Trusting the Keeper
God: A Homily for the Second Sunday of
Preached at All Saints,
Collingwod, and St. Luke’s, Creemore, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 5 March,
Texts for this Sunday: Readings – Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans
4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep
your going out and your
from this time on and for
The frequency of the word keep in Psalm
121 today got me thinking this week about this little but important word, one
we use in everyday life, but in biblical terms speaks profoundly to how God
cares for us.
when we talk about keeping things, we need to get an important question out of
the way. Are you a hoarder or a
declutterer? The debate between these
two tendencies often rages in marriages and households. Declutters frown on stacks of unread books,
old tools stashed in the garage, and messy junk drawers Declutterers are
influenced by self-help books like Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic
of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.
. They ask
pointed questions, like, “Why are you keeping that?”
the other hand are always thinking ahead to some vague future when someone
might need that half-used tin of paint or that stack of old National Geographic
magazines. Hoarders keep hobby supplies,
or computer cords from long-forgotten gadgets, just in case. “Those things are useful,” they say, “we
should keep them”.
seems to me that we mostly use the word “keep” in relation to possessions or
things that have value, whereas its opposite, “discard”, connotes
worthlessness. These meanings are at
work in the psalms as well. Sometimes
in the psalms we hear an anxiety that God might be like Marie Kondo and get rid
of us. Psalm 51 includes this plea, “Do not cast me
away from your presence” (Ps 51.11), and Psalm 121 addresses that anxiety by
assuring us that God will indeed hang on to us because God finds us of value.
The word “keep”
in Psalm 121 also has a range of deeper meanings, one’s that we still use today when we use the
word in ways that give value to people and customs. For example, if a friend is in distress, we
might say that we will keep company with them, and in extreme cases, as by a
hospital bed, we might keep vigil. Honourable
people keep promises. Observant Jews
keep Kosher, Muslims keep the fast during Ramadan, and some old school
Christians might still keep the Sabbath.
the word keep is pronounced samar (pronounced shaw-mar). It occurs three times in Psalm 121, and
occurs frequently throughout the Hebrew scriptures. I was interested to learn that it doesn’t
have much to do with possessions.
Rather, to keep something is to look after it, as we see in some of the
first appearances of the word in scripture.
In Genesis, God gives the garden to Adam “to dress and keep it” (Gen
2.15), and Cain tells God that he is not his brother Abel’s “keeper”. Often
“keep” is used in Hebrew scripture to mean following the will of God. In First Kings God promises that his people
will prosper if they “keep [my] statutes and judgements” (1 Ki 2:3), and there
are many similar examples.
In the case
of our Psalm, samar means protect, guard, or watch over. In the King James Bible, keep is usually
translated as “preserve”. So, verse 7
of our Psalm appears in the Book of Common Prayer as “THE LORD shall preserve thee from all evil: / yea, it is even
he that shall keep thy soul”. So in Psalm 121, the repeated promises of
God’s protection and faithfulness have made this a particularly beloved psalm in
times of trouble and grief, and so it is often chosen for funeral liturgies.
As is often the case in our faith lives, however, God’s
promises sometimes feel (and I’m choosing my words somewhat carefully here)
less than fully assuring. If I take
Psalm 121.7 as my mantra, and pray repeatedly that “the Lord will keep me from
all evil”, does this mean that I will never get sick or suffer misfortune? No, of course not. No preacher would promise such a thing,
though we often wish we could. Life teaches us that we can get cancer, we can
get fired, we can lose people we love.
At such times, our prayer might not take the form of Psalm
121. Our prayer might instead take the
form of Psalm 44, which in some ways a mirror opposite psalm. Whereas in 121 God promises that he “will
neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps 121.4), in 44 the psalmist tells God to wake up
and quit sleeping on duty because everything has gone to hell in a handcart.
23 Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
do not cast us off for ever!
24 Why do you hide your face?
do you forget our affliction and oppression?
So we can either conclude from the contrast between these two
psalms either that the Bible (or God) is inconsistent, or something deeper is
You may have heard of the pastor Rick Warren, the author of The
Purpose Driven Life. In a recent
essay on God and human pain, Warren describes something that his own chronic
pain from an illness, and the suicide of his young adult son, have taught
him. As Warren says, there’s a good
reason why one in three of the one hundred and fifty psalms, like Psalm 44, are
the so-called psalms of lament.
These psalms can themselves be modes of prayer, ways of
giving our pain and anger and sadness back to God, which can in itself be a
kind of worship. Warren writes: “Worship is not always celebration, praise, and thanksgiving.
Expressing every aspect of grief – shock, sorrow, struggle,
surrender – can bring you closer to God too”. (God’s
Purpose in Your Pain by Rick Warren (plough.com))
So if prayer
part of worship, and worship is giving back to God what God has given us, then the psalms all have their place. Psalm
121 expresses our trust in God’s goodness and faithfulness, and Psalm 44
expresses our sad longing for God’s faithfulness when we can’t see it. Both prayers are different sides of the same
coin, which we might call trust in God.
One of the
things that Canon Martha Tatarnic has taught some of us in our recent book
study is that trust in God is complicated.
Trust falls apart if we think that God is there to fulfil our personal
agendas and check off our wish lists. Trust
in God is much more complicated because God is not a fairy Godfather. She write that “Trusting God is surrendering
to the whirlwind, the silence, the stranger, the wilderness, the wandering, the
cross. It’s also about surrendering to a
supreme mercy and a great love” (Why Gather chapter 17). Canon Martha’s book comes down to one simple
point: that we gather because we trust
God’s faithfulness to us shown in Jesus Christ.
I am sure
that during his long forty day fast in the wilderness, or in the Garden of
Gethsemane, Jesus himself prayed Psalm 121 as an expression of his own trust
in his heavenly father. Likewise I
would recommend that we pray this psalm when we need to anchor ourselves in
God’s love and faithfulness, but with one important difference.
In verse 1
the psalmist prays “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help
come?”. The idea that we lift our eyes
up to God, that God is somewhere far above us, is very common in the Hebrew
Psalm 123 begins with the verse, “To you I lift up
my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!” But, as we heard in our gospel reading, Jesus
has descended from heaven (Jn 3:13).
The gap between us and God has been closed, Jesus has come to be with
us, to stand beside us, and to share in our human experience and pain. Our journey of Lent leads us to the place
where Jesus himself surrenders to God’s love and mercy. So we don’t need to lift our eyes up to
heaven because Jesus is among us and beside us.
I started this homily thinking about the word keep. Let me return to that idea. Here in the gospel, in the death and
resurrection of Jesus, we find our most profound understanding of how God keeps
us. In the midst of pain and even
death, God who did not abandon his son will keep and preserve us. We can surely trust God to care for us and
keep us in all the seasons of our lives, the good and bad, “from this time on
and for evermore”. Amen.