I remember a very sweet woman who was a member of one the churches I served early in my career. One afternoon I was visiting with her and ask her if she had travelled much in her life. Sitting there in her favorite chair she told me; “ships can sink, planes can crash, and cars can blow a tire – but my rockin’ chair ain’t been nowhere and has never put me in danger.” There has always been something about a trip that make people pause and take account. For the one going there is great anticipation and excitement, but also the reality that they are moving out into the unknown. For the one staying back, there is the sureness of separation and the uncertainty of a loved one’s safe return. My mother has had a tradition for as long as I can remember. Before any of us headed out on a trip she would pray a simple prayer. “Lord, grant them travelling mercies, put a fence around them and make them safe.” This little prayer always seemed to make her – and us – feel a little better about the journey that awaited us.
This ancient psalm probably first found its place as a traveler’s psalm (1), kind of like my mother’s simple prayer. With the passage of time the Psalm took on a larger role. At the top of Psalm 121 is a small notation that it is a psalm of ascent. This designation links this psalm with others that were pilgrimage psalms, claimed by the pilgrims as they made their way to and from the Temple. This journey carried huge religious implications and was no small task. By the time of Jesus, Jewish pilgrims would travel from across the Roman Empire, joining travelling caravans slowly but surely toward Jerusalem and the Temple. Travel was both difficult and dangerous. But, for the Jewish pilgrim, the prospect of bringing a sacrifice to God in the Temple grounds – of being in the presence of God - was worth the effort and the danger. “No wonder, then, that the group of pilgrims, singing this psalm as they made the ascent to the “City of God, were tremendously excited.....The pilgrims were met at the gate of the Temple by elders who welcome them in the Name of the Lord.” (2)
Bruce brought our focal Psalm to life in song moments ago. Now the Lai Baptist Church add their voices and honors the passion as they sing, “The Greatest Gift.” (LBC Choir sings in Hakha)
Thank you for sharing with us. I truly appreciate how your story of faith and the heart of this Psalm come together. This short Psalm has spoken with power throughout history."It has contributed a phrase to the Apostles’ Creed and, except for Psalm 23, with which it shares the same fundamental message, Psalm 121 is probably recited from memory as often as any other in Psalter when people of faith reach of words of assurance amid the trials and turmoil of the life journey.”(3) So, this morning, in many languages, and from many cultures, we join the grand procession of pilgrims and the cloud of witnesses throughout the history of the church coming to hear that God welcomes us and is worthy of our trust.
Moments ago we heard Bruce sing: 1 I will lift up my eyes to the hills—From whence comes my help? 2 My help comes from the LORD, Who made heaven and earth. As a child my family used to visit my grandparents in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was always struck with a sense of awe when I saw the Smokey Mountains in the distance. There was a powerful beauty and in my child’s mind I could image that God lived in the clouds that covered the mountain tops. The early Jews would recall the presence of God at Mount Sinai when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. They would have remembered Mount Nebo, where when they wandered in the desert God gave them the water they needed. There also is an important pair of twin mountains between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan in Samaria—Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal. It was at these two mountains that Joshua assembled the tribes of Israel to instruct them in the Law of Moses and where they heard words of God’s blessings and curses. This Psalmist looked up into the mountains and knew that the God who created everything and everyone was with him.
The Psalm sings out; 3 He will not allow your foot to be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber. 4 Behold, He who keeps Israel Shall neither slumber nor sleep. This part of the Psalm used to ring in my ears when Beth and I lived in Thailand and would witness people standing in front of a short open brick structure just outside a temple or shrine and throwing fire crackers in. The firecrackers would explode with a deafening pop. Their purpose was to awaken the spirits so that the worshipper’s prayer might be heard. It was a similar experience to the Old Testament story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal found in I Kings 18. In the end he taunts them that perhaps their god is in deep thought, or busy, or travelling, or asleep. The Psalm tells us with great assurance that God is never asleep – but is always watching over us.
The Psalmist sings out; 5 The LORD is your keeper; The LORD is your shade at your right hand. 6 The sun shall not strike you by day, Nor the moon by night. Perhaps the promise of God as my keeper and as a shade from the blazing heat strikes me more personally in these dog days of summer. Gary England predicts a week of near triple digit temperatures for the city. The promise of protection and for the shade of God’s presence would have struck deep in the heart of the pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem through the heat that claims the region. But they would have also understood that the image was more than shade from the daily sun, it was a promise of protection for that which could consume them. Are there places in your life where you feel the heat of stress and the need for God’s great protection?
This short but powerful Psalm ends with a promise of protection for our soul; protection from the temptations that call us away from God; protection from the path that directs the pilgrim –and us - in the wrong direction. 7 The LORD shall preserve you from all evil; He shall preserve your soul. 8 The LORD shall preserve your going out and your coming in From this time forth, and even forevermore. The Psalmist knew that God would preserve them; not only for the day that day of their pilgrimage, but for the whole of their lives.
OK, I recognize that you are not heading out on a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. But, we are on a pilgrimage of faith. I am thankful for this psalm of unqualified trust in the Lord’s help.(4) There are times in our life when we need to know that we are not alone. God is on our pilgrimage with us. We do not have to face critical moments in our lives alone. God is there to protect us. We do not have to face the heat of stress and the on the blazing burn of pain alone. God is with us in our going out and coming in – all the time. We can lift up our eyes to God and know that our help comes from one always in tune to our needs and our woundedness.
Like the pilgrim of days gone by, we are invited into the presence of God. Let us lift our voices in praise, our hearts in prayer, and our spirits in song. It is an invitation to transcends language, culture, or color. It is an invitation open to all who will hear it and respond. Let’s not waste a moment. Let’s rush to God wanting and waiting to hear with joy “welcome in the Name of the Lord.”
(1) James Limburg, “The Autumn Leaves: Pages from the Psalter for Late Pentecost,” Word and Word, Luther Seminary. St. Paul , MN, 12/3/93, p.277.
(2) George A.F. Knight “Psalms: Volume 2,”The Daily Bible Study Series, (Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1983),p.264
(3) J Clnton McCann, Jr., “Psalms, Volume IV” The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, (Abingdon Press:Nashville, 1996), p.1181
(4) James Luther Mays, “Psalms,” Interpretations: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (John Knox Press, Louisville, 1994), p. 390