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Sermon for 12 March 2017


Psalm 121

What kind of God?

At the moment, as we wend our way through Lent, we are focusing on the Psalms. Each Sunday, it’s the psalm for the day that we are preaching on, as well as sending out our daily Psalm Summaries, which try to capture the heart of the message of the psalms in 140 characters.

And last week I said a bit about the Psalms in general. I said that they consistently - all 150 of them - say three things:

  1. That God is creator and king. God is in charge of everything
  2. That they are very, very honest about the state of the world, and how bad things often are
  3. That God is faithful through it all. Always reliable; always there.

And I suggested that the Psalms give us two great gifts:

  1. Words to use to praise Him with
  2. Permission, encouragement and words to help us be very honest with God

And I ended with this quote from CS Lewis, The prayer preceding all prayer is. "May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.  And in a minute, I want to come back to the second part of that brilliant quote - May it be the real Thou that I speak to"

Who is the real Thou? What kind of God are we worshipping and why does it matter?

First though, let’s have a look at the psalm for this week, Psalm 121.

This is one of a group of psalms, from 120 to 134 which share the title ‘A Song of Ascents’. Nobody really knows what that means, but the suggestion is that they are songs that were used on the journey to the Temple at Jerusalem. For the Jewish people the Temple was a crucial place for their understanding of God. And traveling to the Temple for certain times of year and particular seasons of life, was a central part of their faith. And that was true for Jesus, of course. Luke’s gospel tells us that, soon after his birth, ‘When the time came for their purification’, Mary and Joseph brought him to Jerusalem to present their offerings ‘According to the Law of Moses’. It may well have been a psalm that was said over the baby Jesus as his family trekked the dangerous roads to the great Temple. And Jesus may well have gone on to say it himself as he walked towards his destiny in that same city 33 years later.

And as a Psalm for travellers, it makes sense that the psalmist opens with a question.  At a time when the hills and mountains of Israel were genuinely dangerous places, at the beginning of a journey which would take the pilgrim right into the middle of those dangers, he or she asks ‘I lift my eyes to the hills (with a sense of real fear) - who is going to help me get through them?’ Who will help me get past the robbers and the heat and precipices that await me?

Hebrew, however,  is a notoriously difficult language to translate, because it has no punctuation, so it is also possible to translate that first verse as ‘I look up to the mountains, does my strength come from there?’ And that would also make sense - because the hills around Jerusalem were scattered with altars and shrines to pagan gods and deities, and so were seen as spiritually dangerous places as well as physically dangerous ones.

Whatever the dangers facing the traveller, whether physical or spiritual, he or she is anxious. Where is my help coming from?

And that’s a question we can all relate to. Faced with dangers of one sort or another, challenges at home, struggles at work, we ask - where can I get help? Who is going to help me sort this out?

And the answer is clear; Help is going to be provided, and it will come from the Lord. But there’s a next question implied - ok, that sounds nice, but what kind of Lord? What kind of God is this that we’re talking about?

Remember at the time that there are lots of Gods out there in Israel. To say that God is going to help you doesn’t fully answer the question. The key question is What kind of God?

And that is also a crucial question for us. What kind of God are we invited to put our trust in. Because there are plenty of gods out there as well. The obvious ones - other faiths and religions, but also hidden ones. And if we’re going to put our lives into the hands of God, we had better know what He is like. What kind of God this is.

The key answer that Psalm 121 goes on to give is this: 

Who God is, is what God does. 

Who God is, is what God does.

Let me unpack that.

One way to figure out what is important in a bible passage is to look at words that are repeated. We know that from Leader speeches at Party conferences don’t we - after Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn has given their keynote speech, the reports afterwards always analyse which words they used most frequently - and almost always that’s because it is that word, or those words, that they want their audience to hear most clearly.

Well have a look at this psalm and spot the word that is used most frequently…. It’s the word Keep or Keeper. 6 times it’s used. The first three times we get phrase is He who keeps you or Your Keeper - and it would be easier if they were all translated the same, since they are all the same in Hebrew. Your Keeper. And then the next three times it’s ‘The Lord will keep you’

The word ‘keep’ here isn’t a possessive - it’s not about keeping something away from others, it’s about keeping something precious. It has the sense of caring for something, or being careful with something. It can mean to protect, to keep watch over, or to pay attention to something or someone. When you get married in church, one of the promises you make is to ‘cherish’ one another - more than simple taking care of, to cherish is to bring out the best, to love someone for who they are, not what they do, it’s to show them off, to look after, protect and care. To keep them, we might say.

Three times we’re told that God is a keeper, three times that He will keep you.

What kind of God? A Keeper who keeps you. 

Because God is a keeper, then what he will do is keep you.

At other places in the bible we see similar things. God is love, and so he loves you. God is forgiving, and so he forgives you. God is faithful, and so he keeps faith with you. 

Who God is, is what God does.

Why is that so important?

We live in a world which longs for leaders with integrity and authenticity, but sees, wherever it looks, leaders who say one thing and do another. Politicians who make promises that they do not keep; Bosses who offer the world, and deliver only scraps; Celebrities who portray themselves as perfect but who fail and fall before us. 

We long for leaders who do what they say, but we find instead dishonesty, hypocrisy and manipulation. 

And perhaps we see something similar when we look in the mirror. We like to think we’re good and generous and kind - and sometimes we are - but if we’re honest with ourselves, we often aren’t. We talk a good game, but we mess up so often. We get it gloriously right one day, and shockingly wrong the next. We’re fickle, changeable and inconsistent.

Not so with God. 

Who God is, is what God does.

There is no difference at all between who he is, and what he does. He never gives in to that little thought that says - ‘nah, I can’t be bothered today.’ He never runs out of love or patience or gentleness. He never exhausts his capacity for redemption, forgiveness and grace. Who he is, is what he does. 

And here’s the really good news. That means that he is entirely trustworthy. Because he won’t change. He’s no less God when we believe in him wholeheartedly than when we find faith really difficult. He’s no less forgiving when we mess up horribly, than when we’re at our very best. He won’t change because we can’t be bothered. We can’t change him, bribe him or wheedle him into doing differently. He doesn’t have mood swings and his energy doesn’t drop. He doesn’t disappear for a couple of days while he deals with something else or has a break. Who he is, is what he does.

God is your keeper and he will keep you.

The prayer preceding all prayers is. May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to

Who is the real Thou? What is God like? God is your keeper and he will keep you.

Wherever you go, whatever you do, however it feels; Because who God is, is what God does.


Posted: 12-03-2017 at 19:52
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