Date: March 8, 2020
Festival: 2nd Sunday in Lent
Text: Psalm 121; John 3:1-17
Preaching Occasion: St. Paul Lutheran Church, Union, MO
Sermon Hymn: LSB #425 When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The (Supposed) Absurdity of the Psalm
As befits the season of Lent we’re in, I must make a confession: In my sermon prep for today’s service, I must confess that when I first read this psalm—particularly when I got to verse 3—I thought, “How absurd.” It says the Lord “will not let your foot be moved,” which can also be translated, “He will not let your foot slip.”
The reason I thought this was absurd is because I have visited people in the hospital who have slipped and suffered hurt, whether literally or figuratively. It seems that every few weeks I hear of one of our elderly members slipping and falling and being rushed to the hospital. I have heard stories—both here and elsewhere—when an otherwise healthy, elderly Christian has slipped and fallen, is rushed to the hospital, and dies a few days later.
This psalm reminded me of my mom’s stepfather, whom I barely knew. I’m told he was a man of strong faith, but I do remember he looked so much like Jesus that he would always play as our Saviour in church dramatisations of the crucifixion. He was diagnosed with lung cancer, and just when he was in remission and finally returned home, he slipped and fell down the stairs and died.
This psalm also reminded me of my own figurative slipping: the time of my great depression and suicidal thoughts, the many times when I’ve doubted my inner pastoral call, the times I sin against the love of my life, my time in the Army that caused me injury so that I can barely stand on my feet for 20 minutes without severe pain in my back and feet… I could go on.
Maybe you had the same thought I did when we read this psalm. Maybe it reminded you of times when you and your loved ones have slipped, whether literally or figuratively, and thought, “How can this be true?” Or maybe when we read the psalm, perhaps you had greater faith than I did when I first read it, to which I say: God bless you!
Here’s another confession: As I read verse 7, “The LORD will keep you from all evil,” again I thought, “How absurd. Evil has certainly happened to me. Evil is still happening around the world.”
We all know this. There are mass shootings, wildfires, the coronavirus, wars, rumours of wars, and our children leaving the faith as they fall for the deceptions of the world and our culture. So, some of us may be thinking, “How can God keep us from all evil when evil is all around us, and evil happens to me and my loved ones?” It’s a variation of the question, “How can God be good when He allows evil to happen?”
So, we can easily identify with the psalmist. He lifts his eyes up to the hills, as if wandering in the dry, hot, desolate wilderness for a long time. Like someone lost in the desert, we wander through this desolate, Great Tribulation we are walking through, lost and confused with our surroundings.
Every way we look, we see the same thing. Wherever the lost wanderer looks, he sees only the dry, sandy hills of the desert. We, too, wherever we look in this wilderness of life, we see only mountains of evil. It’s everywhere; it surrounds us.
God seems to be terrifyingly absent in the midst of these evils that surround us and our constant slipping and falling. It doesn’t seem there is anyone keeping us from evil. So, we share the wandering psalmist’s question as he looks up to the surrounding hills and as we look up to the surrounding evil, shouting in desperation, “From where does my help come?!”
Where is help? Where is the Lord? Where is He if He is supposedly my keeper?
He, Watching Over Israel
I spoke of the slipping and evil this psalm reminded me of, but it also reminded me of something better. It reminded me of one of my favourite pieces of classical music by Felix Mendelssohn, which is called, “Elijah, Oratorio on Words of the Old Testament, Op. 70.”
All the words sung by the choir are words taken from various places throughout the Old Testament and when performed from top to bottom, the whole piece lasts for about 2 hours and 15 minutes, divided up into two movements. I haven’t listened to the whole thing yet, but this psalm reminded me of one part in the second movement called, “He, Watching Over Israel.”
About a third of the way through the second movement, a trio sings verses 1 and 3 of Psalm 121 as it moves into verse 4 being sung as a chorus, singing, “Lift thine eyes, He, watching over Israel, slumbers not nor sleeps.” After this comes a recitation from 1 Kings 19, “Arise, Elijah, for thou hast a long journey,” then Psalm 37, “O rest in the Lord,” and then words from our Lord in Matthew 10:22, “He that shall endure to the end shall be saved.”
In Mendelssohn’s 70th opus, Elijah serves as an example of God’s faithfulness to His people: Lift up your eyes to the Lord! He who watches over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps! Therefore, arise, for you have a long journey, and find rest in our Lord, for he who endures to the end will be saved… God provided food and shelter for Elijah in his calling as he journeyed through the wilderness, and he endured.
It might feel as if God is sleeping, indifferent to evil and our slipping and suffering, and that’s exactly the problem—it feels like it. This feeling of ours is deceptive—it goes over and against what the Scriptures lay down as absolute and true. It might feel like God is absent, but what does the Scripture say? How does the psalmist answer his own question?
“My help comes from the LORD! …He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is your keeper… The LORD will keep you from all evil; He will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”
This is true for you and me whether we feel it or not, for God’s Word and His truth do not depend on our feelings—thank God! Our journey in this wilderness is long, but He who watches over Israel—He who watches over you—slumbers not nor sleeps.
God’s watchful care is key to our understanding of who He is according to this psalm. The psalmist says the Lord is your keeper. The thoughts I had during this psalm were due to a misunderstanding I had of what it means to be someone’s keeper. Some of the English translations we have are very good, but as language evolves, words develop different meanings or connotations. Or in our postmodern culture today, apparently words no longer have meaning. “Keeper” is one of these words.
Usually when we hear the word “keeper,” we think of this being a person who keeps you away from something. To keep someone from something means never to allow that thing to happen to them, right? So, if God truly keeps us from evil, this means He wouldn’t allow any evil to happen to us; but evil does happen to us, so this psalm can’t be true for me, can it? This is one of those times where our English language fails us, unfortunately.
You see, there are different words with different meanings for “keeper” in Hebrew, and the one used in our psalm for today does not mean what we think it means; it means someone who watches over or preserves. We might also translate this as “guardian” or “watchman.”
After Cain killed his brother Abel and God asked him, rhetorically, where his brother is, Cain uses this same Hebrew word, “Am I my brother’s keeper” [Genesis 4:9]? Essentially, he was saying, “Am I to watch over and guard my brother?” The answer to his stupid question is yes. Cain was Abel’s older brother [Genesis 4:1-2], and it is the older sibling’s duty to watch over his younger sibling.
To be sure, if you forsake the Lord, He will not be your Keeper. If you fall into sin and do not repent and you forsake the Lord, the Lord will not be your Keeper because sin cannot exist in God’s holy presence without Him totally annihilating it. So, at times, He permits unrepentant sinners to follow their own way toward self-destruction.
Yet God promises to be the Keeper of those who fear, love, and trust in Him. When you repent and confess your sins out of fear and love for God and simultaneously trust in Christ’s mercy who forgives you your sins the very moment you ask, God promises to be your Keeper from sin, death, and the Devil.
The Lord does for you what Cain failed to do for his brother. Instead of caring for his younger brother, Cain killed him out of wrathful jealousy. God says He is a jealous God [e.g. Exodus 20:5], which is a holy jealousy that desires you to be His child rather than a child of destruction. You and I deserve God’s wrath, but instead of smiting us out of His holy, wrathful jealousy, in this psalm He promises to be your Keeper—that is, He promises to watch over you and preserve you while you slip and fall and while you suffer evil.
It is to say with David in that beloved Psalm, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me” [Psalm 23:4]. You and I walk through this valley—this wilderness—of death and evil, but you can endure it. Why? Because as you lift your eyes and see this deathly evil that surrounds you, the Lord encourages you not to fear because He is your help; He is your Keeper who neither slumbers nor sleeps.
“But I don’t feel like the Lord is with me,” you might say. There’s that word again: “feel.” The Lord is with you whether you feel Him or not. The Lord’s presence in your going out and your coming in does not depend on your feelings, which are no more reliable than the wind; the Lord’s presence depends on His promise and His Word.
The Lord said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. The Lord said, “This is My body… This is My blood,” and so it is. The Lord says, “I forgive you,” and you are forgiven.
So, the Lord has said He is your Keeper—He watches over you and preserves you; therefore, it is so. Your feelings do not stop this from being true—thank God! He neither slumbers nor sleeps, so He watches over you both day and night, never growing tired. His eyes do not grow heavy; He remains alert and awake against your enemy the Devil, and He does not know failure.
In your going out and your coming in—in all of your venturing—the Lord your Keeper preserves you. The word for “keep” in our Psalm is also the same Hebrew word you hear in the Benediction [Numbers 6:24-26]. Therefore, when the Lord speaks His Benediction over you through the pastor His servant, know that God is promising to watch over you and preserve you in your going out and your coming in.
Lift Thine Eyes to the Cross
From Mendelssohn’s Elijah, we hear Jesus’ words, “The one who endures to the end will be saved” [Matthew 10:22]. Your endurance comes not from within, but from without. Insofar as your endurance depends on you, you will fail the next time you slip and fall in the midst of evil. Insofar as your endurance depends on Christ, however, He is the one who gives you endurance because He is your Keeper—He Himself watches over you and preserves you. One who watches over you must be looked up to. Therefore, lift thine eyes and look to the Lord!
As He said in our Gospel reading, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life” [John 3:15].
While the people of Israel were wandering in the desert, they complained against God for their supposed lack of food and water, despising the food He did give them. Because they complained and blamed Him, God judged their sin and sent venomous serpents upon them, killing many of them. When they repented, God instructed Moses to lift up a bronze serpent so that whomever looks upon the serpent in faith when they’re bitten, they will be saved from temporal death [Numbers 21:4-9].
This was a foreshadow of Christ, which Jesus says He fulfills. We slip, die, and suffer evil because of our sin and the sins of others. Like the Israelites, we have the foolish audacity to complain against God and blame Him for the evil we cause. Yet instead of smiting us for the evil we brought into the world, the Lord Himself was lifted up on the cross. The Lord took the serpent’s bite.
Therefore, lift thine eyes to the cross and see the Lord your Keeper who watches over you, and because you believed He died and rose for you, you are saved from eternal death. Heaven and earth will pass away, Jesus says, which also means all evil will pass away; but the Word of the Lord will remain forever [Matthew 24:35], which has spoken God’s eternal truth of salvation to you.
From where does your help come? Your help comes from the Lord! Therefore, lift thine eyes to the cross, upon which your Keeper endured God’s wrath for you and now is ascended to the Father to watch over you to bring you endurance to the end of the age and into everlasting life.
He neither slumbers nor sleeps. He watches over you and preserves you from sin, death, and the Devil when you are awake and when you’re sleeping, and when you fall asleep in the Lord to later be awakened in the resurrection to come. You don’t have to “feel” this to be true; you know it is true because God’s promise to watch over you and preserve you into eternal life has already been delivered to you in your Baptism, in which you were born again from above to enter God’s kingdom.
May this peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Keeper. Amen.