August 10, 2010 David Balzer

Psalm 120: Sticks and Stones

When I was teaching, I taught a young man called Brent. He was an impressive guy. An active and committed Christian. School captain.

And when he finished school, he received a scholarship to study at Duntroon military college. ADFA I think it’s called these days.

He lasted six months.

He came back to talk about it at a school chapel service.

When he arrived at Duntroon, he started reading his Bible and praying – like he’d always done. But the senior cadets didn’t like that. And so they began a series of verbal attacks. Teasing, abuse, isolation, ridicule. Humiliation.

And it seemed like everyone joined in. That he was the only Christian in the whole place.

And that the staff just turned a blind eye.

Brent had never known anything like it. He ended up sitting inside a broom cupboard to read his Bible. Feeling alone, and abandoned. Praying fervently that God would hear his prayers. Make the situation better.

He stuck it out for a while, but eventually, he had to quit. Came back to Sydney, and enrolled at a normal Uni.

And as he told this story to the kids at school, they were spellbound. You could have heard a pin drop. They would never have imagined that something like that could happen in AUSTRALIA. Neither could I.

And yet even though it wasn’t a happy story. And there wasn’t a victorious ending. It was great for the kids to hear it. Because the Christian walk ISN’T always easy. And to see that a Christian can SURVIVE in that situation. And not give in. Is very encouraging.

Ridicule, insults, persecution. Humiliation. All because he followed God.

And that’s what the writer of this Psalm’s experienced. And it’s the story of how he dealt with it.

And even though it’s not the HAPPIEST Psalm I’ve ever read, it’s STILL ENCOURAGING. For the same reason BRENT’S story was encouraging.

To see how someone DEALS with the slander, and the gossip, and the abuse. Stands firm with their trust in God. And makes it through.

II. BACKGROUND – THE SONGS OF ASCENT

But before we look at the actual Psalm itself, take a look at the sub-heading. Just there below Psalm 120. “A Song of Ascent”.

You’ll see the same sub-heading for each of the PSALMS from 120 to 134. It’s A COLLECTION.

It’s just like many MODERN books of songs. There are various collections. Collections of hymns about Jesus as the King, others about God’s holiness. Or a collection of Christmas carols.

But why are these fifteen psalms grouped together? What is it that they have in common? What is a song of ASCENT?

Probably the best opinion is that “ascent” refers to JOURNEYS UP TO JERUSALEM. Pilgrims would travel to the annual festivals three times a year. They’d ASCEND.

And it seems like these songs were sung as part of the journey to Jerusalem. Maybe by individuals. Or maybe as a group.

So a song of ascent is a TRAVELING song. Probably for traveling to Jerusalem.

They were songs that echoed the concerns of the heart. Reflections on life. What was BEHIND them, and what was IN FRONT of them. In other words, they were ROAD SONGS.

It’s the sort of thing you often do when you’re traveling. You can almost picture someone sitting on a bus, staring out the window, and thinking about life.

Road songs are about things going on at home with family or friends. A song about things that happen along the way. A song about WHERE they were going and WHY they were going. It was just the stuff of life.

And that’s just what these Psalms are. They’re concerned with the “stuff” of everyday living — what’s happening back home, what’s happening on the way, what you look forward to when you get there.

So let’s have a look at Psalm 120 in PARTICULAR.

III. FIRST MOVE

The first thing you notice in v1 is that the writer’s IN TORMENT. Life’s miserable.

(Psa 120:1 NIV)  I call on the LORD in my DISTRESS, and he answers me.

That could be for all sorts of reasons. Sickness, Famine. Poverty.

But as we read on we see that he’s upset because he’s been the victim of lies and deceitfulness. Been slandered and maligned by others. Ridiculed. Put down. And it hurts. V2.

(Psa 120:2 NIV)  Save me, O LORD, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues.

Probably what’s going on is that he lives among people who don’t share his faith. Neighbours who look upon his religion  – all these journeys to Jerusalem – with scorn, maybe even amusement.

And so, as the faithful traveler heads off toward Jerusalem for the umpteenth time he notices the stares, and hears the whispers, feels the mockery.

And he’s not alone, is he? I think most people have, at one time or another, been ridiculed. Made fun of.

Wasting a beautiful Sunday morning by going to church. Sitting in an uncomfortable seat, being bored out of your mind.

Or wasting your money giving to the church. When you could be spending it on so many more USEFUL things.

Or putting your career SECOND because it takes up time you need for church commitments.

What FOOLISH things to do!

Ridicule and slander. And many of us know what that feels like.

Let me tell you about Ruby Bridges. She was six years old, and living in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1960. The government had just legalised mixed-race primary schools. With black AND white kids. Instead of segregated ones.

But no-one at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans WANTED a school like this. Not the white teachers. Not the white parents.

But Ruby Bridges’ parents decided that Ruby would attend. They were Christian. So was Ruby.

And the education department found one white teacher willing to teach Ruby. Barbara Henry. ALSO a Christian.

And so, for the whole year, Ruby went to school. All by herself. Except for Barbara Henry her teacher.

Every day, undaunted, she walked past an angry mob of yelling, abusive, protesting racists. Parents and teachers and concerned citizens. Past the television cameras and reporters.

Can you imagine what it must have been like?

Distress! “I call on the Lord in my DISTRESS, and he answers me”.

And it’s distress, and hurt and anger that the PSALMIST feels.. His devotion to God, seen in his journeys up to Jerusalem, has set him apart among his peers. He’s a marked man. Surrounded by people who don’t care about God or God’s ways. He would have felt all aone.

That’s what v5 is talking about. “dwelling in Meshech” and “living among the tents of Kedar’ in v5.

You see, “Meshech” and “Kedar” were the upper and lower ends of the map. Siberia. The South Pole. That’s what it felt like for him. When he was slandered and maligned, he felt totally out of place, like he was somewhere he didn’t belong,

That’s what it feels like for the psalmist — completely ISOLATED.

And yet, he’s NOT completely isolated. Because in his isolation, who does he turn to? “I call on the LORD in my distress, and he ANSWERS me”

The fact that God is listening and there and answering. Is a very real comfort. Sometimes the only comfort there is.

I know that’s true for many of YOU. Struggles with sin, with hurts, family conflicts. No-one can do anything to help. Can make ANY REAL DIFFERENCE. Except GOD.

And prayer was a real factor in the life of Ruby Bridges, too. And her parents.

One day as Ruby was walking in to school. Past the angry mob. She stopped. And turned back to the mob. And the media saw her say something. Then she turned, and walked into school.

A few days later a reporter asked Ruby, “What did you say to the crowd the other day?”

Ruby looked puzzled. “I didn’t say anything,” she said.

Yes you did, the reporter insisted. You walked past the crowd, then stopped, turned around, and said something to them.

Oh that! No! I wasn’t talking TO THEM. Said Ruby.

Every day, mum and dad tell me to pray for those people. That God would forgive them, and help them not to be so angry.

But this morning, I was in such a rush, I forgot to pray for them. And as I walked up the path, and saw them, I remembered them. And so I stopped and prayed that God will help them.

That’s the prayer of a godly person. In the midst of anger and distress and hurt and slander. Would YOU be so godly?

What about the prayer of the Psalmist? What does HE pray? He prays that God would save him from lying lips and deceitful tongues.

It’s obviously not the lips and tongues themselves that are dangerous. I’ve got this mental picture of an army of lips and tongues slurping down the street. Like that beer ad. With the tongue that goes looking for a Tooheys Dry.

But it’s the EFFECT that lips and tongues can have. The powerful hurt that WORDS can bring. Because lips and tongues aren’t just ORGANS. Lumps of TISSUE. They’re weapons. Lips and tongues are DANGEROUS.

Proverbs 25:18/ says that the liar is like a club or a sword or A SHARP ARROW. Dangerous stuff.

And Proverbs 16:27 says that the speech of a scoundrel is like a SCORCHING FIRE. That’s deadly. That’s the sort of affect the words are having on this guy. They’re HURTING.

It’s NOT true that “sticks and stones might break my bones, but words will never hurt me”.

And so what does he do?

If you’re anything like ME, your first instinct is to respond in kind. To RETURN the harsh words with INTEREST. To stand up for yourself. To give as good as you get.

To attack with words, because YOU’VE been attacked.

But words like this are the weapons of COWARDS. WEAK people talk behind someone’s back. Little people, insecure people, tease and mock. Because it makes them feel bigger, better.

But godly people DON’T respond like that.

And yet godly people are FAR from defenseless. Because, in their distress, they’ve prayed to God. And GOD HAS ANSWERED THEM.

And look at what he will do. V3.

(Psa 120:3-4 NIV)  What will he do to you, and what more besides, O deceitful tongue? {4} He will punish you with a warrior’s sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom tree.

God will balance the books, and make sure that justice is done in the end: Injustice has NOT gone unnoticed by God. And God will defend the faithful, even when they CANNOT, or WILL not defend himself.

And notice the irony of the justice. Their tongues and lips are weapons/ like arrows or fire. And so God’s PUNISHMENT will come like arrows and fire.

And the mockers will TASTE what THEIR mocking was like. They’ll experience something of the pain they’ve caused.

It might only be a distant HOPE for the follower of God. But that’s better than nothing. Justice WILL come.

It’s that thought that keeps him going. EVEN THOUGH LIFE MIGHT STAY EXACTLY THE SAME. Verses 5-7 describe life for this guy.

He’s prayed to God. And God’s answered him. And justice will come. But that doesn’t mean life will be ROSY for the obedient follower of God. Hear the loneliness, and the weariness.

(Psa 120:5-7 NIV)  Woe to me that I dwell in Meshech, that I live among the tents of Kedar! {6} Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. {7} I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war.

He longs to live among PEACEFUL people. But all he knows are FIGHTERS. People who pick quarrels. Look for any excuse for an argument.

And too often that’s the Christian’s experience in CHURCH…

But it’s not to BE like that. Church should be a HAVEN from the world. A place of PEACE. Comfort. Restoration. Encouragement.

Is that your experience of THIS church?

God has answered this guy’s prayer. But life is still tough. And things are no different TODAY. Some Christians will tell you that things will always go WELL for faithful people. That God’s will is for you to be healthy, wealthy and wise.

But friends, it JUST AIN’T SO!

Listen to the words of the Apostle Peter. In 1 Peter 4 v 12. He’s writing to people who are experiencing persecution for their faith.

(1 Pet 4:12 NIV)  Dear friends, do not be SURPRISED at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something STRANGE were happening to you.

He’s saying that trials are JUST PAR FOR THE COURSE. They’re NOT an unexpected hiccup. A momentary lapse of God’s control. They’re what the faithful Christian life is LIKE.

And look at the argument Peter uses. Persecution comes to the Christian PRECISELY BECAUSE he or she FOLLOWS Christ. Your life is nothing worse than what Jesus HIMSELF lived. Flip over to Ch 2. The second half of v20.

(1 Pet 2:20-23 NIV)  But if you SUFFER FOR DOING GOOD and you endure it, this is commendable before God. {21} To this you were CALLED (God’s WILL is that your life is like this), because Christ SUFFERED for you, LEAVING YOU AN EXAMPLE, that you should FOLLOW IN HIS STEPS. {22} “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” {23} When they hurled their INSULTS at him, HE DID NOT RETALIATE; when he suffered, he made no threats. INSTEAD, HE ENTRUSTED HIMSELF TO HIM WHO JUDGES JUSTLY.

What was Jesus’ response to all that happened to him. He DIDN’T retaliate. He made no threats. And he entrusted himself to his heavenly Father.

And Peter goes a step further over in Ch 4. V13. Don’t just PERSEVERE. But REJOICE.

(1 Pet 4:13-16 NIV)  But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. {14} If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. {15} If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. {16} However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

You see, we’ve gone one better than the guy who wrote this Psalm. Because he didn’t have the example of Jesus to follow. GOD HIMSELF has put on flesh, been born, cried, had blisters and sunburn. Been abused and ridiculed and rejected and beaten.

All for OUR sake. Because he LOVES us.

And so when ridicule and persecution and harassment come our way. We know that it comes from the hand of a father who loves us so much that he put his Son through much worse than that.

And so we can REJOICE.

Don’t be ashamed, but praise God that we BEAR his name.

How proudly do YOU wear the label of CHRISTIAN?

Some thoughts to finish. How can we respond WELL to slander and persecution?

1. Firstly, we need not be SURPRISED when it comes. Or feel that it’s a problem with our faith.

In some ways, it’s a sign that we’re doing things RIGHT. That we’re making it OBVIOUS that we’re Christians, and what we believe.

Persecution and ridicule WILL come.

2. A second thing to remember is that we can PRAY for those who slander us. We can ask God to teach us what it means to love our enemies.

3. Even further, we can be comforted by the thought that God will balance the books one day. He will defend the defenseless. JUDGMENT IS COMING.

Peter backs that up. V17.

(1 Pet 4:17-18 NIV)  For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? {18} And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

4. Finally, when it comes to slander, gossip, and deceitful speech, don’t do it YOURSELF. Don’t gossip. Don’t make a habit of dissecting and critiquing other people in your conversations. In fact, you should do just THE OPPOSITE. Let’s make church A HAVEN from the world. Somewhere to RECOVER.

Call on the Lord in your distress, and the Lord will ANSWER you. That’s the promise of his word from Psalm 120.

And let the final word be an encouragement from God through Peter. V19.

(1 Pet 4:19 NIV)  So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

COMMIT yourself to God. CONTINUE to do good.

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