This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday July 14th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the sixth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 125. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.
For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.
We’re all capable of acts of extraordinary self-discipline. Given a sufficiently achievable goal of significant enticement, then most of us can find a way to get there. We may stumble on the way, but we can find it within ourselves to say the necessary ‘no’ and ‘yes’ to get there. More usually though, we give up. Losing weight is possible but for many of us it’s simply too much to do what’s necessary; many of our goals are too nebulous, too far off, or insufficiently interesting to push and pull us enough to get through the acts of self-denial to get there.
What are the things which stop me? Simple really – we all have them. Emotions, circumstances outside me and just giving up. As with losing weight or writing a book, so it is with following Jesus. We sense that we are somewhat too easily deflected. Psalm 125 is the song of a someone who knows that – and who also knows that God is different. He is not deflected.
My emotions shake me. They can flood in and cause me to look to the hills. Things I cannot control can sweep me away in the flood waters. I fear I may give up. The images of Psalm 125 comes as something of a shock, then.
Apparently I “will always be secure” (v1); it seems I “will last forever” (v1). Really? The writer evidently hasn’t conversed with me in the small hours of a bad day.
It’s not about me. It’s about hills again. I’m told Jerusalem sits on a hill, surrounded by many, higher hills. The image is one of being surrounded by something large and immovable. I thought about this, and I thought about being rudely awoken by Barack Obama.
He was visiting Cape Town a few weeks ago. I was having a Sunday afternoon doze and awoke to the confusing sound of helicopters low overhead. I went outside to see what was going on, and there was Obama. More correctly, there was a group of helicopters transporting him from Robben Island to a speaking engagement at the University. He was, I assume in the middle helicopter, flanked by other, slightly bigger and better armed helicopters.
If you’ve ever seen a person like Obama in the flesh, you’ll have seen the security guards running alongside him, ready to take a bullet for him and rugby tackle him out of harm’s way. In that helicopter, surrounded by bodyguards ready to die for him, could a Obama under threat still feel shaken and scared? Of course he could. He’s a human. It’s scary to have someone try to take your life even if the chances of them succeeding are low. But his fear doesn’t change the reality of the protection, the fact that people will die for him.
Now where am I going? To meet with God, that’s where. Like the original pilgrim singers of the Psalms of Ascents, only more so. I will see Him. will I feel scared, shaken on the way? Of course I will. I’m human. But I’m surrounded by one who’s already taken a bullet for me. So my feelings may be real, but they won’t stop me.
Feelings, then. Other things can shake me – the things people do to me, do around me. The things I cannot control: the diagnosis, the government, the economy, the driver. Can they shake me? Yes, of course they can. But they will not last and will not stop me from seeing God. Their influence will not last. Verse 3 speaks of misused, God-given power. For the readers of the day this was governments, rulers. It could be that for us too. It could also be a decaying body, a badly driven car, an abused strength. These are real, but they will not the last. They have no power over what God has in store for me.
What else might stop me other than feelings or outside forces? Me. I might just give up. I was bought up in a Christian home and drifted into faith, breathing it in week by week. So without a moment of conversion to point to I continually made sure. Every time I was at a meeting where the gospel was presented in such a way to lead to a point of decision I would raise a hand, pray the prayer, go to the front. Just to make sure. I didn’t want to drift off and find myself unfound by God.
Many of us fear we will do so; not just teenagers. We fear backsliding – ourselves or those we love. Drifting away from faith, wandering off, falling away. It’s something we fear happening to us. We read verses like verse 5 of Psalm 125 and the fear intensifies. We don’t want this to be us, my son, my grand-daughter.
This is a warning, to be sure. But it’s a warning about what we choose, not what might happen to us. An evil path such as that described in verse 5 requires a repeated, sustained, deliberate choice. It can be done and people do it: but it doesn’t just happen. It requires knowledge and sustained choice. That can lead us away from God. But drifting off by accident. No. That won’t happen. We needn’t fear that.
There is nothing in our way, then. Not my fear, not my doubt, not the random violence and happenstance of life, not my capacity to drift away. The only thing is the bodyguard dying for me. He I can choose, or can reject.
This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 14h July 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text.
Also in this series: