When I was a child, one of the great parts of preparing for our family summer holiday was Dad’s planning of the journey. He would pore over maps, come up with a route and then ring the RAC to see what they thought. There was no chance in those days to go online and find out up to date information on road works or local hazards, so he made use of his RAC membership in this way. Armed finally with Dad’s plans and the RAC’s advice, we would set off.
On one occasion, we were heading to Willersley Castle in Derbyshire for our holiday and were driving up the M1. Dad had said something about us going via Nottingham. Mum had dozed off, but suddenly woke up and saw an exit sign for Nottingham. She screamed in panic, and Dad – who was in the middle lane – suddenly veered left across the other traffic to take the exit. Somehow nobody hit us.
And it wasn’t even the right exit for Nottingham. We needed the next one.
As we spend the summer meditating on the Psalms of Ascent, we are reflecting on ‘journey’ psalms. These are the psalms of the Jewish pilgrims as they travelled from wherever they lived to Jerusalem for the great feasts. We, too, as Christians are on a journey to Jerusalem for a great festival. However, our travels will take us to the New Jerusalem in the New Creation, for the great feast of God’s kingdom.
And like the child frustrated on a long journey, from time to time we cry out, “Are we there yet?” knowing full well we aren’t, but impatient for the glories of what awaits us.
So the Psalms of Ascent are there to be sung on our journey, too, and to sustain us in our travel to the light and beauty of God’s kingdom. None of us should speak in this life as if we have arrived: to become a Christian is not that at all. It is to have joined the pilgrims on their travels to Jerusalem.
There are dangers on the journey. It might be the panic that led to my Dad’s sudden left turn to Nottingham. Or it might be other things. One of my favourite places is Lee Abbey, a Christian retreat and conference centre in North Devon. The most direct route there involves 25% (1 in 4) hills, one of them combining the extreme gradient with a hairpin bend.
Go beyond these fair shores and you will of course find far greater challenges than those which challenge my modest driving skills. Some of my sister’s exploits when she spent three months working with a missionary hospital in Rwanda are in a different league. A combination of poor roads, over-filled vehicles and driving skills that make Italian drivers look a model of restraint might about cover some of her stories.
The Jewish pilgrims faced travelling dangers, too. Their feet could slip, and a sprained ankle when needing to walk miles with no cars and no NHS would hamper all the ambitions of pilgrimage and risk further damage to the ankle bones.
By day there would be the high temperatures if they were walking in the middle of the year. My own visit to Israel-Palestine was in July one year, and the temperatures Andy Murray and the Centre Court crowd experienced last Sunday were as nothing to what we endured, needing to drink six litres of water a day to stay hydrated.
Then there were the cold nights under clear skies. Not for those ancient pilgrims the pollution that keeps heat in, but a contrast to the day and little prospect of somewhere to sleep under cover. Wild animals would lurk; perhaps the travellers took turns to stay awake by a camp fire and guard everyone.
We face other dangers on our pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem. The attacks that would derail our journey to the Kingdom are different. There are both temptations and assaults to knock us off course.
The temptations might be summed up in the classic New Testament unholy triad of the world, the flesh and the devil. ‘World’ here does not mean creation in general, which is good, it means the prevailing culture that lives in disregard of God and his ways. So it involves all those temptations to go along with popular values, whether they are godly or not. It might mean the way we are tempted to allow ourselves to be absorbed into Surrey values of continuous acquisitiveness, the accrual of more, the necessity of taking several foreign holidays and driving a ‘Chelsea tractor’. Follow the world too keenly and we lose our passion for God and his Christ.
Similarly, the ‘flesh’ does not mean that our bodies are bad, but it does refer to a couple of things. One is our general sinful nature, our predisposition to selfishness, which can manifest in characteristics such as the whole culture of entitlement. I’m reminded of the old slogan that ‘sin is a little word with ‘I’ in the middle’.
And the flesh can also be about those ways in which good bodily desires take over and dominate. Appetites of all kinds are necessary in the ways they alert us to physical needs. But when we allow them to dominate, we end up as slaves to them, rather than servants of Christ.
The devil? Although I struggle with those Christians who see Satan behind every bad thing, I believe those who dismiss his existence are equally naïve. Jesus acknowledged the presence of an enemy of our lives, and we must beware the ways in which he tempts us by asking us to make a deal with sin.
But it is not only temptation to sin that threatens to take us off course. As well as sin, we have to cope with being sinned against – the violences done to us that we do not deserve. The enemy laughs at our pain, and further when those assaults raise questions in our minds about the goodness or even the existence of God.
Where, then, do we look for help in staying en route to the New Jerusalem? The Jewish pilgrims looked around. Perhaps when you hear those famous opening words of this psalm,
I lift up my eyes to the mountains –
where does my help come from? (Verse 1)
you think that the mountains were where they found help. Aren’t the mountains a sign of the grandeur and power of God?
Well, in some parts of Scripture they are, but not here. On a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the mountains and their foothills were anything but. They were bandit country. Think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
And hear also what Eugene Peterson has to say about them in this psalm:
During the time this psalm was written and sung, Palestine was overrun with popular pagan worship. Much of this religion was practised 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 the sun priest? From the moon priestess?
Is it possible that today we too go to the wrong spiritual sources for protection from the dangers of our journey to Jerusalem? I think so. The Christian who spends more time in the horoscope column than the Scriptures. Those more concerned to follow the latest guru who has been interviewed by Richard and Judy, or promoted by Oprah Winfrey. The believer who takes more guidance from friends at the health club or the school gate rather than the accumulated ancient wisdom of the Church. The church member who seeks security more in received financial wisdom than in Christ. All too often we look to our mountains instead of to the Lord.
Because that is where our help truly comes from:
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth. (Verse 2)
Not from the hills, but from the Lord. He has the power to keep us on the road. It is to him that we should turn.
How, then, does our Lord keep us on track or even put us back on the road?
Taking first the question of how our own sin (‘world, flesh and devil’-caused) takes us off-road, we remember before anything else how astonishing the forgiveness of God is. Our Father is not grudging in forgiving us; he is the Father who throws lavish parties with feasting for returning prodigals. What could be more wonderful for getting us back in the right direction, aligning our lives with the life of the world to come?
And accompanying that is the renewing power of the Holy Spirit. God’s commitment to us is that he will always set us back on the road through forgiveness, and he will give us the strength to stay on the road.
But what about the way we get knocked off by what is done to us? How often are we discouraged by the rude interruption of suffering, and the seismic jolts of untoward life events? Some of us question God’s existence, and so the journey becomes pointless. Some of us don’t do that, but we wonder about God’s goodness, and whether we want to move closer to him.
In response to that, I want to share with you something that struck me recently when I was reading an old John Ortberg book. He talks about the way God pays attention to us. He describes the number of times in the Gospels that something happens for good because Jesus ‘saw’ someone. He refers to the so-called Aaronic blessing with which we shall conclude Holy Communion this morning – the same words we use to bless babies who are baptised:
The LORD bless you and keep you,
The LORD make his face to shine on you and be gracious to you,
The LORD look on you with kindness and give you peace.
If God’s face is shining on us and he is looking on us with kindness, then surely he is paying attention to us.
“But,” we say, “God is silent in my suffering. I can’t hear him saying anything to me.”
Might that mean, then, that what God is actually doing as he pays attention to us is simply listening? The best listeners are those who are not thinking of how they will reply while the other person speaks. Could it be that God knows we still need to pour out more of our pain to him before he says a word? Perhaps, unlike the husband who hides behind his newspaper when his wife begins to speak, God is quietly giving us his attention, ready to speak when necessary. Maybe this is his ‘watching over you’ that the Psalmist describes (verse 5).
I venture to suggest, then, that while God does not stop harm coming our way, he ‘will keep [us] from all harm’ (verse 7) and ‘watch over [our] coming and going’ (verse 8) by keeping our spiritual lives with him. The God of Psalm 121 is the God of assurance. Wesley said we not only need to be saved and can be saved – even saved to the uttermost – we can also know we are saved.
And this God – the God of assurance – is the God of Psalm 121, the God who sets us back on our eternal journey.