Festival of St. Bartholomew – "The Lord Is My Keeper" – Psalm 121- 8/24/14

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The text for our consideration this morning is the Psalm appointed for the Festival of St. Bartholomew, Psalm 121.

A very brief bit of background on Bartholomew before we begin however. Bartholomew is listed as one of the 12 disciples in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels. Luke again includes Bartholomew in the list of Apostles in his book of Acts. That however are the only times that Bartholomew’s name is mentioned in the bible.

One of the names that’s missing from all of the lists of disciples is Nathanael, the friend of Phillip who is known for blurting out those memorable words, “can anything good come out of Nazareth.” And then he met Jesus OF NAZARETH.

In a time when it was not uncommon for someone to be known by more than one name, there’s a good chance that Bartholomew and Nathanael are one and the same.

But it is always dangerous to preach a sermon based on assumption.

There are a couple of legends about Bartholomew out there that are probably true. The early church historian Eusibius reports that when some 2nd century missionaries went to India to preach the gospel, they discovered an area that was already familiar with the name of Jesus Christ. They had a copy of the Gospel of Matthew written in Hebrew. Their grandfathers told them that it had been given to them by a man name Bartholomew who said he was one of the Lord’s Apostles.

Another story reports that from India, Bartholomew went to Armenia where he did many miracles and the king of Armenia renounced his pagan gods and confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord which the pagan priests didn’t appreciate very much. So crucified him upside down and then flayed his skin off of him.

Whether that story is true or not is hard to say for sure. But one person who certainly believed it was a man named Michelangelo. In his painting, “The Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, Bartholomew is included among the Apostles in heaven, looking perfectly healthy in body, holding his flayed skin in his left hand like a ‘hooded footed once piece pajamas,’ as if to say, “you can harm my body but you cannot harm my soul.”

Interestingly, the skin that Bartholomew holds includes a face in the hood, and the face is a self-portrait of Michelangelo. What physical pain he might have endured in painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And what encouragement to endure such physical hardship he might have received from Bartholomew.

This is the proper use of the Saints. It is not that they were less sinners that we are, or that we should appeal to them because they have some special access to the throne of God that we do not have. They were simple men and women like us who inspire and encourage us by their example of living by faith in the one, true God.

But again, it is dangerous to preach a sermon based on legends. And so we turn to the Holy Scriptures that are inspired by the Holy Spirit and are therefore completely trustworthy and true and the only foundation to build your life upon.

I invite you to take out your worship folder and open to page 8 if you’d like to follow the text as we go.

The 121st Psalm is the prayer of a soul in distress. It’s become part of my ‘standard procedure’ to pray this Psalm with you when I visit you in the hospital because of illness or before surgery. It’s the ‘dialog’ that the person of faith has with himself or herself in times of trouble, whatever the trouble may be.

The Psalm begins with the movement of the eyes. “I lift up my eyes…” The ‘LIFT UP THE EYES’ is to focus your attention on something. The Old Testament warns us not to ‘lift up your eyes to idols.’ (Ez.18:15). Luke writes, “Jesus lifted up his eyes on his disciples…” And He “lifted up His eyes to heaven…”

Which begs the question, where do you ‘lift up your eyes’ in times of trouble?

“I lift up my eyes to the hills.” We’ll come back to these HILLS in just a minute. But it’s striking that in focusing his attention on these hills, the troubled soul seems to find the answer to the question that troubles him.

The question is this, “From where does my help come?” Is there anyone out there who sees me and my trouble, and my suffering? Is there anyone out there who cares? Who cares enough to HELP ME? These are the doubts that we all have in times of trouble and distress.

But the assurance that comes back loud and clear is, “my help comes from the Lord.” “Who made heaven and earth.” He is the LORD of OMNIPOTENT POWER who called ALL THINGS into existence by the power of His Word and who “HOLDS ALL THINGS TOGETHER BY THE WORD OF HIS POWER.” (Col.1:17; Hebrews 1:3).

He the LORD who made the universe with all its parts and pieces, and clothes the flowers of the field and feeds the birds of the air, for whom not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from His knowledge and who knows the number of hairs on your head. How much more will He care for you and help you, His dear child?

His HELP is perfect. It is COMPLETE. Which does not mean that He removes all of the trouble and distress and pain that have come to us.

How often to we pray that the Lord, if He is really THE LORD, would TAKE AWAY all of our trials and troubles and let us live in a ‘pain-free’ world?

But this is not what the troubled soul who ‘lifts his eyes to the hills’ sees. “He will not let your foot be moved…” Which means that He sustains you and upholds you IN THE TROUBLE, and brings you through the storm – SAFELY. Even through death itself, PERFECTLY.

In a word that gets repeated now six times in rapid succession, He “KEEPS” you. He who KEEPS you will not slumber. Behold, he who KEEPS Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. He is “on” – 24/7/365. When the crops failed or in times of drought or flood, the pagans thought that their gods must have fallen asleep. And so they did outrageous things wake up the gods.

But THE LORD, YOUR LORD, “neither slumbers nor sleeps.”

In the book of Genesis, we read that when God made Adam, He appointed him to be the “KEEPER” of the garden. He was the 1st GROUNDSKEEPER.

And later GOD appointed Noah to be the “KEEPER” of the animals on the ark; the 1st ZOOKEEPER.

The “KEEPER” is the one who is responsible for taking care of things, providing what is needed and protecting from what is harmful. So, who is ‘man’s’ keeper? Who is ‘your’ KEEPER?

“The Lord is your keeper…” And His care and protection for you is perfect, complete, lacking nothing. “The Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day nor the moon by night.” Like I said, “24/7/365.”

Which is to say, “the Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.” Which doesn’t mean that you get to keep everything. You may not get to keep your health or your wealth or even your life. You may loose it all. But the Lord doesn’t loose you. He KEEPS YOU.

So, let the nations rage and the peoples plot a vain thing, let the dark days come, let the persecutors persecute, let the apostle of the Lord be skinned. “The Lord is my keeper.”

“I will never leave you nor forsake you. Therefore we are confident to say, ‘The Lord is my helper. I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6).

“The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” Just another way to say the same thing – constant care, wherever you are.

For centuries, the Church has included the final verse of this Psalm in its baptismal liturgy. It reflects the all-encompassing HELP that the Lord gives to His dear children. As a baptized child of God, you have the blessed assurance that the Lord’s care for you is perfect and complete, not only in this present time, but also FOREVERMORE.

The Hills
So, what are these ‘HILLS’ to which the troubled and frightened child of God LIFTS UP HIS EYES and that fills him with such assurance and comfort that the Lord is his HELPER and his KEEPER?

Surely one of those ‘hills’ is the one called MORIAH that Abraham led his son, his only son, Isaac, whom he loved to the top of to sacrifice him, Isaac carrying the wood for his own sacrifice, where the Lord spared Isaac by providing a substitute to be sacrificed in his place. We ‘LIFT UP OUR EYES’ to the hills, and our troubled soul finds its rest.

Another ‘hill’ is the one called SINAI, where God spoke to His people through Moses and gave them the 10 Commandments that begins with that wonderful prelude, “I am the Lord YOUR God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Ex.20:1). We ‘LIFT UP OUR EYES’ to the hills, and our troubled soul finds its rest.

Another is called ZION, where the Temple of God was built and the LORD promised to be found, to which people from all over the world came to receive the forgiveness of their sins through the shedding of innocent blood. We ‘LIFT UP OUR EYES’ to the hills, and our troubled soul finds its rest.
Looking in the OPPOSITE CHRONOLOGICAL, the Psalmist sees the ‘hill’ upon which Jesus ‘lifted up His eyes’ on those who are ‘poor in spirit,’ and whom “others revile and persecute and utter all kinds of evil against, on my account.” And He blessed them. “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and “great is your reward in heaven.” We ‘LIFT UP OUR EYES’ to the hills, and our troubled soul finds its rest.

And there is that ‘hill’ on which Peter, James and John ‘lifted up their eyes’ and got an eyeful of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and heard the majestic voice proclaim, “this is my beloved Son.” We ‘LIFT UP OUR EYES’ to the hills, and our troubled soul finds its rest.

And there is that ‘hill’ called “OLIVET,” where the beloved Son of God sweat drops of blood in His dread of what lie before Him, yet in perfect trust and confidence prays, “Not my will but yours be done.” We ‘LIFT UP OUR EYES’ to the hills, and our troubled soul finds its rest.

And of course there is that ‘hill’ called GOLGATHA where THE LORD YOUR KEEPER, endured every trouble and pain and persecution, for you, in your place, on your behalf. The ‘hill’ where the Father SPARED NOT His Son, His only Son, whom He loved, but gave Him over for us all. We ‘LIFT UP OUR EYES’ to the hills, and our troubled soul finds its rest.

And if we may ‘lift up our eyes’ to heaven, there is that “great, high mountain” that the Spirit carried St. John to the top of, from which he sees “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.” (Rev. 22:10-11). We ‘LIFT UP OUR EYES’ to the hills, and our troubled soul finds its rest.

The 121st Psalm, consistent with all of Scripture, teaches us where to look in times of trial and trouble and testing for the ASSURANCE THAT THE LORD IS MY HELPER. We do not look inward at ourselves to see if I am worthy or worth it. This is not a psalm about “me and my God.” And what a relief that is.

We look outside of ourselves, to those times and places which the Holy Spirit directs our attention – THE HILLS where we see that the LORD is ‘MY KEEPER’ because HE HAS PROMISED to be ISRAEL’S KEEPER – Israel of the Old and New Testament. And I am a child of this Israel, an heir of His promise through Holy Baptism. He has sealed His COVENANT with His own blood. Not for my sake, but “FOR HIS OWN NAME’S SAKE,” He will keep me.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord.”

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