Have you ever made a house of cards? It is a tedious task and you have to be very careful at every step. As you successfully get taller, it can look like a rather grand construction project. But of course it can fall down with one false move. Or if someone comes in and purposely knocks it down. And the whole thing is destroyed.
Does your life ever seem like a house of cards? Does it feel like it could fall or has already fallen down like house of cards? Or does world feel like it is falling down like a house of cards—disasters and wicked people everywhere?
Well, there is a Psalm for that. It was one of Martin Luther’s favorite Psalms and gave him hope in difficult times. It can do the same for us. Let us take a look at it as
A Psalm of Hope for When Disaster Strikes
I. God is our fortress as the world falls apart
II. God is our fortress as the wicked fight
I. God is our fortress as the world falls apart
A. The world is falling apart
In Psalm 46 we read, “though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.” (v2-3)
Another hurricane has hit the Alabama coast and Florida panhandle with 100 mph winds, 30 inches of rain, and a 6-foot storm surge. There are more storms forming and they have already had to start using the letters of the Greek alphabet for names. Fires are ravaging the west coast. A pandemic is sweeping through the world. Many other disasters are happening all over the earth. So indeed the “waters roar and foam,” though the mountains aren’t falling into the heart of the sea just yet. It is still pretty scary.
What is happening to this world? Well, it all started when Adam and Eve chose to disobey God’s clear command. And then we hear God say, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life” (Gen 3:17). And Paul tells us, “The creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it” into a “bondage to decay” (Rom 8:20,21). Natural disasters will increase and become signs that the end is coming, as Jesus says, “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven” (Lk 21:11). We can consider Covid-19 one of those pestilences. And we can conclude:
This world is falling apart.
We note that these all came into this world because of sin, directly or indirectly. Now it would be pretty hard to point to any particular sin causing most earthquakes, though some other disasters can be traced to or worsened by sinful acts of mankind. Was the larger death toll in the United States caused by mismanagement of our government or were there larger, uncontrollable forces at work? Is our worsening weather caused by overuse of fossil fuels or are the other things happening we can’t explain? I really don’t know. Plenty of accusations are flying around as people panic and are desperate for some explanation. But no one really knows. And WE don’t need to.
B. God is our fortress in this world
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear” (V1-2). That is a lofty thought, but how does it work? In what way is God a refuge and strength?
Later in this Psalm we read,
“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day” (v4-5).
God takes his people and forms them into a city, his city, a holy place, where he dwells, where he provides pure streams of water. Through his Son and the shedding of his blood on the cross, he has purified us to be his holy people. He is pleased to live within us, to call us his own. And to protect us. That doesn’t mean nothing will ever happen to us on this earth. In fact, we will go through much tribulation. But nothing can separate us from him, nothing can truly harm us; even death itself becomes for us the door to heaven.
But this is hard to hold on to, hard to believe. So he provides streams of water to revive us, the message of his Gospel, the good news of all that he has done for us. It starts with how he created us, how he preserves us, how he saved us, how he made us his own. When we review that good news, we are revived, we are renewed in believing that he is projecting us in the midst of disasters and pestilences. It is what we gather in this church to hear and rejoice in. We conclude:
God provides us a refuge in this world.
Truth: God is our fortress as the world falls apart.
II. God is our fortress as the wicked fight
A. The world is full of wicked people fighting us and others
But it is not just storms and pestilences that attack us. The Psalmist tells us, “Nations are in uproar” (v6). Then he goes on to talk about “desolations…on the earth,” then “wars,” “the bow,” “the spear,” “shields,” all of these parts of fighting, killing, and savage acts. This is all the direct result of sin, of wicked people in this world. While this is pictured as things happening between nations, similar things happen on a more local level, in communities, even in families. People shooting each other in increasing numbers in certain areas. Things happening that make some people even afraid, whether wrongfully or rightfully, of the police who are supposed to protect them. Bombs, missiles, armed conflicts ending in casualties in many parts of the world. People feeling driven to demonstrating, even rioting, in a desperate attempt to find solutions.
Again, our Lord Jesus told us these things would happen in this sinful world. He said, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…At that time many…will betray and hate each other” (Mat 24:6-10). Even his people will be persecuted and put to death. We conclude:
The world is full of wicked people who fight us and each other
B. God breaks and protects from the fighting
But there is hope for us who trust in our God. The Psalmist writes,
“Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire” (v8-9).
Now in an absolute sense, this hasn’t happened yet. The final fulfillment of this awaits the last day, when it for sure will happen. And defeating and punishing all the wicked people in this world, namely, those who refuse to listen to the Lord, will be devastating, will cause desolations on the earth.
But when the Lord comes to rule in a person’s heart, when that person comes to believe that he is their Lord and Savior, amazing things happen. Their stony hearts are broken, they become forgiving rather than belligerent, They put down the spear and bow; they seek reconciliation rather than war. When a person accepts that they are a sinner, that God has forgiven them, that he wants them in his family and will protect them, then they no longer feel a need to fight, they can let go and let God take care of them. The Lord does that when he comes into a person’s heart; he did that when he came into your heart. We conclude:
God breaks down the fighting in his people’s hearts.
Of course this is not a perfect change on this earth. We still retain an old self that is slow to trust and slow to let go the instinct to fight; this change grows as we grow in our faith. Then there is the fact that we still live in a sinful world, full of other people who do not believe, who feel a need to fight and defend themselves. Now God will sometimes allow the wicked to inflict wounds on his people to carry out his purposes on this earth, but he will not let anything truly harm us or separate us from him. He is our fortress.
God protects his people from the attacks of the wicked
The Psalmist goes on to write:
“He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.” (V10)
There will come a time when this change will become perfect. Our Lord will return to this earth. The wicked will be consigned to hell; this will be the desolations he brings to this earth, leaving the implements of war broken on the ground and showing that the Lord is exalted. At the same time his people, confirmed in their holiness, will be gathered to live with him in heaven, in perfect harmony and peace, with him and with each other. There will also be no more disasters of disease or flood or earthquake. Just perfect peace and tranquility.
God will deliver his people from this wicked world.
Truth: God is our fortress as the wicked fight.
God said he will protect us and deliver us. We often suffer because we do not trust him enough. But he has provided the stream of his gospel to strengthen our trust.
Be refreshed by the streams of his gospel.
Through the gospel he not only strengthens us, he changes us, leading us to fight less and trust more. We can become more peaceful and at peace.
Let his gospel put you at peace and live in peace.
God is a fortress for his people in this world that is falling apart and at war. He is almighty and wants to be with us. Let us learn to trust in his protection. “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (V11). Amen.
A song for the ascents.
Before we dig into the Psalm proper, I’d like to speak a moment on this heading, “a song for the ascents.” Most of the headings we find in our Bibles are additions put in by modern publishers to help us in following the flow of thought. They do not exist in the original languages.
This is not always the case in the Psalms, however. Many of the headings or notes we find in Psalms exist in the Hebrew text. See, the book of Psalms was something like an ancient Jewish hymnal. And so, we often find there notation for their musicians, or a mention of the author, or the historical context the psalm was written in, or in this case, the purpose of the psalm.
Psalm 121 is the second in a block of fifteen psalms labeled as “Songs of Ascent”, give or take how you translate it. Without any further explanation, we are left to speculate on what exactly this means, but we can make some fairly educated guesses. For example, it could refer to songs the priests sang as they went up into the temple to worship. It could also refer to songs that people would sing as they went up to Jerusalem to worship at the temple each year.
Even the psalm itself “ascends” in thought as it progresses, each thought building on the last to a grand final point. And so today we’re going to ascend this psalm together, one step up at a time, and learn what our God has to tell us about help.
We begin with the question:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains.
Where does my help come from?
It is again unclear exactly why looking at the mountains causes the author to wonder about help, but we can again, make a couple of good guesses. For one, mountains were often dangerous places. And not just dangerous to be on, but oftentimes they were sources of dangers. Criminals of all sorts would hide out there. Invading armies would cross the natural borders that mountains created in order to conquer the land. The natural barrier of mountains can even be responsible for some nasty weather patterns. So perhaps looking to the mountains caused our author to think about his problems. Problems he could deal with himself. After all what was he in the face on an invading army or a natural disaster?
Sitting in a moment of quiet and thinking over your problems, real or imagined, is a good way to start feeling helpless. To think that you can’t possibly have what it takes to overcome what you’re dealing with or what might be coming. You think, I can’t possibly deal with all that, who can I get to help me? What can I get to help me? And now you’re adding on top of that panic that you might not find the help you need and you have no idea what the consequences of failure might be.
I’m sure you’ve had this struggle. Are you perhaps even in the grip of it now? We like to think we live nice, orderly lives that we are in charge of, but there is so much out of our control. We just don’t think about it, we don’t realize it day to day. Our health, our finances, our relationships with others, the very world we live in… Any one of those could change at a moment’s notice, and it might not even happen because you did anything wrong. And it may not be in your power to fix it. What do you do when the prognosis at the doctor is grim? When some accident drains the bank account or a turn of the economy takes away your paycheck? When someone you care about decides that they’re just… done with you?
We want to be prepared. We want to deal with the situation. But we need help. Maybe that’s the reason the author was looking to the mountains. Maybe he was already feeling the natural fears of life and the mountains felt like a place of security. After all, it’s easy to hide in the mountains. And even if armies sometimes cross mountains to invade, mountains do provide a natural barrier. You can’t cross them in wide ranks and so it’s an easy place to defend from.
So maybe that’s what we’re doing. Maybe we’re already feeling helpless and a little panicked and we’re looking around asking… where does my help come from? The mountains? Well, probably not literally. But what would be the mountains we try to look to for help? It might depend on the trouble itself, but I’m guessing things like…
…our bank account
…our own strength or ingenuity
…our family or friends
…doctors or medicine
…government or authorities
These are the things that will keep us safe, right? We take care of ourselves generally. But if we need a little more we have family and friends we can lean on. And in extreme cases we can trust in professional help. The medical community or emergency services or law enforcement or government assistance. Sometimes just remembering that whole support network is there is enough to calm us down.
But the fact is that mountains are not a perfect barrier for troubles. Danger still gets through. Nor is any human source of assistance. I’m not calling any of those things or people unreliable, but they’re not perfect. They all can make mistakes. They all can be caught off guard. They all can miss things or make bad judgment calls or any one of a hundred other things because we are all sinners living in a sinful world.
So, you can look at the mountains in fear or you can look at the mountains as a source of sorta-protection but either way the question remains… where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
Okay, let’s not pretend we didn’t know this was the answer. Especially sitting here, gathered together to worship the Lord, we all know, intellectually, at least, that the LORD is where we find our help.
And we know what he has to offer. We know what a great help he can be. After all, he is the maker of heaven and earth. Not only does that mean he has unimaginable power to help us, it also means that all of this is his. He has authorship, ownership, and the authority to be in complete control of… everything.
So how will he use that immense power and authority to help?
He will not let your foot stumble.
He who watches over you will not slumber.
Yes, he who watches over Israel will not slumber.
He will not sleep.
Those are broad claims! A perfect God, always watching. But let’s explore what exactly that means… how he does this. Because I would guess that even though you knew this truth before coming here today, there are still times when you feel helpless. So, what does it mean to trust in God as your vigilant helper? Does it mean when trouble surfaces, we pray to God and then sit quietly while we trust and wait for him to fix everything?
Well, no, probably not. Because God helps through means. He created things here and put people in our lives to help us. So, when we have problems we pray, we ask him for help and support and guidance and then we go to the things and people he’s given us. Things like…
…our bank account
…our own strength or ingenuity
…our family or friends
…doctors or medicine
…government or authorities
But hold up. How is that at all different than before? It’s a change in attitude. First of all, it changes how we approach looking for help. We go to these things not as our saviors, but we go to them recognizing them as good gifts that God put in our lives for us. There is a big difference between saying “Doctor, heal me!” and “God, please use this doctor to heal me.”
But more importantly, it changes our attitude when the help “fails”. And I put fails in quotes because when we trust in the Lord for our help, there isn’t failure. God is in control of it all, isn’t he? God uses the means here on earth to help us in the best way he knows, right?
If one source of help doesn’t turn out how we want… it is not a failure. God is guiding you along a different path. So…when the Lord is our help, we don’t have to fall to pieces and lose hope when one avenue doesn’t work. The Lord chose to let this happen. The Lord is still your help. If both of those are true, then there is still complete hope. God still helps, but he does it in the way he knows best.
The friend may not be there to help you move. The police may not have prevented the break-in or recovered your property. The doctor may have misdiagnosed you or wasn’t able to fix whatever it was. But when we know the Lord is our helper… that’s okay. Because God has not abandoned you.
This, perhaps, is a good place to interject a related thought as we celebrate kids’ ministry this weekend. Because this right here helps highlight why teaching our children about Jesus is so important. I know as parents you want your children to be safe and protected. More than anything you want to be there to help when there is trouble. And oftentimes, parents are the closest source of help that God uses for children. But as a parent, does it bother or even scare you that you can’t always be there? You can’t watch a child all the time, it’s not practical. And as they grow, they get further away. And someday… well someday it’s likely your child will be here on this earth when you are not anymore.
That’s okay. Because, just like all these other sources of help we talked about… it was never really you helping. It is God helping through you. And that is a very very good thing. You don’t have to be afraid or bothered that you might not be there when you’re needed… because God will be. God keeps working when you can’t. God picks up the slack when you’re not there. And God is even better at loving and caring for your child than even you are.
This is why children need Jesus, so they always have him to help. So he can always be there for them when you maybe cannot. Teach your children Jesus, and with him in their heart, they will always be safe.
Because for them and for us all, God does not rest. He does not sleep. He does not take his eyes off you for a moment. And he does not make mistakes. Earthly help may not always be there when you need them. They make mistakes, but the power behind them, God, is using them for your benefit and he is always there and he does not make mistakes.
The LORD watches over you.
The LORD is your shade at your right hand.
The sun will not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
In fact, it goes beyond the troubles we may tend to think of as needing help. God is here to guard and shield you from things no one else has any control over. No one can stop the sun or the moon (at least not outside of Bond supervillains). But God is your help and protection.
Because God has already helped against the most terrible force that no one else can control: death.
Sin is the real problem. Sin is in this world. It’s the reason so much is wrong, it’s the reason we need help so often. And sin is in us. When God says, “Do!” we say, “No, thanks.” And when God says, “Don’t!” we say, “Uh, why not?” And when God says, “Trust me.” We say, “I think I can do better.” Our disobedience to God earns us death. Not just the end of life here, but eternal death separated from God himself. You can’t change that, and no one and nothing here can.
That is the default destination we are born into. Talk about needing help.
But the Lord as our help? He just… makes it right.
The LORD will watch to keep you from all harm.
He will watch over your life.
I’d like to talk a moment about the last words in each of these lines. In the original language there’s some extra connotation to the literal meaning of these words. If we were to translate these words more literally, we might come up with this instead:
The LORD will watch to keep you from all evil.
He will watch over your soul.
When you look at that, and you consider our real problem (sin and eternal death), you can start to understand what it really, really means that the Lord is our help. He wants to keep you from evil. He wants to save you from sin and death. And… he’s done it. Jesus did it. He came to earth as a human being, as one of us, and lived under the law like one of us. And then he gave that life to you. At the same time, he took your crimes and he paid the punishment they deserved. He died in your place.
Jesus on the cross, shouting, “It is finished!” Jesus leaving the tomb on the third day. That is God as your helper. By his sacrifice you are forgiven your crimes and you are no longer cut off from the Lord. Eternal life is yours now, not death.
Now, I don’t want to be coldly logical about this, but let’s be honest. Getting you to that eternal life is priority number one. Anything else you might have to go through… no matter how horrible it might be… well, it doesn’t last, and if that’s what it takes… it’s worth it. Only eternity lasts. When God says that he wants to keep you from evil and watch over your soul, this is what he’s trying to accomplish. He died so you could have heaven. He will do everything he can to get you there.
The LORD will watch over your going and your coming
from now to eternity.
So sometimes it may seem like no one can help. But that’s only because we’re not seeing it. The truth is there is always always always constant help from God. The Lord has promised to watch over every step from here to the end. But we have to understand his goal. Everything he does is directed at getting you home safely. That is the mission. We may have to slog through some rough patches to get there.
At the same time God is not callous and malicious. God cares about your day to day struggles too. And so he has also promised this: as much help as you can bear.
What do you mean “as much as I can bear”? I mean that we need troubles. We couldn’t handle life being easy. If this life were perfect we would quickly forget we need God. We would quickly forget that we’re looking forward to something better. We need trouble to remember that we need God’s help. And God will help. God does help. Sometimes… sometimes that bad situation is the help we need. Think about a struggle you’ve endured lately. Think about one you might be in now. Maybe you can think of a way God is using that to bless you. Or maybe you can’t. Even if you can’t figure out the reason, you can still trust that God is using it to guide you home. That’s the help he promises.
Brothers and sisters, whenever you struggle, whatever you struggle, take this psalm and put it somewhere you’ll need it. Remember the Lord is your help. Remember how he has helped you through Jesus. Remember how he’s helping you now. He has bought you eternity and he is here every step of the road home. You always have his help.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
I could point to some cameras, some microphones, a computer, and a mixing board as the handiwork of my brother and myself. These things have enhanced our livestreamed and recorded services. Is this something to be proud of? We have others in our church who can make music, together or by themselves; we have those who can teach, who can disinfect, who can arrange flowers, who can keep track of finances, and many other things. We have members who do amazing things at work, though it may not always be visible, members who can make amazing meals for their families, and the list goes on. Are these things to be proud of?
Let us hold that thought while we take a look at some other handiwork, namely God’s handiwork. As we see this phrase in our text, we will see some aspects of God’s handiwork in us.
Look at God’s Handiwork
I. Our being saved is God’s handiwork
II. Our good works are God’s handiwork
I. Our being saved is God’s handiwork
A. We are saved from eternal death by God.
V8: It is by grace you have been _______. (saved)
Consider for a moment what that means. Some people—maybe you or someone you know—have been saved from drowning, saved from a burning building or car, saved from cancer, saved from a terrible fall. It was probably frightening, and the person saved was certainly grateful.
But those are cases of being saved from temporal death. Here we are talking about being saved from the eternal wrath of God where punishments last forever. It can make your skin crawl just thinking about it.
For as Paul points out in the verses before our text, we are by nature spiritually dead in our sins. We didn’t know God, didn’t want to know God, didn’t want to listen to him, didn’t want to follow his commands. What we did, even those things that look good, were done entirely for ourselves. And you were facing God’s wrath, his eternal wrath, for this.
But you _______ ________ saved. (have been) through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.
Done by God, by grace, not from yourselves, not by works.
V8: Your being ________ is God’s handiwork. (saved)
B. We are saved by God’s saving work in Christ
Think briefly what that handiwork involved. He couldn’t overlook or ignore sins. Punishment had to be carried out. So he sent his one and only Son to become a human, to become Jesus, to be loaded with our sins, to inflict the punishment due our sins on him, to abandon him to the agonies of hell while he hung on that cross, and to die as an ordinary human being. It was not his death, he had never sinned and earned death, his death was our death. He saved us from death, he saved us for eternal life.
For it is by grace you have been saved through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.
This is God’s handiwork.
Your being saved is God’s handiwork.
What now? What now is a good question to ask. How to respond to someone who has saved you? How do you repay someone who got your life back for you? We start with contemplation and praise, like the shepherds and Mary on the night of Jesus’ birth. As it sinks in, we are ready for what God prepared us for.
II. Our good works are God’s handiwork
A. God has prepared good works for us to do
V10: For we are…created in Christ Jesus to do _______ _____. (good works) which God prepared in advance for us to do.
It is not just that we respond to God’s gracious act of saving us by doing things pleasing to him, he is the one who has prepared works that we are to do. If we are filled with gratitude for his saving us, certainly we will want to do them.
Let’s note something about them first. These aren’t even our works. These are God’s works. He has prepared them for us.
So even our _______ _________ are God’s handiwork. (good works)
B. God’s word describes the good works we are to do
So how do we go about finding out what good works God has prepared for us? He doesn’t usually speak directly to us individually, but he has spoken to us through his word. So, we take his word and apply it to our situation in life.
Are you married? What does God’s word have to say to people who are married? Love your spouse, not just in the sexual sense but in the sense of figuring out what they need, what would be good for them, and doing that. He has some specific things for each spouse: husbands to love and be ready to sacrifice for their wife, wives to submit to, to follow their husbands. There’s nothing about husbands disciplining their wives or ruling over them; likewise, there is nothing about wives becoming doormats and serving their husbands like slaves. It all starts with love and continues even when the other is not so loveable.
Are you not married? God’s word has something to say to you do. Keep the marriage bed pure; it is not for those who are not married. Look for a caring, believing spouse to share your life with. And learn that you can serve the Lord single as Paul did.
Do you have children? God’s word tells us not to exasperate them. Bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Love them, feed them, care for them, take time with them, make them a priority in your life.
Are you a young child at home? God’s word tells us to obey your parents in the Lord. This means trusting the Lord that he will work good for you in your obedience even in cases where your parents might be wrong. Keep your room clean, do your chores, finish your homework—the rules your parents have set for these things are there to prepare you to be responsible adults in this world.
Are you a worker? Are you a boss? Are you a teacher? Are you a law enforcement officer? Do you have what seems like a menial job? Are you working to support your family? Are you cooking and cleaning for your family? Apply God’s word to your situations in life and do the good works he has prepared for you to do, remembering these are God’s works, no matter what the world thinks.
Think about this. Are the teachers over at Precious Lambs doing anything less big than Elon Musk is flying astronauts to the space station or developing environmentally friendly electric cars? Absolutely not. Is the husband struggling with spreadsheets or factory assembly pieces doing anything less big than Jeff Bezos is delivering those countless boxes to your doorstep? Absolutely not. Supporting a family and training children is not spectacular but it is important for a good society and so that our families become and remain part of God’s family into all eternity. This is God’s work.
We should note that when we let God’s word guide us in good works, it will often bring us into conflict with what is common and what is considered good and bad in this world. What constitutes family and marriage, how we should train our children, how we should respond to laws and rules we don’t like are just a few examples of this. But even in these cases these are good works our God has prepared for us to do. We remember again:
Our good works are God’s handiwork.
What Now? As we look around ourselves in this world, we see many people trying to do great works in many different ways. Some are simply wrong, some are misguided, some are good. As we seek to do good works we want to look to God’s word for our guidance—learn it, trust it, put it into practice.
As we look at where we come from and what we are doing, and then what God is doing, somethings become clear. When we are born into this world, we are dead in our sins. But God saves us through his Son Jesus. Our being saved is God’s handiwork. But once saved he has plans for us, he has good works planned for us. The good things we do in response to his saving us are part of God’s plan. Our good works are God’s handiwork. And Paul sums it up succinctly:
What is God’s handiwork?
We are God’s handiwork, saved by his grace, created in Christ Jesus to do good works. We will want to live as his handiwork in this world. We pray to our God for help in living this life. Amen.