There is a song that’s often played at Christmas. It’s a secular song, an older song; I like it. But, I gotta say the song is a bit presumptuous, even the title. The song is by Andy Williams – do you know what song I’m talking about? It’s called – get this – “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” And that’s pretty much the lyrics too. Again and again, Mr. Williams repeats that it is the most wonderful time of the year. He even goes so far as to say it’s the hap-happiest season of all. But you know, that’s his opinion. Not everyone thinks it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Not everyone thinks it’s the hap-happiest season of all. Yet, every Christmas season this song plays, openly mocking those who can’t seem to find joy this time of year. It’s cruel.
And that’s why as I became more familiar with the section of Scripture before us today, this lesson from Psalm 137, I started to like it. You see this Psalm, it’s real. And, no, I’m not implying that other psalms or sections of scripture aren’t. What I am saying is this particular section of scripture sounds a lot like real life. Real life where it isn’t the happiest time of the year. Real life where there are struggles and hardships and sadness – it’s messy. That’s real life, at least for most people. This psalm hits those real notes of life. It’s a sad psalm, it’s also an angry song – we are only looking at the first four verses of it; there are nine total – but at the end it takes a dark turn, so dark a turn that the entirety of this psalm has rarely found its way into a hymnal. Our current psalter, that grey book in the pew, does actually include the whole thing, but it does so with a large disclaimer – take a look sometime.
So, today why are we looking at this sad and angry psalm? We’re – what – four days away from Christmas Eve? So, to have this be the last lesson during midweek advent…seems a bit strange. And, yet, the joy of Christmas, the small bit of hope we often feel this time of year, the almost magical moments, those exist because deep down we look at this world and we can’t believe that this is it. In fact, we know this isn’t it, and you might say, we sorta feel like exiles, even in our own world.
That’s why those in our psalm today wept. These were exiles. The great superpower of Babylon had invaded the nation of Judah, overrun Jerusalem, done unspeakable things to the people, and carried many off into captivity. Now, here their Babylonian masters sat and mocked them, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” But how could they sing? That’s what they said – verse four – “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land.” Their voices could find no song and their harps were hung. And, instead, they prayed for God’s vengeance. They asked God for deliverance.
What’s ironic is they were only in this situation in the first place because they had turned away from God. And, in arrogance, they never thought God would turn on them. After all, they were his chosen people, surely God would not forsake his chosen. But, in love he did. God allowed the Babylonians to show his people what life was like without him. It wasn’t better. They weren’t happier. No, now they were under foreign rule in a distant land far from home.
And this picture, this weeping by the rivers of Babylon, this exile, this is what it’s like when our relationship with our Lord isn’t…great…isn’t right. We who have experienced the joy of God’s love and the peace of his forgiveness, can often take it for granted, we abuse it, and we exile ourselves to a place of misery and pain. We find ways every day to strain and break the relationship we have with our Lord.
We do this when we give into temptation. We do this when we put our trust in ourselves or the things around us. We do this when we give into the world. We turn our back on God and allow other things, other people to take his place. And sometimes, God then allows things to happen that make it look like he’s abandoned us, as if we too are in exile. In moments like this, how can we sing? Those Israelites in our lesson wondered the same, but take a look, their voices weren’t silent.
This is a psalm. And what is a psalm? Well, it’s a song. So, you might say this psalm is a song about not singing a song. Because, you see, they were singing. Not songs of joy. Not songs of Zion. Not songs of thanksgiving. They were singing songs of deliverance. Their voices were turning back to God for help and for aid. In tears and with repentant hearts, they were looking forward to the day when they would once again be free, and God’s enemies defeated.
It’s that element of their song that strikes a chord with us who are going through any kind of exile ourselves. And, yes, that exile might be self-imposed, it might be a consequence of our sin, but sometimes the exile we experience is just the reality of this sin-filled world. It might be a freshly dug grave. It might be a hospital bed or an unexpected change in life. It could simply be the routine of life that never seems to change, and we’re just tired of it. What’s your moment of exile? Either way, in those moments, it’s easy to feel like the Israelites. We feel forsaken and lost. We have nothing to sing, and no reason to rejoice. Yet still, don’t we cry out? Aren’t their tears, and groans, maybe even some anger? God hears that too, it might not be much of a song, but our God hears our cries of distress. He hasn’t left; he didn’t walk away. You belong to him.
Go back to those exiles in Babylon. It took some time, seventy years, but they eventually went home. God freed them from their bondage. He allowed them to rebuild the temple and renew their relationship with him. He also did something else – something far more important. He protected the line of the Savior. Yes, Jesus was descended from these Babylonian exiles. You see even though God had to discipline his people, he never destroyed them. He never abandoned them. He preserved them so that he could keep his promise to send Jesus to save them. And God was faithful to his promise. Remember that.
Because, in a few short days, we will once again see God’s promise fulfilled. We will celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus., who, if you think about it, spent much of his life in exile. Shortly after his birth he fled to Egypt. Throughout his life many wanted nothing to do with him, people from his hometown despised him, the religious leaders challenged him, many of his own people, the Jews, rejected him, even his own disciples eventually fled from him. But worst of all, was the day his Father forsook him, that was hell. But that was the promise: his exile so we could go home. And, when Jesus rose and ascended into heaven, he showed us the way: Trust in him.
Jesus is the cornerstone, the foundation of our faith. Upon him we build, and live, and breathe, and it’s because of him we find hope and peace even in the darkest of exiles. For as Paul says in Ephesians 2:13,19, our second lesson for today, “…in Christ Jesus you who were once far away have been brought near…consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens…members of God’s household.” In Jesus, no sin is too terrible, no circumstance in life too dire – he overcomes them all. How? By assuring us that this life is now our exile because heaven is now our home. And he will see us home. One day he will take you there. That’s his promise.
But, for now, we are strangers and pilgrims in this world, longing for a better home, a better land; a heavenly one. And that’s what we’re preparing our hearts to celebrate this Advent. That even though we find ourselves in exile, we still can sing; we can sing of what is yet to come. We can sing of our salvation, of our deliverance; We can sing of Jesus, he who was born for us, he who saves. He who will come back.
So, don’t hang up your harp, don’t just sit there and weep. You’re saved! God has delivered you from your enemies: the world, your sinful flesh, and the devil. He has conquered death and hell. He dwells with you, and one day you will dwell with him. And you know what that makes this? The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, because it’s at this time of year that we celebrate the beginning of the end of our exile as Christ our Savior is born!