Psalm 123 is a brief psalm making a single point: If you want to experience life in all its abundance, regardless of the circumstances, look to the Lord.
Charles Spurgeon gets credit for the outline of the sermon today. In his commentary on the Psalms, Spurgeon notes an ascending theme linking psalms 120 through 123. In Psalm 120, the psalmist looks up from his despair; in Psalm 121, he looks to the hills; in Psalm 122, he looks to the Temple; in Psalm 123, he looks to God.
That’s the outline I’ll be following this morning. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble connecting the dots: Experiencing the fullness of God’s grace and love is a matter of where you look.
Let’s begin with Psalm 120. The psalmist writes, “In my distress, I cried to Yahweh.” (Psalm 120:1)
To cry out when you’re hurting comes with being human. Even babies know to cry when they’re hungry or afraid or uncomfortable and need attention. It’s only natural to call for help when you’re in trouble and things aren’t going your way. You look for somebody – anybody – to come to your rescue.
You know the old story: A tourist goes to the Grand Canyon, leans over the edge and falls. He catches the branch of a scrub brush and hangs on for dear life. He calls for help. A hooded figure looms above. “I’ll help you,” he says. “Great,” the man replies, “Who are you?” “I’m the Lord,” the figure says, “Just let go of the limb and you’ll be saved.” The man looks down at the chasm below, looks back to the hooded figure above, and calls, “Is anyone else up there?”
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The psalmist writes, “In my distress, I cried to Yahweh.” Truth to tell, when you’re down and out you’ll cry out to anyone who’ll give you hand.
I had a man approach me on the street the other day asking if our church could help him with his utility bill. He was so far behind the electric company had cut him off. He said he had a five-year-old son who was living with another family until he could get the lights and the heat back on. I told him we might be able to help a little, but it probably wouldn’t be enough. He said, “I’d appreciate any help you can give me. I’m desperate.”
Being in distress can be the starting point of a life of faith, if it causes you to get down on your knees and confess your need of a power greater than yourself.
That’s what the folks in AA will tell you. They’ll show you their Valley Chart depicting the downward spiral of addiction. It’s a V-shaped graphic illustrating how an alcoholic often has to hit bottom and have nowhere else to turn before he’s willing to look up and ask for help.
“In my distress, I cried to Yahweh.” Looking up from your despair is the starting place to experiencing God’s grace and love.
Once you look up, it’s only natural to look for tangible signs of God’s power and might. That leads us to Psalm 121. It begins,
“I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2).
Mountains and hills and other high places are symbols of God’s majesty. They remind us that the Lord is high and lifted up, that his dominion is like a mountain, towering and strong. We see this throughout the Bible:
• Moses met God on Mount Sinai, where God gave him the law. • The Jews established the holy city on Mount Zion. • Not to be outdone, the Samaritans claimed Mount Gerazim as their holy place of worship. • Elijah confounded the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel. • Jesus was transfigured on Mount Herman.
Not only mountains, but the creation itself reflects the sovereignty of God. Psalm 8, for example, says:
“Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth… When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained; what is man, that you think of him? What is the son of man, that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:1-4).
Carl Boberg summed it up nicely in his beloved hymn which goes:
“O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder Consider all the worlds thy hands have made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
Then sings my soul, my Savior, God, to Thee, How great thou art, how great thou art.”
Looking to nature is a good way to experience the peace of God’s presence. That’s not to say you ought go fishing on Sunday morning, but, from to time, it wouldn’t hurt to spend some time in the Ozarks, or out on Lake Catherine, or strolling through Garvin Gardens.
In addition to the beauty of nature, there’s the wonder of sacred places. That leads us to Psalm 122. It begins,
“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let’s go to Yahweh’s house!'”(Psalm 122:1)
From all accounts, the temple in Jerusalem in Solomon’s day was a sight to behold. The stones were whitewashed, the roofs plated with gold. Looking up to Jerusalem on a sunny day was nothing short of dazzling, a near-blinding experience.
Even after the temple was destroyed and rebuilt on a smaller scale, it represented the holy of holies. Devout Jews made every effort to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem at least once a year to offer sacrifices, sing praise and fall prostrate before the Lord God Almighty.
Now, as then, sacred places play an important role for people of faith. For example,
• Roman Catholics flock to the Vatican. • Mormons go to Salt Lake City. • Hindus gather on the banks of the Genghis River. • Muslims make Haj to Mecca.
Where are the holy places of the Reformed faith? You can go to St. Pierre’s in Geneva, or St. Giles in Edinburgh, or I suppose you could go to the offices of the General Assembly in Louisville, Kentucky … but I doubt that you’ll find these as awe-inspiring as the holy places of other faiths.
Where are our holy places? Where do we look to find assurance of God’s power and might … of God’s grace and love? This leads us to Psalm 123:
“To you I do lift up my eyes ….” (Psalm 123:1)
In the Reformed Faith there are no holy places; only the One who is holy, and that One who is holy has made himself known to us in the person of Jesus Christ. As such, we look to Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life. (John 14:6)
I like the way the psalmist describes what it means to look to the Lord. He says,
“As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress; so our eyes look to Yahweh, our God, until he has mercy on us” (Psalm 123:2).
Commentators tell us that, in the Oriental world of the Old Testament, a slave would become so obedient and devoted as to notice the most subtle signs of his master, or of her mistress. The slightest movement of the little finger might summon the servant to come forward; a raised eyebrow might signal alarm; a hushed clearing of the throat might indicate that it was time for the servant to leave the room. And so, the psalmist writes,
“As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress; so our eyes look to Yahweh, our God.”
What does it mean to look to Jesus?
It means to listen to his teaching and do what he taught his disciples to do. For example, he said:
• “Be careful that you don’t do your charitable giving before men, to be seen by them…. But when you do merciful deeds, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does, so that your merciful deeds may be in secret, then your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:1-4)
• “When you pray, enter into your inner room, and having shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”(Matthew 6:6)
• “Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth… for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
• “Don’t be anxious for your life … But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:25-33)
• “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.” (Matthew 7:1)
• “Whatever you desire for men to do to you, you shall also do to them.” (Matthew 7:12)
• “Whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39)
• “Let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
To look to Jesus is to take seriously his teaching. It’s also to follow his example.
• When a woman was brought to him who’d been caught in adultery, he told her accusers, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw the first stone.” When they walked away, he told the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin no more.” (John 8:1-11)
• He had a special place in his heart for children. He told his disciples, “Allow the little children to come to me! Don’t forbid them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Mark 10:14)
• He dined in the homes of wealthy Pharisees, he ate with tax collectors and sinners, he healed the lame and gave sight to the blind, he walked among lepers and showed mercy even to the Gentiles.
To look to Jesus is to follow his example. It’s also to focus on the Cross and know that, beyond all else, he died for your sins in order that you might live to his glory.
Every religion in the world has some form of Deity, some representation of a power greater than self. Only the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – believe in a God that’s also personal and caring, one to whom we can pray. And of the Abrahamic faiths, only the Christian faith believes in a God who gave himself for us in order to redeem us from our fallen state and reconcile us to himself. John’s gospel says it best:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)
To look to the Cross is to live with the assurance that your sins are forgiven; that God loves you, no matter what; that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38)
Let’s wrap it up. You can look up from your despair and call for help; you can look to the hills for tangible signs of God’s strength; you can look to holy places to give you solace and comfort; but, if you want to experience life in all its abundance, regardless of the circumstances, look to the Lord.
Look to Jesus. Listen to his teaching. Follow his example. Focus on the Cross. That’s the message of this old hymn by Helen Lemmel:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2011, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.