Week of March 5, 2014

Todd JonesMy Dear Friends,

As you receive this, you will find yourself just on the threshold of another Lenten season. Lent comes from an Old English word, which means “lengthen,” and as the days of winter are lengthening and give way to spring, the Church has historically also marked this season of preparation and penitence as we move toward Holy Week, culminating in Easter. This year our focus will be Psalm 121, one of the most beautiful of all the Psalms, and one that sings with theological assurance and affirmation. James Luther Mays, the venerated Old Testament professor at Union Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Richmond, says, “This Psalm is an unqualified song to trust in the Lord’s help.… It identifies the Lord as one whose power in help and in blessing is unlimited by anything that is. It points to the Maker rather than to what is made.” This theme of utter dependence and trust in God in an often hostile and dangerous world is the central message of Psalm 121. It is a Psalm about who God is and how this God keeps and watches over us all our days.

Once again, as we did last year, we will be giving bookmarks with Psalm 121 printed upon them, with the King James Version on one side, and the Revised Standard Version on the other. The Psalms are poetry, and both these translations preserve the beauty and power of the Hebrew poetry better than most other modern translations. I want to issue an invitation to our whole congregation to work at memorizing this profound and utterly lovely Psalm. The Psalm speaks of life as a journey and stands as the second of the Psalm of Ascents in the Psalter (Psalm 120-134). This Psalm was likely first used by pilgrims making their way to the Temple on Mount Zion during the holy seasons and festivals of Israel. It is likely that Jesus sang this Psalm in going to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple during Passover.

God is praised as our helper in this Psalm, as the maker of heaven and earth, and above all else as our keeper, or our guard. This verb, which is translated most often as “keeper,” is repeated six times in the Psalm. While the night can be a lonely and sometime scary time when all our fears on a sleepless night can suddenly overwhelm us with anxiety, the Psalmist assures us that “He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” When I am anxious or filled with uncertainty, I have made it a practice for years to recite the words of Psalm 121. When I find myself in the wilderness, either literally or figuratively, and begin to say again, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hill — from whence does my help cometh? My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.” I feel once again the comforting, strengthening presence of God, and I find my way anew.

John Calvin was drawn to this Psalm as well, and in particular, was captured by verse 8, which concludes, “The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even forevermore.” Calvin believed in the allencompassing, exhaustive, comprehensive embrace of God’s sovereignty over all of human life. There is no movement outside of the providence of God, believed Calvin. Because of this, human beings can trust in the goodness and faithfulness of God throughout their lives, wherever life may lead. “Whatever thou shalt undertake or engage in during their life shall come to a happy and successful termination,” wrote Calvin. Whatever befalls us, he taught, “God always keeps watch for us.”

I pray that living with this Psalm in worship through Lent will help you to live with it in the rest of your life. We all need the help that is promised to us by the Psalm, a help that comes to us from God alone. Join me in allowing the beauty and power of Psalm 121 to deepen and enrich your own journey through this sacred season of Lent. See you in church!

With Love and Prayers,

Todd Jones

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