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“Every Journey”

Psalm 120
Bob DeGray
May 12, 2002

Key Sentence

Distress with this world rouses us to move toward God.


I. A cry to God (Psalm 120:1)
II. Surrounded by Lies (Psalm 120:2-4)
III. Far Away from Home (Psalm 120:5-7)


        One of the opening scenes of “Shadowlands” shows C. S. Lewis, an Oxford college professor, lecturing in a large Anglican church to a group of mostly elderly ladies. His subject is the problem of pain. He describes what must have been a well known incident in England, in which a bus drove into a column of young Royal Marines and killed 24 of them, and then he asks questions like “where was God on that December 9th? Why didn’t he stop it? Isn’t God supposed to be good? Isn’t he supposed to love us? And does God want us to suffer?”

        Then Lewis goes back behind the podium and says “What if the answer to that question is yes? You see I’m not sure that God particularly wants us to be happy. He wants us to be able to love and be loved. He wants us to grow up. I suggest to you that it is because God loves us that he makes us the gift of suffering. We are like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel, which hurt us so much are what make us perfect.

        Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well. We find God an interruption. As St. Augustine says somewhere, "God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full__there's nowhere for Him to put it." While "our own life" remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do on our behalf but make our lives less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible sources of false happiness? The satisfied life stands between us and the recognition of our need; so he makes this life less sweet to us through pain. We can rest content in our sins and our stupidities, but pain insists upon being attended to, God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” “Pain is God’s megaphone” - it’s probably one of Lewis’s most famous sayings and it reflects a truth that we can observe over and over again in Scripture - that distress with this world rouses us to move toward God.

        Psalm 120 starts with a very brief explanation of itself. It says ‘song for going up’. So do each of the following 14 Psalms, ending at Psalm 134. It is these fifteen ‘songs for going up,’ the Psalms of Ascent, that we’ll be studying for the next several months. We’ll find that they’re about discipleship, about pilgrimage, about dependance on God and walking with God, all themes we touched on in our just completed series in Hebrews. Here we’ll explore them a little more deeply and a little more slowly.

        Eugene Peterson wrote a book more than twenty years ago about these Psalms of Ascent. The book is good, but the title, which he actually stole from Freidrich Nietzsche, is better. It’s called ‘A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.’

        That’s the story of our Christian lives, or should be. We are to embark on ‘A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.’ - and the direction of this obedient journey is toward God. These Psalms will help us, in both practical and motivational ways, to move toward God in daily life. But where do we start such a journey or pilgrimage? There is wisdom in the old Chinese proverb which says every journey begins with but a single step. Maybe there is just as much wisdom in a proverb I’m coining right here and now, that every journey begins with getting up off your seat.

        Psalm 120, the first Psalm in this series, is the testimony of one man who got up off his seat because God got his attention. How? Through the megaphone of pain: through distress and through a growing sense of the evil of the world and his distance from God. As Peterson says in his book “A person has to be thoroughly disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way.” It is distress with this world that rouses us to move toward God.

I. A cry to God (Psalm 120:1)

        Like some other Biblical writers, the author of this Psalm, whose name is not known, begins his meditation not with a statement of the problem, but of the practical solution. The first response to a feeling of distance from God is to cry out to him. Psalm 120, verse 1: I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me.

        Hebrew is a very economical language: this verse contains only five Hebrew words. The first is “Unto the Lord.” Possibly the most important and practical principal of this Psalm is that in times of distress, trial, suffering, temptation, weariness or despair the right thing to do is turn to the Lord, not away from him. This first became a clear principle for me when at seminary, while I was serving as interim pastor at an Evangelical Free Church near our home in Illinois. At some point in that year of interim ministry, a man I didn’t know died of lung disease. He and his wife had only come to church a few times, though they were good friends with one of our families. But it wasn’t clear to me or to those who were closer to them, that this man had had any real relationship with Jesus. So I had to preach my first funeral sermon about someone I didn’t know and whose salvation was questionable.

        What was I supposed to say? The first thought that came to me was something one of my professors had said: funerals are for the living, not for the dead. I didn’t know and couldn’t change the state of this man’s soul: I could only speak to those who remained - his wife and children. Then it occurred to me that I ought to make clear that this death gave every grieving person two choices - to turn to God or to turn away from God. If in this moment of need they turned to God, he would surely meet them in their need. If in this moment they turned away from God in despair, the good that he planned might never happen. The great thing is that God did draw that widow into a relationship with Jesus, not through my words but because she was open to the caring of God’s people. The right response to distress, to grief, to difficulty is to say ‘unto you O Lord’. That’s what the Psalmist says first.

        The second word in this verse is translated “in my distress.” The Psalmist turns to God in the middle of disaster. He doesn’t wait until it is resolved. He doesn’t downplay it or minimize it. This is a second key and practical point. Don’t wait. God is not offended by your emotions. God would rather have you come to him in anger, in despair, in sadness, in woe, in tiredness, in guilt, in shame than not to come at all, or to minimize the truth of these emotions. God cares about you, not about some mask that you wear or some wall that you hide behind. If you are in any kind of distress right now, then right now is the time to turn to him. Remember what Jesus said: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy_laden, and I will give you rest.”

        The problem is that distress tends to narrow our focus, to sap our energies, to disable our hearts even from reaching for God. That’s what Satan intends for it to do. Ask yourself, who really wants you to be miserable? Is it God or is it Satan? God may bring distress on us, but he does so to draw us to himself. Satan, on the other hand, would love to see us wallow in our distress, grow hopeless and helpless in our distress, turn away from God in our distress. We need to convince ourselves that especially in the middle of trouble God wants us to cling to him.

        In fact he wants us to call to him. The verse literally says “Unto the Lord, in my distress, to him I call.” ‘Call’ is a very common Hebrew word which can be translated in English by words like scream, cry out, cry, summon, invite, proclaim and even read. Here it is clearly at the intense end of that range of meanings: to him I cry. Sometimes this will be the wordless cry of true grief, but often I think it is both healthy and helpful to put words to the cry. “Here’s what I’m feeling God.” Remember, God isn’t scared of our emotions, and its good for us to get those things into words - to keep trying different ways of expressing things until something resonates with our soul. That’s one of the ways God uses to give us insight into the things we’re going through.

        Those are the first four words: “Unto the Lord. . . In my distress . . . to Him. . . I cry” . . . and you can guess what the last one is: ‘And he answers me.’ God answers. He always hears our cry, and even if our circumstances do not change, or do not change immediately, even if they get worse, he always answers. You’ve seen the billboards around town that say ‘God listens’. That’s true, he does: but more than that; he gives a personal reply at the soul level, not with a billboard or a broadcast or one answer fits all, but through the personal work of the Holy Spirit in my heart to custom fit God’s written word to my personal need. Scripture is what my soul needs to hear, but the Spirit gives it and applies it to meet my need.

        So here’s a practical application of the text, before we get to the underlying circumstances. “Unto the Lord, in your distress, cry out, and he will answer.” It can’t be any simpler. All you have to do is cry out to the Lord in the midst of your distress, and then expect to find his answer through Scripture that speaks with the Spirit’s power.

        I don’t know what your distress is, and I won’t eavesdrop on your cry, and I don’t know exactly how God will answer. But I can tell you that this is what you need to do, in any situation, in every situation, over and over in your Christian life. “Unto the Lord, in your distress, cry out, and he will answer.”

II. Surrounded by Lies (Psalm 120:2-4)

        The next issue is: what circumstances caused the Psalmist distress, and what causes ours? Verses 2 to 4 show us that the Psalmist was distressed because he was surrounded by lies. Verse 2: Save me, O Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues. 3What will he do to you, and what more besides, O deceitful tongue? 4He will punish you with a warrior's sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom tree.

        Save me O Lord from lying lips and deceitful tongues. You and I have experienced this cause of distress. It comes in three forms: the lies our culture tells us, the lies others tell to and about us, and the lies we tell ourselves. Eugene Peterson captures the first category when he says “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 humanists who only pretend to promote me to the office of captain of my fate. Rescue me from the person who is wise in the ways of the world but ignores Christ.

        Our whole culture tells these lies: ‘who says you can’t have it all,’ ‘watch out for number one,’ ‘be all that you can be’ We’re taught that more money, new partners, better breath and whiter teeth will give us what we think we’ve been missing. And who is behind these lies? Satan, of course. I don’t believe Satan spends a lot of time tormenting individuals, though some of his demons might. But Satan spends his time trying to twist the cultures of the world so that more and more people live by lies, and fewer and fewer are able to recognize the truth when it is spoken. One powerful example is the lie that a person’s religion and morality ought to be something private and personal, not discussed, promoted or imposed on anyone else. Do you believe this lie, even a little bit? If you do, you don’t believe the Bible when it says that Jesus is good news of great joy to all people. Now I’m not saying Christians should be obnoxious or strut their religion like peacocks. There is an element of truth in every good lie, and Jesus condemns those who do their religion to be seen by men. But to accept that you and I cannot express Christian views or share Christian faith in public is to reject the central importance of the good news.

        Satan tells us lies through our culture. More painful than that, though, is when others lie to us. If you are anything like me, you are not a big fan of being lied to. I’ve been in counseling situations where people have looked me dead in the eye and lied to me. Even without sure knowledge that it was a lie, this is tremendously frustrating.

        Even more frustrating is to be lied about. You all know how this works: nothing is said that could clearly be called untrue, but the inferences that are drawn or implied from the facts are anything but true. Alfred Lord Tennyson once said “a lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies, A lie which is all a lie may be met and fought with outright, but a lie which is part a truth is a harder matter to fight.”

        The lies of our culture and the lies against us can be devastating, but there is a third kind that causes equal damage. This is the lie that we tell to ourselves. Way, way too often we tell ourselves lies and half-truths to justify any behavior that deep down we know was wrong. “I normally wouldn’t have done something like that, but he just made me so mad I couldn’t help myself!” Lie - you made a choice. “I know I shouldn’t look at these things or dwell on illicit thoughts, but I’m too tired to avoid it.” Lie - if you’re tired, sleep. “I didn’t mean anything by my comment, I’m just more outspoken than most people.” Lie - your natural inclinations do not give you an excuse to be nasty. Or the classic “I’m not addicted - I can quit any time.” Sure - show me. It goes on and on: we tell ourselves lies so we can excuse what we ought to change. We need to be willing to God about these lies as well as lies directed against us - we often need God to rescue us from ourselves.

        Even verses 3 and 4 could be the psalmist warning himself as well as others. “What will he do to you, and what more besides, O deceitful tongue? 4He will punish you with a warrior's sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom tree.” He reminds himself and those who oppose him that God does judge lies and deceit. The images are graphic. Imagine for a moment your tongue pierced by an arrow. A painful thought. A punishment guaranteed to cure the tongue of lies. In the same way, a tongue touched by burning coals would be seared against further deceit. The coals of the broom tree were especially hot - prized for charcoal. Like the hot coal in the angel’s hand in Isaiah’s vision, they would sear the unclean tongue and lips.

III. Far Away from Home (Psalm 120:5-7)

        So what causes distress? It is partially the deceitful world we live in, where relationships are never all that you hoped, and where lies permeate our culture, our dealings with people and even our hearts. In such a world of sin, where the best of intentions is never wholly pure, we should cry out to God. We should feel distressed, and we should look to God for the answer. The last few verses identify another cause of distress - living far from God. Psalm 120, verses 5 to 7: Woe to me that I dwell in Meshech, that I live among the tents of Kedar! 6Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. 7I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war.

        Meshech and Kedar are place names, but in this Psalm they are symbols of distance from God. Meshech was far to the north of Israel on the far side of Babylon, near present day Russia. Kedar, on the other hand, was south of Israel on the Arabian peninsula, inhabited from time immemorial by the Beduoin, who were viciously hostile to the people of Israel. So Meshech and Kedar represent distance and danger.

        Distance from God is one of the painful things he sometimes uses to get our attention. The Psalms of Ascent are the chronicle of a pilgrim who starts his journey in a strange land, longing for his home. In the same way, as we dwell in this land of lies, in the world that Satan influences, in the midst of excruciating temptations and dramatic human weakness, we frequently come to the realization that where we live is far from God. For the person who has not yet trusted Jesus as his or her Savior, this realization is the first step toward repentance. “I’m far away from God and I’m headed the wrong direction, and I need to turn from what I’m doing.”

        Sometimes even as believers we need to repent this way and turn back to God. At other times, even when headed in the right direction, we as believers will still feel homesickness for a place we’ve never been, for a person we’ve never seen face to face. God is always with us and yet anyplace in this world is distant from God. We are dwelling in Meshech, and like the psalmist we need to use that truth as motivation for the journey.

        Kedar represents danger. Our distance from God puts us in a dangerous place, a place of temptations, a place of wandering paths and supernatural attacks. This world is not a safe place for believers - far too often we succumb to the attacks of the enemy and give in to the sin and despair he peddles. Sexual sin, financial sin, relational sin, character sin and selfishness of all sorts threaten to cripple us for the journey. Like the runners we heard about while studying Hebrews, it is not all that uncommon for believers to finish the race crippled or injured or exhausted. It doesn’t have to be that way, it isn’t always that way, but there are many dangers on the path, and you and I know believers who have fallen into those dangers, to their sorrow, and to the hurt of those around them.

        Distance and danger are aggravated by delay in getting clear of the distress. “Too long have I dwelt among those who hate peace.” Many people are in difficult situations that drag on for years. The cancer that goes into remission but continues to be a specter over a man’s life - and the life of his family. The spouse who you pray for over and over but who never really repents of cruelty and anger. The child who brings anguish to your heart by foolish and dangerous choices. The financial precipice that you can never quite step away from no matter how hard you try. “Too long, Lord, too long have I lived without peace. I long for more of you, for more of the peace that is supposed to fill my heart.” This pain too is God’s megaphone to rouse us toward him, to teach the value of crying out in our distress.

        Finally, distance and danger and delay are capped by discord. “I live among those who hate peace - though I would love it, there are those around me who constantly disturb it, who arm themselves for war.” Once again, I would like us to look both externally and internally for these warlike enemies. In both places we can easily find someone who would rather be in conflict than content and at peace.

        Chuck Yeager, the famous fighter and test pilot, used to travel on behalf of the Air Force with Jacqueline Cochran, a pioneer of female and civil aviation. Cochran, who was immensely rich, was one of those people who could not stand a peaceful moment. Yeager reports that if ever anything was going too smoothly, from a round-the- world trip to dinner at a restaurant, Cochran would find something to raise hell about and thoroughly shame and embarrass somebody before the day was over. You’ve known people who didn’t seem happy unless they were making somebody miserable. Their disturbance and conflict add noticable stress to our pilgrim lives.

        But this enemy can also be within. Part of you wants peace, but part of you is at war with yourself. Part of you wants to be kind and caring, but part of you just doesn’t care, or part of you flares up with anger. In your consciousness of God you want to be pure, but lust is a powerful enemy within that shatters your peace. You don’t want to go into debt, but there is always something more that has to be bought, something more that has to be regretted when the bills come due.

        I don’t think the psalmist was finding all his enemies within, and there is certainly enough opposition in the lies our culture teaches and in the disturbers of our peace. But I think looking within is a legitimate application of these verses. In fact, I’d encourage you to generalize these verses. The lies, the distance, danger, delay and disturbance are only examples of this category called distress. Your distress may focus elsewhere - it may principally come from the sinful nature that rises up within you. It may principally come from a difficult work or financial or relational situation. It may principally come from the sickness and suffering of a loved one, or from your own chronic warfare with physical pain. All of these are distress.

        Therefore, and in conclusion, what do we need to do? We need to circle back to the answer the Psalmist gave in the first verse, before he’d even described the problem. Those five Hebrew words. “Unto the Lord. . . In my distress . . . to Him. . . I cry . . . and he answers me.” Distress in this world rouses us to move toward God. Distress, at its best and finest, helps us to recognize our distance from God and causes us to cry out to him. These Psalms of ascent are going to take us on a pilgrimage into God’s presence. But we already know in a very practical way how to start. “Unto the Lord” - and no one else. “In my distress” - not waiting until its over. “I cry out” - I expose to him the need of my heart. “And He answers me” - he never fails to answer, on the heart level the sincere cry of his children.

        Every journey starts with a single step. Maybe every journey starts when God sends a bit of pain to us in the place we’re seated. Pain is his megaphone. Distress rouses us. If we remember to turn to God when roused, to cry out to God in distress, he will not fail to answer us. We’ll begin to see his special provision for us next week.