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Father in heaven, we ask once again for Your help, that we may listen well to Your Word and that You would give me the right words to say, the right spirit with which to say it, and that You would speak powerfully to our minds and to our hearts. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
If you look up the definition of “nostalgia,” it will say something like a sentimental longing for the past. Or a melancholy affection for something that is lost. Here’s how I would put it: Nostalgia is the powerful, dangerous, but ultimately God-given sense that life would be better if only we could go back home.
Nostalgia is the powerful, dangerous, ultimately God-given sense that life would be better if somehow, some way, we could just get back home.
I say nostalgia is powerful. Just this week I got in the mail, as I’m sure some of you do, a magazine from my college alma mater. I’m not even sure if I would send my kids there now, but just to open and flip through some of the pages and just see some of the familiar, historic buildings. I think, ah, I went to chapel in the big old building and I remember the class I had there, and I had my poli-sci class there, and I had my Western Civ class there, and just to see those, and oh, I remember those trees. Brings back a flood of memories. Because it was largely a very good experience, and hopefully if you went to college it was for you, you have a sense of nostalgia.
As you know, we sent our first off to college a few weeks ago and during that process we made the very rookie parent mistake of rifling through old pictures. Oh, that’ll send you spinning real fast. When you see their picture from kindergarten and third and all the way up, and immediately there’s a burst of joy and sadness. Joy of all the memories that come and sadness, of course, because you can’t go back.
It’s not just pictures that can bring nostalgia. A smell, scientists have said, how powerful smell is to evoke memories, either good or bad.
My kids, we have lots of birthdays, so two of my daughters have had birthdays recently and they get a card in the mail from their grandma and grandpa, from my parents, and a small something, or check, or some bills or something. They always say the same thing. They’re grateful and then they always say, “Dad, put your nose up to this. This smells like grandma and grandpa’s house.”
Now I grew up at grandma and grandpa’s house, so it doesn’t smell like anything to me. “You don’t smell that, Dad?” “I don’t know.” “No, it’s…” And it’s not a bad smell, it’s just this smells like… “You don’t smell it?”
Taste brings back nostalgia. Do you remember the climactic scene in Ratatouille? The rats who sneak in and the one who’s an expert chef in the Parisian restaurant. When he has to bring the food and it’s revealed who’s really making this food to the harsh food critic Anton Ego, like they didn’t pick that name, and immediately the harshness of this critic is melted as he takes a bite of ratatouille and there’s this immediate flashback to his mom serving this dish, which was usually not associated with the high and the rich and the mighty but just a humble country dish, and there it is, the nostalgia.
How many movies, when I was growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, of course, the nostalgia sent you back to the 50’s. When I was growing up, that was just so long ago, but now the movies send you back to the 80’s and 90’s because that was just as long ago as it was for me when I was growing up to the 50’s. Christmas Story, Back to the Future, Grease, a little bit before my time. Now the TV shows and movies, they send you back to when I was a kid, making me feel old.
There’s nostalgia. It’s powerful. And nostalgia’s also dangerous. It’s dangerous because the good old days weren’t always so good. It’s often inaccurate. You remember things in a way that put a golden gloss upon them. Or perhaps you’re nostalgic for some place that you’ve never even been. You know that there’s been a strong migration down to the Carolinas from Michigan thanks to me and others, and you know that it’s easy for us Dutch people to play the Dutch bingo and we come from these Dutch enclaves in different parts of the country and they have their Tulip Time’s and they have all of their names with DeYoung, Groelsma, and Van’s and Vander’s, and we grew up with the blue and white, the Delft decorations and the wooden shoes in our house. Sometimes on occasion we’ve had people from The Netherlands come and they say, “You’re more Dutch than the Dutch. We’re not even like this anymore. You held onto something that is long…” What? The Wilhelmina peppermints? You’re just living… I remember reading a story that representatives from Ireland came to the United States and said, “Tell us about this St. Patrick’s Day. You’ve really stumbled upon something. How do you celebrate Irish heritage?”
We can have this nostalgia for a time that we’ve never even been. A place that we can’t go back to. And sometimes it wasn’t always that good, whether your nostalgic place is the 1980s, the 1950s, or the 1850s, besides the lack of air conditioning that they may have had in the 1850s and indoor plumbing and modern medicine, if you could somehow go back to your dream time and dream place… Of course it wouldn’t be a dream for them. It was just normal, except harder than what we experience.
At first the very experience of nostalgia was thought to be a neurological disease of some demonic curse, some sort of mental affliction that makes you want to go live in the past, or for some place, but of course you can’t go back. If you read the books, The Lord of the Rings, you know how they’re different than the movies and the books are always better than the movies, though the movies are good, and at the end of The Return of the King there’s this scouring of the shire, than when they come back, wanting to go back for so long to the shire and then they realize that they’ve this scouring of the shire and some of the bad guys have gone in there, and even when they want to go home after they’ve been victorious, home is not the same place as they left it.
So nostalgia can deceive us. It can promise what it can’t deliver. Yet, I believe it is ultimately a God-given sense. What C.S. Lewis calls lifelong nostalgia, meaning if we are so often longing for some different time, for some different place, some location or moment in time with the perfect sepia-toned hues to it, and we can’t quite ever get there, might this be telling us that we were made for something more than this? That we all have a dream of someplace that’s better, someplace that’s safer, someplace that’s purer, someplace where the kids don’t grow up but yet they do and you can enjoy them and your spouse doesn’t get sick, and you’re not lonely, and you have the songs that make you happy and the ones that make you sad, but not too sad.
Dorothy was right – there’s no place like home. Whether for you, you literally think of the home you grew up in, or maybe that’s not a good memory for you, but there’s someplace that has that sort of imprint upon you. It may be a country, if you’re not from this country, a state, a school. It may be a place of memory with your family and your friends.
Now we are very happy here. We love it here. We’ve been here over five years, so we’re not planning on going anywhere. When we drive up, yet, and cross out of that land of Ohio, sorry Ohioans, into the uplit sunlands, well, there’s not actually sun there, called Michigan, and we cross over and there’s that big blue sign, “Pure Michigan.” When we go in, immediately I notice two things. One, the roads are worse, the roads there are bad, and two, there’s just a little sense of “ah, I know this place.”
Maybe you get that if you’re from South Carolina or you’re from New York or California or Belfast, or wherever you’re from, even when you’re very, you love where, there’s just, “ah.”
And so often that sense of a home… Someone once defined southerners as people who know where they’re from. Not a bad definition. Now I think people in a lot of places in the world remember and know where they’re from, and maybe something particular in this region of the country that you’re from someplace.
Well, as Christians, we’re not just from someplace, we’re going to someplace, and that powerful sense in all of us, and it gets stronger the older you get, “If I could only get home,” is telling us that there is a home and this isn’t it.
This Psalm, 120, is the first of the Psalms of Ascent. There’ve been a number of theories as to the meaning of the term. It could be that the ascent refers to the going up from exile in Babylon back to Israel, and that would fit with the geography, that would fit with the end of 2 Chronicles which says “let him go up.” Maybe there’s an aspect of that, except that the “go up” is not singular, it’s plural, which is why it’s called a “Song of Ascents,” or literally, a hymn of going up, goings up, plural. That’s why most commentators agree that these songs were sung by pilgrims as they went up on the annual feast to Jerusalem as Passover, at Pentecost, at the Day of Atonement, three times a year.
Now the return from exile motif may be there in the background, but I think first of all these were pilgrimage songs about going up to God’s holy city. These were the hymns to be sung as God’s people, scattered across Israel and maybe scattered across the ancient world, were coming home.
Here’s what we read in the first of these Psalms of Ascent. Psalm 120, A Song of Ascents:
“In my distress I called to the Lord,
and He answered me.
Deliver me, O Lord,
from lying lips,
from a deceitful tongue.
What shall be given to you,
and what more shall be done to you,
you deceitful tongue?
A warrior’s sharp arrows,
with glowing coals of the broom tree!
Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech,
that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I had my dwelling
among those who hate peace.
I am for peace,
but when I speak, they are for war!”
Do you see the setting? The psalmist is far from home. We can’t be sure if he is literally far from home or if he simply feels spiritually estranged and far from home, but he describes it in verse 5, “Woe to me, that I sojourn.” So there’s the language, he’s traveling, he’s a vagabond, he’s passing through, he’s a pilgrim, he’s not home.
He sojourns in Meshech, that’s in the far north, today Turkey, and in Kedar, which is the southern border, near the Arabs. There’s no literal way that he can be in Turkey and then southern towards Egypt at the same time. He’s not literally in Meshech and Kedar and yet he says, “I sojourn in Meshech, I dwell among the tents of Kedar,” in opposite directions. He means “I am dwelling among a strange people and this doesn’t feel like my home.”
There’s a progression to these songs. It’s not that every song moves one after another, but there’s a general progression over the 15 Psalms of Ascent as the pilgrims move steadily toward Jerusalem and ascend Mount Sinai. Then it ends in Psalm 134 with a benediction from Zion. They made it and they received the blessing. This one starts out far from Zion.
What do you do when you feel like the world you are living in is not your home? What do you do when you feel like the world you inhabit has gone mad?
I saw a headline this week: “Illinois library defends drag-themed event for teens, called a celebration of self-identity.” I clicked on the link, I thought I was born in Illinois, where is this? Downers Grove. Some of you may know that Chicago suburb. This is not far from where I was born, Downers Grove Public Library. This is what it says on their website: “Grades 7 through 12. Join Aurora Divine,” there’s the name, “for some classic bingo! Multiple games will be played for prizes with a short drag performance included.” Grades 7 through 12. They received a lot of negative and positive press for that. The library director defended the decision, saying it will be valuable and affirming, “We knew that providing an opportunity for teens to see a drag show without having to go into the city or to a bar would be valuable.” Hmm. Maybe grades 7 through 12 shouldn’t be going to a bar anywhere, let along bringing it to them.
I’m sure you’ve seen similar stories and you could multiply them with different sorts of events, but the thought comes to me, “Have we lost our ever-loving minds?” Only a few years ago that would have been unheard of, and now it’s a public conversation with many think-y people giving their “Yes, why, this is such a profound event,” valuable and affirming.
What do you do? How do you respond to that sort of distress? Where am I? For many of us, we get angry. Or worse, we think we have to get even. Or we collapse into a panic.
But notice what the psalmist does in verse 1, “In my distress I called to the Lord.”
Now I’m rebuked by that because it’s so often not my first reaction. In my distress I complained. In my distress I got angry. In my distress I panicked. Here, in my distress, the psalmist says, I’ve got to bring this to the Lord.
Notice what he cries out for, verse 2: Deliver me from lying lips and a deceitful tongue.
We saw this this morning as we were looking at 1 Peter, the persecution that they were facing was people who were speaking evil about them, who insulted them, who said they were evildoers, who reviled them when they didn’t deserve it, who slandered them. Some of you know this from personal experience. To be lied about is one of the most painful forms of injustice. No one wants to be mistreated, verbally, emotionally, physically, but, and I don’t mean to minimize any of that, but at least if everyone understood, “Wow, you were mistreated, I can’t believe those bad people did that to you and you’re innocent,” then at least you get the experience of hugs and “I’m so sorry” and “I love you and I can’t believe that happened to you.” Bad, painful, but at least people come to your aid and offer you comfort.
But that doesn’t happen when you’re slandered, when you’re lied about. Then everyone keeps their distance. Then people believe what is false about you.
Now I don’t pretend that I’ve had this in any massive ways. Many of you have had this to far greater degree, but I remember the first time I wrote something online, 12, 13, 14 years ago, and it didn’t take but a few days before someone really got upset. Imagine that, someone on the internet getting upset. But this was all new to me, and was 13, 14 years younger to boot. Well, it must have been more than that. So I wrote this, some close to 15 years ago, and somebody went after me. It was a person who had some name recognition at the time. I felt this person was being horribly unfair, twisted my words, assumed the worst, even had used my good faith interaction with him in private against me, and everything in me wanted to show what he had said to me, he had used curse words and all the rest, and I thought if people only saw what you were really about and what you are really doing… I was so upset. I was so bothered. I had a hard time sleeping for those first few days. I felt like all of these people out there, they’re believing things that aren’t true. I had this powerful urge to convince the whole world that that guy was wrong about me. I was not the monster he thought.
Now you have that over a course of awhile and you realize that the internet storms pass through very quickly and you realize it’s different people, far off, and you’ll probably never meet. It would certainly mean more if it was all of you.
But you can literally go crazy trying to win every battle out there. It feels horrible to have people say and believe things about you that aren’t true. That’s what the psalmist is saying. Oh, God, there’s people lying about me. They don’t believe what’s true about me. They don’t really have the right view of who I am, and sometimes you can’t make it all right.
What do we do when people sin against us? That’s what the psalmist is experiencing. People are sinning against him. What do you do when people sin against you? Stephen Yuille in his book on the Psalms of Ascent says, “Let’s be honest. We usually respond sinfully when sinned against.” He’s right. We tend to think there’s a bright red line and once we get on the side of sinned against then whatever we do after we are sinned against then that will be justified. If people sin against me, then I can’t surely be a sinner after that point.
But we know from the Bible that’s not the case. In fact, we know from the Bible that when we are sinned against is when we are usually most tempted to respond in sin. To give your wife the silent treatment, to mock the mocker, to bully the bully. Anything is fair game, right? Against a boss who is a jerk. Anything is deserved toward that family member who hurts me. Any sort of way we respond to the politicians who hate us is justified.
But what does the psalmist do? How does he live when he is among a lying people who clamor for war? You see that, verse 7? “When I speak, they’re for war.” What does he do? He does two things – he waits for justice and he pursues peace.
He waits for justice. You see that in verses 3 and 4. He asks in the form of a question, “What shall be given to you and what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue? A warrior’s sharp arrows with glowing coals of the broom tree!” What he envisions is the final divine judgment, and this is a constant biblical refrain we often overlook it. When the psalmist talks about glowing coals of the broom tree, he envisions the broom tree with its long branches which could burn long and they would produce a hot fire, which would then produce coals. These coals are going to be the coals that are rained down in judgment upon those who are lying.
You see, we are hardwired for justice. And the Bible doesn’t say, “Ah, you want justice? Just go seek revenge yourself.” But neither does the Bible say, “You know what? You want justice? You shouldn’t want that.” What the Bible says is you’re going to have to wait.
We’re hardwired. That’s the way God made the world, the way God made us in His image. We want Inigo Montoya to hunt down the man who killed his father. We want the Ents to go and destroy Saruman’s lair. We want Rocky to knock down Ivan Drago. We want Harry to defeat Voldemort. We want justice, but the Bible doesn’t say go get your revenge and the Bible doesn’t say forget about it. The Bible usually says wait.
This is what we read in Romans chapter 12: Do not return evil for evil. Then God tells us how we’re not going to return evil for evil. Why? Because vengeance is mine, declares the Lord. I will repay. If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he’s thirsty, give him something to drink, for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.
Wait. God sees. God knows.
That was the same thing we saw in the text in 1 Peter, chapter 2. Christ entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly. You don’t have the final say over Me, Sanhedrin. Your verdict, Pontius, is not the final verdict on My life, Jesus reckoned. I will entrust Myself to the One who judges justly.
So the psalmist does. There is a day that is coming and all the lying tongues will be exposed. He waits for justice, and not just that, he pursues peace. Verse 7 – I am for peace.
It’s one thing to be for peace when you’re among peaceful people. But when I speak, they are for war.
Verse 6. Now I know you have some nice, sort of Jeremiah 29, Joshua 1:1 sort of embroideries in your house, but if you’re honest, this one goes over your house: “Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.” It feels like that sometimes.
The psalmist says I am for peace. It’s one thing to be for peace when everyone around you kind of gets along. How do you pursue peace when they want war? Because what often happens is when everyone around you is filled with hate, you get hate. When everyone around you wants war, you get up for battle. The lied against become liars. The bullied become bullies. The manipulated become manipulators. Hurting people hurt other people.
But notice, back up at verse 1, “He answered me.” The psalmist, 1 and 7, go together. Because He answered me, I can continue to pursue peace. Now notice what the answer looked like. We’d like to think that He answered me because He changed all the psalmist’s circumstances. It would be wonderful if after verse 1, “And He answered me,” verse 2 said, “and all of my enemies were routed,” or “all of my enemies converted,” and “all of my days were happily ever after.” But it doesn’t say that.
It seems as if God did not change his circumstances as much as He changed his perspective. We know that is true with all of us. Rarely does He immediately change our circumstances, but He is always willing to change our perspective. God kept him from bitterness by reminding him, “I hear you and ultimately I will judge, so wait and keep pursuing peace. I know you’re dwelling in a land far away and I know you’re pursuing peace.” And what’s Jerusalem? Yerushalayim, the city of peace. He’s looking for his home and he’s not there.
You could see why this was the first of the Psalms of Ascent that they would sing on their pilgrimage. Mary and Joseph sung these psalms as they came with Jesus. Jesus sang these songs with His disciples when they made their way to Jerusalem for the Passover.
You may know there’s a famous book based on the Psalms of Ascent by Eugene Peterson called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Now Eugene Peterson is not where I recommend you go to for getting all your theology figured out, but his pastoral works, especially his earlier stuff, really could be quite insightful. That phrase you’ve maybe heard before, a long obedience from the same direction, the title of Peterson’s book, it actually is a line from Nietzsche, of all people. A long obedience in the same direction.
But it’s fitting for these Psalms of Ascent. You start in your pilgrimage and you head home. Here’s what Peterson put in his message, translation, paraphrase, “I live in the midst of hoodlums and wild savages, this world is not my home and I want out.”
There are two definitive movements in the Pentateuch among God’s people, and both come when God’s people realize that the place where they are, the place where they’re comfortable, is not they’re home. Abraham, leaving Mesopotamia, and the Israelites, leaving Egypt. Those are the two quintessential movements in the first five books of the Bible and they both come when a people are summoned by God to leave the place where they’re comfortable to go to a place that God promises will be their home.
I started the sermon by talking about nostalgia. So let me end by indulging in some nostalgia for my childhood. Maybe some of you remember this movie, An American Tail. It’s not one of the most famous ones. I watched it over and over again. It came out in 1986, which was not coincidentally the 100-year anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. Steven Spielberg was actually one of the producers or directors, I can’t remember, of American Tail. It’s a cartoon. It has the family of Fievel Mousekewitz, this Jewish family of mice in Russia, who are leaving some sort of anti-Jewish or anti-Semitism. They flee for America. Not only that, but in Russia there’s cats.
Now there’s a famous song from this movie, “Somewhere Out There,” you can look that one up, maybe you’ve heard of that one. There’s a less famous song that I remember and the refrain goes like this. They’re singing it when they’re in Russia, looking to emigrate, and this takes place in the 1880s, to head to New York City, and they sing, with great joy, “There are no cats in America and the streets are filled with cheese.” It’s the immigrant’s dream. The American dream.
Of course, they find out there are, indeed, cats in America. And the streets are not filled with cheese. And Fievel is separated from his father and eventually they reunite, and the movie ends by looking out wistfully at this newly completed monument called The Statue of Liberty. So it’s about an immigrant’s tale, it’s about coming to a land of opportunity, it’s about finding a place to call home.
We’re all hoping that there’s a place, if you’re a mouse, anyway, where there are no cats and where the streets are filled with cheese. And you often think it’s the next place, it’s the next town, it’s the next season of life. It’s when you’re in college, it’s when you’re out of college, it’s when you’re married, it’s when you have kids, it’s when you have more time, it’s when you’re retired… It’s always… And it never quite… There’s still cats there. There’s not as much cheese there as you thought. Then you start thinking, the older you get, if only I could go back, that’s when it all was there.
Maybe it’s some time in your own life, or maybe it’s some place or time you’ve never even been, and you think there. But, of course, there will be cats there, there will not be streets filled with cheese there, but there is a place that is coming. That’s the point of the Psalms of Ascent. The journey home never begins unless you’re a little homesick. You never make your way to that new place unless you feel like that’s the place where I belong.
There is something powerful about feeling homesick. On one hand, it’s a sad feeling and you don’t like it, and yet there’s something in the longing, in the hope of it, in the anticipation of it. Even if you know it wouldn’t fully live up to all of your ideals, and it’s not everything that you remembered, yet you agree with Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, that there’s no place like home.
As Christians, we are on a pilgrimage. Not just as they were three times a year to Jerusalem, but that pilgrimage to Mount Zion was a type of the pilgrimage that we all have as God’s people, feeling so often as if we sojourned in Meshech and we dwell among the tents of Kedar. And God says to us, “I know you’re among a strange people. I know the world doesn’t feel quite right. Crazy, sometimes, and you want out. But keep on your pilgrimage and I have a home waiting for you, if you’ll just keep going.”
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, in our distress we call to You and You answer us. We are a people and You have given us many joys here. We are so grateful. We have many experiences of common grace and of Your saving grace, and there are so many ways in which this world is a place of great blessing, and yet we all know, even on those greatest of moments, sometimes in those moments where there is such a sweetness and yet there’s something we know is missing. We’re not there yet. So as we pursue this pilgrimage, Lord, in the name of Jesus who went before us to prepare a place for us, help us to get there, and to be patient as we wait. In Jesus’ name. Amen.