Travelling Mercies

Scripture: Psalm 121

 

Title: Travelling Mercies

 

Structure:

  • Introduction
  • God is our guardian
  • Conclusion

 

Introduction:

Today we continue our series on the Songs of Ascents – which we know as Psalms 120 to 134

–         In ancient Israel people tended to go on road trips each year to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the three main religious festivals

–         To help them prepare for the festivals pilgrims would sing these 15 songs on their journey

 

The word ‘Ascent’ has to do with moving upward

–         The temple in Jerusalem was on a hill – so the pilgrims were physically ascending (or moving upwards) as they made their way to the temple

–         And, at the same time, they were drawing closer to God

 

In April this year we will celebrate Easter

–         Easter is the main festival for Christians, alongside Christmas and Pentecost

–         The plan, over the next couple of months, is to explore these Songs of Ascents as we journey toward Easter

–         This morning we take a closer look at psalm 121

–         Psalm 121 is a song to give assurance to pilgrims as they travel through the wilderness to Jerusalem

–         For this reason I’ve called today’s sermon ‘travelling mercies’

–         The overall message of the psalm is that God is our guardian

–         From the NIV we read…

 

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.

He will not let your foot slip—     he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel     will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you—     the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day,     nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm—     he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going     both now and forevermore.

 

May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this song for us

 

God is our guardian:

On January the 15th, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 was scheduled to fly from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport to Seattle.

  • – The aircraft was an Airbus A320-214 powered by two turbofan engines.
  • – The pilot in command was 57-year-old Chesley Sullenberger (known as ‘Sully’ for short)
  • – Sully was an experienced pilot and at the time, he had logged over 19,000 flight hours in total
  • – His first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, aged 49, was also very experienced having accrued over 15,000 flight hours in his career
  • – There were 150 passengers and three flight attendants on board

 

Three minutes after take-off the plane struck a flock of Canadian geese causing the engines to lose all power

 

Unable to reach an airport Sully & Skiles glided the Airbus onto the Hudson River, off mid-town Manhatten

  • – Being the middle of January, in New York, the water was freezing
  • – But people managed to evacuate onto the wings
  • – All 155 souls were then safely rescued by boats on the river
  • – Remarkably no one died – hence it became known as the ‘miracle on the Hudson’. (Later a movie was made starring Tom Hanks)

 

The miracle on the Hudson reminds me in some ways of psalm 121

  • – It speaks of God’s protection on a journey – His travelling mercies

 

Psalm 121 begins in a personal way (as did Psalm 120) with the psalmist talking about himself (his own situation)

–         He is on a journey, on the road, and he says…

–         I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from?

 

It is unclear whether the writer sees the hills as a good thing or a bad thing – as a strength or an obstacle

 

Jerusalem was on a hill, so looking to the hills could be a reference to looking to Jerusalem – the holy city – in which case the psalmist gets strength and encouragement from looking to the hills

 

Conversely, if the hills in question were not near Jerusalem, the psalmist may have felt anxious looking to the hills

–         In ancient Palestine the high places (the hills) were a place where the Canaanites went to worship their idols

–         Therefore the hills would have been littered with shrines to Baal and other foreign deities

–         The hills were also a place for bandits to wait in ambush for travellers

–         In this case the psalmist saw the hills as a place of difficultly and opposition

 

Either way the psalmist’s focus does not remain on the hills, it rests on God

–         As Alec Motyer notes: He looks beyond the dangers [the hills] may hold to the One who made them. [1]

–         My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth

–         Because God is the maker of everything the psalmist does not need to be afraid anything in creation

 

Travelling in the open wilderness, a long way from home with no police protection, can make one feel quite lonely and vulnerable

–         But the psalmist is not alone – God is with him

 

Verses 1 & 2 are written in the first person: I lift up my eyes…

–         But then from verse 3 to the end of the psalm the grammar changes to the third person: He will not let your foot slip…

–         Either the psalmist is talking to himself – like a Shakespearean soliloquy

–         Or the song is a duet, sung antiphonally, with a soloist singing the first two verses and a choir (or priest) responding in affirmation from verse 3 onwards

–         Either way the message is clear: God is your guardian

 

Having the change from first person to third person saves the psalm from becoming all about me

–         It has the effect of making God the main focus – so that it’s really more about what God does than it is about the psalmist himself

–         The Lord will not let your foot slip

–         The Lord will not slumber

–         The Lord watches over you

–         The Lord is your shade

–         The Lord keeps you

 

Verse 3 tells us that the Lord God (Yahweh) never sleeps but keeps constant watch over his people

–         This is in contrast to the Canaanite god, Baal, who as a nature deity needed to be woken up from a seasonal sleep [2]

–         The God of Israel is a diligent and vigilant guardian – he doesn’t get tired

 

Verses 3 & 4 go on to tell us that he who watches over you (personally) is the same as he who watches over Israel

–         This is incredible – it implies that God cares about the individual as much as the whole nation – each person is important to him

–         You are not just another brick in the wall

–         This personal care and attention shown by God reminds us of the 23rd Psalm, where David says: ‘The Lord is my shepherd’

 

In verses 5 & 6 we read, the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.

 

This is poetry

–         To say, ‘the Lord is… at your right hand’, means the Lord is close – right beside you like a personal body guard. He is not far away

–         Although we can’t see God he is still present with us

 

The right hand could also be significant for people in the ancient near east in that it represents a vulnerable spot

–         If soldiers carried their shield in their left hand then they were less protected on their right side [3]

–         We all have our vulnerable points – those aspects of our lives where we are weaker for whatever reason

–         Having God at your ‘right hand’ is like saying God is your shield where you are weakest, your protection where you are most exposed and  vulnerable

 

The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night – what does that mean?

–         Well, the sun is the most powerful force in creation

–         In the wilderness it has the power to kill a person

–         God made the sun – so he is more powerful than the sun

–         He has the ability and willingness to protect the psalmist from the sun or anything else in creation that could harm him

 

By day represents those things that are known and can be seen

–         While by night represents those things which are unknown and can’t be seen – insidious forces

 

You might be wondering, how can the moon harm you?

–         Surely the moon illuminates the darkness?

–         Well the moon can make it easier to see by night but that’s not the meaning here

–         In the ancient world the moon was considered by some to have a deranging influence on people

–         The English word ‘lunatic’ derives from lunar as in moon – originally meaning those who have succumbed to the influence of the moon [4]

–         If this is what the psalmist meant then to be protected from the moon means to keep a sound mind – to not lose your perspective on reality

 

The point is, God will protect your body and your mind as you make the journey to draw closer to him

 

Psalm 121 isn’t just about going on a physical journey, from one geographic location to another

–         It also speaks to our spiritual journey with God

–         The thing about being on a spiritual journey is that it tends to change us, often in unexpected ways

 

There is a book about one man’s spiritual journey in our library at the moment called: Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus

–         In this book Nabeel Qureshi tells the true story of how, as a devout Muslim, he came to believe in Jesus

 

Nabeel was raised in a Muslim home with two loving parents

–         He grew up reading the Quran, going to prayer in the Mosque and holding the Islamic faith in high esteem

–         However, in the process of seeking Allah, God gave Nabeel three dreams which pointed him to Jesus

–         God also put a Christian friend alongside Nabeel – a man named David to help him

 

The Holy Spirit brought Nabeel to the point where he could no longer deny the reality and truth of Christ – that Jesus is the Son of God

–         This is huge for someone who comes from a Muslim background

–         Muslims can accept that Jesus was a prophet but to call Jesus ‘God’ seems like blasphemy to them

–         It is not easy for a Muslim to become a Christian

 

When Nabeel reached the point of realising that Jesus is the way the truth and the life he had a very difficult (painful) decision to make

–         Nabeel knew that if he became a Christian his parents would reject him

–         His accepting Christ would break up the family

–         If that wasn’t hard enough Nabeel also knew becoming a Christian would break his parent’s hearts

–         How could he cause so much pain to people he loved

 

In the book Nabeel recounts his wrestling in prayer before God, saying…

 

“But Lord, acknowledging my faith in You will mean the end of my life. If I don’t die a physical death through emotional torment or at the hands of some misguided Muslim zealot, at least my entire life as I know it will come to an end.” [5]

 

In response Nabeel felt God gently saying to him…

–         “My child, whoever finds their life will lose it and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

 

Nabeel had to give up his life in order to receive Christ’s life. This was not some platitude or cliché. The gospel was calling him to die.

 

When Nabeel’s parents did finally learn that he was getting baptised his father said to him: “I feel as if my backbone has been ripped out from inside me”

–         And his mother said: “Why have you betrayed me?”

–         For Nabeel the decision to follow Jesus came with deep pain & grief

 

Psalm 121 finishes with the confident assurance that…

 

The Lord will keep you from all harm—     he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going     both now and forevermore.

 

This is a general catch-all type summary to the psalm

–         Not only will the Lord God protect the pilgrim psalmist, as he makes his way through the wilderness to Jerusalem – He will look after the psalmist through all of life

–         That’s what, ‘…your coming and going…’ refers to – everyday life

 

The phrase: The Lord will keep you from all harm… is perhaps the most challenging aspect of this song

–         Simple observation, if not personal experience, make that hard to believe

–         Anyone who has suffered some kind of misfortune or tragedy – like the death of a loved one or the breakdown of a significant relationship or the loss of health or some other tragedy, knows that God cannot be relied on to keep us from all harm

–         The Jewish people (of all peoples) should know that God doesn’t prevent all harm – more than once in their long history hostile forces have tried to annihilate them

–         And, as we have just heard from Nabeel’s story, the decision to follow Jesus seemed to result in a lot of emotional harm for his family

 

So how are we to understand these verses?

–         Is psalm 121 just wishful thinking?

–         Is it a kind of whistling in the dark to make oneself feel better about the unknown – sort of like when someone tells a child “it’s going to be okay”, even though they don’t really know that for sure?

–         Or can we rely on the psalmist’s claim that the Lord will keep you from all harm?

 

Well, we need to read Psalm 121 in light of the whole of Scripture

–         In the Bible, to be kept from all harm (or all evil) does not imply a cushioned life. It does imply a well-armed life though [6]

–         Psalm 23 expects a dark valley but also the means to face it

–         Your rod and your staff they comfort me

 

God did not prevent the geese from flying into the engines of Flight 1549 but he did make it possible for Sully & Skiles to land the plane safely on the river

 

Jesus did not say, ‘You won’t ever suffer in this life.’

–         No. He said, you will suffer, but I will send you a comforter (an advocate), the Holy Spirit to help you

 

Jesus also said that one keeps their life by losing it for His sake

–         And this turns our idea of harm on its head

–         Just because something is painful and difficult it doesn’t automatically follow that it is harmful

 

In one sense surgery (cutting someone open with a scalpel) is harmful

–         But ultimately it is helpful, life-saving even

–         Sometimes, like a surgeon, God allows us to experience what feels harmful, in order to heal us and help others

–         We may not always understand this at the time though

 

Conclusion:

God did not prevent Joseph’s brothers from harming him (by selling him into slavery in Egypt) but God did protect Joseph and use it to save many lives

 

God did not prevent his Son Jesus from dying on the cross but he did raise Jesus to eternal life, for our salvation

 

We don’t always understand what constitutes harm

–         Suffering is not necessarily harmful. Sometimes comfort can be harmful

–         We see dimly now, as through a glass – we don’t see the whole picture

 

To be kept from all harm doesn’t mean we won’t experience difficulty, suffering, pain and loss in this life

–         To be kept from all harm means that God can use what we feel is harmful for good and so redeem our suffering

–         God will make all things right in the end – in eternity

 

Let us pray…

 

[1] Alec Motyer’s commentary on the Psalms, page 222.

[2] Geoffrey W. Grogan, Psalms, page 200.

[3] Josh Moody, ‘Journey to Joy’, page 35.

[4] Josh Moody, ‘Journey to Joy’, page 35.

[5] Nabeel Qureshi, “Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus”, page 278.

[6] Refer Derek Kidner’s commentary on the Psalms, page 468.

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