1 When the LORD brought back the exiles of Zion, we were like those who dream.
2 Then laughter filled our mouth, and our tongues with shouts of joy.
3 Then they said among the nations: “The LORD has done great things for them.”
4 The LORD has done great things for us, we will rejoice!
5 O LORD, lead our captives back, as streams in the Negeb.
6 Those who sow with tears, will reap with songs of joy.
7 He who goes out weeping, carrying the seed for sowing, will come home with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves.[Psalm 126]
In the Name + of Jesus. Amen. The 126th psalm is a psalm of thanks for rescue from the captivity in Babylon. At the end the Psalmist concludes that it happens, and always happens to the Church that she first suffers before she can rejoice. On the other hand, the world rejoices first before they receive their suffering.
God’s holy people sow with tears to reap afterward with joy. This is excellent and precious seed. It produces succulent fruit for the kingdom of God. Before weeping, you can’t see that the seeds sown with tears are so precious before God. But God loves His holy Christian people so much that He regards even their deaths as more precious than everything the world produces under its own power.
Earthly power is the ordinary kind of force by which we accomplish almost everything in the world. Direct force aimed at producing a direct effect. I squeeze the toothpaste from the tube. Turn off the water faucet. Raise the toothbrush to my mouth. I clean my teeth by earthly, ordinary power. Water is boiled. Cathedrals are built. Taxes are collected. Wars are fought. Love is made. Earthly, ordinary power. We use sufficient energy on suitable material to produce the desired result. In terms of the sheer number of effects that occur in the physical world 99.99999 percent of them are caused by this kind of exertion.
But as early as Noah, God abandoned this kind of power. After strong-arming the world with the Flood, He put up the rainbow. He promised He’d never do anything like that again. Why? Because the direct application of force can never create a lasting relationship between free people. If my son will not cooperate with me … If my wife chooses not to live with me … There is no power on earth that can make them toe the line I’ve drawn in the sand. In frustration I can ground my son or lock him in the fruit cellar. In anger at my wife I can punch holes in the sheetrock or beat her senseless with a shovel. I can use any force that comes to mind or is at hand, but I can’t cause either of them, in their heart and soul, to stop their wrongs and conform to my right. The only power I have is earthly, ordinary power. Power that is, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable from weakness.
God’s power saves the world, but it is power hidden in weakness. His power is not the kind of earthly, ordinary power which forces people to stop their wrongs and conform to God’s right. Yes, God launched some incursions into the thicket of fallen human nature in Israel’s history. Jesus sometimes uses similar tactics in the Gospels too. But the final act by which God reconciles the world to Himself consists of His dying on a cross. He declares the whole power game won by losing. What an absurd way to exert power. What a moronic condition for gathering a holy people around Himself. What a foolish strategy for building a church body.
This means the true Church can’t be found when you look at an organization’s earthly power and influence. Neither by counting the number of bodies in its pews or the tally of its Sunday morning offerings. Only a church that’s grown tired of the bloody business of dying and rising gauges its success and well-being by earthly standards. The true Church bears the same marks as her Master. She is hidden under suffering, weakness, tears, and death. The true Church must sow with tears before she can sing for joy.?? The true Church is a community of people gathered to Christ by faith. Their assembly is distinguished by weakness, suffering, tears, and death. The Holy Spirit works amongst them to make them holy in just this way. Thus, “Church” means nothing else than, “holy Christian people.” And by holy Christian people we mean, “A community of people gathered to Christ by faith, distinguished by weakness, suffering, tears, and death.”
The true Church then didn’t come and go during the days of the apostles. She’s there to the end of the world. There is always a holy Christian people on earth, even if there’s only seven souls in all … or two. Christ lives, works, and rules in them through grace and forgiveness of sin. You don’t remain in sin. God’s Spirit works in you to kill the old sinner and create a new life in his place. The way in which He does this is distinguished by seven marks, or signs.
First, the true Church possesses God’s Word. Wherever God’s Word is preached, believed, taught, and lived, don’t doubt that there are holy Christian people there. If there were only one sign that points to where and when the true Church is this would be it.
Second, the true Church is recognized by Baptism. This bath of regeneration [Titus 3:5], if taught, believed, and administered correctly according to Christ’s command is a public sign and a precious possession by which God’s people are made holy. Baptism marks the presence of a holy Christian people.
Third, the true Church is recognized by the Sacrament of the Altar. Where the Lord’s Supper is correctly administered, believed, and received, according to Christ’s institution there are holy Christian people there. Communion is God’s holy meal that benefits those who receive it by faith in Christ.
Fourth, the true Church is recognized by the public exercise of the Office of the Keys. The Office of the Keys [Matthew 18:15-20] involves the confession and forgiveness of sins — “If a Christian sins, he should be reprimanded; and if he does not mend his ways, he should be bound in his sin and thrown out of the church.” Where you see sins forgiven or reprimanded, whether it’s publicly or privately, God’s people are there.
Fifth, the true Church is recognized because they set apart Ministers. God has organized the Church so that she has officers. That is, as Paul writes in Ephesians 4, though the whole Church is the Body of Christ, He has instituted that, “Competent and chosen” men should be entrusted with administering the Word, Sacraments, and Keys.
Sixth, the true Church is recognized by prayer, public praise, and thanksgiving to God. I am now speaking of prayers and songs which are intelligible, which you can learn from, and which teach you about true faith in God and genuine love for one another. The clamor of churches who feature praise bands and contemporary worship is not prayer. It is also not praise to God. They don’t understand praise. They learn nothing from their worship.
Finally, the true Church is recognized because crosses are laid on them. They are marked by suffering. Holy Christian people must endure every kind of affliction and persecution. They must undergo all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and their flesh. This will happen by inward sadness, humiliation, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness. This must happen to you so you can be conformed to the image of Christ. [Romans 8:29] The way of the cross marks the entire life of Christians. This is the way God’s Spirit not only makes His people holy, but also blesses them.
Your salvation is sown in the ground of weakness, suffering, tears, and death. But you will reap the eternal fruit of joy and laughter. Not because of something you do but because God wipes away every tear with the peace His love brings through Jesus Christ. Your captivity to the devil, the world, and your flesh has been broken. Christ Jesus earned the freedom for you when He overpowered sin, death, and the devil by dropping dead on the cross, then being raised from the dead. You will reap in joy eternally because of Him. Through faith in Him, passing through your tears, you will have the harvest of forgiveness, life, and eternal salvation Christ has provided. Amen.