onward and upward

To be human is to be on a journey. It’s a cliché to say so – but it’s also true. To be human is to be on a journey. And since literature to some extent reflects what it is to be human, it will come as no surprise to us that one of the oldest pieces of literature in western civilization is Homer’s Odyssey. The Odyssey, of course, traces the 10 year journey of Odysseus back from Troy and the Trojan wars to his home on Ithaca. It is an eventful ten year journey, to put it mildly – during his travels he encounters the murderous Cyclops, he meets up with six-headed Scylla, and he runs up against the cannibalistic Laestrygonians. Now perhaps our journeys will be so eventful as that of Odysseus, but we are human so we are on a journey.

This is reflected not only in ancient Greek myth and literature, not only in that grand epic of Homer – it is reflect also in many of the films that have come out of Hollywood over the past decades. There is O brother where art thou, and Rain Main, and Sideways, and there is the older film Easy Rider. These are known as road movies – films that reflect the fact that to be human is to be on a journey – that human identity is shaped through journeys.Now sometimes the logic of the journey is applied to our lives in metaphorical way – so we would say we’re all on a journey in terms of our personal experiences and development over time. In this metaphorical sense our life-journey might not involve actually moving from one geographic location to another. The journey is the journey within or the personal journey through different experiences.

But before you get to the metaphorical – a journey is first and foremost about an actual physical moving from one geographic location to another. All of us, even the greatest homebodies among us (and I confess I’m a bit of a homebody) – all of us have been on or will go on a journey. There have been times when we set out on foot from one place to another – or when we mounted the steps of a bus setting out for a different town – or when we settled into a canoe at the edge of a river, wondering what we might find downstream – or when we walked down the gangway onto an airplane heading to some exotic local. The journey, first and foremost, has an actual physical, geographic dimension to it.

This morning we begin a five week look at what are referred to as the Psalms of Ascent – ascent – as in going up. Ascending something, or to something.

Now, although there are presently 150 Psalms in our book of Psalms, some biblical scholars think that in an earlier form the book of Psalms actually ended with Psalm 119. Psalm 119 is of course famous for being the longest Psalm in the Psalter. Psalm 119 in fact affirms so much of what is said in all of the earlier psalms – and would serve as an obvious conclusion to the Psalter. But immediately after Psalm 119 in our Psalter, comes a collection of 15 Psalms each of which has the title: ‘A song of ascents’. If you look in your bible, you’ll see that title at the head of these Psalms.

It is very likely that these 15 Psalms were Psalms for the journey – they became their own little collection of Psalms. More specifically, they were Psalms used by pilgrims who were making a journey up to Jerusalem and to the temple. It is widely believed that these Psalms were spoken or sung, in unison or responsively, as pilgrims went up to Jerusalem for various festivals in the course of the year. We’re going to look at five of these Psalms this over the next few weeks.

And this morning we start with Psalm 121 – which was our responsive Psalm today. Psalm 121 is one of the most familiar of the Psalms – and not only one of the most familiar Psalms. It is one of the most-quoted pieces of scripture. It is a text that speaks so eloquently to us about our lives and experiences. For some of you it is perhaps more familiar in the King James:

            I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence commeth my help.

            My help commeth from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.

            He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.

Of the 15 Psalms of Ascent, Psalm 121 is perhaps most clearly a Psalm for the journey. And in looking at it, we see that in its original context it was almost certainly read in two voices. You will notice that verses 1 and 2 are spoken in the first person. “I lift my eyes up to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord.” But then in verse 3 the text suddenly shifts to the second and third person. “He will not suffer your foot to be moved.”

What’s going on here? Well, the first two verses of this Psalm are spoken by the one who is setting out on pilgrimage – the one who is leaving. As she sets out, this pilgrim asks:

            I lift my eyes up to the mountains, where will my help come from?

She sets out on a journey, and as she goes there is in her mind and heart the question of who will protect her – who will guard her life – who will ensure that she arrives at her destination – who will save her from any trouble. She may not face murderous Cyclops. She may not face six-headed Scylla. But there will invariably be threats along the way and the pilgrim asks the question of who will help her.

Interestingly, the pilgrim immediately answers her own question. She gives an answer of faith to her own question, saying: “My help comes from the Lord., who made heaven and earth.” —  Where will my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the God who created the world.

But then in verse three, however, another voice chimes in. Again, there are two people here. There is the one who leaves on the journey, and then there is someone else who stands back to watch her go. And as she goes, this other person offers words of blessing and promise. In the original context, it might have been a priest who spoke the words beginning at verse 3, or it might simply have been a family member.

The one who leaves asks where her help will come from, and then confesses faith in the God of creation.

And then the one who watches her leave affirms and extends the faith of the first. “Yes, the God of creation is your help. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. The Lord will keep you from all evil.”

There are a number of things we could look at in this Psalm, but I’d like to focus for a moment on those opening words, and ask the question: Why does the pilgrim look to the hills – to the mountains? What does it mean when the pilgrim looks to the hills? Now it’s possible that this looking to the mountain actually has a positive meaning. There is some sense in the Old Testament of God’s presence, of God’s dwelling on the mountain. To lift one’s eyes to the mountain, to the hills, was in a sense to lift your eyes to the place where God dwells.

But more than likely this reference to the hills, to the mountains, is actually negative. This is because the hills are seen as a source of danger and hardship for the pilgrim – looking to the hills and mountains with the dangers they represent lead her naturally to the question “Who’s going to help me get through those hills?”

We know from the story of the good Samaritan that the hills are a place where bandits make their home, and their living. We know from our own experience that hills and mountains are also inevitably a place of danger. You could twist your ankle. You could fall down a steep embankment, or over the side of a cliff. Wild creatures living in the remote hills might attack you. As the Psalm makes clear just a few verses down, on the hills you are also exposed to the sun and the possibility of sunstroke.

A number of times I have heard my father tell a story from 40 years ago when he was minister of Bethel Reformed Church in Abbotsford British Columbia. They had taken the youth group out for a day trip hiking in the mountains. Somehow, one of the youth got lost – at the end of their hike they did a head count – once, and again, and again. That one youth wasn’t there. It was a long, long sleepless night for my father and others – with thoughts of a boy lost and alone on a mountain. And then once search parties had fanned out the next day – there was finally the sweet feeling of relief when he was found. When you mess with a mountain, there are so many ways you can lose – we’ve all heard the stories of those who didn’t make it home safely.

In the face of the difficulties that hills and mountains represent, the one who watches the pilgrim set out on her journey, reminds her and blesses her with these words:

            The Lord will keep your foot secure.

            The creator of the mountains will keep you safe on the mountain.

            The Lord will keep you from all evil.

            The God of creation will keep his watchful eye on you every minute of the journey.

            Go in confidence. Trust in God. Be at peace.

The hills and mountains represent a very real physical danger for any traveller, but God’s people can rest assured that God who creates and redeems the world in Christ Jesus will watch over them.

We’re trying to get a sense of the meaning of the hills and mountains in this Psalm. On the one hand, there is the threatening nature of the hills and mountains themselves. But there’s something more we should add – something that turns us in another direction.

You see, not only is there the threatening nature of the hills and mountains themselves. But very concretely we have to ask what the pilgrim sees as she looks at the hills in Judea and near Jerusalem. What does she see? Rocks – certainly. Some scraggy trees – of course. Paths that are rough and dangerous – yes. But she sees something else. When she looks up to the hills she sees shrines – shrines erected in the name of a whole variety of gods. You see, standing in the background of the Psalm, and standing right there in front of the pilgrim, is a multiplicity of gods that were prayed to, a multiplicity of gods whose favour was sought.

I lift my eyes up to the hills, and when I look to the hills I see the places of worship for a whole variety of gods – and each one of these gods offers me protection. So the question arises for the pilgrim – where will she place her trust. “I lift my eyes up to the mountains – where will my help come from.”  There are various offers of protection and safety to be considered. Will she put her trust in this god or that god – will she leave an offering at this shrine or at that shrine? Where should she place her trust? Who will she trust?

If your friend or loved one is about to set out on a journey, how would you ask them about their source of security. Perhaps we would ask whether they had called Blue Cross to register for travel insurance. Or perhaps we would ask whether their cell phone was charged in case they need to make an emergency call. Or perhaps, if it was winter, we make ask whether they had a shovel, a blanket, a flashlight in the trunk of the car. Would we remind them that they can put their trust in God? Would we offer a prayer of blessing upon them?

It’s interesting to notice that further down in this Psalm there is another veiled reference to this multitude of gods. We read in verse 3 and 4: “He who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” There was a common belief among Israel’s neighbours that their gods slept or died in the winter season and revived again in seasons of growth and harvest. In the book of first Kings we hear the prophet Elijah taunting the prophets of Baal that there god has fallen asleep.

The second speaker in this Psalm – the one who sends the pilgrim on her way with a blessing, this second speaker reminds the pilgrim that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Israel is a God who does not slumbers or sleeps. This God is always watchful – always protecting – never asleep on the job.

If you are on a journey and have to choose between a god that is likely going to nod off and the God of Israel, who neither slumbers nor sleeps – the choice seems self evident.

Not only does this Psalm insist that the God of Israel will not fall asleep, in comparison with lesser gods – this Psalm also insists that the God of Israel is the maker of heaven and earth – this God has created everything and so has primacy and authority over all things. To declare that God is the creator of all things is to declare that all other gods are secondary or ineffectual or inadequate. There is the one true God, declares this Psalm of Ascent – put your trust in him..

At the end of such a sermon it would be very easy for the preacher to start wagging that finger, reminding us of all the ways we fail to trust God – reminding us of all the ways we fail to put our faith in the creator who watches over us day by day. Certainly it wouldn’t be inappropriate for us to be reminded of this failing.

But this Psalm is much less a rebuke than it is an invitation. An invitation for us to form a community of faith and dialogue in which we learn to trust the living God with our day to day lives. In which we encourage one another to resist the lesser gods that come to us with promises of security and protection. In which we extend the blessing of God to one another with God’s words of promise: “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep you going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” I invite you to take up this Psalm in the week ahead, making use of today’s insert – that this Psalm might come to life for each one of us. That we might learn to trust the Lord, the creator.

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