A John Webster Sermon on God’s Help

I lift up my eyes to the hills. 

From where does my help come? 

My help comes from the Lord, 

who made heaven and earth. 

He will not let your foot be moved; 

he who keeps you will not slumber. 

Behold, he who keeps Israel 

will neither slumber nor sleep. 

The Lord is your keeper; 

the Lord is your shade on your right hand. 

The sun shall not strike you by day, 

nor the moon by night. 

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 forth and forevermore.

Psalm 121 

THE THEME OF PSALM 121 is a question which presses daily upon the people of God: “From where does my help come?” (121:1). That is: Who keeps God’s people? Who maintains their life? Who is it that they must turn to in distress? In the midst of the vexation and the guilt which press in on God’s people, in whose name is their help to be found? And the answer that the psalm gives to those questions is simple and direct and yet gives us enough for a lifetime of thought and prayer: “My help comes from the Lord” (121:2). What are we to make of the question and its answer? 

First, we will not make much sense of what the psalm has to say unless we can see that the question “From where does my help come?” is a real and persistent question for people of God—for these people of God in the psalm, and for us, the company of Jesus Christ. God’s people are always in some measure distressed. They need help. It is a basic part of the experience of God’s people that their lives are characterized by affliction. And that affliction is not some abnormal or occasional state of affairs, a temporary visitor. Distress, affliction, and neediness are permanent and basic characteristics of the life of God’s people; they are built into the condition in which they exist. This distress takes many forms. But behind the question which the psalm asks, there seem to be two particular kinds of adversity which beset God’s people, both of which we may readily recognize as our own. 

One kind of adversity is weariness. Weariness is the distress which comes when we realize that our resources are simply not up to what we have to do. Whether on our own or in our common life, we are utterly overwhelmed by the task which faces us. As the community of Jesus Christ, we have to carve out a way of living in a society which does not care a fig for the Christian gospel, which almost never thinks of the Church—or, if it does think of the Church, thinks of it as a joke, or a handy source of moral maxims or wedding venues. As individual believers, we find that serious discipleship, making the gospel and the Christian confession our own, in some measure makes us strangers to our neighbors. There’s so much to which we have to say “No,” so much which offends or wounds or disaffects us. For both the Christian community and the individual believer, the long-term effect of this kind of estrangement can be a deep exhaustion; if we are to hold on to our confession, if we are to swim against the tide and not just drift with it, we will become deeply drained. And so we must ask: Who will keep us? Who will hold our lives when we can do so ourselves no longer? 

A second kind of adversity is directionlessness. There is a spiritual unsteadiness which comes from feeling that the ground is moving beneath our feet. This kind of adversity often besets the Church as an institution. One common symptom of it is church leaders making public their uncertainties about what the Church is called to be or whether the gospel is really true; it takes the form of a crisis of confidence in the viability of the Church’s life of faith. The effect is that the mission of the Church quickly becomes incoherent and aimless, grasping at all sorts of things to try and give the impression that we know who we are and what we are supposed to be about; but none of this can hide the fact that at heart what’s being expressed is a heavy sense of aimlessness. And so, again, we have to ask: Who will preserve our going out and our coming in (121:8)? Who will direct us in our ways? 

Thus the psalm faces us with our weariness, and with our incapacity to set a bearing and direct ourselves on the right path. Now, in this situation of distress out of which the psalm comes, we must avoid two false answers to the question of where our help is to be found. We must not despair; and we must not look to any sources of assistance but to God alone. We must avoid despair, because despair is unbelief. To despair of our situation, however taxing, however threatening, is to say that God has no help for us, that God himself has no resources with which to sustain us, and that therefore there is no one to keep us and preserve us. But we may not escape from the anguish of our confession by denying our confession. We must learn that, for the people of God, surrendering is simply not an option. And, moreover, we must avoid looking to other sources of assistance. 

One of the most common forms of our human perversity is the inconstancy in which we look around to any number of places for help, but never direct ourselves to the one place where help can really be found. Need doesn’t always drive us into the arms of God. Often enough it does the opposite: It becomes yet another occasion for running away from the truth, for refusing that painful healing in which alone is our well-being. Even our need becomes an opportunity for sin. We are in need, serious need; and part of our vexation is that we struggle against our need. It’s not just that we need help; it’s that we can’t accept that the help we need is in God alone. 

In just this jeopardy and peril God meets us. In his mercy, God overrules our hopelessness and perversity, and sets before us the single fact that is at the core of the psalm’s confession: Our help comes from God. There is help for God’s people; it really does come; and it comes from God alone. What more may we learn of this from the psalm? 

First, and basically, our help comes from the Lord alone. He will not suffer us to be moved; he will keep Israel; he is our keeper and defence; he will keep our soul. The help of the people of God in affliction is in God alone. How will we survive? Not because of any strength or cleverness or virtue of our own; not because we can somehow find in ourselves or in our culture the resources to win through; above all, not because we can be busy about the enterprise of self-preservation. We will survive because and only because of who God is and what God does. And so, who is this God who is our help and preserver? And what does he do in this matter of our need? 

He is maker of heaven and earth, and therefore our maker, the one to whom we owe our very being (121:2). In making this confession of the God who comes to our help, we are confessing two things of supreme goodness and power to encourage. We are confessing that the Lord who is our helper is almighty. He is the one who brings life out of nothing; he is the Lord, the giver of life. And that means that he is not powerless against our afflictions in the way that we are. He does not suffer from our distresses, he is not overwhelmed by what masters us. He is the Lord, the one whose power is infinite. And because he is such, and because he turns to us in our need and helps us, we are indeed helped. We do not stand isolated, but we are in the hands of almighty God. And because we confess that God is creator, we also confess that he is the governor of all things. The God of creation is also the God of providence. What God makes, God governs; God stands in constant and faithful and loving relation to what he has made. The creation is not made and then released from his hand to go wherever it will. It is held by him. It is preserved by him. With unfathomable gentleness and secrecy God guides all things to their true end. He appoints his creation for glory, and under his governance all things will be glorified. 

Who does this? God himself does it. The Lord himself is thy keeper, the psalmist confesses. That is, God the Lord, creator of all things and governor of all things, himself preserves and keeps us. The psalm’s confession is unthinkable without a sense that God is himself active in relation to what he has made. For the Christian confession, this active relation, this sustaining presence of God, is the presence of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Because Jesus Christ is alive and enthroned and rules over all things, and because in the power, the supreme power, of the Holy Spirit Jesus Christ is with us and among us and in us, then we may confess that the Lord himself is our keeper. We confess that the Lord is our keeper because Jesus Christ is present; because through his Spirit our lives are caught up into his purposes; because in our affliction and distress we are not left without his aid. Above all, we confess that the Lord himself is our keeper because of the promise of God: I will not leave you comfortless. That’s why the Church of Jesus Christ, faced with weariness and lack of direction, can confess: “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life” (121:7). 

What then of the practical importance of this confession? How will it shape us as we live for God? Two things. 

First, we must pray for the grace of composure. There’s a calmness, a quiet and yet very real confidence in the psalm. God does not sleep through the misery of the world; God will shade us in the heats of the day; God will watch us as we journey; God will keep us. It’s simple enough. But to get to those affirmations, we have to climb over a lot of rubble inside ourselves. We have to learn what is extraordinarily hard for us to learn: not to listen to our fears; not to be tossed around by whatever comes across our path; not to give credence to the lies that God has fallen asleep or just given up protecting us. Those things take a lifetime to learn for most of us, because learning them involves overcoming some of our most basic drives and desires and foolishness. But it’s only as we learn those things that we begin to live with a measure of Christian composure. Christian composure is a very particular thing, however. It’s an equanimity that is given to us, which we don’t make up from our own resources. It’s given to us as we make our confession of the lordship of God, as we learn how to praise God, how to trust the gospel, how to see all things in the light of God’s mercy, how to keep our hearts by God’s promises. 

Second, we must come to see where we truly are. We’re in the hands of God. We’re in his presence. More than anything else, we’ve been set in fellowship with him, for he is our God and we are his people, and so we are not left to our own devices. More than anything else, the Church of Jesus Christ and the individual members of that Church need to set their hearts on reality. And reality is this: God is at our right hand. God is our preserver. The God who made heaven and earth comes to our assistance. St. Augustine says this: 

Choose for yourself Him, who will neither sleep nor slumber, and your foot shall not be moved. God is never asleep: if you wish to have a keeper who never sleeps, choose God for your keeper. 

But St. Augustine knew very well that we can choose God only because God has chosen us, has destined us to be those who are kept and preserved by him, for his glory and our endless comfort. Amen.

Webster, John. Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian . Lexham Press. 

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