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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

April 6, 2014

 Made to Last

Psalm 121; John 10

             Psalm 121 is a traveling song.  It is likely that pilgrims to Jerusalem recited this Psalm as they traveled to the three great feasts.  I will never forget a professor in seminary explaining to us the reference to “the hills.”  Most of us, in reciting this Psalm, are like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.  We think of the beauty of mountains, and we assume that the Psalmist is announcing that his help comes from the hills.  But, to our surprise, our professor set us straight.  Our help doesn’t come from the hills; our help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.  Our help comes not from what we see, but from what we don’t see.

            What about the hills?  The hills were the location of pagan shrines, “high places” that stood along the pilgrim way, reminding the Israelites of competing claims from foreign gods.  So, after the pilgrims loaded their bags and set out for Jerusalem, they faced hills that were the haunts of pagan temples.  So the pilgrims sang this song.

            I lift up my eyes to the hills.  From where will my help come?

            My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

            In late March of 1998, Anne brought Drew home from the hospital on a Sunday morning, weighing less than four pounds and hooked up to a heart monitor.  He had bouts of apnea in the hospital, which means he just stopped breathing sometimes.  We wouldn’t know it, so the doctor sent our baby home with this portable device, which looked like a big, heavy purse with wires to attach to his tiny chest.  It had LED’s on it that flashed with his beating heart and breathing lungs.  An alarm would go off if he stopped breathing.  So, the monitor was there to help us help Drew to breathe when he stopped breathing.  We were supposed to talk to him if the alarm went off, speaking to him enough to stir him.

            Now, I don’t know if you have had such an experience, but let me tell you: when you are a new parent and you bring this helpless baby home with you, and you really have no clue what to do with a healthy one, try adding the complication that the baby was born eleven weeks early, and came home at less than four pounds, and that the baby might stop breathing at any given moment, and you experience a remarkable level of anxiety.  And fear.  Dreadful fear.

            Drew’s nursery was across the hall from our bedroom, and when we would go to bed at night, I would switch off the lamp, and lean over to peer through the darkness of his room, watching that blinking red light that assured me that our baby was still alive.

            And so, it was in late March of 1998 that I memorized Psalm 121.  As helpful as that heart monitor was, for some reason it didn’t help me to sleep at night.  Only the Psalm was able to do that.  The Lord is your keeper.  The Lord is your shade at your right hand.  The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.

            Now, there is an admission that I have to make, that we all must make.  Scripture makes audacious promises.  In fact, we realize that many scriptural promises are metaphorical, definitely true but not in the normal sense of the word.  When Psalm 103 says that the Lord “heals all your diseases,” we admit that it isn’t true in the usual sense.  God does not heal all our diseases.   Jesus did, in fact, heal the diseases of many, but not of all.  And Jesus does not promise to prevent us from succumbing to disease.

            But we know that the promise is true, just as we know it to be true with all good metaphors.  Literally speaking, for instance, God is not a light, or a fortress; God does not have an arm to outstretch, an eye to keep on the sparrow, or a throne to sit upon.  But long experience has taught us that God does save, God does care for each of us, God does rule the earth in gracious power.  So we have to have some words to describe the God who is invisible to us.  We need some words to describe what God does for us beyond our ability to see.  How can I say, when I switch off the lamp at night, and all becomes dark, that I can dare to go to sleep?  The Lord is your keeper.

            Have you ever noticed that the Bible mixes its metaphors on purpose?  It switches the language just when you think you have settled on something.  For instance, did you notice that in the 23rd Psalm, there is a subtle shift in perspective?  In the first four verses, the Lord is our shepherd and we are sheep.  We walk beside still waters, we are led in paths of righteousness, we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, fearing no evil.  But then, we are no longer sheep, for we are seated at a table, in the presence of our enemies.  Our heads are anointed with oil; our cups overflow.  I have never seen a sheep drink from a cup, much less sit at a table.  But if you are like me, you have recited that Psalm your whole life without it even occurring to you.  And it doesn’t matter, because the point is that the Lord will protect you.

            In John 10, Jesus mixes his metaphors.  First, he implies that he is a trustworthy shepherd.  Then, he says, “I am the gate for the sheep.  Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

            Even Jesus searches for words adequate to express a truth that we cannot see with our eyes.  Even Jesus grasps for language that is equal to the challenge.  So Jesus uses metaphors, different metaphors, in his quest to bridge the divide between heaven and earth.  And he also uses more direct speech: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

            Never doubt the character of our God.  Never doubt that God wills for you life, and life abundant.  Never doubt that the Maker of heaven and earth is able to give you life and keep your life.  You were made to last.

            The Lord is your keeper.  As Todd has mentioned, that Hebrew word can be translated as “guard.”  You can envision a soldier standing watch on the city wall, protecting those who sleep.  But the Lord is more than a sentinel.  Just as quickly, you hear that the Lord is “your shade at your right hand.”  It is as if God has an answer for every fear that we can imagine, before we imagine it.  It is as if not even paranoia could outpace God in offering assurance that he will keep our lives.  No wonder the Apostle Paul so boldly proclaims that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus: neither life nor death, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God.

            You may wake up in the middle of the night with your mind racing, bombarded with an endless stream of fears, and God is the answer against every one.  The Lord is your keeper.  You may be unable to go to sleep in the first place, terrified about what might happen if you let your guard down.  The Lord is your keeper.  You may discover that the things you expected to give you peace don’t.  The heart monitor doesn’t give you peace.  The alarm system doesn’t give you peace.  The insurance policy doesn’t help you sleep.  Even the doctor’s word of assurance doesn’t give you peace.  Why is that?  Because we all know that life is more mysterious than what you can see and touch and hear.  We need to know something more.  We need the kind of assurance that keeps us living in the face of fear, confidently.  We need to keep living, keep loving, keep giving even though fear threatens to undo us.  We need to know that God made us to last.

            When the children of Israel were standing at the lapping waters of the Red Sea, and Pharaoh’s chariots were rumbling toward them, they nearly quit before seeing God’s salvation.  They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?  Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’?  For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”  But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the salvation that the Lord will accomplish for you today….”

            I happened to be listening to the radio on Thursday night, and heard an interview with a middle-aged singer-songwriter.  She talked about being in the midst of recording an album and being tired and needing a break, so she took a walk.  And she passed a theater and decided to go back, hoping for some easy, unchallenging, afternoon entertainment.  As it turned out, the movie was anything but.  She said people started leaving, and kept leaving, until there were just a few left in the darkness there.  And then, she said, right at the end of the film, “There’s this scene that is really redemptive, the kind of scene that makes your chest implode and you find yourself with a wet face.  And it struck me at that moment,” she said, “how often it is that we jump too soon.  We leave a project, we leave a relationship; some people (God forbid) leave their own lives when just around the corner something really glorious is going to happen.  And the point of the matter is those glorious times truly happen only in minutes, when you feel true joy.  That feeling of joy is happening only in minutes that are suspended in pedestrian years….  (By pedestrian, she means commonplace, dull.)  She goes on, though, “But what’s wrong with being pedestrian?  I love to walk.”

            There are plenty of shadows in life, fellow pilgrims.  There are hills that are the haunts of false gods making promises they cannot keep.  But you were made to last.  You can trust that your help is sure and it is near, because your help is in the name of the Lord.  He made heaven and earth.  So, don’t be afraid to walk.  And, when fear does its best to get the better of you, don’t quit too soon.  Something glorious is just around the corner.

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