Read Psalm 120
1In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. 7 I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!
Psalm 120 begins with distress and ends with war. In the middle it speaks of lies. As Eugene Peterson remarks, this is “not a happy song but an honest and necessary one.” Twelve-step groups begin with acknowledging they are powerless over their addiction and that their lives have become unmanageable. This marks the beginning of turning. It is not the whole journey but it is the first step. And you certainly do not need to be in the throes of chemical dependency to become dissatisfied with the world or your circumstances in it. Calvin notes that though “it is true [we] have need of God’s help every moment; there is not a more suitable season for seeking him than when some great danger is immediately menacing us.”
Psalm 120 is the first of fifteen Psalms grouped together under the heading, “A Psalm of Ascent.” It is believed that these fifteen Psalms while individually written at different times were eventually grouped together and used by pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem. Psalm 120 is the first step of the journey.
Waking Up in the Far Country and Longing for Home
The Psalmist is dissatisfied with the culture around him. The world of war and deceit is not the way it is supposed to be and he is finally fed up with it. He finds himself in a far country, a sojourner in Meschech and Kedar, known for their barbarism and hostility and he longs for home (vs. 5). This is repentance, to quote Peterson again: “dissatisfaction, coupled with a longing for peace and truth can set us on a pilgrim path of wholeness in God.” This is honesty, “I am powerless and my life has become unmanageable.”
As I read this Psalm I couldn’t help but picture the younger brother in Jesus’ story of the prodigal. He leaves home for the far country with his inheritance hoping to find the good life, buys all that money can buy, only to find nothing but lies and disappointments – “and he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything” (Luke 15:16). Dissatisfaction and longing mark his first steps towards home.
We of course do this same capital “R” Repentance when we first come to Jesus but daily we must continue in small “r” repentance. Our lives and hearts are constantly turning toward something for our peace, for our joy, for our meaning and we must always turn again. What are you dissatisfied with in your life? Where has life become unmanageable?
Is it the way you lash out in anger?
Is it your tendency to constantly assume the worst intentions in others?
Is it your indifference to the most vulnerable in our community?
Is it your own experience of the lies and deceit of those around you?
Is it sickness and suffering?
The Waiting Father
I am writing this on Ash Wednesday. Today is the day that the people of Jesus have used for centuries to mark the beginning of the preparation for remembering his death and resurrection. Ash Wednesday is the day we are reminded “you are dust and to dust you will return.” It is a day for being reminded of our place. Like Psalm 120, it is the first step. Each Wednesday until Easter I will write about another Psalm of Ascent as we make our way to Jerusalem and Jesus’ death and resurrection. I’m fairly ambivalent when it comes to giving things up for Lent. If giving up certain foods or Facebook for forty days helps you trust Jesus, find freedom in his gospel, and serve others around you in love then by all means do it. But, I don’t think giving up chocolate is going to make Jesus love you more. In fact, the assumption that we need to do anything to make Jesus love us more is the whole problem in the first place. This is the great lie.
Even though we are all too familiar with dissatisfaction and longing we often forget the end of the journey. The Psalms of Ascent begin here but they end with Psalm 134 – glory and worship in the presence of the Lord. Go ahead and read it, the end isn’t a secret. Lent begins with ashes and finds its height in the cross but we know the destination – “He’s not here, for he has risen, as he said!”
We turn to other things along the way because we forget who the Father is that is waiting for us. The prodigal turns and heads home under the assumption he has lost his privilege of being a child; he thinks he is only good enough to be a slave. And so he rehearses his speech, “Father I have sinned against you and against heaven, I’m no longer worthy to be called….” But his Father refuses to listen, doesn’t even let him finish, he is too busy wrapping his arms around him and ordering the butcher and chef to make preparations for the feast. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:4-7). We won’t ever get further than dissatisfaction and longing if we think when we get home we’ll only be slaves.
Dissatisfaction and longing is the first step. We need to be reminded that we are dust, and to dust we will return. But, dust isn’t the end of the story. A resurrected body participating in the restored new heavens and new earth is our final destination. I love Mark Buchanan’s reminder of repentance, “in Jesus’ hands repentance is an invitation not a threat. It’s a promise, not a curse. It’s good news, not bad. Repentance often involves sorrow. But it’s sorrow that quickly turns to gladness because repentance is the gift of starting fresh.”
Jesus didn’t say “repent or go to hell” he said “repent, for the kingdom of God is here.” This might be two sides of the same coin, and Jesus certainly uses warnings at other times, but repentance here seems to be an invitation. Turn from the far country and start heading home to the waiting Father. Let’s take the first step; how else can you begin? But, as we do, let’s keep the final destination always in view.