Discipleship – “How Will You Compete with Horses?”

If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? (Jeremiah 12:5)

The essential thing “in heaven and earth” is... that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

This world is no friend to grace. A person who makes a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior does not find a crowd immediately forming to applaud the decision nor old friends spontaneously gathering around to offer congratulations and counsel. Ordinarily there is nothing directly hostile, but an accumulation of puzzled disapproval and agnostic indifference constitutes, nevertheless, surprisingly formidable opposition.

An old tradition sorts the difficulties we face in the life of faith into the categories of world, flesh and devil. We are, for the most part, well warned of the perils of the flesh and the wiles of the devil. Their temptations have a definable shape and maintain an historical continuity. That doesn’t make them any easier to resist; it does make them easier to recognize.

The world, though, is protean: each generation has the world to deal with in a new form. World is an atmosphere, a mood. It is nearly as hard for a sinner to recognize the world’s temptations as it is for a fish to discover impurities in the water. There is a sense, a feeling, that things aren’t right, that the environment is not whole, but just what it is eludes analysis. We know that the spiritual atmosphere in which we live erodes faith, dissipates hope and corrupts love, but it is hard to put our finger on what is wrong.

Tourists and Pilgrims

One aspect of world that I have been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments.

It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. Millions of people in our culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate. Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim. In our kind of culture anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap. There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.

Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure. For some it is a weekly jaunt to church. For others, occasional visits to special services. Some, with a bent for religious entertainment and sacred diversion, plan their lives around special events like retreats, rallies and conferences. We go to see a new personality, to hear a new truth, to get a new experience and so, somehow, expand our otherwise humdrum lives. The religious life is defined as the latest and the newest: Zen, faith-healing, human potential, parapsychology, successful living, choreography in the chancel, Armageddon. We’ll try anything—until something else comes along.

I don’t know what it has been like for pastors in other cultures and previous centuries, but I am quite sure that for a pastor in Western culture in the latter part of the twentieth century the aspect of world that makes the work of leading Christians in the way of faith most difficult is what Gore Vidal has analyzed as “today’s passion for the immediate and the casual.” Everyone is in a hurry. The persons whom I lead in worship, among whom I counsel, visit, pray, preach, and teach, want short cuts. They want me to help them fill out the form that will get them instant credit (in eternity). They are impatient for results. They have adopted the lifestyle of a tourist and only want the high points. But a pastor is not a tour guide. I have no interest in telling apocryphal religious stories at and around dubiously identified sacred sites. The Christian life cannot mature under such conditions and in such ways.

Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw this area of spiritual truth, at least, with great clarity wrote, “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is... that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” It is this “long obedience in the same direction” which the mood of the world does so much to discourage.

In going against the stream of the world’s ways there are two biblical designations for people of faith that are extremely useful: disciple and pilgrim. Disciple (mathetes) says we are people who spend our lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ. We are in a growing-learning relationship, always. A disciple is a learner, but not in the academic setting of a schoolroom, rather at the work site of a craftsman. We do not acquire information about God but skills in faith.

Pilgrim (parepidemos) tells us we are people who spend our lives going someplace, going to God, and whose path for getting there is the way, Jesus Christ. We realize that “this world is not my home” and set out for the “Father’s house.” Abraham, who “went out,” is our archetype. Jesus, answering Thomas’ question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” gives us directions: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (Jn. 14:5-6). The letter to the Hebrews defines our program: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb, 12:1-2).

A Dog-eared Songbook

In the pastoral work of training people in discipleship and accompanying them in pilgrimage, I have found, tucked away in the Hebrew Psalter, an old dog-eared song-book. I have used it to provide continuity in guiding others in the Christian way, and directing people of faith in the conscious and continuous effort which develops into maturity in Christ. The old songbook is called, in Hebrew, sire hamm’elot—the Songs of Ascents. The songs are the psalms numbered 120 through 134 in the book of Psalms.

These fifteen psalms were likely sung, possibly in sequence, by Hebrew pilgrims as they went up to Jerusalem to the great worship festivals. Jerusalem was the highest city geographically in Palestine, and so all who traveled there spent much of their time ascending. But the ascent was not only literal, it was also a metaphor: the trip to Jerusalem acted out a life lived upward toward God, an existence that advanced from one level to another in developing maturity. What Paul described as “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).

Three times a year faithful Hebrews made that trip (Ex. 23:14-17; 34:22-24). The Hebrews were a people whose salvation had been accomplished in the exodus, whose identity had been defined at Sinai and whose preservation had been assured in the forty years of wilderness wandering. As such a people they regularly climbed the road to Jerusalem to worship. They refreshed their memories of God’s saving ways at the Feast of Passover in the spring; they renewed their commitments as God’s covenanted people at the Feast of Pentecost in early summer; they responded as a blessed community to the best that God had for them at the Feast of Tabernacles in the autumn. They were a redeemed people, a commanded people, a blessed people. These foundational realities were preached and taught and praised at the annual feasts. Between feasts the people lived these realities in daily discipleship until the time came to go up to the mountain city again as pilgrims to renew the covenant.

This picture of the Hebrews singing these fifteen psalms as they left their routines of discipleship and made their way from towns and villages, farms and cities, as pilgrims up to Jerusalem has become embedded in the Christian devotional imagination. It is our best background for understanding life as a faith-journey.

We know that our Lord from a very early age “went up” to Jerusalem for the annual feasts (Lk. 2:41-42). We continue to identify with the first disciples who “were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid” (Mk. 10:32). We also are amazed and afraid for there is wonder upon unexpected wonder on this road, and there are fearful specters to be met. Singing the fifteen psalms is a way both to express the amazing grace and to quiet the anxious fears.

There are no better “songs for the road” for those who travel the way of faith in Christ, a way that has so many continuities with the way of Israel. Since many (not all) essential items in Christian discipleship are incorporated in these songs, they provide a way to remember who we are and where we are going. I have not sought to produce scholarly expositions of these psalms but to offer practical meditations which use these tunes for stimulus, encouragement and guidance. If we learn to sing them well, they can be a kind of vade mecum for a Christian’s daily walk.

Between the Times

Paul Tournier, in A Place for You, describes the experience of being in between—between the time we leave home and arrive at our destination; between the time we leave adolescence and arrive at adulthood; between the time we leave doubt and arrive at faith. It is like the time when a trapeze artist lets go the bars and hangs in midair, ready to catch another support: it is a time of danger, of expectation, of uncertainty, of excitement, of extraordinary aliveness.

Christians will recognize how appropriately these psalms may be sung between the times: between the time we leave the world’s environment and arrive at the Spirit’s assembly; between the time we leave sin and arrive at holiness; between the time we leave home on Sunday morning and arrive in church with the company of God’s people; between the time we leave the works of the law and arrive at justification by faith. They are songs of transition, brief hymns that provide courage, support and inner direction for getting us to where God is leading us in Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile the world whispers, “Why bother? There is plenty to enjoy without involving yourself in all that. The past is a graveyard; ignore it; the future is a holocaust; avoid it. There is no payoff for discipleship; there is no destination for pilgrimage. Get God the quick way; buy instant charisma.” But other voices speak, if not more attractively, at least more truly. Thomas Szasz, in his therapy and writing, has attempted to revive respect for what he calls the “simplest and most ancient of human truths: namely, that life is an arduous and tragic struggle; that what we call ‘sanity’—what we mean by ‘not being schizophrenic’—has a great deal to do with competence, earned by struggling for excellence; with compassion, hard won by confronting conflict; and with modesty and patience, acquired through silence and suffering.” His testimony validates the decision of those who commit themselves to explore the world of the Psalms of Ascents, who mine them for wisdom and sing them for cheerfulness.

These psalms were no doubt used in such ways by the multitudes Isaiah described as traveling “up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Is. 2:3). They are also evidence of what Isaiah promised when he said, “You shall have a song as in the night when a holy feast is kept; and gladness of heart, as when one sets out to the sound of the flute to go to the mountain of the LORD, to the Rock of Israel” (Is. 30:29).

Everyone who travels the road of faith requires assistance from time to time. We need cheering up when spirits flag; we need direction when the way is unclear. One of Paul Goodman’s “little prayers” expresses our needs,

On the highroad to death
trudging, not eager to get
to that city, yet the way is
still too long for my patience
– teach me a travel song,
Master, to march along
as we boys used to shout
when I was a young scout.

For those who choose to live no longer as tourists, but as pilgrims, the Psalms of Ascents combine all the cheerfulness of a travel song, with the practicality of a guidebook and map. Their unpretentious brevity is excellently described by William Faulkner. “They are not monuments, but footprints. A monument only says, ‘At least I got this far,’ while a footprint says, ‘This is where I was when I moved again.’”

Repentance – “Woe Is Me, that I Sojourn in Meshech”

In my distress I cry to the LORD,
that he may answer 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 is 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! (Psalm 120)

Before a man can do things there must be things he will not do. Mencius

People submerged in a culture swarming with lies and malice feel like they are drowning in it: they can trust nothing they hear, depend on no one they meet. Such dissatisfaction with the world as it is is preparation for traveling in the way of Christian discipleship. The dissatisfaction, coupled with a longing for peace and truth, can set us on a pilgrim path of wholeness in God.

A person has to be thoroughly disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way. As long as we think that the next election might eliminate crime and establish justice or another scientific breakthrough might save the environment or another pay raise might push us over the edge of anxiety into a life of tranquillity, we are not likely to risk the arduous uncertainties of the life of faith. A person has to get fed up with the ways of the world before he, before she, acquires an appetite for the world of grace.

Psalm 120 is the song of such a person, sick with the lies and crippled with the hate, a person doubled up in pain over what is going on in the world. But it is not a mere outcry, it is pain that penetrates through despair and stimulates a new beginning—a journey to God which becomes a life of peace.

The fifteen Psalms of Ascents describe elements common to all those who apprentice themselves to the Lord Christ and who travel in the Christian way. This first of them is the prod which gets them going. It is not a beautiful song—there is nothing either hauntingly melancholy nor lyrically happy in it. It is harsh. It is discordant. But it gets things started.

Lies without Error

In my distress is the opening phrase. The last word is war. Not a happy song, but an honest and necessary one.

Men are set against each other. Women are at each other’s throats. We are taught rivalry from the womb. The world is restless, always spoiling for a fight. No one seems to know how to live in healthy relationships. We persist in turning every community into a sect, every enterprise into a war. We realize, in fugitive moments, that we were made for something different and better—“I am for peace”—but there is no confirmation of that realization in our environment, no encouragement of it in our experience. “I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war!”

The distress that begins and ends the song is the painful awakening to the no longer avoidable reality that we have been lied to. The world, in fact, is not as it has been represented to us. Things are not all right as they are, and they are not getting any better.

We have been told the lie ever since we can remember: that human beings are basically nice and good. Everyone is born equal and innocent and self-sufficient. The world is a pleasant, harmless place. We are born free. If we are in chains now, it is someone’s fault, and we can correct it with just a little more intelligence or effort or time.

How we can keep on believing this after so many centuries of evidence to the contrary is difficult to comprehend, but nothing we do or nothing anyone else does to us seems to disenchant us from the spell of the lie. We keep expecting things to get better, somehow. And when they don’t we whine like spoiled children who don’t get their way. We accumulate resentment that stores up in anger and erupts in violence. Convinced by the lie that what we are experiencing is unnatural, an exception, we devise ways to escape the influence of what other people do to us by getting away on a vacation as often as we can. When the vacation is over we get back into the flow of things again, our naivete renewed that everything is going to work out all right—only to once more be surprised, hurt, bewildered when it doesn’t. The lie (“everything is O.K.”) covers up and perpetuates the deep wrong, disguises the violence, the war, the rapacity.

Christian consciousness begins in the painful realization that what we had assumed was the truth is in fact a lie. Prayer is immediate: “Deliver me, O LORD, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue.” Rescue me from the lies of advertisers who 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 power and morality, from the lies of psychologists who offer to shape my behavior and my morals so that I will live long, happily and successfully, from the lies of religionists who “heal the wounds of this people lightly,” from the lies of moralists who pretend to promote me to the office of captain of my fate, from the lies of pastors who “leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men” (Mk. 7:8). Rescue me from the person who tells me of life and omits Christ, who is wise in the ways of the world and ignores the movement of the Spirit.

The lies are impeccably factual. They contain no errors. There are no distortions or falsified data. But they are lies all the same because they claim to tell us who we are and omit everything about our origin in God and our destiny in God. They talk about the world without telling us that God made it. They tell us about our bodies without telling us that they are temples of the Holy Spirit. They instruct us in love without telling us about the God who loves us and gave himself for us.

Lightning Illuminating the Crossroads

The single word LORD occurs only once in this psalm, but it is the clue to the whole. God, once admitted to the consciousness, fills the entire horizon. God, revealed in his creative and redemptive work, exposes all the lies. The moment the word God is uttered, the world’s towering falsehood is exposed—we see the truth. The truth about me is that God made and loves me. The truth about those sitting beside me is that God made them and loves them, and that each one is therefore my neighbor. The truth about the world is that God rules and provides for it. The truth about what is wrong with the world is that I and the neighbor sitting beside me have sinned in refusing to let God be for us, over us and in us. The truth about what is at the center of our lives and of our history is that Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross for our sins and raised from the tomb for our salvation and that we can participate in new life as we believe in him, accept his mercy, respond to his love, attend to his commands.

John Baillie wrote, “I am sure that the bit of the road that most requires to be illuminated is the point where it forks.” The psalmist’s LORD is a lightning flash illuminating just such a crossroads. Psalm 120 is the decision to take one way as over against the other. It is the turning point marking the transition from a dreamy nostalgia for a better life to a rugged pilgrimage of discipleship in faith, from complaining about how bad things are to pursuing all things good. This decision is said and sung on every continent in every language. The decision has been realized in every sort of life in every century in the long history of mankind. The decision is quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) announced from thousands of Christian pulpits all over the world each Sunday morning. The decision is witnessed by millions in homes, factories, schools, businesses, offices and fields every day of every week. The people who make the decision and take delight in it are the people called Christians.

A No That Is a Yes

The first step toward God is a step away from the lies of the world. It is a renunciation of the lies we have been told about ourselves and our neighbors and our universe. “Woe is 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.” Meshech and Kedar are place names: Meshech a far-off tribe, thousands of miles from Palestine in southern Russia; Kedar a wandering Bedouin tribe of barbaric reputation along Israel’s borders. They represent the strange and the hostile. Paraphrased, the cry is, “I live in the midst of hoodlums and wild savages; this world is not my home and I want out.”

The usual biblical word describing the no we say to the world’s lies and the yes we say to God’s truth is repentance. It is always and everywhere the first word in the Christian life. John the Baptist’s preaching was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:2). Jesus’ first preaching was the same: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 4:17). Peter concluded his first sermon with “Repent, and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). In the last book of the Bible the message to the seventh church is “be zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:19).

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 in supposing that you could manage your own life and be your own god; it is deciding that you were wrong in thinking that you had, or could get, the strength, education and training to make it on your own; it is deciding that you have been told a pack of lies about yourself and your neighbors and your world. And it is deciding that God in Jesus Christ is telling you the truth. Repentance is a realization that what God wants from you and what you want from God are not going to be achieved by doing the same old things, thinking the same old thoughts. Repentance is a decision to follow Jesus Christ and become his pilgrim in the path of peace.

Repentance is the most practical of all words and the most practical of all acts. It is a feet-on-the-ground kind of word. It puts a person in touch with the reality which God creates. Elie Weisel, in referring to the stories of the Hasi-dim, says that in the tales by Israel of Rizhim one motif comes back again and again: a traveler loses his way in the forest; it is dark and he is afraid. Danger lurks behind every tree. A storm shatters the silence. The fool looks at the lightning, the wise man at the road that lies—illuminated— before him.

Whenever we say no to one way of life that we have long been used to, there is pain. But when the way of life is, in fact, a way of death, a way of war, the quicker we leave it the better. There is a condition that sometimes develops in our bodies called adhesions—parts of our internal organs become attached to other parts. The condition has to be corrected by a surgical procedure—a decisive intervention. The procedure hurts, but the results are healthy. As the Jerusalem Bible puts verses 3-4, “How will he [God] pay back the false oath of a faithless tongue? With war arrows hardened over red-hot charcoal!” Emily Dickinson’s spare sentence is an epigraph: “Renunciation—the piercing virtue!”

God’s arrows are judgments aimed at provoking repentance. The pain of judgment, called down against the evildoers could turn them also from their deceitful and violent ways to join our pilgrim on the way of peace. Any hurt is worth it that puts us on the path of peace, setting us free for the pursuit, in Christ, of eternal life. It is the action that follows the realization that history is not a blind alley, and guilt not an abyss. It is the discovery that there is always a way that leads out of distress—a way that begins in repentance, or turning to God. Whenever we find God’s people living in distress there is always someone who provides this hope-charged word, showing the reality of a different day: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians” (Is. 19:23-25). All Israel knew of Assyria was war—the vision shows them at worship. Repentance is the catalytic agent for the change. Dismay is transformed into what a later prophet would describe as gospel.

The whole history of Israel is set in motion by two such acts of world rejection, which freed the people for an affirmation of God: “the rejection of Mesopotamia in the days of Abraham and the rejection of Egypt in the days of Moses.” All the wisdom and strength of the ancient world was in Mesopotamia and Egypt. But Israel said no to it. Despite the prestige, the vaunted and uncontested greatness, there was something foundationally alien and false in those cultures: “I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war!” Mesopotamian power and Egyptian wisdom were strength and intelligence divorced from God, put to the wrong ends and producing all the wrong results.

Modern interpretations of history are variations on the lies of the Mesopotamians and Egyptians in which, as Abraham Heschel describes it, “man reigns supreme, with the forces of nature as his only possible adversaries. Man is alone, free, and growing stronger. God is either nonexistent or unconcerned. It is human initiative that makes history, and it is primarily by force that constellations change. Man can attain his own salvation.”

So Israel said no and became a pilgrim people, picking a path of peace and righteousness through the battlefields of falsehood and violence, finding a path to God through the labyrinth of sin.

We know that Israel, in saying that no, did not miraculously return to Eden and live in primitive innocence, or mystically inhabit a heavenly city and live in supernatural ecstasy. They worked and played, suffered and sinned in the world as everyone else did, and as Christians still do. But they were now going someplace—they were going to God. The truth of God explained their lives, the grace of God fulfilled their lives, the forgiveness of God renewed their lives, the love of God blessed their lives. The no released them to a freedom that was diverse and glorious. The judgment of God invoked against the people of Meshech and Kedar was, in fact, a sharply worded invitation to repentance, asking them to join in the journey.

Among the more fascinating pages of American history are those that tell the stories of the immigrants to these shores in the nineteenth century. Thousands upon thousands of people, whose lives in Europe had become mean and poor, persecuted and wretched, left. They had heard of a place where a new start could be made. They had gotten reports of a land where the environment was a challenge instead of an oppression. The stories continue to be told in many families, keeping alive the memory of the event that made an American out of what was a German or an Italian or Scot.

My grandfather left Norway eighty years ago in the midst of a famine. His wife and ten children remained behind until he could return and get them. He came to Pittsburgh and worked in the steel mills for two years until he had enough money to go back and get his family. When he returned with them he didn’t stay in Pittsburgh although it had served his purposes well enough the first time, but he traveled on to Montana, plunging into new land, looking for a better place.

In all these immigrant stories there are mixed parts of escape and adventure; the escape from an unpleasant situation; the adventure of a far better way of life, free for new things, open for growth and creativity. Every Christian has some variation on this immigrant plot to tell.

“Woe is 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.” But we don’t have to live there any longer. Repentance, the first word in Christian immigration, sets us on the way to traveling in the light. It is a rejection that is also an acceptance, a leaving that develops into an arriving, a no to the world that is a yes to God.

Providence – “Keep You from All Evil”

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From whence does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved,
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD is your keeper;
the LORD is your shade
on your right hand.
The sun shall not smite you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The LORD will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and for evermore. (Psalm 121)

But to deviate from the truth for the sake of some prospect of hope of our own can never be wise, however slight that deviation may be. It is not our judgement of the situation which can show us what is wise, but only the truth of the Word of God. Here alone lies the promise of God’s faithfulness and help. It will always be true that the wisest course for the disciple is always to abide solely by the Word of God in all simplicity. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The moment we say no to the world and yes to God all our problems are solved, all our questions answered, all our troubles over. Nothing can disturb the tranquility of the soul at peace with God. Nothing can interfere with the blessed assurance that all is well between me and my Savior. Nothing and no one can upset the enjoyable relationship which has been established by faith in Jesus Christ. We Christians are among that privileged company of persons who don’t have accidents, who don’t have arguments with our spouses, who aren’t misunderstood by our peers, whose children do not disobey us.

If any of those things should happen—a crushing doubt, a squall of anger, a desperate loneliness, an accident that puts us in the hospital, an argument that puts us in the doghouse, a rebellion that puts us on the defensive, a misunderstanding that puts us in the wrong—it is a sign that something is wrong with our relationship with God. We have, consciously or unconsciously, retracted our yes to God; and God, impatient with our fickle faith, has gone off to take care of someone more deserving of his attention.

Is that what you believe? If it is, I have some incredibly good news for you. You are wrong.

To be told we are wrong is sometimes an embarrassment, even a humiliation. We want to run and hide our heads in shame. But there are times when finding out we are wrong is sudden and immediate relief, and we can lift up our heads in hope. No longer do we have to keep doggedly trying to do something that isn’t working.

A few years ago I was in my backyard with my lawn mower tipped on its side. I was trying to get the blade off so that I could sharpen it. I had my biggest wrench attached to the nut, but couldn’t budge it. I got a four-foot length of pipe and slipped it over the wrench handle to give me leverage, and was leaning on that—still unsuccessfully. Next I took a large rock and was banging on the pipe. By this time I was beginning to get emotionally involved with my lawn mower. Then my neighbor walked over and said that he had a lawn mower like mine once and that, if he remembered correctly, the threads on the bolt went the other way. I reversed my exertions and, sure enough, the nut turned easily. I was glad to have been wrong. I was saved from frustration and failure. I would never have gotten the job done, no matter how hard I tried, doing it my way.

Psalm 121 is a quiet voice, gently and kindly telling us that we are, perhaps, wrong in the way we are going about the Christian life, and then, very simply, showing us the right way. As such it is the necessary sequel to the previous psalm which gets us started on the Christian way. It put a name to the confused and bewildering feelings of alienation and distrust that made us dissatisfied and restless in a way of life that ignores or rejects God, and prodded us into the repentance that renounces the “devil and all his works” and affirms the way of faith in Jesus Christ.

But no sooner have we plunged, expectantly and enthusiastically, into the river of Christian faith than we get our noses full of water and come up coughing and choking. No sooner do we confidently stride out on to the road of faith than we trip on an obstruction and fall to the hard surface, bruising our knees and elbows. For many, the first great surprise of the Christian life is in the form of troubles we meet. Somehow it is not what we had supposed: we had expected something quite different; we had our minds set on Eden or on New Jerusalem. We are rudely awakened to something very different and we look around for help, scanning the horizon for someone who will give us aid: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come?”

Psalm 121 is the neighbor coming over and telling us that we are doing it the wrong way, looking in the wrong place for help. Psalm 121 is addressed to those of us who, “disregarding God, gaze to a distance all around them, and make long and devious circuits in quest of remedies to their troubles.”

Travelers’ Advisory

Three possibilities for harm to travelers are referred to in the psalm. A person traveling on foot can, at any moment, step on a loose stone and sprain his ankle. A person traveling on foot, under the protracted exposure to a hot sun, can become faint with sunstroke. And a person traveling for a long distance on foot, under the pressures of fatigue and anxiety, can become emotionally ill, which was described by ancient writers as moonstroke (or by us as lunacy).

We can update the list of dangers. Provisions for law and order can break down with dismaying ease: a crazed person with a handgun or piece of explosive can turn the computerized travel plans of three hundred air passengers into instant anarchy. Disease can break through our pharmaceutical defenses and invade our bodies with crippling pain and death. An accident—in an automobile, from a step-ladder, on an athletic field—can without warning interrupt our carefully laid plans. We take precautions by learning safety rules, fastening our seat belts and taking out insurance policies. But we cannot guarantee security.

In reference to these hazards the psalm says, “He will not let your foot be moved.... The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night.” Are we to conclude then that Christians never sprain their ankles, never get sunstroke, never have any emotional problems? That is what it sounds like. Yet we know plenty of instances to the contrary. Some of the best Christians I know have sprained their ankles, have fainted, have been overwrought with anxiety. Put that way, either I’m wrong (these people I thought were Christians really weren’t and therefore the psalm doesn’t apply to them) or the psalm is wrong (God doesn’t do what the psalm claims).

Help from the Hills?

But neither the psalm nor our experience are so easily disposed of. A psalm which has enjoyed high regard among Christians so long, must have truth in it that is verified in Christian living. Let’s return to the psalm: the person set on the way of faith gets into trouble, looks around for help (“I lift up my eyes to the hills”) and asks a question: “From whence does my help come?” As this person of faith looks around at the hills for help, what is he, what is she, going to see?

Some magnificent scenery for one thing. Is there anything more inspiring than a ridge of mountains silhouetted against the sky? Does any part of this earth promise more in terms of majesty and strength, of firmness and solidity, than the mountains? But a Hebrew would see something else. During the time this psalm was written and sung, Palestine was overrun with popular pagan worship. Much of this religion was practiced on hilltops. Shrines were set up, groves of trees were planted, sacred prostitutes both male and female were provided; persons were lured to the shrines to engage in acts of worship that would enhance the fertility of the land, would make you feel good, would protect you from evil. There were nostrums, protections, spells and enchantments against all the perils of the road. Do you fear the sun’s heat? Go to the sun priest and pay for protection against the sun god. Are you fearful of the malign influence of moonlight? Go to the moon priestess and buy an amulet. Are you haunted by the demons that can use any pebble under your foot to trip you? Go to the shrine and learn the magic formula to ward off the mischief. From whence shall my help come? from Baal? from Asherah? from the sun priest? from the moon priestess?

They must have been a shabby lot: immoral, diseased, drunken—frauds and cheats all. The legends of Baal are full of the tales of his orgies, the difficulty of rousing him out of a drunken sleep to get his attention. Elijah taunting the priests of Baal (“Perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened,” 1 Kings 18:27) is the evidence. But shabby or not, they promised help. A traveler in trouble would hear their offer.

That is the kind of thing a Hebrew, set out on the way of faith twenty-five hundred years ago, would have seen on the hills. It is what disciples still see. A person of faith encounters trial or tribulation and cries out, “Help.” We lift our eyes to the hills, and offers of help, instant and numerous, appear. “From whence does my help come?” From the hills? No. “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

A look to the hills for help ends in disappointment. For all their majesty and beauty, for all their quiet strength and firmness, they are, finally, just hills. And for all their promises of safety against the perils of the road, for all the allurements of their priests and priestesses, they are, all, finally, lies. As Jeremiah put it: “Truly the hills are a delusion, the orgies on the mountains” (Jer. 3:23).

And so Psalm 121 says no. It rejects a worship of nature, a religion of stars and flowers, a religion that makes the best of what it finds on the hills; instead it looks to the Lord who made heaven and earth. Help comes from the Creator, not from the creation. The Creator is always awake: he will not slumber or sleep. Baal took long naps, and one of the jobs of the priests was to wake him up when someone needed his attention—and they were not always successful. The Creator is Lord over time: he “will keep your going out and your coming in,” your beginnings and your endings. He is with you when you set out on your way; he is still with you when you arrive at your destination. You don’t need to, in the meantime, get supplementary help from the sun or the moon. The Creator is Lord over all natural and supernatural forces: he made them. Neither sun, moon nor rocks have any spiritual power. They are not able to inflict evil upon us: we need not fear any supernatural assault from any of them. “The LORD will keep you from all evil.”

The promise of the psalm—and both Hebrews and Christians have always read it this way—is not that we shall never stub our toes, but that no injury, no illness, no accident, no distress will have evil power over us, that is, will be able to separate us from God’s purposes in us.

No literature is more realistic and honest in facing the harsh facts of life than the Bible. At no time is there the faintest suggestion that the life of faith exempts us from difficulties. What it promises is preservation from all the evil in them. On every page of the Bible there is recognition that faith encounters troubles. The sixth petition in the Lord’s Prayer is “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” That prayer is answered every day, sometimes many times a day, in the lives of those who walk in the way of faith. St. Paul wrote, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).

Five times in Psalm 121 God is referred to by the personal name LORD. Six times he is described as the keeper. He is not an impersonal executive that gives orders from on high; he is present help every step of the way we travel. Do you think the way to tell the story of the Christian way is to describe its trials and tribulations? It is not. It is to name and to describe God who preserves, accompanies and rules us.

All the water in all the oceans cannot sink a ship unless it gets inside. Nor can all the trouble in the world harm us unless it gets within us. That is the promise of the psalm: “The LORD will keep you from all evil.” Not the demon in the loose stone, not the fierce attack of the sun god, not the malign influence of the moon goddess—not any of these can separate you from God’s call and purpose. From the time of your repentance that got you out of Kedar and Meshech to the time of your glorification with the saints in heaven, you are safe: “The LORD will keep you from all evil.” None of the things that happen to you, none of the troubles you encounter, have any power to get between you and God, dilute his grace in you, divert his will from you (see Rom. 8:28, 31-32).

The only serious mistake we can make when illness comes, when anxiety threatens, when conflict disturbs our relationships with others is to conclude that God has gotten bored in looking after us and has shifted his attention to a more exciting Christian, or that God has become disgusted with our meandering obedience and decided to let us fend for ourselves for awhile, or that God has gotten too busy fulfilling prophecy in the Middle East to take time now to sort out the complicated mess we have gotten ourselves into. That is the only serious mistake we can make. It is the mistake that Psalm 121 prevents: the mistake of supposing that God’s interest in us waxes and wanes in response to our spiritual temperature.

The great danger of Christian discipleship is that we should have two religions: a glorious, biblical Sunday gospel that sets us free from the world, that in the cross and resurrection of Christ makes eternity alive in us, a magnificent gospel of Genesis and Romans and Revelation; and, then, an everyday religion that we make do with during the week between the time of leaving the world and arriving in heaven. We save the Sunday gospel for the big crises of existence. For the mundane trivialities—the times when our foot slips on a loose stone, or the heat of the sun gets too much for us, or the influence of the moon gets us down —we use the everyday religion of the Reader’s Digest reprint, advice from a friend, an Ann Landers column, the huckstered wisdom of a talk-show celebrity. We practice patent-medicine religion: we know that God created the universe and has accomplished our eternal salvation. But we can’t believe that he condescends to watch the soap opera of our daily trials and tribulations; so we purchase our own remedies for that. To ask him to deal with what troubles us each day is like asking a famous surgeon to put iodine on a scratch.

But Psalm 121 says that the same faith that works in the big things works in the little things. The God of Genesis 1 who brought light out of darkness is also the God of this day who keeps you from all evil.

Traveling Companion

The Christian life is not a quiet escape to a garden where we can walk and talk uninterruptedly with our Lord; not a fantasy trip to a heavenly city where we can compare our blue ribbons and gold medals with others who have made it to the winners’ circle. To suppose that, or to expect that, is to turn the nut the wrong way. The Christian life is going to God. In going to God Christians travel the same ground that everyone else walks on, breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop in the same stores, read the same newspapers, are citizens under the same governments, pay the same prices for groceries and gasoline, fear the same dangers, are subject to the same pressures, get the same distresses, are buried in the same ground.

The difference is that each step we walk, each breath we breathe, we know we are preserved by God, we know we are accompanied by God, we know we are ruled by God; and therefore no matter what doubts we endure or what accidents we experience, the Lord will preserve us from evil, he will keep our life. We know the truth of Luther’s hymn: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for Lo! his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.” We Christians believe that life is created and shaped by God and that the life of faith is a daily exploration of the constant and countless ways in which God’s grace and love are experienced.

Psalm 121, learned early and sung repeatedly in the walk with Christ, clearly defines the conditions under which we live out our discipleship, which, in a word, is God. Once we get this psalm in our hearts it will be impossible for us to gloomily suppose that being a Christian is an unending battle against ominous forces that at any moment may break through and overpower us. Faith is not a precarious affair of chance escape from satanic assaults. It is the solid, massive, secure experience of God who keeps all evil from getting inside us, who keeps our life, who keeps our going out and our coming in from this time forth and forever-more.

Worship – “Let Us Go to the House of the LORD!”

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the LORD.’”
Our feet have been standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem!

Jerusalem, built as a city
which is bound firmly together,
to which the tribes go up,
the tribes of the LORD,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
There thrones for judgment were set,
the thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
“May they prosper who love you!
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers!”
For my brethren and companions’ sake
I will say, “Peace be within you!”
For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I will seek your good. (Psalm 122)

There is something morally repulsive about modern activistic theories which deny contemplation and recognize nothing but struggle. For them not a single moment has value in itself, but is only a means for what follows. Nicholas Berdyaev

One of the afflictions of pastoral work has been to listen, with a straight face, to all the reasons people give for not going to church: “My mother made me when I was little.” “There are too many hypocrites in the church.” “It’s the only day I have to sleep in.” There was a time when I responded to such statements with simple arguments that exposed them as flimsy excuses. Then I noticed that it didn’t make any difference. If I showed the inadequacy of one excuse, three more would pop up in its place. So I don’t respond anymore. I listen (with a straight face) and go home and pray that that person will one day find the one sufficient reason for going to church, which is God. I go about my work hoping that what I do and say will be usable by the Holy Spirit to create in that person a determination to worship God in a Christian community.

Many people do: they decide to worship God, faithfully and devoutly. It is one of the important acts in a life of discipleship. And what is far more interesting than the reasons (excuses) people give for not worshiping, is discovering the reasons why they do.

Psalm 122 is the song of a person who decides to go to church and worship God. It is a sample of the complex, diverse and worldwide phenomenon of worship that is common to all Christians. It is an excellent instance of what happens when a person worships.

Psalm 122 is third in the sequence of the Psalms of Ascents. Psalm 120 is the psalm of repentance—the no that gets us out of an environment of deceit and hostility and sets us on our way to God. Psalm 121 is the psalm of trust— a demonstration of how faith resists patent-medicine remedies to trials and tribulations and determinedly trusts God to work out his will and “keep you from all evil” in the midst of difficulty. Psalm 122 is the psalm of worship—an example of what people of faith everywhere and always do: gather to an assigned place and worship their God.

An Instance of the Average

The first line catches many by surprise. “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ “ But it shouldn’t. Worship is the most popular thing that Christians do. A great deal of what we call Christian behavior has become part of our legal system and is embedded in our social expectations, both of which have strong coercive powers. If we removed all laws from society and eliminated all consequences for antisocial acts, we don’t know how much murder, how much theft, how much perjury and falsification would take place. But we do know that much of what we commonly describe as Christian behavior is not volitional at all—it is enforced.

But worship is not forced. Everyone who worships does so because he or she wants to. There are, to be sure, a few temporary coercions—children and spouses who attend church because another has decided that they must. But these coercions are short-lived, a few years at most. Most Christian worship is voluntary. An excellent way to test people’s values is to observe what we do when we don’t have to do anything, how we spend our leisure time, how we spend our extra money. Even in a time when church attendance is not considered to be on the upswing, the numbers are impressive. There are more people at worship on any given Sunday, for instance, than are at all the football games or on the golf links or fishing or taking walks in the woods. Worship is the single most popular act in this land.

So when we hear the psalmist say, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD,’ “ we are not listening to the phony enthusiasm of a propagandist drumming up business for worship; we are witnessing what is typical of most Christians in most places at most times. This is not an exception to which we aspire; it is an instance of the average.

A Framework

Why do we do it? Why is there so much voluntary and faithful worship by Christians? Why is it that we never find a Christian life without, in the background somewhere, an act of worship, never find Christian communities without also finding Christian worship? Why is it that worship is the common background to all Christian existence and that it is so faithfully and willingly practiced? The psalm singles out three items: worship gives us a workable structure for life; worship nurtures our needs to be in relationship with God; worship centers our attention on the decisions of God.

Worship gives us a workable structure for life. The psalm says, “Jerusalem, built as a city which is bound firmly together, to which the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD.” Jerusalem, for a Hebrew was the place of worship (only incidentally was it the geographical center of the country and the political seat of authority). The great worship festivals to which everyone came at least three times a year were held in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem everything that God said was remembered and celebrated. When you went to Jerusalem, you encountered the great foundational realities: God created you, God redeemed you, God provided for you. In Jerusalem you saw in ritual and heard proclaimed in preaching the powerful history-shaping truth that God forgives our sins and makes it possible to live without guilt and with purpose. In Jerusalem all the scattered fragments of experience, all the bits and pieces of truth and feeling and perception were put together in a single whole.

The King James Version translates this sentence, “Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together.” Earlier Coverdale had translated the phrase, “That is at unity with itself.” The city itself was a kind of architectural metaphor for what worship is: all the pieces of masonry fit compactly, all the building stones fit harmoniously. There were no loose stones, no leftover pieces, no awkward gaps in the walls or towers. It was well built, compactly built, skillfully built, “at unity with itself.”

What is true architecturally is also true socially, for the sentence continues, “... to which the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD.” In worship all the different tribes functioned as a single people in harmonious relationship. In worship though we have come from different places and out of various conditions, we are demonstrably after the same things, saying the same things, doing the same things. With all our differing levels of intelligence and wealth, background and language, rivalries and resentments, still, in worship we are gathered into a single whole. Outer quarrels and misunderstandings and differences pale into insignificance as the inner unity of what God builds in the act of worship is demonstrated.

When a person is confused and things refuse to fit together, he sometimes announces a need to get out of the noise and turbulence, to get away from all the hassle and “get my head together.” When he succeeds in doing this we call that person “put together.” All the parts are there, nothing is left out, nothing is out of proportion, everything fits into a workable frame.

As I entered a home to make a pastoral visit, the person I came to see was sitting at a window embroidering a piece of cloth held taut over an oval hoop. She said, “Pastor, while waiting for you to come I realized what’s wrong with me— I don’t have a frame. My feelings, my thoughts, my activities—everything is loose and sloppy. There is no border to my life. I never know where I am. I need a frame for my life like this one I have for my embroidery.”

How do we get that framework, that sense of solid structure so that we know where we stand and are therefore able to do our work easily and without anxiety? Christians go to worship: week by week we enter the place compactly built, “to which the tribes go up” and get a working definition for life: the way God created us, the ways in which he leads us. We know where we stand.

A Command

Another reason Christians keep returning to worship is that it nurtures our need to be in relationship with God. Worship is the place where we obey the command to praise God: “as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD.” This command runs right down the center of all Christian worship. A decree. A word telling us what we ought to do; and what we ought to do is praise.

When we sin and mess up our lives, we find that God doesn’t go off and leave us—he enters into our trouble and saves us. That is good, an instance of what the Bible calls gospel. We discover reasons and motivations for living in faith and find that God is already helping us to do it—and that is good. Praise God! “A Christian,” wrote Augustine, “should be an alleluia from head to foot.” That is the reality. That is the truth of our lives. God made us, redeems us, provides for us. The natural, honest, healthy, logical response to that is praise to God. When we praise we are functioning at the center, we are in touch with the basic, core reality of our being.

But very often we don’t feel like it, and so we say, “It would be dishonest for me to go to a place of worship and praise God when I don’t feel like it. I would be a hypocrite.” The psalm says, I don’t care whether you feel like it or not: as was decreed, “give thanks to the name of the LORD.”

I have put great emphasis on the fact that Christians worship because they want to, not because they are forced to. But I have never said that we worship because we feel like it. Feelings are great liars. If Christians only worshiped when they felt like it, there would be precious little worship that went on. Feelings are important in many areas, but completely unreliable in matters of faith. Paul Scherer is laconic: “The Bible wastes very little time on the way we feel.” We live in what one writer has called the “age of sensation.” We think that if we doritfeel something there can be no authenticity in doing it. But the wisdom of God says something different, namely, that we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker than we canfeel ourselves into a new way of acting. Worship is an act which develops feelings for God, not afeeling for God which is expressed in an act of worship. When we obey the command to praise God in worship, our deep, essential need to be in relationship with God is nurtured.

A Word of God

A third reason we keep engaging in regular acts of worship is that in it our attention is centered on the decisions of God. Our psalm describes worship as the place where “thrones for judgment were set, the thrones of the house of David.” The biblical word judgment means “the decisive word by which God straightens things out and puts things right.” Thrones of judgment are the places that that word is announced. Judgment is not a word about things, describing them; it is a word which does things, putting love in motion, applying mercy, nullifying wrong, ordering goodness. This word of God is everywhere in worship. In the call to worship we hear God’s first word to us; in the benediction we hear God’s last word to us; in the Scripture lessons we hear God speaking to our fathers; in the sermon we hear that word re-expressed to us; in the hymns, which are all to,a greater or lesser extent paraphrases of Scripture, the Word of God makes our prayers articulate. Every time we worship our minds are informed, our memories refreshed with the judgments of God, we are familiarized with what God says, what he has decided, the ways he is working out our salvation.

There is simply no place where these can be done as well as in worship. If we stay at home by ourselves and read the Bible, we are going to miss a lot, for our reading will be unconsciously conditioned by our culture, limited by our ignorance, distorted by unnoticed prejudices. In worship we are part of “the large congregation” where all the writers of Scripture address us, where hymn writers use music to express truths which touch us not only in our heads but in our hearts, where the preacher who has just lived through six days of doubt, hurt, faith and blessing with the worshipers, speaks the truth of Scripture in the language of the congregation’s present experience. We want to hear what God says and what he says to us: worship is the place where our attention is centered on these personal and decisive words of God.

Peace and Security

Worship, even for those who are most faithful at it, takes up a small percentage of a person’s life, an hour or so a week at most. Does it make any difference to the rest of the week? The final words of Psalm 122 say that it does: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! ‘May they prosper who love you! Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers!’ For my brethren and companions’ sake I will say, ‘Peace be within you!’ For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good.” Here we have prayers that overflow the bounds of worship and create new relationships in the city, in society.

The first word, pray, is a transition into the everyday world. It is not the word ordinarily used in formal worship, but the everyday Hebrew word for “ask.” It is not improperly translated “pray” for when we ask from God we pray. But the asking is not a formal prayer in the sanctuary; it is an informal asking as we go about our business between Sundays. It is the word Hebrews would use to ask for a second helping of potatoes if still hungry, or for directions if lost.

Worship does not satisfy our hunger for God—it whets our appetite. Our need for God is not taken care of by engaging in worship—it deepens. It overflows the hour and permeates the week. The need is expressed in a desire for peace and security. Our everyday needs are changed by the act of worship. We are no longer living from hand to mouth, greedily scrambling through the human rat race to make the best we can out of a mean existence. Our basic needs suddenly become worthy of the dignity of creatures made in the image of God: peace and security. The words shalom and shalvah, play on the sounds in Jerusalem, jerushalom, the place of worship.

Shalom, peace, is one of the richest words in the Bible. You can no more define it by looking up its meaning in the dictionary than you can define a person by his social security number. It gathers all aspects of wholeness that result from God’s will being completed in us. It is the work of God that, when complete, releases streams of living water in us and pulsates with eternal life. Every time Jesus healed, forgave or called someone, we have a demonstration of shalom.

And shalvah, security. It has nothing to do with insurance policies or large bank accounts or stockpiles of weapons. The root meaning is leisure—the relaxed stance of one who knows that everything is all right because God is over us, with us and for us in Jesus Christ. It is the security of being at home in a history that has a cross at its center. It is the leisure of the person who knows that every moment of our existence is at the disposal of God, lived under the mercy of God.

Worship initiates an extended, daily participation in peace and security so that we share in our daily rounds what God initiates and continues in Jesus Christ.

A Pause to Sharpen a Tool

We live in a pragmatic age and are reluctant to do anything if its practical usefulness cannot be demonstrated. It is inevitable that we ask regarding worship, is it worth it? Can you justify the time and energy and expense involved in gathering Christians together in worship? Well, “Look at the mower in the summer’s day, with so much to cut down ere the sun sets. He pauses in his labour—is he a sluggard? He looks for his stone, and begins to draw it up and down his scythe, with rink-atink, rink-atink, rink-atink. Is that idle music—is he wasting precious moments? How much he might have mowed while he has been ringing out those notes on his scythe! But he is sharpening his tool, and he will do far more when once again he gives his strength to those long sweeps which lay the grass prostrate in rows before him.”

Service – “Our Eyes Look to the LORD Our God”

To thee I lift up my eyes,
O thou who art enthroned
in the heavens!
Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
till he have mercy upon us.

Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Too long our soul has been sated
with the scorn of those who are at ease,
the contempt of the proud (Psalm 123)

As a person grows and matures in the Christian way, it is necessary to acquire certain skills. One is service. The skill is so difficult to acquire and liable to so many misunderstandings that it is necessary to single it out for special attention from time to time.

Psalm 123 is an instance of service. In this, as so often in the psalms, we are not instructed in what to do, we are provided an instance of what is done. A psalm is not a lecture; it is a song. In a psalm we have the observable evidence of what happens when a person of faith goes about the business of believing and loving and following God. We don’t have a rule book defining the action, we have a snapshot of the players playing the game. In Psalm 123 we observe that aspect of the life of discipleship that takes place under the form of a servant.

If God Is God at All

“To thee I lift up my eyes, O thou who art enthroned in the heavens!” Service begins with an upward look to God. God is over us. He is above us. The person of faith looks up to God, not at him or down on him. The servant assumes a certain posture, a stance. If he or she fails to take that posture, attentive responsiveness to the master’s commands will be hard.

It is easy to get the wrong idea, for when a person becomes a Christian there is a new sense of confident ability and assured power. Furthermore we are provided promises which tell us to go ahead: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Lk. 11:9). God presents himself to us in the history of Jesus Christ as a servant: with that before us it is easy to assume the role of master and begin ordering him around. God is not a servant to be called into action when we are too tired to do something ourselves, not an expert to be called on when we find we are ill equipped to handle a specialized problem in living. Paul Scherer writes scathingly of people who lobby around in the courts of the Almighty for special favors, plucking at his sleeve, pestering him with our requests. God is not a buddy that we occasionally ask to join us at our convenience or for our diversion. God did not become a servant so that we could order him around but so that we could join him in a redemptive lifestyle.

Too often we think of religion as a far-off, mysteriously run bureaucracy to which we apply for assistance when we feel the need. We go to a local branch office and direct the clerk (sometimes called a pastor) to fill out our order for God. Then we go home and wait for God to be delivered to us according to the specifications that we have set down. But that is not the way it works. And if we thought about it for two consecutive minutes, we would not want it to work that way. If God is God at all, he must know more about our needs than we do; if God is God at all, he must be more in touch with the reality of our thoughts, our emotions, our bodies than we are; if God is God at all, he must have a more comprehensive grasp of the interrelations in our families and communities and nations than we do.

“O thou who art enthroned in the heavens!” When the Bible uses that phrase, and it does use it frequently, it is not saying anything about geography or space. Biblical writers are neither geographers nor astronomers—they are theologians. They describe with profound accuracy the relation between God and persons like you and me, a relationship between the Creator and the creature; they coordinate our knowledge of the God who loves us with our experience of being loved; they tell the story of the God who leads us through difficulties and document it with our experience of being guided. We are not presented with a functional god who will help us out of jams or an entertainment god who will lighten tedious hours. We are presented with the God of exodus and Easter, the God of Sinai and Calvary. If we want to understand God, we must do it on his terms. If we want to see God the way he really is, we must look to the place of authority—to Scripture and to Jesus Christ.

And do we really want it any other way? I don’t think so. We would very soon become contemptuous of a god whom we could figure out like a puzzle or learn to use like a tool. No, if God is worth our attention at all, he must be a God we can look up to—a God we must look up to: “To thee I lift up my eyes, O thou who art enthroned in the heavens!”

The moment we look up to God (and not over at him, or down on him) we are in the posture of servitude.

“Have Mercy upon Me”

A second element in service has to do with our expectation. What happens when we look up to God in faith? There is an awesome mystery in God that we can never completely penetrate. We cannot define God; we cannot package God. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t know anything about God. It doesn’t mean that we are completely at sea with God, never knowing what to expect, nervously on edge all the time, wondering what he might do.

We know very well what to expect, and what we expect is mercy. Three times the expectation is articulated in Psalm 123: “Our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he have mercy upon us. Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us.”

The basic conviction of a Christian is that God intends good for us and that he will get his way in us. He does not treat us according to our deserts, but according to his plan. He is not a police officer on patrol, watching over the universe, ready to club us if we get out of hand or put us in jail if we get obstreperous. He is a potter, working with the clay of our lives, forming and reforming until, finally, he has shaped a redeemed life, a vessel fit for the kingdom.

“Have mercy upon us”: the prayer is not an attempt to get God to do what he is unwilling, otherwise, to do, but a reaching out to what we know that he does do, an expressed longing to receive what God is doing in and for us in Jesus Christ. In obedience we pray have mercy upon us instead of “give us what we want.” We pray have mercy upon us, and not “reward us for our goodness so our neighbors will acknowledge our superiority.” We pray have mercy upon us and not “punish us for our badness so we will feel better.” We pray have mercy upon us and not “be nice to us because we have been such good people.”

We live under the mercy. God does not treat us as alien others, lining us up so that he can evaluate our competence or our usefulness or our worth. He rules, guides, commands, loves us as children whose destinies he carries in his heart.

The word mercy means that the upward look to God in the heavens does not expect God to stay in the heavens, but to come down, to enter our condition, to accomplish the vast enterprise of redemption, to fashion, in us, his eternal salvation. “The root meaning ‘to stoop,’ ‘to be inclined,’ has been conjectured.” Servitude is not a vague woolgathering in the general direction of God and not a cringing, cowering terror under the lash of God. Servitude is specific in its expectation, and what it expects is mercy.

Urgent Service

A third element in the servant life is urgency: “Have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt. Too long our soul has been sated with the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud.”

The experience of servitude is recurrent through history. And the experience has never been happy. The psalmist lived in a culture in which the slave and the servant were institutionalized, as they have been at different times in world history. As far as we can tell, it has never worked very well. Power breeds oppression. Masters get lazy and become scornful of those under them. The cry “too long our soul has been sated with the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud” is believable. The psalm is part of a vast literature of outcry, a longing for deliverance from oppression.

We live in a similar slavery. True, we have, in our country, abolished the institutionalized forms of slavery and all but eliminated a servant class, but the experience of servitude is still among us and is as oppressive as ever. Freedom is on everyone’s lips. Freedom is announced and celebrated. But not many feel or act free. Evidence? We live in a nation of complainers and a society of addicts. Everywhere we turn we hear complaints: I can’t spend my money the way I want; I can’t spend my time the way I want; I can’t be myself; I’m under the control of others all the time. And everywhere we meet the addicts—addiction to alcohol and drugs, to compulsive work habits and to obsessive consumption. We trade masters; we stay enslaved.

The Christian is a person who recognizes that our real problem is not in achieving freedom but in learning service under a better master. The Christian realizes that every relationship that excludes God becomes oppressive. Recognizing and realizing that, we urgently want to live under the mastery of God.

For such reasons all Christian service involves urgency. Servitude is not a casual standing around waiting for orders. It is never desultory; it is urgent need: “Speak Lord, for thy servant hears.” And the gospel is the good news that the words of God, commanding new life in us, are already in our ears; “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Reasonable Service

The best New Testament commentary on this psalm is in the final section of Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapters 12-16. The section begins with this sentence: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (12:1). The psalm’s emphasis on actual, physical service (not a spiritual intention, not a desire to be of service) is picked up in the invitation to present our bodies. The motivation for service (not coerced, not demanded) is picked up in the phrase “by the mercy.” But most significant are the remarkable last two words, logiken latreian, which another translation renders “reasonable service.” Service, that is, that makes sense. The word latreia, means “service,” the work one does on behalf of the community. But it also is the base of our word liturgy, the service of worship which we render to God. And it is precisely that service that is logical, reasonable. That service we render to God (in worship) is extended into specific acts which serve others. We learn a relationship— an attitude toward life, a stance—of servitude before God, and then we are available to be of use to others in acts of service.

The psalm has nothing in it about serving others. It concentrates on being servant to God. Its position is that if the attitude of servanthood is learned, by attending to God as Lord, then serving others will develop as a very natural way of life. Commands will be heard to be hospitable, to be compassionate, to visit the sick, to help and to heal (commands which Paul assembles in Romans 12-16 and many other places) and carried out with ease and poise.

As we live out the implications of a life of service, we,are provided with continuous encouragement and example by Jesus Christ who said, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (Jn. 13:12-17).

The Freest Person on Earth

God’s people are everywhere and always encouraged to work for the liberation of others, helping to free them from every form of bondage—religious, economic, cultural, political—that sin uses to stunt or thwart or cramp their lives. The promises and fulfillments of freedom are antiphonal throughout Scripture. The glorious theme has extensive documentation in the lives of the people of God. But there are also, sadly, numerous instances in our society of persons who, having been given their freedom, have at once squandered it, using it as “an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal. 5:13), ending in a worse slavery. For freedom is the freedom to live as persons in love for the sake of God and neighbor, not a license to grab and push. It is the opportunity to live at our best, “little less than God” (Ps. 8:5), not as unruly beasts. The work of liberation must therefore be accompanied by instruction in the use of liberty as children of God who “walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). Those who parade the rhetoric of liberation but scorn the wisdom of service do not lead people into the glorious liberty of the children of God but into a cramped and covetous squalor.

As Psalm 123 prays the transition from oppression (“the contempt of the proud”) to freedom (“have mercy upon us”) to a new servitude (“as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master... so our eyes look to the LORD”), it puts us in the way of learning how to use our freedom most appropriately, under the lordship of a merciful God.

The consequences are all positive. I have never yet heard a servant Christian complain of the oppressiveness of his servitude. I have never yet heard a servant Christian rail against the restrictions of her service. A servant Christian is the freest person on earth.

Help – “We Have Escaped as a Bird from the Snare”

If it had not been the LORD who was on our side,
let Israel now say –
if it had not been the LORD who was on our side,
when men rose up against us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
the raging waters.

Blessed be the LORD,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth!
We have escaped as a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped!

Our help is in the name of the LORD,
who made heaven and earth (Psalm 124).

I was at a Red Cross bloodmobile to donate my annual pint, and being asked a series of questions by a nurse to see if there was any reason for disqualification. The final question on the list was, “Do you engage in hazardous work?” I said, “Yes.” She was interrupted from her routine and looked up, a little surprised, for I was wearing a clerical collar by which she could identify me as a pastor. Her hesitation was only momentary: she smiled, ignored my answer and marked the no on her questionnaire, saying, “I don’t mean that kind of hazardous.”

I would like to have continued the conversation, comparing what she supposed I meant by hazardous with what I did in fact mean by it. But that was not the appropriate time and place. There was a line of people waiting for their turn at the needle. There are, though, appropriate times and places for just such conversations, and one of them is when Christians encounter Psalm 124. Psalm 124 is a song of hazard—and of help. Among the Psalms of Ascents, sung by the people of God on the way of faith, this is one which better than any other describes the hazardous work of all discipleship and declares the help which is always experienced at the hand of God.

A Clerk in the Complaints Department of Humanity

The first lines of the psalm twice describe God as “the LORD who was on our side.” The last line is, “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” God is on our side. God is our help.

Statements like that are red flags to some people. They provoke challenges. I, confident and assured in the pulpit, can announce, “The Lord is on our side... . Our help is in the name of the Lord.” But no sooner am I out of the pulpit than someone is saying to me, “Look, I wish you would be a little more careful about your pronouns. How do you get this our... ? The Lord might be on your side, he might be your help. But he is notmine. Listen to this....” Through the week I get case histories of family tragedy and career disappointment, along with pessimistic recounts of world events. The concluding line is a variation on the theme: “How do you explain that, you who are so sure that God is on my side?”

I am put on the spot of being God’s defender. I am expected to explain God to his disappointed clients. I am thrust into the role of a clerk in the complaints department of humanity, asked to trace down bad service, listen sympathetically to aggrieved patrons, try to put right any mistakes that I can and apologize for the rudeness of the management.

But if I accept any of those assignments I misunderstand my proper work, for God doesn’t need me to defend him. He doesn’t need me for a press secretary, explaining to the world that he didn’t really say what everyone thought they heard in that interview with Job, or that the quotation of his word by St. Paul was taken out of context and needs to be understood against the background paper that Isaiah wrote.

The proper work for the Christian is witness, not apology, and Psalm 124 is an excellent model. It does not argue God’s help; it does not explain God’s help; it is a testimony of God’s help in the form of a song. The song is so vigorous, so confident, so bursting with what can only be called reality, that it fundamentally changes our approach and our questions. No longer does it seem of the highest priority to ask, “Why did this happen to me? Why do I feel left in the lurch?” Instead we ask, “How does it happen that there are people who sing with such confidence, ‘God is our help’?” The psalm is data that must be accounted for and the data are so solid, so vital, have so much more substance and are so much more interesting than the other things we hear through the day that it must be dealt with before we can go back to the whimpering complaints.

“If it had not been the LORD who was on our side, let Israel now say—if it had not been the LORD who was on our side, when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us; then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us; then over us would have gone the raging waters.” The witness is vivid and contagious. One person announces the theme, everyone joins in. God’s help is not a private experience; it is a corporate reality— not an exception that occurs among isolated strangers, but the norm among the people of God.

God’s help is described by means of two illustrations. The people were in danger of being swallowed up alive; and they were in danger of being drowned by a flood. The first picture is of an enormous dragon or sea monster. Nobody has ever seen a dragon, but everybody (especially children) knows they exist. Dragons are projections of our fears, horrible constructions of all that might hurt us. A dragon is total evil. A peasant confronted by a magnificent dragon is completely outclassed. There is no escape: the dragon’s thick skin, fiery mouth, lashing serpentine tail, and insatiable greed and lust sign an immediate doom. The second picture, that of the flood, is a picture of sudden disaster. In the Middle East, watercourses which have eroded the countryside are all interconnected by an intricate, gravitational system. A sudden storm fills these little gullies with water, they feed into one another, and in a very few minutes a torrential flash flood is produced. Persons who live in these desert areas are endangered during the rainy season by such unannounced catastrophies. There is no escaping. One minute you are well and happy and making plans for the future; the next minute the entire world is disarranged by a catastrophe.

The psalmist is not a person talking about the good life, how God has kept him out of all difficulty. This person has gone through the worst—the dragon’s mouth, the flood’s torrent—and finds himself intact. He was not abandoned but helped. The final strength is not in the dragon or in the flood but in “the LORD who was on our side.”

We can, of course, avoid dealing with this by employing a cheap back-of-the-hand cynicism. It is inevitable, in one sense, that we should respond with some cynicism to enthusiasm. Advertisers are routinely so dishonest with us that we train ourselves to keep our distance from any who speak with passion and excitement for fear they will manipulate us. We see Pete Rose or Robert Young or Joe Dimaggio speaking on behalf of a product and inwardly discount the witness; we know the words were written by a highly paid copywriter and that the testimonial was done for a handsome fee. In the midst of that kind of world we come on the lines, “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side, when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us up alive,...” and we say, “Vigorous poetry! Well done! But who was your copywriter, and how much did they pay you to say it?”

The only cure for that kind of cynicism is to bring it out in the open and deal with it. If it is left to work behind the scenes in our hearts, it is a parasite on faith, enervates hope and leaves us anemic in love. Don’t hesitate to put the psalm (or any other Scripture passage) under the searchlight of your disbelief! The reason many of us do not ardently believe in the gospel is that we have never given it a rigorous testing, thrown our hard questions at it, faced it with our most prickly doubts.

Subjected to our most relentless and searching criticism, Psalm 124 will, I think, finally convince us of its honesty. There is no literature in all the world that is more true to life and more honest than the Psalms, for here we have warts-and-all religion. Every skeptical thought, every disappointing venture, every pain, every despair that we can face is lived through and integrated into a personal, saving relationship with God, which relationship also has in it acts of praise, blessing, peace, security, trust and love.

Good poetry survives not when it is pretty or beautiful or nice but when it is true: accurate and honest. The Psalms are great poetry and have lasted not because they appeal to our fantasies and our wishes but because they are confirmed in the intensities of honest and hazardous living. Psalm 124 is not a selected witness, inserted like a commercial into our lives to testify that life goes better with God; it is not part of a media blitz to convince us that God is superior to all the other gods on the market. It is not a press release but honest prayer.

The people who know this psalm best and who have tested it out and used it often (that is, the people of God who are travelers on the way of faith, singing it in all kinds of weather) tell us that it is credible, that it fits into what we know of life lived in faith.

Hazardous Work

Christian discipleship is hazardous work. I hope the Red Cross nurse did not think that I was referring to my pastoral work as hazardous. My work, as such, is no more difficult than anyone else’s. Any work done faithfully and well is difficult. It is no harder for me to do my job well than for any other person, and no less. There are no easy tasks in the Christian way; there are only tasks which can be done faithfully or erratically, with joy or resentment. And there is no room for any of us, pastors or grocers, accountants or engineers, typists or gardeners, physicians or teamsters, to speak in tones of self-pity of the terrible burdens of our work.

What is hazardous in my life is my work as a Christian. Every day I put faith on the line. I have never seen God. In a world where nearly everything can be weighed, explained, quantified, subjected to psychological analysis and scientific control I persist in making the center of my life a God whom no eye hath seen, nor ear heard, whose will no one can probe. That’s a risk.

Every day I put hope on the line. I don’t know one thing about the future. I don’t know what the next hour will hold. There may be sickness, personal or world catastrophe. Before this day is over I may have to deal with death, pain, loss, rejection. I don’t know what the future holds for me, for those whom I love, for my nation, for this world. Still, despite my ignorance and surrounded by tinny optimists and cowardly pessimists, I say that God will accomplish his will and cheerfully persist in living in the hope that nothing will separate me from Christ’s love.

Every day I put love on the line. There is nothing I am less good at than love. I am far better in competition than in love. I am far better at responding to my instincts and ambitions to get ahead and make my mark than I am at figuring out how to love another. I am schooled and trained in acquisitive skills, in getting my own way. And yet, I decide, every day, to set aside what I can do best and attempt what I do very clumsily—open myself to the frustrations and failures of loving, daring to believe that failing in love is better than succeeding in pride.

All that is hazardous work; I live on the edge of defeat all the time. I have never done any one of those things to my (or anyone else’s) satisfaction. I live in the dragon’s maw and at the flood’s edge. “How very hard it is to be/A Christian! Hard for you and me.”

The psalm, though, is not about hazards but about help. The hazardous work of discipleship is not the subject of the psalm but only its setting. The subject is help: “Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as prey to their teeth! We have escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped! Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” Hazards or no hazards, the fundamental reality we live with is “The LORD who was on our side.... Our help is in the name of the LORD.”

When we are first in it, our consciousness of hazard is total: like a bird trapped in a snare. All the facts add up to doom. There is no way out. And then, unaccountably, there is a way out. The snare breaks and the bird escapes. Deliverance is a surprise. Rescue is a miracle. “Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as prey to their teeth!”

How God wants us to sing like this! Christians are not fussy moralists who cluck their tongues over a world going to hell; Christians are people who praise the God who is on our side. Christians are not pious pretenders in the midst of a decadent culture; Christians are robust witnesses to the God who is our help. Christians are not fatigued outcasts who carry righteousness as a burden in a world where the wicked flourish; Christians are people who sing “Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as prey to their teeth!”

Enlarged Photographs of Ordinary Objects

The final sentence, “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth,” links the God who created heaven and earth to the God who helps us personally. It takes the majesty of the one who pulled a universe into order and beauty, and finds this God involved in the local troubles of a quite ordinary person.

A friend showed me a series of pictures that he had taken. The subject matter consisted exclusively of household items found in an ordinary kitchen: a match stick, a pin, the edge of a knife. Household utensils are not ordinarily thought of as possessing much beauty, but all of these photographs of very ordinary objects were quite astonishingly beautiful. The beauty was suddenly visible because the photographs had all been made through a magnifying lens. Small, ugly, insignificant items were blown into great size and we could see what we had overlooked in our everyday routine. And it turned out that what we had overlooked was careful, planned details which produced exquisite beauty.

I remember particularly well the photograph of a highly magnified brillo pad. Nothing in the kitchen seems quite as ordinary or quite as lacking in aesthetic appeal. When possible we keep them hidden under the sink. No one would think of hanging one on a nail or hook for people to admire. Yet under magnification the brillo pad is one of the most beautiful of kitchen items. The swirl of fine wire is pleasing to the eye. The colors of blue fade in and out of the soap film. What we assume is not worth looking at twice, and best kept in an obscure place, is, on examination, a beautiful construction.

Psalm 124 is a magnification of the items of life that are thought to be unpleasant, best kept under cover, best surrounded with silence lest they clutter our lives with unpleasantness: the dragon’s mouth, the flood’s torrent, the snare’s entrapment; suffering, catastrophe, disaster. They are a very real part of life, and they constitute a dominating, fearful background for many. We look for relief among experts in medicine and psychology, and go to museums to get a look at beauty. Psalm 124 is an instance of a person who digs deeply into the trouble and finds there the presence of the God who is on our side. In the details of the conflict, the majestic greatness of God becomes revealed in the minuteness of a personal history. Faith develops out of the most difficult aspects of our existence, not the easiest. The person of faith is not a person who has been born, luckily, with a good digestion and sunny disposition. The assumption by outsiders that Christians are naive or protected is the opposite of the truth: Christians know more about the deep struggles of life than others, more about the ugliness of sin.

A look into the heavens can bring a breathtaking sense of wonder and majesty, and, if a person is a believer, a feeling of praise to the God who made heaven and earth. The psalm looks the other direction. It looks into the troubles of history, the anxiety of personal conflict and emotional trauma. And it sees there the God who is on our side, God our help. The close look, the microscopic insight into the dragon’s terrors, the flood’s waters and the imprisoning trap, sees the action of God in deliverance.

We speak our words of praise in a world that is hellish; we sing our songs of victory in a world where things get messy; we live our joy among people who neither understand nor encourage us. But the content of our lives is God, not man. We are not scavenging in the dark alleys of the world, poking in its garbage cans for a bare subsistence. We are traveling in the light, toward God who is rich in mercy and strong to save. It is Christ, not culture, that defines our lives. It is the help we experience, not the hazards we risk, that shape our days.