Sowing Joy – Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Two weeks ago on the 7:30 Report on the ABC there was a beautiful story of a couple, Grace and David Quast, who decided to get married on their property in Crooble, near Moree, in September last year, during the drought.

As Grace explained, “When David proposed, I think he thought, “Oh, you know, it’s going to be okay”, and it wasn’t. It didn’t rain.”

But she decided that sometimes people just need a celebration. So they planned their wedding. In Grace’s words, “For us, the wedding saved us because it was months of having something to focus on as everything died around us.”

The property looked the worst it had ever looked on their wedding day. It was dry, it was dusty, it was windy. Data from the NSW Department of Primary Industries shows that Crooble was in intense drought for 394 days, with a further 220 days in (ordinary) drought.

But then in January it rained. Grace keeps the photos on her phone of that day. And in March it poured.

In the 7:30 report story they show aerial shots of the property again, green now and gold, grain growing in the paddocks, the jacarandas in bloom. Grace spoke briefly about their concerns about China trade relations in the interview, but says, “We’re [now] allowing ourselves to believe that things are going to be okay, our yields are incredible, the quality of the grain that we’re stripping is incredible and it’s going to be okay.”

I loved the last shot in the story. Grace and David are walking through a paddock running their hands through the ripe grain. It is almost like they are dreaming. “You just want to be alone with your crop,” she says, and nudges David and they give each other a hug.

For me it was a story which related perfectly to our psalm this morning. Partly, all the images of sowing and reaping, of grain harvests, but mostly the juxtaposition of intense rejoicing over deliverance against equally intense desire for deliverance. The order is just reversed. The 7:30 report began with longing for the drought to break and ended with people’s joy – David’s quiet joy and Grace’s exuberance – and the psalm begins with joy over God restoring the fortunes of Zion – three times in the psalm we have the expression ‘shouts of joy’ describing a loud and emotive celebration of God’s goodness – and ends with an equally emotive plea for God to retore God’s people again. Old Testament scholar James L Mays sums up this psalm as ‘joy remembered, and joy anticipated’.

It is also a psalm linked to a specific historical context. Virtually all interpreters see in verses 1-3 a reference to the return of the exiles from Babylon and the rebuilding of the Temple in the latter half of the 6th century BCE.

And the psalm celebrates that event as the extraordinary work of God, of a God who intervenes to bring blessing and life to God’s people, who does so as a witness to the surrounding nations, and the psalm places its trust in a God who will act in this way again. The reference to the watercourses in the Negeb reveals to us that such reversal of Israel’s fortunes could be dramatic. These dry wadis in this semi-arid region give little hint most of the time that they can overflow with water immediately after the rain comes….

But there is more in the verses of this psalm than ‘joy remembered, and joy anticipated’. Yes, it is a call to us to live lives of thankfulness, of responsiveness to God’s work in our lives, and yes, it is a call to trust and pray that God will action in our lives again. But this is also a psalm about ‘joy planted’; about the seeds of joy that we, with God, plant in our lives and the lives of others trusting in a God who will bring that crop of joy to fruition in the future.

Which is why I thought it was so beautiful and so powerful that Grace and David Quast decided to plan and have their wedding in what was such an incredibly bleak time for them and their families and their community. In Grace’s words, “We had a black-tie wedding, so it seems really silly in contrast to how horrible the drought was. Just for us to have something else to talk about because it’s amazing how much, when you’re in a drought, it really does become the last thing that you want to speak about.”

Planning a wedding might not seem akin to ‘sowing in tears’ in the psalm, but as Grace Quast, or closer to home, Cecelia Aull can tell you, planning a wedding when everything is uncertain does cost you tears. It requires you to adapt, to abandon some of your dreams of how things would be, to innovate and to stubbornly persevere, to keep working and finding ways of keeping that joy alive.

The same is true in all our lives. There are plans we had, dreams we had, that do not go as planned or dreamed, and we too, must adapt, must innovate, and must stubbornly persevere, asking for God’s strength, to keep planting seeds of joy.

Perhaps particularly in this year of so many significant changes. Yes, we adapted to the fear of pandemic sweeping through our community. Yes, we innovated while in lockdown – we zoomed, we baked, we bought craft supplies (and some of us used them!). Yes, we adapted to different levels of restriction easing. But this is not a short, sharp crisis, it is an extended one, and we need to keep on finding ways, to keep working with the creative, life-giving Spirit of God, to plant joy in our lives and in in the lives of others.

But none of this is new for the Christian community. When we read these words from 1 Thessalonians, we realise we have always been changed with planting seeds of joy despite our circumstances, in fact ‘always’ is the key word here in this passage. “Rejoice always,” it says, “Pray without ceasing.” In other words, ‘always’. “Give thanks in all circumstances.” Again ‘always’. “For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good – always – abstain from every form of evil.” We must keep planting seeds of joy, watering them, nurturing them – always – even when it costs us tears, even when we feel we are throwing away precious energy and resources, even when we will not see the results of our labour – always – knowing that God will bring a harvest of joy, “at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. [For] the one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”

Charles Surgeon the great Baptist preacher put the task of planting seeds like this: “He drops a seed and a tear, a seed and a tear, and so goes on his way. In his basket he has seed which is precious to him, for he has little of it, and it is his hope for the next year. Each grain leaves his hand with anxious prayer that it may not be lost: he thinks little of himself, but much of his seed, and he eagerly asks, ‘Will it prosper? shall I receive a reward for my labour?’ Yes… doubtless you will gather sheaves from your sowing.”

We are called to be people that rejoice that God has done great things in the past for us, who give thanks in all circumstances. And we are called to be people who call of God to do great things again, who pray without ceasing. And in the middle of that ‘joy remembered, and joy anticipated’ we are called to be people who keep on planting joy.

Cecelia included her re-writing of Psalm 23 in the advent reflections this week. It was called ‘A Covid Bride’s Ode to God’! It was written as a peace reflection, but it works for joy as well, and I want to adapt it for this purpose, as our prayer, as a community who desire to keep planting seeds of joy for God to bring to abundant and joyful harvest.

The Lord is my champion, she’s got me covered.
She makes me lie down among the gumtrees;
She leads me along the burbling creek;
My  soul exhales.
God’s love, justice and mercy were my guides
in the moral quandaries I faced.
Yes, even when it felt like the world was spinning out of control.
I knew it wouldn’t get beyond me;
for God, you were with me;
You gave me the strength to keep going.
In spite of all the opposition and angst
you delivered us safely to our wedding day;
you blessed our marriage.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my circumstances.
You’ve got me through 2020,
so I know you can get me through anything life might throw at me.
I’m yours, forever.