Sunday March 8th 2020
Pastor Galen Zook
Psalm 121; John 3:1-17
A Psalm of Ascents
The superscription in most of our Bibles states that Psalm 121 is a “Song of Ascents” — most likely one of the songs that was sung by travelers as they made their way to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem was built on a hill, no matter which direction you were travelling from, the journey entailed travelling upwards.
To many of the pilgrims making their way to worship in Jerusalem, the upward nature of the journey no doubt felt symbolic, as the temple in Jerusalem was believed to be the place where God dwelt. Walking up the hill toward the city of Jerusalem must have made the pilgrims feel as though they were not just climbing to a higher elevation, but ascending to greater spiritual heights as well.
During that long and wearisome journey to the temple in Jerusalem, the pilgrims tried to keep their hopes and spirits alive by imagining what it would be like when they finally saw the beautiful city of Jerusalem far off in the distance, high upon the hills.
They longed for their journey to be complete, to finally reach their destination not just because they were tired and their feet were sore, not just because the sun was blazing hot, and not just because the darkness of the night was terrifying to those who were unaccustomed to camping in the wilderness.
They longed for their journey to be complete because they longed to be in the presence of God. They longed to worship in God’s holy temple, to offer praise and prayer and thanksgiving, and to offer sacrifices so that their sins could be atoned. They longed to feel the closeness and intimacy with God that they believed could only be experienced in God’s holy temple.
As the pilgrims made their way through the deserts and the wildernesses, as they crossed rivers and streams, as they passed countless foreign cities and villages, always keeping a lookout for thieves and robbers and wild animals and anyone who might attempt to do them harm, they sang songs to encourage their hearts, to keep their spirits alive, and to encourage themselves to keep pressing on.
They sang psalms and hymns, some that had been passed down from generation to generation, perhaps even from the time when their ancestors had wandered in the wilderness and had longed for their journey to be complete in the promised land.
When the travelers began to feel discouraged, and felt like they just couldn’t go on, someone in the back of the caravan lifted up their voice and began to sing:
I will lift up mine eyes to the hills
From whence cometh my help
My help cometh from the Lord
The Lord which made Heaven and Earth
As they made their way along the rough mountain passes, steep cliffs on either side of the road, the other travelers joined in singing,
He said He would not suffer thy foot
Thy foot to be moved;
And as their bodies grew tired and weary, they sang:
The Lord which keepeth thee
He will not slumber nor sleep
When the sun beat down upon them, they sang:
For the Lord is thy keeper
The Lord is thy shade
Upon thy right hand
Upon thy right hand
And when the sun started to slip down below the horizon and they began to feel afraid of the dark, they sang:
Nor the sun shall not smite thee by day
Nor the moon by night
He shall preserve thy soul
Even forever more
And as they made their beds in the wilderness that night, they whispered to one another,
“The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore” (Psalm 121:7-8).
God is Our Keeper
For the pilgrims on their way to worship at the temple in Jerusalem, remembering how God had kept and protected their ancestors during their wanderings in the wilderness, preserved their people even in the midst of captivity, how God had delivered them out of slavery in Egypt and exile in Babylon, and protected them even in the midst of famine and attacks by enemy armies, and recalling to mind how God had kept them even in the midst of dangers seen and unseen, gave them hope and encouragement that God could and would do the same for them as well.
Now some translations of this Psalm make it seem as though God has promised to always keep us from all evil and danger, as if no bad things will ever befall us, as if no manner of sickness, pain, or death will ever touch us.
But I think here the King James and other translations of the Scriptures are helpful, when they say that God will “preserve” our souls. That God will “preserve thy going out and thy coming in” (Psalm 121:8), that God is our “keeper” (Psalm 121:5) and that our “help cometh from the Lord” (Psalm 121:2).
The words “preserve” and “keep” stem from the Hebrew word shamar – which means “to keep, guard, observe, give heed.” This is the same Hebrew word that is used in Genesis chapter 2, when God commands the first human beings to till and “keep” the garden. It’s the same word that is used in the ten commandments, when the Israelites were commanded to “keep” the Sabbath day holy (Ex. 31:14), and the same word that is used when God promised Jacob, the ancestor of the Israelite people, that God would be with him, and would “keep” him wherever he went (Gen. 28:15).
Just as we as humans are to take care of the land, to till the soil, and to work for the good of the world, just as we are to pay careful attention that we keep God’s commandments, so too God is actively at work, preserving and protecting us, working for our good, and paying careful attention to watch over us.
This does not mean, of course, that we will never face dangers of any kind. Indeed, there are dangers all around us. Today we may not be as afraid of being struck down by the sun — we have sunscreen to guard against skin cancer, and electrolytes to guard against dehydration. Nor are we as afraid of the night.
But today we have our own fears and insecurities and concerns. We’re afraid because of the coronavirus, we’re afraid of terrorist attacks, we’re afraid that the political candidate that we oppose might get elected or re-elected, we’re afraid that the stock market might crash, that we might lose our jobs, or that we might lose someone that we love.
Just as the pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem were reminded that God was not far off on some distant hill, but that God was right there with them, watching over them and protecting their steps, so too we can be comforted and encouraged by the fact that God is right here with us, watching over us, keeping us, preserving us, looking out for us. God never sleeps, God never slumbers. God is always alert, always working for our good, always paying careful attention to us.
God So Loved the World
Of course we may say, “yes, but wouldn’t it be nice to have some tangible reminder, some physical proof to show us that God is actively at work in our world today? Wouldn’t it be nice to know for sure that God is with us?”
Well, the Gospel of John also reminds us to lift our eyes up. But this time we are not told to lift up our eyes to the mountains, or event towards God’s holy temple — but instead to lift up our eyes to the cross — to see, as Jesus told Nicodemus, that “the Son of Man” was lifted up, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14b-15).
Jesus wanted Nicodemus and we today to know that our help does indeed come from above — from Jesus himself, the only begotten Son of God, who came down from above. He descended to this earth, to live among us and to show us the way to the Father, to die on the cross for our sins, and then ascended again and is at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us. But he has not left us by ourselves — He sent his Spirit to comfort us, and guide us. Christ’s Spirit lives inside us. He is indeed right here with us.
In one of the most famous verses of Scripture in the Bible, we read that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17).
Through Jesus, God made a way where there seemed to be no way — a way to eternal life. Even though we were dead in our trespasses and sins, God raised us to new life in Christ. Because of Jesus we do not have to fear danger, or evil, or whatever might come our way. Through Jesus we can experience eternal life, which begins here and now. Because of Jesus we can have that closeness and intimacy with God, wherever we are. And so we definitely do not have to worry and fear for whatever may come our way. Because of Jesus we have confidence that God is in fact with us, and one day we will go to be with Him.