Monday, September 20, 2021

Lockdown Devotional -- Psalm 121



What do you do when you can’t manage, when things get too hard? How good are you at asking for help when you need it? Everybody’s different, aren’t they? We’ve all met people who would cheerfully sit back and let everyone else do everything for them. Equally, there are many people who will never admit to having any need at all. Most of us are somewhere in between, or, more likely, we know how to ask for help in some areas of life, but not others.

When I was in primary school (and maybe I’m showing my age here!) we learnt a poem called Gordon’s Creed, by Adam Lindsay Gordon, which said (in part):

“Question not, but live and labour
Till yon goal be won,
Helping every feeble neighbour,
Seeking help from none

I think this reflects something in the Australian psyche: a pride in our self-sufficiency, a disdain for not being personally strong enough. There is a certain self-contempt for the weakness of not standing on your own two feet. Yet the truth is that we are all human, and we are not all-powerful or all-wise. We are fragile, we are mortal, and nothing in this world is certain. All of us need help at some point. If we don’t admit our need and look in the right place for help, we end up looking in the wrong place, and clinging to things that can’t really help us at all. So where do we find the help that we really need?

The Psalmist asked the same question in Psalm 121:

 I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in
    from this time forth and forevermore.

It is worth noting that this psalm is one of the “songs of ascents” – psalms that were traditionally sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for one of the great feasts of the Jewish calendar. Jesus and his disciples would have sung these psalms on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover.

If you’re like me, you look at the first line of the Psalm, and wonder why he’s looking at the hills. It seems an odd place to start, but scholars suggest 3 possible reasons, and I think there is something we can learn from each of them:

1.      He is gazing at the wonders of creation and is reminded of the Creator. Surely the one who is powerful enough to make the universe, (including these towering hills), and so glorious that he makes them awesome, and so loving that he makes them beautiful; surely this God is one we can utterly depend on?

2.      The Old Testament makes frequent reference to the “high places”.  These were hilltop shrines to pagan idols where the Israelites would sneak off to worship the Canaanite gods even if they also brought their sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem. But you can’t have an each way bet with God. As Joshua said long ago to the Israelites (Joshua 24:15) “Choose this day whom you will serve!” We all have to choose our allegiance: shall it be the gods of this world or the Creator of heaven and earth?

3.      The hill country which one had to pass through to get to Jerusalem was a dangerous area. Robbers lurked in the caves on the cliffs, and so did wild beasts. The Psalmist looks up and sees the dangers ahead of him but presses on because he has put his trust in God’s protection.

And God is our help and protection. He is our solid ground, our rock our foundation; if we stand on him our foot will not slip (verse 3). He watches over his children continuously, he neither slumbers nor sleeps (verse 4). You may recall the story, in 1 Kings 18, when Elijah had a showdown on Mt Carmel with the prophets of Baal, to see which god would respond by sending fire from heaven. When the prophets of Baal prayed for hours with no result, Elijah mocked them by suggesting that perhaps their God had gone to sleep. Not so with our God, he watches over us constantly, so we can sleep with confidence.

And the God who keeps us is “the shade on your right hand”, we are under the shadow of his wings, as, for example, in Psalm 36:7 How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Your wings or Psalm 63:7 For You have been my help, And in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy. And our God protects us from both the sun (physical danger to our bodies such as heat, thirst and sunburn) and the moon (which was thought to be associated with lunacy, so this is about our mental and emotional well-being). And, of course, the sun and moon were almost universally associated with pagan deities, who were often assumed to put curses on people if they were not appeased, so this is about our spiritual well-being as well.

He is the God who cares for everything, for every aspect of our lives, our going out and coming in (verse 8). He stands between us and the evils that would destroy us. He is the one we can always turn to for help.

Now, none of us today are pilgrims walking up through the hill country to Jerusalem (especially while Covid travel restrictions apply!), but we, too, are pilgrims, for we are seekers after the city which is to come (Hebrews 13:14), and our true citizenship is not on earth, but in heaven (Philippians 3:20).  And we don’t do it on our own. We walk the road together, supporting one another on the journey, as pilgrims have always done. Most of all, we do it with Christ, who commanded us to “take up your cross and follow me”. And, though the journey may sometimes be hard, it is not something we need to be afraid of, for he has gone before us to make a way.

We do not need to fear that God is unwilling to help us, because the cross is the proof of how far God is willing to go for our sakes. We do not need to fear that God is unable to help us, because the resurrection is the proof that God is all powerful. And we do not fear that we need to walk alone, because he has given us his Holy Spirit to live within us, and he has promised that he will be with us always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).

So, the core issue here is: where do we look for help when we need it? Where is our security found? In ourselves? That will take us so far, but then we hit a brick wall. No human being has the power to overcome calamity on his own, let alone conquer over death and judgement. Do we find our security in having money in the bank and a roof over our heads? Jesus had something to say about laying up our treasure where moth and rust can destroy, or thieves break in and steal.

There is a better way. The writer to the Hebrews put it this way (chapter 12):

Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Lockdown Devotional: John 14:1-6

Comfort for Confused disciples

If you knew that you were going to die in the next 24 hours, what things would you really want to say? What would you want people to remember? Everything you chose to talk about at that point would be what really mattered to you. I admit that I have a certain fascination with people’s dying words and what they reveal about the people who said them. Here are some examples:


“In peace I will sleep with him and take my rest” -- Monica, mother of Augustine

"Oh God, have pity on my soul. Oh God, have pity on my soul." – Anne Boleyn

"Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God's grace in England as (I trust) shall never be put out." – Hugh Latimer, one of the Oxford martyrs, about to be burned at the stake

"Only one man ever understood me. And he really didn't understand me." – Hegel, the German philosopher (hmmm)

"Build me a hut to die in. I am going home." – David Livingstone

"Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven't said enough!" – Karl Marx

"My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go." – Oscar Wilde

"Above all, I charge the leadership of the nation and their followers with the strict observance of the racial laws and with merciless resistance against the universal poisoners of all peoples, international Jewry." – Adolf Hitler

"I know this beach like the back of my hand." – Harold Holt

"Don't cry for me, for I go where music is born." – Johann Sebastian Bach


And that’s only a small sample. There are pages of them you can find online – some profound, some banal, some horrible, and some that just leave you scratching your head. Death comes to people in very different ways; and meets with very different responses. Some are prepared, many are not. Only a minority know exactly when they are going to die.


When we come to Jesus, he knew exactly what was going to happen to him, and so, the night before he died, at the Last Supper, he was trying to prepare his disciples for what was about to take place, telling them the things that they really needed to understand, and trying to comfort them in their confusion. (And, if we’re honest, all of us know how it feels to be a confused disciple at times.) Here’s a portion, from the beginning of John 14:


“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?] And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”


Yes. Their hearts were troubled. Just before this section of John, Jesus had told them that he was going away, and they couldn’t come with him. And just a little before that, he had told them that one of them would betray him. You can imagine the turmoil they were in! Despite Jesus having predicted his death to them on several occasions before, it still hadn’t added up for them. And the solution he offers? “Believe in God; believe also in me”. Yes, as pious Jews they believe in God, but now he is asking them for the same level of faith in himself. They must trust him when he is no longer physically among them, just as they trust the invisible God. His love for them will be every bit as real. He is not abandoning them, even though it might look like it; in fact, it is exactly for their sakes that he is going away. And God does not abandon his children, see Hebrews 13:5 (“I will never leave you or forsake you”), or Psalm 94:14 (“For the Lord will not forsake his people; he will not abandon his heritage”). Just because they don’t understand what he is doing, doesn’t mean it isn’t the very best thing he could do for them.


And why is he going away? He tells them that he is going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house. And that is exactly what he is doing. If Jesus had not left them, to go to the cross, the grave, and then his resurrection and ascension, neither they nor ourselves would have any place in his Father’s house. It is his death on our behalf which will make it possible for us to come where he is going. Our true home is the Father’s home, a home where there are many rooms (literally “abiding places”), room enough for all who will come. The very one who on earth had no place to lay his head has provided a place for all of us. And only after this has been accomplished can he return for them.


There is another image here as well. In those days, when a son got married, he would first build an extra room onto his father’s house. Only when it was complete would he come for his bride and bring her to the place he had prepared for her.


And they know the way to the Father’s house, even though they don’t think they do, because they know Jesus, and he, himself, is the Way. He is the only way, that is the whole point. That is why he must do what he is doing and go where he is going. There is a seemingly unbridgeable gap between who we really are in our sin and failure, and the perfection of love and joy that is in our Father’s house. Jesus is about to lay down his life to become the bridge across that chasm. He is the way. We must walk in it.


And Jesus is the Truth. We live in a relativistic age where people talk about having their own “truth” – whatever works for them – as if we were so powerful that our preferences could change reality! No, they can’t, because we are not God. Certainly, we can each make up our own religion, like choosing a selection from a smorgasbord, but there are consequences; because one day our flimsy fantasy spiritualities will collide with the solid realities of life, death, and judgement. Or, to change the metaphor, we have a choice between standing on the firm ground of truth (building on the rock, Jesus), or sinking, and eventually drowning, in the quagmire of human make-believe, which originates with the one whom Jesus called the father of lies (John 8:44).


And Jesus is the Life. He had already explained this at Lazarus’ tomb, earlier in the same gospel (John 11:25-25): “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”  Where did life come from in the first place? From God, who spoke all that is into being. We were the ones who brought death into the world, way back in Genesis 3, and the whole Bible is the story of God’s redemptive plan to restore us to life in all its fullness, lived with him for all eternity.


We all experience the darkness of confusion at some point. Just when we think that the path ahead is smooth, we get tripped up. Just when we think we’re standing tall, we get ground down. But we have a place to take our troubled hearts, to the one who has gone ahead of us, through the terrible darkness of death and hell, to prepare a place for us in our Father’s house. He is the way, he is the truth, he is the life, and he will carry us all the way home.