Pastor Edward Brouwer 1-14-18 “Looking Up” Psalm 121
This past summer we did the tourist thing and travelled to central California: San Fran, the wine country, the Pacific Coast. But for me personally, what was on my bucket list was Yosemite. I’d always longed to go to Yosemite, ever since looking at pictures in the National Geographic. People from all around the world come to witness the grandeur of Half Dome, Bridal veil Falls and El Capitan, unique geological formations hidden in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The sheer block of granite that is El Cap rises one kilometer from the valley floor and evokes feelings of awe and wonder. You could see what looked like ants climbing the face, tackling a climb that until recently was thought impossible because the techniques for climbing such a colossus weren’t even invented until 1958. People climb to high places for many reasons–for perspective, on themselves and on the world. How can you not feel tiny and insignificant when taking in all that gravitas? Some go to be inspired, for the vistas from mountaintops are awesome—that’s why they call any epic event a mountain top experience! In the Psalms of Ascent the People of God in Israel were singing the songs of Zion because they were on pilgrimage for Divine encounter on Mount Zion.
Read Psalm 121
The psalmist is full of anticipation, writing what’s in all our hearts in this pilgrim journey. I look to the hills for help. There’s something about the mountains. The beautiful scenery, the cooler temps, the promise of a vigorous climb with a reward that is a feast for the eyes. Mountains have been for humans, from time immemorial, places of spiritual encounter. Mount Sinai was the place where God gave his Law to Moses. Mount Moriah was were God himself provided a sacrificial lamb for Abraham. That is true now just as it was true then. As the people of Israel gathered to the Temple, three times a year to celebrate the festivals of God’s Help and provision (Passover, Pentecost, Booths), they went up from the coast lands and the valleys. They sang these psalms as worship along the way. Remembering that GOD had helped them in the past—rescuing them from the slavers in Egypt. And God would continually help them by providing abundance in the Land of Promise. And along the way they would have noticed that their pagan neighbors were worshipping in the High Places. The inhabitants of the land, the worshippers of Baal and Asherah and Moloch, were calling upon their gods for help. Baal the storm god, and Asherah the fertility goddess. And these practices were a snare to the people of Israel. They had to remind themselves: WE look to the mountains NOT for placating the gods of this region, but we look to the God who made the heavens and the earth (and the mountains!). This is the God who will watches over us, keeps us from falling, he never slumbers or sleeps.
This verse reminds me of the encounter of Elijah with the 450 prophets of Baal recorded in 1 Kings 18. Ahab is king of the northern tribes, just a century after David and Solomon, and Ahab, married to the wicked Jezebel has turned the hearts of God’s people toward the god’s of the land and specifically Baal. There’s a description of an epic standoff on Mount Carmel, which overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. Elijah proposes a test, your god against Yahweh. They build altars, Baal’s prophets use incantations to call fire from heaven (after all Baal is the god of lightning and thunder!) All to no avail. At noon Elijah mockingly tells them to shout louder, perhaps Baal is busy, or relieving himself or on a journey or maybe even asleep! Nothing. But when Elijah calls upon the One True God to answer his prayer, immediately fire falls from heaven and utterly consumes the offering and the altar itself.
So when Israel sings “Yahweh never slumbers or sleeps” they are describing a Guardian of their lives who watches over them always. Period.
Now in that regard, this Psalm seems to make a lot of promises about God. You will never stumble; you will not experience heat stroke because of too much sun during the day. The moon will not strike you by night! What does that even mean? Some commentators see that as emotional distress—as in, how, at a full moon people sometimes report more effects of mental trouble. It’s where we get the word lunacy. That is, the effects of the moon on our emotional wellbeing. So now we have a problem. Because the Psalm, which is God Holy Word, seems to say that if you are a believer in this Creator God, then you never experience say a sprained ankle, a concussion, heat stroke or depression.
Is that the promise? Become a believer and then magically all your troubles go away? Like some health and wealth evangelists is saying “put a happy face on it and your troubles will go away!” or even “don’t admit that you have troubles!”
Well we know that is not true, so that can’t be what the psalm is really saying. So what is the psalmist saying? Like so much in Scripture I believe that He is saying “God is with us even in the difficulties of life, and that knowing Him, in the midst of our trouble, is of all surpassing worth”. He who guards Israel will keep your life, from your going out to your coming in, now and forevermore. From the moment you take your first breath until your final breath, the Creator of the world is with you. And not just from birth to death, but beyond! But how can this be so?
The gospel makes it so. God had created a beautiful world, and in Eden humanity had a place of spiritual encounter with God. But in rebellion humanity rejected this to pursue self! Adam thought “I can be like God!” And people have been putting themselves, their pleasure, their comfort, their wealth, their happiness at the center of their search for meaning ever since. But that is messed up because ultimately we cannot find meaning in ourselves—our meaning comes from our Creator. And this Creator, this one true and Sovereign God, came as the Word among us. He tabernacle with us! He took on our humanity to save us.
Jesus, God in the flesh, experienced hunger and thirst. Jesus suffered emotional pain in the death of a loved one. Jesus stumbled on the road to Golgotha. Jesus was stuck down by death on a cross and Jesus suffered utter and complete abandonment by His Father and the Spirit (The wholeness and transcendence of the unity of the Triune God sundered)— BECAUSE GOD took our place: we don’t have to!
All we need to do is look to Jesus. Look to the hill of Golgotha. On that Hill the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth bought redemption for you and me–that is from whence our HELP comes! Jesus said “I lay down my life willingly and I take it up” Jesus’ resurrection is proof that Christ has the power over life and death. Christ is where our help comes from! This Great High Priest, the Second person of the Trinity is upholding us in our journey. Paul writes in Rom 8:37-39
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? No in all these things we are more than conquerors, through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.