Sermon for June 2nd, 2019

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Psalm 120:1-7

A Song of Ascents.
1 In my distress I cry to the Lord,
   that he may answer me:
2 “Deliver me, O Lord,
    from lying lips,
    from a deceitful tongue.”

3 What shall be given to you?
    And what more shall be done to you,
    you deceitful tongue?
4 A warrior’s sharp arrows,
    with glowing coals of the broom tree!

5 Woe is me, that I am an alien in Meshech,
    that I must live among the tents of Kedar.
6 Too long have I had my dwelling
    among those who hate peace.
7 I am for peace;
    but when I speak,
    they are for war. 

Psummer of Psalms - 120

There's a famous saying, attributed to the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.


Of course, like most popular sayings in the internet age, this one has spawned some interesting variations, some of them less optimistic (perhaps more realistic?) than the original:


Some are almost comically tragic:


Or this one:


Some target a specific demographic, like fashionistas:


Or history buffs:


Or animal lovers:


Personally, as a parent of three children, this is my favorite:


What do any of these have to do with our Psalm today? Well, the inscription (remember last week I told you that inscriptions are important!) says that this is a "Song of Ascents" (Hebrew: שִׁיר המַעֲלוֹת‎ Shir Hama'aloth) or literally song of upward steps. This is a special category of Psalms--there are 14 of them in the Book of Psalms, and they are all collected together one after the other, beginning with this one, Psalm 120 and all the way through Psalm 134.

Most biblical scholars believe that these were the songs that would have been sung by pilgrims making their way to the city of Jerusalem from the distant parts of Israel for one of the three annual Jewish Holy days. Jerusalem sits on top of Mount Zion, so if you were walking to Jerusalem, no matter where you were coming from, you would be walking up. Hence a song of "ascent" or "upward steps." One way to look at this collection of Psalms is like your playlist for a road-trip. And this Psalm, 120, is the first on the list.

But there's a problem. Most of the Psalms of Ascent feature something about the road, the journey, traveling, or climbing, or at least the destination--the temple in Jerusalem. But not this one. No one's really sure why its included in the roadtrip playlist, let alone the very first song.

The NRSV translation in your pew bibles categorizes it as a "Prayer for deliverance from slanderers." But if that's true, it's not a very good (or consistent) one. It does begin with a request for God to deliver the psalmist from "lying lips and a deceitful tongue." Then in verses 3 and 4 the psalmist calls down a curse on the slanderers: sharp arrows and hot glowing coals.

But then the prayer ends and the psalmist just complains about the land he lives in, surrounded by warlike people when all he wants is peace...even though he just wished sharp arrows and hot glowing coals on them.