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"High Ground"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on September 24, 2023
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Psalm 27

Things look different from the high ground. The ground below me in this case was a drainage ditch, one of those deep and wide paved channels, the kind a city street department installs and maintains to manage rainwater. Littered with the dredges of the last rain, hemmed in, it was low ground you'd normally avoid unless you're a kid exploring on your way home from school. Why walk on the sidewalk when you can traverse through a suburban canyon? At least that's how I thought 35 years ago when I was in the second grade. My older brother Matt and I were on our way home from school, traversing this concrete channel exploring like Indiana Jones, only without the hat and the whip. And as it goes with adventurers, it was only a matter of time before we encountered unsavory characters along the way. Matt was walking ahead of me when I saw them, three bigger boys.

My chest tightens when I hear their voices. I knew they were trouble the moment I saw them. Before they noticed me, I scurry up the embankment to the sidewalk above. Instinctively, I knew the wisdom of Sun Tzu from The Art of War who said, "He who occupies the high ground will fight to advantage." Things look different from the high ground. When you're looking down on your adversaries, from the high ground they don't look so big. From the high ground, you fight with advantage. But in that moment, I wasn't sure what it was going to be, fight or flight? So I split the difference. Stooping down, I tighten the soggy laces of my muddy high tops, steel my resolve, fill my lungs, and shout down a battle cry from the heights above: "You leave my brother alone," I said, and then I ran home, never looked back.

Five hundred some years before Sun Tzu, that great ancient Chinese military strategist, relayed his insights on the tactical advantage of the high ground, a famous Hebrew military tactician said something similar, "High on a rock," he said, "high on a rock my head will be lifted up above my enemies all around me." The lines from an ancient poem composed 3,000 years ago, the author has said to be David, the renowned king of ancient Israel. David was a seasoned war general. He knew how different things looked from the high ground. David was a soldier. But he was also a poet, a singer, a songwriter. As Leonard Cohen said of him, "I heard there was a secret chord that David played and pleased the Lord. It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor falls, the major lifts, the baffled king composing hallelujahs."

And that seems to be the overall tone of this song that David sings about the high ground. It's a love song from the battlefield, strained praise to the Creator of the universe, the God of Israel, the Lord most high. Baffled and desperate for the high ground, David says, "The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom should I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom should I be afraid? When evildoers approach me to eat up my flesh, my enemies and my foes, it is they who stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart will not fear. Though war break out against me in this I trust. One thing have I asked of the Lord that I will seek after, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in His temple. He will hide me in His shelter in the day of trouble. He will hide me in the hiding place of His tent. He will lift me high on a rock, so now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me. In His tent I will offer sacrifices with shouts of joy. I will sing and make music to the Lord. Listen to my voice, O Lord, I am crying out. Be gracious to me and answer me. My heart says of You, 'Seek His face.' Your face, O Lord, I am seeking. Do not hide Your face from me. Do not turn Your servant away in anger. You are my help. Do not forsake me. Do not abandon me, O God of my salvation. Even if my father and mother abandoned me, the Lord, the Lord will take me in. Teach me Your way, O Lord. Lead me on a level path, on account of my enemies. Do not give me over to the appetite of my enemies, for false witnesses have risen against me. They breathe out violence. If I had not believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, if I had not believed. Wait for the Lord, be strong. Let your heart be strong, wait for the Lord."

That's Psalm 27. David's desperate song about the high ground. David sings of the push for the high ground, the place of the high ground, and the impasse toward the high ground. First, the push. What is pushing David to seek high ground? It's his enemies all around him. To borrow another insight from Sun Tzu, it's because he's on hemmed-in ground. And hemmed-in ground can become desperate ground when the enemy is upon you. David is hemmed in by his enemies all around. Can you relate to that? Now for me, this is where I start to feel some distance from the poem. Maybe I'm not paying attention. But it doesn't seem to me that I have evildoers approaching me to devour me, at least not that I can see.

Now, I haven't lived a totally sheltered life. I've served in the military. I've been deployed in a combat zone. I've taken cover when our base was shelled with mortars. But compared to what others have faced, compared to what David faced, my experience has been rather sheltered. I don't often feel pushed and pressed like David was, surrounded by enemies, desperate for the high ground. And maybe it's because I think simply by being a middle-class American, I already have the high ground. Don't I? Recently, I was talking with a friend, I'll call him "J." J has been pushed around like David. J comes from a different demographic than me. We've had different opportunities, different economics, are from different ethnicities. We are different, but we are both Christians, brothers in Jesus the Christ. So we get together and encourage each other. We had lunch recently, and we read this poem together, Psalm 27, about the push the place and the impasse to the high ground.

I asked J how he hears the poem, knowing better than me what it's like to have evildoers coming at him. You see, J grew up in a rough neighborhood. He's been shot and shot at. He told me the story of when he was shot at. It was around 2 a.m. Some road-raging gangster chases him and his wife in their car. This guy isn't right in his head. He just starts shooting. He shoots out the car window, showers them with shards of glass. And thank God they escaped only with a car chase and some minor cuts, but psychologically, emotionally, it scarred him. Weeks afterward, he was traumatized. He wasn't sure if he was living or dead and somehow dreaming. So when we read Psalm 27 together, Jay can relate on a different level. Maybe because he's more desperate. He's been pushed, and he knows the place where true high ground is found.

He explained to me that you won't find it in a 401(k) retirement account. You won't find it behind some picket-fence, suburban fortress. You won't find it in a firearm, packing heat. You will only find it in fellowship with your Creator, the living God, the God of David, the God and Father of Jesus. See, when David was pushed, he asked for one thing. "One thing I asked for that I will seek after," David says. David didn't ask God for one more thing. He didn't say, "God, just give me this and that, and this other thing and then I'll be happy. Then I'll have peace; then I'll have security." No, he doesn't ask for one more thing. He asks for the one thing, for fellowship and friendship and sonship under God and with God and in God. God is his high ground. And when I read Psalm 27 with Jay, he says, "Yeah, I can relate. When I've been at my lowest, that's when God was closest."

But maybe there's still some distance between you and the sentiment of this psalm. Maybe you can't relate. Like me, maybe you've had it pretty good. I don't often feel so desperate because I'm not hemmed in by thugs and gangsters all around me. Am I? That incident with J, the one he told me about with the car chase and the shooting, that happened to him more than ten years ago. Since then, things have changed for him. His life looks a little more middle class. Doors have opened, opportunities have come. He moved his family to a better neighborhood. They bought a house. He's got a good job, worked his way up. Now he's in management. But there's this guy who works below him down in the dredges of the corporation. This guy who's lower in the org chart, but he's got connections. He's got an in with one of the vice presidents, and this guy has been intentionally delaying his reports. Reports that J needs to do his job, and J asks him about them, and the guy is unresponsive, flippant, defiant even. Because of his connections he knows he's untouchable, and whether it's sabotage or just laziness, it's making J look bad in front of his boss and in front of the board.

So you see what's happened, right? J has climbed to higher social economic ground, but it's not high enough, and it will never be high enough because if you don't have street thugs, then you've got corporate thugs. And if everything's cool at work, then you have to contend with family life, sibling rivalries, domestic disputes, marital warfare. And it all's well on the home front, then you'll find adversaries on the school board or the church board, the sports league, the poker circle, the homeowner's association. And even if you think you've got all that covered, even if you pursue the intellectual high ground, the moral high ground, even there, you'll have an enemy: a quick temper, a resentful mindset, warring desires, corrosive self-hatred, a saboteur down in the depths of your very soul. Because we are all being pushed, whether we realize it or not, into spiritual evil that's got us surrounded, has infiltrated our ranks. And there's no physical space or head space you can go to be safe. There's only one place, place of prayer. The place where you hear your Creator speak in the voice of Jesus through the words of the Bible, in fellowship with His people. When you're pushed, go to that place, to that high ground.

Psalm 27 speaks of the push, the place and the impasse to the high ground. There are many things that could potentially block your path to that place of prayer and peace with God, but I think the many things come down to one thing. You and I aren't desperate enough, are we? We are not yet so desperate to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. The many things we have still promise us security. But how could any of these things offer more or better than their Creator? But now, having gone after these many things, will God take you back? Does God want you back? That's the impassable question David faced, so he prays to God, "Do not turn Your servant away in anger." David feels his shame dragging him down, his guilt, eating him up. And I think you feel it, too. We feel it because of this spiritual saboteur. The Bible calls it sin, death, the devil, it has turned us against God. We have become God's enemies. We find ourselves caught up in a war against God, and Sun Tzu said, "If your enemy is superior in strength, you should try to evade him."

But there is no evading God. God's got the ultimate high ground, and He has taken this high ground against us, and for us. For us, because the high ground He took was in His Son, Jesus, lifted up, fastened to a cross, bleeding, dying, praying for His enemies. Jesus Christ defeated His foes by dying for them, by becoming a brother to them. He overcame the impasse. He rose from the dead to be a brother for you. And with Him there is no longer any place for fear under the shelter of God, His Father. And enemies look different from up here, from the high ground, from the cross with Jesus.

My friend J tells me that he's been praying for his enemies, for the guy who shot him and the one who shot at him, and maybe most difficult of all, he's praying for that low-life corporate crony who is sabotaging him. He can pray for them. You can pray, but only from the high ground, only from the cross with your brother under the shelter of our Father. Your enemies may not become your friends automatically or at least not right away. And I know this might sound hard to believe, but they can't hurt you. You don't have to fear them, not anymore, not with Jesus.

When my brother got home from school that day after those bullies jumped us in the drainage ditch, it didn't look like he'd been in a fight. No black eye, no bruises, no bloodied lip. "What happened?" I asked him. "Nothing," he said. "Where'd you go?" "Didn't you hear me shout?" I ask. "We heard you, but then we saw you run away." "I was scared," I said. "You were with me," he answered. "Why were you scared?"

Would you pray with me? Dear Jesus, You're my Friend, my Protector, my Brother. When I'm afraid I put my trust in You. Because You live and You reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God now and forever. Amen.

Reflections for September 24, 2023
Title: High Ground

Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. I'm visiting today with Dr. Tim Saleska. He is a professor at Concordia Seminary here in St. Louis, who teaches future pastors, teachers, other church workers about life with God in Jesus, and especially as He's revealed in the Old Testament. Welcome back, Tim.

Tim Saleska: Thanks. Happy to be here, Michael.

Mike Zeigler: In our earlier conversations this month, we've been talking about the psalms, how to read them as poetry. Today I'd like to focus on one psalm with you, the psalm that we heard about in the message, Psalm 27. And you've written commentary on this psalm. And you start by saying, "Imagine you're in a forest, lost in a forest, a dark wood." Why is that a fitting picture to get inside the emotion of this psalm?

Tim Saleska: There's a lot of reasons. But notice that one of the things that psalms do is they give you truth on a more universal level, but also on a gut-affective level. Why would a person say, "Adonai is my light and my salvation? Of whom will I be afraid?" Well, probably because something is making him afraid. Something's lurking in the background. Fear is rising in him. So, notice that I'm understanding this phrase as a way to keep his fears at bay, kind of a self-encouragement, so to speak. He goes to the bedrock truth that the Lord is with him, that the Lord protects him even though the visible evidence and his present experience may not show that, may not be apparent.

Mike Zeigler: As I was meditating on it, I hear this shift right in the middle in Psalm 27:7, it shifts. And now he's praying. He's addressing the Lord directly. It sounds like almost a different tone in that section. The first half was very confident. He doesn't have any reason to be afraid. But now he's revealing his fears. And in your commentary, your translation of that second half, verse 13 especially, you have a different translation that I think captures that. Can you tell us about that?

Tim Saleska: So, at the same time that he has this confident faith, he's also praying to God for help. At the same time that he has this firm knowledge that the Lord is with him, he's also afraid. So, "Had I not believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living ..." he breaks off, because now you're as a reader forced to fill in the blank what would've happened. And you have to imagine what would happen. And it's almost as if saying there's really no words to describe what could happen. Right? We do that all the time. You just trail off. You run out of language. So it gives an emotional impact to the psalm, into the voice, that it also wouldn't have.

Mike Zeigler: It's a sort of a question or a possibility that's real, at least in his present experience, that these fears could overtake him at any minute, at any step, and he is hanging on this precipice between lost in fear in the darkness and brought into the light with the Lord.

Tim Saleska: Yeah. See, I think that's a great image. It gives you the impression that he's hanging by a thread, and that thread is his faith that he's going to see the Lord. And that thread will hold, you see. It's going to hold him, but it's thin, and he's waving in the wind. And "Had I not had this, I would've fallen down that hole."

Mike Zeigler: How do you think this psalm would help a follower of Jesus walk today in that tension, hanging by a thread between fear and faith?

Tim Saleska: I think I mentioned this in my commentary, one of my favorite places is where he expresses his one desire.

Mike Zeigler: Yeah.

Tim Saleska: And so you see this in the midst of all his troubles as he's thinking about the one thing he wants that's most important, "I want to be in the house of the Lord all the days of my life." Why does he say that? Okay, there's big reasons he says that. And it has to do with what's the importance of the sanctuary, what does it mean, and all those kinds of things? But "to look upon the beauty of the Lord," I mean, what a beautiful phrase, right? But then I like that phrase for the paradox, "He would hide me in His tent in the day of evil," he says that twice, and then he says, "On a rock, He would lift me up." So you see those two images, "On the rock, You lift me up versus "In a tent, You hide me," they both go together. And it's a beautiful image. When you're hidden with the Lord, you're actually in this strong place, you see. A tent seems very weak. It seems transitory. It can be blown away. But you're standing on a rock. And remember, in the Scriptures, the high rocks are where people go for safety. It's throughout the psalms and everywhere else. That's where you go. And see, what I like to do now is when you read this in light of the Old Testament and in light of the fact that Jesus calls Himself the "temple" or the "sanctuary." And you remember Paul actually says, our lives are hidden where—"with God in Christ." So see, we have the same language. Our lives are hidden in Christ, and that seems like nothing to the world, and yet that puts you on this rock in which you're safe. See? And so Jesus talks about "Build your house on the rock," etc. You have those images that you see fulfilled in our Lord when we take refuge in Him. So, when you read the psalm in light of the larger story of Scripture, the strength of that line carries through.

Mike Zeigler: Thank you for visiting with us today, Tim.

Tim Saleska: Ah, it was great, Michael. Thank you very much for having me.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Salvation Unto Us Has Come" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.

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