February 12, 2017 / PROTECTION / Sara Wolbrecht / Psalm 121
Friends, today, we begin with Psalm 121. I invite you to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and listen the lyrics of this ancient song as spoken to all of us who are in the midst of change.
Psalm 121 (NIV)
I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.
Is this familiar to you? I have always read this Psalm as words of comfort. But what I have missed is that this is really a Psalm for a traveler, appropriate for someone about to set off on a journey.
If you look at Psalm 121 printed in your bible or in a bible app, it is topped with the heading: “A Song of Ascents.” Psalms 120 – 135 are all labeled this way. They are each literally “a song for the going up.” This expression appears to refer to "going up" to Jerusalem; the same Hebrew word appears in reference to the tribes who go up to Jerusalem in Psalm 22:4. This group of 15 psalms seem to have been used for going up to Jerusalem for one of the festivals held there (see Deuteronomy 16:16), and so these have been called pilgrimage psalms. These psalms were likely gathered together as a special collection to be used on such pilgrimages. Interesting stuff.
Looking at the text (pull out your insert), we can actually read it and picture someone who is about to leave on a journey. And picture around them, a group of encouragers gathered around to say goodbye. Notice the first two verses are spoken by the traveler, the one who is leaving. I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
Now verses 3-6 are a spoken response, spoken by those who are left behind). [The Lord] will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you— and we’ll get more into this text in a moment.
But first let’s step back and make an observation, that as we hear the first two verses of this Psalm, what is so clear is that the journey is not always just a geographical one – it’s not just pertinent to a road trip to Jerusalem. The language of “life as a journey” or sojourn is present in various places in Scripture. And what I have come to see in my nearly 10 years as a pastor, especially in the 23 months we’ve had together since Salt House launched, is that we often find ourselves standing with our toes at the starting line staring down a journey that has been laid before us. A particular event, a change in our lives, a change in our world, a new venture of some kind.
This January and February as we explore the Force of Nature we are as community, today, we name a significant piece of who we are specifically here at Salt House. And it is absolutely captured in Psalm 121. In this last year we named our sense of identity and mission wrapped up in a word: transition. We see a unique calling for Salt House to be a place for folks living though change, transition, and for all the ways we find ourselves in the liminal spaces of life.
Two weeks ago we talked about how God is with us through people – the “Alongsiders” who walk with us through hard times, and how we then use that same comfort to walk alongside others. Today, we name that there is a significant presence of God with us through transition, as we walk across the threshold, leaving one thing and walking into the unknown of the new thing. And in Psalm 121, we see the promises of God that we can know as we look for help and cross the threshold. So again – we call to mind the question we began our service with: what transition or change are you facing now? Hold that close as we go through this.
When it comes to change, sometimes it is a welcome, exciting journey – I think of a family in our community who is hoping, this year, to adopt the kids their foster-parenting now. I think of those who are moving into a new home. I think of those who are close to retirement. Those starting a new relationship. A wedding—whether your own or someone in your family and the new journey. Such great journeys for these folks, a welcome journey – and yet even as we stand with a positive, exciting opportunity before us, even then come the questions: How is this going to go? Where will my help come from? God, help me, bless me on this road ahead. Certainly Psalm 121 is the prayer of a traveler for all kinds of journeys. For all of the change and transition we walk through.
Including, yes, the times where we stand at the starting line of an unwelcome or challenging road. Those we know who are staring down chemo after a cancer diagnosis. Those times where we must face the consequences of mistakes we’ve made. Or the journey through grief after a loved one dies and the world is a whole different place – you have no choice but to take that journey. Or those who stand at the ending of a relationship and taking those steps into the unknown. Leaving a job and financial security. The emotional rollercoaster of couples facing infertility. At those times, when we become the reluctant traveler, there most certainly is a desperation in our questions. Our eyes scan the mountains with urgency. We look to God with a hunger and dependency to know that it will be ok, that we’ll be ok. I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? A traveler’s psalm.
This longing and wondering of a traveler is echoed in a song I want to share with you – from the 1980s. Anyone remember Peter Gabriel? Yeah you do. Jason introduced me to Peter Gabriel’s tune, “Don’t Give Up.” Peter Gabriel wrote this song in 1986 he was emerging from a nervous breakdown in the previous year. His 15-year marriage was in jeopardy. This song celebrated his family and friends who had carried him through. The song also contains layers of other influences – like the news headlines of the time – high unemployment, a young mother who had killed herself. Many different travelers.
This particular version of the song is arranged and produced by Herbie Hancock, he’s also playing keys and writing the music in the video. Now if you don’t know, Herbie Hancock is an American pianist, keyboardist, bandleader and composer. He was part of Miles Davis's Second Great Quintet, Herbie helped redefine the role of a jazz rhythm section and at 76 years old continues to be an innovator of music.
For this particular version of the song, Herbie Hancock pulled in John Legend to be the voice that cries out to the hills. And then there is the voice of the encouragers, the ones who are left behind as the difficult journey begins. And that voice in this particular arrangement is the artist P!nk. This video is from their recording session a few years ago in Los Angeles as they came together to capture this song of both anguish and reassurance. Echoed here we see a parallel to Psalm 121 in “Don’t Give Up.” We listen as people of the same God of Psalm 121, of the same God who sings to us and with us now, with encouragement through whatever road we’re staring down. Don’t give up.
MUSIC VIDEO: Herbie Hancock - Don't Give Up (feat. P!nk & John Legend), www.youtube.com
Do you hear those echoes of Psalm 121? Continue holding the sacredness of what we’ve just heard, as we dig back into the Psalm (pull out your insert or bible)…In verse two of the Psalm, the traveler’s confession names the Lord’s power but also the Lord’s nearness and care: My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. The remainder of the Psalm develops this theme, using the phrase “watches over you” a half dozen times (in other translations it is the word “keeps you”). For the rest of our time this morning I want to walk through verses 3 – 8, the response that is spoken to the traveler as they stare down the journey before them, hearing in this the promises of God offered to us now, speaking into whatever liminal, threshold, transitional places we find ourselves now – and to hold close as promises for the change that will come for us in the future.
Alright. Psalm 121: 3 – 6 really speak Promises for the Journey. Telling us, what can we expect from God as we take those steps into change.. With our toes on the line, the road before us, and the mountains around us – who is God then? The voice shifts from the traveler to a friend or family member or group that gathers to send them off – that voice of reassurance and truth. And says first: Verse 3: [The LORD] will not let your foot slip— he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. Ps 121: 3-4
What do we hear in this? What’s the promise? God doesn’t doze off! I so appreciate this reminder for there are times along the way when God seems absent, yes? Martin Luther speaks to this, saying that this is a “Psalm of Comfort” that teaches us that “we should remain steadfast in faith and await God’s help and protection. Because even though it appears that God is sleeping or snoring… this is certainly not so, despite the way we feel and think. God is surely awake and watching over us…Eventually we’ll learn that, if we can only hold fast.” - Martin Luthers Psalmen-Auslegung, volume 3:599. Eventually we will learn it. What great encouragement – to remember the promise that: 1. God never dozes off – he will not let our foot slip on the journey.
Secondly, verses 5 – 6 speak of the Lord’s “watching over you” as protecting from danger. The Lord watches over you— the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. Ps. 121: 5-6
The first danger that protection is offered for is that of sun exposure. Sunstroke was a serious concern for those living in biblical lands. No sunscreen. In 2 Kings, Elisha once treated a young man who had been struck down by the sun (2 Kings 4:18-37). …A professor of mine told the story of how as a young boy he took off with his dad in a small plane, flying over the farm fields outside their town. And it was a sweltering hot July day. They saw a farmer they knew in his tractor (without air conditioning in those days) and there was not a cloud in the sky. But his father maneuvered the plane so that their shadow was over their friend’s tractor. They watched as he looked around; then heard the plane, took off his straw hat and waved to them. That’s what I imagine when I read verse 5, “the Lord is your shade.” Isaiah 49:2 uses the same imagery: “in the shadow of his hand he hides me.” Isaiah 49:2. So God protects us in the day.
Though we don’t worry about the moon these days, protection from moon exposure was also a big deal at that time. Moonlight was thought to drive you crazy. The source of mental illness. The word “lunatic,” from the Latin luna, “moon” still reflects that idea. The crazy-making moon.
These two verses together – about the sun and the moon – assure the traveler of the Lord’s protection, that God is that watchful one who creates the shade every hour of the day. So the promise is that 2. God protects us from harm 24-7 (and we won’t lose your mind).
The final two verses (7-8) have a shift in tone once again, but this time the shift is a broadening of scope to name the greater promises of God – not only for the journey but Promises for a Lifetime.
Verses 7 – 8 The Lord will keep you from (how much harm?) all harm— he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going (when?) both now and forevermore. Ps 121: 7-8
We hear in this the promise that God is in the details of our everyday lives. The coming and going, from here to there, with work, family, school, life, food, sleep. That God watches (or keeps) us every moment of our lives. And that God will watch over us not only through this current journey we face now, but forever.
So, for us this morning, we stop and ask: What is the road that is set before us now? Where do you find yourself? Is it a welcome journey? Challenging? Daunting? Probably a mix of many things.
I hear these final verses (7-8) as an invitation to us (and yes, a challenge) to engage with this reality that our heavenly Father, our God, keeps us and watches over us. Now. Every day. Forever. How differently might we live if we actually believed and engaged with this reality? To join God in the journey – knowing God is our protector.
Here’s why this matters: we will never stop journeying. The call of Jesus was never “gather around me” or even “listen to me.” The life of Jesus is a call to take up the life of a sojourner; following, learning, becoming, and yes, moving forward in the faith that our God is the God of the journey. The same God who journeyed to us as one of us. Who walked the difficult road of living out God’s Kingdom of love, mercy, peace, healing – here on this earth. And yes, who in Jesus walked the road to the cross, through suffering, humiliation, and death and to new life, resurrection and hope on the other side. This is the God who promises to be with us – and you know what, whatever we face, I think God can handle it. This is the God who protects us.
And we at Salt House get to be people who speak this to each other, as we all live through transition. To be a community who shows up together to say: Don’t Give Up! Through all the change.
For me, to fully disclose what Psalm 121 means to me, I need to tell you something. I preached a similar version of this sermon four years ago – it was at the church I served in Walnut Creek, CA before moving here to be your pastor. And it was the last sermon I preached as a pastor of that congregation. BUT here’s the thing – they didn’t know it was my last sermon (because my leaving had not yet been announced, because even though I had said yes, HSLC still had to officially vote to call me as a pastor for this new mission start church).
So I preached this sermon of God’s protection and faithfulness in times on the journey, as a pastor who was broken-hearted to leave the amazing church she was serving – and couldn’t say anything about it. And I clung to these words in desperation (let’s name how God was so good in choosing this text to be what I preached on, right?). And I’ll tell you, now, on the other side of that journey, this picture in 121 is absolutely who God is. And the beauty and choreography that this text I preached on would actually foreshadow the identity of the community I was journeying to go serve – WOW! God is creative and good and absolutely with me and us.
So my friends – in this life we will (with desperation at times) continue to lift our eyes beyond the mountains to the God who watches over us through each of the journeys we take. Because, yes, they keep coming. And we will keep on moving, for as God’s people we are a sent people. The melody running through the biblical stories of God’s people, is not one telling us to settle down and stay put. But to go. This Psalm is yes, suited to “Don’t Give Up.” But also to Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.” For that’s where we’ll continue to find ourselves. But never on the road alone, for we are a community that is with each other and always under divine protection. And for that we say, thanks be to God, Amen.