Well, three out of four of those things are true.
I wrestled with the message’s bottom line all week. I knew the sermon was good, but the original bottom line lacked some stick. I said in the 11:30 that that dilemma was almost like being all in favor of marriage, just not with the person you’re married to.
Anyway, on Saturday, while mowing the lawn, a much better bottom line came to me. Thank God for the way he communicates through my Troy-Bilt.
Original bottom line: When you resist the lure of the lies, God guards you with the truth.
Lawn mower inspired upgrade: When you get good at DETECTING lies, you’ll discover God is great at PROTECTING you.
Among the advantages of the upgrade is that I got to tell the people of the church that I wanted them to be a room full of lie detectors — both lies that surround them from our culture and lies they tell themselves from their own neuroses.
Finally, I was glad to be able to tell the church that the Songs Of Ascent (Psalm 120-134) are a prime example of how the books of the bible had a life before they were collected into the bible. Except I forgot that part at 11:30. Sigh.
WE BEGAN BY STANDING AND READING TOGETHER THE TEXT OF PSALM 121
I lift up my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from? In church world, this is one of more famous, more comforting lines in all the library of the bible. Especially when you say it in the classic, ancient King James (AV): I lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help? I love that. I’ve used it literally 100s of times at bedsides in Charlotte area hospitals. And as great as the words “whence” and “cometh” are, “hills” are even better arent’ they? We get such a peaceful, hopeful, musical feeling when when hear the “hills” mentioned. Why? Julie Andrews of course!
And even if we don’t think of that scene from that movie, our minds go to mountain vacations, weekends in Maggie Valley, morning mists rising over the trees, beautiful soundscapes. Hills and it’s usually a place of peace, hope, beauty, and music. That’s what WE think of.
And that’s nice, that may be helpful beside a hospital bed, but it’s all wrong. What WE hear today in “I lift up my eyes to the hills” and what Psalm 121’s first readers, listeners, and singers heard are two completely different things. COM plete ly.
See, the they I’m talking about are Jewish pilgrims from about 1000 – 400 BC. Ps 121 is part of what is called The Songs of Ascent, a collection of 15 folk songs (120-134) that people would sing as they trekked from their farms, towns, and villages up to Jerusalem 3x a year for religious feasts: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. They went those three times because the Jerusalem temple was the central religious location for all faithful Jews then. And Jerusalem was (and is) physically at one of the highest georgraphic places in all of Israel. So the journey from those towns, villages, and farms more literally was a climb. A gradual climb but an relentless climb nonetheless. To go to Jerusalem with a crowd of fellow piligrims was, literally, to go on the up and up.
And these 15 folk songs functioned almost like We Shall Overcome (AV) in the CR era or like This Land Is Your Land during the Dust Bowl era (AV): folks actually sang them as they marched together on the up and up. One of those sections of the bible when you can see how vividly biblical writings had a life before they made it into the bible. So these people, these ancient pilgrims with their hiking boots and their backpacks on, with their carabeners neafby in case the terrain gets really rough, with their bottled water hitched to their belts, they looked up at the hills . . .
. . . and they do NOT see Julie Andrews. They see ominous storm clouds. They see temptations. They see danger. Because all those pilgrims who are looking, marching, and singing know people who had ventured up those same mountains headed to Jerusalem and never returned. The route was notorious for bandits and robbers . . . like the very reason that Jesus COULD tell the story of the Good Samaritan is that it made sense to his audience that a guy travelling alone that way got beaten, robbed, and left for dead. That’s what Psalm 121’s pilgrims saw when they looked at those hills.
But there’s something else they saw, something more prominent from them thar hills: idol worship. Over & over in the history books of the OT we read references to the “high places” – nooks & crannies in the hill country where Israel’s pagan neighbors (Canaanites, Jebusites . . . ) built and worshipped at shrines to their gods and goddesses. Gods like Asherah, Molech, and, most famously, Baal. Baal looked like this (AV) and it’s vital to know (in case you didn’t) that the people made Baal out of wood. A god they made. But here’s what else was part of Baal worship at all those shrines in the “High Places”: temple prostitutes. And HOW you worshipped him was through sexual intercourse with the prostitutes which supposedly guaranteed the fertility of your crops and your family. So any Jewish guy – married or single – who has been told all his life “you shall have no other gods” or “make no graven images” looked up at those hills and saw temptation. Excitement. Allure. Really, the journey of ascents didn’t have a string of roadside hotels like we would today, but instead a line of sacred brothels. Each one with a “come here” (finger motion). Cunning, baffling, and powerful. That’s what they saw when they looked up at the hills. Not Julie Andrews, believe me. And what they heard was not the sound of music . . .
Thieves & idols, ominous & alluring all at the same time. Really, they looked up and between their village and the city on a hill they had to navigate all the lies. Lies about people – as if robbing is the best we can do – and lies about God – he is something we make & manipulate, we worship him with extramarital sex. The entire journey was a minefield of lies. One lie after another.
Huh. Lies are so enticing, aren’t they. You may not be headed hiking today but you are on pilgrimage of life. You may be headed on the up and up – or the down & down – and you are confronted with the lure of the lies. For someone it’s the lie that what your wife can’t provide for you, your girlfriend will. Or what your husband can’t give you, your boyfriend can. The lie that your impulses must be indulged. Now. If you feel it, you need to do it, and the quicker the better. The lie that all religions are essentially the same and that in the end God will be like Santa Clause and so good people will go to heaven and bad people won’t. The lie that your highest calling in life is to be true to yourself. The lie that one more hit of the cocaine will get you through the night. The lie that it’s your money, you earned it, and you can decide what to do with it. The lie that if she’s not making me happy, I’ll find someone else who will. It’s the lure of the lies and every one of them, EVERY SINGLE ON OF THEM, overpromises and underdelivers. And about now you are thinking, “Whew! You got a lot out of I lift up my eyes to the hills . . .!
But look next. The psalm singers look to those hills and ask a penetrating question: is help coming from the gods of those hills? Will Molech or Asherah or Baal come to the rescue? No. The Lord – not made, but the Maker 121:2 tells us – he is the source of help (and v. 2 is the source of the language in the Creed).
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth
And then these promises in 121:3-4:
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
Slumber? Sleep? And most of you are like, what? Everyone KNOWS God doesn’t sleep! Oh no! This is an “in your face” to Baal! Remember Elijah in I Kings 18:27: READ. Actually, Baal was notorious AMONG BAAL WORSHIPPERS for sleeping AND for being very difficult to wake up! If Baal is in REM sleep, don’t even bother. The world’s FIRST. NARCOLEPTIC. GOD. So Ps 121 is the Lord saying, Nope, not me. That other guy? Yep. Me. I don’t sleep.
And then 121:5-6:
The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
Sun, moon. Huh? Looking for hearts and clovers? No, it’s actually more smackdown against the false gods. The same people who had fertility gods (Baal) had sun gods and moon gods. And actually, they believed that the moon could make you sick, a lunar fever, which is where we get the word . . . ready for this? . . . lunacy. (Tell me THAT wasn’t worth the price of admission today!)
And then these concluding promises of 121:7-8:
The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.
So the pattern is so clear when you know what you are looking for: lies, rebuke, lies, rebuke, lies, idol smackdown, promise, embrace. The song is much less suitable for hospital beds and much ready for a wrestling match between competing gods & differing worldviews. It is as if every time a pilgrim hikes on the up and up and resists those lies, avoids the sacred bordello, the God responds by guarding & protecting from enduring harm. The pilgrim won’t sprain his ankle, undergo heat strong or even get lunar (lunacy) fever. So here’s the deal as you go on the up and up: When you get good at DETECTING lies, you’ll discover God is great at PROTECTING you.
When you’re on the up and up, I so want you to identify the luring lies for what they are in your life and also to know that the heavy weaponry of the truth is the best defense. I want this church to be full of lie detectors! That God actually uses truth as his protection for you. (That’s why this talk follows BrainWashing!) Your internal lies are so destructive because so many of you have self-talk that is full of “I can’t,” “I won’t,” or “I’ll never.” No! The truest thing about you is that you are loved! You have been declared to be of eternal value!
Because again, lies can be so enticing. Like 22% of Xns believe in reincarnation, that as you journey up & the “come here” finger call of Hinduism / Buddhism so you just pick it off the tree and add it to your Xnty. Or even the thought that nature is divine. It sounds nice but it has no intellectual or spiritual staying power. And it really got to me thinking about talk – movies like Bruce Almighty (AV) or Oh God (AV) may be lighthearted fun but the net result is that they trivialize God. As if he really is an elderly George Burns. And we buy right into it, at least subconsciously. Same w the book Five Ppl You Meet In Heaven. God comes out like a great big version of us. I love Tony Evans’ def’n of idolatry: when your idea of God supersedes God revelation of himself. When you get good at DETECTING lies, you’ll discover God is great at PROTECTING you.
And “guarding” is part of that promise. Note that word “watch” – SIX times in the NIV! Except when you know the word, it’s NOT “observes.” It’s “preserves.” Tends, gardens, guards. It’s the same word used when Adam is tending the Garden of Eden. So: God isn’t watching you, helpless and mute, while you try to navigate the minefield of lies all around you. No “don’t mess up!” Instead, it’s a protective watch, a guarding, preserving, intervening. You have been protected from yourself – because aren’t we all our own worst enemies? — way more than you know. It’s like in January of 2003 when Terry Drier capsized in the Caribbean. 20 hours in the water and he became convinced he was going to die. Yet a helicopter spotted him and a warship headed to battle in the Persian Gulf stopped to pick him up. On the way to battle and picked up one guy. Cuz one guy mattered. The name of the ship? The USS Comforter. Hey – one of the truths of God is that he is the Father of Compassion & the God of All Comfort. And that’s what it’s like. You’re floundering, you’re alone, but God intervenes. He gets you arrested. He puts you in rehab. He connects you in a LifeGroup. He gets you on a ServeTeam and you discover that in reaching out your issues get a whole new perspective. You’re exchanging lies for truth and God’s protecting your direction. When you get good at DETECTING lies, you’ll discover God is great at PROTECTING you.
But what of these promises here in Ps 121? No sprained ankle, no heat strong, no lunar fever? Hear this: you will sprain your ankle. You will have difficulties. You will have trauma. But what Ps 121 promises is that as you anchor yourself not to your truth but to his, as you are not true to yourself but you are true to God, none of the bad things that happen to you has separating power between you and God. The Maker is the Protector . . . not necessarily in the immediate but always in the ultimate! God is so great because he is first so small! When you get good at DETECTING lies, you’ll discover God is great at PROTECTING you.
Back in Monroe, one of the most beloved guys in the church ever was Fred Looney. He got saved at an advanced age and as long as we knew him he had emphysema. Came to church with his canisters. And after being part of us for about three years, the disease ran its course and it took him. Difficult funeral, but a funeral balanced with joy for his salvation. Anyway, not long after that funeral a man at the church came up to me and said, “I hate we won’t be seeing Fred at church anymore. But he’ll be seeing us at church, won’t he?”
Yes he will. REFRAIN now & forevermore.