King of the Road

Oskar Schell is the lead character in Jonathan Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

The 9-year-old boy’s father has just been killed in the 9/11 terrorist attack, and Oskar is understandably heartbroken over losing his dad.

In the days after the attack, Oskar is poking around his father’s closet and discovers a small key mysteriously hidden in a non-descript envelope that’s inexplicably labeled with the name “Black.” The discovery piques Oskar’s curiosity, and the boy begins a quest to find the lock that the key will open. Oskar is convinced that whatever he finds kept under lock and key will reveal something profoundly important about his dead father and perhaps somehow assuage his grief.

So, unescorted, all by himself, at age 9, Oskar sets out to visit every person in New York City with the name “Black.”  He scours the phone book and maps out his route to accomplish his mission of confronting total strangers and asking them if they own the lock that fits the key.

Oskar’s boyishly willful determination surely triggers breathless, heart-pounding worry. How in the world could he engage in such dangerous travels all alone? And where on God’s green earth is his mother in all this?

In the end, after a tortuous set of plot twists and turns, Oskar learns that it wasn’t his father’s key after all. It simply was an enveloped key hidden in a vase that Oskar’s father had bought at a rummage sale. Angry and upset that he searched for naught, Oskar destroys everything associated with his fruitless effort.

But that’s when Oskar discovers that his mother knew all about his unchaperoned travels from the get-go. In fact, she had contacted everyone in New York City with the name Black and told them what Oskar was doing. They all knew ahead of time that Oskar would be knocking at their doors, and thus they all were well prepared to offer him the basics of hospitable reception.

Mother Schell gave her grieving son the freedom to conduct his search alone, but she was watching over him all along the way by going ahead of him and setting up his appointments. Oskar naively decided to go it alone, but his mother prepared the way to ensure his safety.

That kind of concerned-but-not-controlling overwatching is what this morning’s Scripture lesson proclaims true of the God who us our guardian and guide. Psalm 121 is fuel for a long, hard journey along dangerous and possibly even deadly roads. Listen now for the Word of the Lord.

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. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at 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 on and forevermore. (Psalm 121)

When our children were younger, and Julie and I found ourselves cooped up with the three of them on long car trips or family vacations,

we often sang songs together to pass the time and keep our littles occupied when they inevitably lost interest in the vast overstock of toys, books, Legos, and super-hero action figures that seemingly filled every square inch of available space in our navy-blue minivan.

The songs for our journey were old standards: “Old McDonald,” “B-I-N-G-O,” and several classic favorites from a group called “The Wiggles.” And when the kids got older, the endlessly irritating “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” became part of our playlist whenever we were going over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.

So also it was for the Old Testament people of God and their children as they slogged through the hills of Judea on their way to Jerusalem to celebrate the great feasts of Judaism. By no measure were they taking pleasant Sunday drives over smooth ribbons of highway in air-conditioned, surround-sound comfort. They were making spiritual pilgrimages aboard donkeys or on their own two feet, traversing rocky and uneven paths both narrow and dangerous.

So, they didn’t simply sing pleasant little ditties to pass the time and ratchet down the frequency of their kids’ whining, “Are we there yet?” No, they sang songs rippling with spiritual muscle like Psalm 121 not just to pass the time but also to teach their children something about God. For together, they were on a journey to the Temple, where they expected to experience the very presence of God.

You and I also are making physical and spiritual journeys similarly fraught with personal threat and emotional challenge –

all the while wondering, especially at particularly rocky mileposts, if and how our God is present in the messiness of our days, and the brokenness of our world, and the fear and loathing of our hearts and minds.

Yes, God has delivered us from evil’s bondage through the parted Red Sea of Christ’s blood. Yes, God has led us into the Promised Land by the power and light of the Holy Spirit of God in Christ. Yes, we have been abundantly blessed by heavenly ways and means beyond measure.

But yet, God, at times, still feels distant. We surely believe in God but also surely don’t experience the divine presence as fully or as often as we should, could and want. We walk by faith, not by sight, and our journey into God’s presence is neither short, nor easy, nor safe. So, as we follow behind God’s Old Testament people on a likewise long and arduous pilgrimage, we, too, sing their songs, which intend to lift, sustain and nourish along earthly life’s way.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where does come my help?”

The Israelites literally are looking up at the hills through which they climb their way to the Temple. Their help comes from high above the hills, high above Jerusalem, high above the Temple. Their help comes from the Lord, the Great I Am, the maker of heaven and earth, the creator of stars and planets. Because God has that kind of power, you can be assured that no matter whoever and whatever you encounter on your journey, God can and will help you, so that you finally will experience something of the presence of God.

On what kind of help can you count?

Well, the constant refrain of Psalm 121 suggests that God watches over you.

As you travel through this world on your way to a face-to-face encounter with your Maker and Redeemer, you can count on this: God watches over you – not from a distance, but as the lyrics to an old hymn go, God watches over you as a constant friend whose eye is on the sparrow as much as the divine gaze watches you.

Psalm 121 assures, first, that God’s watching “will not let your foot slip” as you make your way. The slipping here isn’t physical but spiritual – in the sense of the Lord not letting you slip off the path to him and be lost forever. While evil from time to time surely will cause you to slip off the path to the Lord and the road to heaven, God nevertheless will steady your gait, correct your course, and enable your journey into the fullness of his presence to reach its destination.

Psalm 121 assures, second, that God is “your shade at your right hand.” Neither the heat of the sun nor the cold of night, neither the dangers of the day nor the madness of the moonlight, neither depression nor anxiety, neither cancer nor stroke nor COVID, will keep you from finishing your journey into the presence of God. Yes, those things might come crashing down into your life like a ton of bricks, but the Lord will shade you, protect you, and watch over you in such covert ways that all the dangers filling the world by day and by night will not keep you from reaching your destination.

Psalm 121 assures, finally, that God is your ultimate help. “The Lord will keep you from all evil. He will watch over your life.” Those lyric words might stick in your throat, because, of course, all of us have experienced harm in this life. We all bear scars from the multiple wounds of life. But a better translation of the word “life” is “soul.” Which puts the real spiritual meat on the bones of Psalm 121: “The Lord will keep you from all evil. He will watch over your soul.”

As you journey toward your ultimately intimate encounter with God, you can sing of God never letting evil harm your soul.

The journey is long, and hard, and painful, but God will keep evil from destroying your soul. The Lord will help you on your journey into his presence, so that even in the valley of the shadow of death, you have absolutely no reason to cower in fear of evil. God watches over you, so evil cannot keep your soul from meeting God face to face.

And it’s no stretch to take it a step farther: God isn’t just watching. God is “overwatching.” Overwatching!

President Bush used the word in a speech about the war in Iraq. “Our troops,” he said, “will shift from leading operations to partnering with Iraqi forces and eventually overwatching those forces.”

“Overwatching” isn’t just a political buzzword. It’s a tactical strategy in which one unit of a military force is positioned to support the efforts of another unit with immediate firepower. For example, a squadron of tanks is engaging in direct battle with the enemy. Lying in wait up on the hills surrounding the battlefield are several more groups of tanks that can, at a moment’s notice, rain down overwhelming fire on the enemy if needed. Those supporting units take positions where they can scan the terrain, watch as events unfold, and provide effective cover for their comrades below. Those tanks on the hills are overwatching the situation — not leading, not partnering, but overwatching.

Sometimes when he watches over us, the Lord gets directly involved and actually fights our battles for us. Those moments are what we call miracles.

Sometimes when he watches over us, the Lord partners with us, so that we fight along with him in the sense of cooperating with God as co-creators.

And other times when he watches over us, the Lord actually is overwatching, and we relish a sense of assurance that we are not in the fight alone. We might think that God isn’t watching over us in heat of those battles, but indeed God is overwatching us, surveying the whole terrain of our lives, and standing ever ready to provide effective help whenever and however we need it most.

For such steadfast love from the overwatching King of the Road, let all glory and praise be to Father, Son and Spirit.

Amen, and amen! 

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. It is the ninth and final in his series “Summer in the Psalms.” Scholarship, commentary and reflection by Walter Brueggeman, Stan Mast, and J. Clinton McCann Jr. inform the message.

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