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Psalm 121: Ritual, Sincerity, and Repetition
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the Psalms, psalm 121. If you don’t have a Bible with you this morning, just raise your hand and we will bring one to you, which you are welcome to keep so long as you intend to use it.
We’ve been in a series for about two weeks now asking the Lord to teach us to pray. I started by admitting my own struggles with prayer—intellectual struggles, understanding what exactly we are doing by praying to a God who already knows everything we need and will say, and even deeper emotional struggles where I often feel unheard and unanswered. Oftentimes I have nothing to say.
But Jesus assures his disciples, over and over again: when we pray, God hears us. Every time we come to him, even in the middle of the night, even if the need is small and unimportant, like a good father responding to an upset child, every time we come to him, he opens his door to us, every time we knock. Every time we look for him we find him, because he wants to be found.
Last week I focused on prayer’s effect on us, God’s children. So to be clear, prayer isn’t just about us, and we are going to talk about our ability to change the mind of God, but don’t approach prayer like my two-year olds approach conversations with me, where they assume I will do what they want and nothing else. It’s the other way around. Most of our conversations with our father are conversations in which he is raising us as his children into mature believers, conversations in which he is revealing his will and work in the world to us, conversations in which he is wanting to hear our hopes, dreams, and fears, because he loves us. A lot of prayer is about shaping us as Christians, rather than shaping the world around us.
Prayer is not a way for us to wretch control of the world away from God, our father, nor should we desire to have control over the people and things around us. He is far more able to bring the things of this world to right ends.
We’ve been mainly looking at the teachings of Jesus on prayer, but this week we are going to dig into the Bible’s own book of prayers, the prayerbook Jesus would have used in his own worship—the Psalms. We find our savior quoting Psalms constantly, right up until the moment of his death. He was praying through his own prayerbook in times of worship, in praise, and in fear and pain. As we’ve been asking this whole series, I’m hoping in this, Jesus will teach us how to pray. I’m going to read Psalm 121, looking specifically at the role of ritual, repetition, and sincerity in prayer. I want to argue, in other words this morning, in defense of borrowing other people’s prayers. Go with me, Psalm 121.  This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
The first thing I want you to recognize about the Psalms is, the psalms are both hymns and prayers. They are hymns and prayers. In our faith tradition, we tend not to use prayerbooks like the catechism or the book of common prayer—until we want to get married, take communion, or hold a funeral—but in the absence of those shared prayers of the church, I’ve seen in our tradition a heavy leaning on the Psalms and on hymns, or in recent years spiritual songs that are widely known among our churches. I’m not saying this as a criticism—if you have never prayed through the psalms, or shouted a worship song in your car after a long day, you should. Our hearts long for shared prayers, and we will find them in whatever places we can.
In the best case, our worship leaders encourage us to sing with them, and then pray in between songs, just as the church for centuries spoke prayers aloud together, and then the cantor responded to the congregation with a prayer of his own. Common wisdom among worship leaders is that you ought to include at least two songs almost everyone knows by heart. Why? Why do we like worshipping with songs we already know? We have many songs which include call and response, and many which are ancient, songs we have been singing for generations, which allow us to touch on ancient wisdom and the great tradition of our church. In all of this, we are borrowing the prayers of others—as we should.
So it is with the common prayerbooks, with their call and response prayers and prayers for various situations. The psalms were compiled during a surge of literacy in ancient Israel, and the book of common prayer was compiled at the invention of the printing press. In our time, we find ourselves shortly after the invention of the internet in a very similar place, searching online for the best spiritual songs, or ones which will minister to us in various situations. People, like the scholastics of old, have begun to make compilations—new hymnals and prayerbooks to include the best songs and prayers which have been sung since that time.
What I’m driving at is, there’s not a whole lot of difference between psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, and written prayers. Except that not every prayer is created equal. The best prayers are ones in which we are invited as believers, to pray alongside. I’ve got with me this morning a Baptist hymnal from the 1990’s—the one my church used when I was a child, again, before song compilations largely moved online—and you can see, it’s filled with both hymns and responsive readings and prayers. I remember growing up and being encouraged to memorize the psalms. I still know many of them by heart today, and I’m glad for that. They are the prayers I pray when I need to borrow words.
You can always know the ones I memorized as a child, because I recite them in the King James. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, and leadeth me beside still waters.” My parents bought me an NIV in middle school, but my practice of praying the psalms continued. “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
My point is, we tend to approach repeated prayers as something foreign to our tradition of Christian practice, but it’s only because our memories are short of our own tradition, and we aren’t recognizing the songs we sing each week, or the psalms we repeat, as prayers. We haven’t gotten rid of repeated and ritual prayer, we’ve just put them to music, or restricted them to scripture.
My other point is, Christ, himself, and the early church after him heavily depended upon the shared prayers of their people, the Psalms, and they prayed their shared prayers repeatedly. I want to ask why, this morning. Why share prayers, and why pray the same prayers over and over again? What is the point? And then I want to answer a question I often get, whenever I try to read someone else’s prayers in our gatherings—I’m always asked, wouldn’t it be better to pray your own prayers, so that you can be honest and sincere? That’s a great question, and I want to answer it this morning.
The Psalm we read this morning, Psalm 121, was one of the songs of ascent, meaning it would have been sung by the worshippers of God each time they went into the temple to worship him—mainly for the passover, but throughout the year, they would sing this song, pray this prayer over and over again. There are fifteen songs of ascent, but we are going to start with this one.
This image of lifting eyes up to the hills would have been a well-known one to the people of Jerusalem. Whenever the city was threatened, whenever Jerusalem needed help, they would call in the other clans of Israel, call in their allies, and wait on the walls, with their eyes on the hills surrounding Jerusalem, to see if help would come.
What the Psalmist says is, you can wait for help to come over the hills—a powerful neighboring nation, or the clans of Israel—but really your help comes from the Lord. When you lift your eyes to the hills, remember who made them. Don’t hope in allies or nations. Hope in God. He will keep your life, in all its ups and downs, in his hands. He doesn’t sleep, let him watch on the walls alongside you.
Why sing this psalm over and over again, every year, every time you came together to worship? And why should we, as I’m arguing, turn in our worship to shared songs, hymns, and prayers? Several reasons, and we’ll start with this: remembrance. Remembrance, or calling to mind. We pray some things over and over again because some things are worth remembering over and over again. In our Psalm this morning, the psalmist is remembering and praising God for his help. Imagine praying this psalm together in the first gathering after the destruction of Solomon’s temple, after the destruction of Jerusalem and being taken into exile, when no help came from over the hills. Remember, where does your help come from?
If you remember all the way back to our Isaiah series last year, you remember we talked about how God is using memory to renew the world and bring peace to his people. It’s one of his tools he’s using to renew and restore the whole earth. All evil works will eventually be forgotten, and only what is of the kingdom of God will remain. Remembrance, calling to mind, has the power to reshape all of creation, and I want to assure you this morning, it has the power to shape you.
The people of God would pray every year for God to be their help, because every year they needed to remember that God is our help and our hope. My family has rituals we use to remind ourselves of important things—for example, we have rituals of telling each other “I love you.” For my wife and I, it’s at the end of conversations—on the phone, when we are leaving the house. Every time—“Bye, I love you.” One time, we fought over the phone, and I hung up without saying “I love you” and about five minutes later I called her back and apologized. I knew as soon as I had hung up, that by breaking the ritual, I had insulted the very memory of our life together.
With our kids, every night as we put them to bed, we hold them and tell them we love them, that they are wonderful children, and we either pray for them or sing them spiritual songs, because again, that’s also a prayer. Especially when we’ve had bad days—when I was a jerk, which I can be, or when they got in trouble, we want them to hear it, even if they are convinced otherwise, the repetition is an invitation to remember all the days it was obviously true. We want them always to remember our love, never to doubt it, so over and over again, we call it to mind.
God does the same with us, if we will allow him. Over and over again in communion, we are invited to his table as friends. Over and over again, in the Lord’s prayer, he calls us his children, and reminds us that he will provide. Over and over again in Psalms like this one, if we will visit them, if we will repeat them year by year, we are invited to remember that God is with us; he’ll never leave us. And he is there to help us, to deliver us from evil. “Do this in remembrance…”
We repeat prayers so we will remember. Neuroscience tells us we generally remember a fact after seven repetitions—that’s how I remember so many names, I repeat them to myself when you first tell me. I’ve been doing that since year one teaching high school to memorize 200 names in the course of a week. But scripture speaks of a more important kind of remembrance, I’ll call it a core remembrance. If you repeat something seven times, you remember it. If you repeat something ten-thousand times, it begins to shape you, it becomes part of your core experience of the world.
Some things are worth repeating over and over again until they work into the core of who you are. This psalm is one of them, worth remembering time and time again. God is our help. When life gets out of control, don’t you need to know God is there to help you? When friends and family leave, when you’re staring down a task, like sobriety, which seems impossible. Don’t you need to remember where your help comes from?
So we repeat prayers for the sake of remembrance; we also repeat prayers because they are life-giving. We repeat prayers because they are life-giving. Which of the children of God is not encourage by the last line of this Psalm: “The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” That is life-giving to know and to repeat. It leads me into worship of our good God who is always watching over me, even as I go out of his church.
Repeated and ritual prayers can lead us back into vibrancy in our faith, vibrancy and sincerity, where we can sing the songs, say the prayer, and really mean it. And at this point, you may protest. You say, sincerity is the very reason I don’t borrow other people’s prayers and repeat them. You may have spent time in a church that prayed all the right prayers and did all the right rituals, and yet was completely dead.
In our city, we know people who go to confession, say three hail Mary’s and walk out to go right back into their sin. And we rightly ask, what was the point of that? Was there any real life or health in that? But be honest, there are actors, hypocrites, in every church, willing to put on a show, like a tomb painted white, but inside they are dead. Some of you here this morning may put on a great show, where people assume you are healthy, spiritually vibrant, but you know, in your depths, you are holding on to a small strand of faith, or are just acting. You already have your reward for that kind of show.
I’m not going to do a raise of hands here, but I think it would probably be about everyone, if we are honest—have you ever been in a situation where you’ve come to church, sung the songs, heard the preached word, and walked away emotionally and spiritually dead? Dry, like the Spirit in you, instead of your thirst for him, was quenched that day? Maybe you’ve been in a place where you have nothing at all to say to the Lord, no prayers of your own.
As a pastor, I’ve had many people come to me asking what to do if they’ve lost faith in God. I love that question, because it’s honest. People come to me and tell me it seems like God’s not answering my prayers, it seems like he doesn’t care about me, he’s not helping me, and I need help. I tell them to borrow other people’s prayers if they don’t have any of their own. Borrow the prayer of the man who confesses to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” Borrow the prayer of Thomas, where he bravely confesses his doubt in church, that there is nothing anyone could say to make him believe Christ is risen, and then a week later, we find him still at church, still singing the songs and praying the prayers. Because he wants to believe, he just can’t right then—he was grieving the loss of a friend.
The difference between a hypocrite and someone who is struggling in their faith is honesty. Admit to the Lord and the people around you that you don’t believe, that you are struggling to believe in a Father who always hears your prayers and opens the door, who responds to your cries for justice quickly. Still come to church. Still pray the prayers and sing the songs, borrow words when you don’t have them. Because, to quote an author from Lake Charles, “Ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love.”
Lastly, this: we repeat prayers to unite ourselves to Christians throughout the world and throughout time. We repeat prayers to unite ourselves to Christians throughout the world and throughout time.
Every year, the Israelites would have prayed this Psalm as they climbed up mount Zion to worship together in the house of the Lord. Fathers, mothers, children, grandchildren, on and on to every generation. Every time we sing, “I lift my eyes up to the heavens, where does my help come from?” Here in our day, thousands of years later, we are joining in that tradition and rejoicing in that inheritance.
All over the world this morning, there are brothers and sisters in Christ joining together as we did this morning to pray the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray. When we pray it, it means we are Jesus’s disciples, too, asking him to teach us to pray. To get very practical before we close, there’s nothing wrong with praying your own prayers. I do, often. But I also have learned, if I am to continue in life-giving prayer, I need others—the psalmists, the Christians of old, people who pray aloud in church, Christ himself—to teach me to pray. I need to borrow words.
Bonhoeffer writes in his commentary on the Psalms, Prayerbook of the Bible, “This is a dangerous error, which is certainly very widespread among Christians today, to imagine that it is natural for the heart to pray…praying does not simply mean 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.”
Amen, so it is with us. It would be an error to assume that we need no help in prayer. In our moments of silence, we need the Holy Spirit to intercede with longings too deep for words. In our moments of doubt, or fatigue, or remembrance, we need to borrow the words of the people around us. And in the moments we actually do find the words to go before the throne of grace, we need to praise Jesus for bringing us there.
I’m going to close this morning with a prayer borrowed from one of my favorite authors, Flannery O’Conner.