racist political rhetoric in the country has reached a fervor pitch. “Could it have all been a dream?”

            Or when, after years of good health and life lived in remission, you get the latest lab results back and the news is relapse. “Was it a dream too good to be true?”

And our prayers of “When the Lord restored…then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy, indeed, the Lord has done great things…,” turn quickly to, “Restore us, O Lord...May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy…May those who go out weeping, come home with shouts of joy.”

            Today’s Gospel text turns on a dime, too. When all along they had been preparing for a funeral meal, Mary and Martha and Jesus and all of the disciples come together for a resurrection repast instead – a meal celebrating the raising to life of their once-dead brother and friend, Lazarus. Martha was serving the meal and Lazarus, the guest of honor, was sitting right there at the table with them. It must have felt like a dream as they all sat around the feast watching a mouth once dried out with death sip sweet wine and eat the sumptuous food right there with them at the table.

And at some point between the time Martha cleared the remains of the appetizer and served the main course, Mary goes into her room and brings out a jar of expensive perfume – worth about a year’s wages – and empties it all over the feet of Jesus, sensually distributing the perfume over his feet with her long hair.

            Jesus may have felt like he was dreaming at that moment – a sensual dream from which he doesn’t want to wake.

And the stench of the once-dead Lazarus that almost overtook them when they opened the tomb after four days becomes a distant olfactory memory as they are engulfed by the beautiful fragrance of expensive perfume filling the house. And Mary, enraptured by one she loved, looses herself in his presence, intoxicated as much by his closeness to her as by the fragrance filling the house. “Like those who dream…”

But the whole scene takes a turn – a change in both tense and tension.

Judas asks the question first, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” He probably wasn’t the only one thinking this or who found the whole unfolding scene a bit uncomfortable, but hindsight is 20/20, so the Gospel writer says that Judas said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief who stole from the common purse. But no matter, Judas’ words were all that were needed to snap them out of their moment of enrapture – the fragrance of the perfume overtaking the memory of death’s stench, the funeral meal transformed into a resurrection repast, the once-dead man now feasting alongside them, Mary’s sensual bathing of Jesus’ feet with her hair. They were, for a moment, like those who dream.

But suddenly the celebration of their past moments of laughter and joy and deliverance from death turn quickly to a future far less settled and secure: “Leave her alone,” Jesus said. “She bought this perfume so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You will not always have me with you.”

            And, in an instant, the revelry of those who dream becomes the anxiety of those who may just be dreaming.

Her brother had already died once and she wept bitterly at all of the potential moments they could have shared now lost to death. And now she feasted at the table with him again, her brother Lazarus now resurrected, miraculously delivered from death’s grip. We assume Mary has no idea what’s coming for Jesus, the text doesn’t suggest that she knows he will soon hang from a Roman cross and be placed in a borrowed tomb.

And, presumably, no one would have said anything against her should the perfume have been used at the “right time,” a few days later when Jesus was dead and in the grave. Yet Mary broke the bottle of expensive perfume open now, at the table, during the celebratory feast, and poured it over Jesus’ feet. She had learned her lesson once with Lazarus – don’t wait to share the extravagant gifts of affection and tenderness and even sensuality with those you love, it will soon be too late.

“May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, shall come home with shouts of joy,” the psalmist says.

There is something about this Psalm that speaks to the very nature of our human experience. It is perhaps why this Psalm is designated for reading on the joyful occasion of Thanksgiving Day, as well as during the shadowy seasons of anticipation and hope for deliverance like Advent and Lent. Both emotional and visceral experiences are captured in these six short verses.

They are strains of joy first sung when all of the dim expectations created by one experience are defied by the utter unbelievability of restoration and deliverance. The song of those who are caught up in a dream.

            And they are the strains of those who know that the experience of deliverance can turn on a dime. When the tense of our verbs change and what we’ve been thankful for all along must now become our fervent prayer for a future and the songs of joy begin to sound more like a hopeful and uncertain longing. When, “we were like those who dream,” becomes, “were we just dreaming?”  

            So today, know that what feels like funeral meal might just turn into resurrection repasts. And what seems like extravagant waste may actually be just the affection and tenderness and even sensuality needed by those you love, and saving it for the “right time” would be utter waste. Because we all know that experiences of deliverance can turn on a time, and feeling like those who dream can suddenly feel like you’re just dreaming.

So our prayer becomes: may all of you who sow in tears today soon know what it means to reap with shouts of joy. And may those of you who go out weeping today, soon come home with shouts of joy. Amen.



[1] Beth L. Tanner, “Commentary on Psalm 126,” Working Preacher, online at: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2780



[2] Tanner, “Commentary on Psalm 126.”
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • March 13, 2016