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Worship Message - Songs of Ascent #1

Songs of Ascent
Psalms 120-121

Today we begin a series of messages that I think will be interesting - and hopefully challenging. A series of messages based on a group of Psalms. Specifically Psalms 120 through 134. A group called Songs of Ascent - as in songs sung - Psalms recited - while climbing higher and higher.

I have read two explanations of why the group of Psalms is called what it is called.

The first explanation I read a long time ago. What I read was that the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem had 15 steps in the front of it. Steps to get to the entrance of the Temple. What I read was that those going to worship in the Temple took just one step at a time, pausing at each step to recite the first and then the second and then the third Psalm in the group, on through all 15 of them.

The point was that by the time the 15th step - and the 15th in the group of Psalms - was covered, the one who had come to worship had been reminded of the greatness of God. Because of the reciting of all the Psalms in the group, the worshiper’s heart and mind were, by the time he arrived at the Temple, ready for worship.

That is what I read a long time ago. More recently I read that the Psalms were recited by those traveling to Jerusalem, which is where the Temple was. Jerusalem was built on the highest part of Israel. Therefore, anyone going there - anyone walking to Jerusalem - ascended to get there. Hence the Songs or the Psalms of Ascent.

Either way, the purpose was to prepare the heart and mind of the worshiper for worship.

The point was that by the time all 15 of the Psalms in the group were recited - if it did happen during traveling, the reciting would have been done over and over and over again since without radios and iPods and things like that, singing or reciting Psalms was a common way to pass the time - the point is that by the time all 15 of the Psalms were recited, that happening either up the steps or over the miles and maybe both, the one who had come to worship already had his attention on God and indeed was ready to worship.

In this series of messages, we are going to think about what those Old Testament worshipers sang. What they recited. The goal is that our attention, like theirs, will be drawn to God. I hope that each Sunday when we come to church, we are already ready to worship. However, this will help us keep that up.

This series of messages will extend through October. Most Sundays we will consider two or three Psalms, which will be the case today as we highlight the first two Songs of Ascent. Psalms 120 and 121.

Again, the purpose is to make sure our hearts and our minds are ready to worship God. As we consider all 15 Psalms over the course of the next few Sundays, may our readiness to worship be experienced every other day of the week as well.

First for today, Psalm 120, which begins with the words, “In my distress.”

As I read about David, I realize how much distress he had.

For instance, he had family problems as he grew up. His father and brothers did not like him or respect him. Often they sent him away to do menial tasks so they did not have to have him around.

Despite that, he was God’s choice to be the king of God’s people. David was anointed for that when he was still quite young. Yet it was many years before he gained the kingship.

During much of that time, David was threatened by the king he was supposed to succeed.
When David became king, other nations often tried to hurt him and his nation.

Later, he caused some of his own problems, doing that by committing two horrible sins.

Now - this according to verse 2 - David was being slandered. As it is worded, he was being attacked with “lying lips and a deceitful tongue,” but that is what slandering means.

Slander hurt David severely in two ways.

In the way we usually think of when hearing the word slander, his reputation and character were shredded by nasty things being said about him. Most of those things may have had little basis in fact, but they had great shock value, which is the purpose of slander.

Add this that I read. Apparently there were those around David who told him lies, as in they flattered him and professed friendship with him, but those things done only for the purpose of having him drop his guard so they could attack him.

By the way, Jesus also faced both those kinds of slander.

Over and over again people against Jesus falsely accused Him of various things. They did that to hurt His ministry. They did that to accomplish a death penalty against Him.
And remember the disciple Judas? Judas certainly pretended to be a loyal follower of Jesus. Yet he betrayed Jesus, doing so with a kiss.
I mention that to point out that David was not the only one slandered. The only one with that kind of distress. So, too, did Jesus face that.

What about us? Do we ever feel distressed? As I read in a devotional on Psalm 120, do you sometimes find life to be hard or unfair? Have you ever just wanted to quit? To throw in the towel? Or hide under the blankets in your bed hoping the day would not start?

I like this part of the devotional. Does life hand out more lemons than you prefer to gather? You know the phrase. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Have you squeezed more of them than your share? Have you made more lemonade out of the lemons you have than you could ever possibly use?

David was the victim of lying lips and a deceitful tongue. With that added to all the other problems he faced, he was distressed. The feeling is that he was distressed in a number of ways - physically, emotionally, mentally.

However, David was not distressed spiritually. That is because he knew what to do with his distress, which is this.

Realizing there was nothing he could do to stop his problems, including that those against him were going to continue being against him, whether he liked it or not, David cried. He cried out. The wording is, “I cry,” which means he did not think he should cry or that he might cry sometime. He did cry. Which we should do as well.

But notice to whom he cried. He cried - we need to cry - “to the LORD.” In other words, do not just cry - or whine and moan. Cry to the LORD. To God. Doing so with confidence that God may answer. That He will answer. What hope there is in those words. The mood I get is assurance that when we cry, God will not only hear, but answer. As in help. As in - verse 2 - give “deliverance.”

And get this. It worked. For David, his enemies, including those who slandered him, eventually were punished. They became baffled.

How painful the bafflement was, which was the pain of the punishment from God, who is the one who heard David’s cries. Verse 4. David’s enemies were attacked “with a warrior's sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree.” A broom tree is a juniper that, when set on fire, does not flame and crackle, but produces vehement heat which is long-lasting.

Yes, David had distress. It was so bad, he wrote, in verse 5, “Woe is me.”
It was so bad it felt like there were few people around him who were not malicious and deceitful, rude and barbaric. That is the meaning of David mentioning Meschech and Kedar. Those were pagan areas with hurtful people in them.
It was so bad that even when he tried to get along - when he tried to be at peace - that did not happen. Those around him hated peace. At least peace with him. They wanted war.

Listen. The people walking to Jerusalem to worship God and the ones climbing the  steps to the Temple to worship God, like David, had lots of problems - health issues, relationship issues, financial issues. There was also always some kind of conflict, at least on the horizon, with other nations. Nations around them slandered them. There never seemed to be much peace.

And yet, those people wanted to worship. To do that effectively, they needed to rise above the conflicts around them. They did that by crying to God, confident He would hear them and answer them.

By reciting Psalm 120, those preparing to worship were reminded what to do in times of trouble. They were reminded that by obeying - by crying to God - God would deliver them. That is one way they prepared themselves to worship.

We, too, have problems. Problems can interfere with our worship. So, may we, too, cry to God. May we, too, be confident He will answer. Let’s do that as we prepare for worship, be it on Sundays or Wednesdays - and all other days as well.

Which takes us to Psalm 121, which is the second Song of Ascent. It starts with the words, “I lift up my eyes to the hills.”
If this was a Psalm recited on the way to Jerusalem, which was on a hill, this may refer to the mount on which the Temple stood, which would have been seen for many, many miles.
If this was recited on the steps to the Temple, the worshiper would still have looked up to the Temple, which was on a hill.

Either way, lifting their eyes to the hills was a reminder of the help that came - not from the hills or any other part of nature, nor from any human God has created, such as prince or governor or giant of industry or athlete or even any religious leader - but - verse 2 - from the LORD. From God, since it was thought the Temple on the hill is where God resided.

“I  lift  up  my  eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come? My help comes from the LORD [from God] who made heaven and earth.”

Hey, if God was strong enough to make heaven and earth, can He not help us? Is He not strong enough for that?

Of course He is strong enough. In fact - verse 3 - He is so able to help us, He will “not let your foot be moved.” Spiritually at least. He will not let you be tempted or tested beyond what you are able to withstand.

And get this. “He who keeps you will not slumber.” Verse 4. “Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”

Wow. I get tired by the end of a day. Sometimes that happens before the end of a day. I need to get proper rest. So do we all. But not so God. He never tires. His energy is endless. He will not sleep.He will not even slumber. That means He will not even nod off or doze.

God is awake and ready to help every moment of every day of every year forever. So we never have to wonder if He is watching us or ready to help us. He is available all the time. That is a fact, on our good days and distressed days alike.

Verses 5 and 6. “The LORD is your keeper and your shade.”

Keeper. He will keep His people steady in their loyalty to Him. He will do that for all who will let Him do so.

Your shade. That refers to being sheltered from scorching heat. From the sun that can at least threaten to smite you by day. To smite means to cause heat stroke or exhaustion.

Remember one of the settings when Psalm 121 was recited? The setting related to those traveling to Jerusalem? Some of those people traveled through desert regions, where the sun was especially a danger. Verses 5 and 6 were relevant for them.

As a sidelight, part of the time we lived on Pioneers Boulevard, we had two big trees in the front yard. I remember on some really, really hot summer days when I was mowing, just about the time the heat was getting to me, I would step in the shade of those trees. The foliage of the trees was so thick the temperature in the shade was maybe 15 degrees cooler. That is what it felt like anyway.

With the heat of deserts, the heat of problems, whatever heat David experienced, whatever heat we experience, the promise is that God offers to be our shade. “On your right hand” signifies closeness. That is how much God wants to help us in times of distress.

And hey, night is not always good either. For the travelers to Jerusalem, some subscribed to the  superstition that the moon - the lunar body - caused lunacy. Those who were superstitious added that concern to the normal problems of life they faced.
For us, night can sometimes be disturbing. That being the case if our distresses cause us to think about them to the point of us not being able to sleep.

Day or night - verse 7 - the LORD is able “to keep you from all evil. He will keep your life.”

Verse 8. That extends to wherever you are. The wording? “The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in.”

Concerning those on the road to Jerusalem, there definitely were dangers they faced. At least, dangers were possible.

For instance, there were dangerous animals in Israel. Animals that sometimes attacked other animals like sheep, but that sometimes attacked people. The Old Testament prophet Elisha dealt with that. It is at least hinted that is one of the problems faced by the New Testament missionary Paul in his ministry.
Plus, one important road to Jerusalem was the road from Jericho. That was dangerous because it was one of the favorite haunts of robbers. Robbers so cruel they often caused pain to and sometimes murdered their victims. Jesus referred to those dangers in one of His parables.
As mentioned a moment ago, there was danger from the sun during the days. There was the superstition of the moon being a danger.
But not to worry. God promises to be with us - to guard us and shade us and keep us and help us and deliver us - wherever we are, anytime of day or night. He will do that “from this time forth and for evermore.”

Listen. The people walking to Jerusalem to worship God, like David, had lots of dangers to face. The normal problems of life, along with fears of heat and the moon and unsafe roads.

Even for those in Jerusalem who were climbing the steps to the Temple, if they did that on a hot day and if they were old or weak or sick, had the danger of not being able to make it to their destination. To their purpose of worshiping God.
Yet they wanted to worship. To do that effectively, they needed to rise above the dangers around them. They did that by reciting Psalm 121. As they did that, they were reminded that God is the source of all the help they needed. Help needed wherever they were. Help available whenever it was needed.

We, too, have dangers around us. Dangers that threaten us wherever we happen to be on the road of our Christian faith. Dangers that can interfere with our worship. So, may we lift up our eyes to the one who made the hills - and every other part of nature. May we let God be our shade from the heat of any and all dangers. Let’s do that as we prepare for worship, be it on Sundays or Wednesdays - and all other days as well.

*       *       *       *       *

What wonderful words of comfort and peace and encouragement are found in the first two Songs of Ascent. Psalms 120 and 121. What wonderful words to get us ready for worship.

God is certainly worthy of worship as He promises to hear our cries to deliver us, to help us, to be our shade. To do all that wherever we are, in whatever distresses we face. Whenever we need Him, He is available. Whenever - which of course is always.

Today’s closing song is the hymn, None Is Like God Who Reigns Above.

None is like God, who reigns above,
So great, so pure, so high;
None is like God, whose name is Love,
And who is always nigh.

In all the earth there is no spot
Excluded from His care;
We cannot go where God is not,
For He is everywhere.

He is our best and kindest Friend,
And guards us night and day;
To all our wants He will attend,
And answer when we pray.

O if we love Him as we ought,
And on His grace rely,
We shall be joyful at the thought
That God is always nigh.

Remember the devotional referred to about halfway through the message? The devotional by the person who said sometimes she would like to just hide under the blankets in her bed hoping the day would not start? That sometimes she gets tired of making lemonade from all the lemons in her life?

Yes, that can be what we think as we face troubles and dangers, including troubles and dangers that happen when we are trying to get ready to worship God. But we need to rise above the troubles and dangers. We need to do that so we will not hide under the covers. So we will keep making lemonade. Which will happen as we recite Psalms 120 and 121.

With that in mind, let’s close today’s service with a responsive reading that highlights much of what today’s two Psalms teach us. I will say my part, which is the first line of each section. Please respond with your part, which is the second line of each section.

In my distress, I cry to the LORD
that He may answer me.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
My hope comes from the LORD, who made Heaven and earth.

He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and for evermore.

May those words, as they are recited - as they are repeated over and over again - prepare our hearts and our minds to worship God, wherever we are, today and always. Amen.

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