Date: March 8, 2020

Bible Text: Psalm 121 |

Psalm 121 is for sojourners, for travelers, for people setting out on a journey. It was a hymn on the lips of pilgrims headed to the temple in Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. And because it was a well known prayer people would recite it to one another as they set out on other types of journeys. When you or a loved one had to say “goodbye” and couldn’t muster your own words, the liturgy of Psalm 121 would suffice.

A friend (and former boss of mine) and her family used to recite this together as a family before they would leave on long car trips. Picture her buckling her two kids in the car seats, “The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.”

Picture a traveler in ancient Israel buckling his sandals as he leaves his wife for battle: “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?” and then, almost to reassure himself he says, “My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.” And you can almost hear his wife’s words of encouragement: “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.” God guides your steps, in other words. You won’t slip. God takes the nightwatch, even when you lay your head down at night and the moon shines its beams, giving enough light for the enemy to attack.

I’d like to introduce you to another traveler, another person who trusted God’s keeping in his “going out and coming in.” Blind Willie Johnson was a phenomenal blues and gospel singer who was born near the turn of the century and died as World War II was ending. His influence on blues and its successors is incalculable. A lot of famous artists have covered his songs. One interesting thing about him is that he mastered the technique of the slide guitar. Another is that one of his songs, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was included on the Voyager I spacecraft in a time capsule of sorts so that, in case extraterrestrial life forms found it, they would know something about the human experience of loneliness.

Mr. Johnson was born and died in Texas, but traveled all over the south as an evangelist, which was not typical of blues singers. You see, the blues didn’t usually deal with religious stuff; they were the secular “twin” of the African American spirituals. But Mr. Johnson preached all over the place using the blues — he perched himself on street corners, singing the gospel to passersby in Texas towns and as far away as the French Quarter in New Orleans (not a place people were open to being prosthelytized, I imagine) and even farther away in Atlanta. This was the 20s, so for a black man to travel around the South… well, you could probably hear him reciting Psalm 121.

I’d like to play one of his songs for you, “God Don’t Never Change.” The lyrics are printed in your bulletin so you can follow along.

Yes God, God don't never change
He's God, always will be God
God in the middle of the ocean
God in the middle of the sea
The help of the great creator
Truly been a God to me
Hey God, God don't never change
God, always will be God
God in creation
God when Adam fell
God way up in heaven
God way down in hell
He's God, God don't never change
God, always will be God
Spoke to the mountain
Said how great I am
Want you to get up this mornin'
Skip around like a lamb
Well he's God, God don't never change
God, always will be God
God in the time of sickness
God in the doctor too
In the time of the influenza
He truly was a God to you
Well he's God, God don't never change
He's God, always will be God
God in the pulpit
God way down at the door
He's God in the amen corner
God all over the floor
Well he's God, God don't never change
God, always will be God

In the spirit of the psalm, Mr. Johnson lifts his eyes to the mountains… and to the oceans. His soul surges as high as heaven and sinks as low as hell. He invokes the Creator of heaven and earth who also works in the small “stuff” of life, like doctors and preachers.

The stanza about doctors, that’s what drew me in this week. Did you catch that line about the flu? “God in the time of sickness / God in the doctor too / In the time of the influenza / He truly was a God to you.” He’s referring to the Spanish Flu of 1918. That pandemic wiped out about ten percent of the world’s population. Johnson recorded this song about ten years later.

What amazes me about Mr. Johnson and the Psalmist is their utter confidence in God’s constancy. Both drive their messages home: the Psalmist about how God keeps (guides, guards, protects) and Mr. Johnson about God just being God, never changing. What faith!

It strikes me that this idea of putting one’s faith in God for protection is deeply true for some and deeply problematic for others, and that many of us have had both experiences. Or we might not even be sure what means. At some times in our lives we’ve felt God’s watchfulness in our bones… and at other times like the Holy One is asleep on the job. In these “wilderness” moments, to draw on our Lenten theme, we’ve known both God’s watchful presence and God’s seemingly derelict absence.

Mr. Johnson’s assurance, God’s “Truly been a God to me” and “He truly was a God to you,” is astounding. You see, the thing about the blues is that, as a musical form, it was born in oppression. In the words of James Cone:

“The origin and definition of the blues cannot be understood independent of the suffering that black people endured in the context of white racism and hate… The blues tell us about black people’s attempt to carve out a significant existence in a very trying situation.” [1]

The blues weren’t sung for artistic expression alone, but to cope with a life that was brutal. Mr. Johnson knew the scourge of racism; his song that made it on the Voyager was inspired by his experience of having to sleep outside so often during his travels because, as a black man, he wasn’t allowed to stay in most hotels. Although he recorded over 30 songs, he died poor. And he knew personal tragedy too: he was blind because, at the age of seven, his stepmother threw a lye mixture in his face. And he died from pneumonia after his house burned down because he slept on the foundation amid the ashes. So it’s all the more astounding the depth of his faith in the changelessness of God.

When it comes down to it, this is something we cannot know intellectually. To feel kept is a heart thing. To feel kept is an experience born of really hard times in which we come to the end of ourselves. We find ourselves “lifting our eyes to the hills” when we wander into unfamiliar territory, stumbling along the edge of our limits… which is hard for us who pride ourselves on independence and self-sufficiency.

What we can learn from the Psalmist and from Mr. Johnson is how to move forward in faith in wilderness seasons. To feel kept is a matter of trust. That trust is the "secret ingredient" that allows us to take those brave next steps whenever the journeys of life seem perilous. We are able to put one foot in front of the other precisely because “God will not let your foot be moved.” In the words of Dorothee Sölle, “Only life that opens itself to the other, life that risks… contains promise.” [2]

However threatening the road that lies ahead appears, our calling is to hold on to the One who “don’t never change,” the One who “neither slumbers nor sleeps.” We do this not because God promises that bad won’t happen to us, or because God promises to fix things for, but because God promises to give us just enough strength and sustenance for the journey. Whatever that journey looks like, whether that’s walking into a global pandemic, or a pivotal election year, or a job search, or a bleak diagnosis, or the vicissitudes of aging, or some other difficult “road” to walk, we claim our “kept-ness.”

This is so vital for living in these times. To paraphrase the former First Lady, “when they go low, we go deep.” In the face of rampant injustice, we look to the One who “brings good news to the poor and freedom to the captives.” In the face of darkness and chaos, we put our confidence in the One who “hovered over the formless void and said, ‘Let there be light.’” In the face of corruption and dishonesty, we trust the “Spirit of truth who will guide us into all truth.” In the face of life’s uncertainties and the constant flurry of change that makes us so weary, we lift our eyes to “the Everlasting One... the Creator of the ends of the earth who does not grow tired.”

Friends, whatever “blues” you encounter on the various journeys of your life, even if you don’t feel it in the moment, you are kept by the One who never sleeps, by the One who “don’t never change.” Thanks be to God!


[1] James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (1972), p. 110.

[2] Dorothee Sölle, The Window of Vulnerability (1990), p. 7, quoted by Alejandro F. Botta in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A (2013), p. 132.