Canberra Baptist Church
9.00 & 10.30am services, 8 March 2020
A Time to Listen and a Time to Speak
Readings Psalm 121. Matthew 17:1-9. (NRSV)
Rev. John Morrison
Today is the second Sunday of Lent. It’s common during this pre-Easter period to trace Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem as outlined in the Gospels. And we’ll be doing that as we follow the Gospel readings suggested in the lectionary – Matthew 17 today. The lectionary Psalm for today is also about journeying and I want to refer to that as well. The OT and Epistle readings, which we haven’t had today, are about Abraham’s call and journey from Haran to Canaan. Doug Hynd spoke from those passages last week. If you were away at camp or missed it for some other reason, I’d encourage you to go to our Church website and either read or listen to that very helpful sermon.
That well-known passage from Ecclesiastes 3 tells us that “there is a time to be silent (or to listen) and a time to speak”. I want to consider that theme today from both our readings.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?” That’s how today’s Psalm, 121, begins.
It’s one of 15 Psalms we call “Songs of Ascent”. We call them that because they were songs sung by pilgrims as they made their way to Jerusalem for the great annual festivals. Geographically, Jerusalem is elevated, so from whatever direction the pilgrims approached it they described it as going up to Jerusalem. Hence Songs of Ascent.
They are consecutive in the book of Psalms, 120-134. It’s likely that they formed a collection that pre-dated their inclusion in the Jewish Scriptures – a sort of pilgrimage song book.
Generally speaking, there is a progression in these Psalms from setting out to arriving.
The first in the collection, 120, begins “In my distress I cry to the LORD” – the pilgrim speaks out, calls out, cries out, in this case to the LORD.
It’s often distress that prompts pilgrimage, whether that pilgrimage be geographical or spiritual.
A sense of dissatisfaction with the way things are, and a desire to discover a different, better way of being.
“In my distress I cry to the LORD, that he may answer me.”
The pilgrim not only speaks out but desires an answer. The pilgrim seeks that answer through pilgrimage.
The pilgrimage is an opportunity away from the normal routines and pressures of everyday life to listen for that answer, and to hear it.
It is a connecting with the Lord who does indeed answer.
The prospect of such a journey can be daunting. The decision to head off can be a real test of faith. Again, this applies I think whether the journey is geographical, spiritual or both.
And so we have the opening lines of today’s Psalm, the second Psalm of Ascent –
“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?”
It’s a good question isn’t it, one we all ask from time to time.
The Hebrew pilgrim setting out for Jerusalem would be all too aware of the surrounding hills.
If we were in that situation today, we would no doubt be impressed by the beauty of the scenery. There’s nothing quite like a succession of hills of different hues on the horizon. It’s one of the things that we love about Canberra and that makes us appreciate the decision to locate the national capital here.
But the Hebrew pilgrim of the time saw things a little differently. The hills were often dangerous places, inhabited by wild animals and robbers and thieves. But more that that, they were places of idolatry and pagan worship.
Eugene Peterson in his book “The Journey – A Guide Book for the Pilgrim Life” says this.
“During the time this psalm was written and sung, Palestine was overrun with popular pagan worship. Much of this religion was practiced on hilltops. Shrines were set up, groves of trees were planted, sacred prostitutes both male and female were provided; persons were lured to the shrines to engage in acts of worship that would enhance the fertility of the land, would make you feel good, would protect you from evil. There were nostrums, protections, spells and enchantments against all the perils of the road.”
So the pilgrim, right from the beginning, understandably asks where will the necessary help come from.
Will it be through the pagan practices offered in the hills? For us, will it be from ungodly sources and practices around us?
The contrary affirmation comes immediately in v2 –
“My help comes from the LORD who made heaven and earth.”
Not from the hills, but from the One who made them along with the totality of the heaven and earth.
When I was a young Sunday School student. I used to do the state-wide annual Sunday School exams that they ran back then. I remember one year we had to learn this Psalm. It was so long ago, we learnt it in the King James Version – “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”
Many years passed before I realised what a bad translation that was. Can you see why?
Help doesn’t come from the hills. Quite the opposite! It comes from the LORD.
Fortunately, the New KJV corrects the misleading wording.
It says, “I will lift my eyes to the hills – From whence comes my help?”
So the pilgrim sets out crying out to the Lord for something better; listening out for an answer to the Lord; speaking out trust in the Lord.
The rest of the Psalm seems to be the voice of another, with statements like:
He will not let your foot be moved (v3a)
He who keeps you will not slumber (v3b)
The LORD is your keeper (v5a)
The LORD will keep you from all evil (v7a)
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in (v8a)
One commentator I read suggests we have here the voice of a priest, who is blessing and encouraging the pilgrims before they set out. That’s possible. But I like to think of the pilgrims singing all of it, possibly in two groups, encouraging and affirming one another as they start, and even as they proceed along the way.
Friends, we are all on a journey of one sort or another. We’re in it together. It’s not always easy, as you know. As we journey, we all need to be listening to fellow-pilgrims because God may just speak through them and provide the answers we are seeking in that way.
And in turn there will be times to be speaking out encouragement and affirmation to others and reminding them of the faithfulness of our God who helps on the way.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain and is transfigured before them, his face shining like the sun and his clothes becoming dazzling white. This is a highly significant learning event for the three disciples – a transformative event for them, I dare say.
This occurs just before Jesus heads off with his disciples from Galilee in the North to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. It’s just before Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (as Luke puts it).
There would have been crowds of other pilgrims making that same journey at that time. They would no doubt have sung the Psalms of Ascent along the way. And I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to imagine Jesus and his disciples singing these Psalms at various times too, including Psalm 121.
I want to zoom in for a while on just one of the disciples at the transfiguration because that’s what all the Synoptic Gospels do. Just before this event, Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was. It’s Peter who answers – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”.
Jesus commends him for his answer. He calls him blessed and says that God has revealed this to him.
Curiously he then sternly orders Peter and the other two disciples not to tell anyone he is the Messiah – the “Messianic secret” as some have called this.
The reason is that the Jews had preconceived ideas about the Messiah and what he would do. A suffering, dying Messiah just didn’t fit with their ideas.
That was the case for the disciples too. Because straight after Peter’s declaration, we’re told this.
“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (16:21)
Peter speaks up again saying this just can’t happen.
Jesus’ reply is the opposite this time. Rather than bless him, he says: “Get behind me Satan”.
Instead of commending him for receiving a divine revelation, he accuses him of not having a divine mindset but a human one.
Peter did well when he spoken up the first time but should have done more listening to Jesus rather than speaking the second time. This is the prelude to the transfiguration.
When Jesus is transfigured and Moses and Elijah appear, Peter jumps in again and offers to make three shelters, one for each of them. Whatever he had in mind, possibly to extend the mountaintop experience, he misspoke.
V5 says that while he was still speaking, God spoke, saying “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!”
As well as an instruction to all three disciples, it was also a rebuke to Peter. This was a time to listen and learn rather than a time to speak. As they go down from the mountain, Jesus instructs them not to tell anyone about this event until after his resurrection – the so-called Messianic secret again.
For all disciples, back then and now, there are those sacred numinous moments when we need to just listen and learn. There will also be times to speak out what we have learnt in the quietness, but this comes after.
Being a pilgrim is not that much different to being a disciple – both are on a journey, travelling, following and learning. For the pilgrim, there is also a right time to listen and a right time to speak.
Or as the Message Bible paraphrases that verse in Ecclesiastes:
“A right time to shut up and a right time to speak up.”
I think this applies in our interpersonal relationships and also in our relationship with God. It applies in our dialogue with others and also in our dialogue with God, our prayer. Because at its best, prayer is just that – a dialogue where we not only speak to God but also listen to what God wants to say to us. Getting the balance right between shutting up and speaking up isn’t easy. It depends on so many variables including the situations, the relationships and personalities. It requires real discernment and sensitivity as we journey. For that we need help.
Where will my help come from? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.
And so will yours. Have a great journey.