Do you have a special “get away” spot you like to go to; a vacation spot? I don’t have a place like that, but Brittany does. She likes to visit Lakeside Chautauqua on Lake Erie. I’ve been there a couple of times and it’s a cute gated, Christian retreat village. Last summer we were there for a couple of days and we chatted about getting a cottage there. But the more I thought about that I wasn’t up for it. It’s one thing to go on retreat, but another thing to go and live there. Why? Because you take yourself with you—don’t you? When you’re at a place long enough the novelty wears off. The place you’ve arrived at becomes like the place you left because you take yourself with you.
That’s what a horizontal journey is like. If you stay there long enough, the place you’ve come to will be just like the place you’ve come from. But a vertical journey is different. A vertical journey changes you, such that you aren’t the same person when you arrive as when you began.
Today we are beginning a new sermon series called Upward Bound. We’re going to be looking at the Songs of Ascent, which are Psalms 120 thru 134. The collection of psalms are called: Songs of Ascent, because they’re about a great journey. The people of God in the Old Testament would journey three times a year from all across Israel to Jerusalem: Passover, Feast of the Tabernacles, and at harvest time.
A Change of Elevation
Thought there is a movement from a lower elevation to a higher one—Jerusalem is at a higher elevation that 85% of Israel—the shift of elevation I’m talking about isn’t about topography. It’s about spiritual elevation.
Imagine you’re an ancient Israelite and on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem. As you approach the the capital city, the City of David, you are going up to the spiritual center of the nation, the place where the temple is, the place where God—although he is every where—has chosen to meet with his people in a special way. As you journey you’re being elevated in spirit. Your heart is being orientated; you’re anticipating; you’re readying your soul to meet with God in that place where he has cause his name to dwell. You’re going up, ascending to the focal point of where God was spiritually touching the earth. Through the temple is was as though God was saying: “I’m with you; I’m among you; I’m right here.”
So, the pilgrimage isn’t merely a horizontal journey, it’s a spiritual ascent—a rising—not because of the city, or the temple, but because of the person who is there. What that person has done for you; what that person will do for you. When you meet him in worship, that meeting is going to leave you different from when you began the journey.
A Reenactment of a Great Journey
Now, by way of getting you into this collection of psalms I’d like you to understand that each of the pilgrimages the people made to Jerusalem had a common theme. As they made their pilgrimage they were remembering through reenactment the great journey that God’s people has made from Egypt to the Promised Land. The Book of Exodus tells how Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt into the desert where they met with God, worshiped God, and glorified God for delivering them from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, and for binding them together as a nation, and for defeating their enemies, and for providing food and water for them along the way, and for finally depositing them in the Promised Land, the land of rest which was their true home.
Each of these pilgrimages is remembering that first ascent. As the people come year after year, seeing each other in Jerusalem, there’s a remembrance. Perhaps your favorite places have that remembrance factor for you.
There are songs that were sung on the pilgrimage. As the people walked they sang. When they sat around the camp fire, they sang. Sometimes they sang about building, sometimes to edify one another; sometimes they sang songs about arrival or songs about celebration. But all of the songs are about the difference that God made in the original exodus, as well as the difference he was making in their lives as they participated in this “remembrance journey.” And so… in one way or another the songs are salvation songs. They’re song about what it means to be saved and live a saved life.
Three times a year they made the pilgrimage. Three times a year they remembered. Three times a year they made sure that the humdrum and the routine of life, or influence of the people around them, wouldn’t drive the reality of God’s salvation from their memories.
An Inconvenient Religion
I also want you to understand that the people enjoyed these pilgrimages. And that means that they enjoyed a demanding religion. They didn’t mind that their faith system required them to leave the commonness of their lives. Three times a year they paused, made arrangements for their livestock and crops and belongings, and made on the long journey.
Friends, do you realize how inconvenient this is? And three times a year … can you imagine?
I don’t think folks today would put up with it. We don’t want anything to be demanded of us. Our schedule is our own. We’ve things to do, school and work and recreation. And we’ll be dammed if we’re going to let religion get in the way of that.
But the Israelites did it because it was of first importance. It was of eternal importance. As human beings we forget truth quickly. And so we need to be disrupted, and inconvenienced, and jarred from the mundane rhythm of life, so we’ll remember the truth and live out of it.
The Israelites welcomed the inconvenience because of the one who purposed to meet them in Jerusalem in a special way. And so the distinction was so good compared to where they were. So they embraced this inconveniencing, disrupting, and demanding religious event, which was nothing like what we go through to get to Sunday morning worship even with a van full of kids—think about that.
A Collection Overview
Now, the next thing I want to do in this introduction is to show you how this collection of psalms is arranged. There are five groups of three psalms, which are further collected into three larger groups.
120, 121, 122
123, 124, 125
126, 127, 128
129, 130, 131
132, 133, 134
In the first two groups of three, Psalms 120 thru 125, the psalmist is looking at the exterior world. He’s saying: “Here we are… people on an ultimately journey towards heaven. And that big journey consists of several smaller journey we make in the midst of this hard life.” The psalms give us a picture of life like it is, authentic, raw—reality, not sentimentality. And life is sometimes unfriendly and hostile. Yet God is sufficient for us; he keeps us and looks after us.
The second two groups of three, Psalms 126 thru 131, move from talking about the world out there to the world in here. They deal with the landscape of our interior worlds. This shift inwards is a reminder that the journey is actually a pilgrimage of the heart. We are to be different person when we arrive at the destination. There are sorrows and trials, we’ve been required to lean into God, to trust him and have patience. But once more we learn that God is reliable and faithful, therefore, we can rest our hearts in him. And the end of the journey holds a great blessing: calm companionship of being with God.
The last group of three, Psalms 132 thru 134, is about having arrived at the destination. It’s about Zion, the blessing of being united with God’s people. And the collection ends with a message about peace and worship for we are with the king and the king is with us.
The entire collection is a great progression: it moves from the worst place to the best place—the great ascent. And the best place, according to the Bible, is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises. We get a glimpse of that in Revelation 21:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away’” (Rev 21:1–4).
A Song of Ascent: Psalm 120
Okay… Let me now turn for the rest of my time this morning to the first Song, Psalm 120.
In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
Deliver me, O Lord,
from lying lips,
from a deceitful tongue.
What shall be given to you,
and what more shall be done to you,
you deceitful tongue?
A warrior’s sharp arrows,
with glowing coals of the broom tree!
Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech,
that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I had my dwelling
among those who hate peace.
I am for peace,
but when I speak, they are for war!
An Experience of Discontentment
1. Our Experience
Do you know what a centrifuge is? A centrifuge is a machine that spins so fast that what you place in it begins to separate. If you place a vile of blood in it, the plasma and the red blood cells will separate. If you put a vile of milk in it, the cream and water will separate.
There are forces in our lives, which spin us like a centrifuge. For example, people might migrate from the country to the city when their crops fail. They get pushed, then they get pulled maybe by the promise of a job.
There is a big centrifugal force pushing in this passage. Those on the journey are starting out and they are aware of a great distress—this is partly why they know they need the pilgrimage. Their distressed is caused by hostility and deceit faced in the world—all of the anger and hatred and lies and pretense.
Perhaps you are somehow deeply aware of nagging experience that this world isn’t you home. Something isn’t wholly right, wholly restful, wholly as it should be—you know it in your bones. Maybe you’re like me, constantly looking for home over the next hill, never truly settled. You’re not shutting yourself off from society, but feel like you’re a square peg in a round hole.
What I’m talking about is the Christian experience of life. Yes, this world has many splendid and shiny things, which truly point to the magnificence of God. Yet the world is unfriendly.
If you’ve ever felt that way, you’re not alone. The psalmist has experienced it too: “Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue. … Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace … they are for war!” (Psa 120:2, 6–7). The deceit and that desire to fight at the drop of a hat is distressing; exhausting, demoralizing, depressing.
The pilgrim knows this reality and so arrives at the New Testament conclusion that “we are in the world but not of it” (John 15:19; 17:14-16). Our values and methods aren’t the worlds.
I used to watch the news a lot, but I rarely turn it on anymore. I can’t stand all of the sharp words, all the hate, all the spin, all the lies. It seems like people would rather go to war with each other than to lunch. Everybody is jockeying to one-up one another, everybody wants to win. I don’t know—but I wonder if, unconsciously speaking, the world knows that something is wrong too… that hostility and deceit is the way folks are trying to capture a little bit of peace for themselves. Yet words—whether spoken or written—express the heart. And I’m starting to think that there is a big disconnect, a big dissonance, between being a citizen of the USA and a citizen or heaven. The world is increasingly unfriendly.
2. Jesus’s Experience
The psalmist feels all of this too. And so the psalm confirms the disconnect, the dissonance, the dislocation, the discontentment. This is the true Christian experience of this world because Jesus felt the same way.
Jesus’s experience is on display in the Gospel of John: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him” (John 1:10). And then Jesus said: “I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father” (John 16:28). These verses are saying that this world wasn’t Jesus’ home. And Jesus also tells his followers that it’s not theirs either: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). This is why we so often hurt.
There’s much to get excited about in the world, like sunsets and birthday parties (as long as they’re not held at a trampoline park [Pastor Dan injured himself at a trampoline park, requiring surgery]), and yet we’re still of a different heart. This isn’t our home.
And so the journey begins: “Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!” (Psa 120:5). The psalmist is saying: “I could live here, I could live there. But no place is ideal. There is something off about all of it. Any place is, therefore, an ideal place for the upward journey towards heaven to begin.”
Are you picking it up? … The journey begins with discontentment in your heart and mind. The journey begins with that feeling that this place isn’t your home. You’re just passing through. You’re searching for God because there’s something off about this place. And the yearning for home, for Zion is birthed within. To be with God; to be with his people; to be in his house.
A Movement From Demand to Delight
Being a Jesus-follower is demanding. It’s demanding because God wants the whole of us. What kind of God would he be if he was truly satisfied with just our leftovers?
But ya know what? It’s not really all that demanding, for when your heart gets filled with discontentment, the journey becomes a delight.
The Gospel of Matthew contains a story in which Jesus has gone to the city of Bethany and into the house of a leper named Simon. While he is there a woman finds him and empties an entire alabaster flask of very expensive perfume onto his head while he’s reclined at the table eating. When the disciples saw it, they went berserk: “What a waste! … That could’ve sold for a whole lot and the money given to the poor” (see Matt 26:6-9.) That perfume was worth something like a year’s wages, about 300 denarii (or about $55,000). But do you think the woman worried about the expense? No! Why not? Because she felt that Jesus was worth it.
When God is great in our hearts, his demand to have the whole of us isn’t so great, is it? Nah. It’s a delight.
Is their a longing for God in your heart? That’s a question I’m seeing in this psalm.
A Promise for the Journey
I’m also seeing a message of hope in this psalm… There’s hope because it’s the Holy Spirit that places that discontentment within us. It’s the Spirit who opens us to the fact that this isn’t our home. It’s the Spirit who writes the values of God upon our hearts. It’s the Spirit who makes us uncomfortable with hostility and deceit. And it’s the Spirit who gives the power to respond to God’s demands with fervor and fondness from the hearts. “What more can I give, Lord?” And it’s the Spirit who persuades us that the ultimate destination is real.
The Bible tells us that we’ll be with the Lord forever (1 Thess 4:17). That’s the Easter promise towards which this sermon series is headed. “And this is the will of God,” said Jesus, “that I should not lose even one of all those he has given me, but that I should raise them up at the last day” (John 6:39). What a wonderful promise of hope for a journey through a world filled with hostility. Amen.