“Life’s a journey, not a destination,” Steven Tyler sang in the rock band Aerosmith’s 1993 song, “Amazing.”
Amazing doesn’t quite describe the quirky fact that the very same phrase Aerosmith used in 1993 was used in 1920 by Methodist pastor and theologian Lynn H. Hough in a Sunday school lesson outline on the New Testament letter of 1 Peter: “life is a journey and not a destination.” However, we may want to hear the rest of the quote to make sense of it:
Life is a journey and not a destination; that the heart must be set upon those matters of character which are eternal and not upon those matters of sensation which pass away.
I think Steven Tyler would have been as shocked as Lynn Hough that their view of life was shared in this instance.
Yet, both of them echo a reality woven throughout the Scripture about our lives as human beings: we are on a journey through our days. Ideally, that journey is with God, but regardless of whether we believe in God or not, “journey” is the way we experience life.
One of the places where this comes clear in Scripture is in a little section of the Old Testament Book of Psalms known as the Psalms of Ascent.
The Psalms of Ascent consist of 15 psalms, from 120 through 134. While there are different ideas about what the “ascent” referenced in this group is all about, the most likely possibility is that these psalms were sung and prayed by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. They were traveling to the temple in celebration of the three main festivals of the Hebrew people: Passover, Pentecost, and Booths (Exodus 23:14-17). No matter where they were, they would ascend toward Jerusalem because it was on the heights, but also because it was symbolically the spiritual high point where God dwelt with human beings.
These pilgrim songs, these road-trip prayers, acted like a soundtrack for the people of God in their travels. They took the Hebrew people back to the nomadic faith journey of Abraham and the liberation journey of the Exodus. It was a reminder that they were a people on the way with God.
These psalms do the same for us today as well. They remind us that our life with God is a journey. It is a journey with God, but also a journey with his people on the way to the eternal kingdom.
The writer to the Hebrews in the New Testament describes God’s people as “foreigners and strangers on earth … looking for a country of their own” (Hebrews 11:13-14). With the Psalms of Ascent we sing and pray a soundtrack for the pilgrimage of our life with God, not just to Jerusalem, but to the eternal country that is our heavenly home in God for eternity.
In these Psalms of Ascent we see what it means to be shaped spiritually by God and his truth more than the surrounding context of our world. In a culture set on instantaneous achievement, instantaneous acquisition, instantaneous food out of a microwave or vending machine, we know life does not really work that way. The Psalms of Ascent slow us down enough so that we can take our time on a journey with God. There are certain things that we need in our lives, in our souls, if we are really going to grow with God over the long haul. These psalms show us what it means to grow over time, not in an instant; what it means to live life on a pilgrimage, where we draw nearer to seeing God in space and time every hour of our lives.
Beginning with the Lord in Our Distress
In the 2010 movie The Way we follow Tom, an American doctor, who receives the shocking news that his estranged adult son has unexpectedly died in a storm while hiking the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James. Dealing with his unresolved grief, Tom decides to honor his son’s desire to complete the Camino by embarking on the historical pilgrimage himself. Unprepared and not physically conditioned for it, Tom’s journey takes him beyond himself. He encounters his need for others, his need for resolution of his grief, and his need for a deeper spiritual meaning in life.
The film is moving to watch and parallels some of the real reasons people walk this historic pilgrimage path today. Some friends of mine run a hostel at the end of the Camino, in the beautiful city of Santiago de Compostela. Time and again they encounter people who are searching for something in their lives. Many are in the midst of distress and the walk along the Camino de Santiago becomes a pilgrimage not only physically but spiritually, as they seek a breakthrough to a deeper, more spiritual reality in life.
For most of us, the journey of our lives involves moments of distress. This is how Psalm 120 begins.
(Read Psalm 120:1-2)
When we think about going on a spiritual journey, this may feel like a strange way to start. However, it shouldn't feel strange because the beginning of our own journey with God involves coming to the end of ourselves. It begins with us saying, “Save me, God.”
Life is all about this. If life is about nothing else, it's about realizing that we are, if I can borrow bit of a language from Alcoholics Anonymous, powerless to change ourselves. We need a higher power. You may know that AA has its roots in Christianity. This acknowledgment that change happens when we come to the end of ourselves and reach out to God is just what we see in Psalm 120:1-2. Of course, that is not just true of alcoholics. It's true of anyone who exists on earth.
If you've been on the journey with God, you know this. So many times in our lives, we come to the end of ourselves because of physical situations in our lives, because of spiritual realities that we're dealing with, because of emotional difficulties in our lives, because of relational things that are happening, or even the broader challenges in the world around us. Sometimes simply reading the news is enough to bring us to the end of ourselves.
The journey with God begins by simply saying, “I do not have it in myself to make it in the abundant life, the best life possible and so, God, would you save me because I actually am in distress in one way or another.” That beginning is marked by honesty with God.
Sometimes when people come to church they think they need to put on a game face. It’s the religious game face with the religious answers and the religious smile that says everything is great. But the reality is different. We come to worship from a lot of different places and some of us are not great now. Don't misunderstand me. God is still great. God is still good. He's still almighty. However, there are moments of distress that come in our lives, when one of the most spiritual things we can do is to admit it before God and everybody else. It doesn't mean we stay in that place forever, but we say, “God, I need you.” Wherever we are coming from in this moment today, it is good to simply express to God, “I need you.”
When we get honest with God in prayer—admit that we have needs, admit that we have distress, admit that we have come to the end of ourselves—something new begins. It says in Scripture that God is near to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18). That does not mean we have to walk around heavy-hearted all the time. It does means that when we cannot carry ourselves, God loves to step in and carry us. The meaning of the incarnation of Jesus is that God steps inside of humanity’s broken existence that he might carry us back to himself; that we might be reconciled back to God through Christ. The honest admission of our need to God is the beginning of our journey with God.
Distress can open something up for us when we call to God, when we let him be, as verse two says, our Savior. That's the personal name of God, Yahweh: “Yahweh, please save me from lying lips and from deceitful tongues.” Now, here's the reality about distress. Sometimes there is distress inside of us and at other times there is distress surrounding us. God is the kind of being who, when we say, “I need you, I'm in distress,” he is there and he saves. Whether it's the internal distress or the surrounding distress, God is a Savior big enough for the external and the internal distress in our lives.
Is anybody in distress today? Are you feeling it on the inside? Are you feeling it around you? Do you feel it in the nation? Do you feel it in the world? God is not bound by what's inside of us or what's beyond us. He is the Almighty God and God is also close at hand.
Untangling Falsehood with God’s Truth
Have you ever had somebody tell lies about you? There is nothing you can do about it. I mean, you could try. I’m not encouraging this, but you could punch the person in the face so they couldn't talk. You could try that, but it would not stop the root of the problem. Maybe you wish you had a mute button on other people. Just be careful. They may wish they had a mute button on you, too.
What can lies do to you? Well, lies can do some things to you. They can ruin your reputation. They can make things very difficult for you. They can make circumstances bad. They can make people you love become people you hate. What can lies do to you? A lot of things, but not everything. There is a limit on what lies can do. The real question is: What can God do in the midst of lies?
(Read Psalm 120:3-4)
Sounds extreme, doesn't it? How does God feel about lies? Well, this is what it says in Proverbs 12:22, “Yahweh detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy.”
When lies come against us or when lies come out of our mouth, God is not full of joy. He detests that. Why? Because he is a God of truth and there will come a day, the scriptures tell us, when the truth will be revealed. If I needed a sermon illustration, I could easily just point at the news. Again and again, no matter how hard we try to hide things that are in the darkness, the truth comes out. There will come a day when all the lies that people use to cover over darkness will be brought into the light. Honestly, it will be a scary moment when the lies of our lips are shown to be the lies that they are.
It says here in Psalm 120 that God advocates for truth and he actually stands against those who are liars. This reflects what Jesus says in John 8:44 about the devil. “When he [the devil] lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). The problem is that sometimes we learn the native language of the devil and we take it inside of ourselves. The apostle Paul says this to the early church: “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices” (Col. 3:9).
Contrary to lying is loving one another, carrying each other's burdens, and being a person who is trustworthy and true. Scripture offers us a picture of the end of human history, that shows even if there are lies that have been placed out there, God will come and brings the fullness of his kingdom. What is that kingdom like? This is the way it is described in Zephaniah 3:12-13:
I will leave within you the meek and humble. The remnant … will do no wrong; they will tell no lies. A deceitful tongue will not be found in their mouths. They will eat and lie down and no one will make them afraid.
This does not sound like the rulers of the earth, does it? This describes the fulfillment of Psalm 120. God is at work in the midst of the world, and though lying lips may do things to us in our lives, God is our defender standing in the truth, standing against the father of lies and all those who have learned his language, even when it gets inside of us. God stands against that and calls us to be the kind of people who are not only standing in the truth ourselves, but are actually protected by the father of truth. This is the invitation to a becoming a different sort of person, living by a different sort of story, in the midst of a different sort of journey?
Living for Peace in the Midst of Conflict
“Well,” you may say, “that sounds good, Matt, but my life is not like that. You don’t know what my workplace is like and what my neighborhood is like.” I understand that. But listen to what the Psalmist says next.
(Read Psalm 120:5)
Meshek and Kedar may be a bit confusing. Meshek is in present-day Turkey, beyond the northern-most border of the land of Israel, and Kedar is located in present-day Saudi Arabia, south of the land of Israel. These are two foreign peoples located at the extreme opposite ends of Israel.
When the people would go on pilgrimage, they would come from a lot of different places around the land. This writer of Psalm 120 is not saying that he’s necessarily living in these places, but that these two peoples serve as figurative names of the barbarian people that he is in the midst of (Kidner, Psalms 73-150, p. 430). He’s saying, “Oh man, the people I live in and around, they remind me of the heathen barbarians. That's the way that I feel right now. They are these people far off in the furthest reaches and not at all like God’s people.”
We could ask ourselves, who or what is our Meshek and Kedar today? Meshek and Kedar are different things for each of us. They are places we feel like we find ourselves amidst people where God’s truth and way is not upheld. They are the places we find ourselves where a kind of heathen imagination and imagination that's far from God takes us captive. Meshek and Kedar represent what’s happening when we find ourselves trying to live for God, trying to be on pilgrimage, trying to see the celestial city that we're aiming for, trying to hear God's voice, but all we can hear is the rumblings of the chaotic mindset contrary to God around us.
Do you ever experience these sorts of realities? It is almost as if the psalmist feels unable to see beyond the chaos into the destination of the journey. “Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek, that I live among the tents of Kedar. Too long have I lived among those who hate peace.”
The prayers in the Psalms of Ascent are songs of a people on the journey with God, even in the midst of people, lands, and times that are at odds with God. As we take this pilgrimage with God, we join in prayer together, singing these songs many times in a land and in the presence of people that seem to be against us. Even when we feel like someone is against us or like the territory or environment is at odds with our faith journey, it is an opportunity.
The journey with God starts right where we are, right in the midst of the chaos of the world around us. We cannot wait to get to another place that is difficulty-free to start the journey. Instead, we start the journey in the midst of opposition, right in the places that are not for peace, right in the places that seem to be dead-set against God's ways, even the places where conflict and lies seem gathered around. In the mist of those places, the people of God can step forward and say, “In this place, I am for God. I am for truth. I am for his ways.” That is where the journey begins.
The prayers of the people on pilgrimage arise from a community joining together on the journey in an alien, or even hostile, place. They sing these song as they journey together, and that, too, is instructive to us. The journey with God is not just something you do on your own. The Psalms of Ascent are a communal journey. Imagine a group of a cluster of people off on the very edges of Israel, maybe past Syria, towards the land of Meshek, and they’re beginning to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. As they traverse the land, they begin to sing Psalm 120. One person starts the song and the hearts that are heavy and the minds that are worn out from living amidst a people opposed to God begin to join in with the song together. Sometimes you just need somebody else to start the song so you can join in and get going on the journey together as well.
This week I received a song like that. Actually, it was a WhatsApp message from one of our friends who serves in another part of the world and is enduring some great hardships and violence. She reached out to a number of us requesting prayer and many of us responded with little messages of encouragement, saying things like, “We’re with you and we're praying for you.” After a while, she responded: “Thank you, Lord, for giving me spiritual family that can never be taken away!”
These prayers and songs of the people on the journey with God are prayed together. They are sung together because we need each other, and it's when we pray and sing together that our hearts are lifted up beyond the circumstances and the environment that’s opposed to God or us. When we reach out to one other and say, “We’re with you. We journey together,” the burden becomes lighter. We carry one another's burdens, lift one another's arms when we cannot go on, and we start to sing the songs of the Lord.
That's the journey of the people of God. It's not just one person but clusters of people. Is there a group of people around you who lifts your arms when you cannot rise? Are there people around you who can start to sing the song when you cannot sing the song yourself? Is there somebody there you can reach out to and say, “Pray for me because I am dwelling in the land of Meshek and Kedar.” We need each other.
(Read Psalm 120:6-7)
When we read this psalm, for some of us it is easiest to relate to the troubles dwelling in Meshek and living in Kedar. But the movement of this psalm is toward peace, not toward sitting in the darkness or giving into the hatred around us.
That word, “peace,” is the well-known Hebrew word shalom. It’s one of the most prominent words in the Hebrew Bible. It does not simply mean inner peace or the absence of conflict. It means that everything is right and good in God’s world as he intends it to be. Biblical peace is not just personal, but is a social and relational peace. It means that the community is truly together, not just living without strife, but actually living with things being right, good, and harmonious, individually and together.
In light of the context of Meshek and Kedar, peace here means God’s people are free from judgment, oppression, and warfare. It means God’s people are living the good life, the way that God intended it to be, regardless of their setting. That is true both personally and in relationship with other people. Shalom.
This is the intention of God, but the world we live in feels so different. It is full of strife. We encounter that every day in some form. We see it in the major cities of our world, and we see it in our own city. We feel it in our families and in our friendships. We experience it in ourselves. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9). Then James writes, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18).
Now, in a world of chaos and division, in a world of hatred and injustice, in a world where people use each other and things, it can look like the world is going to hell in a hand basket. In a world like that, the tendency for us, even as Christians, is sometimes to slide into hopelessness or hatred.
However, Psalm 120, which begins the journey of the Psalms of Ascent declares,
Even though I'm in the midst of an environment that's at odds with God, I choose to be the kind of person who does not slide into hopelessness. Neither do I slide into hatred. I set my eyes on God. I begin the journey with God. I choose to be a person aiming for the good life—the life of true shalom—in myself and for the community of God and for those beyond that sphere, so that people might be blessed through me, even as Abraham was called to be a blessing to every nation of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3).
This is peace-making, this bringing of blessing, is a mark of the journey with God from the very beginning.
Of course, the truth about intending to do something like that is we cannot create it ourselves. But there is One who can. His name is Jesus. He was spoken about by the prophet Isaiah, who described the Messiah as “the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). When he spoke with his disciples before the suffering of the Cross, he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). Jesus, the Prince of Peace, can bring his peace into our lives and also bring his peace through us into the world around us.
As we think about the nature of our spiritual journey with the Psalms of Ascent, I would like to suggest four ways we can respond and make this real for us in our own lives.
First, some of us need to simply begin the journey and stop waiting for everything to get better. We should not wait for God to lift us out of the land of Kedar and Meshek, but begin with God right where we are.
Second, some of us in this place need to call out to God with honesty and brokenness. Perhaps you have been afraid to be honest with God in your life. This is the moment that can change. The journey with God is one that is marked by honesty and vulnerability. And so, perhaps the biggest step for some of us is simply to call out to God from the honesty of our lives, saying, “God, I’m in distress. I need your help. I want to begin with you.”
For others of us, God may be telling us that we need community in our lives. Perhaps that means reaching out to somebody else around you and asking, “Would you pray with me that I might be touched by God and his saving work in my life?” Even now, some of us need to reach out to others in our lives and say, “I need a group of people around me who can help me journey on the way.”
The truth is that we're not meant to do it alone. But I really believe there are some of us who have slid into hopelessness and God wants to replace that hopelessness with his peace. Maybe it's the hopelessness of your circumstances. Maybe it's the hopelessness of your health. Maybe it's the apparent hopelessness of the world or the strife in our nation. It really does not matter what form your hopelessness takes. It's time to take the hopelessness and bring it to the Cross of Christ and say, “God, would you be my peace.” It will not help us to crawl into some quiet place inside of ourselves or to hunker down somewhere in society when what we really need to do is crawl into the presence of God and let him be our hope.
Lastly, some of us have slid into the tendency of hatred toward others, and it is time to shed hatred because that is antithetical to the ways of God who wants to be our peace and, through us, shed peace upon others. Though we live in the tents of Kedar and dwell in Meshek, God wants to move us through the place of a hatred, and into the place of peace. Maybe today is the day to say,
God, I choose to let go of hatred toward myself. I choose to let go of hatred toward somebody in my family. I choose to let go of hatred toward some category of people in the world or toward some place in the world. Instead, God, I'm drawing near to you. I want you to be my peace. I want to go on the journey with you.
Let me simply say out loud that we cannot hide in our hatred. It will not protect us. Our hatred actually makes us vulnerable. But in the presence of God, we can draw near and enter the place of peace.
Wherever we are at this morning, let’s join together on the journey with God, letting the Psalms of Ascent be the songs, the prayers, the soundtrack for our journey.
Matt Erickson serves as the Senior Pastor of Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.