The God who hears - Psalm 120

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 14th June 2009.

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Those of you who are parents will be only too familiar with the cry coming from one of the little dears ensconced in the back seat of the car, ‘Are we there yet’ as you only just turn at the end of your street on you journey to your favourite holiday destination. Now that is partly because  when they are young they don’t have much idea of time and distance, and when they are hitting the teenage years it is because boredom kicks in and surliness takes over. In either case what results are dissatisfaction and an impatience which does not make for an easy journey. But you know, the same can happen with Christians as we set out on our journey from this world to the next. As a very young Christian just starting out we can have unrealistic expectations about the journey, thinking that everything is going to be sorted in an instant. Maybe a little later as a Christian we become disillusioned and plain bored with the ‘same old same old’ and like a man hitting a mid-life crisis decides to recapture his youth by simply regressing and not acting his age- so the Christian flirts with the world or moves from one church to another in the hope of finding ‘it’ whatever that ‘it’ is.  Or we simply give up on the journey altogether.

The Bible, however, prepares us for the long haul by giving us the means to make our journey home to heaven. And one of the means is given here in a series of short spiritual songs or Psalms beginning with Psalm 120 called ‘Songs of Ascent’. It is thought that the reason for this title is that they were sung by pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem, Mount Zion for worship. And although they testify to a specific believer’s experience in this world, they also express the spiritual experience of all believers in this world. And one of the noteworthy features of these songs in general and Psalm 120 in particular is the feeling of homesickness, the sense that we don’t quite belong here, we have a far better home to which we are travelling. In the Old Testament of course that was Jerusalem, the City of God- for those of us who are New Testament believers it is heaven or the heavenly Jerusalem, the redeemed people of God, gathered around the throne of the lamb. So this morning I want us to think about the type of faith we are to have as we make our way on our Christian journey.

First of all we are to have a faith which looks back-v1 ‘I call on the LORD in my distress, and he answers me.’ Which is a pretty poor translation because it is all in the past tense, so it should read, ‘I cried to the LORD in my distress and he answered me.’ The French philosopher, Albert Camus once wrote, ‘Man’s first faculty is forgetting.’ Similarly Alexander Solzhenitsyn declared, ‘If I were called upon to identify the principle trait of the entire twentieth century, it would be that men have forgotten God.’ You see the problem of ingratitude is linked to the problem of forgetfulness. And this is not so much a failure of the memory but a failure in morality. Even with our own friends and family members we find it so easy don’t we to take things for granted, never stopping to say a heartfelt ‘thank you.’ We remember with ease the harm people may have done to us, but not the good. And you know, it can be  like that with the Christian and God, which is why saying ‘grace’ at a meal is not just a bland routine but an effective way of reminding ourselves that everything come from the gracious hand of good and faithful God. So here we have our pilgrim about to set out on his long journey to worship Yahweh, the LORD in Jerusalem. Yes, he may be going with a group, but even so, it can still be a dangerous journey, you don’t quite know what you might encounter along the way- perhaps robbers, maybe wild animals, or possibly a natural disaster as happened in the time of Jesus with a tower collapsing on a group of pilgrims on their way to worship at the Temple. And one great way to be enabled to set out with confidence is to look back to other times when things were tough and remember what God did in response to your prayers then. Did God prove faithful? Yes- he did. So what possible reason is there to doubt him now? The answer: none. But we know, don’t we, that when we do come up against something in our Christian lives which knocks us sideways, that is when past blessings seem like a long forgotten dream. But that is precisely why we have to constantly set time aside, maybe during our time with God to think back a little to those times when God proved himself faithful, keeping the memory fresh and our hearts grateful. So, think of a time when someone was ill and you prayed and God restored them, force yourself to remember a time when friends failed you, but God saw you through and kept your heart from resentment. I know that if you are a Christian here this morning you will have such moments you can recall- the trick is to keep on recalling them. A faith which looks back.

Second, we are to have a faith which looks up- v2, ‘Save me, O LORD, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues.’ No sooner has he taking his first faltering steps on his journey that he cries out for God’s saving help. Isn’t that the way it often goes? This is the way C.S. Lewis warns a newly converted Christian, ‘Supposing a man’s reason once decides that the weight of evidence is for (the Christian faith). I can tell that man what is going to happen to him in the next few weeks. There will come a moment when there is bad news, or he is in trouble or is living among a lot of people who do not believe it and all at once his emotions will rise up and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief. Now faith…is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of our change in moods.’ But this is not just a stoic keeping a stiff upper lip; it is an active turning to our heavenly father in prayer. What in particular does he need rescuing from? He tells us – ‘lying lips and deceitful tongues’. People are deceiving him, trying to lead him astray. Maybe there is an element of malice, folk attempting to destroy his reputation, putting him down. It can happen in churches of course which is why the apostle Paul in Colossians 3: verses 8 and 9 tells Christians- as if they should need to be told- not to lie to one another and to put away malicious talk and gossip. Life as a Christian can be hard enough without fellow believers putting the knife in! But this prayer to be protected against lies should be an earnest one on the lips of every Christian for the simple reason that we live in a world built on lies and we can be hoodwinked as easily as the next man if we are not careful. In a kind of amplification of this verse Eugene Peterson puts together this prayer for Christian believers today- just listen to this: ‘Rescue me from the lies of advertising which claim to know what I need and what I desire; from the lies of entertainers who promise a cheap way to joy; from the lies of politicians who pretend to instruct me in the ways of power and morality; from the lies of psychologists who offer to shape my behaviour and morals so that I will, live long, happily and successfully; from the lies of pastors who leave the commandments of God for the traditions of men.’ That is not a bad prayer to pray is it? A faith which looks up.

Then we have a faith which looks forward-vv 3-4, ‘What will he do to you and what more besides, O deceitful tongue? 4He will punish you with a warrior's sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom tree.’ Our pilgrim has already asked God to protect him, now he is expecting God to do something about those who are responsible for these things- ‘What will he (that is God) do to you and more besides?’ He then tells us what God will do. Using figurative language he speaks of being pierced with sharp arrows, and being consumed by the burning coals of the broom tree, presumably because a brooms tree provides good fuel for this sort of thing.  Now there are two things which are very important for us to grasp here. The first is that it is God who is expected to take action. The psalmist who no doubt is being given all kinds of grief by these people does not take the law into his own hands, deciding to give as good as he gets. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to have false things said about you and the temptation to defend yourself and to put people right is a very strong one, but it has to be resisted. And it has to be resisted because by reacting we can simply be adding more fuel to the fire giving our critics more ammunition to attack us with, ‘There, didn’t we tell you that she was bad tempered and pushy’. A dignified silence is not always out of place. But secondly, we will probably not get it right anyway if we do respond, probably overstating our case and mixing our defence with resentment- and resentment- as someone has said- is when we turn our hurt into hate. That is why the apostle Paul in Romans 12: 19 lays it on the line for us: ‘Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.’ Leave it with him.

But secondly notice that in looking forward to God acting to put the record straight there is an element of waiting- it is not all going to be sorted by next Tuesday! For some of us that putting things right will not take place until the final judgement- but we know that it will happen. Just listen to the apostle Paul as he responds to the backbiting insults of a Christian congregation he lovingly founded: ‘I care very little if I am judged by you or by a human court; indeed, I do not judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.’ (1 Corinthians 3:3ff). Now it may well be that you are here this morning and you are more than a little hurt and possibly more than a little resentful because of what someone has said about you or done to you. You feel that you have been dealt with unjustly and you long for some opportunity to do something or you feel you are just going to explode. Well, here is something you can do- ask God to act, ask God to do what is right, His track record in dealing with these things is flawless as you might expect from the God, whom the Bible describes as the God who will do what is right. Unlike us, he has both the power to ensure that justice is carried out and the wisdom to ensure it carried out properly- but his timing may be very different to ours.

And fourthly we are to have a faith which looks around-vv 5-7, ‘Woe to me that I dwell in Meshech, that I live among the tents of Kedar! 6Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. 7I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war.’

He talks about living in Meshech and Kedar, what is that all about? Meshech was located in the far north by the Caspian Sea, Kedar in the far south in the Arabian Desert. So he is obviously not talking about literally living in these places- he can’t be in tow places at once and as far from each other as Land’s End is from John O’ Groats. He is using figurative language to express his deep sense of isolation. Wherever he is he feels along way from home- he so wants to be worshipping God in his temple, he is desperate to be with God’s people and experience the warmth of their fellowship. He say’s ‘woe’ to me, he feels like he is under some kind of curse to be separated in this way and that is why he wants to make the long journey home. And that homesickness is compounded by the kind of people he is surrounded by, did you notice that in verses 6 and 7- for too long I have lived among those who hate peace-(literally) I am peace, when I speak they are for war.’ So not only does he feel a sense of isolation but alienation- he is out of sorts with those he lives with. This seems to suggest that this is an Israelite living in a pagan land. Whenever he opens his mouth all he gets is a backlash- ‘war’. And is this not the experience of all true believers living in this world? No matter how stable the society might be that we live in- there is still a tension between its values and God’s so that a Christian will always feel a certain degree of discomfort, a sense of being out of place. Why else does the apostle Peter address Christians in his day as ‘strangers in the world’- but prefacing that description with another –‘God’s chosen’. And that is the way it will always be- to be chosen by God means being ill fitting in the world. This doesn’t mean that a Christian goes out of his way to be odd- dressing in strange garb, speaking the language of Zion so people don’t know what we are talking about- but it will mean that if we are wanting to follow the true King, Jesus, if we are wanting to adopt his values in our lives , expressing his virtues such as honesty, kindness, peacefulness and justice, then inevitably we are going to come up against it when others think it expedient to lie or ‘spin’ the truth, when backbiting becomes a favourite pastime in the office or factory, when ‘dog eats dog’ is expected if you are going to climb the promotion ladder and when showing favouritism to those who might give you a helping hand in the future seems only prudent. And if that is the general cultural air we breathe, which is being fed to us through the TV and the like, is there not some respite to come to a place like this at least once a week where those things are forbidden, where we can trust each other and enjoy being with each other? I need this fellowship just to keep sane in what is to be frank an insane world. And as you get older and a little more tired should you not your sense of homesickness deepen, with that increasing desire to be at the place where we were designed to be, saved to be- heaven? In April one of the most influential and godly bishops in Australia died at the age of 97- the former Archbishop of Sydney, Sir Marcus Loan. When he turned 80 he added his approval to the words of the great preacher Charles Simeon, ‘I seem to be so near the goal that I cannot but run with all my might.’  With heaven in sight it wasn’t a matter of resting on his laurels it was a matter of being all the more committed to the journey.

In fact this is one of the tests we can apply to ourselves to see if we are true Christians. You see if we prefer the company of non- Christians, if we would rather be out and about doing other things than being here with God and his people-then we have to ask ourselves whether our faith is real. If we are so comfortable with living in this world that the thought of leaving it appals us, then we had better stop and go back to the beginning and ask are we really ready for the next world? But if you feel that although there are many blessings in this life for which we are so thankful to God but yet still struggle here, still feeling we were made for something better, that sometimes it feels as if we are in another country with customs and a language with which we are not very familiar and can’t quite master, then that could well suggest that God has made you his own, belonging to a different race –the Christian race; and destined for another country- a heavenly one.

But will you notice how the Psalmist suddenly stops in verse 7? You see, he has not arrived- that doesn’t come until Psalm 122 via Psalm 121. And you know, that is how it will often feel for us- we have not arrived, we are still feeling the isolation and alienation of Meshech and Kedar and we groan inwardly- of course we do. Some of you will remember the old hymn: ‘This world is not my own I’m just a passing through, my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue, the angels beckon me from heaven’s open door and I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.’ And that is about the size of it.

But we live this side of the New Testament and so unlike our Psalmist we are given some privileged information he didn’t have, for we know that we have someone who has trod this path before to ensure we will get home. The writer to the Hebrews in chapter 2 and verse 10 says this of Jesus: ‘God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect (that is complete to do his task) through suffering.’ The word translated ‘author’ could be rendered, ‘pioneer’ or ‘trail blazer’. Well, Jesus is the great pioneer. I am sure you have seen those Western films, with John Wayne or Clint Eastwood acting as the scout of the wagon train as they set out on a long a perilous journey through the wilderness to form some settlement in some luscious valley. Well, the pioneer or trail blazer would go on ahead of the main group to scout out the best way to the hoped for destination. He would risk life and limb, battling with the elements, fighting wild Indians and bandits and then returns to guide the people home. A man like that you will trust won’t you? He has put his life on the line for you and he knows every bit of the way for he has been there and back. Well, that is exactly what Jesus has done for us. He has been through this life of ours as one of us; that is why he can call us his ‘brothers’- Hebrews v11-12.  He has had to fight temptation just like us; suffer indignity and misunderstanding, just like us, and even go through death, like we have to and- succeeded. What is more he has come back from the grave to show that he has blazed the trail to our heavenly home and will get us there too-  so  he will  be able say to God on that great day, Hebrews 2 v13 ‘Here I am and the children God has given me.’ He is not going to lose any of his family along the way, not after what he has been through for them. If you want to be able to make your way safely through this world and home into the next, then follow the man from Nazareth; who else qualifies?

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