I invite you to open your Bible to Psalm 121. Except for the 16 years I lived in Kansas City, I’ve spent my entire life in the hills—younger years in the Ozarks, later years in the Ouachitas. I like the hills. They feel like home. At first glance it sounds like Psalm 121 was written with an eye toward the hills. But when we listen closely, we see that the psalm was written with an eye toward God. That’s a good thing because God feels like home no matter where we live. Hear the word of the Lord … (read the text)
Psalm 121 is the second of a group of fifteen psalms known as the “Songs of Ascent”—psalms marked by rural flavor and simple piety; psalms associated with the pilgrim’s journey to Jerusalem for special holy seasons. This psalm likely originated as a short liturgy for saying good-bye—perhaps used to bless travelers on their way up the mountains to Jerusalem. But over the years, the psalm has become a bon voyage for many journeys—a wonderful way to say good-bye.
But as we stand on the cusp of a new year, it’s also a wonderful way to say hello. No pilgrim to Jerusalem could anticipate an easy journey through the mountains. It could be relatively easy, or the way could be treacherous. Bandits could be hiding out along the way ready to pounce on unsuspecting travelers. The crooks and crags of mountain paths might be stable or washed out from seasonal rains. Wild animals lived in the mountains. A traveler had to be alert.
As we enter a new year, we don’t know what our journey will look like as the year unfolds. Will this be a relatively easy, stable year? Or will this be the year health breaks, someone we love dies, or an accident changes our lives? Who knows? We make our plans, but there are usually at least a few places in the journey through a year where we realize how little control we have over our lives.
Say hello to Psalm 121—a psalm for the new year: 121 for the next 365. At first reading it sounds very optimistic. The Hebrew word shamar is used 6 times in this brief psalm. Shamar has a broad range of meaning: guard, keep, protect, watch over. The CSB from which I read applies one translation to that word: protect. God is our Protector from the elements, from evil, and all journey through.
Sort of makes you scratch your head and wonder if the psalm is on the level, if it’s too good to be true, if there are promises and assurances given here beyond what God will keep.
I wonder how the discussion went when the hymnbook committee put the Psalms together. I wonder if 121 had a hard time making the cut.
“Better leave 121 out of the new hymnal, Joseph.”
“But why, Reuben, people like this song.”
“I know they do, Joseph, but just look at the words. It’s false advertising. People sing this song about God’s constant protection their whole journey through? It’s not real life. People aren’t going to buy it. Just the other day Abner’s wife and boy were killed in an accident. How can Abner sing 121 without shaking his head, closing his hymnal, and walking away? And did you hear about Joash? Diagnosed with leprosy, and it’s off to the colony for him. Goodbye family, goodbye job, goodbye synagogue. Think Joash can put his heart into singing 121? And then there’s Martha: how long has she been praying for a child? Years. And nothing. How is this song going to sound to these people if we put it in the hymnal? God always on guard? God the constant Protector? How are those people going to sing that song? They won’t, I tell you. They’ll feel like they’re singing a lie.”
“Yes, Reuben, I see your point. Maybe 121 is a little too optimistic.”
“Now wait just a fig-picking minute,” piped in Simeon, the oldest member of the committee. “Before you drop 121 from the hymnal will you listen to the testimony of an old man? You know me. You know my story. Some good days, yes. But more heartaches and hardships than I can count. Yet you know what I’ve discovered? God was my protector through them all, watching over my life, helping me take the next step on the journey even when I didn’t know just where my foot would land. I’ve been the victim of evil on several occasions, yet God never let evil get the best of me. My life has been anything but roses and buttercups, and this is one of my favorite hymns.”
Psalm 121 stayed in the hymnal. It’s a hymn we can sing, a prayer we can pray, in the face of anything that we face in our journey. It’s a good companion to carry into 2018.
Here’s why: Psalm 121 focuses our attention on God. You might have expected the sermon on New Year’s Eve to focus on you. What will you resolve for the new year? Going to lose a few pounds. Going to join the gym. Going to read through the Bible. Going to share Jesus with a least one person a month. Going to cut back on sugar. Going to spend more time with the kids. Going to get in Connect Group at church. Going to start tithing. New Year’s Eve is the time for resolutions, right? So what are you going to resolve to do in 2018? I encourage you to pray that stuff through and make a resolution or two you will work to keep. But that’s not our focus today. Our focus is not on you and your resolutions. Our focus is on God and the things he resolves to do for us. Psalm 121 takes us there. It focuses our attention on God.
- The mountains we must climb are imposing. Don’t focus on the mountains; focus on God.
- There are a lot of places in the journey to slip and lose our footing. Don’t focus on those places; focus on God.
- We journey under scorching sun and become vulnerable to being moonstruck (as folks believed in that day) from too much time in the dark under the moon. (That’s where we get the word lunatic.) Don’t get caught up with sun and moon; focus on God.
- Lot of evil in the world, lots of things to harm us. Don’t focus on the things that do us wrong; focus on the One who does us right. Focus on God.
Amid competing claims for our attention and our concern, Psalm 121 rivets our attention on God.
Let’s play with the images in the psalm, this morning, and see the stunning ways the psalm turns our attention toward God and the resolutions God makes toward us.
Says God, “I resolve to be your helper.” Don’t be so infatuated with the glory of creation that you miss the glory of God. “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where will my help come from?” Well, it doesn’t come from the mountains, as majestic and powerful as they may to be. “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven of earth.” Why look to the hills when we can look to the Lord? The Lord is larger than the hills, broader than the plains, deeper than the sea, higher than the heavens. The Lord can hold the world in his hand. He can spin a planet on his finger. Don’t mistake creation for the Creator. God is so above it all that he didn’t even have to break a sweat to make the stuff we call creation. God spoke it into existence, and he made it all from nothing.
So whether your journey in this new year takes you to the mountains or the plains, to the next town or the other side of the world, every step you take will land you in the realm of the One who made all things. We can never get out of God’s territory or out of his reach. We can never step one foot in a place where God will say, “Now just where is that place. I’m not familiar with it.” No. God can help us anywhere and everywhere we are. He is our Helper in narrow mountain trails where one slip can mean disaster. He is our helper in mundane plains where life feels predictable and boring. He is our helper when we navigate dark valleys unable to see clearly beyond our next step. God made all things. Those things can’t give us much help. God can give us all the help we need. He can find us wherever we are and be our Helper. “I resolve to be your helper,” says God.
“And I resolve to be your watcher.” Look at vv. 3-4: “He will not allow your foot to slip; your Protector will not slumber. Indeed, the Protector of Israel does not slumber of sleep.” What’s the most important skill for a night watchman? His strength to overcome anyone who might breach security? His intelligence to know what to do if security is breached? His dexterity to dial 9-1-1 in an instant without accidentally punching in 9-4-1 because he panicked and got in a hurry? Those skills are important but not most important. The most important skill for a night watchman is that he can stay awake all night long. A sleeping watchman is an open door to thieves, enemies, and all kinds of mischief on the very persons and properties he’s watching. Falling asleep on guard duty in the business world will get you fired. Falling asleep on guard duty in the military can get your court-martialed and, in some military codes, it can lead to execution. Psalm 121 reminds us that God is something like a night watchman over our lives.
I don’t know about you, but once it gets to 9:00 at night, my eyes get heavy, I get sluggish, I don’t think as quickly or clearly as I do in the mornings. I would make a terrible watcher. We human beings need our sleep. When I suffer with sleep deprivation, my thinking is muddled, my emotions are on my sleeve, I get irritable over the littlest things, and I offer little value to anyone. We are not ourselves when we are struggling to stay awake.
And it’s especially a horrible thing to have to fight to stay awake when you need to be focused. How many of you can go back to notes you took in a high school or college class and find pages with that long line across them because you nodded off with pen in hand and the pen slipped down and off the page? It’s a horrible feeling. Or how about in church when the preacher is preaching? Most choirs are glad when they get to move out of the loft before the sermon: bad enough to sleep through the sermon, worse yet when everybody in church can see you. Difficult thing to stay awake when your body is trying to fall asleep. You are not at your best. And far worse for the people who are stricken with sleep apnea. They might fall asleep anywhere doing anything. We human beings need our sleep. Our bodies demand it.
But God doesn’t need any sleep at all—no mandatory 8 hours to be on his game, no power naps after lunch to have a productive afternoon. God’s doesn’t need a wink of sleep. There are no Zs in his alphabet. That’s what makes him such a great watcher. Please don’t picture God yawning and stretching on his throne, trying to prop open his eyes with his fingers, slipping away from the throne long enough to throw some cold water in his face, nodding off and fighting sleep. That’s not God. He never tires. He keeps his eye on everything—day and night. Even the dark is light to him. God watches over your life.
You can’t be sure where your 2018 journey will take you. God the watcher already sees your full year’s journey. He sees every step, every twist, every turn. He sees today. He can see you even now on June 3 and September 5 and this very day next December. God is always on duty. He’s always awake. He misses nothing. Nothing can happen to you good or bad in 2018 that God is not aware of, that God will sleep through, that God will not see. That should give you peace. That’s why you can sleep and take your rest because God is going to be up all night anyway. He who keeps you “does not slumber of sleep.” Says God, “I resolve to be your watcher.”
And God says this too: “I resolve to be your shelter.” Listen to vv. 5-6: “The Lord protects you; the Lord is a shelter right by your side. The sun will not strike you by day or the moon by night.” This week, a few of you helped man a warming center in town to give the homeless a respite from a night in the cold, to give them a shelter. Shelter is a wonderful thing. It’s why we seek shade under the scorching sun. It’s why we even when we’re camping, most of us opt for a tent or camper versus sleeping on the open ground. When I was a kid, I had my thinking tree. I’d climb up that tree when I was worried or scared or just needed to pray and think. I could hide in its branches. I felt like it was just God and me. It felt like shelter.
Shelter feels like safety. Shelter feels like comfort. Shelter feels like peace. Shelter allows us to rest. God is our shelter. Psalm 46:1 describes God as “our refuge”—which is another way of saying God is our shelter, our hiding place. From September 1940 through May 1941, the Nazis blitzed London day after day, night after night with indiscriminate bombing raids that killed 43,000 citizens and wounded at least twice that many. Nothing was more important than the bomb shelter. Londoners never wanted to be too far away from one. Pity the poor souls who had to run a block or more to find shelter. Some of them were killed by shrapnel or falling debris before they made it to shelter.
Good news: God the shelter is always with us. When the bombs start falling in our 2018 lives and debris starts tumbling around us, we don’t have to run a block or two or even across the street for shelter. God our shelter is with us day and night. The only things that can touch us are the things God allows to touch us—things God can leverage for our growth and for his glory, things that can draw us ever deeper into the shelter that is our God. God says, “I resolve to be your shelter.”
And that’s not all God says: “I resolve to be your guard.” See v. 7: “The Lord will protect you from all harm (or evil); he will protect your life.” This is a line that sort of makes you raise your eyebrows, doesn’t it? Either the Lord’s not a very good guard, or the psalmist isn’t telling us the truth. We’ve all known lots of people—good Christians even—who have been on the receiving end of one kind of harm or another, people who have been battered about by the evil in our world—the victims of crime or disease, persecution or untimely death. So what’s the deal? Is the psalm making a promise the Lord can’t keep?
Not at all. Neither this psalm nor the Bible as a whole promises a life free from worry, injury, accident, or illness. What it does promise is preservation from the evil of such things. As Eugene Peterson puts it: “All the water in all the oceans cannot sink a ship unless it gets inside. Nor can all the trouble in the world harm us unless it gets within us.” That’s the promise of the psalm—that God will keep evil from moving in and taking over our lives: “The Lord will protect you from all evil.” Sounds an awful lot like the prayer Jesus taught us to pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” And that’s what this psalm promises—a deliverance from all the evil that assaults us in this world. No matter what bad things come your way as you journey through 2018, none of that will ever separate you from God’s love or God’s purposes for your life.
That’s important to remember. When things are going badly, it’s easy to conclude that God has taken his eye off you, or that he’s snoring soundly, unaware of your troubles, or even that he’s shifted his attention to some other Christian more interesting or more committed than you are. This psalm keeps us from jumping to that mistaken conclusion.
God is the good guard who never falls asleep on the job, never loses sight of us for a second, never stands by and lets evil have its way with us without some redemptive purpose at work we cannot see in the moment. When life is good and when life is hard in 2018, God is on guard over our lives. He is for us, and, as Paul asked the Romans, “if God is for us, who is against us” (Rom. 8:31). Who, that is, who is stronger than God? No one. God is clear: “I resolve to be your guard.”
And this too: God says, “I resolve to be your keeper.” See v. 8: “The Lord will protect your coming and going both now and forevermore.” Once you’re his, you’re his. He keeps you. Jesus died to forgive your sins—all your sins—past, present, and future. Your sins are forgiven in Jesus’ name. When you put your trust in Jesus, when you look to him for forgiveness, Jesus saves you from your sins. His blood covers them all. So God doesn’t throw you away when you sin against him. He doesn’t change his mind about you when you go through a rough patch of your own making. God keeps you. He keeps you now. He keeps you forever. He walks with you in this life. He walks you all the way home. He won’t abandon you. He won’t leave you for someone else. He won’t run out on you in the middle of a storm. He won’t lose you.
When I was in first-grade, I was the batboy for my older brother’s little league team. One night, the coaches took the team to the Travelers game. I don’t know how it happened but when the game was over, I got separated from the team, separated from my dad who was one of the coaches. It’s a scary thing to be lost in a world where you only come up to everyone’s waist. You’re hard to find in a crowd. You can’t hear your name called over the hustle and bustle of the exiting masses. I was lost. I was scared. My fourth-grade brother somehow found me, so we were both lost. He had the wherewithal to hail a taxi cab to take us home. When we got there, our house was full of neighbors waiting with my mom. My dad was still at Ray Winder Field looking for us. Were they ever glad to see us at the house! “Where have you been? We’ve been worried sick about you? We had no idea where you were?” God will never say that about you. Never. He watches over your life. He keeps you now and forever.
There might be times in 2018 where you feel rather lost. Grief, financial setback, marriage troubles, job loss, a move, early days in your first year of college, a sickness you never saw coming. Don’t worry. You are not lost. God sees it coming. God knows exactly where you are. He will keep you through that season. He will get you all the way home. God says, “I resolve to be your keeper.”
So there you have it: a spiritual prescription for the new year: 121 for the next 365. It’s a sure remedy to being self-centered or situation-centered. It doesn’t keep you from making some resolutions to grow in sanctification and in other ways we humans can improve. But be sure and make your resolutions in light of the resolutions God makes concerning you. You are loved and cared for more deeply than you know by our helping, watching, sheltering, guarding, keeping God who is resolved to do all those things for you.
Alexander Maclaren, a Scottish preacher, tells about when he accepted his first job in the city of Glasgow. He was only 16 and the city of Glasgow was some six miles from his country home. Between his home and Glasgow was a deep ravine that was supposed to be haunted. Some terrible things had happened there, and Alec was afraid to go through it in the daytime, let alone the night.
On Monday morning his father walked with him to work and in parting said, “Alec, come home as fast as you can when you get off Saturday night.”
Thinking of that deep ravine, Alec said he answered his father, “Father, I will be awfully tired Saturday night. I will come home early Sunday morning.”
But his father was insistent, “No, Alec, you have never been away from home before, and these five days are going to seem like a year to me. Come home Saturday night.”
Alec reluctantly answered, “All right, Father, Saturday night.”
All week long, Alec worried about that black ravine. When Saturday night came, he was more scared than ever. But he wrapped up his belongings and went out to the end of the gulch. He said, “I whistled to keep up my courage, but when I looked down into that inky blackness I knew I couldn’t go on. Big tears came unbidden. Then suddenly I heard footsteps in the ravine coming up the path. I started to run but hesitated, for these footsteps were very familiar.
“Up out of the darkness and into the pale light, as I watched, came the head and shoulders of the grandest man on earth. He was bound to have known I was scared, but he only said, ‘Alec, I wanted to see you so badly that I came to meet you.’ So shoulder to shoulder we went down into the valley and I was not afraid of anything that walked.”
We are on the precipice of a new year. Some of you are excited about its possibilities; others of you are wary of what might come. Whatever you feel, could I commend you to take 121 for the next 365? Bask in the resolutions God makes toward you. Walk in confidence with God into the new year. Then, you can engage whatever comes with the peace and rest of Christ … because God has 2018 … and God has you.
Preached: December 31, 2017
First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, AR
John Scott McCallum II