Help for the Journey
Preparing for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Three Days before Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 119:97-104
Old Testament: Jeremiah 26:1-15
Epistle: Acts 17:22-34
Psalter: Psalm 121
Old Testament: Isaiah 54:11-17
Epistle: Acts 17:22-34
O God, Spirit of righteousness, you temper judgment with mercy. Help us to live the covenant written upon our hearts so that when Christ returns we may be found worthy to be received by grace into your presence. 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).
When pianist and composer, Ignacy Jan Paderewski was to leave his native Poland to play his first recital in London, he asked an influential compatriot to give him a letter of introduction to a leading figure in Britain’s musical world, who might be of assistance should anything go amiss. The letter was handed to him in a sealed envelope. He hoped that everything would proceed smoothly and he would not have to use it.
He did not; his debut was a success and no snags developed. Some years later, while going through his papers, he came upon the letter and opened it. It read:
”This will introduce Jan Paderewski, who plays the piano, for which he demonstrates no conspicuous talent.”
Some help we are not sure we need, but there is no doubt that from time to time, all of us need help.
It can be hard to admit we need help. We live in a culture where we are taught to be self-sufficient, to be enough in and of ourselves. I knew a woman who stopped going to Sunday worship because she didn’t want others to know that she needed a wheelchair to get in and out of the building. But everybody did know, and she likely knew they knew, but she just didn’t want publicly admit she needed that kind of help.
Remember the Marlboro Man? From the late 1950s through the 1990s the Marlboro Man was the rugged good-looking cowboy who hawked Marlboro cigarettes. He was the image of the independent, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps need no help American. The advertisements meant to connect such independence to smoking that brand of cigarettes. The great irony here is that at least four of the men who portrayed the cigarette-puffing cowboy have died of lung-related illnesses, including cancer. So, at the end of their lives, even the Marlboro Men needed help.
We all need help. That’s a given. The writer of Psalm 121 assumes that. There is a deeper question the psalmist’s mind—from where does our help come? Where do we turn in times of need?
There are two ways to interpret the first two verses of Psalm 121. The first is “I will lift up my eyes to the hills, the heavens, where God is because that is where I receive my help. My help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.”
The second way to read this is “Will I lift my eyes to the hills, to the mountains, where the shrines of the false gods, the idols live? No! My help comes from the Lord, the God of Israel who not only made those mountains, but who made all of heaven and earth.”
Throughout it’s history, Israel had an idolatry problem. They were frequently tempted and often succumbed to trusting in the false gods of their neighbors instead of the one, true God. They worshipped at shrines in the mountains, what the Old Testament calls “the high places.”
The psalmist is acknowledging in the opening verse that when we human beings need help, we can seek it from the wrong places. In the twenty-first century, we may not seek help or worship stone hewn and wood carved images of ancient deities, but we can focus our attention and seek purpose, identity, and help from the wrong places. The Bible tells us that the human problem is not that we desire, but that we desire the wrong things. Idolatry is anyone or anything to which we give greater loyalty than God.
When we pray to God as we embark on a journey what do we pray for? Many of the same things the psalmist prayed for, though in a different context.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
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.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore.
Lord, do not let our foot be moved. In other words, Lord protect us from accidents. Most travel done in that day was on foot. In and around Jerusalem there were rocky places, hilly places, places that required care in passing. Several years ago, we were in the mountains of Tennessee vacationing with our children and grandchildren. We did some hiking. On one particular hike on a path in the mountains, there was no fencing on the edge of the trail and in many places the drop off was steep. What was even more foreboding were the signs along the way that warned of being careful as people had died falling over the edge. Lord, give me sure footing. Lord, keep me awake while driving. Lord, remind me of how dangerous and foolish it is to text while I drive.
Lord, always be with me. I know you do not slumber or sleep. The gods of Israel’s neighbors slept. They needed their rest just like their subjects. But the God of Israel needs no sleep. Our God is present and active 24/7. Sometimes it can seem like God is not present, as if God is off in the corner of the universe napping. Some psalmists cry out wondering where God is in the midst of their calamity. I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks for people today is if there is a God how can there be so much suffering in the world. If there is a God why doesn’t God do something?
That’s another post for another time, but the Psalmist is affirming God’s presence at all times. And so we ask for God’s sustaining presence on the journey of life.
The Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. Now the image is of the Lord providing a barrier between some danger and the individual, thus the translation
“Protector.” The first of these dangers to be mentioned is the sun. Sunstroke was a serious problem for those in biblical lands. Elisha the prophet once treated a young man who had been struck down by the sun (2 Kings 4:18-37). Judith’s husband died of sunstroke (Judith 8:2-3; cf. also Jonah 4:8 and Isa 49:2, 10). Since sun worship was common in the Ancient Near East perhaps there is a reminder here that such false deities and their worshipers will be kept at bay by God. Belief in the harmful effects of the moon’s rays persisted into New Testament times as is indicated by the word seleniasomai, “moonstruck,” (translated as “epileptic”) in Matthew 4:24. Other translations use the word “lunatic,” from the Latin word for moon—luna. And while the Psalmist didn’t know such legends we have stories about werewolves and vampires, who do their evil at night when the moon is full. Of course, there are other dangers at night, which is why parents say to their children who want to stay out very late on a Friday night, “Nothing good happens at 2:00 in the morning!” The sense of these two verses is to assure the traveler of the Lord’s protection in the daytime as well as through the night.
In the final segment of the Psalm starting in verse 7, the sphere of the Lord’s protecting and watching activity is extended in an astonishing way. Verses 3-6 had promised the Lord’s protection from the dangers of the day and the night; now the Psalm asserts that “the Lord will protect you from all evil.” Verses 3-6 had been concerned with the Lord’s watching over for a specific journey; now the Psalm asserts that the Lord will watch over “your life.” The biblical expression, “going out and coming in” refers to all of one’s activities, the “comings and goings” which make up our daily lives (cf. Deut 28:6; 31:2; Josh 14:11). Thus, the Psalm concludes by declaring that the Lord will watch over everything the individual does, not only for the duration of a journey, but “from now to eternity.”
James Linburg refers to Psalm 121 as the “traveler’s psalm” because it is applied to the whole of life, the image of life itself as a journey, a sojourn. This is a typical image in the Bible. When the aged Jacob finally got down to Egypt and met the Pharaoh, he said with a sigh, “The days of the years of my sojourning are a hundred and thirty years....” (Gen 47:9). Another psalmist prays, “Hear my prayer, O Lord...for I am thy passing guest, a sojourner, like all my fathers” (Ps 39:12). The New Testament remembers Abraham and Sarah as sojourners, ever on the way: “By faith [Abraham] sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob....” (Heb 11:9). The etymology of “sojourner” catches the sense of the biblical concept well: from the Latin, sub diurnus, “for a day,” meaning one who lives in a place “temporarily, as on a visit.”
We may not be so fond of this image of life as a journey, ourselves as ever on the way. We may prefer the picture of a circle with ourselves in the center, family and friends gathered around. But this circular imagery is precisely the way in which the rich but foolish farmer understood life, himself in the middle, successfully settled down, ever working to widen the expanse of his possessions and property, but never suspecting that his earthly sojourn was about to end (Luke 12:13-21). Our own view of life may tend toward the sentiments expressed in the image of the house with the white picket fence, of which many songs have been written. But the melody running through the biblical stories of God’s people and the one to which this psalm is suited is a newer, more bracing one, “On the road again....” Jesus called his followers to this sort of “on the road again” life. On occasion he did sit with his disciples gathered around him, on a hillside or at a table. Those must have been good times! It was Peter who wanted to hold onto one of them and who suggested, “Let’s build some shelters here and stay a while” (Mark 9:1-8). However, the call of Jesus was never “gather around me” or but, “follow me.” It is a call to take up the life of the sojourner, the one living here “temporarily, as on a visit.” The New Testament calls that discipleship. Thus the words of this psalm go beyond the promise of God’s protection for the trip from Babylon to Jerusalem, or from New York to St. Louis.
Psalm 121 has long been a psalm suited for travelers about to set out on a journey, whether they bend down to tighten a sandal strap or reach over to fasten a seatbelt. But it is also a psalm for sojourners, with a scope wide enough to embrace the whole of life’s way, from baptism until burial and beyond—in which we affirm, “our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.”
PRAYER: Holy One, we lift our eyes to you in hope and awe. Grant that we may reject all apathy of spirit, all impatience and anxiety, so that, with the persistence of the widow, we may lift our voice again and again to seek your justice. Amen.
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