Psalm 121: Faithís Line of Sight

November 29, 1998

I donít like where I am, but I canít wait to get where Iím headed.

Those words could come from the mouth of practically anyone ó at some point in his or her life: a student taking final exams of the senior year, a woman in labor, or an athlete going through rehab on his knee after surgery to repair it.

I donít like where I am, but I canít wait to get where Iím headed.

You can even imagine these same words coming from biblical characters: Noah in a crowded floating boat that smelled of animals for a year and ten days, Daniel in a pit filled with angry lions, or Paul in a prison dungeon at Rome awaiting execution.

I donít like where I am, but I canít wait to get where Iím headed.

Why, I can even imagine Jesus saying that ó Friday night and all day Saturday, when he was in Josephís borrowed tomb!

I donít particularly like where I am, but Iím trying hard to focus on where Iím headed!

Perhaps that is what you need to need permission to say today. The feigned and phony notion that Christians are always supposed to accept and affirm whatever happens to us is simply false. The even sorrier notion that everything that happens to us is somehow Godís will or sent by him to achieve a noble purpose in our lives is something I also reject with all that is in me. Godís sovereign power is sufficient to turn the worst of things into something good (cf. Rom. 8:28), but that is a far cry from affirming either that he has caused everything that happens or that everything that happens is good.

Some days are long and difficult, and some circumstances are outrageous and painful. On those days, it is better to be honest and admit how tough the challenge is. And sometimes the best thing you can do in those times is to raise your line of sight from todayís obscenity to tomorrowís anticipation. Those are the days to read the following words from Psalm 121:

I lift up my eyes to the hills ó
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth (vs. 1-2).

Unto the Hills


Psalm 121 is a traveling song. It is one of the "Songs of Ascents" found from Psalm 120 through 134. Pilgrims going up toward Jerusalem ó and anyone traveling toward the Holy City biblical literature was "going up" to the hill and house of the Lord, no matter the sea-level altitude of his point of beginning ó sang these songs to make their journey more lighthearted and to keep them focused on their reason for the trip.

Most people who come to our beautiful Middle Tennessee area talk about a feature that some of us take for granted ó the peaceful, rolling hills of the countryside. And those of you who have traveled to Colorado can attest the majesty, power, beauty, and serenity of its towering, snow-capped peaks.

One of you told me about a church you visited in Colorado that is framed by the mountains that rise behind it. You even photocopied a postcard from the church that features this line: "The mountains shall bring peace to the people." The same God who keeps the mountains from crumbling keeps his people from falling to pieces in our darkest hours.

Some scholars think this psalm may have been sung antiphonally by ancient pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. It is not difficult at all to imagine a group of pilgrims singing Psalm 121, with the odd-numbered verses in the four couplets raising questions whose answers came back in the even-numbered ones. It certainly works well when read that way.

As the men, women, and children moved along the road toward Jerusalem, they could look at the hills along the way negatively or positively. That is, on the one hand, they could see the hills as hiding places for bandits; looking to the hills would be a furtive, defensive, even frightened glance toward their fears. On the other hand, they could let the hills remind them of Godís towering presence around them and see the hills along their way as places of refuge and signs of reassurance.

A lady with whom I spent some time last week asked me what she could do about her sense of sadness and depression. We talked for a while about her situation and the treatment she was receiving from her physician. I tried to help her understand that the root of depression is sometimes genetic and chemical, not a matter of choice or simply a "poor attitude" toward life. So I encouraged her to take the medication she had been given. Medicine can be a gift from God ó whether penicillin or anti-depressants ó and the means by which he answers prayer. But I also encouraged her to realize that no one but she could choose the direction of her gaze. And what does "the direction of her gaze" mean?

In his great spiritual allegory Pilgrimís Progress, John Bunyan paints a word picture of a character "who looked no way but downward." The poor man was groveling on his knees in the dirt and filth, working constantly with a rake, trying to unearth some priceless treasure that would enrich his life. All the while, a bright diadem was in reach just above him. Bunyan summarized the tragedy of his plight in these words: "There stood One over his head with a celestial crown in his hand, and proffered him that crown for his muck rake; but the man never looked up as he continued gathering to himself the straw, the small sticks, and the dust of the floor!"

There are some people whose mental and spiritual health could be improved significantly by adjusting the direction of their gaze. Those who tend always to see the dark and dreary side of life would do well to adopt a healthier view of things. Yes, there is such a thing as a sappy, naive, unrealistic optimism. But that opposite extreme is not the only alternative to hopelessness! There is a balance of realism about life and confidence in God that makes one a functional human being in a stressful world.

Taking Eternity Into Account


But there is something far more important still than keeping a tether on your daily attitude toward lifeís stresses and believing that God will help you deal with whatever curve balls you are thrown. Christian faith has a line of sight that takes eternity into account. If we are authentically rooted in our heavenly citizenship conferred through Jesus Christ, we can deal with anything that happens here.

Writing to ethnic Jews who were facing persecution for having embraced Jesus as their Messiah, a Spirit-guided teacher gave them this counsel: "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (Heb. 12:2-3).

Jesus took eternity into account in dealing with the shame, opposition, and death forced upon him. The writer of this text encouraged his readers to fix the eyes of their faith on him in his heavenly glory for the sake of enduring the things that lay ahead for them. Are you and I to expect no challenges? Is it unfair for us to be tested? Is it unreasonable that people of faith will have to resort to faithís unique line of sight in order to cope with our most agonizing situations?

Eight centuries before the birth of Christ and extending over a period of 50 years, Isaiah prophesied to the people of Judah and Jerusalem. He lived during Sennacheribís siege of Jerusalem and prophesied of the deliverance Yahweh would bring to his people (Isa. 36-37). He nevertheless predicted a period of exile in Babylon (Isa. 39:5-6) ó an exile that would indeed come to the Southern Kingdom, Judah. With his prophetic foresight into what lay ahead for that nation, he urged those who would endure so terrible a fate to utilize faithís line of sight and to look beyond their coming troubles to their Sovereign Lord.

Why do you say, O Jacob,
and complain, O Israel,
"My way is hidden from the LORD;
my cause is disregarded by my God"?
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint (Isa. 40:27-31).

Godís Protection


The language of Psalm 121 parallels this beautiful text from Isaiah. It is an assurance of Godís faithfulness as the watchman over his people. He is alert ó i.e., he "will neither slumber nor sleep" (v. 4). He is the great protector of his people ó i.e., he is a "shade" to keep the sun and moon from harming them (v. 6). He is always there for those who turn to him ó i.e., "the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore" (v. 8).

These promises can be understood correctly only from the perspective of eternity that has already been identified in this sermon. Shall we hear the promise that "the Lord will keep you from all harm" (v. 7a) as a promise of no sickness, no financial reversals, no problems? Hardly! Verse 1 already acknowledges the real presence of difficulty and cries out to God for help. This writer knows the story of righteous persons such as Job and Moses ó men who suffered though they were near to God.

Far from the promise of a challenge-free, discomfort-free, wound-free existence, the promise of this pilgrim song is that the Lord will not allow his people to be destroyed by their challenges, discomforts, and wounds. Through whatever may happen in your life, God will provide the support, guidance, and restoration necessary to bring you safely to his Holy Mountain. Whatever you need to survive Earth for the sake of Heaven will not be withheld from you.

After enduring some terrible adversities, a Spirit-filled saint was asked by a friend how he could maintain not only his faith but his positive spirit through his ordeal. He said, "Suppose someone sent me on an important journey and warned me that I would come first to a dangerous crossing over a river and then to a forest filled with wild animals. I would feel a sense of satisfaction when I actually encountered those obstacles. They would prove to me that I was traveling the right road. The same is true in this Christian journey I am taking. The Lord told his followers that they could expect tribulations in this world. So when difficulties come, then, I find encouragement. They reassure me that I am walking the narrow path of Godís will."

Conclusion


Robin Jones composed "A Parable of Godís Perspective"1 in which a fellow named Bert is allowed to look down from heaven into human experience. Aghast at some of the things he saw, he asked God, "How can you allow it? Look what evil is setting in motion down there!"

"Thereís no one better than the devil for creating a tragedy like that!" God said.

"But God, that man is one of your people . . . oh, that poor man!"

"I gave the freedom to choose between good and evil," God said, his face sad. "No matter what they choose, they all live there together. Sometimes, those who choose my way are impacted by those who donít." He slowly shook his head. "Itís always painful when that happens."

"But those people right there have no choice," Bert protested. "Evil is being crammed won their throats! That isnít a choice!"

"Now, Bert," God said patiently, "have I ever let pain go unavenged?"

"No . . . no, but . . ." Bert cringed from the sight, unable to bear any more.

"Watch!" God put his arm around Bertís hunched shoulders and turned him again. "Look right over there, by the wall."

"That one? He looks nearly dead. Is he praying?"

"Ah, Bert, you should hear his prayers!" Intense love flashed in Godís eyes like lightning. "Simple prayers from an aching heart. This is triumph over evil. Trusting me ó that is the choice." God smiled through sparkling tears of love. "Isnít he magnificent?"

Together they stood in silence, and Bert began to see as God did.

"Now watch this, Bert." God spoke softly, never letting his eyes leave the scene. He called for Michael and the archangel appeared.

"Go down and get him, Michael." The tears of divine joy spilled over. "Iíll arrange the party."

Donít like where you are today? Just remember where youíre headed! Faithís line of sight gives you clearer vision on everything.


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1 Quoted in Alice Gray, More Stories for the Heart (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, Inc., 1997), pp. 270-271.



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