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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Leaving Meshech and Kedar

Psalm 120:1-7
A song of ascents

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.

The fifteen "Psalms of Ascent" (120 – 134) sometimes called the "Songs of Degrees" were probably sung by Jewish pilgrims as they made the journey from their homes to the temple in Jerusalem for the 3 major festivals.  Three times a year faithful Jews would climb that road to Jerusalem.  Imagine groups of thirsty – but cheerful - pilgrims singing these songs as they tramped along the dusty stony roads with staff in hand and children in tow. 

But there is some room for a little bit of debate on this – some have proposed that these Psalms of Ascent were sung by the Levites as they progressed up the 15 steps from the Women's court to the Inner court of the temple; singing one song at each step.

Others have suggested that they were sung as the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon.  And this suggestion, too, I find plausible.  One of the psalms written during the Jewish captivity in Babylon begins "By the rivers of Babylon we wept when we remembered Zion… how can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?" (Psalm 137: 1 -4)  These Psalms of ascent would, then, be the joyful songs of the returning exile.  These are homecoming songs.  More than half of them are exuberantly cheerful – and even those that are 'sober' or 'depressing' are still hopeful.

But no matter how they were originally used, they became a part of the larger Psalter and since then Jews and Christians, both, have understood them in the light of a spiritual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. 

The Hebrew word for this journey is Aliyah – which means "ascent."  And for the pilgrims it was a physical ascent to Jerusalem – topographically the highest point in Palestine.  But it also was a spiritual ascent.  The pilgrims bodies were ascending to the temple in Jerusalem, but their souls were ascending to the presence of God in this spiritual journey.  "The ascent as 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 goal, where God is beckoning us onward – to Jesus' (Phil. 3:14)" [i]

 As the first of our pilgrim songs for the road, I find Psalm 120 a strange beginning.  It starts with trouble and distress and ends in war.  It is not a beautiful hymn.  It is not a lovely prayer.  It's not a glorious anything.  It's a blunt and brutal cry of distress.  It is a desperate cry for help, and a curse against the author's enemies. 

But it's an appropriate beginning for our journey.  We are pilgrims making our way up to the New Jerusalem.  We know there is something more.  We're on our way from here, through here to our true reality, our true home.  Living here in the meanwhile is difficult. 

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.

Meshech was an area far to the northeast of Israel, now the southern boarder of Russia between the Black and the Caspian Seas, inhabited by strange pagan tribes.  Kedar was found along Israel’s southern boarder.  They were wandering Bedouin tribes from the Arabian Peninsula that often attacked Israel.  Both Meshech and Kedar represented the foreign, the strange, the barbarian, and the hostile. 

It was in the midst of these hostile barbarians that the pilgrim begins his/her journey, far from home and surrounded by aggressive strangers.  They attacked the pilgrim with their lips using lies and deception.  Their words wounded the pilgrims like arrows of a mighty warrior fired from a distance and burned like fiery coals.

"I'm doomed to live in Meshech,
cursed with a home in Kedar.
My whole life lived camping
among quarreling neighbors."[ii]

We know that there is something more, something other; and we're leaving our homes and our friends and our families behind in order to find it.  We're leaving Meshech and Kedar behind and going up to Jerusalem. But as we leave, people come out to mock us.  Our decision to abandon the values and ideals of this world is either ridiculous to them – and so they call us fools, or it offends them and they curse us for daring to abandon what they hold dear.

I almost don't need to preach this psalm.  You don't need me to preach this psalm to you. You already know it, I'm sure.  Every one of us here; we all know this psalm.  We know what it is to have people – even friends – to insult us and mock us and to say slanderous things about us.  It happens to everyone.

Maybe your job has been threatened by the malicious slander or lies of a co-worker.  Maybe relations with your family have been poisoned by the cruel words of a brother or sister or father or mother. Maybe you've broken contact with a close friend because of some ill-spoken words.  We all, each one of us, can cry out together with the psalmist:

Yahweh, deliver me from lying lips
from treacherous tongue.
"Deliver me from the liars, God!
They smile so sweetly but lie through their teeth."
As pilgrims we are leaving a land and a people who are always at war.  They are at war with each other; fighting over land or politics.  They are killing each other because of racial or ethnic or cultural differences.  They are battling one another, each one trying to dominate the next.  It's Men against Women, the Young against the Old, Rich versus Poor, and Black versus White. Conservative versus Liberal.  Left versus Right.  Urban versus Rural. It's Us versus Them. 

Our desire to leave this land and people of war is a desire to live in peace – a peace that passes all understanding.  A pure and perfect peace.  We want to leave behind the terror of war and the anxiety of distrust.  We begin our journey towards that heavenly city of peace.  And it's at that moment that we cry out with the psalmist and with countless other pilgrims, "Save me, Oh Lord!  Rescue me from this trouble and this distress."

Too long have I lived among people who hate peace. 
When I speak of peace they are all for war!

Our spiritual journey begins with the desire for something better, a desire for peace (with our neighbors and our brothers and also with ourselves).  But the desire alone doesn't get the journey started.  It's the cry of desperation.  "Save me, Oh God!" 

It's said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step –and that first single step is a step of faith, ‘Save me, Oh God!  Save me from everything that is wrong with this world.’

"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…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." [iii]

We are pilgrims, leaving this world behind.  We are turning our backs on the ways and patterns of this world.  We are leaving behind the treacherous ways of our neighbors in Meshech.  We are leaving behind the violence our countrymen in Kedar.  We are leaving everything behind that would encumber us on the journey and beginning to walk towards Jerusalem –the city of God.

But we need to remember that starting this pilgrimage doesn't mean that everything in our lives from this point forward will be simple and carefree.  The pilgrimage is not a 'presto-chango' magical return to a simplistic Eden, but an uphill struggle.  We aren't suddenly taken out of our problems and planted within a carefree heavenly city.  We daily continue to struggle with things in this world, but we are now moving somewhere.  We have a goal and a direction.  We have a destination. 

We are pilgrims leaving this world and all the things that it supplies.  We are heading towards Jerusalem – the spiritual city of God.  We are moving closer to God as he is drawing us near to himself.  We are walking up the hill to the city and we are progressing upwards in spiritual maturity.  We are leaving behind the petty bickering and spite and hatred and violence and wars of this world and we are traveling towards that city of peace.

This is not a quick thing.  This is not a 12 step program.  This is a life of pilgrimage.  This is a lifetime of travel.  We are not tourists - interested in only the trinkets and souvenirs that the world would sell us.  We are pilgrims who are intent upon reaching that spiritual city, a journey that begins with the desperate plea, “Oh God, rescue me from these people!”

And, as you go,  take a Blessing for the Journey

[i] Peterson, Eugene A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society,  Intervarsity Press, 1980 page 18
[ii] Psalm 120 – The Message Bible
[iii] Peterson, pg. 27

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