Something summery to encourage us in this challenging time we’re going through. I wrote this song a few years ago; it’s a work of fiction, but I like to imagine it happening!
‘You are my refuge and my shield;
your word is my source of hope.’
(Psalm 119:114 NLT)
When the phrase ‘Your Word’ is used in Psalm 119 it often means ‘Your commandments’ or ‘Your Law (Torah)’. But in fact the word ‘Torah’ might be better translated ‘instruction’. It refers not just to the laws in the first five books of the Bible, but also to the promises, the stories, the self-revelation of God in the Hebrew scriptures.
I find this helpful. I find it hard to put my hope in God’s ‘Law’ (I have such a terrible record of following it!). But the stories of God’s work in people’s lives, the promises, the way God is revealed to us in the scriptures—yes, I certainly find all of that to be a ‘source of hope’.
And of course, the Torah itself is only a signpost to God. The first line doesn’t say ‘Torah is my refuge and my shield’, but ‘You (God) are my refuge and my shield’. We love the Bible because it leads us to God, not the other way around!
But what does it mean for God to be our refuge and shield? Both those words are symbolic of safety; in time of danger, we can find refuge in God.
But how does that work? Does that mean if we ask God to be our refuge and shield, we won’t catch COVID-19? I haven’t found that to be true to my own life experience. And I don’t think this psalm promises it, either. These words aren’t addressed from God to us; they’re addressed from the writer to God, celebrating his personal experience of God’s care for him.
I certainly have not found faith to be an insurance policy against bad things happening to good people. But I have definitely found God to be a source of strength, hope, and comfort in time of trouble. Right now we’re all going through a lot of stress, and I’m sure some of us are feeling it in our gut—literally! I have absolutely no idea what I would do with that, if it weren’t for the invitation to take it to the Lord in prayer.
So let’s acknowledge the danger that’s stalking the land, and the stress we’re feeling because of it, and let’s turn to God and ask God to be our refuge and our shield.
‘All through the storm,
Your love is the anchor,
My hope is in you alone.’
Here’s a random Lent thought for today. It may or may not have anything to do with COVID-19.
One of my favourite coffee mugs (not that I own it myself, but I’ve seen it) is the one that says ‘Jesus is coming – look busy!’
Here’s my thought for the day. Jesus is not impressed with busyness. Jesus is impressed with love.
This is a hard lesson for us to learn, because we’re formed by a culture that idolizes workaholics. And this culture is creeping insidiously into the church, so that we’re all being brainwashed into thinking that the more activities a church puts on, the higher its level of spirituality must be. If you don’t have that stressed and exhausted look on your face, you can’t possibly be doing everything God wants you to do, right?
But how does that work right now, when we’re frantically shutting down our activities for fear we’ll infect each other? Should we just move everything online and get just as busy as we were before? Or should we take a serious look at why we think Jesus wants us to be so busy?
Years ago, in a letter to a child, C.S. Lewis gave some wise advice that I’ve tried to remember. I’m quoting from memory, so this won’t be exact. Lewis told his young correspondent to remember that there were really only three kinds of things she had to do: (1) Things that must be done, (2) things that should be done, and (3) things she enjoyed doing. ‘Things that must be done’ include brushing your teeth, doing a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, cleaning the house and so on. ‘Things that should be done’ mean the ordinary rules of Christian morality. ‘Things that you enjoy doing’ – well, over to you!
Busyness is not godliness. Busyness might just be nothing more than busyness. I’m convinced that my Christian life works best when I do a few things and do them well, rather than scattering my energy like buckshot in a hundred different directions. Remember: Jesus is not impressed by busyness; Jesus is impressed by love.
Well, we’ve had quite a week, haven’t we?
It’s hard to believe that this is still only the third Sunday in Lent. In other words, it’s only eighteen days since Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday we knew a little about COVID-19, but never in my wildest dreams did I think that less than three weeks later I’d be presiding at a service in which I couldn’t share the Common Cup with you—at which we would be forbidden to shake hands or share a hug at the Peace, or before and after the service—and no coffee hour afterwards! And When we started our Lent study course twelve days ago, I had no idea that in less than two weeks we’d have to shut it down.
Of course, these are minor details in the great big scheme of things. The Juno awards have been cancelled, and many national sports leagues have cancelled their seasons. Our Prime Minister is self-isolating because of possible exposure to COVID-19, as are a couple of other cabinet ministers. Concerts, university classes, workshops, cruises, holidays—the list goes on and on. People’s jobs are at risk because their businesses depend on the freedom to go out and associate with others, and the freedom to travel. And of course, there have been deaths. In Canada so far we’ve been quite fortunate about that—I read in the Globe and Mail on Friday that so far upwards of four thousand people have been tested for COVID-19 in Alberta, and only twenty-three have tested positive. In other parts of the world, of course, it’s a different story. And it’s because we don’t want that to happen here that we’re being urged to put social distance between ourselves and other people. These are common sense measures, and we ought to support them wholeheartedly. This is about saving people’s lives—especially the lives of the most vulnerable among us.
But what we don’t want is to be paralysed by fear.
In one sense, of course, fear is a natural emotion for us to feel. It’s quite useful; it helps prepare the body for action, whether the action is fight or flight. The body needs to fight against an aggressor, or it needs to run away as fast as it can. Fear gives it that little extra burst of energy that helps it respond more quickly and decisively. And in that sense, we don’t want to discourage fear. People who have no fear often do foolish things.
But we don’t want to be paralyzed by fear. And most of all, we don’t want fear to stop us trusting in the love of God for us, and we don’t want it to stop us from loving one another and being there for one another. We may have to think of new and creative ways of expressing that love, but we don’t want that love to shrivel up and die. In fact, we want the opposite. In time like this, we need to be able to lean on God in faith and trust, and we need to be there for one another. As John puts it in his first letter, we need perfect love to cast out fear.
My favourite psalm is Psalm 46. Psalm 46 was written in a time of fear. We’re not sure exactly when it was written, but it seems as if Jerusalem was in danger of being overwhelmed by some enemy. We get the sense that the world was being shaken up; that strong kingdoms and powerful countries were tottering and falling.
‘The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
(God) utters his voice, the earth melts.’ (Psalm 46.6).
Maybe those kingdoms were allies of Jerusalem, friends they’d counted on to help them in time of trouble. We just don’t know. What we can say for sure is that the psalmist’s world was being shaken to the foundations. Which is what makes the psalmist’s faith in God so remarkable.
‘God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.’ (Psalm 46.1-7)
‘Therefore we will not fear.’ That’s an astounding thing to say! Of course, we all know that the Bible often tells us not to be afraid; it’s one of the most common statements in the Bible. But here’s the thing—how many of you find that to be a helpful statement? Some of you, maybe, but I know I don’t! I have this little question nagging at the back of my mind: how do you stop yourself from being afraid? I’d love to be able to obey the command not to fear, but I don’t know how!
At this point in time, many of us have good reason to feel afraid. Maybe some of you already know some people who are self-isolating because they’re experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms. Some people have already lost their jobs because the businesses they work for are losing money. I saw on Twitter on Friday that Westjet has announced that it will have to lay off a lot of flight attendants because air travel is going way down. What about restaurant and hotel workers? People who work on cruise ships? Even us clergy have reason to be afraid. If Sunday services are cancelled, offerings go down, and, you know, not to be crass, but that’s how we get paid! And of course, in our province, all this uncertainty has hit at exactly the same time as a dramatic drop in oil prices.
How do we stop ourselves from being afraid for members of our families who are coughing and sneezing? We read the stories of all the deaths in China and Italy and we think, that could be my kids, or my spouse, or even me. Of course, we all know that one day we’re going to die, but usually we’re successful at putting the thought out of our minds. At a time like this, that’s harder to do.
Can I point out a little detail here? I like the fact that what so many translations of Psalm 46 actually say is not ‘we will not be afraid,’ but ‘we will not fear.’
To me, being afraid is something that happens to me. I don’t have a choice about it. It’s an emotion that hits me and gets my heart beating faster and the blood pumping around my body, so I’m ready to fight or run away, as need be. I’m passive; I’m on the receiving end of it.
But ‘we will not fear’ sounds like a decision, not an emotion. It can’t be a decision about a feeling; it has to be a decision about what we do with the feeling. Do we give in to fear and fall on the ground in terror, or do we say what the psalmist said: “Right, the earth is shaking to its foundations, and the city is in real danger, but I’m going to roll up my sleeves, trust in God, and remember that he’s my refuge and strength.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that God promises to take away the thing that’s causing us to be so afraid. If we look back to the Old Testament story, we know that sometimes Jerusalem was rescued from its enemies, and sometimes it wasn’t. And that fits with our experience as well. We pray for God to heal the sick; sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t, and usually we can’t figure out the reason.
But what we do know, says the psalmist, is that ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’ (v.1). What we do know, as he goes on to say, is that ‘The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge’ (v.7).
‘God is with us.’ When we pray for people, that sometimes seems like the best thing we can ask for them, doesn’t it? We say, “Lord, please be with my wife as she’s driving around the icy streets tonight.” “Lord, please be with my dad who’s very old and frail.” “Lord, please be with our soldiers in that faraway country where they’re in great danger.”
What do we actually mean by that statement? Think about it for a minute. Do we mean that there are some people God is not with, and so we want to make sure our loved ones aren’t on the black list? Of course not! One thing we can say with confidence about God is that God is everywhere, and God is with everyone. After all, God is the very reason why we exist, and why we continue to exist! I take it for granted that if God stopped thinking about me for a second, I’d immediately cease to exist!
But am I always aware that God is with me? Do I have a sense of God’s presence with me? Do I know how to rest in God’s love for me?
If the answer is ‘no’, then I’m really lost when times of trouble come, because no one else is up to God’s job. No human being, no matter how strong they are, can give me what God can give me. And if all I have is human help to call on, then I’m bound to be disappointed in the end.
At the end of the psalm, the writer puts these words in God’s mouth:
‘Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.’
And then he goes on to repeat what we might call the chorus of the song:
‘The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge.’ (vv.10-11).
‘Be still, and know that I am God.’ These are words that have resonated in Christian hearts down through the centuries. But we haven’t always been so good at putting them into practice, have we? Some of us spend our whole lives in a constant state of rush. When do we take time to sit quietly in the presence of God—maybe not even saying anything to him, just enjoying the stillness and knowing that he’s present with us?
So this is one thing we can do to lower our stress levels and stop fear from paralyzing us. We can intentionally take time to be aware of God’s presence with us.
Find fifteen minutes in your day. It might be first thing in the morning it might be last thing at night. You might have to talk to your partner or spouse and agree together on when it’s going to happen, because, you know, stuff happens around our houses! Decide on your time, and find a quiet place where you can sit. Maybe light a candle to remind you of the light of God’s presence with you.
Then just sit quietly for a few minutes. Pay attention to your breathing. Slow it down intentionally. Remember that the word ‘breath’ in Hebrew and Greek is the same as the word ‘Spirit’. As you breath in and out, imagine the life of God’s Spirit coming into you, filling you just like the oxygen molecules travelling through your bloodstream. “Breathe on me, breath of God; fill me with life anew.”
Some people find it helpful, in those times of silence, to have a phrase they can repeat to themselves from time to time. It helps stop their mind from wandering. Can I suggest a good phrase? “Be still, and know that I am God.” If we let that phrase repeat in our minds as we sit quietly in God’s presence, we can hear it as God’s voice speaking to us in the words of the psalmist. “Be still, and know that I am God. Be still, and know that I am God.”
If you do that for five or six minutes, you’ll probably already find that you’re more aware of God’s presence with you, and you have more of a sense of peace and calm.
And then talk to God. Do it naturally. You don’t have to use fancy words or censor yourself. You don’t have to read set prayers if you don’t find them helpful. If you’re scared about something, talk to God about it. Tell God about your fears. If you’re angry about something, don’t try to pretend you’re not! Believe me, you can’t fool God! If you’re worried about your children or your grandchildren, or your friends, or your parents—well, pray for them! Ask God to help them in their times of trouble. Ask him to help them be aware of his presence with them.
Two things it’s especially important not to forget. When I’m having a conversation with a friend or a loved one, if I’ve done something to hurt them, it’s especially important to apologize and ask their forgiveness. And it’s the same with God. If we’ve done something to hurt him or the people he loves, we need to own up to it and ask his forgiveness.
The other thing is to thank him for his blessings. In times of difficulty we sometimes forget about those blessings, don’t we? But St. Paul tells us, ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18).
I said that intentionally taking time to be still with God is one way we can counteract our fear. The other way is to love one another. St. John tells us that perfect love casts out fear. In the original context, he means God’s love for us, and our trust in his love. But I think it’s also true that loving one another helps us cast out fear.
We are a small church, and one thing small churches tend to do well is community. My guess is that a lot of you here today know the names of a lot of other people in this church. You don’t know all of them, but you know more than you think you do. If you went home after church today and made a list, you’d be surprised at the number of names on it.
How do we be present to one another in these difficult times? How do we reach out in love to each other when we’re being encouraged to put social distance between us and other people?
One way is through the telephone. We need to know we’re not alone. Do you have the phone numbers of a few people in the church? Can I ask you to make a special effort over the next few weeks to use those phone numbers regularly? Just call each other up and chat. Make sure your friends are okay. Ask them if there’s anything they need, or if there’s something they’d like you to pray for.
Of course, some of you are on social media too—Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram, and all the other platforms. And we’ve got a church Facebook page and a Twitter account too. So let’s reach out to each other through these platforms. If there’s something you need help with, ask for it. Be there for each other.
I’m absolutely sure that in this time of stress, God is calling us to faith and love. He’s calling us to trust him, to rest and be still in his presence. And he’s calling us to reach out to one another in love. In this way, even though we’ll be afraid, ‘we will not fear.’ No: we’ll trust God, and we’ll love each other. And in the strength God gives us, we’ll get through the dark time and come out into the daylight again.
‘Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change’ (Psalm 46.2a, NRSV)
This morning in the Daily Office Lectionary we read the story of Jesus’ stilling of the storm (Mark 4.35-41). It’s the evening of a busy day, and Jesus and his disciples decide to take a boat across to the other side of the lake. Jesus is tired and he falls asleep in the boat. A sudden storm arises and very quickly the disciples find themselves in danger. These are experienced fishermen who’ve seen storms on the lake before, but this one has them scared, and eventually they wake Jesus up (yes, he’s still asleep!). “Master, don’t you care that we’re about to drown?” Jesus stands up and rebukes the wind and waves: “Peace! Be Still!” Immediately the wind dies down and there is a great calm. Jesus turns then to his disciples and says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” They’re full of awe, and they whisper to each other, “Who is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”
This morning, around the world, we feel as if a great storm is raging around us. COVID-19 is spreading, and in our country and other countries around the world, much of what we think of as normal life is shutting down. This doesn’t just apply to the Juno awards, the NHL, and university and school classes. I notice on Twitter that many of my colleagues and friends are not going to be going to church this coming Sunday; at the moment that is not the case here, partly because (even if the Alberta Government had not specifically excluded ‘places of worship’ from their restrictions) we aren’t a large enough congregation to qualify as a large gathering. We’re being encouraged to practice ‘social distance’; keep at least six feet away from other people, don’t go out if we don’t need to, and so on.
In a situation like this, it’s natural that we should be afraid. Think about this for a minute. The disciples had been travelling with Jesus for a while. They had seen him heal the sick and cast out evil spirits. They knew he had extraordinary powers. And yet, in the boat, they were still afraid.
So maybe I shouldn’t be hard on myself if I feel fear. After all, I’ve never seen Jesus with my eyes. I’ve seen some things that seem to me like answers to prayer, but nothing like the dramatic things the disciples saw. And many times (like most Christians), it appears to me as if my prayers have not been answered. So I shouldn’t be surprised when I feel afraid, and I definitely shouldn’t feel guilty about it.
Feeling afraid is a natural reaction to difficult circumstances. But I like the way Psalm 46 is worded in the New Revised Standard Version: not ‘Therefore we will not be afraid,” but “Therefore we will not fear.” ‘Being afraid’ sounds passive to me, as if fear is something that happens to me. Fear is the agent, and I’m the victim, with the result that I’m in a state of ‘being afraid.’
But the Psalm says “Therefore we will not fear.” What does this mean? To me, it means I’ll make a decision to put my trust in God and not let fear stop me doing what I’m called to do. And I want to say right away that I know this is a difficult thing, especially for those who suffer from anxiety disorders. For most of us, this ‘not fearing’ doesn’t come naturally. It’s something we’ll have to practice.
Psalm 46 does not promise that God will take away the difficult circumstances. Here’s the full quote from verses 1-3:
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in time of trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Is it an earthquake? Is it a flood? We don’t know. All we know is it’s something catastrophic and terrifying, and the writer doesn’t assume that God will rescue him from it. He simply believes in God as his refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.
I’m sixty-one, so I’ve seen my fair share of storms. In my experience, God has very rarely done what Jesus did: miraculously take away the scary circumstances. More often, God has given me strength to take his hand (metaphorically speaking) and walk with him through the difficult circumstances. I can’t claim I’ve not been afraid, but I can claim that, with God being my helper, I’ve discovered it’s possible ‘not to fear’—i.e., not to let fear stop me doing what I know I’m called to do.
God is our refuge and strength, therefore we will not fear. Lord God, you are our rock in times of trouble. All through the storm your love is the anchor. Our hope is in you alone. Amen.
P.S. I’d like to make a suggestion. While this COVID-19 pandemic continues, let’s pray Psalm 46 every day. Reading the rest of the psalm, it seems as if the city of Jerusalem is under siege, surrounded by a threatening army, and yet the writer makes a decision to put his trust in God.
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. (vv. 7, 11).
Let’s make this our community prayer, taking strength not just from God as our refuge and strength, but also from our fellowship in prayer together. Who will join me in that?
P.P.S. Here’s an old 1980s version of Psalm 46 (NIV) from Ian White.
Marci and I started our married life in a little village in northeastern Saskatchewan in which almost every member of our congregation was a farmer, or married to a farmer, or a retired farmer, or connected to farming in some way or other. We quickly learned what farmers have known all their lives: success in farming is insecure at the best of times. You can spend a lot of money putting seeds in the ground in the spring, watch it grow nicely all summer long, and then at the last minute have the whole thing ruined by an early frost, or a Fall that’s so wet you just can’t get out on the land to harvest it.
That’s where crop insurance comes in. Not many farmers would put a crop in without taking out crop insurance; there’s just too much money at stake. So if the weather’s good and the crop grows, all well and good, but if things go badly, at least there’s insurance to help you make it through the winter—as long as you can persuade the insurance company to pay up! But taking it out is just common sense.
Farmers in Bible times didn’t have crop insurance, but there were measures commonly taken in the ancient world that seemed just as much like common sense to them. Let me tell you about one of them.
In most cultures in the ancient world—including the Canaanites who lived in the land before the people of Israel—there were many gods you had to pay attention to. In theory, the Israelites didn’t believe in those other gods; they believed in Yahweh, the one true God, who made heaven and earth. But in practice, they were surrounded by nations who had many gods, and they were always tempted by them. And if they looked up to the hills, as likely as not there’d be ancient shrines on top of them, places where the old gods of Canaan had been worshipped for centuries.
Ancient people thought it was just common sense to pay proper attention to those gods. If you moved to a new country you needed to find out about the local gods, so you could keep their laws and offer them the sorts of sacrifices they liked. If you did that, they’d bless you and not send you bad luck. So if you were a Greek and you were going for a sea voyage, it made sense to offer a sacrifice to Poseidon, the god of the sea. If you were setting out on a military expedition against your enemies, you would offer a sacrifice to Ares, the god of war.
So if you were a farmer and you’d just finished seeding, it was a good idea to get the local fertility gods on your side, to make sure they sent you good weather and made your crop grow. But these fertility gods were a little forgetful, and they needed reminding why you had put your crop in. So what you did was to go to the nearest temple or shrine and have sex with the temple priestess in the sanctuary; the gods looked down and saw what you were doing, and it reminded them about fertility and all that, and so they remembered to bless your land and make your crop grow.
That sounds crazy and irrelevant to us modern people; we can’t believe anyone would be fooled into thinking it would work, and anyway, we don’t worship idols anymore, so it’s not really relevant to us, is it?
Well, actually, it is. If an idol is an object of worship made of wood or stone, then no, we don’t have any of those around here. But what if an idol is anything to which we give our first allegiance and loyalty, other than the one true God? What if it’s something to which we sacrifice our health, our family life, our sense of right and wrong? What if it’s something we instinctively turn to for help in time of need? What if it’s something we expect to give us ultimate happiness? What if it’s something we expect to save us from death? Well, then the list of potential idols—or false gods—gets rather longer.
There are so many false gods in our modern world. There’s the obvious one, money and possessions. People think money can protect you from danger, make you healthy, make you happy, and give you a sense of meaning in your life. Also, many people have made huge sacrifices to wealth—perhaps by living somewhere their family is unhappy in order to get a better-paying job, or by damaging their health by overwork and unhealthy habits. There are so many good things in life that get sacrificed on the altar of ‘The Economy’; it’s almost as if it’s become my sacred duty to consume, so I can keep the false gods happy.
Well, this is only one of the false gods out there competing for our attention; it’s not hard to think of others. Success is closely connected to wealth and, once again, many people sacrifice health and family on its altar. Our nation can be a powerful false god, when it demands our unconditional obedience even when its commands contradict the teaching of Jesus. Or I think of how, instead of turning to God in times of trouble, so many people turn to alcohol or other drugs to deaden their pain and help them make it through stressful situations. The list goes on: so many good things can become idols if we put them in the place of the one true God.
Why am I talking about false gods this morning? Because they appear in our psalm for today. You might not have noticed them, because they aren’t directly mentioned, but they are definitely alluded to. Here are the first two verses of the psalm (121:1-2) in the NRSV translation:
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.
At first it sounds as if the writer is looking up at the beauty of the hills around him and being reminded of the one who created them, but that’s probably not the case. What’s probably happening is that he’s looking up at the hills and seeing, on top of them, temples to those ancient pagan gods. Gods and goddesses were commonly worshipped on top of hills and mountains, for the obvious reason that hilltops were closer to the heavens. So the writer is actually weighing up his loyalties. “Where does my help come from? Does it come from the false gods worshipped at the hill shrines? No—they’re too feeble to help me. My help comes from a much stronger source: ‘Yahweh, the LORD, who made heaven and earth.’”
That may seem like common sense to us, but we need to remember that false gods had a couple of advantages in popular imagination. For one thing, the Lord was invisible and they were not. There are stories of pagan generals who invaded Jerusalem and went into the holy of holies in the temple for a look at the God of Israel; they were astounded to find there was nothing in there!They were so used to the idea that a god needed a visual representation in order to be worthy of worship. And we have the same problem today. How can you worship the Creator of heaven and earth when you can’t see him and you’ve got no proof he’s there? Money’s tangible; you can see it mounting up in your bank account, or feel it jangling in your pocket. Success is obvious for all to see. Popularity, health, youth—they’re all visible and tangible. But trusting in an invisible God? That’s harder to grasp.
For another thing, the false gods were popular: everyoneworshipped them, so in order to trust in them you really didn’t have to make a choice; you just went with the flow. And so it is today: everyone assumes you’ll go along with the worship of wealth, or that you’ll be willing to set aside your religious convictions if your country asks you to, or that you’ll set aside the regular worship of God to make room for Sunday sports or family activities. Go with the flow—no effort required! But if you choose to worship the one true God and follow his Son Jesus Christ, you’ll find yourself being asked to make difficult choices all the time.
Why should we make those hard choices? The psalm seems to make exactly the same sort of extravagant promises as the false gods do. Verses 7 and 8 say,
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.
Other verses are even more extravagant; verse 6 says,
The sun shall not strike you by day, neither the moon by night.
There are some people who believe these verses in a very literal sense. They believe that if they follow the one true God he’ll protect them from all misfortune and shower them with every blessing in a material sense. He’ll keep them from getting sick and protect them from their enemies in times of war. He’ll bless their businesses and make them successful and wealthy.
This works out fine, of course, until misfortune strikes. A marriage breaks up, or a business fails; a bomb explodes and kills in a random fashion, or a routine medical examination uncovers a life-threatening illness that doesn’t respond to treatments. When things just don’t seem to be working out, people who believe God has promised them health and wealth find their faith in trouble. Maybe they even find themselves asking, “Is this my fault? Have I done something especially bad to annoy God, so he’s punishing me or trying to get my attention? Or maybe I’ve been praying to empty space all along, and there really is no God after all?”
I’d like to suggest that what the one true God actually promises us is something less tangible, but more real and lasting. It’s probably never been expressed quite so well as in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35, 37-39)
‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God’. At first glance, that sounds like such a wishy-washy promise: ‘You may die of cancer or get killed in an earthquake or starve in a famine, but nothing will be able to separate you from God’s love.’ It’s easy to scoff at an intangible promise like that and ask what difference it can possibly make.
Until you see it making a difference in someone’s life. I think of my good friend Joe Walker, who died of cancer a few years ago at the age of 47; he was diagnosed in June and he died in the middle of August. Joe believed in prayer but he didn’t believe prayer was an unconditional guarantee. What he did believe was that in some sense, God was in control, and he needed to learn to trust God and not feel sorry for himself. At Joe’s funeral his wife described how, in the last weeks of his life, he’d gradually let go of all the things that were important to him. He was a great reader and loved discussing books; he was a guitarist and he loved to play music; he was a wonderful writer and his blog was a real inspiration to many of us. But gradually, in the last few weeks of his life, he let go of all those things. In the end, all he had left was God, and the love of God.
And so I think again of Paul’s words, ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ In Joe’s time of need it would have been pointless to turn to money or wealth or popularity or success or any other false god on offer. Only the one true God could help him, and although God didn’t heal him, it was obvious to those around him that God was his rock in time of trouble.
So today, Psalm 121 is giving us material for reflection and self-examination. It’s reminding us that the false gods are all around us, and their voices are very seductive. Am I believing them, trusting in their extravagant promises? Am I giving them my first loyalty, looking to them for the ultimate joy and satisfaction that only the one true God can give?
Let’s have the courage today to look into our hearts to find out just who is sitting on the throne and calling the shots. And if it’s anything or anyone other than the one true God, let’s have the courage to dethrone them and turn again to the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth, the one who, in the truest sense, will ‘keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore’ (Psalm 121:8). Or, to use the words of Jesus, let’s “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
I know I’ve posted this before, but this is one of my favourite poems by one of my favourite poets, Wendell Berry.
We follow the dead to their graves,
and our long love follows on
beyond, crying to them, not
“Come back!” but merely “Wait!”
In waking thoughts, in dreams
we follow after, calling, “Wait!
Listen! I am older now. I know
now how it was with you
when you were old and I
was only young. I am ready
now to accompany you
in your lonely fear.” And they
go on, one by one, as one
by one we go as they have gone.
And yet we all are gathered
in this leftover love,
this longing becomes the measure
of a joy all mourners know.
An old man’s mind is a graveyard
where the dead arise.
– Wendell Berry, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems, 2000