A Blessing for the Journey
Reflecting on The Third Sunday of Easter: One Day after Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 121
Old Testament: Ezekiel 1:1-25
Epistle: Acts 9:19b-31
Mighty God, in whom we know the power of redemption, you stand among us in the shadows of our time. As we move through every sorrow and trial of this life, uphold us with knowledge of the final morning when, in the glorious presence of your risen Son, we will share in his resurrection, redeemed and restored to the fullness of life and forever freed to be your people. Amen.
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth (Psalm 121:1-2).
by Rolf Jacobson at Working Preacher
Many readers of Psalm 121 have connected it with life’s journey — or at least with life’s journeys.
A friend of mine always leads his family in reciting Psalm 121 when they depart on a journey. Another friend loves this psalm because it speaks words of promise about God’s providence and protection on life’s journey. Another friend who has written quite a bit about the psalms calls this one, “A Psalm for Sojourners.”1
One reason interpreters have connected this poem with the idea of journey is that it is part of the “psalms of ascent.” These psalms, 120-134, all bear the superscription shir-hamma’alot or shir-lammal’alot translated in the NRSV as “a song of ascents” or “a song of ascent.”
The best guess is that these psalms were collected to be used in conjunction with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For that reason, Psalm 121 is most commonly understood as a liturgy of blessing for one about to leave on a journey.
The psalm begins with a question to which anyone can relate: Where can I get help? Or better, where can I look for help? As noted above, many interpreters imagine a traveler about to depart on a journey — perhaps a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for a festival, or perhaps any journey. Such a question is a natural — whether one is thinking of a geographic journey through dangerous territory, a lifelong journey through many ups and downs, or a spiritual journey to discovery seeking a homecoming to God.
Life is full of many dangers. The physical: disease, injury, accident, war, infirmity, or natural disasters. The economic: recession, depression, unemployment, outsourcing, downsizing, insolvency, debt, or theft. The spiritual: doubt, sin, evil, corruption, fundamentalism, extremism, or false teaching.
What more natural question to ask than, “From whence shall my help come?”
In fact, consider giving the congregation a minute or two to discuss the greatest fears and threats that they or a loved one faces right now. Send out an email ahead of worship and ask people to reflect on the question, or even to bring written responses that can be collected and set before the altar of God. Or ask them to share a fear with a neighbor.
The psalmist answers his or her own question with a confession of faith: “My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.”
The psalmist does not look to nature for help! Those hills, after all, might be hiding some threat, some predator. The psalmist’s help comes from the very one who made the hills, the heavens and the earth: God! The hills may obscure some threat, but they also by their very existence bear witness to the creator.
A preacher could do worse than to try to render this confession of faith — “my help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth”– available to the congregation. That is often the best way to preach a psalm — to teach and preach about the prayer in order that the congregation may enter into the poem and become the speaker. If you gave people a chance to name the threats and fears they face, invite them to stare those fears down by saying these words out loud: My help comes from the Lord, who make heaven and earth.
Who is God? God is a keeper. God’s identity is to protect, shield, watch over, guard, keep. God does this like a watchman keeping guard over a city (130:8) or a bird shielding its young in the shelter of his wings (91:4).
What does God promise to do? God promises to keep you. God will guard you as you go on your journey of life, and as you return home. As you go out and come in. As you face the dangers of the day and of the night.
The list of promises here is not meant to suggest that those who walk in the shelter of God will face no harm or that nothing ill will befall them. The Psalter knows all too well that the wicked are everywhere and that they thrive unjustly.
These promises, however, are meant as characteristic promises — these are the sort of things that the Lord does for those who rely on him. And the words of blessing and promise evoke God’s protection and our awareness of it.
As noted above, the genre of blessing is under-utilized in today’s world. But I believe that every child of God should give and receive a blessing every day. In our home, we make the sign of the cross on each other’s forehead and bless each other every night before bed with words borrowed from the baptismal service. A friend of mine and his wife bless their kids every morning as they leave for school, likewise making the sign of the cross on each other and using baptismal words and images.
The words of Psalm 121 make a great blessing. Perhaps close the sermon by asking the congregation to bless each other, making the sign of the cross on each other and saying, “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time on and forevermore.”
Check out more at Working Preacher here.