September 24, 2017

God Our Keeper

Passage: Psalm 121
Service Type:

I: -- Mountains are beautiful: majestic, imposing, seemingly immoveable. Therefore it’s easy to assume we know what the psalmist means when he cries, “I lift up my eyes to the hills.” Actually, he doesn’t mean what we think he means, because mountains were ambivalent for the Israelite people: majestic and imposing to be sure, yet also a source of danger. After all, outlaws and cutthroats hid in the mountains and swept down out of the hills to harm travellers. The mountains themselves were treacherous for travellers, riddled as they were with gorges and precipices and wild animals. We modern folk like to imagine mountains (indeed, all of nature) as relief from burnout and source of refreshment. Our Israelite foreparents knew better; they knew that while the mountains seem attractive as a place of refreshment and help, they are also the place of grave threat. In Psalm 11 the psalmist is tempted to “flee like a bird to the mountains”, tempted to “get away from it all”, as we like to say. But the psalmist knows that not even the birds are safe in the mountains: food is exceedingly scarce among rocks, and predators abound. For this reason as soon as the psalmist looks at the distant hills and asks, in Psalm 121, “From whence does my help come?” he answers, “My help comes from the Lord, from Yahweh.” Ultimately help doesn’t come from the mountains, from nature; help, the profoundest help we need, comes from God, the maker of heaven and earth.

II: -- Nevertheless this lesson isn’t learned quickly. In our secularized age help is sought from every quarter except the Lord. Yet the places we look to for help are like the mountains: attractive, beckoning, with much about them that is genuinely good, yet also threatening and ultimately not helpful in the profoundest sense.

[1] Think of culture. Our society looks to culture for help. There are immense riches here. If I were deprived of Mozart’s genius and Yitzakh Perlman’s violin and Renee Fleming’s voice; if I were deprived of E.J. Pratt’s poetry and Robertson Davies’ prose and the movie, Chariots of Fire (which I have seen eleven times) I should be unquestionably the poorer for it. Culture possesses genuine riches; it lends us a genuine creaturely good.

Yet culture, as the mountains were to the Israelite people, is double-edged, ambivalent. Culture transmits values. What values does it transmit? Certainly whatever it is that Chariots of Fire embodies; but also what the movie, Mortal Thoughts, embodies. Mortal Thoughts cost me $12 as well as more than a little disquiet. Mortal Thoughts is about a woman who cuts her best friend’s husband’s throat with an Exacto knife – blood everywhere. Sitting beside me in the movie theatre was a 10 year old boy, eyes wide open, taking it all in. How many such spectacles has he seen already, and how many more will he see, each impression cumulatively skewing his innermost control-centre? What was the youngster unconsciously taking in about what it means to be a human being and how disputes are settled? As blood-soaked violence sank into his unconscious mind he was less and less likely ever to understand consciously that gratuitous violence is addictive; it creates an appetite for ever more violent spectacles. Culture transmits values. What’s being transmitted?

In any case culture, bad, good or the best, can never penetrate as deeply as the human heart needs to be penetrated; it can’t finally “keep” us in the sense in which the Lord our God is our keeper.

[2] Much the same can be said about the state, about government. The state, civil government, is God-ordained to restrain criminality, preserve order and ensure the common good. It must never be belittled. History relentlessly attests what life is like where the common good isn’t ensured. Not surprisingly, many people assume that the state, government, will “keep” them. But no state, however just, can “keep” any human being in the sense that the Lord our God is our keeper.

And in a fallen creation, of course, the state is always ambivalent, always double-edged. The state, God appointed for blessing (Romans 13) in fact curses millions (Revelation 13, where the state is the beast from the abyss, the monster that devours the people of God). It would be difficult to convince masses in the world right now that the state is their helper in any sense. Why do you think droves are fleeing Syria?

[3] Then there are the rugged individualists, brimful of confidence, who argue that the individual’s psychological resources are sufficient. Make no mistake: the individual’s psychological resources are wonderful. I marvel at what people have in them: intuition, coping-mechanisms, resilience, creativity.

But also hidden in everyone’s intrapsychic landscape are psychological booby-traps. All of us have dark recesses in our psyche that startle us when we least expect it just because we never guessed (couldn’t guess) what lurks within us.

The psalmist, then, is correct. While he is tempted to flee to the mountains and seek help there, he knows that the mountains are both beautiful and dangerous. And in any case the mountains can’t provide the kind of help he most profoundly needs. As much has to be said of anything else we might think can profoundly help.

III: -- Our help comes from the Lord. What kind of help? What do we need help with? help for? We aren’t so foolish (I trust) as to assume we are promised divine assistance for our pet projects, or worse, for our ambition, or worse still, for our naked avarice. God isn’t the rocket fuel that powers whatever we think will let us “get ahead”. Then what is the nature of the help we both need and crave? Our question concerning the nature of the help we need is answered by the psalmist’s repeated use of “keep” and “keeper”. We need to be “kept”; i.e., preserved, safeguarded. At bottom we know we need one thing above all else: we need the identity that God has given us in Christ to be safeguarded, preserved, in the midst of everything which threatens it in life, as well as whatever may threaten it in death. We know we can’t avoid sickness, setback and suffering. We know that no one is spared these. What we want, deepest down, is this: what I am in Christ, the real “me”, even the “me” that is so profound that God alone fashions it and sees it -- that this “me” will be safeguarded now so as to be kept forever. Paul tells the believers in Colosse that who they really are, their ultimate identity, is hid with Christ in God. What we most profoundly need is this: that what is hid with Christ in God will also be kept with Christ in God, safeguarded, preserved, until that day when nothing will be able to assail it, crumble it, evaporate it.

I have long been intrigued by the answers different people give to the question, “Who tells you who you are?” I think this question is so very significant inasmuch as the answer to it will determine who we are. Do my parents tell me who I am? To some extent, but if they alone do then I have never grown up. Does my academic achievement or my professional standing or my reputation tell me who I am? These can only give me the most artificial identity. Do I tell myself who I am? This yields a most confusing identity, since the “I” that tells the “I” that is told is like trying to set a watch to a factory whistle while trying to set the whistle to the watch. Who tells any of us who we are? Who tells me who I am? Who makes me who I am? And after whoever, whatever, makes me who I am, who or what is going to “keep” me in the psalmist’s sense of “keep”?

IV: -- The One who keeps me is the One who has kept Israel. He “made” Israel, that people ordained to live for the praise of his glory and the enlightening of the nations. Having fashioned such a people he has kept them. When they were threatened with dissolution in Egypt; when they were discouraged in the wilderness; when prophets were dismayed at the unfaithfulness of the people, still the holy One of Israel kept them.

The psalmist argues that since God has so manifestly, obviously kept Israel, the people, God can be trusted to keep every person who is individually a member of Israel. Because the God who kept Israel has promised to keep the church, so that not even the powers of death can prevail against it, he will surely keep us who are individually members of it.

From the formation of Israel to the birth of Jesus 1500 years elapsed. Israel was kept. The day came when Israel was gathered up into the person of Israel’s greater Son. Was he kept? Seemingly not. Yet as he was raised from the dead and was made to live forevermore he is kept -- his people with him, and you and me with his people. He who keeps Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. There will be no forgetful lapse or careless lapse on God’s part during which something from within me or something from without me might deprive me of my identity before God and my security in him.

V: -- Against what has God promised to safeguard us, “keep” us? – against the sun and the moon, says the psalmist. The sun shall not smite us by day nor the moon by night. We laugh, even snicker, at this. Who gets sunstroked today? And even if travellers in hot countries might get sunstroked from time to time, who ever got moonstroked?

We laugh too soon. You see, for our Hebrew foreparents the sun symbolized perils on life’s journey that overwhelmed them. To be “sunstroked”, metaphorically, was to be “done in” by developments that were part and parcel of the journey itself. Don’t we speak today of being “burnt out”? We too speak metaphorically. When we come upon someone who is manifestly “burnt out” we don’t rush her to the hospital for a skin graft. We mean that ordinary, day-to-day developments have become too much for her. Employment is an everyday aspect of life’s journey. Having a job, having to work, isn’t extraordinary. Yet work can leave people burnt out. Parenting is part of life’s journey; there’s nothing unusual about it. Yet in some circumstances parenting would leave anyone beside himself. (If ever you are tempted to think otherwise, come with me for a day in family court.) Having aged parents isn’t unusual. Still, the stress of dealing with elderly parents can unravel us. All of these developments are normal, everyday aspects of the journey of life. Yet they can bring us down.

It is plain that when the psalmist insists that we are going to be “kept” he doesn’t mean that we are going to be cushioned. Any Christian who expects to be cushioned should look more closely at the master himself. Was he cushioned? against anything? He was cushioned against nothing, yet ultimately kept amidst everything, for no development has left him devoid of his identity before his Father. What caused him to sweat so profusely in Gethsemane that the sweat poured off his face like blood from a forehead gash; what caused him to cry out, “Even my Father has abandoned me.” -- none of it ultimately dissolved him. On the contrary all of it was the occasion in which his Father “kept” him, safeguarded him, preserved him, even as he felt it not.

We aren’t cushioned; we are kept. Our identity before God, our security in God; this is safeguarded regardless of day-to-day developments, however ordinary, that appear to overwhelm us on life’s journey. The sun shall not smite us by day.

Moonstroke is something else. The ancient world believed that the moon gave off noxious powers, among which were diseases of all kinds. Disease is rooted in micro-organisms which we can’t see. Micro-organisms are tiny, yet insidious and dangerous. Whereas to be “sunstroked” is to fall victim to what overwhelms us frontally, visibly, on our journey, to be “moonstroked” is to be submarined insidiously by what we don’t see, can’t foresee, and against which therefore we aren’t forearmed.

When I was studying in Scotland I preached one Sunday to an Anglican congregation, one of whose families invited the Shepherds home to lunch. Our host and hostess were both physicians. They were telling us of a clergyman who was transparent to the gospel, who had had inestimable influence upon them, and who had meant the world to them. At the height of his powers this clergyman had come down with encephalitis, was severely brain-damaged, and now babbled and slobbered and stumbled. So overcome was my physician-host in recounting his sad tale that he stopped speaking and stared at the dining room table. Feeling awkward at the protracted, painful silence I admitted my medical ignorance and asked him how his friend had come to have encephalitis. My host waited another interminable minute, and then turned to me and said slowly and sadly, “How does anyone get anything?” He meant, “Isn’t it tragic that we can be contending triumphantly with developments in front of us (sunstroke won’t get us) when unbeknown to us something microscopic yet insidious can submarine us and reduce us, apparently, to a pitiable creature who babbles and slobbers and stumbles.” If my host had lived 3000 years ago he would have said, “My clergyman-friend appears moonstroked.”

Speaking of encephalitis, I was moved more than I can tell at reading the book, Awakenings, by Dr. Oliver Sacks, together with several more books by the world-famous neurologist. (I’ve corresponded several times with Oliver Sacks, since as a pastor I have to minister to neurologically damaged people.) Dr. Sacks spent much of his working life with patients whose Parkinsonian symptoms were rooted in encephalitis. Where others saw human wreckage so neurologically wrecked as to be subhuman, Oliver Sacks saw creatures of God whom God “kept” despite the hideous ravages of their disease. In other words, even the people who gave greatest evidence of being moonstroked ultimately weren’t.

God won’t cushion me against encephalitis. (He who didn’t cushion his Son against anything isn’t going to cushion me.) But he will keep me -- ultimately -- against sunstroke and moonstroke alike. Who I am in Jesus Christ; that “me” which God alone sees; who I really am even though I can only glimpse it from time to time; this is what God will safeguard, keep, regardless of what may seem to have overwhelmed me frontally or submarined me insidiously.

VI: -- If the nature of God’s safeguarding is to preserve us against sunstroke and moonstroke alike, what is the scope of God’s keeping? The psalmist says that God can be trusted to keep our “going out and our coming in.” “Going out and coming in” is a Semitism, a rich Hebrew expression with three distinct meanings.

[1] In the first place “going out and coming in” is a Hebrew way of expressing totality or entirety; a Hebrew way of saying everything. To say that God will keep our going out and our coming in is to say that nothing that befalls us will ever undo God’s keeping. Nothing will ever handcuff God so as to leave him unable to keep us. He who wasn’t handcuffed by the death of his Son isn’t going to be handcuffed now.

[2] In the second place “going out and coming in” refers to the important ventures and efforts and undertakings of life. To have these “kept” is to have our kingdom efforts rendered fruitful. In Psalm 126 the psalmist writes, “He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come in with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” To know that God will keep our going out and our coming in is to know that our worthwhile undertakings in life – into which we have poured ourselves – aren’t going to be fruitless finally. We may have seen little fruit to date for the energy we have poured out and the sacrifices we have made and the prayers we have pleaded; nonetheless, it all isn’t finally going to dribble away. It’s going to be crowned.

[3] In the third place “going out and coming in” refers to the early years and the sunset years of life, infancy and old age, when we are helpless. At the beginning of life and at the end we are kept. The child who dies in infancy, even the still-born child (not to mention the aborted child) is kept inviolate before God, by God. The most senile person in the nursing home whose senility has left her unrecognizable; this person is kept inviolate before God as well.

Today my heart rejoices that the God who neither slumbers nor sleeps will keep my going out and my coming in.

From whence does my help come? Not from the hills, from nature, however majestic nature might be. My help – yours too – comes from the One who kept Israel, kept Israel’s greater Son, and will keep any one of us unto the day of our Lord’s glorious appearing.