Psalm 120 - Psalm 120
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Songs for Hill Climbers SJN 5.1.20
One of my wife’s favourite programmes on Radio 4 is called, ‘More or Less’ which unpacks the claims, true or false, of statistics used by political parties, advertisers and the like. Well, here is an interesting list of statistics 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. Don’t travel by air, rail or water, for 16% of all accidents happen here. However, only 0.001% of all deaths occur in worship services. So you can relax as you are in the safest place you could possibly be this morning! The fact is although we can sensibly try to minimise risks, it is simply not possible to live a ‘risk free life’ in the sense that difficulties and set-back invariably come our way.
The Bible, however, prepares believers for this by giving us the means to keep keeping on as we make our journey homeward to heaven. And one of these is a series of songs specially written for God’s pilgrim people. They are called ‘Songs of Ascent’, literally, songs of ‘going upward’ or as we might say, ‘Songs for hill climbers’. In all likelihood they were given this title because they were sung by pilgrims as they made their way up to Jerusalem, Mount Zion. You might even want to think of these psalms as a hitchhikers guide to survival.
One of the striking features of these songs, and especially the first one we are looking at this morning, Psalm 120, is the feeling of homesickness, the sense that God’s people don’t quite belong here, having a deep realisation that we have a far better home towards which we are travelling. In the Old Testament for the Jewish people that was Jerusalem, the City of God. Now, with the coming of Christ, the location has changed to the heavenly Jerusalem.
So this morning I want us to think about the type of faith God’s Spirit wishes to imbue within us as we go about spiritual hill climbing.
First, we are to have a faith which looks back-v1, ‘I call on the LORD in my distress, and he answers me.’ That is not the best way of translating what the psalmist actually says because it is all in the past tense, so it should read, ‘I called to the LORD in my distress and he answered me.’
Back in 1863 in the middle of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln warned his fellow countrymen, ‘We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God.’ 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.’
This is not so much a failure of the memory as a failure in morality. Even with our own friends and family members we find it so easy to take things for granted, never stopping to say a heartfelt ‘thank you.’ We remember with ease the grief people may have done to us, but not the good. And sadly such an ungrateful attitude can spill over into our relationship with God. There is a natural progression from forgetting to say thank you to God, to forgetting him altogether.
So here we have our pilgrim about to set out on his long journey to worship Yahweh in Jerusalem. Certainly he may be travelling in a group, a caravan, as did the boy Jesus and his family in Luke 2, but even so, it could still be a hazardous journey fraught with all kinds of dangers; the threat of robbers, the presence of wild animals, the potential of natural disasters. And so one sure way for us to be enabled to set out with confidence is to look back with gratitude to other times when things were tough and remember God’s faithfulness. If he provided for us then do we have any good reason to doubt his provision for us now? And this is why we have to regularly set time aside in order to reflect on those times when God proved himself faithful, keeping our memory fresh and our hearts grateful. In the words of the poet W. H. Auden, for us Christians ‘All our thinks should be thanks.’
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 taken his first steps on his journey towards Zion that he cries out to God for help- ‘save me’. And this is a common experience. C.S. Lewis warns a newly converted Christian about lies ahead, ‘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.’ Isn’t that about right? But this is not a call for a stoic putting on of the British ‘stiff upper lip’ to brave the elements; no, our problems are meant to drive us to prayer.
In the case of our pilgrim he needs to be rescued from what he calls, ‘lying lips and deceitful tongues’. People are deceiving him, perhaps in order to lead him astray and off course. Maybe there is an element of malice, folk attempting to destroy his reputation. That can wound deeply and make you more than a little anxious because once your name has been smeared it is very difficult to undo the damage. In fact the more you protest the accusation the worse it can become with people saying, ‘There’s no smoke without fire- he protests too much!’ Slander is a nasty, pernicious thing and we need delivering from its effects, even more so today because of the wide reaching and instant effects of social media. Within a few minutes your name can become dirt among countless people with little hope of redress. Once it is out there, the damage has been done. That kind of thing is bound to drive you to your knees in prayer.
But this prayer to be protected against lies should be on the lips of every Christian for this very simple reason: we live in a world built on lies, hype and spin. There is so much fake news out there that we can easily be taken in if we are not careful. In a kind of amplification of this verse, Eugene Peterson puts together this prayer for Christian believers today: ‘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.’ In other words, ‘save me from lying lips and deceitful tongues
Thirdly, we are to have a faith which looks forward-vv 3-4, ‘What will he do to you, and what more besides, you deceitful tongue? He will punish you with a warrior’s sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom bush.’
Our pilgrim has already asked God to protect him, now he is anticipating that God will vindicate him by acting towards those who are engaging in his character assassination. Using figurative language he speaks of them being ‘pierced with sharp arrows’, and ‘consumed by the burning coals of the broom tree’, which Calvin says will, ‘penetrate more effectively, and burn more intensely the substances with which they come into contact with than the coals of any kind of wood.’
Now there are two things which are very important for us to grasp. The first is that it is God who is expected to take this action. The psalmist, who is the target of so much vitriol and hate, doesn’t decide to take the law into his own hands; rather he gives everything over into God’s hands. After over 36 years of ordained ministry I know only too well from personal experience how difficult it is to have all sorts of false and hurtful things said about you and then be tempted to defend yourself and put the other people right. But it has to be resisted. It has to be resisted because by reacting we can make the situation worse by giving our critics more ammunition to attack us of the kind, ‘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. Chances are we will be too defensive, overstating our case and end up demonising our critics. We also open ourselves to the poison of resentment, which, as someone has said, is when we turn our ‘hurt into hate’. Rather we are to leave it with the Lord.
But 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 justice will not be satisfied 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 more than a little hurt and resentful because of what someone has said about you or has done to you. You feel that you have been dealt with unjustly and long for some opportunity to do something or you feel you are going to explode. Well, there is something you can do- ask God to act, for him to do what is right in his own time, in his own way. His track record in dealing with these things is flawless. 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.
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! Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I 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, what we would today call Turkey; 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 two places at once which are as far from each other as Land’s End is from John O’ Groats. Again he is using figurative language, in this case to express his deep sense of isolation. These locations represented dark places for him, for that is how he feels, he is in a dark place. He feels a long, long way from home- he so wants to be worshipping God in his temple and experience the fellowship of other believers. In fact the ache is so bad he says ‘woe’ to me, he feels as if he is under some kind of curse. 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’. Then he literally says, ‘I am peace, when I speak they are for war.’ He not only has a deep sense of 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 brutal backlash- ‘war’. And that is the experience of all true believers living in this world. No matter how morally compatible the society might be in which we live- there will always be a tension between its values and God’s such that a Christian will always feel a certain degree of discomfort, a kind of dissonance, a sense of not quite fitting in. And you know what? That will continue until we arrive home in heaven.
Did you notice how the Psalmist suddenly stops in verse 7? This means he hasn’t yet arrived- that doesn’t come until Psalm 122 via Psalm 121. And that is how it will often feel for us- that discomforting sense of not having arrived. Some of you may well remember an old Negro spiritual song which goes, ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through, my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue, the angels beckon me from heaven’s open door ‘cos I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.’ While that song isn’t going to receive any Ivor Novello award for best lyrics, it does capture perfectly the normal Christian experience, the experience of the pilgrim of Psalm 120, that as you go on in the Christian life you feel more out of sorts with this world as you draw nearer to the next world, which is probably not such a bad thing because it should make it easier to let go of the things of this world as you hanker after the next.
What these 3 psalms are about in one word is, ‘endurance.’ A few years ago, the American speaker Randy Alcorn wrote, ‘Endurance is Christ’s call to follow him, to finish strong for God’s glory. There is no higher calling, no bigger privilege, no greater joy. In the final analysis, endurance will be a measure of the kind of character and integrity we develop.’ It is what has been called ‘a long obedience in the same direction.’ It is by nurturing character, the inner core of a person that we press on. There is to be that determination to go on in the Christian life, ever moving onward and upward, regardless of the distractions, enduring the injuries and impervious to the jibes, knowing that at the end of the journey it will prove to have been worthwhile. For at the end of the journey we will receive our treasure, we will see face to face the one who, unseen, has been with us every step of that journey, the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ will be our glory and joy will be the air we breathe. That is when we will be forever grateful for the persevering grace extended to us by our King of Kings.
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