There are a lot of things in the Bible that God declares to be good: creation, a spouse, and relationships of various kinds. However, something that often fails to make the list is the "goodness" of unity. Psalm 133 begin with the declaration of how good and pleasant it is "when brothers and sisters dwell in unity." Rather than being tacked on as a "nice bonus," the Scriptures speak of the essential nature of unity for the people of God in the world. The psalmist offers us poetic images about the role of unity, the essential nature of unity and insight as to why Jesus would make it the center of his High Priestly prayer for the church (John 17). This week we will explore just how we can pursue this calling that lies directly in the heart of our God.
It has been said that music can "name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable." Which is why the book of Psalms has historically been such a treasure to the world and the people of God. With incredible poetic imagery, the Psalms express the reality of God and variegated depth of the human journey. While there are 150 total psalms which have been arranged into 5 different books, there are also several different sub-categories of songs in the greater album. Psalms 120-134 represent a collection of songs known as "Pilgrimage Songs" or the Psalms of Ascent. These 15 psalms, written by a variety of authors, represent the songs that Hebrew people traditionally sung as they made their way "up to Jerusalem" to celebrate the holy days in the holy city. Even though we don't currently make regular pilgrimages to the Middle East, we are called to the same journey of faith. We are made for movement toward God in maturity and discipleship. This road of faith is long. At times it is hard and involves unexpected twists and turns. But, as the people of God, we get to do it together with an ancient soundtrack. Their songs become our songs. Their roadmap becomes our road map. And in this musical collection, we find timely reminders for our lives and our shared spiritual journey.
In a world that calls for us to "grow up," Jesus teaches that the way we mature in the kingdom of God is by becoming more childlike. As we spend another week learning from the Psalms of Ascent, Psalm 131 offers a short and sweet reminder about the wisdom of childlikeness for our journey of faith. Filled with beautiful imagery, the psalmist calls us to follow his example of embracing our limitations and cultivating the weaned life. Life as a child of God points us down a different path than the voices of culture. And it is a more beautiful way.
Without a doubt, Psalm 129 is one of the most awkward, counter-intuitive songs in the whole Psalm of Ascent collection. Not only does it recall Israel's long history of affliction, it ends with a brutally honest cry for shame and cursing on her enemies. It's the "un-blessing" song toward those who have inflicted injustice against Israel. While it may make us uncomfortable to read or sing, these kinds of songs are gifts to the people of God. How do you deal with a history of wrongdoing? What do you do with ugly emotions of anger and bitterness toward injustice? This song reminds us that God is big enough to handle it all. And His invitation, rather than stuffing it, is to bring it all into the light to Him.
Psalm 126 raises the issue of joy for the journey of following God. We live in a world starving for joy, and yet is confused about its meaning and source. As a result, even though we search, shop, consume and escape, the joy that we seek can feel fleeting or elusive. What is joy and where does it come from? As part of the Psalms of Ascent, Psalm 126 reminds us that joy comes from God and, as one scholar wrote, "Joy is the verified, repeated experience of those involved in what God is doing." We are invited to renew our joy through participation in these truths: (1) God has done it before and (2) God will do it again. These two sides of the same coin can produce in us an experience of joy in spite of our current circumstances. Come discover (or discover again) the good news of great joy in the gospel.
The next song in our collection the Psalms of Ascent is Psalm 125. Drawing heavily upon the imagery of Mt. Zion, the psalmist reveals that journey of faith is not a wobbly tightrope walk in the sky. Rather, those who trust in the Lord have mountain-like stability, security and shalom. We will not be moved. We are surrounded. And we will be made whole. This song calls us out of teetering insecurity and helps us renew our confidence in the Lord for our deepest needs.
Psalm 124 assumes that we will have hard times and it implies the importance of memory; remembering that the Lord is on our side. There are any number of reasons we experience hard times. Sometimes it is simply because we live in a broken world. Other times it is because we have enemies who are coming after us. And sometimes, our hard times are caused by our own sin. This Psalm was written by David, a man who was well acquainted with hard times, caused by all three of these things. During this sermon, we use stories from David’s life as a vehicle to help us call to memory hard times we have experienced, with an invitation to bring those experiences under the influence of the Lord, who is on our side.
On Sunday, July 7th, there was opportunity for people to share experiences they have had, where the Lord was on their side. After someone shared, we corporately responded in song, "Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth."
As we continue our series in the Psalms of Ascent, we discover that Psalm 123 is a song about our posture for the journey. Rather than focusing on the questions of "where we are going," this song offers a snapshot of "how we are to go." And the psalmist's primary answer to that question is this: by being a servant. In a world that bristles at the idea of being a servant to anyone, every follower of Jesus must discover the secret of freedom that is found in having the right Master. Psalm 123 anticipates the Jesus-style life that offers our eyes, requests and concerns to the Father, the Master of all.
If Psalm 120 gets us going in our journey through dissatisfaction, Psalm 121 offers a realistic exploration of the journey that we are walking toward God. It's a song that reminds us how life works: that once we set out on this God-ward journey in the Kingdom of God, it will never be without problems. Just because you follow Jesus, doesn't guarantee a "get out of problems free" card. In fact, it might even get worse. This thing called life is a long, hard journey of faith that takes numerous twists and turns and leaves everyone looking somewhere for help. The question of Psalm 121 is this: on the journey of life, where are you looking for help? If we listen well to this song, we will be reminded just how much God longs for us all to move our gaze heavenward- to the LORD, the Watchman, the Protector and the Preserver of His people.
Although it is neither catchy or cool, Psalm 120 is a perfect song to start a series on the Psalms of Ascent. At its core, this is a song of dissatisfaction. It's all about what is "not right" with the world. And the reason this is so essential is that, without dissatisfaction, a person will remain content and never leave in the first place. The natural pull of life calls for us to stay put, not move and never change. So, as with every good journey, the starting spot is the place of recognition of what you don't want, where you don't belong, and a desperate cry to God for change. Without dissatisfaction, there is no repentance and there is no change. Our journey closer to God and the full life of His Kingdom begins here.