Favorites: Psalm 121

Good morning and welcome to Journey Church.  My name is Phil Human and I’m one of the pastors here.  This morning we’re going to turn to a psalm that is quickly rising in my ranks of favorite psalms.  It’s a short- 8 verse psalm that I’ve personally found to be very assuring, highly encouraging Psalm – the kind of Psalm you can memorize and recite to yourself when you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about something.

Have you ever woken up at say – 3am – and your head pops off the pillow and your brain is going like a 100 miles an hour thinking about a stressful situation that you are in?  Maybe two or three nights in a row – at the same time – your head pops off the pillow?

If it hasn’t ever happened – it probably will.   I don’t think it’s much of a limb to go out on to say most of you totally understand what I’m talking about.  And that’s because we are thinking people – people who live in stressful world.  And stress is the number one sleep killer.

I read an interesting article this week about how the Covid crisis has affected our sleep in America.  And the study said that overall we are sleeping more hours than usual – having to stay home and working from home and not going to school – we are sleeping more total time than we have in a long time.

However – the study said the quality of that sleep is far less.  Why?  Because of the stressful situation.  We are waking up in the middle of the night – dealing with thoughts about – what if I get covid?  What if I gave it to someone else?  Or the stress of the kids – are they okay?  Am I doing a good job teaching them?  What about our finances?  Is my job safe? What about our retirement fund?

The number one cause of sleeplessness is stress.  And there’s plenty to feel stressed about nowadays.  And then – if it happens two or three nights in row – well then there’s additional stress going on – stress on top of stress – and good luck trying to fall back asleep if you are angry about not being able to sleep.

And so – my goal today is to equip your brain with a resource that will allow your soul to rest – and be able to sleep better at night.  It’s a spiritual sleep aid.  That’s practical isn’t it?  If you pick up something that will help you sleep better at night.  And for help I’m going to turn to Psalm 121.

Let’s read.  Psalm 121 is called a Song of Ascent – it was written for those who were taking a pilgrimage up to Jerusalem.  You know how Denver is called the Mile High City – well Jerusalem can be called the half-mile high city.  And so for pilgrims – they had to climb the hills up to Jerusalem.  Whatever direction you were coming from – you always went UP to Jerusalem.

In fact – this is a picture of the road from Jericho up to Jerusalem.  And it looks foreboding – doesn’t it?  It looks like the badlands.  Hot, arid, desert – and in fact it was dangerous on many levels.  I mean – you had to deal with the potential for heatstroke.  You had dangerous cliffs.  You have wild animals – right?  And on top of it all you have the very real danger of robbers and bandits that hid in those hills and caves.

The story that Jesus tells of the good Samaritan is set on this backdrop – a Samaritan was on the road.  A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho – the story begins – when robbers set upon him.  That was like- a regular headline in the news…  People had that thought in their head.

So with this dangerous part of the travel in their mind – this is how Psalm 121 begins…

I look up to the mountains—
where does my help come from?

So this traveler is dealing with fear.  Those mountains are causing him or her to lose sleep.  It was a dangerous stretch of road and the writer is worried.    Anxious thoughts.  Where will my help come from as we enter this stretch of dangerous country?

I recently watched a conversation between John Ortberg and Dallas Willard – in fact I watched it on RightNow Media – on a six video session about hearing God.  And in one of the sessions they talked about sleeplessness- and Willard said that “When we can’t sleep we need to find the alarm in our soul and turn it off.”  He suggests that one helpful thing would be to remember – when did I first find it difficult to sleep – that will often give us a clue to the sounding alarm in our soul.

The mountains were the alarm in the soul of the traveler.  Danger lurked in the mountains!

What is your alarm?  What would you put in place of the mountains?

I look up to the mountains—
where does my help come from?

I look at my bank account.  I need help!  Where will it come from?  I look at my health.  I look at my kids!  I look at my parenting?  I look at my marriage!  My work!  My School!  My parents!  My past?  My addictions, My own failures?

What is your mountain that stands before you – the place where danger lurks?  The thing that makes you lose sleep?

What is the alarm that is sounding in your soul that wakes you up?  Whatever it might be – you will be encouraged to know that this Psalm will help you be able to turn the alarm off and sleep better.

I look up to the mountains—
where does my help come from? 
Who is going to help me?  The writer wastes no time in providing the answer….

My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth!

The writer challenges the reader to have a larger perspective.  Look beyond the mountain.  Look to the one who made the mountain.  The One who made the mountains is your helper.

Can we just take a moment to relish the way the Bible describes God as our helper?  Does it feel like somehow disrespectful to call God our helper?  God – if anything we should be HIS helper – but no – it’s Jesus himself who says in John 14:16 I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever;

Psalm 46:1  God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.

Our help comes from the Lord – our ever-present help – the one who made the heavens and the earth!  That’s the one who has our back.

This is the great promise of Jesus’ message.  The good news that Jesus proclaimed was that there was a kingdom where you can live today where God himself will be with you and have your back – no matter the circumstances of your life.

Whether green pastures or dark valleys – we can silence the alarm that wakes us up in the middle of the night by remembering that the Lord is our shepherd.  And he has our back.

The With God life is a life lived with an answer to our fear and anxiety.  Fear?  Anxiety?  Meet the maker of the mountains.  My God – the one who is my ever present help in times of trouble.

I look up to the mountains— where does my help come from? 

My help comes from the Lord,  who made heaven and earth!

He will not let you stumble;
the one who watches over you will not slumber.
Indeed, he who watches over Israel
never slumbers or sleeps.

When we enter the right now Kingdom of Heaven – we are told that God himself will watch over us.  Notice that term “Watch over” it appears five times in this eight verse psalm.  The writer really really really really really wants you to know that God is watching over you.

And he never falls asleep on the job.

My wife Jody grew up in San Diego California – and so – every year we would throw the kids in the minivan and we’d drive straight through to San Diego – 24 hour drive in the old minivan.

And we had a deal – Jody and I – and we’d make a pinky swear.  The pinky swear was-  I promise that I will pull over the moment I think I’m feeling tired or drowsy.  I will not try to be a hero and push through the tired spell so the other can sleep.  It’s too dangerous and we had too much to lose with the kids sleeping in the back of the van.

Now we did this pinky promise every time – and part of it was this – I knew that I couldn’t go to sleep unless I knew that Jody was going to stay awake.  If I feared she was driving while drowsy – I wasn’t able to turn off the alarm in my soul.  I needed assurance if I were to find rest.  I need assurance that I could sleep because she wouldn’t.

Psalm 121 is God’s pinky promise.  I promise I will not fall asleep.  Psalm 121 is God saying – I will not fall asleep – you sleep.  Sleep soundly knowing that I will not.

The next time the alarm in your soul sounds – remember – the one who created the mountains has your back- and he is wide awake – so that you can sleep.

He will not let you stumble;
the one who watches over you will not slumber.
Indeed, he who watches over Israel
never slumbers or sleeps.

The Lord himself watches over you!
The Lord stands beside you as your protective shade.
The sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon at night.

Day and night – the Lords’ got your back.  Day and night.

One of the more interesting aspects of the story of Israel’s time in the desert – where they lived a nomadic life for 40 years before entering the promised land – was the manner in which God protected the Israelites both day and night.

It says that during the day – God’s presence showed up as a cloud.  If I’m in the desert – nothing better than shade.  God provided shade during the day so his people wouldn’t get burned up by the sun.

And at night. he showed up as a pillar of fire – in the desert, where it gets cold at night – where it gets dark at night – God helps them by providing a light and the warmth of a fire.

Cool, huh?  God is our helper – an ever present help – especially in times of trial.  Day and night – you’re safe in his care.

The Lord himself watches over you!
The Lord stands beside you as your protective shade.
The sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon at night.

The Lord keeps you from all harm
and watches over your life.

Now let’s pause here for an important reminder – this verse is NOT teaching us that because we are in God’s kingdom we will never go through difficult valleys.  There is an abundance of verses that teach us that none of us are immune to the trials and tribulations that are part and parcel of life in this world.

It would be a mistake to think that the presence of difficulties means the absence of God.  It’s absolutely incorrect to think that following God means you will never be injured or sick.  Followers of Jesus get injured and sick and suffer and die at approximately the same rate as all of humanity.

And maybe you’re thinking – well then – how is that supposed to make me sleep better at night?

Because even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death we fear nothing because Thou art with me.  God is with me.  He can give me strength to endure – and the power to not be tossed back and forth by the waves of circumstances.  We get to live our lives with confidence that comes from knowing God will provide for me all that I need to endure whatever valley it is that he has determined – in his infinite wisdom and love – that I must walk through.

Every once in a while, as I’m writing a sermon – I will hear a voice in my head – a whisper – that sounds something like this…  Phil, you should be careful when you’re preaching that we can walk through the valley of the shadow of death itself with confidence and joy and a peace that passes understanding – after all – the little voice says – someone might be listening who just learned that they have cancer – or someone they dearly love has just received a terrible prognosis – or someone who is listening has endured terrors unimaginable and so Phil be careful – is this what you really want to say…

And then I hear a louder voice.  Sometimes the voice of God sounds like a still small voice and others times it is loud and clear – and what does that voice tell me?  It’s especially important then for me to preach this gospel truth with all conviction and knowledge and confidence.

Your God is an ever-present help in times of trouble.  Lift up your eyes- past the mountain you are facing.  Where does your help come from?

It comes from the Lord.  The creator of mountain and sea and you and me.  And the one who does not slumber or sleep is watching over you, friend.

The Lord keeps you from all harm
and watches over your life.
The Lord keeps watch over you as you come and go,
both now and forever.

Five times in eight verses – the Lord is watching over you. Whether you are Coming and going.  Day and night.  Now and forevermore.  The Lord keeps watch over you.

See – getting a good nights sleep requires quieting the alarm in our soul.  And the only way our soul can do that is through constant reminders that there is one who is greater than the mountain, with me and watching over me.  It’s safe for me to let go…

Here’s a couple of suggestions for you the next time you find your head popping off the pillow in the middle of the night.

First – simple thing – don’t look at the time.  If you have a clock with big red numbers on it – turn it to face the wall so you don’t see it.  Don’t look at your phone – because there is exactly zero number that will show up that you aren’t going to be frustrated to see.   Looking at the numbers on your clock will only add to the frustration.

Second – if you’re still awake after 20 minutes – get up.  Go in the living room and read a book.  Just nothing on your screen.  Your brain gets all jazzed up when it sees the screen – so read an old fashioned book instead.

You will be okay if you have to get up early.  Give that time to God and see what he’d like to do with it.  Maybe there’s a prayer time in there.   Or some time to memorize scripture.  Your extra hour in the middle of the might be turned into a blessing.

Third – memorize scripture.  Memorize Psalm 121.  Recite it in the middle of the night.  Pray through it and let your soul relax knowing that since God is awake, we can rest.

Sometimes your soul is like a little child that wakes you up in the middle of the night because he or she is scared.  And they need to be reassured- they need to hear you say- it’s okay.  You’re safe.  Everything is going to be okay.

Does it sound weird to hear that sometimes your soul needs to hear you say that same thing to it?

I’m being sincere – even here in Psalm 121 – this Psalm appears to be a person who is talking to himself – or herself.  Where does my help come from?  And he speaks to himself – The Lord watches over you – both now and forever more.

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