A Song for the Downwardly Mobile

Third in the Psalms of Ascent Series,
Delivered September 27, 1998 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates

Sermon Text:
Psalm 123 A song of ascents
1 I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven.
2 As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes
of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the
LORD our God, till he shows us his mercy.
3 Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us, for we have endured
much contempt.
4 We have endured much ridicule from the proud, much contempt from
the arrogant.

I need your advice. I need you to tell me if this fairy tale I’ve been cooking up will sell. It is about a queen who is tired of her life of opulence and comfort and status. One night her fairy godmother shows up and grants her deepest wish and poof she goes from being a queen to being a maid who washes floors and scrubs toilets twelve hours a day. Why we can even make it into a movie and entitle it “From Throne to Drone.” Do you think it would sell? Nah. The public is just not into much of the riches to rags stories, are they? That is why the next Psalm in our sermon series on the “Psalms of Ascent” is so counter-cultural; let’s take a look!

Turn with me and keep your Bibles open during the sermon to the 123rd Psalm. This is the Word of God:

Psalm 123: A song of ascents. I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven. As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he shows us his mercy. Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us, for we have endured much contempt. We have endured much ridicule from the proud, much contempt from the arrogant.

Join me as we pray: And now, Father, as my words are true to Your Word, may they be taken to heart; but as my words should stray from Your Word, may they be quickly forgotten, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

It is all really a matter of where you and I look isn’t it? Like the guy that was drafted into the army and after he got in there he found out that he was going to have to be in for four years. So what he does is he starts going around and grabbing every piece of paper he can find, picking it up and looking at it and going “This isn’t it” and throwing it down going “This isn’t it.” He continued doing this until one time a general came walking by and the guy went up and grabbed the piece of paper out of the general’s hand and said “This isn’t it.” Well needless to say all of his commanding officers began to be very concerned about this guy’s stability so they called in a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist met with him and said “Son, you’ve got a big problem. Tell me just what is this strange habit you’ve developed, what are you looking for?” The guy said “Well I don’t know, I just know that I haven’t found it yet” and with that the man jumps up on the psychiatrist’s desk grabbing every piece of paper up there and says “This isn’t it, this isn’t it” while he continues tossing papers left and right. Finally the psychiatrist figures out that this guy has a serious disorder and so he writes him a Section 8 discharge and hands it to him and the guy looks at it, smiles and says “THIS is it!”

Where do you and I look – where do you and I look to find God? Where do you and I look to find a right concept of God and to find a right concept of our self image in relation to God? A rather nearsighted answer to that question is provided by the current faddish, new age, psychopop-spirituality that is out there that says “Hey – you only need to look as far as your belly button to find out.” “Look within to discover God and to find out who you really are”. Let’s say that you and I really do that and we begin looking inside of us for God and ourselves and we begin sort of peeling away the layers like an onion. What happens if we get to the end and hi-ho nobody is home?

In verse one of our text, the psalmist reminds you and me where we are to look. He says “My eyes look up to you O Lord”. You see we are to look outside of ourselves for God and who He really is. Verse one in this Psalm is a reminder to you and me that God is separate from and distinct from His creation. God is not something or someone that innately dwells within us to make us feel good like some kind of spiritual immune system. No, God is outside of us and the good news of verse one is not that God is in here. No, the good news is that God is enthroned, enthroned over all heaven and earth as the sovereign, omnipotent Lord and ruler of the entire universe. That’s where to look to find God.

What about our self image and that relationship between us and God, where do we look for that? Can you stop for just a moment, stop from climbing that ladder that you are on, that ladder of financial or social or cultural or ecclesiastical success? Can you get off that ladder for one moment and dare to look at this Psalm and find out who you and I are really called to be? John Calvin once said “You and I will never really understand who we really are until we discover who God really is.”

We have already gotten a little bit of a glimpse of God in verse one. Now dare you and I stop climbing the ladder for a second and go on to look at verse two, because in verse two the psalmist presents you and me with a rather unflattering and uncomfortable picture of just who you and I are in relation to God. He uses the language of “Lord I look up to you as a slave looks to the hand of his master as a maid looks to the hand of her mistress”. Oh-my-goodness — how politically incorrect, wait a minute that really doesn’t jive with us does it? I mean do you get up in the morning on a daily basis and hop out of bed and think “I have been created by God primarily to be a servant, God has made me primarily to be his servant”. Is that the way you think of yourself, is that your common self image – a servant? Yuck! I mean haven’t you and I been created to try to get to the top of the ladder and isn’t life all about having people wait on us and getting to that place in life where we can afford to hire servants rather than to be servants? Well our text says “No!”.

You and I need to find a role in this life. We need to find out who we really are and what role we are to play. As followers of Jesus Christ you and I are to order our lives under the Word of God, and here this morning – in this Psalm — you and I are confronted by God with the role he wants us to play: that of a servant. Unlike a tyrannical mistress or master who lords it over the servant, we see in verse two that what we should expect from the hand of God is nothing but mercy. It’s God’s sheer mercy that you and I are even alive. It is sheer mercy that you and I have the privilege of being a servant. This servant-hood business is all sheer grace.

Back in the Psalmist’s time a master didn’t have to say anything to his slave or his servant. He could literally just snap his fingers or make another hand motion because the servant was always nearby and always had his gaze fixed on the hand of the master. Do you wake up every morning thinking I wonder what God’s hand is going to be doing today, what things he is going to ask me to do in terms of his bidding? That’s probably not the way you and I usually think, but that’s because you and I have been much more conditioned by the culture around us than we have by the Word of God. A culture that says that God is really some sort of celestial bellhop waiting to do our bidding. A culture that screams to you and me that our self-image comes from climbing that ladder, achieving success, getting to the top and accumulating a lot of stuff and status – that’s what defines who you are and God says no it isn’t, not at all. Our culture doesn’t much like talk about servanthood does it? You are to get to the top, not be a servant.

The Psalmist’s culture was no more enamored with this talk of self image as a servant talk than our culture today. Look at verses three and four of your text. The Psalmist says of himself and his friends “Lord have mercy on us, because everywhere all around us we are riddled with contempt”. Do you know what contempt means? It means to despise. Let me give you a graphic illustration of what it means to be despised, to be contemptible. It is Roberto Alomar (I hope he’s not listening). Roberto Alomar spitting in the umpire’s face. That is contempt, that is despicable and that is despising and that is pretty much the way the culture looked at the Psalmist and the Hebrews. The Psalmist goes on to say “The proud, those self-made men and women those who have made it to the top, they look on this idea of being a servant as crazy and ridiculous. The arrogant, those who confuse themselves with being God, they don’t like this talk of servant-hood because that means that they would have to take a demotion from the place in the universe that they have for themselves right now. This is nuts – hey get a clue Psalmist! The business of life is to become upwardly mobile not move downward. This is ridiculous isn’t it? Well it is unless you are a follower of Jesus Christ who models for you and me what it means to be a servant.

To be a follower of Christ means to be in touch with reality. Reality number one is that God is God and we are not. Reality number two is that God has called you and me to partner with him as his servants as he changes the world. What a privilege to be a part of the enterprise of God. Being a servant has nothing to do with how much money you have or what your job title is or has anything to do with refusing a promotion at work – “Oh no, I am a servant of Christ and I can’t be promoted”. It has nothing to do with that. Cultivating a servant’s spirit has everything to do with asking the question whoever I am and whatever socioeconomic level I live – at why am I who I am and why do I live at that level? Ask yourself this question this morning. What socioeconomic level do you live at and why do you live there? Probably 99.9% of us would say “Well it is dictated by how much we have”. Actually in our culture we usually live at a level higher than what we have and that is what credit cards are all about. The Bible has nothing to do with that.

The Psalm before us this morning is a Psalm that reminds us that we are called to be servants. That doesn’t necessarily mean give everything away and go live in a homeless shelter, it has everything to do with cultivating a servant-hood spirit no matter who we are and whatever level we live at in the world’s eyes. It means asking this question: “Lord – what socioeconomic level do you want me to live at, despite what I have, in order to free up my time and my resources to do your bidding to advance your kingdom?”

I believe God calls some Christians to give everything away and become like St. Francis. To live amongst the poor like Mark and Susan Smith from our congregation, who are our missionaries to Cambodia, who entered a missionary order that stipulates that you are going to live on a poverty level with the poor. I believe God calls some Christians to do that; and I believe God calls some Christians to be millionaires because they can run with those horses that I can’t run with and reach them for Jesus Christ. He calls other Christians to live everywhere in between on the spectrum.

Being a servant of the Lord God Almighty has nothing necessarily to do with how much you have or what your title is or what your status is in the world’s eyes, it’s all about attitude. “Lord I am your servant, my gaze is fixed on your hand and I will live as you direct me.” So you have guys like Millard Fuller 25 years ago a millionaire Alabama lawyer whose life was falling apart and whose marriage was on the rocks and Millard Fuller in God’s providence hooks up with an old Baptist preacher named Clarence Jordan who founded a Christian commune outside of Americus, Georgia called Koinonia Farms and searching and looking for some purpose Millard Fuller goes and lives there and sits under Clarence Jordan’s teaching, comes to Christ, his marriage is restored and he gives away all of his millions of dollars because he hears Christ’s call to be a servant and instead he founds Habitat for Humanity, which has become the largest provider of homes for people in the world. Homes to people who are poor and in need and Millard Fuller would say “I was never happy when I had the millions of dollars and no Jesus, but now that I know Christ, I can live on this subsistence salary and do pro bono law work and I am as happy as a clam.”

Or take the K.’s. That’s kind of a familiar name around this church. We think of Larry and Stephanie K.. Both graduates of Johns Hopkins University. Larry a big-time chemist, good life, the American dream and they made the mistake of hooking up with this church. The further mistake of getting on the missions committee here at Central and through that they hear God’s call to servant-hood and they give up their careers and head for Sao Paulo Brazil to serve people of that large metropolis.

Or take another Kraft – James Kraft, do you know him? As a young man he had a wagon pulled by a pony from which he would sell cheese on the streets of Chicago. After two weeks in business he hadn’t made one cent and so he pulled his horse over one day and started talking to him (that’s what you do when things aren’t going well in your life) and said “Patty, there is something wrong. We’re not doing it right and I’m afraid we have things turned around and our priorities are not where they ought to be. Maybe we ought to serve God and place Him first in our lives”. That night Kraft went home and made a covenant with God that he would place Jesus Christ first in his life and then do God’s bidding – whatever God directed him to do. Years later James Kraft was overheard to say “I would rather be a Christian layman than the CEO of the greatest corporation in America. My first job is serving Jesus Christ”. Of course you know Kraft – you eat his food and use his salad dressings all the time.

Then to bring it a little closer to home, this place is riddled with folks who have caught the servant-hood vision. Why last Sunday a bunch of you through our Love & Action ministry went down to the AIDS ward at Hopkins Bayview Hospital to serve those whom our culture despises. There are many of you who go monthly down to the “Our Daily Bread” soup kitchen and serve in that line. There are others of you, a crew every month is going down working on our latest Habitat For Humanity house downtown. Others of you volunteer at The Christian Community Center to serve the needy. Those of you right now that have children that were in the service are being served by a bunch of servants in there right now with your children in Children’s Worship. Many of you were served this morning earlier by Sunday School teachers and others who have come alongside you here at this church. There are servants all over the place. So in a materialistic, consumer-oriented status-conscience culture, more than ever you and I need to learn to sing this song. The song of servant-hood, the song of downward mobility in the world’s eyes in order to be a servant of Jesus Christ. That means that you and I when we catch that vision of servant-hood begin to think like this: “Every person that God brings across my path, every situation that I face in life becomes an opportunity to serve for the sake of God’s kingdom”.

What if you and I got out of bed every morning and thought in those terms: I’m a servant and I’m going to serve whoever the Lord brings in my pathway or whatever I find myself doing today I’m going to look at how I can serve in order to exalt the name of Christ. What do you think would happen? How many more people do you think would actually be moved toward Christ? How many more Sundays – and I just realized that I forgot to do something — how many more Sundays do you think this Evangelism Candle would be lit because — I was supposed to have done this at the beginning of worship [lights candle] — there were servants this week gutsy enough to share their faith in Christ and lead someone to a saving knowledge of the Lord.

Back in the early 1980’s, Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas had outgrown its facilities and so they moved about a half mile down the road and they bought this big piece of land and they built this gorgeous, large sanctuary and educational wing. I was friends with the two pastors there when I was a pastor in San Antonio and they invited me up one day for the grand tour. I’ll never forget that they took me around and this place, I mean it was well done! It was to a T, it was classy, which made it all the more shocking — and I’ll never forget — as we came into the Narthex and were going to go into this brand spanking new beautiful sanctuary and then my eyes saw above the door to the sanctuary in all of this beauty the most tacky sign that you could ever imagine, I mean it was tacky, powerfully tacky – it simply said “Servants Entrance”. You know I got to thinking this week that might not be such a bad sign to hang over the doors of our new building.

Join me as we pray:
Father you have called us to be your servants and that is not a downer like the world thinks, that is a privilege to partner with you and your world wide enterprise of transforming lives of men and women and boys and girls. Lord, help us to answer that call, to be willing to move downward on the world’s scale of things that we might look upward and know who you really are and know who we are and whose we are to be. Lord, we thank you that we belong not to the world but to you. We thank you that you promise to use us and to work in us and through us to touch people’s lives. And Lord, we pray for the courage and the faithfulness to be able to go from here today and live as servants that you might be exalted and honored and glorified. And we ask all of these things in the name of the servant of servants even Jesus Christ our Lord.