A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

For an introduction to this series, click here

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday June 2nd at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the first of the Psalms Of Ascents, Psalm 120. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

Every journey starts with a decision. A decision to set out. That’s as true for the journey to work as it is the journey to the grocery store as it is the journey we might take as we seek to follow God. The decisions in the first two cases are more obviously apparent – I need to go to work; I need some milk. Perhaps less so in the last one – our journey of following God. What sets us out on that journey?

Often it’s the realisation that something is not right. That something may be in me, in others, the world around me or some combination thereof; but the knowledge that something significant which affects us is not right sets us off. It may set us off to follow God for the first time; it may set us off on a journey of recommitment; it may set us off on a journey to do something. Whichever it is, it upsets us. It discomforts us. It causes us pain.

Pain is rarely welcomed with open arms. It is essential, though. In our bodies pain alerts us to the fact that something is wrong and we need to do something about it. We get the treatment we need. Similarly when we realise something is not right with our souls and/or the world around us, that is painful and destabilising. So we do something about it. That something may be helpful; it may not. It may be pretending the problem doesn’t exist. It may be expressing the problem as that of someone else. It may be so many things. Whatever it is, the realisation that all is not well is not an easy one. Those who journeyed to Jerusalem to worship in the temple started their journey by reflecting on, praying or singing Psalm 120. Which is the outpouring of someone who knows all too well that something is wrong.

We open with a cry of distress. The writer is being lied about. Someone is spreading gossip. This is not OK. If you’ve ever been the victim of gossip, you know how painful it is. You feel powerless. You feel violated. You wonder what people you had thought to be close to you are thinking. You can shout the truth all you like, but you can do nothing to make people listen; secretly you wonder if the more you shout, the more people will think you have something to hide. Verses 1 and 2 of Psalm 120 show us that the writer is in precisely that situation. It’s not the whole picture, though. She (the unknown writer) has also known that the God to whom she prays has come through in the past, so it’s worth taking this to Him this time:

1 I call out to the Lord when I’m in trouble,
and he answers me.
2 Lord, save me from people whose lips tell lies…

God has come through in the past, so she has no reason to suspect that He won’t come through this time.

That’s the first part. The second can seem like an abrupt change of gear. From the cry of distress to cries for vengeance. From directly addressing God there is a shift; still directed at God, but now in verses 3-4 the writer says what she would love to see happen to those who gossip.

She doesn’t hold back. It’s fire and brimstone stuff. The lies being spread are arrows which have wounded; so they are returned; thick chunks of hard wood coal from the trunk of the broom tree fall on them. Make no mistake, this is a brutal plea for vengeance.

I’ve craved the same. When I’ve been lied about, when unjustified assumptions have been made about me, when rumours to which I’ve contributed nothing have spread like wildfire, when people who claimed to respect me have passed on the unsubstantiated, I’ve imagined vengeance. We all do something similar. The writer of this Psalm is doing just that. She doesn’t hold back in what she seeks … but she leaves it with the one who can do something. She does not hold back … but neither does she hold on to her right for vengeance.

It’s amazing what you can pray, isn’t it? How many angry outbursts at the seemingly irrelevant, how many ‘minor’ health problems, how many ruptured relationships might be avoided if we prayed similarly to verses 3 and 4 here?

So we move on, to the third and final section. Verses 5 to 7. Strange, exotic sounding places. Meshech – beyond the Black Sea, modern-day Georgia, way to the north of the Jerusalem area in which the writer found herself. Kedar, the Arabian desert to the south and east. Lest we forget, to the west is the sea, the symbol of chaos and evil. This is not literal; it is poetry. Clearly the poet could not be in both Meshech and Kedar. She is surrounded. This is a way of saying … I’m hemmed in by those who oppose you, God. They surround me. I cannot escape. This has gone on too long. I want peace. They want war. 

And so it ends. This first step on the journey ends not with resolution but with a cry of constriction; with claustrophobia and the lone voice for peace. All is not well.

There are 14 more steps to go.

The journey starts with the realisation that I can be the one about whom others write verses 3 and 4. I lie. I offend. I hurt. I offend people, and I offend God. In my natural state, I offend God. I may not like this. It hurts to say it. But it’s true.

That is the beginning of the journey. If I accept it, I seek help. And the help … is astonishing. That despite my offense, God seeks me out. God finds me. God lavishes love on me. God dies for me.  My offense does not trump His love. Quite the reverse, in fact.

It’s called repentance. One of those horrible, black-leather-bound religious words. It means turning away. Recognising I’m on the wrong journey and choosing to follow the one God leads me on instead.

If I’m in pain, if I’m aching, if I’m disturbed … do I need to change the journey I’m on? Do I need to walk another way? This, as Eugene Peterson says in his book on these Psalms, ‘is not an emotion, it is not feeling sorry for your sins. It is is a decision. It is deciding that you have been wrong in supposing that you could manage your own life and be your own God … and it is deciding that God in Jesus Christ is telling you the truth’. 

Repent and believe. The first step on the journey. And one to repeat, as discipline, as slate-cleaner.

This pain come other ways, too. To those who daily repent, the painful realisation can dawn that something is not right around me as well as in me and I am invited on a journey to co-operate with God and do something about it. Housing, disease, poverty, abuse, corruption, environmental decay, war … so much. For each it will be different.

Will you step out the door? Will you embark on a journey? Will you invite discontent?

Will I?

“…there [is] only one Road; that it [is] like a great river; its springs [are] at every doorstep and every path its tributary. It’s a dangerous business, going out of your door … You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to”

(The Lord Of The Rings, by J R R Tolkein)

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 2nd June 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text.

Also in this series: Introduction:  A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey