The pastor of a Christian Science church was talking to a member of his congregation. ‘And how is your husband today?’
‘I’m afraid he’s very ill.’
‘No, no,’ corrected the pastor, you really shouldn’t say that – you should say that he’s under the impression that he’s very ill.’
The woman nodded meekly. ‘Yes, pastor, I’ll remember next time.’
A few weeks later, the pastor saw her again.
‘And how is your husband at the moment?’
‘Well, pastor,’ she replied, ‘he’s under the impression that he’s dead.’
It isn’t long in life before a bright beginning is touched by suffering. A child is born, and discovers pain. Even Prince George will find that out. A wedding and honeymoon is followed by the reality of each partner’s frailties. Someone is converted to Christ, but then learns it isn’t a rose garden.
Meanwhile, we have people who want to play pretend about suffering. They want to act as if it doesn’t exist, or they demand it be magically removed from existence in an instant. Maybe they even try to get round it in a religious way by saying that the body doesn’t matter, it is only a shell for the real person. That isn’t a view you can take while still believing in the New Testament, with its strong emphasis on the resurrection of the body.
The first thing our Psalm of Ascent this week does is be frank about the reality of suffering.
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
2 Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy. (Verses 1-2)
The Scriptures do not get into philosophical discussions about the existence of suffering and belief in a good and powerful God. They simply enter the story of suffering, and describe that narrative. Our Psalmist here is in deep suffering – he cries ‘out of the depths’. While there are great accounts of deliverance from suffering in the Bible – the Exodus, the healing miracles, and so on – we are not presented with faith as a ‘Get out of jail free’ card. Faith enters human suffering.
And so, before anything else, simplistic and obvious as it might sound to some of us, we need to embrace the reality of suffering and stop playing games. Henri Nouwen wrote,
Many people suffer because of the false suppositions on which they have based their lives. That supposition is that there should be no fear or loneliness, no confusion or doubt. But these sufferings can only be dealt with creatively when they are understood as wounds integral to our human condition. Therefore ministry is a very confronting service. it does not allow people to live with illusions of immortality and wholeness. It keeps reminding others that they are mortal and broken, but also that with the recognition of this condition, liberation starts.
Are there areas where any of us is pretending? Are there times when – much as we believe that God heals – he is in truth going to take us the long route to wholeness? We like to believe that if God works a miracle it will be a great testimony, and it certainly can be. However, are there times when we say that, but what we really want is a short cut out of our personal difficulties rather than the testimony? Could it be that God will also bring glory to his name when he takes us on what seem to be detours rather than the direct route?
For me, that was true in one particular instance. In my first year at theological college, I suffered a collapsed lung. My lung had previously collapsed three times a few years earlier, and I had only avoided surgery then when the consultant was inconveniently on holiday. But on the weekend when it happened to me at college, the father of a student friend was visiting. My friend’s Dad was known for having a healing ministry. Surely he would pray for me and I would be healed. But he had left to go home a few minutes before I got back from A and E. This time, I had to have the operation. It meant a week and a half in hospital, a month’s convalescence at home, and three months before I was back to anything like full strength. But God used that experience so that when I visit people in hospital, I have a way of identifying with them and a reason to bring them a word of hope.
That leads to the second piece of frankness in the Psalm: we hear about the reality of God. The Lord is addressed throughout the Psalm. The Psalmist cries out to him (verses 1-2); he acknowledges and relies on the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness (verses 3-4); and the Lord is the reason to wait and hope (verses 5-8).
God is there. God is present. God is even in the depths. The Old Testament describes a God who hears his people’s suffering, even if he does not always act on it as quickly as his people would desire him to do. But the cry of suffering reaches him, and he liberates his enslaved people from Israel. He brings them back from exile in Babylon.
Not only that, the same Old Testament begins to describe God as being involved in his people’s suffering, even functioning as some kind of representative or substitute. I really don’t think you can avoid reading passages such as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 that way.
What the Old Testament doesn’t have, but which we have, is the filling out of that belief in Jesus, who came as a servant, lived among the poor and suffered death on a Cross.
Ours, then, is the God of the depths – even the depths of Hades. In Christ God stands with us in suffering and he stands for us in suffering. And in doing so, he shows supremely the divine answer to the Psalmist’s cry for mercy and the forgiveness of sins. The merciful God is the One who enters the depths of human suffering, who drinks the cup to its dregs.
As Eugene Peterson puts it,
God makes a difference. God acts positively toward his people. God is not indifferent. He is not rejecting. He is not ambivalent or dilatory. He does not act arbitrarily in fits and starts. He is not stingy, providing only for bare survival.
He goes on to say,
And this, of course, is why we are able to face, acknowledge, accept and live through suffering, for we know that it can never be ultimate, it can never constitute the bottom line. God is at the foundation and God is at the boundaries. God seeks the hurt, maimed, wandering and lost. God woos the rebellious and confused. … Because of the forgiveness we have a place to stand. We stand in confident awe before God, not in terrorized despair.
Suffering is awful, but it is not the final word. God has seen to that in Christ. At the Cross and the Empty Tomb we find that God has the last word. God has not stayed remote and sent us a philosophical answer to our suffering. Instead, he has got his hands dirty. He has come alongside us, and also in his suffering he has accomplished what we cannot do for ourselves due to our sin. He has provided for forgiveness and so we can serve him with reverence (verse 4), or ‘stand in confident awe before [him]’, as Peterson put it.
Now this leads us on to the third and final piece of honest faith in the face of suffering that the Psalmist models for us, and that is the reality of waiting. Hear how he uses words about watching, waiting and hoping:
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
6 I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
7 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
8 He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins. (Verses 5-8)
In the Old Testament, the words ‘waiting’ and ‘hoping’ are very close. There are passages where in one Bible translation the English word used may be ‘wait’ and in another English Bible it may be ‘hope’. You could say that the faithful disciple of Old Testament days waited in hope. Certainly when we face suffering we often need to wait, and our waiting will have meaning and significance if we can wait with hope. That is what we do as New Testament Christians for sure, living in some respects between the suffering of Good Friday and the hope of Easter Day.
But what do we do while we are waiting hopefully? The Psalmist suggests we apply for the job of nightwatchman:
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning. (Verse 6)
In my home church was a gentle, devout Jamaican Christian called Clarence. He was employed as a security guard. Anyone less likely to tour a building site at night accompanied by fierce Rottweilers you would find it hard to imagine. But for most of the time, he told us, he was able to sit in the site office. Each night he would take his Bible and his Moody and Sankey hymn book, and study his faith. He may have been the most unlikely candidate for the job, and heaven knows how he got it, but he used his waiting time fruitfully and every morning, the dawn came.
So it is for us. We are on the night watch in our faith as we wait for God who is with us in our suffering to act on our behalf. What we think should not take him a trice is something he chooses for reasons only he can see to take longer about resolving. Meanwhile, in the darkness we wait.
But … we wait knowing that the dawn is coming. Hence we wait in hope. And during that waiting, it would be good if we put the time to good use, as Clarence did.
How can we use our waiting time? We too can certainly take advantage of opportunities to deepen our faith, too. We can express our trust, even if at times it is a bemused trust, in the God for whom we are waiting. We can share our hopeful waiting with others who are also struggling, so that we may encourage them. Such people can be found both inside and outside the church.
I’ll give the final word again to Eugene Peterson:
The depths have a bottom; the heights are boundless. Knowing that, we are helped to go ahead and learn the skills of waiting and hoping by which God is given room to work out our salvation and develop our faith while we fix our attention on his ways of grace and salvation.
I have several friends who are authors. Some are journalists, others are playwrights, some are ghost writers for famous people who cannot write sufficiently well for their books, still others are novelists (everything from historical romance to science fiction) and some write non-fiction titles.
If I have learned one thing from my friends in the writing trade, it is a principle they all hold dear:
Show, don’t tell.
If they want to get a point across, they show it rather than telling it. They do not lecture you; they do not give you philosophical principles; instead, they describe, or they tell a story.
So it is with the Psalms. As songs, they are works of art, like books. While they contain great spiritual truth, they tend to show it rather than tell it.
That certainly happens in today’s Psalm. The Psalmist does not give us a host of reasons as to why we should consider ourselves servants of God; instead, the servant-master relationship is shown. It is described.
And perhaps that’s important when for us the notion of being somebody’s servant is not one we readily approve.
So first of all in Psalm 123, servants look up.
I lift up my eyes to you,
to you who sit enthroned in heaven.
2 As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he shows us his mercy. (Verses 1-2)
Servants metaphorically ‘look up’, because God is enthroned in heaven, not in Jerusalem, the place to which they are heading on pilgrimage. However grand the Jerusalem Temple was, Jewish thought always understood that God was not restricted to a building, nor was he specially present in a holy building in ways that he wasn’t elsewhere in creation. It’s something we who end up venerating church buildings would do well to remember.
But there is a deeper reason in the ‘looking up’. Eugene Peterson puts his finger on the problem:
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 t 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.
We are so used to being consumers that we treat religion like that. Just as we are used to buying goods and services, and then complaining when they do not meet our expectations, so we treat God. Unless he does what we want, when we want and to the standard we want, we will demand our money back. The title of the Billy Connolly film ‘The Man Who Sued God’ is not so far off the truth of our behaviour. And if pastors don’t meet our expectations, we’ll get rid of them. If churches don’t provide all we want, we’ll move.
But our posture is one of looking up, not looking down. We are the servants, not the masters. And as I said, we don’t like that. We would rather give the orders than be subject to them. My Mum’s uncle told his children that the reason they should work hard at school was so that they were the people who gave the orders, rather than followed them.
Furthermore, servanthood is associated in our minds with some awful things, especially if servants are actually slaves. We might celebrate the abolition of the slave trade, but it still exists and does wicked things to people. If that’s what being a servant entails, we don’t want it.
And this is where the second description of servants comes in: servants seek mercy.
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he shows us his mercy.
3 Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us,
for we have endured no end of contempt. (Verses 2b-3)
If you are a servant, then you certainly want a merciful master. And thankfully the testimony of the Scriptures is exactly that about God. Some may fear that being a servant puts us at risk from a despot of a God, but it is not the experience of God’s people down the centuries. Again, hear what Eugene Peterson has to say:
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 us 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.
The God described in Christianity is the God Jesus alluded to in the character of the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. His younger son has asked for his share of the inheritance – effectively wishing his father to be dead. He squanders money, and is so desperate when it is all gone that he ends up with the pigs – a truly awful place for a good Jewish boy to be. Any respectable father in that culture would have had crossed arms, waiting for his son to return home and grovel, so no wonder the errant son plans his humble speech. But his father does what was considered inappropriate by looking out for his return, and undignified when he runs towards his son.
Tony Campolo tells a story in one of his books where he has travelled from his home state of Pennsylvania to Hawaii and is on jet lag. As a result, he finds himself in a diner at 3 in the morning. The only other customers are a group of local prostitutes. He hears one, named Agnes, say that the next day will be her birthday, but she also says that she has never had a birthday party in her whole life.
So Campolo had a word with the diner owner. He discovered that Agnes and the other prostitutes came in every night, and asked if they could have a party for her the next night. The owner’s wife agreed to bake a cake, and it was all set up.
Agnes turned up at about 3:30 the next morning to the biggest surprise of her life. She even asked if she could take the cake home quickly so that others could see she actually had a cake before anyone else sliced it up.
At the end, Campolo found himself offering to lead a prayer. The owner of the diner said, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”
Campolo replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.”
“No you don’t,” said the owner. “There’s no church like that. If there was I’d join it. I’d join a church like that!”
But this is the God of the Bible. He is full of mercy. He throws parties for those who have completely messed up. There is no fear in being his servant when this is the extent of his mercy.
And that takes us to a third and final description of servants in this psalm: servants are downtrodden.
Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us,
for we have endured no end of contempt.
4 We have endured no end
of ridicule from the arrogant,
of contempt from the proud. (verses 3-4)
That doesn’t sound much like good news, does it? But put it like this: the servants who know their God is outrageously merciful can bring their downtrodden status to him. For a merciful God is one who is on the side of such people. And even if you don’t start off in that category, it’s possible to end up there, purely by being a disciple of Jesus Christ: at times that will earn you the ridicule and contempt of which the psalmist speaks.
We don’t know why the psalmist and his friends were on the receiving end of contempt. It may not so much have been simply because they were part of the people of God, but it might well have been because the people of God were not doing that well in the world. It reads as if they were suffering oppression at the time. Maybe they were being mocked, because that meant it didn’t look outwardly as if they were living under the favour of God. As Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ says to God at one point, “I know, I know. We are your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?”
Those downtrodden by life may cry out to the God of mercy and he will hear them. The suffering People of God may cry out as servants to their master and he will hear them, too. If that is where we find ourselves in life, there is a God enthroned in heaven who will help, normally using human agency to do so.
What might we do about it? Well, remember that this is one of the Psalms of Ascent, sung by pilgrims on their way to the Jerusalem Temple for a great feast. They would surely have brought their troubles to God in prayer – just as they were already doing in the words of the psalm. They would have entered into worship, and thus experienced a little of God’s perspective on life. They would have made sacrifices, prefigured the great sacrifice God would make in due time for them through the offering of his Son. This God would in Jesus Christ endure contempt and ridicule himself so that the lowest strata of society could experience his merciful love.
What does this mean for us now? I think it has to turn us into the kind of ‘church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.’ There is a call for us to show God’s lavish love to those rejected and sidelined by society. If those who endure contempt today are to know about a merciful God, then we have to demonstrate it to them.
That gives us plenty of scope in the wider world. You probably don’t need me to give you too many examples from the news, and I invite you to get involved by supporting organisations that demonstrate God’s love to the broken.
But I also suggest we need to put this into practice close to home and not simply give money to bodies that will do this for us at a distance. We should put out our best biscuits, regardless of who is in the house. If the nice biscuits are only for those who know how to behave, what are we saying about the Gospel? People with troubled backgrounds need to be as welcome as anyone else here at KMC.
I wonder whether people would experience us as the kind of ‘church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning’, as Tony Campolo describes. Or would they react like the owner of the diner, saying, “There’s no church like that,” all the while secretly wishing there was?
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.