Sermon #174: The Tornado & Psalm 121
St. James the Less #81
I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved and he who watches over you will not fall asleep. Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep; The Lord himself watches over you; the Lord is your shade at your right hand, So that the sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; it is he who shall keep you safe. The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore. Psalm 121
This week has been rough. I don’t think there is any other way to put it. Even for those of us whose homes were not affected, it has been heartbreaking to see the amount of damage and destruction throughout Middle Tennessee.
Many here have been helping family, friends, neighbors, and even complete strangers dig out of the rubble. Homes flattened, schools and churches destroyed, 24 lives lost, and the landscape, even in our church’s backyard of East Nashville, bears the scars of Tuesday’s tornado.
As the first pictures began to circulate early that morning it was hard to fathom the amount of damage that was caused across several of our counties.
But nothing prepares you for seeing it with your own eyes. Familiar urban neighborhoods and subdivisions out in the country were equally turned into, what looked like, a warzone.
Walking in Germantown the other day I was reminded of something a park ranger told me and the other college kids who had come to work in Yellowstone National Park for the summer a few years ago. He said, “This park is not your personal playground. This is the wild, and if you do not understand that nature is inherently dangerous, and respect it as such, then you’ll probably end up seriously injured or dead.”
And in this case, nature was blind to city limits, to homes and businesses, and did what nature has done for millions of years.
Though so much has been lost, we have been reminded of the true character and soul of this community. My cousin, who lives in East Nashville, said he heard chainsaws going at three in the morning, an hour or so after the storm had passed.
Volunteers have poured into the mid-state in record numbers. And there seem to be more people willing to help than there are jobs to fill right now.
I heard of one man who lost his home. He had a picture of Jesus above his mantle, and after the storm, the only thing left standing was that picture and the mantle. Even after losing everything, he said seeing that sign gave him hope.
I find it amazing when people who have lost everything, act as if they haven’t, in fact, lost everything. Even in the midst of the rubble, there is hope that is rooted deep in their soul, and all is not lost.
Call them optimists or call them foolish, but I think they know where their true priorities lie, and they know who ultimately is watching over them.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our psalm for this morning is Psalm 121. This psalm is overflowing with wisdom for us today, and I think it has a message that has been embodied by so many in our community whether they realize it or not.
The psalmist knew something about uncertain times. The ancient world was not always a stable place, it could be chaotic and violent at times. Tribal warfare could strike at any time. Even nature had a hand in adding to the uncertainty with periodic droughts, floods, or storms.
The poet surveys the realities of life, with all these uncertainties in mind, and says, “I lift up my eye to the hills, from where is my help to come?”
It’s as if he starts out with this rhetorical question, “Will we find our safety in the mountains?” It sure is tempting to look to the mountains in the distance for comfort. But the poet confidently answers, “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven [and even the mountains].”
The poet’s hopes are not rooted in the security and safety that the world may try to offer. After all, when danger is headed our way, running to the hills is a pretty safe bet. But he reminds us, “What kind of safety will the hills provide us when we have the creator of the mountains on our side?”
And the psalmist is confident in the Lord because he knows that he is not a god that hides on top of a mountain, or sits in heaven, unmoved by what is happening in the world. Rather he is on guard, actively caring for and watching over his beloved children.
Six times in these eight short verses the word “shamar” which means “guard”, “protect”, or “watch over” appears in this psalm. Six times the poet says, “[The Lord] watches over you…He guards Israel…The Lord Himself watches over you…The Lord shall guard you from all evil…He will keep you safe…The Lord shall [shamar] your going out and your coming in.”
I get the sense the writer is trying to make a point.
We can lift our eyes to the hills and look for security in the crevasses of the mountain, but we will ultimately not find our safety there. Our God promises to guard and protect us.
And the way that God guards us is not passive. While he watches over us, the psalmist says that he will not “slumber or sleep.” And this may seem like an odd thing for the poet to add. Of course, God doesn’t have to sleep, he’s God.
But there were a number of stories during that time in history that talked about different gods who peacefully slept while their people were in agony. You may remember the prophet Elijah accused the Canaanite god Baal of sleeping while his prophets frantically prayed for him to send fire on the altar.
In direct contrast to the gods like Baal, who clearly didn’t care about their people, the psalmist is saying that the true God never sleeps on the job. He watches over us like a concerned and loving parent. His attention is fixed on us.
It is sometimes hard to recognize how God “shamar” “protects” us and those we love in a time like this, but the psalmist is confident that the One who created us is the same One who will protect us until it is time for us to be with him. That even in the chaos of the storm, he will be with us.
As baffling as this truth is, it is being lived out by a number of believers this morning whose church buildings have been destroyed. As we speak, First Baptist Church in Mt. Juliet is meeting in a high school gym and praising God for his faithfulness. East End United Methodist Church in Five Points is meeting outdoors in lawn chairs in East End Park. The church is in shambles, and yet that won’t stop them from worshipping God.
Even when it appears that all is lost, people are coming together to praise God for guarding and protecting them. They are worshipping the God who has preserved them from all evil and kept them safe. They are embodying Psalm 121 this morning, and I hope that we can do the same, for their sake and for our own.
To the rest of the world it may seem like a “stumbling block” or complete “foolishness,” to borrow Paul’s words, to worship after such destruction, but to us, the way of faith, even in the midst of despair, is marked by hope.
We do, after all, find our greatest hope in the unlikeliest of places with God in the flesh who was nailed on a cross and died a miserable death. We somehow look at that scene and find not only meaning…but hope.
Though everything seems lost and doomed, the Christian understands that in the darkest of moments, God was setting the world right.
And so whether it is in war-torn countries, regions suffering from a deadly virus, or even in the aftermath of a tornado, the Christian doesn’t say that God is absent, but that, of all places, God is definitely there, with those who are suffering. He proved it on the cross that he is not asleep on the job, but he can be found in the most hopeless of places.
And so our call is to not run to the safety of the hills, away from hopeless places and situations, but to walk into them and find God right in the middle of it all. Because if there is one thing we can be sure of, it’s that he is there.
Second Sunday of Lent. Year A. Psalm 121.
Photo by: Janet Arning