February 5, 2012

Septuagesima Sunday Sermon

God Our Help
Psalm 121
Septuagesima Sunday
February 5, 2012

"From whence cometh my help." These words, like many in literature and music, have a double meaning. So to say, "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help" is first a statement of confidence that the hills are a help to Jerusalem. Ancient Jerusalem was set on the famous hill known as Mount Zion. Like most cities of its time, it was enclosed by a thick wall upon which soldiers could walk and fight to defend the city. The walls were surrounded by the small valleys of Tyropoeon and Kidron, which, in turn, were surrounded by another wall, a natural wall of rugged hills of which the Mount of Olives is the most famous. This made Jerusalem a natural fortress. An attacking army would have to scale the surrounding hills, cross the Tyropoeon and Kidron, under fire from archers on the wall, scale the wall of the valleys, advance further up the hill, still under attack by defending archers, and, finally, climb the wall of Jerusalem itself before it could even begin to fight the Jerusalem soldiers. So the hills around the city were a natural defense, and it is to these hills that Psalm 121 says in confidence; "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills; from whence cometh my help."

Yet, "from whence cometh my help?" is also a question. Wonderful as the hills are, they cannot do everything. They cannot comfort those who sorrow. They cannot heal the sick, or give meaning or hope to life. Only God can do these things; "From whence cometh my help? My help cometh even from the Lord."

One of the points made by the Psalm is that God is able to help. It is hard to describe the help a hill gave to soldiers in days past. It gave those on the hill a commanding view of the enemy's movements, but it also enabled them to fight better. An arrow fired downhill had more range than an arrow fired uphill. A large stone rolled downhill was a danger to all in its path; a large stone rolled uphill was more dangerous to the soldiers rolling it than it was to the enemy. So, the high ground was always an advantage, always a help. And Psalm 121 is making a comparison; it is saying, as the hills are a help to the physical city of Jerusalem, God is the help of the spiritual Jerusalem, His people. He made heaven and earth. He made the universe. He created the stars and the galaxies. "He telleth the number of the stars; He calleth them all by their names." "Great is our Lord, and of great power." "In the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength." If God has the power and wisdom to do all these things, then it must be true that, as 2 Chronicles 25:8 says, "God hath power to help." This God of power and strength is like the hills around Jerusalem. He surrounds and protects us. He is a wall of defense. Can any enemy harm us if God is our defense? "If God be for us, who can be against us?" asks St. Paul. It is God who justifies us, and it is God who makes us to be more than conquerors so that "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:31-39). Daniel 3:17 sums this up very well. Faced with death in the fiery furnace, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego say plainly, "our God whom we serve is able to deliver us."

But what good is power to help if it is not used? What good is the ability to do good without the will to do it? Therefore it is important that our God is able and willing to deliver us. "He will not suffer thy foot to be moved" according to verse 3. When you live in a city set on a hill, there is always someone who wants to knock you off. The city of Jerusalem had many enemies who would have gladly destroyed it. But God would not let Jerusalem's "foot" be moved. Secure footing is essential to making the high ground an effective help in battle. You can't fight if you can't stand, and you can't stand if the footing is not secure. The Psalm pictures Jerusalem standing secure and firm on Zion, because God upholds the city. God holds the feet of the city, so that instead of standing on loose sand and rocks that can slide out from under it, Jerusalem stands on the unmoving and powerful hand of God.

It is easy to see the spiritual meaning here. God's Church is always surrounded by enemies. They attack in wave after wave, and we see their numbers and power, and our faith almost fails us because we know we are no match for them. It is true, as Martin Luther wrote;

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be loosing.
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God's own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He
Lord Sabaoth His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

God is on our side. More importantly, we are on God's side, and He will not allow His church to be vanquished. And He won't allow you to be either. If you truly are in Christ through Biblical faith, He has promised you that He will keep you by His power in this world and in the next. He does not say you will not have to fight. He does not say you will not grow weary or weak. He does not even say you won't be wounded in the battle. He does promise that "He will not suffer thy foot to be moved." In other words, after all the battles are over, by His power, the Heavenly Jerusalem will still stand, and so will you if you are a citizen of that city.

Verse 5 tells you, "The Lord Himself is thy keeper; the Lord is thy defence upon thy right hand." The Psalm imagines the hills around Jerusalem as soldiers standing guard. They are always there in the burning sun and deepest night. On a moonlit night you can see them standing there, but even in the darkest night you know they are there protecting you. They never take a vacation. They never sleep. What a wonderful symbol of God watching over His people. He is there in the heat of the day and the cold of the night. The sun shall not burn thee by day because God is on guard so you can rest in the shadow of His wings. The moonlit winter night will not harm you because God is on duty, allowing you to rest in the warmth of His love. You can sleep and take your rest because He never does. He never sleeps on duty, never deserts His post. He never quits. He never takes a day off, or a vacation or a rest. He is always on duty, ever vigilant.

The Psalm does not mean to say you will never experience hardship or trials in this life. It does not teach that you will always prosper, always enjoy good health, or always have things and people go the way you want. It is not so much a promise of good things for the flesh as it is a promise of good things for the soul. This is brought out in verse 7, "The Lord shall preserve thee from evil; yea, it is even he that shall keep thy soul."

It is often very difficult to remember that God is more concerned about the health of your soul than the comfort of your body. You, if you are like the rest of us mortals, are busy with the things that contribute to your physical comforts. You work and plan and play and rest, and, even pray to God to increase your comfort in this world. There is a sense in which this is right and good. I believe God wants you to enjoy life, and that He gives good things to be enjoyed. There was a time in the history of the Church when many people thought God wanted them to be miserable. So they joined monasteries and convents where they starved themselves, slept in the snow, and even beat themselves with whips while rejecting even the most basic comforts of the flesh. Many died of their self inflicted sufferings; others were perpetually worn and sick. Thanks be to God we now understand the Bible better and do not murder ourselves thinking we are pleasing God. But, I wonder, have we gone too far in the other direction? Today you rarely hear a call to perseverance, self-discipline, or self-restraint. You hear instead that God is going to give you health and wealth and indulge all your wants, like Santa Clause, only better. Both of these views are heresies. You need to remember that God is investing in you for the long term. His concern is about fitting you for Heaven rather than giving you luxury and ease on earth. It is your soul that concerns Him most, and He is not afraid to prune a few branches to make your soul produce fruit.

We close today's message remembering that it is to the grace of God in Christ that we ultimately look for our help. He is the hill that surrounds and protects us. He is the one who makes our feet to stand firm upon the mount. He is the one who overcomes our foes and delivers us safe to the Mansion of Heaven. Everything promised in the 121st Psalm is accomplished by Christ for us on the cross. We only receive it by faith as His gift to us. It is through Him that you can say, "My help cometh from the Lord."

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