Marci and I started our married life in a little village in northeastern Saskatchewan in which almost every member of our congregation was a farmer, or married to a farmer, or a retired farmer, or connected to farming in some way or other. We quickly learned what farmers have known all their lives: that the success of farming is insecure at the best of times. You can spend a lot of money putting seeds in the ground in the spring, watch it grow nicely all summer long, and then at the last minute have the whole thing ruined by an early frost, or a Fall that’s so wet that you just can’t get out on the land to harvest it.
Of course, that’s where crop insurance comes in. I don’t know many farmers who would put a crop in without taking out crop insurance; there’s just too much money at stake if things don’t work out. So if the weather is good and the crop grows, all well and good; if things go badly, at least the insurance is there to help you make it through the winter. It’s just common sense.
Farmers in Bible times didn’t have crop insurance, but there were measures that were commonly taken in the ancient world that seemed just as much like common sense to them as crop insurance does to modern farmers. Let me tell you about one of them.
In most cultures in the ancient world - including the Canaanites who lived in the land before the people of Israel - there were many gods you had to pay attention to. In theory, the Israelites didn’t believe in those other gods; they believed in Yahweh, the one true God, who made heaven and earth. But in practice, they were surrounded by nations who had many gods, and they were always being tempted by them. And if they looked up to the hills, the chances are that there would be ancient shrines on top of them, places where the old gods of Canaan had been worshipped for centuries.
Ancient people thought it was just common sense to pay proper attention to those gods. If you moved to a new country you needed to find out about the local gods, so you could keep their laws and offer them the sorts of sacrifices they liked; then they would bless you and not send you bad luck. If you were a Greek and you were going for a sea voyage, it made sense to offer a sacrifice to Poseidon, the god of the sea; if you were setting out on a military expedition against your enemies, you would offer a sacrifice to Ares, the god of war.
So if you were a farmer, and you had just finished seeding, it was a good idea to get the local fertility gods on your side, to make sure they would send you good weather and make your crop grow. But these fertility gods, even though they were very powerful, were a little forgetful, and they needed reminding why you had put your crop in. So what you did was to go to the nearest temple or shrine and have sex with the temple priestess in the sanctuary; the gods looked down and saw what you were doing, and it reminded them about fertility and all that, and so they remembered to bless your land and make your crop grow.
That sounds both crazy and irrelevant to us modern people; we can’t believe that anyone would be fooled into thinking it would work, and anyway, we don’t worship idols any more, so it’s not really relevant to us, is it?
Well, actually, it is. If an idol is a statue of wood or stone that we pray to, then no, we don’t have any of those around here. But what if an idol is anything other than the one true God to which we give our first allegiance and loyalty? What if it is something to which we sacrifice our health, our family life, our sense of right and wrong? What if it is something we instinctively turn to for help in time of need? What if it is something we expect to give us ultimate happiness? What if it is something we expect to save us from death? Well, then the list of potential idols, or false gods, gets rather longer.
There are so many false gods in our modern world. There’s the obvious one, money and possessions. People think that money can protect you from danger, can make you healthy, can make you happy, and can give you a sense of meaning in your life. Also, many people have made huge sacrifices to wealth – perhaps by living somewhere their family is unhappy in order to get a better-paying job, or by damaging their health by overwork and unhealthy habits in order to be successful. So many good things in life get sacrificed on the altar of ‘The Economy’; it’s almost as if it’s become my sacred duty to consume, so that I can keep the false gods happy!
Well, this is only one of the false gods out there competing for our attention; it’s not hard to think of others. Success is closely connected to wealth and, once again, many people sacrifice health and family on its altar. Our nation can be a false god, demanding our unconditional obedience even when its commands contradict the teaching of Jesus. Instead of turning to God in times of trouble, people can turn to alcohol or other drugs to deaden the pain and help them make it through stressful situations. The list goes on: so many good things that God has made can become idols if we put them in the place of the one true god in our lives.
Why am I talking about false gods this morning? Because they appear in our psalm for today. You might not have noticed them, because they aren’t directly mentioned, but they are definitely alluded to. Here are the first two verses of the psalm (121:1-2) in the NRSV translation:
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.
It sounds as if the writer of the psalm is looking up at the beauty of the hills around him and being reminded of the one who created them, but that’s probably not the case. What’s probably happening is that he’s looking up at the hills and seeing, on top of them, temples to those ancient pagan gods. Gods and goddesses were commonly worshipped on top of hills and mountains, for the obvious reason that hilltops were closer to the heavens. So the writer is weighing up his loyalties. “Where does my help come from? Does it come from the false gods worshipped at the hill shrines? No – they are too feeble to help me. My help comes from a much stronger source: ‘Yahweh, the LORD, who made heaven and earth’”.
Well, that seems like common sense to us, but a moment’s thought will remind us that the false gods had a couple of advantages in popular imagination. For one thing, the Lord was invisible and they were not. Pagan generals who invaded Jerusalem and went into the holy of holies in the temple for a look at the God of Israel were usually astounded to find that there was nothing in there; they were so used to the idea that a god needed a visual representation in order to be worthy of worship. And we have the same problem today. How can you worship the Lord, the creator of heaven and earth, when you can’t see him and you’ve got no proof that he’s there? Money is tangible; you can see it mounting up in your bank account, or feel it jangling in your pocket. Success is obvious for all to see. Popularity, health, youth – they’re all visible, and tangible. But trusting in an invisible God? That’s harder to grasp.
For another thing, the false gods were popular: everyone worshipped them, so in order to trust in them you really didn’t have to make a choice; you just went with the flow. And so it is today: everyone assumes that you will go along with the worship of wealth, or that you will be willing to set aside your religious convictions if your country asks you to, or that you will set aside the regular worship of God to make room for Sunday sports or family activities. Go with the flow, and no effort is required. But if you choose to worship the one true God and to follow his Son Jesus Christ, you will find yourself being asked to make difficult choices all the time.
Why should we do this? The psalm seems to make exactly the same sort of extravagant promises as the false gods do. Verses 7 and 8 say,
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.
Other verses are even more extravagant; verse 6 says,
The sun shall not strike you by day, neither the moon by night.
There are some people, of course, who believe these verses, and others like them, in a very literal sense. They believe that if they follow the one true God he will protect them from all misfortune and shower them with all blessings in a material sense. He will keep them from getting sick, and will protect them from their enemies in times of war; he will bless their businesses and make them successful and wealthy.
This works out fine, of course, until misfortune strikes. A marriage breaks up, or a business fails; a bomb explodes and kills in a random fashion; a routine medical examination uncovers a life-threatening illness that doesn’t seem to be responding to treatments. When things just don’t seem to be working out, people who believe God has promised them health and wealth find their faith in trouble. Maybe they even find themselves asking, “Is this my fault? Have I done something especially bad to annoy God, so that he’s punishing me or trying to get my attention? Or maybe I’ve been praying to empty space all along, and there really is no God after all?”
I would like to suggest to you that what the one true God actually promises us is something less tangible, but far more real and lasting. It’s probably never been expressed quite so well as in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35, 37-39).
‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God’. At first glance it sounds like such a wishy-washy promise: ‘You may die of cancer or get killed in an earthquake or starve in a famine, but nothing will be able to separate you from God’s love’. It’s easy to scoff at an intangible promise like that and ask what difference it can possibly make.
Until, that is, you see it making a difference in someone’s life. I think of my good friend Joe Walker, who died of cancer a couple of years ago at the age of 47; he was diagnosed in June and he died in the middle of August. Joe believed in prayer but he didn’t believe prayer was an unconditional guarantee. What he did believe was that in some sense, God was in control, and he needed to learn to trust God and not feel sorry for himself. I remember at Joe’s funeral that his wife Alisa described how, in the last weeks of his life, he had gradually let go of all the things that were important to him. He was a great reader and loved discussing books; he was a guitarist and he loved to play music; he was a wonderful writer and his blog was a real inspiration to many of us. But gradually, in the last few weeks of his life, he let go of all those things; in the end, all he had left was God, and the love of God.
And so I think again of Paul’s words, ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’. In Joe’s time of need it would have been pointless to turn to the false gods of money or wealth or popularity or success or any other false god on offer. Only the one true God could help him, and although God did not heal him, it was obvious to those around him that God was his rock in a time of trouble.
So today, Psalm 121 is giving us some material for reflection and self-examination. It’s reminding us that the false gods are all around us, and their voices are very seductive. Am I believing them, trusting in their extravagant promises, giving them my first loyalty, looking to them for the ultimate joy and satisfaction that only the one true God can give?
Let’s have the courage today to look into our hearts to find out just who is sitting on the throne and calling the shots. And if it’s anything or anyone other than the one true God, let’s have the courage to dethrone them, and turn again to the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth, the one who, in the truest sense, will ‘keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore’ (Psalm 121:8). Or, to use the words of Jesus, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).