For Peace

Scripture: Psalm 120

 

Title: For Peace

 

Structure:

  • Introduction
  • Distress
  • Decision
  • Conclusion

 

Introduction:

A number of you would have travelled away for the holidays – perhaps spending many hours in the car on the way

–         One of the things that helps on a long road trip is having some music to listen to

–         When our kids were younger we listened to a lot of High 5 and Wiggles music. Now though it’s more like Ed Sheeran and Adele

 

In ancient Israel people tended to go on road trips each year to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the three main religious festivals

–         They didn’t have CD players or MP3’s on their donkeys back then but they did have a special collection of 15 songs they would sing on the road

–         They called this album the Songs of Ascents – which we know as Psalms 120 to 134

 

The word ‘Ascent’ has to do with moving upward

–         The temple in Jerusalem was on a hill – so the pilgrims were physically ascending (or moving upwards) as they made their way to the temple

–         And, at the same time, they were drawing closer to God

 

In April this year we will celebrate Easter

–         Easter is the main festival for Christians , alongside Christmas and Pentecost

–         The plan, over the next couple of months, is to explore these Songs of Ascents as we journey toward Easter, beginning this morning with psalm 120. From the NIV we read…

 

I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me. Save me, O Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues. What will he do to you, and what more besides, O deceitful tongue? He will punish you with a warrior’s sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom tree.

 

Woe to me that I dwell in Meshech, that I live among the tents of Kedar! Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war. 

 

May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this psalm for us

 

There’s a great clip in the film Jerry McGuire where Jerry is on a road trip searching for the perfect song

–         Eventually he finds Tom Petty’s song, Free Falling

 

In the context of the movie Jerry was a sports agent

–         His job was to manage sporting stars – getting them lucrative contracts and endorsement deals

–         But Jerry became tired of the falseness and deceit in his line of work – he felt jaded

–         One night he has an epiphany and writes a new mission statement for the company – essentially…

–         Fewer clients, less money, better quality relationships, really caring for the people we represent

–         And he called his mission statement: The things we think but do not say

 

Jerry was being honest with those around him

–         Unfortunately they weren’t so honest with him

–         To his face they were nice enough but behind his back they plotted to get rid of him

–         Eventually he was fired and they stole all his clients, all but one

 

The scene we just saw came after Jerry had been fired and as he was starting out again from scratch

–         For Jerry McGuire Tom Petty’s Free Falling was (ironically) a kind of song of Ascents

–         It was about being set free and rising above

 

The writer of Psalm 120 reminds me a little bit of Jerry McGuire

–         Like Jerry he is lied about and deceived by his neighbours

–         And like Jerry he doesn’t follow their lead

–         He deals straight and stands apart from them

 

Distress:

Psalm 120 begins in a very personal way

–         The pilgrim says, “I call on the Lord in my distress…”

 

The word for distress here carries the idea (in Hebrew) of being in a narrow or confined space – the psalmist feels trapped [1]

–         In particular he is trapped by the lying lips and deceitful words of those around him

–         He can’t trust those around him because they are out to ruin his good name

 

Jesus faced this very thing from time to time in his interaction with the Pharisees

–         In Matthew 22 we read how the Pharisees sent some of their own to try and trap Jesus by asking him a question

–         They said, “Teacher, we know that you tell the truth. You teach the truth about God’s will for man, without worrying about what people think, because you pay no attention to man’s status. Tell us then, what do you think? Is it against our Law to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor or not?”

 

Notice the sucker punch

–         They start off all nice, with flattery, but it’s a trick

–         They think they’ve got him with their question

–         If Jesus says, ‘No it’s not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar’, they can accuse him to the Roman authorities

–         And if Jesus says, ‘Yes it is lawful to pay taxes’, they can accuse him of supporting the enemy – being a traitor to Israel

 

Jesus doesn’t allow them to trap him with their deceitful tongues

–         He says to their face, “You hypocrites”

–         A hypocrite (in this context) is an actor – someone who wears a mask and pretends to be something they are not

–         “Why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin for paying the tax”

–         They brought him a coin

–         “Whose face and name are these?”

–         “The Emperor’s” they answered

–         So Jesus said to them, “Well then, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God”

 

In other words, it’s not either / or – it’s both / and

–         Pay your taxes and worship God

 

Returning to Psalm 120, the psalmist says, “I call on the Lord…

 

What’s interesting here is that when the psalmist is deceived, lied to and slandered he doesn’t respond by lying or deceiving or spreading nasty rumours about his antagonists

–         No. He calls on the Lord

–         He takes the problem to God

–         He says, “Save me, O Lord, from lying lips and deceitful tongues”

–         He doesn’t descend to the level of his enemies

–         He ascends (or lifts his heart & mind up) to the Lord

 

The point I want to highlight here is that even though the psalmist feels trapped he still has some freedom

–         He can’t control what those around him say or do

–         But he can control his response to his enemies

–         While it is true that their words are putting him in a bind he still has options – he doesn’t have to behave in the same way they do

–         Like Jerry McGuire he has the freedom to do something different

 

The point of application for us is that, with God, we always have the freedom of another option

–         No matter how trapped we might feel, when we look to God, he is able to create a way out so that we don’t become like those who mean us harm

 

Okay, so even though he feels trapped the psalmist still exercises what freedom he has by calling on the Lord, and the Lord answers him

–         Isn’t that intriguing

–         What does it mean that ‘the Lord answers him?’

–         The psalmist doesn’t say explicitly how the Lord answers – that is left to us to read between the lines

–         (Although this psalm is relatively short there is quite a bit left unsaid between the lines)

–         It is unlikely that the psalmist heard an audible voice talking to him

–         It is more probable that the psalmist found God’s answer in the Scriptures

–         By reflecting on the Law of Moses and the story of Israel

 

The psalmist is Jewish – he knows from reading the Hebrew Bible that God is just. The Lord is for truth and he won’t let liars get away with it

–         In the end God will see that the truth comes out and justice is done

–         What’s more the Lord is able to use these circumstances for good

 

Although God doesn’t get a speaking part in this psalm we can figure out God’s answer from what follows in verses 3-4, where the psalmist says…

–         What will he do to you, and what more besides, O deceitful tongue? He will punish you with a warrior’s sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom tree.

 

Now we might think, that doesn’t sound very nice or gracious

–         Well, we need to remember that these words are poetry

–         So sharp arrows and burning coals are metaphors for the damage that lying words can do

 

Words, when they are misused, are like arrows

–         They can really get under our skin and wound us

–         Slander or lying words are also a bit like burning coals

–         A burning coal sets fire to most things it touches

–         Gossip spreads like wild fire, destroying a person’s reputation, ruining trust

–         What’s more, a burn isn’t a short sharp pain – it is a long lingering pain, which if not treated properly can become infected

 

The psalmist’s enemies have slandered him

–         They have shot his reputation to pieces and burned his trust

–         So the psalmist takes comfort in the knowledge that God will punish those deceitful tongues, like for like

 

What about forgiveness though?

–         Isn’t that what Jesus preached?

–         Yes – Jesus did preach forgiveness

–         But, if we are honest with ourselves, forgiveness is not usually automatic

–         Forgiveness is normally a process, for us

 

You see, if we suffer injustice then what we are left with is anger

–         Forgiveness is the process of letting go of that anger

–         Rather than trying to get even himself the psalmist calls on the Lord and (reading between the lines) the Lord’s implied response appears to be…

–         ‘Leave it with me. I will deal with these deceitful tongues’

–         Knowing that God will punish his adversaries sets the psalmist free

–         It enables him to let go of his anger and move on

–         He doesn’t need to take revenge because God is going to do that

 

Therefore what we get in verses 3 & 4 is the road to forgiveness or the means of forgiveness

–         So if you have been wronged by someone and they are unrepentant so you are angry with them – struggling to forgive – then one strategy for dealing with your anger is to imagine God’s punishment for them

–         However, this is more of a last resort strategy where the injustice is big

–         A better strategy for letting go of your anger at being hurt is to remember your own wrong doing and the grace you have received

–         There’s nothing like remembering our own guilt for taking the wind out of the sails of our anger

 

Decision:

In the first half of the psalm (verses 1-4) we hear about the psalmist’s distress

–         Now, in the second half (having processed his anger) the psalmist moves from distress to decision – a decision for peace

 

In our church library at the moment we have a new book called Saving My Assassin by Virginia Prodan

–         You may have read the book review that Elaine wrote about it

–         Saving My Assassin is the autobiography of a Romanian attorney who lived through the communist regime in that country during the 1960’s, 70’s and 80s’

–         Virginia Prodan reminded me of the author of psalm 120

 

In her book Virginia writes: “During the totalitarian regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, the most brutal and repressive regime… Communist Romania was a land of lies. Religion was tolerated only to keep up outside appearances, and internal dissidence was not permitted. Ceausescu’s goal was to demolish the churches…” [2]

 

Like the psalmist Virginia Prodan was surrounded by lying lips and deceitful tongues – communist Romania was not a place of truth or trust

–         As an attorney she found herself frustrated by the lack of justice and was on the brink of giving up her career in law

 

This is probably quite difficult for many of us here in NZ to imagine

–         According to a recent international survey, NZ is the least corrupt country in the world at the moment – not that we are perfect [3]

 

In any case Virginia went in search of the truth and was invited to a Baptist church where she heard the words of John 14:6 for the first time

–         This is where Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life” No one comes to the Father except through me.”

 

Virginia found Christ and became a lawyer who successfully defended Christians whose crimes against the state included possessing a Bible, showing the Jesus film in their homes and holding prayer meetings and Bible studies

–         For this she was kidnapped, tortured, beaten and nearly killed

–         The mistreatment she suffered was perhaps worse than the distress described by the writer of psalm 120 who says in verses 5-7…

 

Woe to me that I dwell in Meshech, that I live among the tents of Kedar! Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war. 

 

The idea of peace is central to these verses and indeed is at the core or the heart of the psalmist’s identity

–         When the psalmist says there, “I am a man of peace” he means peace is my middle name – I embody peace – I live sleep and breathe it

 

The Hebrew concept of peace or shalom isn’t just the absence of conflict

–         It is the presence of health and prosperity and right relationship in community with others. It is abundant life

–         In order to have this kind of peace one must first have justice

–         By saying he is a man of peace but his adversaries hate peace, the psalmist is essentially saying…

–         ‘I seek truth & justice, while those around me are corrupt’

 

Meshech and Kedar are a long way apart geographically speaking

–         Meshech is in the far north of that part of the world while Kedar is in the south east

–         Again the reference is poetic, symbolising the Gentile (or non-Jewish) world in which Israel is dispersed [4]

–         Basically the psalmist is living away from home among a people who are hostile to him

–         The implication (reading between the lines) is that wherever they go in the world the Jews have enemies

 

The psalmist’s cry, “Woe to me…” seems to be a cry of desperation

–         As a man of peace he walks a narrow path

–         On the one hand he doesn’t want to compromise his beliefs and values in order to fit in with those around him

–         Because he knows that would be like selling his soul – being untrue to himself and there’s no peace in that

–         By the same token he doesn’t want to always be in conflict with those around him because there’s no peace in that either, it’s just exhausting

–         So, “Woe to me” means, ‘How I am supposed to maintain my integrity?’

–         How am I supposed to be a man of peace in such a hostile environment?

–         I try to get along with them, but when I speak they are for war

 

The psalmist really is between a rock and hard place

–         And so he reaches a decision saying, “Too long have I lived among those who hate peace…”

–         The implication here is that he has to get away, at least for a little while

–         If he doesn’t have a break from this he risks losing himself

 

Like the psalmist, Virginia Prodan was a woman of peace – meaning she stood for truth and justice

–         Sadly, the land in which she lived (communist Romania) was for war

–         Meaning it was corrupt and hostile to Christian believers

–         It came to the point where Virginia could no longer stay in Romania

–         Eventually she was offered asylum in America where she now practices as a human rights lawyer in Dallas, Texas.

 

Some things just don’t go together

–         This is a picture of two animals (an ox and a donkey) unequally yoked

–         Incompatible

 

What the psalmist realises by the end of his song is that he can’t be friends with everyone – he is incompatible with those around him

–         Sometimes as Christians we might feel like we have to try and be everyone’s friend – that we must offer our trust to everyone

–         I don’t think that’s very wise – you can’t be everyone’s friend

–         Don’t throw your pearls before swine

–         Don’t give your trust to those who are not worthy of it

–         Freedom is found in Christ, not in trying to please people

 

When people deal falsely with you then do what you need to do to forgive them

–         Find a way to let the anger go, for your own sake

–         But forgiving someone doesn’t mean you have to be yoked to them as their friend forever

–         Be smart – look for peace

–         Build friendships with those you can trust

 

The psalmist’s journey begins with distress and discontent

–         But his distress is the catalyst for his ascent

–         It clarifies things for him – leading him to the realisation that he cannot be yoked to those who want war (when he embodies peace)

–         And so he makes a decision to leave that place, for his own survival

–         Although Psalm 120 doesn’t explicitly say where the psalmist intends to go we know from the songs that follow that he is headed for the temple in Jerusalem where he can be free to be the man of peace he is

 

Like the psalmist we are a people of peace

–         But in this world the path of peace is sometimes narrow and difficult

–         On the one had we don’t want to compromise who we are in order to fit in with those around us

–         But at the same time we don’t want to be in constant conflict with those around us either

 

Our temple (our place of pilgrimage) is not in Jerusalem

–         Our temple is the body of Christ – his church

–         Wherever 2 or 3 of Jesus’ followers are gathered together, that’s our temple – that’s one reason why we gather here each Sunday

–         To remember who we are in Christ

–         To gain the strength and perspective we need to walk the narrow path of peace.

 

Perhaps the question for us is: what do we need to do (both personally and corporately) to remain a people of peace? (To stand for truth, to seek justice)

 

Conclusion:

You wouldn’t think it at first but Psalm 120 touches on some pretty significant issues, when we scratch beneath the surface

–         Lies and truth

–         Betrayal and trust

–         Anger and forgiveness

–         War and peace

–         Feeling trapped and finding freedom

–         Being stuck in a rut and going on a journey

 

Let’s stand and sing…

 

♫       Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah

 

This is a song about going on a journey

[1] Refer Josh Moody, ‘Journey to Joy’, page 19.

[2] Virginia Prodan, “Saving My Assassin”, page 3.

[3] As reported on TVNZ’s “One News” during the past week

[4] Refer Derek Kidner, Psalm 73-150, page 466.

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