Life can be extremely painful. You don’t need me to tell you that. Life is full of difficulty.
All of us face challenges and difficulties. Sometimes massive. Sometimes smaller. But we’ve all stood and looked into the week ahead, or the year ahead, and thought to ourselves: This is going to be a tough one. Who’s going to get me through?
Maybe it’s the prospect of redundancies at work. Or of having a secure job with unrealistic expectations. Tensions in the family. Health problems, in you, in someone you love. Friends who have let us down, or broken our hearts. As a church here, we face another year and a half minimum without a church hall. So we look into the week ahead, into 2017, and we wonder: How will I get through?
The Bible is a library of 66 books, and one of them is the book of Psalms. It’s a collection of songs and prayers for the people of God. Some for the joyous moments, some for the tough times, and all sorts of other ones. And Psalm 121 starts with someone looking out at the mountains. “Where does my help come from?”, he asks
We don’t know what it is about the mountains. For a traveller they’d be particularly dangerous – robbers or wild animals can hide there. Or perhaps the mountains are a place of safety on a journey – somewhere to shelter, less exposed. Someone who lived in Jerusalem might look at the mountains that surround the city, natural defences against invasion. We’re not told.
But many of us have stood outside, and looked up a range of hills, and pondered. And this writer is looking and pondering. “Where does my help come from?”
Where will your help come from? And mine? And ours as a church? What will get you through life? Or through the week ahead?
The rest of the psalm gives the answer really quite clearly. “My help comes from the Lord.”
This psalm is designed to lead us in prayer, to take the difficulties of life, and to bring them to the Lord God in prayer. It leads us to trust him, through those times when our lives go through mountainous terrain, but not just in those tough times. God is our helper. Our keeper. The one we should entrust our lives to.
And what I want to do this morning is show us three truths about God that are in this psalm. Three truths about God that will help to draw our hearts to him in trust.
God the maker
First, God is the maker. God the maker.
That’s right there in verse 2: “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” Heaven and earth – in other words, he made everything.
The ancients had different gods for different territories. One god for the sea, one for the crops. A goddess of love, a god of wine, a god of the hunt. Or it’s geographical. This kingdom has one god, that kingdom another. So you parcel the world up – the middle East can be Allah’s; Western Europe can be for the Christian God, and so on.
The trouble is, if you had a “god of the sea” and a different “god of war”, they might want different things. Neither of them is all powerful. At any time, there’s a risk that one god might want something, but be unable to deliver it because another god is successful in standing in his way.
Psalm 121 puts its trust in God precisely because he’s not just the god of some little bit of planet earth. Being God is not about purchasing a franchise, your territory defined by the postcode. The God of the Bible is “the Maker of heaven and earth”. That’s a way of saying what’s up there, and what’s down here, and everything else in between. Everything.
But which God is that? We’ll see that this psalm tells us, but in the New Testament, this gets very specific. Jesus is the God who is the maker of heaven and earth. The Lord Jesus is the God who made everything.
Which means that nothing is beyond his grasp. None of the problems you will face are too powerful for God. I realise that things happen to you that leave you baffled: How could God allow that? But if God made everything, that totally rules out that it was because he was not able to stop it.
“I lift my eyes up to the mountains.” And I think: These mountains are big. And heavy. And strong. And ancient. The God who made these and put them here has to be a God who can look after me. If he did that, the problems I face surely won’t be too big for him.
In 1818, Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein. It tells the story of a young scientist called Victor Frankenstein. He made a thinking, living being out of an assortment of spare parts. It went wrong, as the monster he had created became too powerful for Frankenstein to control. The monster says this to Frankenstein: “You are my maker, but I am your master.” He’d made a monster he couldn’t control.
Jesus hasn’t done that. He’s the maker of heaven and earth. So he’s in control of heaven and earth, the mountains and the sea, the day and the night. Nobody ever entrusts their life into the hands of Jesus, only to find that he’s unable to look after them, that life has outwitted him, that your life is too complicated and too knotty for him to honour your trust.
God the maker.
God who never sleeps
Second, God never sleeps. God never sleeps.
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 or sleep.”
He doesn’t slumber. You’ll never find him dozing. Nodding off. Struggling to stay awake.
And he doesn’t sleep. He never succumbs, falls fast asleep, has a break.
He’s always awake. Always alert. Always watching and protecting.
Which means we can sleep. Psalm 3, verse 5, says this: “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.” It’s quite alright to go to sleep. You don’t have to keep a constant watch on everything, because when you sleep God is still wide awake. He’s got his eye on the ball.
A solo flight around the world is much harder than doing it with two of you. If there’s two of you to sleep, you take it in turns to sleep. Someone else is at the controls, so you can have a snooze. If it’s just you, you have to be careful. Nobody else is looking out for you, keeping you safe.
In Mark chapter 4, Jesus calms a storm. Jesus and his friends are in a boat on Lake Galilee and a violent storm blows up. All Jesus has to do to calm the storm is to speak to it. He simply tells the wind and the waves to stop making such a fuss, and it all calms down.
But do you remember what Jesus was doing before he calmed the storm? He was sleeping. Fast asleep in the back of the boat. The disciples are furious. How can he sleep? Doesn’t he care? The answer is that he doesn’t need to be awake. He knows that God the Father is in heaven, and he’s wide awake. Jesus can have a good nap, because he knows that God his Father is fully in control.
On 9th November, a tram derailed near Croydon, and 7 people were killed. Various agencies are still investigating what happened, but apparently one line of enquiry was to establish if the driver fell asleep at the controls, or blacked out. No investigation will ever bring those seven people back, but it’s important to learn the lessons.
How awful it would be if God nodded off at the wheel at the universe. This is far heavier. Far more people on board than on one tram. You couldn’t have God grow a bit weary, and it becomes too much to concentrate on all the complexities in life on earth. Fortunately, he doesn’t. He neither slumbers nor sleeps.
When I used to work for an investment bank, the guy in charge used to have great difficulty getting some of the staff to take a holiday. They each had investments they were responsible for. Their annual bonus would be based on how well their particular portfolio did. The trouble is, if they take a week in the Canaries, what happens if there’s some big event while they’re away? Decisions have to be taken to buy, to sell, to leverage, or whatever it is. Yes, a colleague would look after their portfolio for them. But it felt far too risky to be away, not to be watching over things.
How easily we treat life like that. There are so many things to worry about that we almost don’t dare go to sleep. 5 minutes of inattention could be disastrous. Well that’s the second truth in this Psalm: God never sleeps.
God watches over his people
Third, God watches over his people. God watches.
This is the whole point of the psalm. The word for “watching” or “protecting” or “guarding” comes six times in this Psalm. It’s a key word. This is what the whole prayer is about – God the watcher.
Let me show you those 6. Verse 3: “He who watches over you will not slumber.” Verse 4: ”He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” Then verse 5: “The Lord watches over you.” And then they come in a quick volley in verses 7 and 8, one of which has been translated as “keep”: “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.”
Do you get the message? God is watching over his people.
And notice two things about the way God watches over his people. Firstly, it’s personal. Verse 4 – this isn’t just any old god. It’s the God who “watches over Israel”. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Israel didn’t do a great job at living as the people of God, but one Israelite did – the Lord Jesus Christ. This is talking about his God. And the God of all who follow Jesus, who are part of the new Israel. It’s personal – this God is watching.
But this God is watching over you. The word for “you” in this psalm is consistently singular. Not just you, the masses, but you. You the individual. Yes, you! “He who watches over Israel,” verse 4, is the same God who “watches over you,” verse 3.
But it’s also total.
Verse 3 – he looks after your feet. Verse 5 – he looks after your head. And all the rest of you as well.
Verse 6: “The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.” Whether it’s 3pm, 9.15 in the morning, or 7 o’clock in the evening, God is looking after you.
Verse 8: “The Lord will watch over your coming and going.” Leave the house to go to work, come home at the end of the day, on holiday: God is watching.
And verse 8 ends with the words: “both now and for evermore”. Right now, at this moment. The rest of today. Tomorrow. Into next week, next month, next year. Into eternity. God is watching. God is keeping. God is guarding. God is protecting.
All of you, at any time of day, in any place, in any activity, at any moment in history or eternity – if you are one of God’s people, he’s watching over you.
His watching is total. His watching is personal.
Now, I know it doesn’t always feel like that. Sometimes your foot does slip. Sometimes life collapses around you. And we ask: Where had the maker gone? Had he fallen asleep? Was he no longer watching?
We have to remember that Jesus prayed this psalm. In case you’ve forgotten the story, they crucified him. God did not let Jesus’ foot slip, and yet somehow that’s compatible with execution on a Roman cross. Perhaps Psalm 23 helps us here: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” What God promises is not a life beside still waters. But in those dark valleys, even when it feels like he’s gone away, he’s still looking after us. He’ still watching.
So who’s your helper?
As you face those moments when you look ahead, and you ask the question: “Where does my help come from?”, let this Psalm gently bring you to the one who watches over Israel.
There is no better helper than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He’s the maker of heaven and earth. He will neither slumber nor sleep. He will watch over your coming and going both now and for evermore.