Marching To Zion
Two weeks ago I got on an airplane here in Beaumont and one layover and three hours later I was standing in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I have taken a few flights in my life time and even flew half way around the world, but I am still amazed at how easy it is to get from here to there. You know, it’s not always been that easy.
I grew up as the son of a sailor, and as a result we lived in five different states before I was a freshman in High School. Living that far away from family, meant that we used our vacation time to travel back to Mississippi to visit my grandparents and other relatives. When we were living in California it would take us almost three days of driving. One of my parents would drive while the other slept, and we would stop at rest area’s and eat out of a cooler my parents packed.
I know to some of our younger folks, and the older folks here who have gotten use to air travel that sounds like torture. But my parents did everything they could think of to help us pass the time, we played the alphabet game during the day and looked for cars with one headlight at night. I grew to enjoy those long trips, I had my parents undivided attention and when we grew tired of playing games we would sing church songs.
I was reminded of those trips as I started planning for this series. Hidden away towards the end of the book of Psalms we find 15 Psalms that carry the inscription Songs of Ascents, or degrees. I am sure that you are not surprised that scholars have different ideas as to what these Psalms are for. But many of them believe that these are songs that the Jews would sing as they made their way to Jerusalem for the three annual feasts, Pentecost in the summer, the feast of Tabernacles in the fall, and the feast of Passover in the Spring.
Three times a year, the Jewish people would leave their homes, their farms, their towns and villages, and would make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for these festivals. Since Jerusalem was a city set on a hill, no matter what way you approached the city you had to ascend, or travel upwards. But these pilgrims were also ascending spiritually, as they sang these songs together and prepared their hearts to worship the Lord.
Just imagine the scene, a family starts out towards Jerusalem, and they start singing to pass the time, and to get them ready to meet God in His temple. As one road intersected with the next, the little family, began to meet up with other travelers going to worship, and they would continue to sing together. A small family of four would grow to a traveling group of 50, or 60, or more all singing praises to God getting their hearts and minds ready to be in His presence.
With than in mind, here’s what I have planned for us to do over the next few weeks. I didn’t think we could talk about singing with out singing, so as we work our way through these 15 Psalms we are going to talk about it and then sing about it and then talk about it a little more. I am going to ask Nick to come up here and lead us in a song, and then we are going to get into our first Psalm of ascent found in Psalm 120.
A Longing for Home
At first glance this seems to be a weird place to start this journey to worship. Psalm 120 is not a happy song, it’s more like the Blues. It begins with distress, and ends with war. The psalm includes lying lips, sharp arrows, glowing coals; and the author even cries out in verse 5, “Woe is me!” Does this sound like a trip you want to go on?
But what draws me to this Psalm is that it’s an honest and important song. It is the song of homesick people, living in a strange land longing to be home. The Bible is full of reminders that, as the old hymn puts it, this world is not our home. We were not created to be completely satisfied with this life.
There is a very real danger when we think we should feel at home here. The struggle we face is that we forget who we are and start enjoying this life. We forget about the place we’re traveling towards, and we begin to think of this life, this world, as our home. We begin to try to fit in, and instead of being content, and resting in the knowledge that this is all temporary, we agonize, and worry, and stew over the fact that we feel out of place. We expect this world to be heaven, when instead God intended that this world should make us desire heaven.
Over time, we become natives, we settle down, adapt, start to accommodate ourselves to the local customs. And before you know it, we don’t look like citizens of God’s kingdom at all. We look just like the world. Our values, and attitudes, and lifestyles become just like those around us. That’s why we must remember that we are not home yet. Our life here is the spiritual equivalent of being on the road and living out of suitcases. You know how it is when you go on vacation. No matter how beautiful the scenery, no matter how luxurious the accommodations, no matter how wonderful the weather, sooner or later you’re tired of it. You just want to go home. And for the Christian, home is heaven.
We are aliens and strangers in this world, full of troubles and pain. Someone loses a job. Cancer invades our family. We find ourselves anxious about how we’re going to pay the bills. We worry over the smallest things. We find ourselves lonely and depressed, hurting like we never thought possible. Conflict arises. People fight, argue, backbite, gossip, and sometimes do all of this while smiling. Suddenly life doesn’t make sense and people don’t seem nice anymore. You want peace, but the more you search for peace what you find, like the writer of our psalm, is that they are for war.
We look for justice, search for peace, long for love. We wonder why is life so unfair? Suddenly all the lies we’ve been told about the niceness of the world and the goodness of people lie shattered at our feet. We find ourselves vulnerable, helpless. Life throws us a curve ball and we get knocked to the ground. We are in strange and hostile territory and suddenly realize, maybe I can’t do this myself.
It’s only when we have hit the bottom that we are ready to say no to the lies. At rock bottom we are finally motivated to clean house and get started. This first step prods us into beginning the walk of faith, it reminds of what the world is really like. This is how we start to follow Jesus. It can also be how we start to follow Jesus again if we’ve wandered off the path.
It is when we realize that we’ve been lied to and we become thoroughly fed up with the way of the world that we are ready to set out on a different path. That’s why I am drawn to this song, it’s the prayer of someone who is sick of the lies and wants the truth instead. This is the decision to take a different path, a better road. Sometimes the first step toward God is a step away from the lies of the world. When we turn toward God, then we can see the lies for what they really are.
The biblical word for making this step is called repentance. It means turning around and changing your mind. Repentance is the first step to following Jesus. We must understand that repentance is not an emotion. It is not feeling sorry for your sins. It is a decision. It is deciding that you have been wrong believing that you could manage your own life and be your own god.
It’s understanding that you don’t have and cannot get the strength, education, or training to make it on your own, Repentance is deciding that you have been told a pack of lies about yourself and your neighbors and your world, and now you realize that Jesus is telling you the truth. And knowing that the truth will lead you home.
A Desire For Peace
We are not sure who wrote this song, but we can pick up on the ache in his voice as he laments his situation and longs to return to his native country. We read in verses 5-7 How I suffer in far- off Meshech. It pains me to live in distant Kedar. I am tired of living among people who hate peace. I search for peace; but when I speak of peace, they want war!
The people of Meshech and Kedar were characterized by ruthlessness. They took pride in their military strength and economic power. They had no qualms about attacking and devouring weaker nations. Not only did they have no desire for or seek peace, they actually hated it. They loved conflict, and destruction.
Does that sound like our world? For the most part we are optimistic; we like to think that everyone else in the world wants peace as much as we do. Surely, if we could just sit down and talk we could reach an agreement. We could find common ground. But the truth is that there are leaders and even nations who do not desire peace. No matter what we say or do, they only desire war.
That’s frustrating and tragic. But hopefully, it has the beneficial effect of reminding us that this world never has been, and never will be, our true home. There never will be peace on earth until Christ returns. There always will be conflict and war.
On a personal level, you and I sometimes encounter angry and bitter people who have no interest in peace. We meet them at work, on the highway, in our neighborhoods; our children meet them at school; sometimes we even encounter them in our own families. Many of us have endured a family feud, or a conflict with in-laws, or tried to find peace with a husband, or wife, or son, or daughter who refuse to reconcile. Many of us can identify with this Psalm and the idea of being tired of living among people who hate peace.
Now we need to be a bit cautious here, because we tend to have a first impulse or immediate response when someone is making us look foolish or spreading gossip about us. The quick response is to defend ourselves. We want to run out there, and find everyone they’ve been talking to, and set the record straight. We want the whole world to know the truth, or at least our version of the truth. And while we’re at it, we have our own little tidbits about the person doing the gossiping.
There are few things more painful and destructive than slander. It hurts when people are judging and criticizing you. It hurts when people are spreading rumors about you. It hurts to be misunderstood. It hurts when you find that people you considered friends are willing to believe the worst about you, instead of giving you the benefit of the doubt. It hurts when former allies become enemies, all on the basis of false information.
But the answer isn’t to go after the perpetrators. The answer isn’t to mount a public relations campaign. The answer is to go to the Lord, to entrust our reputation to Him. The Psalmist says I cried out to him, and he answered my prayer. Rescue me, O Lord, from liars and from all deceitful people.
We find hope if we are willing, like the Psalmist, to be brutally honest with ourselves and with God. It’s ok to cry out, Lord I don’t know how long I can take this. I’m tired, I’m frustrated, I’m discouraged. It doesn’t seem to make any difference what I say; they are determined to hate me. They attack me over and over, no matter what I do. Help me, Lord. Give me the strength to persevere; give me the will to continue in this journey of faith. Give me the grace to remain committed to peace, and don’t let them change me into a person of war.
A Desire for Transparency
The Psalmist believes that God will judge the wicked. Notice he doesn’t just say arrows, he says sharp arrows. And they aren’t sharp arrows in the hands of a novice. They’re sharp arrows in the hands of a warrior. The Psalmist paints a picture of an arrow that will not miss its mark. The skill of the hunter and the sharpness of the arrow are descriptions of upcoming judgment. Judgment is coming and it will come swiftly and accurately like an arrow.
But even though it comes suddenly it will endure as the burning coals of a broom tree. I don’t believe that we have broom trees in this part of the country, so I had to look that one up. According to my Bible dictionary the coals of a broom tree are the hottest and the longest-burning coals that anyone knew of. So the picture of judgment is swift in it’s arrival but will endure for a long time.
It is this idea of judgement that forces us to look at our own lives. What I mean is that this cry against the evil and injustice in the world is also a cry against the sin in our own hearts. None of us will stand completely blameless; none of us can claim moral perfection. All of us are guilty before God. Our only hope for forgiveness is to trust in the death of Christ on the cross.
Jesus, our Savior, gave His life for our sin. As we grieve and suffer at the hands of others, we also need to acknowledge the grief and suffering that we have caused. Otherwise, our outrage at the sinfulness of others will turn to hypocritical self-righteousness. It is only by His grace that we will escape judgement and punishment; it is only through faith in Christ that we will be forgiven.
Questions For You To Consider
What types of songs do you like to sing?
Jeremy said Psalm 120 was a song of someone longing to go home. When have you longed to go home?
What is it about your home that makes you long to be there?
What type of longing do you have for Heaven?
The Psalmist brings God his hurt, inadequacy, and distress. Do you feel comfortable bring your pain to God?
Why is peace so elusive in our world?
How does our judgement of others force us to look at our own lives?
What keeps you from transparency?