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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

1st Sunday of Lent, March 9, 2014

On Where to Find Help

Psalm 121; Matthew 8:23-27

             We begin this Sunday our Lenten journey with Psalm 121 as our guide and travelling companion.  This is altogether fitting as this Psalm is known as a traveler’s Psalm.  It is the second of the fifteen so-called Song of Ascents, Psalms that were sung as pilgrims made their way over the hills on their way to Mount Zion, in the heart of Jerusalem, for the great religious festivals in the Temple.  James Limburg calls Psalm 121 A Psalm for Sojourners, and I love this title, for all of us find ourselves on a journey, and at its best, the Christian life itself is depicted as a journey.  We all are on a journey, with a beginning, a direction and a destination.  John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was standard reading for everyone in England and even in early American life.  At one time most Christians in America and Britain knew this story, its characters and the trials that come to us all on our life journey.

             Jerusalem is surrounded by hills, and no matter where pilgrims might have started their journey, they would see themselves faced by mountains that needed to be crossed, hills that stood between them and their destination.  Billy and Ruth Graham always read this Psalm before every trip their family ever took.  Of course, traveling in Biblical times was far more arduous, and often dangerous.  So surveying the hills that beckoned, how fitting it would have been for pilgrims along their journey to say, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills.  From whence does my help come?”

             Karl Plank has taught Old Testament at Davidson College since 1982.  He begins his classes by reading the words of Wayne Booth: “One good reading of one good passage is worth as much as anything that is because the person achieving it is living fully in that time.”

             He commends the ancient rabbinic practice of reading Psalm 121 along with Genesis 22, where Abraham is climbing Mount Moriah with his son, his only son Isaac, reciting the opening line to the Psalm as he raises the knife to sacrifice his son.  “From whence cometh my help?” he asks.  Plank writes, “Assurance means little where no anxiety can exist….  This Psalm places a human being before hills whose beauty may encourage, but which also must include the dismay of Abraham at Moriah.  Lifting eyes to this horizon brings to one’s lips the genuine question of help and bids those who answer it to honor the anxiety of the questioning voice.  ‘My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.’  ‘But who can speak it without pause?’ the midrash replies – a cautionary word of which perhaps the psalmist, too, was aware in the silent space between question and answer.”

             We have all been in that place, haven’t we, of crying out for help, and waiting in that “silent space” for our answer?  It can be a very lonely, anxious place to be.  And some wait years in that silent space for an answer to their cry for help.

             We know at a gut level what it means to lift our eyes to the hills in search of help.  Inevitably, we have all made this cry at challenging, frightening or crisis times in our lives.  “From whence does my help come?”  Lloyd Ogilvie speaks of what he calls “the three looks” when we cry out for help.  First, we reflexively look to ourselves.  Some of us hate ever to ask for help, to admit that we need help, for it makes us feel so vulnerable, so needy.  The myth of self-sufficiency is alive and well in America, and much feeds it.  Last year football fans were shocked when Jonathan Martin quit the Miami Dolphins and filed a complaint against teammate Richie Incognito and the Dolphins for harassment and mental cruelty.  Martin is six foot five inches tall and weighs three hundred twelve pounds.  As a junior at Stanford University, he made first team All American and was an early round draft choice of the Dolphins in the 2012 draft.  National Football League football players are supposed to be tough, so when this six foot five inch, three hundred twelve pound giant of a man quit, and said, “I can’t take it anymore,” it got everyone’s attention.  It has forced the NFL to ask how far harassment and hazing of young players should go, and what ought to take place in NFL locker rooms.  It also reminds us all that every human being has limits, and that there is no shame in crying out for help.  We all do well to face the reality that we simply cannot make it on our own, or be our own gods.

             The second look Ogilvie talks about is the look to others.  Just as in the case of self-reliance, this can be healthy and positive, or it can go too far.  Sometimes we can ask of others more than they can ever deliver.  It is often necessary and good to seek help from others, to trust someone else enough to seek their counsel.  We have all been in places where life simply became too much.  We could not handle it alone.  We are wise in such times and places to seek help, to find support, and to reach out to trusted sources.  This is the whole premise of our Stephen Ministry program, and it is why good therapists and support groups can be such a blessing.  Alcoholics Anonymous literally saves lives, and the communal nature of twelve-step programs is surely part of their genius.

             But you can also expect people to do for you what no human can ever do.  No one else will ever be able to make you happy, or make you content, or give to you all the assurance you need.  And to ask more from others than they can ever give will leave you yearning, longing and feeling the ache of emptiness.  And it will wear out your friends and family.

             That is why Ogilvie says we need to take what he calls “the third look,” which is to look to God, who alone is our ultimate help and hope.  Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in Thee.”

             It takes courage and humility and honesty to cry out to God for help.  “You are dust.  From dust you have come,” we affirmed this past Wednesday night on Ash Wednesday, “and to dust you shall return.”  Vulnerability is part and parcel of being human, and we cannot escape it.  Nor should we try, for our vulnerability, our weakness, can be the very thing that might make us turn to God for help.  We are blessed to suffer the reality that we need help beyond ourselves.  For though it is an uncomfortable realization, it is a blessing to be able to live in the truth.

             This is where Psalm 121 begins.  “From when does my help come?”  The rest of the Psalm is really a response to this deeply honest human question.  But for today, hold onto this: “My help comes from the Lord.”  Psalm 46 begins, “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in time of trouble.  Therefore, we will not fear though the earth should change….”

             If God is anything, the Biblical God is help for human beings, who need more than they need anything else, the Living God.  George McDonald said, “The one principle of hell is, ‘My life is my own.’”  We belong not to ourselves, but to God.  And “God is our refuge and our strength,” a very present help in all times and all seasons.  “My help comes from the Lord…,” and so does yours!

             On March 18, 1990, two men entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of Art in Boston at night dressed in police uniforms.  They overcame the two unarmed security guards and using duct tape they tied them to chairs in the basement.  They proceeded to carry off the largest unsolved art heist of all time, stealing among other paintings Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee.  An empty frame that once held this painting hangs in the Gardner.  It is Rembrandt’s only seascape, and it is a masterpiece.  The boat is tossed on end by a huge breaking wave as the night sky is pierced by lightning that lights up the whole scene as only Rembrandt could.  There are fourteen figures in the boat, and most of them are holding on for dear life in the storm.  One is retching over the bow, many are clinging to a mast or a rope or to the side.  And in the center, a picture of poise and strength and calm, is Jesus.  Fourteen figures are in the boat – Jesus and His twelve disciples – then toward the foreground, wearing a blue cap, is a man who looks right into your eyes, holding onto the rope to steady himself.  It is none other than the artist, who put himself in the boat with Jesus.

             It is where I want to be as well, especially in the storms of life!  Put me in Jesus’ boat any day of the week.  And let me cry with the disciples, “Lord, save us; we are perishing.”  “From whence does my help come?”  “My help comes from the Lord.”  Did you hear what the self-made man said when he got to heaven?  “You know, if I had it to do over again, I’d get some help the next time!”

                                                                                     Amen.

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