“From Where Will My Help Come?;” Psalm 121; March 16, 2014, FPC Jesup

“From Where Will My Help Come?”
Psalm 121
March 16, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01I spent this past weekend in my hometown in Ohio working on some wedding planning and enjoying a shower thrown by my best friend and her mother. It was a busy but good visit, unfortunately cut short by one of this winter’s many treacherous blizzards. My parents and I kept checking the forecast. There would be snow. It would hit my parents house. They might see anywhere from 6 to 12 inches. And so, I left a day early to get ahead of the storm, but there was still that lurking feeling, “what if the storm takes a different path?” “what if it hits when I’m in the traffic around Chicago?” “What if I need to find a hotel tonight for Bailey and me?” “What are the chances of find a pet friendly hotel last minute?” “What if I get in an accident?”

Slide02All of these “what if”s were circulating around in my brain as I set out that day. With that in mind, I certainly understand the questioning of the traveler in our passage today: “Where will my help come from?”

Slide03I made it back to Jesup safe and sound and the storm I avoided brought upwards of 6 inches of snowfall to my parents home, closing school there for two days. Like it or not, given all the information at hand, I made the right decision.

Slide04Our traveler in the Psalm today was not equipped with a GPS and hour-by-hour forecasts from the Weather Channel complete with radar map, but with prayers and blessings by the sending community.

Psalm 121 is in a very unconventional format compared to most Psalms as it is thought to be a conversation between a traveler and the traveler’s home community. This Psalm looks a bit different when we look at it from that lens:

Traveler: I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

Community: He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.

Traveler: He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

Community: The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at 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 on and forevermore.

Slide07This Psalm is a conversation, but it’s also a statement of faith. Even in the traveler’s uncertainty there is immediate affirmation of faith in God’s presence on the journey: “from where will my help come? my help comes from the Lord.” These phrases are back to back, as it almost said in the same breath. The traveler is simultaneously worried in personal circumstances and confident in our God who transcends all circumstances. There’s a beauty in the abundance of blessings offered to the traveler. While the traveler asks for help in a specific journey, a specific pilgrimage, likely to Jerusalem, the community blesses with confidence in God’s presence “keep[ing] your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” When we ask for a little, God responds extravagantly.

Traveling alone can be rather isolating, even fear laden at times when encountering inclement weather or gridlock traffic, but much more so if you’re traveling towards ancient Jerusalem. While I’m sure the traveler would have loved traffic updates from a smart phone or at the very least a guidebook with maps for water sources, he is blessed with more than supplication for the immediate needs, he is blessed with protection every hour of every day.

Slide08“I lift my eyes to the hills.” This phrase stuck out to me as I read through the text this week and the more research I read about it, the deeper this phrase effected me.

One possible reading of this text is that the hills could point to the hilltops around Jerusalem where the shrines of other gods were located. The affirmation that “my help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth,” points to a God beyond any deities that can be contained to a hillside.

Slide09Another way this text was presented was that the hilltops were a frightening place with steep paths and rock formations that robbers would hide behind. When looking to the hilltop the traveler could’ve been filled with apprehension at the unknown hazards on the road ahead.

I’ve come to understand the text in light of all of these ideas. Yes, these hillsides are created by God, but they are also home to the distracting temptations of following other Gods. Yes, God carved out the mountain, but people have used those same beautiful formations to hide behind and inflict pain on those who wish to travel that path.

If you can’t see yourself traveling up through Jerusalem, perhaps you can find yourself traveling in other ways through your life. Through places and stages of life that bring you to both the beauty of God’s providence of creation and the temptations and hurt of this world.

Slide10While Psalm 121 is cast in the Bible as the Psalm of travelers, it has been applied more widely in the thousands of years since. It can be found in hospital delivery rooms and over the cribs of babies as way to affirm God’s presence during baby’s entry into and all through this treacherous journey of life. Hospital chaplains use Psalm 121 before someone enters the operating room, traveling through the fog of anesthetic and the uncertainty of surgery.

In verses 3-4 the affirmation that God neither slumbers or sleeps is not just speaking of God’s steadfastness, but also comparing God’s infallibility to the other deities that dot the ancient Jerusalem hillside. There was a common believe among the neighbors of Israel that their gods either “slept” or died during winter months and came back to consciousness during seasons of growth and harvest. Our God who is maker of heaven and earth is not so fickle.

Slide11The maker of heaven and earthy is present in all experiences, keeping constant watch over all who travel through life. In this short Psalm God is referred to as the keeper of our lives six times! What does it mean to you to be kept by God?

Slide12What would it mean for you to believe that you are surrounded by this blessing of a community of confidence in God’s providence?

What would it mean for our world for us to be that community; to share with other the confidence we have in God’s presence in each individuals’ wilderness journey?

Slide13This season of the church calendar also has us in the midst of a spiritual pilgrimage, Lent. Lent acknowledges a time of wilderness, when Jesus went into the wilderness and experienced a time of temptation and threats of harm. In Matthew 4:1 we read: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” In a parallel account in Luke 4:1 we read, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” As in our Psalm today it’s important to recognize that Jesus did not travel into the wilderness alone, but was filled with and accompanied by the Holy Spirit.

We will experience wilderness, times of fear and temptation, but we will not go into that wilderness alone. We are accompanied by the Holy Spirit, and surrounded by abundant evidence of the God who made heaven and earth.

Slide14When we feel lost it is good to look to the hills for affirmation of God’s providence, but we can also find that confirmation by looking down at our feet. God made the heavens and the earth, AND God made us. God crafted together our very beings and breathed the breath of the Spirit into our lungs. God is with your every step, your every journey, your every wilderness. May you hold fast to the promise that wherever you may go “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” Amen.

“Lydia is Listening”; Acts 16:9-15; May 5, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Lydia is Listening”
Acts 16:9-15
May 5, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1A month and a half ago the world saw a new pope elected at the Vatican in Italy. The Protestant church got its start when Martin Luther, a German monk posted his 95 reasons the church needed to change to be faithful to scripture. In the 1500s French/Swiss theologian John Calvin started what became the Presbyterian Church.

When many in the world think about Christianity, we think about Europe. However, none of these things would have happened without our story that we heard today from the New Testament.

SLIDE 4 - LydiaOur New Testament passage gives us a quick story about a woman named Lydia: “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.”

Though her story is a quick two verses, it’s an important moment in the history of the church. Lydia is recognized as the very first European conversion at the start of the Church. The Vatican, the Protestant Reformation, and even Calvin’s Presbyterianism wouldn’t have come about if Paul hadn’t followed his strange nighttime vision calling him to Macedonia.

SLIDE 5 - PaulThere are some lessons to be learned from Paul, from Lydia, and from their seeming chance encounter. These lessons can teach us about our own call to share the gospel with others.

First, Paul was a very unlikely sort of follower of Christ. He tells us in scripture that he originally persecuted Christians: “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” (Galatians 1:13-14)

Paul recounts his conversion in Acts 26:12-18 “I was traveling to Damascus… when at midday along the road…I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? …’SLIDE 6 - Conversion

I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”

SLIDE 8 - Great CommissionPaul was given a very specific sort of call from God. In the familiar great commission passage at the end of Matthew 28, Jesus tells his disciples to, “go and make disciples of all nations.” However, the early church was composed primarily of Jewish people who had experienced the miracles of Christ.

SLIDE 9 - PentecostIn the account of Pentecost, the advent of the Christian church, we are told a miraculous account of a whole group of people from every nation who are overcome with the Holy Spirit and are able to understand one another even though they are all speaking in their native languages. A point that I never really picked up on in this passage is that it refers to this crowd of people as, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” (Acts 2:5) So while there was ethnic and geographic diversity in this group, there was not religious diversity. The call to reach all nations had somehow been translated into “the Jews of all nations.” So when Paul was called to follow Christ, he was called to open the eyes of both Jews and Gentiles.

Slide10Paul was a passionate man, so as impassioned as he was about persecuting Christians, he became all the more passionate about converting Gentiles to Christians once he was one.

He was brought to understand God’s plan for his life through a light from heaven, the voice of Jesus, and then later through visions in the night. His response, his willingness to follow where God led, changed the world forever.

Slide11It is incredible how God can redeem even those who seem the farthest off, and use them for the building of the Kingdom. Even now while I am talking about sharing Christ with others, do you find yourself falling asleep or looking around the room at others who are “better at sharing their faith”? If so, you are exactly who I am talking to.

Paul’s willingness is not the end to this story. Lydia’s openness to Paul’s gospel message is at least important as Paul’s willingness to follow God’s will. Though what we know about her is limited, her immediate responsiveness speaks to an even greater openness to God’s will. She gets it. She is a listener.

Slide12The verse labels her as a “worshiper of God.” In modern terms, she would be what we would call a deist, or perhaps even an agnostic. She is religiously unaffiliated, but questioning, open, and listening.

The reality is there are so many Lydias in this world. So many that are unaffiliated, that are looking for a truth to grasp onto. They’re looking for a way to connect. If we get out of our own way of the excuses of why we are not sharing our own Gospel witness with those we encounter, we open ourselves up to meeting these Lydias, and introducing them to our Savior.

More than just accept the message, Lydia is moved to respond. She immediately has her entire household baptism and invites Paul to stay at her home. She is all in, opening her home and her heart to what God would have her do.

Slide13If Paul had his own way he wouldn’t have even ended up in Macedonia to begin with. He wouldn’t have met Lydia, might not have made the effort to evangelize to Europe. Right before the passage we heard today, we are told that Paul was forbidden by the Holy Spirit to go to Asia. Like a GPS recalculating, he was constantly being pushed to try somewhere else.

It was not an easy thing for Paul to follow Christ’s call on his life. As Paul had previously persecuted Christians, he too found himself facing persecution. We read in Acts 14:2-7 that as he was in Iconium, “the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.  So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them. But the residents of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. And when an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, the apostles learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country; and there they continued proclaiming the good news.”

Slide15The important thing to notice here is that follow God’s call to preach the gospel was certainly not always easy. In fact at times it was awful and hard, but even so Paul and his companions continued on their efforts “they continued proclaiming the good news.”

God’s plan was so very different than what Paul wanted to do by his own will. While Paul tried to work his way place by place, this night time vision sent him across the ocean to a whole new area, a whole new continent.

As we seek to tell others about Christ it will be hard, and we might feel defeated from time to time, but there are Lydias in this world waiting to hear the great good news of grace, redemption, and love. If we allow ourselves to get stuck in dead ends, or defeated by those who might even hate us for our faith, we will miss out on those eagerly waiting for us to share our own experience of Christ.

Slide16I read an article this week by Presbyterian pastor MaryAnn McKibben Dana called, Christian Wanderlust: Paul, Lydia and the Holy Detour. In it she writes, “ I love the story of Columba, priest in sixth-century Ireland, who got in a rudderless boat and let God and providence take him where he was meant to be. He made landfall once, but decided to push out again because he could still see his homeland on the horizon behind him. The second place he landed was Iona, the island where Christianity touched Scotland for the first time.” She continues, challenging each of us, “How are we being called beyond our carefully-considered plans and safe assumptions into something daring, unpredictable… maybe even unprecedented?”[1]

I have to admit, as someone who likes to have a plan, a direction, and a purpose, the idea of a rudderless boat seems genuinely frightening, not to mention dangerous in all the storms he likely encountered. Opening ourselves entirely to God’s will can be a terrifying proposition, it requires vulnerability, perhaps even helplessness, but it can also change the world. May we open ourselves to what God would have us do, knowing that somewhere in your life, somewhere in your path, God has placed a Lydia, who is just waiting to respond. Amen.


[1] Christian Wanderlust: Paul, Lydia and the Holy Detour, by MaryAnn McKibben Dana http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/easter6cn/