(Worship under the Trees service)
This summer, we have been looking at a number of different Psalms in worship, and this is the last in a series of sermons from the Psalms. (Please, hold your applause that it is finally over.) Our scripture this morning is Psalm 121. If you look in your Bible, the heading over this Psalm probably says something like “A Song of Ascents.” Not a Song of Scents, as in smells, but a Song of Ascents, as in ascending, going up. Psalm 120 through 134 are all songs of ascent.
What does that mean? Basically, these were travel songs, songs that groups of travelers would sing on the way to Jerusalem. The journey was along a road that increased in elevation, especially as one approached the city. It was a mostly uphill journey, and the Psalms of Ascent were traveling songs for that journey.
Traveling has always had its challenges, and while the way we travel today is a good bit easier than traveling by foot to Jerusalem, it can still be difficult.
I have two siblings, two sisters, and I remember as a child our family traveling to grandma’s house. We had a 1960 Ford Falcon. It was an automatic, a fancy 2-speed automatic, if you can believe it. The car was blue-green, a shade they don’t really use for cars anymore. It had vinyl upholstery on the seats with lines on it, and in the back seat those lines defined our territory – I was on one side, Leigh Ann on the other, and Amy, the youngest, stuck in the middle. Those lines were not just suggestions – they were definite boundaries that you were not to cross. It just made for a better trip for everybody. Especially my mom and dad, I’m sure. Enough fighting went on in the back seat that this rule was necessary. Susan also has two sisters, and they had the same setup on their car trips. Maybe you had a similar rule. Maybe you still do.
Today, when we go on trips to see family, we will usually have our dog Rudy with us. He is getting a little better, but he is still a terrible traveler. You could say that he has improved to just terrible. He really does not handle riding in the car very well. And whenever we stop, it really slows things down as we have to walk Rudy and let him do is business. And then in the summer, because of the heat, we can’t go in and eat in a restaurant and leave Rudy in the car, so we often take a picnic lunch, which can be nice, but it’s one more thing to take care of before we can go, and who wants to have a picnic when it’s 96 degrees?.
The ancient Israelites did not face these specific challenges, but then again, they had challenges that we definitely don’t have to worry about.
Over the last few weeks, thousands of students have descended on Ames. Some of you are among them. Many came from a short distance – maybe from a town in Iowa, an hour or two away. Others had a longer trip – maybe from the Twin Cities or Chicago, or maybe even from a place like Texas or Virginia or Florida. And then a good number of students came from other countries, from China or Indonesia or Kenya or India. No matter how far you have traveled to get here, moving into the dorm or into an apartment can be a major undertaking.
What do you do on those long trips? How do you pass the time while traveling? For thousands of years, one of the answers has been music. So we have travel songs. “Found a Peanut.” “There’s a Hole in the Ground.” And then one of the worst songs ever and yet at the same time maybe the all-time traveling classic, 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.
Now, we can be a bit more sophisticated than that. And technology does make a difference. We can just plug in our phone and play our favorite music. We can set up playlists specifically for the trip we are on. Many years ago, I drove a van full of students to New York City for a spring break mission trip. So we made a cassette tape of New York songs to play on the way. (I told you it was many years ago.) We had Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York,” Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” “On Broadway” by George Benson, “Jungleland” by Bruce Springsteen, and I don’t know what else. Songs to make you think about your destination and get excited about the trip.
If you are going to the ocean, you can play beach and surfer songs. If you are going to the mountains, you can play John Denver. Sometimes when we go to see my parents, I’ll play “Indiana Wants Me, Lord I can’t Go Back There.”
It is interesting that the Psalms contain 15 different songs of ascent – essentially, 15 different traveling songs. That’s ten percent of the Psalms. But then, consider that there were numerous festivals in Jerusalem each year, with the biggest and most important being Passover. A lot of people would travel to Jerusalem for Passover, and this was not necessarily an easy journey. And so, there were these songs that you would sing every year on your way to Jerusalem, on your way to the temple. When you think of it in this way, the Songs of Ascent become a kind of seasonal collection of music – maybe a distant cousin to our Christmas carols, which as it happens make up close to 10% of our hymn book.
Now, maybe they sang other stuff on the trip. Maybe they sang the early Israelite equivalent of 99 bottles of beer on the wall. If you think of these as seasonal songs, maybe they also sang something like Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman. I don’t know.
But I am impressed that as they traveled, they did so with an awareness and a dependence on God. Psalm 121 is maybe the best-known of the Psalms of Ascent. It begins with an acknowledgment of need.
We often use the metaphor of life as a journey. This can be a helpful image, and if that’s the case, then we all need some help along the way.
Now personally, I am not one to want to stop and ask for directions. Having a GPS or cell phone helps a lot when it comes to finding where we are going, but there are still those times when we need some help finding our way. And then we need gas. Or if you happen to drive a Tesla, you need to find a charging station. Our car may break down on the side of the road and we have to call AAA. And if we are traveling very far we need a place to stay and a place to stop and eat. We cannot get very far without some help.
In the journey of life, we need help. The question is, where do we turn for help? “I lift my eyes to the hills - from where does my help come?” asks the Psalmist.
I had always thought of this as a beautiful, poetic phrase, which it is – “I lift my eyes to the hills” - but there is a reason the hills are mentioned. It is not that they portray strength and steadfastness and power; it is not that we might identify the majesty of the mountains with God. It is actually the opposite. If you were to look to the hills ahead as one journeyed to Jerusalem, you might think of danger, as the hills provided opportunities for robbers to hide and ambush travelers. And in the hills were altars to the god Ba’al and sacred Asherah poles dedicated to foreign deities. Who one might call on for help was a real question. Beyond that, it could be just plain tough going traveling uphill, most often by foot, and maybe carrying small children. The hills were not necessarily a welcome sight.
I lift 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.
God “will not let your foot be moved.” Having one’s “foot moved” was an expression of misfortune. In mountainous areas, losing your footing could lead to a very dangerous situation. I remember helping roof a house one time – it was on a Habitat work site. It had rained earlier in the morning, and at one point as I walked across the roof my foot started to slide – I was afraid I might fall right off the roof.
There are a those times in life when our feet may slip. It can come through a divorce, a layoff, an illness, through a disagreement that becomes a feud that becomes a personal vendetta, it can come through loss and grief. As we journey through life, we need to know that God is there and God will keep us from falling.
And we know that God will be there because God does not sleep. In fact, God neither slumbers nor sleeps. What is the difference? There really isn’t any difference, but in Hebrew poetry, and in English for that matter, such repetition is used for emphasis. God will not fall asleep, God will not fail to take notice, God will be there.
The journey to Jerusalem might take a couple of days. When the group stopped for the night, someone would keep watch. After a hard day of traveling, staying awake was hard. It was important to have someone keep watch who would stay awake and alert. There were dangers lurking, both wild animals and unsavory people.
Some of you can have difficulty staying awake. I know it because I’ve seen it on Sunday mornings. But I have the same trouble, especially on Sunday afternoons.
In this journey of life, we need someone to look out for us, someone to keep watch that we can depend on, someone who will be there, who will not doze off.
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.
There is a reason we call this service “Worship under the Trees.” How many people would come if we decided to have “Worship under the Hot Sun?” It just doesn’t sound as inviting.
Imagine walking all day on that hot, dusty road to Jerusalem. You are tired and thirsty and the sun is blazing down. Then you round a bend in the road and the trees cover you overhead and there is shade. You never thought you’d be so glad just for a little shade.
When Zoe was young, I remember driving to Dallas in the middle of the summer. It was close to 100 degrees and the air conditioner was having a hard time keeping up. The sun was coming in the car, and no matter what we did we couldn’t seem to keep the sun off of Zoe. It was awful. But then we discovered a sun shade that we could stick on the window anywhere. It was fantastic - one of the truly great inventions of modern science. Shade is important.
The Lord is your shade. In the trials of life, in the hard times, God protects us, shades us, helps us on our way. In those times when stress and worry and conflict and apprehension beat down on us like the hot sun, God is there. When we are treated unjustly, when we are afraid, when we are hurting, “The Lord is your shade at your right hand.”
The Psalm concludes, “The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” God’s protection is not a fleeting, temporary thing, but is “from this time on and forevermore.” God goes ahead of us, God is with us, God is behind us, God is all around us, and God will always be there.
This is a wonderful psalm, a great passage of scripture, and as much as anything, it says something to us about our outlook. About attitude. On a long and difficult journey, the Psalmist chooses to be hopeful, to focus on the good, to trust in God, to be reminded of God’s goodness and care. The attitude is one of “Bless the Lord O my soul, I’ll worship your holy name.”
Psalm 121 is a Song of Ascents, a song for the journey, and it raises the question for us: what song do we sing along life’s journey? There are a lot of choices. We could sing:
Poor, Poor, Pitiful MeI apologize, particularly to students, for all of the dated song references, but you get the idea. What is our attitude, what is our outlook, what is our focus as we move through this life? What song do we take with us?
I Can’t Stand It
Money, Money, Money
Take This Job and Shove It
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
I Fall to Pieces
We Can Work It Out
I Just Want to Celebrate
The Psalmist gives us a traveling song to carry with us, a song for the journey. “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” Amen.