The Source of Our Hope
We are looking at the Songs of the Early Church known as the Psalms of Ascent. These were the songs that were sung by Jews traveling to Jerusalem for the festivals. You might remember that when Jesus was a boy his family made this trip where He would have sang these psalms, and I believe that later in His life He sang them with His disciples. Every psalm was designed to help these travelers get ready to meet God. So today we will continue to sing about it and then talk about it.
I believe there are two words that are useful in describing the life of a Child of God: Disciple and Pilgrim. When we call ourselves a disciple we are saying that we are people who spend our lives trying to become like our master, Jesus Christ. In the simplest terms a disciple is a learner, but not in a classroom, a disciple learns on the job site. A disciple doesn’t gather information about God but skills in faith.
Secondly the word pilgrim reminds us that we are on a journey, we are traveling towards a better place. Just like the old hymn says, this world is not my home, we are on a journey, living in the between, following the lead of God.
Paul Tournier, in his book A Place for You, describes the experience of living a life in between. We all understand what it is to experience in the between: between the time we leave home and arrive at our destination; between the time we leave adolescence and arrive at adulthood; between the time we leave doubt and arrive at faith. For the Child of God we were created to live in the between. It’s like the time when a trapeze artist lets go the bar and hangs in midair, waiting for the sure hands of their partner to grab a hold of and support them: it is a time of danger, of expectation, of uncertainty, of excitement, of extraordinary aliveness.
As I read through these Songs of Ascent I am reminded of how appropriate it is to sing them in this time between: between the time we leave the world's environment and arrive in God’s presence; between the time we leave home on Sunday morning and arrive in the company of God's people; between the time we leave the works of the law and are immersed in His grace. They are songs of transition, brief hymns that provide courage, support and direction.
The great danger we face is that in this between time we try to live with two faiths. We have the vibrant, and glorious Sunday faith that sets us free from the world. A faith that makes eternity alive in us, and fills us with hope and joy. And then there is the everyday faith that allows us to barely get through the struggles of Monday through Saturday. We use our Sunday faith for the big crises in life and the every other day of the week faith for normal life.
We claim on Sunday that God created the universe and has accomplished our eternal salvation. But we struggle to believe that He cares enough to watch the soap opera of our daily life. So we struggle on Tuesday and instead of drawing close to God we look for other solutions to our problems. We turn to a shallow religion of nice sounding devo thoughts or posts on Facebook. We watch youtube videos from talk-show celebrities, because we really believe that God is to busy to be troubled with our life. We feel like we are approaching a heart surgeon to ask him to put a bandaid on our scratch.
The song that we are going to sing today in Psalm 121 reminds us that the same faith that works in the big things works in the little things. The God of Genesis 1 who brought light out of darkness is the same God who loves you so deeply that He knows the number of every hair on your head.
We must know the source of our help
You know how some songs are just perfect for a certain occasion? Born to be Wild is the right song to listen to if you are riding a Harley, Happy Trails is perfect if you are on a horse, Margaritaville is perfect if you … anyway. Apparently our psalm is the perfect song to sing if you are traveling to Jerusalem, did you notice the line about stumbling feet. The road up to Jerusalem ascends over 3,000 feet in 17 miles, this was not an easy journey to take. And neither is the journey of faith.
I wonder if you have ever bought into the lie that once you begin this faith journey that everything is going to be gumdrops and lollipops. We have churches filled with people who believe when they became a Christian that all of their problems were solved, all of the questions answered, all their troubles were over. They really believe that Christians don’t have to worry about accidents, arguments, sickness, misunderstandings, or rebellious children.
Then we struggle when we face difficulties, trials, and troubles. You know sometimes it seems that no matter what precautions we take, with our seat belts fastened and our doors securely locked, we still struggle with security and safety. We all know Christians who get hurt or struggle with anxiety and depression.
So we buy into the next lie that says bad things happen because something is wrong with our relationship with God. We have gotten off track and God is simply punishing us for our lack of faith. We are struggling because God is spending His time with those who are more faithful and they are receiving His protection and love. If we want those things then we need to get back to doing what we were doing when everything was going right. The problem is that this is bad theology.
Eugene Peterson writes, No sooner have we plunged into the river of Christian faith than we get our noses full of water and come up coughing and choking. No sooner do we confidently stride out on to the road of faith than we trip on an obstruction and fall to the hard surface, bruising our knees and elbows. For many, the first great surprise of the Christian life is in the form of troubles we meet. Somehow it is not what we had supposed.
Every one of us do the same thing; when something bad happens we look around for whatever help we can find. We want help; actually we need help. Our Psalm begins with these comforting words I lift up my eyes to the hills - where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. Now don’t get lost in this statement, and misunderstand the author’s intent. We tend to get this picture of a mountain range, finding strength in the rugged, hilly landscape. The translation makes it sound like the Psalmist is looking to the Hills for strength and guidance. But the hills are exactly where the psalmist does not find strength. He looks higher than the hills.
It may help you to know that Palestine was overrun with idol worship. Much of this religion was practiced on hilltops. Shrines were set up to lure the people to engage in acts of worship to other gods that could protect them from evil. Our travelers would understand the question; I look to the hills, where does my help come from. Do I rely on these other god’s or is there something more? And if there is something more can He be bothered with the trivial things of my life?
While we might not have understood the question we understand the struggle. We have those same struggles and questions running around in our minds. We all know the frustration of trying to figure it out ourselves or even worse looking elsewhere because we figure God has more important things to do than bother with us. It’s as though we believe that God can’t be bothered with the little things. So we turn to our mountains and hills.
We become enticed by the alluring promise of safety, but in the end they are all lies. There is no help or protection from other gods. Sure we aren’t chasing Baal or Asherah today, but we are still chasing the false gods of human wisdom, or cunning, or strength. The source of our help is not found in the hills, our strength can only be found in Christ alone.
Next we see that Our Help is Aware.
There is this great story found in 1 Kings 18. It involves a prophet named Elijah and 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah. If you are wondering Baal and Asherah were god’s of fertility, and in a society that was built on farming, they had a very large following. The legends of Baal are filled with stories of wild parties ending in a drunken stupor. His temples were filled with priests whose job it was to wake him up, and they were not always successful. But there still lingered this promise of help and hope, and so many times folks would turn to Baal for help.
We see in 1 Kings 18 that there was a showdown; 850 prophets against 1 prophet of God. Starting in verse 19 we see that Elijah is having a discussion with King Ahab, when Elijah suggests this little competition to see who is the true God, Jehovah or Baal. So the prophets of Baal and Asherah gather on one side and Elijah on the other. A great crowd of people turned out to see the excitement. The competition was simple, the prophets would each build an alter, cut up a ox, place it on the alter and call to their god to consume the sacrifice with fire.
The prophets of Baal went first,they prayed from morning until noon, crying out, Baal! Answer us! But there wasn't any reply. Elijah began to tease them. "Shout louder, I'm sure Baal is a god! Perhaps he has too much to think about. Or perhaps he's away on a trip. Maybe he's sleeping and you have to wake him up. The prophets of Baal shouted louder and cut themselves but no one answered. No one paid any attention.
I imagine that the folks traveling to Jerusalem were reminded of this story when they sang in verse 4 he who watches over Israel never slumbers or sleeps. God doesn't sleep or take naps, He never wakes up to discover a problem and say, Oh, no, when did that happen? How did that happen? What's going on? He is constantly aware of what is taking place in the whole universe. He knows each time a sparrow falls, He sees each blade of grass when it withers. He hears each beat of your heart. Nothing gets past Him.
Have you ever watched a movie and the person who was suppose to be on guard fell asleep, those who wanted to get past him without being detected would wait until they knew he was asleep before they slipped past him. That doesn’t happen to God. Our enemy would be waiting for the rest of eternity if he is waiting for God to fall asleep so he can make his move against us.
Whatever situation you are going through, don't buy into the lie that God fell asleep or that the enemy slipped past Him or that He wasn't watching. He sees everything. He is aware of everything. He knows everything that happens, nothing takes Him by surprise.
The promise of God found in this song is that not only is our God is always present and available to us, He is paying attention. We don’t have to wake Him up, He doesn’t sleep, He doesn’t take a day off, and it is not hard to get His attention. He is with you when you begin your journey and He is still with when you reach your destination. There is no point along the journey that He is not with you. No matter where you go, He is with you and will keep you along the way. There is no reason to be afraid.
Finally we see Our Help Remains With Us
Verse 7 says: “The Lord will keep you from all evil.” or harm. I just finished the book Peter and the Star Catchers; it is the first in a series about how a little orphan boy would become Peter Pan. Most of the book takes place on the high seas, and in one scene there is a great storm heading towards these two ships. The sailors work all through the night moving the sails, tying items down, and throwing other items over board, and carrying buckets of water out of the bottom of the ship. The captain of the Jolly Roger reminds his crew that they will not sink unless the water gets into the boat.
That’s a great reminder of this life that we are living. The ship of your life will face rough water, you will endure storms, but unless you let water into your ship you will not sink. I don’t have to remind you how hard and difficult this life can be. God never promised that the life of a disciple would be free from struggle, He promises that He will be with us in the middle of that struggle.
David writes in the 23rd Psalm Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me. God didn’t promise David a life free from pain and David even acknowledges that he had to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. God did not pick him up and drop him off on the other side of the valley, God walked the valley with him.
The Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. Once again life is a struggle, we are hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down but we are never abandoned or destroyed.
I love that the song refers to God as our guardian, well that’s not what your translation says, it says that God will keep you. But the original Hebrew word there actually says that God is guarding you. God’s love is not a magic potion that protects us from the hurts of life. Just because we are children of God, we will not be shielded from suffering, illness, sadness, death.
In his book When Bad things Happen to Good People Kushner writes: God does not cause our misfortune. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws.
The fact is that there are times when we are caught in the backwash of someone else's sin. God is not surprised when we encounter pain and hurt, but He is outraged by our tragedy, outraged by the pain and the evil that touches our lives. God loves us and that is comforting. When we suffer, He suffers with us. When we grieve, He grieves with us. When we cry, He cries with us, His arm around our shoulders, supporting us, holding us up.
God loves us and there is nothing that can separate us from that love. We gather to worship God this morning as an act of saying thank you for your abiding love. We acknowledge that God is who He claims to be. He has the power to protect us, and He loves us enough to keep us in times of hardship and toil. His promise is not for a moment, it is for your entire life.
Questions For You To Consider
How do you feel knowing that God can always see everything and He is always watching you?
According to our song, what are some of the things that God does for us?
When have we been disappointed by looking for help in the wrong places?
Are there times in your life that you feel like God has fallen asleep?
If the Lord is always aware why do we wait until our situation is desperate before calling on His help?
How has God helped you in the past?
How does remembering God’s faithfulness in the past help you have courage in the present?
Verse seven says the Lord will keep you from all harm. What do you think the author means by that? How do reconcile that statement with your experiences?
How do you think your definition of "harm" might be different from God's definition of "harm"?
When have you gone through a hard time only to discover later that God was doing something good in your life?