I want to start this evening by telling you about Jan. Jan is in her mid thirties, is an extremely capable and successful personal assistant to a business executive and is the life and soul of any gathering she goes to. She owns her own home and car, has plenty of friends and is comfortably off. Jan has the lifestyle that many people aspire to.
But if you talk to Jan about her life everything is not as it seems because there is one thing that worries Jan – the future. And the reason she is worried about the future is because she knows it will bring things that she cannot avoid. She knows that the future will bring old age and she doesn't want to get old. She knows that the future will bring illness and she doesn't want to be sick. And she knows that the future will bring death and she doesn't want to die. Jan is like many other people – outwardly fearless, inwardly terrified.
Well this evening we are looking at a Psalm that was written by someone in a similar situation to Jan. He looked to the future and it terrified him. And what we are going to do is spend the next few minutes looking at how this part of God's word addresses that situation and then apply it to ourselves. And to do all that we are going to look at this Psalm under three headings: first, Our Problem; second, God's Solution and third, Your Response and we will look at those in turn now.
First, OUR PROBLEM
Have a look at verse 1:
I lift up my eyes to the hills-
where does my help come from?
If you look under the heading to this Psalm you can see that it is sub headed as 'A Song of Ascent', which means it was sung by pilgrims from around Israel as they travelled to the Temple in Jerusalem for the major festivals. The trip they had to make was hard and dangerous and the hills mentioned in verse 1 were the most daunting part of the journey, not because they were physically arduous, but because they were the place where the pilgrims were under the threat of attack by bandits and thieves. So as this Psalmist reached the hills he looked to them and felt fear. He was fearful for his safety, his possessions and even his life. Faced with this problem he was left saying to himself, 'I am terrified, where am I going to find help?'.
Earlier this week it was suggested to me by a colleague that, as I was leaving Newcastle, I might like to go up the tower here at JPC and take some photos. You may remember that on Monday it was a beautiful day and so along with Simon Price and D Child, I set off up the tower. I didn't realise two things: firstly that to get to the top you have to climb a series of wooden ladders and secondly that the ladders are almost 150 years old. If you ever go up there you will discover that the final ladder is the longest, it goes from about the floor down here to where the new lights are. Not only is it the longest it is also the least substantial and worst worn. One of our little group ran straight up this ladder, went through the trap door and was on the roof before you knew what was happening. The second person got halfway up, got cold feet and came back down again. I'll be chivalrous and not tell you who she was! And then there was me. As I stood at the bottom of the ladder for the first time I had this real sense of what it must have been like for that Psalmist facing those hills and anyone who shares a fear of climbing to a great height on a rickety Victorian wooden ladder ought able to sympathise with that! Like me if I had got on that ladder he faced a dangerous and uncertain future.
The Psalmist's situation as he looked at the hills all those years ago is a picture of the worry that many of us have as we face the future. True we don't face bandits in hills as we travel but, just like Jan, in our heart of hearts we know that we face a future that will bring things like old age, illness and death, things we just cannot avoid and we think are our biggest potential problems.
But if you read the Bible it will tell you that all those things are not, by themselves, our biggest problem. Rather it will tell you that they are just symptoms of a much bigger and more serious problem. Our New Testament reading this evening was from Romans. A little bit before the section we read this evening it says this:
… the wages of sin is death
That verse tells you what death is a symptom of – the reason we face death is because all of us have lived as if God is not there, which is all that word sin means. Death is a judgement for the way we have ignored God. And according to the Bible that judgement is our greatest problem because it separates from God. And if we truly understand what that means it ought to leave us saying the same thing as the Psalmist all those years ago: 'I am terrified, where am I going to find help?'.
So firstly that is Our Problem. But God has provided a solution.
Secondly, GOD'S SOLUTION
I guess some people may think that God's solution should be to remove the problem – so in the Psalmist's case he should flatten the hills or zap the bandits. But that is not God's way. Rather God's way of dealing with the Psalmist's problem is in verses 3-8. Have a look at those,
He will not let your foot slip-- he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD watches over you-- the LORD is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all harm-- he will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.
God's solution is not to remove the problem but to protect this Psalmist from the effects of the problem. So the Psalmist writes here that God promises to prevent him slipping on his journey and promises to watch over him as he goes through the hills.
And when it comes to our own most serious problem, the problem of God's judgement on our sin, God's solution is not to remove it because to do that would be the ultimate act of injustice allowing all human rebellion and sin to go unpunished. Rather God's solution is to protect his people through it. You'll remember Romans chapter 6 verse 23, that Bible verse I read to you earlier. It said,
… the wages of sin is death,
But it does not end there. The verse goes on to say,
but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God's way of protecting people through death is to give them eternal life through Jesus. How does he do that? Well think back to the first Good Friday almost 2000 years ago when Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem. It is by that event, which at the time looked so pointless and wasteful, that God protects his people through his judgement. Because as Jesus hung there he endured not only the horrific physical pain of crucifixion, he also suffered all the spiritual agony of God's judgement on our sin, which he gladly took upon himself. He was punished in our place and died the death we deserve. Why? So people like you and me, if we trust Jesus, can be reconciled to God and be protected safely through his judgement, just like he promises in Psalm 121.
So whoever you are, whether you are a car mechanic, primary school teacher, computer engineer, a dinner lady or even a PA like Jan and whatever you have done in the past this is God's solution to your biggest problem. And if you do not believe that is possible remember the life story of John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, which we sang earlier. Today he is known as one of the greatest hymn writers of all time. But before his conversion he lived a notoriously immoral life – he worked on the slave trading ships and was an atheist, which was something of a rarity in the 18th century. And he was a passionate missionary for his atheistic faith, always trying to destroy any Christian faith he came across. On the evening of 10 March 1748 his ship was almost destroyed by a storm on the Atlantic. For the first time he faced death and realised he was unprepared. He realised that God was a reality and that he faced judgement for all he had done, thought and said. So he began to read the Bible and discovered that its message was about forgiveness by Jesus' death and John Newton began to trust him. That hymn we sung is a testimony to his conversion and life. He was forgiven, so can you be.
That in turn means that you need not live fearing the future. Because you can live your life knowing that your biggest problem is resolved and that will make anything else that comes your way cope-able with.
So secondly that is God's Solution – to protect us the effect of our problem by the death of his Son Jesus.
Thirdly, YOUR RESPONSE
There are two possible responses to all this.
The first is to refuse this solution. As human beings, particularly as middle class westerners, we are vane enough to think that we are masters of our own destiny. We think we can solve any problem, even the symptoms of God's judgement. A couple of weeks ago I picked up a magazine in the newsagents whose main headline on the front cover promised to tell you how to, and I quote, "Look and feel young forever". The article starts with this,
Imagine a world where everyone lives to be 150 but no one looks older than 40. It sounds like a vintage episode of Star Trek but according to Dr Ronald Klatz we're on the cusp of turning science fiction into science fact. He believes we could soon have an 'ageless' society where chronological age has little meaning.
Dr Klatz is quoted as saying,
"… [it is an] attempt to use technology to bridge the gap to immortality. This is about living as long as possible… and that means a young mind in a youthful body for 150 years and beyond."
I don't know what you make of all that but even if all the technology Dr Klatz believes will be developed works it still cannot give what this front page promised – immortality, looking and feeling young forever. None of it can solve the symptom of death, let alone its underlying cause. And yet so many of us run after the things offered in magazines like this, ignoring the solution that God has provided for us. That is the first possible response – to refuse God's solution.
The second response is to simply accept God's solution. That is what the Psalmist did – look at verse 2,
My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He faced this terrifying situation and accepted that the only way he could deal with it was to trust God. And when it comes to God's solution to our problem of death that is all we need to do as well – simply trust Jesus and his death on the cross in our place. That is all it means for you to accept God's solution. I wonder if there are people here who know that they do not trust Jesus at the moment and that they need to do that now?
However I am aware that the majority of us here do trust Jesus and we need to continue to live out the consequences of accepting his solution. When I look at myself and as I look at our Church as well I know that perhaps the greatest weakness in our Christian life together is that too often we don't live as if the Lord does "watch over us… both now and for evermore". So having read this Psalm I have had to ask myself what do I need to change to live more like I believe that is true. I imagine that is something many of us need to do as well. Perhaps the reason we are not the people or the Church we ought to be is because together we don't live out the logical consequences of serving the God we read about here. Each one of us should be living riskier lives for Him, confident that he is looking after us.
I had better finish. From this Psalm we have seen three things:
1) Our Problem – which is God's judgement on our sin;
2) God's Solution – to protect us from it by the death of Jesus; and
3) Our Response – which is either to accept or reject God's Solution.
At the start this evening I told you about Jan and her fears for the future. If she were to read and understand Psalm 121 none of her potential problems would go away but she would know that whatever came her way, God would see her through it, even his judgement. I wonder if you have that kind of confidence as you face an uncertain future?