A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 2: Looking For Help (Psalm 121)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday June 9th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the second of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 121. 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.

I have an increasing awareness of the things which I’m useless at doing. Right at the head of that list are these three: anything to do with cars, money or even remotely connected to anything under the vague heading of DIY. These are not my skills set. So if something goes wrong in one of these areas and there’s no one around to help I do one of two things. The first possibility is panic – you know, that creeping realisation that you can’t do anything about what’s going on. It’s usually accompanied by short, rasping breaths, a headache or stomach-churning. Or maybe for you it’s more a low-level background hum of anxiety which you can’t shake. Either way, you know it. The second possibility for me is that I’ll try to do something about it – either myself (disaster) or from the hand of someone nearby who knows only a little more than me (marginally delayed disaster). It never ends well.

If Psalm 120 was the song of someone who’d realised something is wrong and had decided to do something about it, then Psalm 121 is the song of someone who needs help. He knows well the temptation to get help from the wrong place. And he also knows a better place to look.

Having taken the decision to set out on the long journey to meet with God, you’d expect this second Psalm to be full of sunny optimism. It isn’t. It’s brutally realistic; and it’s full of hope. A long journey on foot in the heat of the Middle East contained many dangers – from the heat of the sun, to the cold of the night; dangers from wild animals and criminals (remember the Good Samaritan? the set-up for that story was roadside crime); the sheer emotional and physical stress of the journey. Of course you’d look for help along the way. Wouldn’t you?

The writer looks to the hills (verse 1). Hills. In the days before satellite mapping, these contained much that was unknown, of course. Threats, most likely. But hills were also resonant for the people making this journey. Because hills were where gods other than their God were worshipped. Gods who had to be kept happy with human sacrifices, sex or shouting and screaming. And God’s people had a long history of keeping other gods happy, just to be on the safe side. So when the psalm writer looks to the hills, it could be fear of the unknown. But it’s more likely to be the sideways glance of temptation to a god whose demands seem easier, safer or more pleasurable.

The psalm-writer, though, is talked round.

Where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord.
He is the Maker of heaven and earth.

MY help comes from the God who put the hills in place; who put continents on plates, oversaw them crashing into each other, the mountains pushing up through the surface. THAT’S the God this one looks to. He’ll guard me from physical harm (v3); He won’t (unlike Baal) fall asleep. He’ll shade me from the sun’s heat and the moon’s cold (v 5-6). It’s a very complete kind of care:

7 The Lord will keep you from every kind of harm.
He will watch over your life.
8 The Lord will watch over your life no matter where you go,
both now and forever.

And so the psalm ends. God’s care is complete. His people won’t be harmed, won’t suffer, won’t struggle.

Or so it would seem. Until you experience life, and think a little more deeply about the psalm.

We all know Christians experience the same sort of things as everyone else … jobs, redundancy, cancer, health, death, birth, depression. And much more.

The people who first and sung and prayed and said this psalm were on a journey. A journey to the temple, to meet with the God who was IN that temple. What they didn’t know, or couldn’t always see, was that God walked with them too. So they’d look to the hills. As the Israelites found out as they wondered in the exodus wilderness, sometimes you can walk with someone so long you forget that they are there.

We who walk in the footsteps of Jesus are on a journey also. We know God is with us. Or maybe we’ve known that for so long we can’t see Him right next to us. But we DO forget sometimes that we are on a journey towards a mind-scrambling future where we are so fully in His presence that we’ll know Him with a completeness we can’t comprehend now. That God watches us, walks with us, guards us and guides us. What can keep us from getting there? What can stop us from getting to that total presence? Nothing that happens to us, this much we know:

Who can separate us from Christ’s love? Can trouble or hard times or harm or hunger? Can nakedness or danger or war? 36 It is written, ‘Because of you, we face death all day long. We are considered as sheep to be killed.’ No! In all these things we will do even more than win! We owe it all to Christ, who has loved us. I am absolutely sure that not even death or life can separate us from God’s love. Not even angels or demons, the present or the future, or any powers can do that. Not even the highest places or the lowest, or anything else in all creation can do that. Nothing at all can ever separate us from God’s love because of what Christ Jesus our Lord has done. (Romans 8:35-39)

War, danger, redundancy, cancer, depression, crime …. all these and more can and do happen to us. But they can’t stop us from reaching journey’s end.

So eyes off the hills. And onto the God who made them. And onto the road ahead.

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 9th June 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text.

Also in this series:

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey (An Introduction)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)