The following is the sermon manuscript for Psalm 121 from the December 13, 2009 worship service.
I started running several years ago to stay in shape. For the most part, the only running I had done previously were short sprints as a young man in junior high. When I picked up running as an adult I started running about 20 minutes at a time for approximately two miles. At first I despised the longer distances. They required a steady pace and breath control that I never had to learn running sprints as a boy. Over time though, I learned the necessary skills to run for longer periods of time. I am continually impressed by runners who are able to run marathons or even 50 and 100 mile races. It requires a great bit of endurance!
The Christian life is like a long race that requires extreme endurance, patience, and faith that God is with us along the way. Ancient Israelites would have understood the sort of endurance of which I speak. They were required three times a year to travel to Jerusalem for the major festivals. The Holy Land measures approximately 50 x 150 miles, so traveling pilgrims would have experienced long, weary journeys. The path was mountainous, rocky and dangerous. A slip of the foot could be deadly.
Psalm 120-134 are Psalms of Ascent used by the Israelites on these occasions. Psalm 121 is a helpful reminder for pilgrims living the long, treacherous, and often-dangerous thing we call life. It challenges the Christian who claims they believe God watches over their life, but functionally fends for self like a Deist.
It challenges the skeptic who refuses to believe in a God who is involved in the intricate details of life but prays in times of crisis. Psalm 121 challenges both by showing us a picture of a God who walks life with us every mundane step of the way. Psalm 121 reveals three dangers we must avoid as we walk with God by faith on the pilgrim way.
Psalm 121:1-2 reads: “I lift up my eyes to the hills.? From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord,? who made heaven and earth.”
The first danger of walking the long journey of faith is to look for a quick fix to life’s problems. Sometimes it is easier to look to the hills for help. As the pilgrims travelled to Jerusalem they would have lifted their eyes with joy to see the mountains on which Jerusalem was built. The mountains were a sight that displayed beauty, a sense of majesty and permanence and even inspired a sense of the presence of God.
The hills also became known as high places of idolatry. Psalm 78:54-58 speaks of how the Israelites turned God’s holy mountain into a high place of idolatry. These high places were devoted to the worship of false gods such as Baal or Asherah. Travelers could have sought help or charms for their journey to avoid falling or sunstroke. In effect, the travelers could be tempted to look to the hills for help.
The psalm reminds us that our help does not come from a quick fix found on the idolatrous hills of Israel. Our help comes from the LORD who is the Maker of heaven and earth. Quick fixes are tempting, well, because they are quick. As we approach the New Year many people will turn to quick fixes to lose weight. Sadly, most will not last more than a month. The reality is that the work of losing weight is a long, slow, disciplined process that requires great endurance.
Such is the life of faith. On our pilgrim journey the world offers all sorts of quick fixes to the problems that inevitably befall us. Where is it that you go when life goes wrong? When your career goes sour do you simply look for new work instead of seeking the LORD’s help? When you are lonely do you turn to a bad relationship for sex that doesn’t fulfill, to pornography, to alcohol or drugs? For the friendship that is strained do you turn to the LORD or give up the friend? When criticized do you turn to self-loathing, pouting, to a psychiatrist for medication or do you turn to the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth?
Eugene Peterson puts it bluntly:
The great danger of Christian discipleship is that we should have two religions: a glorious, biblical Sunday gospel that sets us free from the world, that in the cross and resurrection of Christ makes eternity alive in us, a magnificent gospel of Genesis and Romans and Revelation; and, then, an everyday religion that we make do with during the week between the time of leaving the world and arriving in heaven. We save the Sunday gospel for the big crises of existence. For the mundane trivialities-the times when our foot slips on a loose stone, or the heat of the sun gets too much for us, or the influence of the moon gets us down-we use the everyday religion of the Reader’s Digest reprint, advice from a friend, an Ann Lander’s column, the huckstered wisdom of a talk-show celebrity. We practice patent-medicine religion. We know that God created the universe and has accomplished our eternal salvation. But we can’t believe that He condescends to watch the soap opera of our daily trials and tribulations; so we purchase our own remedies for that. To ask Him to deal with what troubles us each day is like asking a famous surgeon to put iodine on a scratch.
When life goes wrong, Psalm 121 reminds us to look to the LORD instead of a quick fix.
Psalm 121:3-4 reads: He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The second danger we face on our pilgrim journey is that we conclude God is uninvolved in our lives. Psalm 121 teaches us that God watches every one of our steps. The journey to Jerusalem was rocky and dangerous. A simple slip could mean loss of life. Psalm 55:22 says “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you;? he will never permit the righteous to be moved.” 1 Peter 5:7 tells us we can do so because God cares for us. That is the special care God has for His people. He watches their every step. Deuteronomy 32:35 says that in due time the foot of the wicked will slip to their destruction.
The LORD is alert to everything that happens in the life of the believer. He never gets drowsy or falls asleep. The priests of Baal had to routinely wake Baal up to pay attention to their plight. The prophet Elijah mocked the priests and Baal in 1 Kings 18:27 saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” The LORD, on the other hand, is always alert.
On March 29, 1979 a malfunction at Three Mile Island resulted in one of the worst accidents in American history. At the time, no deaths were reported but there were serious spikes in the number of incidents of lung cancer, leukemia and infant mortality near the plant. In 2007, at a similar nuclear plant in Peach Bottom township it was alleged that the guards at the plant were sleeping on their shift. The security company was later replaced. Three Mile Island could not be allowed to happen again.
Do you sometimes wonder if God is asleep at the wheel or simply uninvolved in the details of your life and crisis is about to break forth? The psalmist reminds us that God does not allow our foot to slip. This does not mean that bad things don’t happen on our journey of faith but the LORD does not allow us to fall to destruction. He watches over our steps.
There is a great tendency to become a control freak if we fail to understand this special care of God’s providence. It is impossible to see every stone that lies on the path. Do you carefully watch for every stone? As a parent do you hover over your children to the point of smothering them? Do you monitor your finances so tightly that you constantly worry? Do you sweat the details of your relationships? The LORD is very much involved in the details of your life. You can trust Him.
Psalm 121:5-8 reads: The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.
The third danger on the journey of faith is that we begin to assume that God’s endurance is like ours-short. Psalm 121 reminds us that the LORD is our Keeper. On five separate occasions in verses three, four, five, and seven, the writer uses the Hebrew word shamar, which means to keep, guard, observe, or watch. God’s shamar over us means that He is our shade in the sweltering daytime heat of the sun. His shamar extends to the cold lunacy of the nighttime moon. His shamar is present in the face of every evil.
The LORD keeps us for good. Verse eight reminds us that He keeps all of our life including every time we go and return. He keeps us forever. His endurance is nothing like ours, it is unending and eternal. Eugene Peterson writes,
The Christian life is going to God. In going to God Christians travel the same ground that everyone else walks on, breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop in the same stores, read the same newspapers, are citizens under the same governments, pay the same prices for groceries and gasoline, fear the same dangers, are subject to the same pressures, get the same distresses, are buried in the same ground.
The difference is that each step we walk, each breath we breathe, we know we are preserved by God, we know we are accompanied by God, we know we are ruled by God; and therefore no matter what doubts we endure or what accidents we experience, the Lord will guard us from every evil, He guards our very life.
It is easy to want to give up on the long journey of faith. The journey is a hard walk that requires endurance, endurance that sometimes wanes. God’s endurance never wanes because He is in the business of caring for His people for the long haul. What proof do we have of this?
Consider Jesus Christ the God who became a man. His life is proof that God did not look for a quick fix to the biggest problem mankind faced: sin that had separated us from God, the only source of real protection we have. This was a problem man could not fix. God did not sit back uninvolved in the plight that was literally killing our souls. He left the safety of His heavenly abode to become a little, vulnerable baby born in a smelly barn. In the incarnation of the Son of God, the LORD became eternally involved. This journey would lead Him to a cross and a grave where He endured the worst for us-separation from His Father. His protection was completely stripped away. He didn’t cry out to get off the cross. He didn’t cut His stay in the grave short. With great endurance, He endured agony and humiliation to save us.
When you begin to question whether God is involved or will be resolved to keep you through trouble, look at the stable, cross and empty grave. With confidence, the believer in Christ can say “From where does my help come? The LORD is my Keeper.” Then with Calvin, we can proclaim: “Depending on His guardianship alone we may bid adieu to all the vain confidences of the world.”