Pentecost 19C: Plagues and Promises

The lessons for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament & Psalm, Option I

Old Testament      Jeremiah 31:27–34

Psalm                    Psalm 119:97–104


Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      Genesis 32:22–31

Psalm                    Psalm 121

New Testament     2 Timothy 3:14–4:5

Gospel                   Luke 18:1–8

Psalm 121 features the repetition of a single Hebrew word, six times in six verses. The verb is shaMAR, variously translated as “to keep, to watch over, or to guard.” Here it definitely means to guard or protect.

A worshipper in ancient Israel comes up to the Temple, looks up to the hills, and wonders “where will my help come from?” Hills are spoken about in various ways in the Bible, and in our lives today. They can be full of those “hillbillies” who will try to waylay us and rob us, as they did the victim on the Jericho road in the parable of the Good Samaritan. But this worshipper, reflecting on the faith she has learned since childhood, remembers that the One True Creator God made those hills. She leans toward an alternate idea, expressed in Isaiah 52:7.

How beautiful upon the mountains

are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,

who brings good news,

who announces salvation,

who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

The worshipper then hears the Word of God’s promises:

3     He will not let your foot be moved;

he who keeps you will not slumber.

4     He who keeps Israel

will neither slumber nor sleep.

5     The Lord is your keeper;

the Lord is your shade at your right hand.

6     The sun shall not strike you by day,

nor the moon by night.

7     The Lord will keep you from all evil;

he will keep your life.

8     The Lord will keep

your going out and your coming in

from this time on and forevermore. (NRSV translation)

These promises are all variations on the theme struck by that Hebrew word shaMAR . God keeps—or better, God guards. God guards Israel without sleeping. This creator God is always shading from the scorching heat of the day by guarding at the worshipper’s  right hand. God also gives shade from the moon at night to make a hiding place from robbers. The LORD guards from all evil and from death. The Lord keeps guard over all the moments of mundane, daily routine—the going out and coming in.

I’ll testify to the confidence this inspires. For almost this entire pandemic my wife and I have not suffered a single bout of illness. We isolated, wore masks, and were vaccinated. But since mid August of this year I have contracted Covid-19, a rebound of it, and two rounds of bronchitis. During this time I have dreaded bedtime. Several of my Covid nights I didn’t sleep at all because of rather extreme sinus congestion, not to mention a night of shivering chills and gastrointestinal upset. Then came the many nights of coughing from Covid and the bronchitis.

And at night time the fears and foreboding gather ‘round. These nights, when I “look up to the hills,” I think nature might well be rebelling against us. We have abused and encroached and wasted and polluted, and the Earth seems to be complaining wildly against it all. Scientists have a word for it all that we seldom hear, because it is too terrible to contemplate. That word is zoonotic, meaning a disease that is spread between animals and humans. As long as we give the animals their space and keep to our own, things are all right. But when our carelessness and greed violates this order of things, we suffer. We kill and sell the animals for food. We feed animals other animal byproducts. We keep animals confined. And now we are suffering BIG TIME. Think of AIDS, ebola, SARS, Covid-19, monkeypox, bird flu, E. coli, lyme disease, rabies, and a growing list of other plagues. They are all zoonotic.

When I look up unto the hills at night, when I am coughing or struggling for breath, I wonder from whence cometh my help. I wonder will I die like my mother, who struggled with emphysema on her death bed as though she were drowning. I wonder if that is what all humankind is bringing upon itself as nature fights back.

So now I must worship as the psalmist did. I must remember what people of faith have taught me all these years, there is a Creator God who made all these animals, all these humans, and all of these viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi. And that this God does not doze off or hibernate or go into recession like all those gods of nature or gods of science or gods of the economy. This God is by my side when I go out or come in or lie down to sleep or not to sleep.

Suffer, I may. Know fear and doubt, I undoubtedly will. But if I can live as a part of the heritage of Israel, if I can live as a worshipper of the One True God, if I can hunger and thirst for righteousness, and if I can be faithful to Creation as Creation has been faithful to me, evil will be kept out. Death will be kept out and life in. Whether I live or whether I die, I will be the LORD’s. This will be because the faithful and eternal God guards me and all Israel, and all who look up to the hills for the LORD’s coming.


About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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