(a sermon for July 8, 2012, the 1st of a series; based on Psalm 121)
“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”
The Celtic tradition has a wonderful phrase for those unique places in our lives that have a great spiritual attraction and meaning for our lives – they refer to them as “thin places,” those places where this world and heaven seem to meet. Thin places, it is said “are ports in the storms of life, where …pilgrims can move closer to God …where one leaves that which is familiar and journeys into the divine presence.” Call it a “retreat,” a sanctuary, or call it holy ground, but I suspect we all know of special places where a sense of God’s presence and strength and love are palpable; as though you could literally reach out and touch the hand of the Lord!
When I was young, there was a field of tall grass and wildflowers high atop a hill in back of our camp on the lake that was a “thin place” for me. I spent a good many summer afternoons up there, soaking in the sun with all of nature around me, sometimes playing guitar and singing (albeit rather badly — singing “Sunshine on My Shoulders” over and over again!), learning how to pray and making some real discoveries about my faith and my life – in fact, this was the place where a great many seeds for my own call to ministry were sown; when I was on that hill, I really did feel that God was there with me.
One of the great things about this place was the view – a panoramic vista of hills and valley and green forests that stretched for miles; and when I was young, like the song says, I stood “in awesome wonder” at God’s creation, and as far as I was concerned it was about the closest thing to heaven that I had ever seen. And I remember thinking about how great it would be to actually live out there, to dwell with God out in the wilderness! Hey, sometimes I still feel that way!
Of course, as a grown up who’s growing older by the year, I’m admittedly a bit more hesitant! Truth is, these days I gaze out at such places and wonder if anybody actually lives out there, and if I did, if I’d have all the amenities we’d need? And I’d think about how isolated a place like that would be, and what we’d do if there was an emergency – in the dead of winter, could an ambulance get to us before it was too late? For that matter, how would we get to the store for supplies? And let’s not even talk about bear, coyote and other assorted animals? Say what you will, it could well be dangerous to live out there in the wilderness – I might look out “unto the hills,” but who would be there to help us?
Oh, yeah …my help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
You know, after a fashion, that’s really what this particular psalm is all about. There’s actually a very interesting question of biblical translation and scholarship regarding the 121st Psalm – you may have noticed that the words with which I began this sermon (the first verse of Psalm 121) were different than those from the scripture reading. That’s because between the King James Version (the familiar words with which I began the sermon) and the more modern translations (including the New Revised Standard Version we read here), there is a difference in punctuation and syntax that shifts its meaning a bit.
In the King James Version, that first verse is translated as one sentence: “I will lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help,” which suggests that the beautiful hills become the source of our inspiration, “the hills of God,” that “thin” place where the Lord, who made heaven and earth dwells. Modern scholars, however, translate this as two sentences – “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?” In other words, it’s a question, and in fact, a question of concern. You see, people of biblical times recognized that the “hills,” specifically, the hills surrounding Jerusalem, were a very dangerous place. The road between Jericho and Jerusalem, for instance, were (and still are) lined with limestone cliffs pocked with caves in which robbers would hide before swooping down to attack travelers – needless to say, a journey through those hills was not to be taken lightly!
So, according to these scholars, what you have here is the picture of the traveler looking at all the hills before him on the journey and wondering where he’ll find help on the way – and the answer is, “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” Now, I still love the older translation of this verse, and I’ll always see the hills as an inspiration, but I suspect that both interpretations here have some truth to them. In other words, there’s both beauty and danger to be found in the hills – and God is with us in the midst of both.
This is all borne out in the way that this psalm, which might be called a “psalm of assurance, unfolds. Incidentally, you’ll notice that in scripture, this psalm and several others is also referred to as “a song of ascents,” or a “song of degrees,” as the older translations put it. Historians believe that this psalm might well have been a hiking song, sung by travelers as they climbed those hills on their journey toward the feasts at Jerusalem! I remember when my daughter was young singing a song with her on my shoulders, hiking through the woods — “The Happy Wanderer,” as a matter of fact — as a way of keeping our energy up and our patience strong! Well, in biblical times, this psalm served as a song to keep the travelers full of courage as they moved through the hills: this was a song all about how God will be their strength and protector along the way!
“He will not let your foot be moved” – God will be there to keep you from stumbling on the loose rocks, lest you fall and sprain an ankle.
“The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night” – you won’t burn in the relentless heat of the desert sun, and neither will you suffer in cold and damp of the night.
“The LORD will keep you from all evil” – he will see you through any and all temptation and discouragement and danger along the way.
“He will keep your life” – yes, just as the Lord created life, making the heavens and the earth and also you and me, so the Lord will also keep us and protect us! And he will not sleep on that watch – the one who keeps all of Israel will extend that same care even to you and me, all along every part of journey.
And the beauty part is that whether that journey is “unto the hills,” or in and through the chaotic and often confusing obstacle course we call life, or in that larger journey that each one of us makes from earthly life to life eternal, God shows that same incredible concern for our well-being. You know, one of the things that has always drawn me to the Psalms, and has kind of inspired this whole sermon series, is all this incredible imagery of nature – mountains and eagles and so on – that always points us to a God who is relentless in protecting us, even and especially when we aren’t noticing.
Christian psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck has written, “When I put together the times I just missed being hit by cars while on foot, on a bicycle, or driving; or times when I was driving a car and almost struck pedestrians or barely missed bike riders in the dark; or times when I jammed on the brakes, coming to a stop no more than an inch or two from a vehicle; or times when I narrowly missed skiing into trees or almost fell out of windows; or times when a swinging golf club brushed through my hair – I asked myself: ‘What is this? Do I lived a charmed existence?’” No, says Peck. “T’was grace that brought me safe thus far.” It wasn’t luck or fate, or instinct or wits – it was the unseen presence of the infinitely loving God who was his maker and ever continues to be his keeper.
And it is love, friends – for what else could it be that we’ve gotten this far? I’ve got to be honest here; as I read that wonderful quote from Scott Peck this week, I found myself thinking, well, that’s great, but what about the times that we have stumbled? I for one can name you a whole lot of times in my own life when that swinging golf club somehow managed to hit me square upside the head! As much as the hills fill us awe and anticipation, the fact is we usually face the dangers there head on; and yes, sometimes along the way we get hurt and wounded, “smote” by the sun and moon and the utter difficulties and tragedies of life and living.
And then I realized – the fact that I’m here right now, talking about the journey, says that I’ve made it through; and have come to the other side of the challenges and dangers that were there on the way. And most certainly, that I arrived had much less to do with my strength or cleverness than it did the goodness of God’s own heart surrounding me every step along the way.
Let me share a little secret with you this morning, friends: not to shatter any illusions here, but where this is concerned, even we ministers have a hard time figuring it all out! I know that’s certainly true for me – I struggle sometimes to understand why things happen in life the way they do; why so often the road ahead has to be so incredibly, and frustratingly difficult (!); and why, O Lord, can’t once in a while, things just go a little bit more smoothly?!
I can’t say I’ve gotten any answers to those lamentations; but I can tell you this with great assuredness. Whatever, as the hymn puts it, “the danger, toil and stress” I have faced; whatever struggles I’ve ever had on the way to keep the faith and just keep going; whatever “adventure” there has been for me on the journey – be it good, bad, or just plain old HARD – I only made it because God took that journey along with me.
And I dare say the same could be said of each one of us here.
Truly, with each new day and every new journey of life, as we lift up our eyes unto the hills– we know from whence our help will come. And come what may, we can walk on with confidence and even joy, because we know that “the LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”
Thanks be to the God of the Hills who is the God of our lives!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry