Sermon on Psalm 121, by Reverend Matt Harbage
For years I didn’t much like the psalms. As a Christian growing up, I wanted to read the Bible like a school textbook: I wanted it to clearly tell me what was right and what was wrong. What to believe and what to argue against. The psalms were not much use to me, or so I thought, as they spoke more of people’s experience of God than instructing me on what to think.
But within that weakness, as I saw it then, lies the beauty and power of the psalms. They contain accounts of lived experience and wrestling with God, deeply personal, and yet somehow familiar. They have stood the test of time because they speak of experiences we all face in life and simultaneously reveal profound insights about the God who made us, loves us, and saves us.
You may find it helpful to have psalm 121 open in front of you – it begins (passionately), “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?” –
I wonder if you’ve ever been there. Perhaps you are there at the moment: Trouble surrounding you on every side, crying out for help.
When I reflect on my own life; I think of the time when I was suffering with an arm injury whilst I was working at an IT firm. Having to be signed off sick and not knowing if my condition would ever improve and the bleak future that lay ahead.
In the midst of the uncertainties and pain, the psalmist expresses deep confidence in the God who saves us and never tires. The psalm isn’t some simple victorific text however, with the writer claiming that, having said a few prayers, their life is now perfect and pretends the difficult experience wasn’t significant.
Instead, as one commentator puts it, psalms of confidence like psalm 121 are an
“intrinsic part of the lament [and grief] of the Psalter because they speak of trust in spite of all appearances – a confidence within the present uncertainties, for those caught in the conflict between faith and experience”.
“The conflict between faith and experience” This is where we find the psalmist at the beginning of the psalm, and often where we find ourselves. We want to keep hold of our faith, yet are surrounded by trouble and pain.
Of course, we might not only be faced with personal troubles. The threat of starvation currently faced by four countries in Africa and the Middle-East is unprecedented since the formation of the United Nations. For Africa, it is a worrying sign of things yet to come if we don’t change our Western lifestyles and take climate change more seriously. For Yemen, the ongoing war has contributed massively to the starvation there and we must question (and I believe reject) the UK’s ongoing supply of weapons to Saudi Arabia who are using them against the suffering Yemenis people.
Amidst violence, famine and complex international politics, we might well cry out to God on behalf of others: “who will help us in this crisis?”
The reply comes back:
“My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth…
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.”
“Hold on in there”, the psalmist is saying, “The dawn will come.” This message of confident hope in the faithfulness of God is central to the whole psalm. God does not sleep, does not slumber, does not take a break (despite signs to the contrary).
God saves. Often in ways we don’t expect, and sometimes we might complain or rage that God isn’t bringing peace and resolve in the way we want him to, or more quickly. Even that experience of arguing with God finds a voice in the Psalter. The psalms are a treasure trove of giving voice to both our struggles and our joys.
Psalm 121 insists God is our helper and saviour, but we must not forget our faith calls us to actively express the love of God. To practically help, to heal divisions and end injustice. God could do everything Himself, but chooses to involve us.
To conclude, I want to address a fear people have shared with me more than once when faced with trouble. We may think that God has abandoned us because we’ve made the trouble for ourselves. Either as a world or as an individual we think we’ve sinned so badly that God is now leaving us to the suffering we deserve. I don’t know if you’ve ever wondered that. I have on occasion.
Sometimes we do have to face the consequences of our wrong doing, but God never abandons us unto death. The voice of the psalm and the Scriptures is unwavering. We heard those timeless words in our Gospel reading earlier,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
No matter what life throws at us, and no matter what we might do, God is always there for us. He never abandons us, never gives up on us. God is always faithful, and he invites us to turn towards him for peace, healing and – when we need it – forgiveness too.
Perhaps this Lent let us make time to reflect on the psalms as a way to create space to seek after God. To clear the decks, and find renewed confidence in the one who saves.