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!) 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; or Sense, as in Common Sense; or Cents, as in Dollars and Cents; but a Song of Ascents, as in going up. Psalm 120 through 134 are all songs of ascent.
What does that mean? They didn’t need elevator music, right? 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.
You know, traveling has always had its challenges. 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 absolute 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 a terrible traveler. He is actually better than he used to be; you could say that he has improved to terrible. And then in the summer, because of the heat, we can’t go in somewhere 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 leave, and who really 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 from a place like Texas or New Jersey or Florida. And then a good number of students came from other countries, from China or Indonesia or Ghana or Nigeria. 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, 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.
Nowadays we can be a bit more sophisticated than that. Technology make a difference. We have radio. We have Spotify. We can stream whatever music we want. If you are going to the ocean, you can play beach music and surfer songs. Going to visit my parents, I have sometimes played “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. These were songs that you would sing every year on your way to Jerusalem. When you think of it in this way, the Songs of Ascents 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 hymnal.
I am impressed that as the Israelites traveled, they sang Psalms filled 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. When we travel, many of us depend on GPS or a navigation system. We have to stop for gas – or maybe 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 all on our own.
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?”
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. In this case, it is actually the opposite. If you were to look to the hills ahead as one journeyed to Jerusalem, you might think of danger. 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 – a place of uncertainty, hardship, potential danger - 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 Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
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 for Humanity 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 in any number of ways - through a layoff, a divorce, an illness, through a disagreement that becomes a feud that becomes a personal vendetta, it can come through loss and grief. It can come about because of a poor choice we have made. It happens. 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. God will not fail to take notice.
The journey to Jerusalem might take a few 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 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.”
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’s just not 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.
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. God goes ahead of us, God is with us, God is behind us, God is all around us, and God will always be there.
I look to the hills – from where will my help come? We actually ask this question all the time.
I look at the syllabus – from where will my help come?
I think about my roommate – from where will my help come?
I look at the bank statement - from where will my help come?
I think of so many suffering from the coronavirus and I think about hospitals running out of beds – from where will our help come?
We see the devastating images from fires and hurricanes and flooding and earthquakes. We see and experience the effects of a warming planet. We see the awful images of war. We worry about those serving in Afghanistan and so many trying to get out of that country. We lift our eyes to the hills. From where will our help come?
This is not just an ancient song voiced by those going to Jerusalem. It is a question we all ask.
On a long and difficult journey, the Psalmist chooses to be hopeful, to sing of trust in God and remember God’s goodness and care.
Now here’s the thing: as a song, this is not supposed to be a solo effort. This Psalm was sung by the community as they traveled together. Our help comes to all of us together from God, and sometimes the way that God offers help is through the strength and compassion and guidance and acceptance of the community of faith. So think of this as a great choir of many voices singing together.
The Psalmist gives us a song for the journey of life. “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” Amen.