Scripture: Psalm 121
I Had the Flu…
This past week I had the flu. My daughter got sick a full two days before any of the rest of us showed symptoms, so we’re quite sure she brought it home from school. But just about the time she was starting to feel better, all three of the rest of us succumbed to the plagues waiting for us in the ninth circle of stomach flu hell.
Believe it or not, this is appropriate for our text today. Because even when I started feeling better, I was very uneasy eating—I still am. My stomach and I don’t trust each other anymore. My stomach thinks I am going to put things in it that will send it heaving again; and I think if I put anything in my stomach, it will reject it. We have a trust problem, my stomach and I. And the consequence of this is that neither of us is getting much of what we want.
Talk through Psalm
The Psalm we’re looking at and learning from today is one that addresses the question of trust. It begins with a question—perhaps the question—that defines so much of our turning to God:
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?”
This is the age-old question that is asked in times of hardship: Am I going to be helped? Is God going to come through for me? “Where does my help come from?”
The rest of the Psalm answers that question—answering both the “who” and “why” of trusting God to be our help.
“My help,” the psalmist begins, “comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (v.2). This is the “who” that the rest of the psalm will be speaking of. It is not just anyone who comes to help us: it is the very same Creator of heaven and earth.
If our help comes through the Creator God, is there any danger or peril in this world that this Creator God could not get us through?
Verses 3-4 then show us God’s constancy and faithfulness. “He will not let your foot be moved; he…will not slumber. He…will neither slumber nor sleep.”
You ever feel like maybe God forgot about you? Like God got busy trying to sort things out in the Middle East or something and you just sort of……fell through the cracks? I think somewhere inside, every person who has ever yelled “Where are you?” at the sky has felt something akin to what the psalmist is describing here.
He describes the sensation as being like God is asleep, an idea also taken up in Psalms 44, 78, and 132. But however you describe it, the confident assurance presented here is unequivocal: God doesn’t do that. God will never do that to you. Why? Because God is the keeper. And that brings us to the next part.
God is the keeper, but God is also your keeper, as we see in the next two verses (vv. 5-6). Six times in this psalm does this Hebrew root get used of God: keeping. In these verses, the psalmist speaks to ways that God keeps us through the literal and figurative dangers that parch us, burn us, dry us up, drive us crazy, and otherwise threaten our strength. As one commentator wrote: It matters not “whether one confronts the demons of the day or the nemesis of the night, God’s presence is affirmed” (Evans, Feasting, 58).
In the final pair of verses, God is still described as our keeper, but this time “keeping” means something a little more like “preserving“: from evil, from death, from harm—forever. Whatever dangers or temptations we face, wherever we “go out” to or “come in” from, God is working to “keep” us.
Therein lies the assurance. And therein lies the promise.
Now maybe all that’s fine and dandy, but what does it really mean to be “kept” by God? I mean, is this just more religious mumbo-jumbo that we say over and over and no one knows what it means?
Maybe. But let me try to help to build some understanding by making a couple brief comparisons for you.
My dad called me the other day. He had a decision to make—a decision that many of us have ourselves had to make. His car hadn’t been working right, so he took it to a shop. He found out it needed a new transmission. Because of my background in the automotive world, he wanted to know my thoughts: Was it worth it? Should he replace the transmission and keep the car, or should he junk it and buy another? Keep it, or throw it away?
My grandfather is a TV repairman. I remember (on our vacations) sitting in his shop, watching him work —a man surrounded by capacitors and resistors, tubes and transistors, all sorts of metering equipment (half of which I think he built himself), and the faint scent of silver solder in the air.
When I was young, I remember him turning away work because it interfered with his fishing. He had enough work to get by on, and he was never interested in being rich. That’s something I always admired about him.
Over the last thirty years or so though, I have watched his workload decline more and more and more. The newer sets were harder to work on, so the labor ended up being more expensive. Gradually, people started deciding it was more cost-effective to buy a new set than to repair the old one, or at least that was often the excuse.
He rarely gets any work these days. Why? Because when something breaks, we throw it away and buy a new one. It often doesn’t even cross our minds to try to fix it.
I knew a woman named Helen McCabe. Helen was 99 years old when I met her. She’d been alive through two World Wars and all of them since. She had seen the world from the Radio Age through to the Information Age. And perhaps most importantly for her own personal development, she had lived through the Great Depression of the 1930’s.
Helen cut the fronts off all the cards she received. They would serve as postcards to other people. Ham and spam cans were transformed into Christmas dioramas and decorations. Worn out clothing was cut up to make quilts or more clothing. Everything she owned had been cared for, maintained, and repaired over and over for decades.
I’m not trying to gild a generation or polish up a difficult time in history. But I do notice a striking difference between Helen’s generation and that of my peers. The difference is that decision to keep versus throw away an item.
Though I resist it with ever fiber of my being (just ask April), I am of a throwaway generation. Something breaks, you replace it. That’s just what you do.
I can blame manufacturers for not making things repairable—and I often do. I’ve changed the oil in cars where you had to remove a tire to get the filter off, or you have drop out a frame crossmember in order to change the transmission fluid. I’ve owned bookshelves made of fiberboard. One of them was dropped when we moved, and it just shattered—I mean shattered. Manufactures don’t want to build things that last; they want you to buy more, so they build things with limited lifespans, so to speak—things that can’t be readily repaired.
But I do recognize that we are likely as much to blame. We started buying new things before our old things wore out because we needed to own the newest, best, trendiest sofa in the neighborhood. Since we only used things for so many years, manufacturers discovered they could cut costs by only making things that lasted that long. Then we got greedy, and decided that cheaper is better as long as it looks good. And everything went downhill from there.
Here’s where I’m going: We are all like my generation when it comes to relationships. Things get messy and we just want to cut ties. It’s easier and emotionally cheaper to just throw that one away and find a new one. I truly believe that this principle is what is at work below the surface of our nation’s divorce rate, the divide in our government, the polarization of our churches, and the reality that we have just flat ceased trying to engage in any civil discourse whatsoever.
That’s us. We are throwaway people. So when we get in trouble (like the Psalmist) and our eyes look towards the horizon for reasons we don’t fully understand, we expect that God has thrown us away. Just like we are so ready to do to each other, and to God.
But here’s the thing. God isn’t like us. God is a “keeper,” not a “thrower-away.” When we break, we are repaired or re-appropriated. But always kept. Always used. Always maintained. Because we are what God has, and (lucky for us) God doesn’t feel the need for new or sparkly or fashionable. God is content to have us, even as God works to shape us and use us more efficiently.
Assurance of Trust
Herein lies the promise and hope of Psalm 121: God is going to keep you. To use the language of the Psalm itself, the God who laid the foundations of the heavens and the earth will not let your foot be moved. The God who hung the sun in the sky will not allow you to burn up. The God who set the moon in place will not let darkness overcome you. The God who breathed spirit into you and made you a living thing will keep your life.
This is the promise and hope of this psalm, and it is here that we fully see the psalmist’s instruction to us this Lenten season:
Be willing to trust. God is not like us.
Be willing to trust. God will not throw you away.
Be willing to trust. “The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
Be willing to trust.
Trust comes hard for throwaway people like us. But God is a keeper. And God thinks you are too.
Benediction: St Patrick’s Breastplate, adapted.
May Christ be with you,
Christ before you,
Christ behind you,
Christ in you,
Christ beneath you,
Christ above you,
Christ on your right,
Christ on your left,
Christ when you lie down,
Christ when you sit down,
Christ when you arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of you,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of you,
Christ in every eye that sees you,
Christ in every ear that hears you.
Go now today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation. Amen and Amen.