Preaching the Psalms of Ascent: A Soundtrack for the Pilgrimage of Faith

Psalms of Ascent PT

An article I wrote for Preaching Today on preaching the Psalms of Ascent came out last week. This article came to life through my own journey of preaching the Psalms of Ascent at Eastbrook Church in late 2017 through a series entitled “Ascend: The Psalms of Ascent.” Thanks to Andrew Finch and Matt Woodley at PT, who have been a great encouragement to me and continue to provide me opportunities to write. I’m including an excerpt of the article below, as well as a link here to one of the sermons I preached from that series, entitled “Our Journey with God,” that PT is including on their website as well.

Since our kids have been young, one of the highlights of our road trips has been listening to music. In the “old days,” everyone would bring a favorite CD or two on the trip so we could take turns listening to music. These days, we create playlists or switch out smartphones, letting everyone have a turn at picking a song to share with everyone else. We learn a lot about one another through the music, even as we enjoy the travel experiences, and the beauty of God’s creation matched by the soundtrack for the journey.

Now, one of the most cliché phrases about human existence is that “life is a journey.” Like many such phrases, however, it is so overused because it seems so resoundingly true. That concept is woven throughout Scripture about our lives as human beings: we are on a journey, or pilgrimage, through our days. Ideally, that pilgrimage is with God but, regardless, journey is an accurate description of the human way of experiencing life.

One portion of Scripture where this is particularly clear is in a grouping of psalms known as the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134). While there are different ideas about what “ascent” is a reference to, the most widely supported idea is that these psalms were sung and prayed by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. These pilgrims traveled 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 topographical heights, but also because it symbolized the spiritual high point where God dwells with human beings.

These journey prayers provided a soundtrack for the people of God, a spiritual soundtrack for the pilgrimage of faith. The Psalms of Ascent returned the Hebrew people to their nomadic faith roots in Abraham and the liberation journey of the Exodus with Moses. They served as a reminder that God’s people were a pilgrim people on the way with God.

The Pilgrim Way: relearning life as a journey with God from the faithful in Hebrews 11

pilgrim way.jpgAn old spiritual offers describes our life as Christians this way:

I am a pilgrim and a stranger, traveling through this wearisome land,
I’ve got a home in that yonder city, good Lord, and it’s not…not made by hands.

It is an overused description to say that life is a journey. The reason this idea is overused, even cliché, is that it is true. We are, as the Apostle Peter writes: “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11). Day after day, year after year, we move along the twisting path of our lives until we reach some sort of destination. Of course, many people perceive the destination differently but the author of the letter to the Hebrews says that past people of faith “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth….seeking a homeland….they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:13-16).

This theme returns throughout Scripture, coming to striking focus in the psalms of Ascent. The concept of pilgrimage guides the journey of the psalms of Ascent (see our seeries Ascend: A Study of the Psalms of Ascent), which is outlined as a practice of God’s people in Deuteronomy 16:16-17:

Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed.  Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you.

Pilgrimage is something woven throughout the faith life of the Hebrew people. It is something Jesus Himself participated in with His family and neighbors, traveling to Jerusalem at least twice in his early life that are recorded in Scripture (Luke 2:22-38, 41-51), but likely more often than that.

Yet, pilgrimage is a foreign concept to most of us in North America. While we turn to vacations to help us recover from life, the idea of taking a religious journey is not something we search for too often. The concept of religious pilgrimage, however, is not only part of other faith traditions, but is woven into the history of Christianity as well. The Camino do Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, a well-worn pilgrimage route through Europe has become an increasingly well-known in North America, perhaps in part due to the movie “The Way” featuring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez.

In his book, The Way is Made by WalkingArthur Paul Boers relates his own journey on the Camino, offering insights about how this physical pilgrimage taught him about the spiritual pilgrimage of our life with God in Christ. Here is an excerpt that gives the feel of why we need to recovery pilgrimage as a guiding metaphor for our spiritual lives:

Pilgrimage in its truest sense is religiously motivated travel for the purpose of meeting and experiencing God with hopes of being shaped and changed by that encounter. Pilgrimages are often concretely physical – journeying to a particular place, perhaps with some extraordinary expense and exertion – and spiritual – one hopes to meet God in this travel.

An irony – indeed a danger – of pilgrimage is that we try to settle in a final destination, considering only that particular place holy and forgetting the call to be faithfully on the move for God. Think of Peter wanting to remain on the mountain where he, John and James (Santiago) experienced the transfiguration: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” His suggestion is dismissed: “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (Mark 9:5-6). Christian pilgrimage always calls us to further growth. As Origen wrote: “Travelers on the road to God’s wisdom find that the further they go, the more the road opens out, until it stretches to infinity.”

Pilgrimage sites are not merely an end in themselves. They are not strictly speaking even necessary. They richly symbolize the fact that our lives are to be a journey with and to God. Even if not all of us can afford or are able to go to famous places for prayer, every time we venture to church for worship we make a small pilgrimage to deepen our faithfulness. The Greek word paroikia means “sojourn” and is “also the root of English word ‘parish’, meaning a congregation of pilgrims.”

I love that phrase at the beginning of the last paragraph: “our lives are to be a journey with and to God.” Wherever we are today, let’s lift our legs for one more step, lift our hearts to our God, and fix our eyes on the eternal kingdom, which is just around the next bend in the road.

Why Does God Seem Distant?: The Holy Pursuit of the Hidden God

Distance of God

There are times when God feels distant. There are moments, particularly in times of suffering, when God seems silent. To enter into the stillness of God and to attend to the silence of God requires patience.

God is not a Labrador retriever who comes when we call. God is sometimes like the rain that comes when it will, whether the grass is green or the crops are failing.  Jesus told us that if we ask it will be given, if we seek we will find, and if we knock the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8), but the timing of the giving, the finding, and the opening is not ours to demand. That God will answer prayer happen is guaranteed, but when God will answer is not determined by the one who asks. The timing is in the hands of the One who gives, reveals, and opens.

I believe this is at least part of the meaning behind Psalm 40:1, which says: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” There is waiting in prayer and with God, who sometimes seems still and quiet from our perspective. This is echoed in 2 Peter 3:8-9, which addresses the timing of the parousia:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

It is actually God’s patience that causes the apparent delay here; a patience motivated by love for human lives. This reminds us that God’s distance, whether measured in minutes or miles, aims to stir something up within us.

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Sometimes that distance of God that we feel personally as waiting is an effort of God to bring a change within our lives, situation, or world. The Hebrew word most connected with the idea of change is shuv, which throughout the Hebrew Bible means to return to God (Hosea 14:1-3; Zephaniah 2:1-3). It is a highly relation concept, often paralleled by the word repentance, conveying that something is wrong between two parties that needs to be repaired; a breach that needs to be retraced through return. The distance of God, even the apparent hiddenness of God, is not random, as we often experience it, but has intention behind it. God aims to stir up our lives toward change and a longing for Him that outpaces anything else. It is a longing that should grip us so deeply that we feel dry and deadened without God. This is why the psalmist describes his longing for God in terms of dehydration in Psalm 42:1-2:

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?

“Clouds and thick darkness surround him” (Psalm 97:2) not in order to keep us away but in order to incite our desire for Him even more. It is a desire marked by fervent longing that is evident throughout the Psalms (e.g., 42, 63), but it is also more than that.

When we wait upon God in His apparent distance, we often find ourselves feeling increasingly helpless. Our crutches are stripped away and we become more and more in need. God is bringing us back to the humble naivety witnessed in a child who is not even aware of its utter dependence upon an adult. The psalmist once describes the soul as “a weaned child with its mother” (Psalm 131:2), and Jesus called His followers to receive God’s kingdom “like a little child” (Luke 18:15-17).

Waiting on God.002

While it may not feel like it, waiting on God—looking for God in His apparent distance—is a work of grace from God. In a world where we used to believe we were capable and held power in the palm of our hands, God’s distance brings us into the necessary desperation by which we recognize our utter need (2 Kings 5; Luke 8:40-56; 17:11-19; 18:35-43). We spend a good deal of our life trying to avoid recognizing our utter powerlessness and only God, the almighty One, has both the power and tenaciousness to work us into the place of facing into our need. It is in that place, where we recognize that nothing and no one else can satisfy our deepest desires. When God taps into this hungry need it keeps us awake at night, singing songs of longing for God (Psalm 77). It eventually burns us with awareness of our sin that sends shivers of regret through our broken souls that rises in longing for wholeness (Psalm 51, 80). This longing burns brighter and stronger, making even the smallest taste of God more satisfying than all other goods or pursuits in life (Psalm 84:1-2, 10).

The distance of God and the waiting we experience is a gracious gift that leads us back to an encounter with the living God. It is the promise of God’s glorious presence ahead of us that spurs on in these times:

You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

It is this longing that sets us on a journey with a focused destination. Over time the destination becomes less about a place and more about a being; that is, God Himself. As in the Psalms of Ascent, we are spurred on from faraway lands to return to the center of all our hopes and joys, which are only satisfied in a holy God, who is both loving and sometimes apparently hidden. All the distance, all the stillness, all the silence cannot hold us back from giving all for the sake of that holy pursuit.

Joining Jesus in Prayer: Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Praying the Psalms

Bonhoeffer.jpg

One of my favorite theologians is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author of Discipleship and Life Together. I encountered his writing very early in my life of faith when my older brother came home from college with Bonhoeffer’s book on discipleship. Shortly after that, I found a short book by him entitled The Prayerbook of the Bible, which transformed my reading of the Psalms by setting me on a journey of praying the psalms. Here are a few of Bonhoeffer’s introductory remarks on the psalms and prayer from that book, as a follow-up to my video update on the same topic from yesterday.

Praying certainly does not mean simply pouring out one’s heart. It means, rather, finding the way to and speaking with God, whether the heart is full or empty. No one can do that on one’s own. For that one needs Jesus Christ….

If we want to pray with assurance and joy, then the word of Holy Scripture must be the firm foundation of our prayer. Here we know that Jesus Christ, the Word of God, teaches us to pray. The words that come from God will be the steps on which we find our way to God.

Now there is in the Holy Scriptures one book that differs from all other books of the Bible in that it contains only prayers. That book is the Psalms. At first it is something very astonishing that there is a prayerbook in the Bible. The Holy Scriptures are, to be sure, God’s Word to us. But prayers are human words….

In Jesus’ mouth the human word becomes God’s Word. When we pray along with the prayer of Christ, God’s Word becomes again a human word. Thus all prayers of the Bible are such prayer, which we pray together with Jesus Christ, prayers in which Christ includes us, and through which Christ brings us before the face of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray.

If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible, and especially the Psalms, we must not, therefore, first ask what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ. We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and only then can we pray them with Jesus Christ….

The Psalms have been given to us precisely so that we can learn to pray them in the name of Jesus Christ….

Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church. With its recovery will come unexpected power.

[Quotations from “Introduction” of The Prayerbook of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5, pages 155-162.]

Spiritual Tourists or Pilgrims?: Eugene Peterson from A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

pilgrim wayNot too long ago, I was sitting with some of my staff in what feels like an altogether different universe from today. We were talking about the calling of the church and what it means to really do ministry. I shared with them this introduction from Eugene Peterson’s masterful book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Reading it again today, I felt like the words were just as pertinent about the long obedience of discipleship that moves beyond spiritual tourism and into lifelong pilgrimage. I hope you enjoy his bracing words as well.

This world is no friend to grace. A person who makes a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior does not find a crowd immediately forming to applaud the decision nor old friends spontaneously gathering around to offer congratulations and counsel. Ordinarily there is nothing directly hostile, but an accumulation of puzzled disapproval and agnostic indifference constitutes, nevertheless, surprisingly formidable opposition.

An old tradition sorts the difficulties we face in the life of faith into the categories of world, flesh and devil. We are, for the most part, well warned of the perils of the flesh and the wiles of the devil. Their temptations have a definable shape and maintain an historical continuity. That doesn’t make them an easier to resist; it does make them easier to recognize.

The world, though, is protean: each generation has the world to deal with in a new form. World is an atmosphere, a mood. It is nearly as hard for a sinner to recognize the world’ temptations as it is for a fish to discover impurities in the water. There is a sense, a feeling, that things aren’t right, that the environment is not whole, but just what it is eludes analysis. We know that the spiritual atmosphere in which we live erodes faith, dissipates hope and corrupts love, but it is hard to put our finger on what is wrong.

One aspect of world that I have been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments.

It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. Millions of people in our culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate. Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim. In our kind of culture, anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap. There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is a little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.

Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure. For some it is a weekly jaunt to church. For others, occasional visits to specials services. Some, with a bent for religious entertainment and sacred diversion, plan their lives around special events like retreats, rallies and conferences. We go to see a new personality, to hear a new truth, to get a new experience and so, somehow, expand our otherwise humdrum lives. The religious life is defined as the latest and the newest: Zen, faith-healing, human potential, para-psychology, successful living, choreography in the chancel, Armageddon. We’ll try anything-until something else comes along.

I don’t know what it has been like for pastors in other cultures and previous centuries, but I am quite sure that for a pastor in Western culture in the latter part of the twentieth century the aspect of world that makes the work of leading Christians in the way of faith most difficult is what Gore Vidal has analyzed as “today’s passion for the immediate and the casual.” Everyone is in a hurry. The persons whom I lead in worship, among whom I counsel, visit, pray, preach, and teach, want short cuts. They want me to help them fill out the form that will get them instant credit (in eternity). They are impatient for results. They have adopted the lifestyle of a tourist and only want the high points. But a pastor is not a tour guide. I have no interest in telling apocryphal religious stories at and around dubiously identified sacred sites. The Christian life cannot mature under such conditions and in such ways.

Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw this area of spiritual truth, at least, with great clarity wrote, “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is …that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” It is this “long obedience in the same direction’ which the mood of the world does so much to discourage.

In going against the stream of the world’s ways there are two biblical designations for people of faith that are extremely useful: disciple and pilgrim. Disciple (mathetes) says we are people who spend our lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ. We are in a growing-learning relationship, always. A disciple is a learner, but not in the academic setting of a schoolroom, rather at the work site of a craftsman. We do not acquire information about God but skills in faith.

Pilgrim (parepidemos) tells us we are people who spend our lives going someplace, going to God, and whose path for getting there is the way, Jesus Christ. We realize that “this world is not my home” and set out for the “Father’s house.” Abraham, who “went out,” is our archetype. Jesus, answering Thomas’ question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” gives us directions: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (Jn. 14:5-6). The letter to the Hebrews defines our program:  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:1-2).

[From Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 15-16.