An Open Table where Love knows no borders

The Lord is your Keeper

A sermon on Psalm 121 by Nathan Nettleton

I lift up my eyes to the hills —
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will not let your foot be moved …

These are the words of the psalm we sang before

At 8.9 on the Richter scale, nothing is going to stop your foot being moved
The earth violently convulses
It heaves and buckles, it jumps and lurches
Not only is your foot moved, but you are tossed around like rag doll
Things come crashing down on top of you

I lift my eyes to the hills
And the hills shudder and quake
The mountains split and crumble
The seas comes rushing in
Smashing and splintering everything in their path
And turning towns and cities into a choking soup of churning debris
A surging torrent of death and destruction

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
Well maybe the moon won’t get you
but what of earthquakes and tsunamis and floods and cyclones and bushfires?
What of nuclear meltdowns and riots and wars?

Don’t try standing on a street in Tokyo or Christchurch or Tripoli or even Kerang
and announcing that the Lord is your keeper
who will not let the natural elements strike you,
who will not let your foot be moved
How could such words sound like anything but callous denial
to mothers grieving their crushed children
or to someone who may hear you as they lay dying
still trapped and undetected beneath the rubble?

What are we to make of this psalm then?
Are we to tear it from our Bibles?
Discard it as pious optimism proved wrong by subsequent events?
How can we go on singing it
when disasters roll in, one after the other
to mock the words and ridicule the sentiments?

Most of us here have not been directly touched
But we know people who have
and we could easily have been there

It is far too random to seriously claim
that we have been specially protected:
“my” help comes from the Lord,
but others fall outside God’s care
The falling debris falls on the good and bad alike
Christian, Moslem, Buddhist and neo-nazi terrorist
are all just as likely to be struck down
or just as likely to be randomly spared

There is little doubt that this psalm
was written as an expression of pious optimism
In a time of peace and prosperity and security
it is natural to give thanks to God
and imagine that the good times are rolling on
because God is pleased with us
and is looking after us
And it is easy to imagine that if we remain faithful
God will continue to keep us safe and secure

I’m sure this Psalm originally came from just such a place
from a simplistic faith that godliness ensures our safety
and God will not let any tragedy befall us
But in these last few months
it has been pretty much impossible
to hold the front page of the newspaper in one hand
and this psalm in the other
and continue to hold the naive optimism
that seems to have gripped the writer when the psalm was written

What are we to make of it then?
Are we to tear it from our Bibles?

One thing that is certainly true of any bit of writing
biblical or otherwise
is that what the writer intended to convey
does not close the book on what is actually said.
Scripture is living and active
and what it conveys in any given time
owes more to the work of the Spirit
and the context of the readers or hearers
than it does to the anonymous individual
who first penned the lines.

This Psalm is probably second only to the 23rd
in its popularity and familiarity
but mostly it is not sung or recited
in times of blessing and security
It is a favourite in times of danger and threat
and it is a favourite in times of grief and loss
It is the second most popular funeral psalm
and makes frequent appearances
at vigils in times of crisis

On one level, this can just be naive wishfulness again
“O God, in the midst of this chaos and danger
we wish you would make this psalm ring true again”

But there is something more going on
Something has happened to this psalm and others like it
Something about how it has been used
and who it has been used by
has changed the way it speaks

This started long ago with its being gathered into the book of Psalms
Ever since it sits alongside other psalms
and is understood in relation to them
not in isolation
And it the simple naive level
they clash and contradict each other
This psalm claims that God neither sleeps nor slumbers
while along side it
others accuse God of sleeping on the watch
and letting enemies and disasters overrun us
This one claims that the sun will not strike us
while another speaks of being so parched in the desert
that our tongues stick to the roofs of our mouths

So the naive optimism that does accurately reflect
how we sometimes feel
is not allowed to stand alone unchallenged
No one psalm captures and expresses the whole range of human experience
and real life experience is often a bewildering juxtaposition
of conflicting emotions and seemingly incompatible beliefs
and the book of psalms is as good a reflection of the whole range
as you are ever going to find

Something else has happened to these psalms too
Jesus has not only used the psalms in prayer himself
but he has become the lens through which we read them

Jesus quoted the psalms often
He would have prayed them more often
He probably knew most of them, perhaps all of them, by heart
They were the language and rhythm of his prayer
But he certainly didn’t just live them at any simple naive level

When Jesus says “My help comes from the Lord”
he does so while standing before Pilate
with a death sentence hanging in the balance

When Jesus says “The Lord will not let your foot be moved”
he does so while struggling to stand firm
before the onslaught of the devils demonic temptations in the wilderness

When Jesus says, “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore”
he does so while hanging from a cross
on nails driven through his flesh

And so now, when we pray these psalms,
we do so with the whole story of Jesus underpinning them
No longer do we pray from some pious wishfulness
that expects God to exempt us from the sufferings of the world
Instead we pray in and through Jesus
whose response to tragedy and suffering
is to step into the midst of it
and bear its full force
in solidarity with the countless victims of every time and place

These psalms are gathered up into the story of Jesus,
into his suffering, death and resurrection
They become prayers that do not deny or avoid suffering
but prayers grounded in suffering
and finding in God a hope
that does not allow the quaking earth and crumbling buildings
to have the last say over our fate

Though thousands are lost to us in the chaos and debris
not one is lost from God’s love and care
Not one is swept beyond the reach of God’s mercy
Not one is buried so deep that God cannot raise them

When God in Christ suffers the agony of a tortured death
and rises from the grave to new life,
death’s power to have the final word is broken
Love and mercy will continue to rise again
and the loves we have known and lost
will continue to beckon us towards life in all its fullness

The Lord is your keeper
and a shade at your right hand
not miraculously preventing any suffering from touching you
but by leading you on a path through it
on through the charred valley of despair
to the place where love rises
and life is rebuilt
and no one’s death or suffering is forgotten
and no one’s tragedy is without resurrection

I lift up my eyes to the hills —
and they shudder and crumble
I scan my eyes across the oceans
and they surge and roar and devour
I lift my eyes to the skies
and they pour down rain until everything is submerged
From where will my help come?
Not from machines or reactors or equipment
Not from ingenuity or expertise or planning
And certainly not from some miraculous exemption just for me
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth
from the Lord who stands with us in solidarity
and bears our suffering and fear and grief with us
and who rises again to break death’s grip
and wrest us from its clutches

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 on and forevermore.


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