7.29.2013

Sermon Transcript

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_yGng4B9qxBc/TURofCTv8YI/AAAAAAAABOM/RATD_5XJBrk/s640/Psalm+121++1-2.jpgHere's the transcript from my sermon yesterday.

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Where Does My Help Come From:
One God or Many Made Things
Psalm 121 / Exodus 20:1-3

[read Psalm 121]

Let me start by saying how much I appreciate the work of the Worship Band.  You guys prayerfully and diligently lead us into worship.  And we are fortunate to have people like this who are so skilled and so committed.

In fact, they are so skilled and so committed that I bet that if we asked them to do what they just did, only while hiking a mountain, they could do it, and they would do it well.  Can you imagine that, singing while trekking up a hill, or pushing a piano and drum set through a rugged trail?

It seems absurd, but for God’s people way back when, it was commonplace.  Not the “pushing the piano and drum set through a rugged trail” part, of course.  But, three times a year, God’s people made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for a religious festival.

If you know the local geography, you know that Jerusalem is the highest of hills and is surrounded by hills.  And they sang while they made that pilgrimage, the people of God lifting their voices in praise as they literally and figuratively ascended to Jerusalem.

What did they sing?  They sang what we now know as Psalms 120 to 134, which we often refer to as “the Songs of Ascents.”  Over and over again, three times a year, God’s people sang these psalms to God and to each other as they made their way upwards to worship together in Jerusalem.

Journey is a powerful and recurring theme in the Bible, as you may know.  The Exodus, out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, was a defining moment for God’s people.  And much of the action in the accounts of Jesus’ ministry in the gospels is of Him and His followers on the move.

It is for this reason that when a Christian brother or sister tells me that they are making a big transition in their lives – moving to a new city for a new job, or heading out to the mission field – I always encourage them to take time in the tumult to receive God’s presence in the transition, and to wait for what He is trying to teach and do while they are on the move.

God is God where we were, and God is God where we will end up.  But God is also God in the transition.

I hope that that is a good word for you individually and for us as a church.  We may know who God was, last chapter.  And we may want to hurry up and get to the next chapter to find out who God will be.  But God is not in a hurry.  He is with us in the journey.  And His people knew, way back when, that while they were journeying, they ought to sing.

Which brings us to today’s text.  Psalm 121 is one of my very favorite passages in all of the Bible.  Many of you know it by heart, thanks to that song that we often sing here in church.  But I pray that as we unpack its meaning this morning, we will know it in a new way.

You know how the psalm starts: “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; from where shall my help come?”  How many of us, when we are despairing, instinctively look up to the hills?  It is a natural response.  But I don’t think that is quite what the psalmist meant.

Maybe if we transport ourselves back to the psalmist’s time, we remember that travel back then was fraught.  Someone could be lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce on us, harm us, take our stuff, and leave us for dead.  Or, if we were in the midst of battle, an opposing army could be just around the ridge, ready to charge us and overwhelm us.  But I don’t think that is quite what the psalmist meant either.

My understanding of the original intent of the psalmist in Psalm 121 is informed by Dr. Eugene Peterson’s delightful book, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.”  Peterson writes:

During the time this psalm was written and sung, Palestine was overrun with popular pagan worship.  Much of this religion was practiced on hilltops.  Shrines were set up, groves of trees were planted, sacred prostitutes both male and female were provided; persons were lured to the shrines to engage in acts of worship that would enhance the fertility of the land, would make you feel good, would protect you from evil.  There were nostrums, protections, spells and enchantments against all the perils of the road.  Do you fear the sun’s heat?  Go to the sun priest and pay for protection against the sun god.  Are you fearful of the malign influence of moonlight?  Go to the moon priest and buy an amulet.  Are you haunted by the demons that can use any pebble under your foot to trip you?  Go to the shrine and learn the magic formula to ward off the chief.  From whence shall my help come?  From Baal?  From Asherah?  From the sun priest?  From the moon priestess?

There were, essentially, gods for every woe.  And they were all there on the hills, waiting to be called on for help.  “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; from where shall my help come?”

This all may seem primitive to our modern eyes.  And yet, do we not also have gods for every woe?  Are we not also tempted to lift our eyes to the hills and pick from among them for the help we need?  When we are in transition, do we not also flail around for help from all sorts of places?

We don’t know how long the psalmist pauses between verses 1 and 2.  But we do know what his answer is to his own question: “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”  “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

Two things to point out here.  First, he calls on a specific God: Yahweh, the God of Israel.  (When you see “LORD” in all caps in my Bible, it means Yahweh.)

I actually find it kind of annoying that we don’t use the name, “Yahweh,” more.  The name, “God,” is so generic.  We’re not calling on a generic “God,” one whose specific identity is amorphous and can be bent however we choose.  No, we are calling on a distinct God: Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Second, how does He describe this God, Yahweh?  He made heaven and earth.  The other gods on the hills, that offer the promise of help for our every woe, are all made things.  But Yahweh is the Maker of all.  Which would we rather choose in a pinch: A made thing? A generic, catch-all God?  Or a specific Helper: Yahweh, who made heaven and earth, and who has revealed Himself to His people as they journey through life?

Lest we are still on the fence, the psalmist proceeds with this God’s credentials:
·       He won’t let our foot slip
·       He won’t sleep
·       He keeps you
·       He’s your shade
·       The sun and moon won’t smite you
·       He’ll protect you from all evil and keep your soul
·       He’ll guard your going out and your coming forth forever and ever

The psalmist doesn’t need to say it but he means this: Yahweh can and do all these things, and all of your other choices on the hills cannot and do not.  Yahweh is supremely able and supremely desiring to protect you and keep you, and all of your other choices on the hills are not.  Yahweh is where your help should come from, not from anything you can find on the hills.

This, I believe, gets to the core of God’s character, and the reason He is the way He is with us.  People often wonder why Christians insist that God is “the only way”…why can’t the Christian God be good for Christians but others be free to choose other gods that are good for them?

But that misunderstands Yahweh’s perspective.  He is the Maker of all.  He is able to keep us and satisfy our every need.  He desires to be that for us.

And so He is greatly honored when we say, when we sing as we ascend, “Yes, God, we choose you.  Our help comes from you.”  And so He is greatly dishonored when we choose our help from the hills instead, from made things that cannot and do not protect or provide.

I want to close by doing something a little different.  I believe that all of us were made for our help to come from Yahweh.  I believe that we as a church were made for our help to come from Yahweh.  But I believe that all of us, and we as a church, have chosen to look to the hills instead.

Instead of one God, one specific God, Yahweh, we have cluttered our landscape with made things that we turn to for help.  And our clutter is an indictment of our misplacement of faith in these made things rather than in our Maker.

I believe it is time to see just how cluttered our landscape has become.  I have a pile of toy blocks.  I want you to think about one or two or three or ten things that you personally or we as a church look to instead of Yahweh when we are in distress.

It could be our intellect or our health or our reputation.  It could be our jobs or our savings accounts or our social network.  It could be constancy or constant change, a commitment to tradition or an openness to break from it.

It could be our bad habits, or it could be our good works.  Some of the things on the hills way back when were wicked things.  But some were neutral or even positive things.  They just weren’t where our help should come from.  And so it is, perhaps, with the things we turn to – individually and as a church – instead of God.

I want you to take however many toy blocks for however many things you thought of, and I want you to place them on this center table.  And when we are all done, I want us to see just how cluttered we have made our lives and our church, when what God wants and invites us to is for Him to be our help and keeper.

And, of course, God sees this clutter and any other clutter we’ve cluttered our lives and our church with.  So this stack of blocks is not news to Him.  But perhaps it will show us just how cluttered we have become, and how much we need to unclutter, in terms of where our help comes from.

We all want God to help us.  But we need to clear out all our other help sources first.  So we’ll close by confessing our turning to made things instead of the Maker, and then by clearing the table of the toy blocks and asking God to help us choose Him and only Him when we – individually and as a church – need help.
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