This psalm, as comfortable as we are with it, and as wonderful as it sounds – is difficult to buy into in our present reality. In a Coronavirus world, where fear is as pandemic as the virus, declaring that God will be our keeper seems more than a bit naïve.
The Lord will protect you from all evil; God will protect your very life.[a] 8 The Lord will protect you on your journeys— whether going or coming— from now until forever from now.
What does that even mean in a world where we have to stay 6-15 feet away from other people to be relatively safe from contagion? The Lord won’t be a barrier if we have to share the same aisle with someone in the pharmacy or grocery store! What does Psalm 121 have to say to US?
Danger in the hills
The hills around Jerusalem harbored dangers. These weren’t the gentle Appalachians – they were ominous terrain where bandits lurked, violent gangs hid from the authorities, and heat and sun provided natural threats. The hills were the place where the threats came from. The psalmist is looking up at the hills and is afraid. The question is, “I’m travelling this dangerous road – where will my help come from?”
Danger of hills. (John Wayne voice) “There’s danger in those hills, pilgrim.” Psalm 121 was originally a psalm written for pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem to say along the way. They would look at the hills ringing around the city in the distance and be aware – very aware – of the perils of the journey. Those hills sheltered criminals and bandits who would spring out at travelers to rob them – as in the story of the Good Samaritan. The traveler was robbed and beaten and left for dead-- and no one wanted to stop and check on him in case it was a lure to victimize THEM. The hills were the source of danger.
Danger of roads. Stumbling and safety on the roads was another hazard. The roads actually STILL aren’t good. They are winding and bumpy – with signs warning of falling rock and even occasional boulders in the road. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was hazardous enough in 2020 to have several of our group praying for the bus driver, and applause at the end of the mountainous stretch – and that was 2000 years later in daylight. The concern for stumbling and injury on the way in the time of the psalmist was real.
Sun, heat and darkness. There is not much shade on those pilgrimage roads either. The sun beat down hard enough in the winter to have us shedding layers as we descended towards sea level and below. In the summer it would be brutal. The dangers of darkness, of not being able to see where you were going, included ravines and fissures in the packed dirt roads caused by runoff in the rainy season.
There were good reasons for someone on a journey to Jerusalem to be afraid: bandits, personal injury due to stumbling, heat and sun and darkness. And so the psalmist cries out in fear, “I need help! Where will my help come from?”
It’s been real.
Life is complicated, confusing and hectic. We could add PERILOUS in Coronavirus world. It was probably always so, but seems exceptionally so today. We have to work harder to carve out time and space for important things because the pace of life is faster, and the demands of instant and incessant communication threaten to overwhelm us. God understands.
Disciples. The Disciples experience this sense of “the world too much with us” (William Wordsworth)[i] in the stories in the sixth chapter of Mark. While the Gospel of Mark has a great deal of urgency throughout, this chapter seems to have more. At the start of the chapter, Jesus goes to Nazareth to teach and heal in his hometown – and they don’t want anything to do with him. They reject him – and run him out of town. That must have hurt. He couldn’t help the people he counted as his own. But his feeling of urgency to help, to heal, to teach is real – so he sends the disciples out to spread the word of God’s love and heal and cast out demons. He also warns them that not everyone will want to hear them out – and to just let those places go. “Shake the dust off of their feet and move on.” Meanwhile, John the Baptist is killed. It was so senseless from our point of view. This prophet was killed because he spoke out against adultery, and a powerful man wanted to indulge a pretty girl. While Jesus is grieving, the disciples return and can barely report on what they’ve done because of interruptions – so Jesus suggests they go away to a quiet place. Oosh. That’s a lot going on in the storyline.
The ministry gig. There’s a lot going on inside the disciples too. They’ve been out doing ministry. That a very different gig from fishing, or even tax collecting. With fishing, you take out the boat with your crew, and drop nets and haul fish into the boat. Then you repeat that until the boat is full and you head to shore to unload. It’s hard work, certainly --- but not emotionally stressful. Ministry, on the other hand…
We know a few things about what they’ve been doing. They have been continuing Jesus’ work – a taste of what is to come when he is no longer with them. They have been teaching the same message that Jesus has about the kingdom of God. That didn’t actually play so well in Nazareth…perhaps it didn’t play well in other towns either. And they’ve been healing. We don’t know a lot about their healing – but Jesus said in one story that he felt the power going out of him. Evidently, healing took power from the healer and transferred it to the patient to be healed. PLUS they’ve been casting out demons. That isn’t something we normally talk about in church – but the consensus is that it is exhausting to wrestle with evil. These activities are not what the disciples were used to. And emotionally and physically draining. AND They didn’t get to fully report their experiences to Jesus, who could help them sort through things.
Unlike most of the story of Jesus’ ministry, for this little while they weren’t bystanders, or even Jesus’ companions on the journey – they were thick in the middle of the ministry demands and needs – doing the work of Jesus and feeling completely inadequate to the needs.
“It’s been real…” that was the answer a friend gave to how things were going, or how he was doing. “It’s been real…” maybe really challenging, maybe really wonderful, maybe really intense. But his answer was always, “It’s been real.” And it was true – always. Life is real. Primary election drama real. Family needs real. Falling in love real. Coronavirus real. Life is real – and God understands this.
From fear to faith
The Psalms function, and scripture more generally often functions, to reorient us – to turn us around a bit so we head in a new direction. Scripture changes our perspective, or corrects our vision. It helps us see things differently.
In Psalm 121 this happens with a shift from fear of the hills, fear of danger, to faith in God who is powerful and a protector. The first verse states the problem: Danger is in front of me – where will my help come from. The rest of the psalm provides the answer and an elaboration on the answer. “My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.”
And the elaboration:
God will not let your foot slip – God protects the traveler on the path. And God will not fall asleep – but will be vigilant in protecting, never sleeping.
The LORD is your protector – the shade beside you to protect from the danger of the sun and moon and will protect you from all evil.
The LORD will protect you on your journeys, going or coming, forever.
The LORD is a keeper against all evil. Psalm 46.1 refers to God as “a very present help in time of trouble.”
This Psalm, as well as the stories of the gospel, serve to remind us who God is. God is the protector. God is our keeper. God is the one who holds our lives in God’s hand. We need that reminder because we tend to focus on ourselves and talk to God with a list of wishes, or a set of problems. The Psalm doesn’t have a lot of concrete answers – but it does say God journeys with us. God watches over us.
But what good are these assurances? God is unlikely to keep us from contracting the Coronavirus. God doesn’t prevent us from getting cancer or influenza. God doesn’t relax us so we don’t get heart disease or hypertension. That isn’t how God works. Healthy diet and exercise do a lot to prevent stress and hypertension. Washing hands and preventing exposure seem to be the “keepers” for this pandemic.
So how is God our “keeper”? We have to think ultimately here, I think. Consider the traveler in the story with the Good Samaritan. He was just going about his business when he was set upon, beaten and left for dead. On a physical level, God didn’t keep him from harm. But God was nudging folks to act on his behalf. It’s very disappointing that the rabbi and the Levite resisted God’s nudges. But Hooray for the Samaritan, who responded to God’s nudges and the man’s need. He stopped and cared and saved the man’s life. Following God means that sometimes WE are the way God keeps others. We ARE our brother and sister and neighbor’s keepers.
One contemporary song says it this way:
Standing in Your Love – Josh Baldwin When darkness tries to roll over my bones When sorrow comes to steal the joy I own When brokenness and pain is all I know Oh, I won't be shaken, no, I won't be shaken [Chorus] 'Cause my fear doesn't stand a chance When I stand in Your love My fear doesn't stand a chance When I stand in Your love My fear doesn't stand a chance When I stand in Your love! [Bridge 1] And there's power that can break off every chain There's power that can empty out a grave There's resurrection power that can save There's power in Your name, there's power in Your name There's power that can break off every chain There's power that can empty out a grave There's resurrection power that can save There's power in Your name, power in Your name! [Chorus] My fear doesn't stand a chance When I stand in Your love My fear doesn't stand a chance When I stand in Your love My fear doesn't stand a chance When I stand in Your love![ii]
In the most ultimate sense: our lives are always in God’s hands. St. Paul said it well: 8 If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God. (Romans 14, verse 8). No matter what happens, no matter where we go, no matter if we live or die – we belong to God.
So those hills around us, or whatever is in our path, will still be scary. Life is real… and our problems are not small. But in the middle of the problems – no matter what-- we stand in God’s love, and God is with us – our ultimate keeper. That might just banish quite a bit of the fear. God is bigger and stronger than disease, financial problems or even death. We don’t face any of those problems alone. We have God – and we have each other. Thanks be to God.