My Defender - Psalm 120

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 25th June 2000.

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For those interested in statistics, here is an interesting list entitled ‘For safety’s sake’.

Do not ride in cars, because they cause 20% of all fatal accidents. Do not stay at home, because 17% of all fatal accidents occur in the home. Do not walk on the streets or on the pavement, 14% of all accidents happen to pedestrians. Do not travel by air, rail or water, for 16% of all accidents happen on these. But did you know that only 0. 001% of all deaths occur in worship services. So you are probably in the safest place you could possibly be this evening.

The trouble is, of course, is that some Christians expect the Christian faith to be risk free. Well, in one sense that is so, in that by God’s grace he has so fixed his saving love upon us that there is no ultimate risk that we shall not make it to heaven in the end. But that is not the same as saying that our journey to heaven will not be hazardous. So over the next few weeks we shall be studying a group of Psalms from 120 - 134 which deal with this theme.

According to their inscription at the beginning of each psalm, they are literally, songs of going up, songs for hill climbers if you like. One possible reason as to why they are referred to in this way is because the were used by pilgrims on their way up to the various religious festivals held in Jerusalem. Well, that may or may not be the case. But what I am sure is true is that these psalms which are grouped in clusters of three, do chart the spiritual pilgrimage of God’s people from the depths of difficulty in this world into the very presence of the living God in the next. I say that because as NT believers we need to view these psalms in the light of Christ’s coming and work. The NT reminds us that we are members of the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God whose foundation is not made with human hands. And so they become representative songs for spiritual climbers, stories of what it is like to live as believers, pilgrims, in this world with all its highs and lows, its pleasures and disappointments, but marking the certainty that we shall make it in the end. So these are songs of experience, sung by people called by God to make our way into his presence. For us that means that between the moment when we respond to the call of the Gospel to trust in Jesus Christ, and the fulfilment of the call, when we arrive in heaven, we are presented with all the difficulties that come our way as the fruits of our obedience. When we run into problems as Christians it is not a sign that everything has gone wrong or that God has abandoned us. We are being taught by God that these are the norm of the Christian life. They are the stuff of real discipleship, the means whereby God fashions us into the sort of people he wants us to be, so we are fit to come into the presence of the King.

So let's turn to the first of these three psalms, so that we might be strengthened with confidence that God will be faithful. First by looking at psalm 120 - the problem of the present, secondly, psalm 122 the promise of the future and then sandwiched in between, showing us how we get from one to the other, the climb itself is psalm 121 - the persistent pilgrim.

So what is the present problem? Psalm 120 and v1 tells us, this is a believer in distress, which prompts him to pray to God. Now, what that distress consists of is unpacked by the rest of the psalm. So here is someone who feels isolated, alone, alienated - v2 ‘Save me O LORD, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues, ’vv - 7 (read). That is the normal Christian experience isn’t it? Here we are living amongst unbelievers whose values and agendas we do not share. Where deceit and bad practice are acceptable, indeed commended, as being worldly wise. Where what is sordid is paraded as entertainment and the way to get ahead is to adopt the principle of dog eat dog - ‘they are for war.' And this sense of restlessness, not being at home is brought out in v5 with those references to Meshech and the tents of Kedar. Meschech was located in the far north by the Caspian sea, Kedar in the far south in the Arabian desert. In other words he couldn't have felt as far away from the presence of God, and his own city of Jerusalem, if he had tried. The fact that he says he is in both these places which are at opposite geographical poles indicates that he is speaking figuratively. He is homesick. What is more the verbs ‘dwell’ and ‘live’ indicate a temporary stay. This is not his fixed abode, he doesn't really belong, its a bed and breakfast situation.

And he says ‘Woe to me’ that I live here in this sort of world, a world where there is not neutrality towards the Christian believer but outright hostility towards anyone who wishes to maintain godly standards. Christians will be sidelined and misrepresented - ‘lying lips’, treated as odd, a threat because they will not conform to the status quo. There is a basic incompatibility between the Christian and the world in which he or she lives. Christians are different and so we shouldn’t be surprised that there will always be that sense of frustration, a disappointment a going against the grain, and the world will not love you for it. It will only love you when you accommodate, when you start to put down roots. In short, when you cease to be a pilgrim and give up climbing. No, we start our journey in this sort of world and continue journeying through it.

But how? What is it that characterises the Christian’s response to such feelings of distress? We are told in v1 - ‘I call on the Lord.' The Hebrew is even more emphatic, it begins ‘To the Lord, I call.' This is what is so distinctive about the believer. He doesn't throw up his hands in despair and give in. Neither does he try and play the world at its own game. No, his thoughts immediately turn to the Lord. Yes he lives in the difficulties, but the psalm begins not with the difficulties but with God. The only way a Christian is going to be able to live in a hostile world is by living in constant contact with God. That is why it is so dangerous to lose contact with him, to sell yourself short in your bible reading and prayer or coming to church, because it is at that moment that the problems of living in this world can rise and overwhelm us, and that is when we know that the only place to be is with this God. That is where we go, to pour out our heart to him, to let him know how we feel. Forget the British stiff upper lip, the plastic stoic smile, talk to him. And you know what? He will answer. The answer is given in vv 3&4. Here he is telling God how he feels, his anguish of living in a world such as this, how he longs for a better world, one where peace and righteousness reigns. So what does God do? Send in some celestial helicopter to winch him out of the problem? No. He is prepared to let God be God, for him to deal with the hostile world and he will do it far better than we anyhow. You see, your job is not to put the world right, it is to be a pilgrim. Now of course this doesn’t mean that we should not act as responsible citizens and try and improve the lot of our fellow human beings. Of course we should. But let us not fool ourselves, and so frustrate ourselves, by thinking that we can ever bring heaven upon earth. For the pilgrim, the world will always be an uncomfortable place to live in. There will be times when you will simply have to leave it to God, to accept the situation as it is, not to retaliate but to simply hand it to the Lord and get on with the journey. Pressing on to the better world to which you are heading. What is more, your job is to live such a consistent life in the world that others are drawn to the pilgrimage, they come and join you. This psalm is encouraging you to have this different internal agenda. To say to yourself, this is what it is about, that is where I am going. I don't fit in here because I don’t belong here, so lets get on to going where we will fit in.

And just where that is portrayed for us in Psalm 122 - the promise of the future. Here is this wonderful motivational picture of what awaits us and it is a picture of shear delight - the goal of our faith. Notice the wonderful balance between the distress of verse 1 of Psalm 120 and the joy of v1 of Psalm 122 (Read). So if I live in a world which fills me with distress, we are going to a world which fills us with joy and so there is even now a joy about climbing - ’I rejoiced with those who said ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.' In other words there is something exciting about being a follower of God. As he starts out he is full of joy, and in his imagination in v2 its as if he has arrived. They sing this song as they travel to Zion together and look forward to the time when they can say in fact as well as in faith ‘Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem.' And it is no disappointment when you get there.

So in this psalm are the certainties which await you which keep you climbing. In contrast to the aloneness and distance of psalm 120, there is the fellowship and security of psalm 122 ‘Let us go.. Our feet.' It is a city - v3 - a city of unity. No longer are we in the Bedouin tents of Kedar, like wandering nomads, we are citizens of a great city, settled - Psalm 122 v3. Instead of being surrounded by lies as in Psalm 120, there is life under the authority of God’s revealed word - v4 (read). It is a city where the Davidic King reigns - v5 (read) - i.e. the city of Jesus, where everything is put right. So it is a city of peace and security - v7, a city of harmony and fellowship, v8. A city of prosperity - v9. All the things people are looking for and longing for and yet are continually being disappointed about, are there for the taking in God’s kingdom which is to come with the return of Jesus Christ. This is home. The home of the Lord our God, the home of his people. And if you are a Christian here tonight that is your final destiny.

Perhaps no one has expressed this better than the hymn writer John Newton : ‘Saviour, since of Zion’s city, I through grace a member am. Let the world deride or pity, I will glory in your name. Fading is the worldling's pleasure, all is boasted pomp and show, solid joys and lasting pleasure none but Zion’s children know.' Now let me say to you that unless that conviction is there in your heart, you will never climb, you will never go on as a Christian. You will never experience all that God wants you to experience of his grace unless that conviction is beating in your heart. You will soon give up, because there is no reason for going on and enduring hardship. You will throw your lot in with the pleasure of the world. Oh, you may Christianise it, talk about a second blessing or whatever, but it will soon be short lived and like a junky you will be looking for the next spiritual fix. According the psalmist the only fixing we should be having is fixing our eyes on what is to come, or as the writer to the Hebrews puts it ‘Fix your eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.' And where is Jesus? He is seated at the right hand of God, in the City of God, surrounded by all those who have completed the journey - Hebrews 11, waiting for the rest of us to catch up. Sure, the world may deride and pity us, even so called fellow Christians might do that: ‘Pie in the sky when you die.' But we wont be put off by such taunts, they are the fools not we for living just for this life. And we are simply following the example of Jesus anyway, again as the writer to the Hebrews goes on to say ‘Let us fix our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.' (Heb 12: 2). In many ways the whole of Hebrews is a commentary on these Psalms. You see it is the far horizon that really matters, our eternal home. What is say, 20 years of having it rough, being unpopular, compared to two hundred million years and more - eternity - of shear unadulterated bliss in the presence of God who is our consummate joy and beauty?

But while we are to look to the future with the eye of faith, feasting our souls on those glimpses of eternity which Scripture gives us, rich in its imagery, some of that not yet can be experienced in the now. It is not all future, some the blessings of the new age, reach back into the present one, which is where Psalm 121 comes in - the persistent pilgrim. We are not alone on the pilgrimage, we already have the Holy Spirit as a down payment, a foretaste of the glory which is to come.

You see, it is God’s purpose that as we climb together, we find that within the fellowship of the church, that some of our problems begin to be resolved, as Francis Schaeffer used to put it, the place where ‘substantial healing begins to takes place’ and where we have a taster in our being together of what heaven will be like. That is why being church is so important. The Lone ranger Christian is a contradiction in terms. Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. It is hell which is full of isolated people, not heaven. So intermittent coming to church, here one week, away the next, is actually denial of what we say we believe, that we are part of God’s people heading towards God’s city. Otherwise it is a sure way of ensuring that you remain in the despair of psalm 120, you need to move on to psalm 121 to get into the final destination of psalm 122 - do you see?

So here is the practical help for our pilgrims progress in psalm 121 - three things to take away with us tonight.

Verse 1 is really a question ‘I lift up my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from? ’There is the vision before me, that is where I am heading. But am I ever going to make it? As I look to the hills, not as the beautiful entrancing subject of a Turner landscape, but as the hills which are full of danger, in which are lurking robbers and ferocious wild animals. As I make my way through them, how do I know I will survive? The climb looks long and arduous. Where is my help going to come from? And you may well feel like that as you think of your home situation, the problems at work, the temptations of your own heart, ’How will I ever make it? ’Here is the answer: My help comes from the Lord. He knows he will be helped every step of the climb because of the character of the Lord. Our pilgrimage will turn on the extent to which we live in a relationship of deep personal dependence on the Lord. That is often why he allows difficulties to enter into our lives, isn't it, so that we learn to trust him and obey him.

This means that first we trust him as the creator God - the Maker of heaven and earth - v2. So we are to look beyond the hills to their creator, beyond the circumstances to their controller. It is not just that he brought them into being in the first place, but he sustains it all by his powerful word - again a theme of Hebrews - 1: 1ff. We do not live in a world of impersonal chance happenings, though it may seem like that in experience. Faith says that from the fall of a sparrow to the fall of an Empire, the personal Lord brings all things about according his eternal will and good pleasure and to his people’s good, that is, his goal of getting us back home with him in the end. God cannot be in any more control of the world than he already is, which is absolute control. Isn't that an encouragement as you face the coming week? You can’t fall out of the love of a God like that, you can’t fall out of the care and keeping of a God like that because all things are within his providential governance with you personally in mind.

Secondly he is the protecting God - vv 3 - 4, he will not let your foot slip. He not only watches over the individual in verse 3, but over Israel, the whole people of God in v4. He redeemed Israel to bring them into the land of promise, he has redeemed us to bring us into the land of heaven and he is not going to lose you on the way. He is not going to be caught napping at which point you might slip up, you are never out of his sight. Do you realise that? And when we do eventually arrive in the heavenly Jerusalem, from the perspective of glory we will be able to look back and say ‘Now I see why I had to climb that particular hill.' I couldn't understand it then, but I understand now and see God’s wisdom in it. Because that is the point at which I learnt to trust you Lord in a way I would never have done had the way been smooth and easy.

But finally he is the God who accompanies - vv 5 - 8. These are wonderful verses to live on this week. (v5 - read)It is the Lord himself who stands beside his people as close to us as our right hand - constant availability. There is never a situation when God is too busy he is always there. v6(read)What does that mean? It mans that the God who accompanies us stands between us and all the threats to our well being on the climb. The sun and the moon speak of the totality of time. But it also speak of dangers - real and imaginary - sunstroke caused by travelling by day or the threat at night from robbers. He is our constant companion. Then we have v7 - 8 (read). You can’t get a more comprehensive reassurance than that. Note that it doesn’t say he will keep us from all difficulties, but from all harm. Did he do that when those Christians were gunned down in Frank Retief’s church in Capetown ? Well, yes. What for us was their untimely death was for them an immediate ushering into the presence of the Lord, standing in the gates of Jerusalem. He did keep them from all harm in the ultimate sense. He is a God who accompanies us to the very end of our journey. That is our God.


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