Look up - Psalm 121

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 21st June 2009.

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About two weeks ago I was very pleased with myself on the motorway. I was driving along the M18 and noticed a grey Volvo moving slowly on the hard shoulder. I thought I recognized the car and wondered if it was an unmarked police car. Sure enough as I overtook I saw the distinctive yellow police vest on the driver. I thought nothing more of it until a few minutes later when a BMW zoomed past me at high speed. Next moment the grey Volvo overtook me at speed. I got very excited and wondered if I would see the catch happen before my very eyes.

What is the moral of this story? I got me thinking about the journeys we make from A to B. They are not fraught with danger. We don’t fear bandits and robbers. We may fear getting stuck in long tail backs but that’s different from the fear of not arriving at our destination because of danger on the way. 

Often said that the Christian life is a journey. We are pilgrims on our way to our eternal home. Yes that is true. But what is crucial is to understand what this journey will be like. We need to get our expectations right. That’s why Psalm 121 is so helpful for us pilgrims. It helps us to get our expectations right. It is realistic about the journey. It is also wonderfully encouraging because it reminds the pilgrim of who is protecting them along the way.

Let’s look at the Psalm. It’s called ‘A song of ascents’. As Melvin taught us last week these songs (120-134) were sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for one of the great feasts of the Jewish people. They literally went up to Jerusalem, the chosen earthly city of the God of Israel. As you read them through with this background they seem very appropriate for these occasions.

However, it is important to remember that Old Testament believers were not focused on this life alone. It would be a mistake to believe that they did not see anything more than the things of this world. They knew they were only passing through this world and were in fact on an even greater pilgrimage. Their physical pilgrimage to Jerusalem was symbolic of an even greater pilgrimage of the believer on the road to God’s eternal city.

This is vital to bear in mind as we try and understand this Psalm and it’s promises. Although it was sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem and although it was most likely inspired by such a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (the imagery suits such an explanation) - it’s not really about a physical journey to a physical place. It is about the spiritual pilgrimage of every believer through this world until they meet their Maker face to face in his eternal dwelling. We need to understand this if we are to claim the promises of this Psalm and apply them appropriately to our current situations.

With this in mind let me show you what this Psalm promises the faithful pilgrim. Look at verses 1 and 2. “I lift my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

You can see how these verses could easily have been inspired by an actual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This is not a romantic ramble in the Lake District. He does not look up and admire the beauty of the hills. No they are a place of danger and uncertainty. Perhaps full of wild bandits and wild beasts. So he asks the question, where does my help come from? Not just from the one who made the hills but from the Maker of heaven and earth.

Remember this is being used of the spiritual pilgrimage of the believer. How appropriate. As we look within us and around us there are so many potential dangers that threaten us, that may prevent us from getting to the end of our pilgrimage and arriving in heaven.

There are the sinful desires within and the siren voices of the world.

The big question then becomes, how can I be sure I will reach heaven? How do I know I won’t give up?

Suppose you are a new believer. You are keen at the moment but you look around at the vast array of enticements available to you and the vast array of temptations and it would be perfectly natural to ask, how do I know I will get to my destination as a faithful pilgrim?

The answer lies outside ourselves. Our help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.

The rest of the Psalm tells us how the LORD helps the faithful pilgrim.

First of all, look at what we’re told in verses 3 and 4. “He will not let your foot slip – he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”

A foot slippage on a dangerous pass would lead to a quick death. In this spiritual pilgrimage we are being reassured that the Lord will not let us fall to our spiritual death and give up on the faith.

He is always attentive to our current circumstances. Nothing unexpected will happen to us because our God is having a nap or is a bit groggy. The one who watches over us neither slumbers nor sleeps.

You may have noticed a repeated phrase in verses 3 and 4. The one who watches over us. What is this watching? It is not a powerless looking from a distance. It is a powerful keeping of the believer from ultimate spiritual harm.

This becomes even clearer in verses 5 to 8. “The LORD watches over you – the LORD is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.” Then verse 7, “The LORD will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and for evermore.”

Again the picture language is taken from the physical pilgrimage but then applied to the spiritual pilgrimage of the believer.

This is not a promise to protect pilgrims from all physical harm. I read this to my dad on Thursday evening in hospital.

Consider how comprehensive this spiritual insurance policy is.

The pilgrim is protected from the dangers of the day and the dangers of the night. The middle eastern sun is very dangerous. At night out come the beasts and the bandits. It’s a way of speaking about the comprehensive dangers faced by the pilgrim. But they have nothing to fear because their God will keep them.

Where will he keep the pilgrims? He will watch over their coming and going.

How long will he keep them? Not just at the start but all the way through their spiritual pilgrimage – both now and for evermore.
Do you not find all this amazingly encouraging? The pilgrim is a protected species! As we consider all the possible enticements of the world that threaten to catapult the faithful believer to their spiritual death is it not wonderful to know that the good God who started a good work in us will carry it on until completion? Is it not truly wonderful to know that we have a God who will keep us from falling? These two phrases come straight from the NT – from Philippians 1:6 and Jude 24.

To apply this teaching I want to show you two similar phrases on the big screen.

•    The preservation of the saints

•    The perseverance of the saints

The Bible teaches both of these truths. We are to whole heartedly believe them both.

Psalm 121 is all about the preservation of the saints. That God will ensure that the true pilgrim will reach the heavenly destination. It is a truth of great comfort for the nervous and anxious pilgrim.

The connected truth is called the perseverance of the saints. How do we know who is a true believer? They will persevere to the end. They will keep on going. They will finish the race. This is a truth of great challenge to the apathetic and drifting believer.

What is it that you need to hear this morning?

Perhaps you or someone you know needs to hear the word of challenge. Don’t use the promises of God to indulge in sin and drift away from regularly meeting with God’s people and reading God’s word.

But what of this promise of God preserving his saints, Lee? Surely I can do what I like and I’ll be okay? No God will preserve his faithful pilgrims. You can only be sure you are a faithful pilgrim is you keep on walking as a pilgrim until the very end.

This doesn’t mean you are morally perfect. By no means! It means that you are always living as a trusting believer in Jesus. Forgiven by his blood and seeking to live for him.

Perhaps you need to hear this word of comfort. You are a faithful believer. You love Jesus. You love meeting with his people. But to be honest you are scared. You don’t think you have what it takes to keep going for the rest of your life. You don’t have what it takes. But remember where our help comes from. Not from within ourselves but from the Maker of heaven and earth. He has promised to preserve you until the end.

This doesn’t mean that you will never go through trials and temptations. There are all sorts of hills on our journey. Some are normal to everyone and some are specific to the pilgrim. The normal hills - people get sick, people we love seem to die too young, we get told we have a terminal illness. The specific hills – mockery and persecution.

How do we know we will keep going? God will help us. He will keep up. He will guard your soul through all these events and keep you faithful until you see him face to face. And I don’t know about you but I find that very very comforting. Let’s pray.

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