We are working our way through Eugene Peterson’s book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, covering the Psalms of Ascent – Psalms 120-134. Some weeks, I hardly reference the book and some weeks I take like after line from the book. This week, I have taken much of this sermon directly from the book. You are free to use as much or as little as you like, change it to make it your own.
Israel has come under persecuting destruction over and over in its long existence. It is a miracle they still exist. Psalm 129 was likely written before their Babylonian exile, yet the Psalm was sung both before and after. The Psalm is really a story of God’s people over and over and over – society after society wages war against the people of faith, yet the world has yet to win. And, SPOILER ALERT – I have read the end, and the world will never overcome God’s people. Over the years, they have tried persecution and ridicule, torture and exile, prosperity and poverty, false teaching to draw Believers away, but the way of faith continues. “Certainly they have afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me.”
In this day and age when the Christian faith too often seems like a fragile following flourishing only when the weather is right, or when the setting is right, or when the temperature is right, or when preachers do not preach on difficult subjects, the Psalm reminds us that the enemy of God does not and will never prevail. There are still some Believers who will gather in the building or in the parking lot outside the building. There are still Believers who will listen to difficult teaching – re-examining what the world tells them they should believe. There are some who will not walk away even when the world calls you names or criticizes your convictions. The person of faith outlasts all the oppressors. Faith lasts.
Peterson reminds us the way it was with Jesus –
His ministry began with 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, and concluded in the never to be forgotten night in Gethsemane and Jerusalem. Has anyone ever experienced such relentless, merciless pounding from without and within? Some see Jesus’ affliction in the next verses – “The plowers plowed on my back, they made their furrows long.” When the temptations failed, the brutal assaults began.
And so it goes with God’s people.
The Apostle Paul had his life recklessly swing from adversity to persecution and back to adversity. He looks back on his life and writes, “I’ve…been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, and pummeled with rocks. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather.
Paul does not even mention here the time they were after him and he had to be lowered down in a basket out a window in the city wall and the basket hitting the ground and the little Jewish man running for his life in the moonlight.
28-29 And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone else gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut.
Nothing that happened to Paul ever made him regret the decision he made on the road to Damascas. He persevered through difficulty and hardship. He had to learn things contrary to what he believed and he never looked back.
It breaks his heart when God’s people fall away from the true faith.
It is so difficult having people walk away and run off to places that will tell them what they want to hear….. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut.
God bless you who do not agree with some of the things you hear here, but you stay. Like Paul, my heart breaks for people who have left because of some of the hot button issues of our society to hear lukewarm preachers who will tell people what they want to hear. God does not condone sin. Will He forgive it? Absolutely. But we see how bad God hates sin by the way Jesus paid for sin.
The Psalm carries on… The Lord is righteous. He has cut in pieces the cords of the wicked. Peterson says this is both fascinating and useful. He says to picture Israel – God followers, stretched out on their stomachs and the enemies of God hitch up oxen as it says in the previous verse plowing along their backs – long runs, back and forth cruelly plowing, like a farmer working a field. And then the Lord cuts the cords of the wicked. Just when you thought you couldn’t take any more, the plows quit digging. The cords connecting the oxen to the plow has been cut. The plows of persecution are not working. The enemy is wasting their time and energy on the Lord’s people.
The last illustration would have been easily understood by the people of Israel. Peterson again says, “Opposition to people of faith is like grass on the housetops which withers before it grows up. The houses had flat roofs and they would spread dirt on the roof for insullation. Seeds would sprout and grow oout of the dirt on the roof, but would soon die. The thin layers of dirt on the roofs could not support the grass. There was no harvest. People did not go to the roofs to reap the grass. That is where the last verse comes in – Nobody who sees some sprouts on the roof are going to come by and say, “Great harvest you have there. God’s blessings upon you”. That’s some fine grass on your roof – God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good. Before you get those words out, the grass has died.
The life of those in the world opposed or indifferent to God is barren and futile… peppered with brief enthusiasms that quickly fade because they are unharnessed from eternity.
I skipped over one verse there – verse 5 – “Let all those who hate Zion be put to shame and turned back.”
It is Popeye’s “I’ve had all me can takes and me can’t takes no more.”
Anger seethes and pulses in the wounds of the way the Israelites have been done. A sense of wrong has been brewing, and has boiled over. “Let all those who hate Zion be put to shame and turned back.” It’s not unlike in Revelation when those slain saints ask, “How long O Lord, until you take vengeance over our deaths?”
I remember one sermon from David Jeremiah about King Saul. King Saul ran his own sword through himself when the enemies were at hand. An Amalekite returned and told King David that Saul had asked the Amalekite to kill him and the Amalekite told David that he obliged. It was a lie. Saul fell on his own sword. the Bible reported something that was not true, But the Bible is true. And David Jeremiah said “the Bible tells the truth, even of men’s lies.”
Part of the Beauty of the Bible is the hard parts – the messy parts. And how ever much we feel the inappropriateness of this kind of thing in people of faith, we also acknowledge it. Everyone experiences flashes of anger toward others who make our way hard. A co-worker who lies about us. A family member who gossips to others about us. Someone in the church who purposely tries to undermine the pastor or church leadership. There are times in our long obedience of Christian discipleship when we get tired and fatigue shortens the fuse on our tempers.
When I was commissioned in the UMC to my probationary period toward becoming an elder, Bishop Lyght told me to always take a nap when I have church meetings or events in the evenings. He said to never go in to meetings tired.
Peterson says we need not make excuses for the Psalmists anger, but perhaps in the brutal honesty of their feelings, we can appreciate their energy. Say what you will, but they are not lukewarm. Oh that you were either hot or cold…. the Psalm writer was hot.
It is in the things that we care about that we express these strong feelings, even if they are wrong. We are reminded that the Psalms are not sung by perfect pilgrims. They made their mistakes, just as we make ours. We get caught yelling at our kids, at our spouse, at our co-workers, employees, or employers. We have gone off in church and at home. Peterson says our anger is evidence of our caring. The key perhaps is to harness that energy and use it in productive ways. The psalmist lived among prophets and priests who dealt with his vindictive spirit and nudged him back toward a better way of treating the wicked than calling down curses on them. We must learn the passion of patience. And we do not learn it by swallowing our sense of outrage or by excusing wickedness.
We offer our anger up to God and cling to Romans 8:27-28 – And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
And His purpose must be the center of our lives. The Christian faith is the discovery of the perfectly righteous, holy, and loving God. And Christian discipleship is the willingness to walk in His ways. It is the way for which we were created. It is the way for which we struggle. And the Psalmist reminds us that it is the way in which we will persevere. In the end, we know we will experience victory.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Victory in Jesus
I heard an old, old story,
How a Savior came from glory,
How He gave His life on Calvary
To save a wretch like me;
I heard about His groaning,
Of His precious blood’s atoning,
Then I repented of my sins
And won the victory.
O victory in Jesus,
My Savior, forever.
He sought me and bought me
With His redeeming blood;
He loved me ere I knew Him
And all my love is due Him,
He plunged me to victory,
Beneath the cleansing flood.