A Song of Ascents.
1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
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.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu famously said “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
Another philosopher said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a broken fan belt and a flat tire.”
Yet another wise one said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step…and so does falling down the stairs.”
In my family, the journey of a thousand miles usually begins two hours late, wondering what we forgot this time, and how long it will be to the nearest rest-room.
Psalm 121, like so many psalms, is about a journey. But to really understand this journey, you have to read the psalm right before it, and the one right after it. They form a bit of a trilogy (intentional? unintentional? who knows?).
The first of the three, Psalm 120, takes place in a foreign land: “Woe is me,” says the psalmist, “that I am an alien in Meshech, that I must live among the tents of Kedar. Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.”
Fast forward to the last of the three, Psalm 122, which is a psalm of praise for the holy city of Jerusalem, the home of the temple. Here the Psalmist says, “I was glad when they said to me, Let us go to the house of the Lord! Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. Clearly he has arrived at his destination, and is no longer in a foreign land.
So then Psalm 121 is what comes in between these two. It represents the journey out of the foreign land, and to the holy city.
But this isn’t just any journey, it’s an uphill, upward journey. The city of Jerusalem sits at the top of a mountain ridge among the Judean hill country. The ancient Jewish religion required all Jews anywhere in the world to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year, for three feasts. So as they approached the holy city, they would begin the long climb upward.
At the very beginning of Psalm 121 are the words “A Song of Ascents.” There are fifteen songs labeled that way in the book of Psalms, and many scholars believe they were intended to be sung or recited as one ascended up to the city. The word “ascents” in Hebrew is לַֽמַּ֫עֲל֥וֹת (Lamalot), which literally means steps or stairs. So long before it was popular here in America, the Jews invented Step Aerobics.
And if you listen closely to Psalm 121, you’ll hear a stair-step kind of rhythm, where a word or phrase is laid out in one verse, then picked up and raised in the next. This is characteristic of all the Psalms of Ascent.
Another feature they have in common is the emphasis of a key word. Can anyone guess what the key word is in Psalm 121? It’s repeated six times throughout the Psalm in one form or another. The Hebrew root word is שָׁמַר (shamar) which means to keep, to guard, to watch over, or to preserve.
So Psalm 121 is a hopeful prayer and reassurance that as a faithful pilgrim makes the difficult journey from a foreign land up to the holy city, God plays his part as a faithful guardian, watching and protecting all the way.
The journey in Psalm 121 is a physical one, but it’s more than that. It’s a spiritual journey, too. My help comes from the hills of Jerusalem, but also from the Lord who made those hills, who made heaven and earth. As my body ascends, moving higher and closer to the city, so my soul ascends, moving higher and closer to the Lord.
Eight years ago, I made a journey like that. Amy and I sold our house in Frisco, Tx (the one we bought right after we had gotten married). We left behind most of the friends we had known for the past decade, and our jobs as public school teachers. Grady was four years old, Abby was six months old, and Jonah didn’t exist yet. We packed the kids in the car, and traveled 1,500 miles across the country to Princeton, New Jersey so I could go to seminary. Amy had never lived anywhere outside of Texas, and it was a little traumatic for her. Neither of us knew anyone in New Jersey, and at the time, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a pastor. I had been out of school for ten years, and was nervous about whether I could make it as a graduate student. We didn’t exactly have a solid plan for how to pay for seminary, or food, for that matter. But despite all those things, we felt that this was where God was calling us to be.
So hesitantly, but hopefully, recklessly, but faithfully, we lifted our eyes to the hills, and we set out on our journey. It was a physical journey and a spiritual journey, too. For all of us.
Four years later, diploma in hand, we packed everything (and by now, Jonah too) back in the car and this time drove 2,000 miles from Princeton to El Paso. But this journey was the easy one. We had friends and family in El Paso, and were returning to the place where we grew up. This time, I knew I wanted to be a pastor, and both Amy and I even had jobs waiting for us when we arrived! We were still following God’s calling, but all the danger, all the risk, all the faith…that was the first journey. And the second journey (The journey here) wouldn’t have been possible without that first one.
Why share all this? Because the very best journeys–physical and spiritual–involve risks and uncertainties, require faith and commitment.
There’s a reason the Psalmist says, in verse 6, that “The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” Traveling in the scorching hot, Judean desert by day was dangerous. But at night, when the moon comes out, you are a target for robbers and bandits. There are no state troopers on the road to Jerusalem, and the only real safety is within its walls.
Likewise, to make a spiritual journey is to make yourself vulnerable. To open your soul and allow yourself to be transformed by God, means that your soul is open to other forces and influences as well. That’s a scary and dangerous thing.
It’s also scary and dangerous to put all your eggs in one basket–that’s what the pilgrim in Psalm 121 is doing: In ancient Israel, there were plenty of gods to worship. In fact, every city, every mountain, and every valley had its own local deity. If you wanted to play it safe, you prayed or made sacrifices to all of them. You covered your bases and hedged your bets.
But the Psalmist doesn’t do this. He declares right up front, “My help comes from the Lord” the keeper of Israel, no one else, and that’s enough. Monotheism seems pretty normal to most of us, with 3,000 years hindsight. But for the Psalmist, it represents a new, radical shift away from the mainstream view in his time. And that requires a bit of bravery…and a lot of faith.
Twice in the 134 year history of this church–First Presbyterian Church of El Paso–the people of this congregation have struck out in faith, leaving behind beloved church buildings built by their parents and grandparents, and have followed God to a new home, a new building. The first move was from Myrtle to Yandell, and the second move was from Yandell to here on Murchison street. Both moves were done in faith–Niether building was paid for until years after it was built, and no one knew what the new facilities would look like when they agreed to make the move. When the church moved to this location, there wasn’t even a guarantee that the city would pave the streets leading up to it!
The journeys were not long ones. Really, just a few city blocks each time. But while there are no longer any members living who remember that first move, everyone I’ve talked to who remembers the move from Yandell to Murchison describes it in terms that are highly spiritual–those were exciting, sacred, life-transforming times in the life of this church.
If God called us to do that all over again…I wonder if we would still have the courage and the faith to follow?
There’s something else happening in Psalm 121 if you read between the lines, if you put yourself in that ancient context of a pilgrim traeling from a foreign land to the holy city.
The journey begins as an indidual one: “I lift MY eyes up to the hills, MY help comes from the Lord.” That makes sense. Often we set out on our journeys alone–just us, or just our family. But if others are traveling to the same destination, it won’t be long before you encounter them. And in verse three, the psalmist shifts from reassuring himself to reassuring someone else: He will not let YOUR foot be moved, he who keeps YOU will not slumber.
And as all the pilgrims draw near to Jerusalem, they begin to draw near to each other as well. If they are singing the songs of ascent, I can almost imagine far off voices calling out and responding to each other, then blending in harmony, then growing stronger in unison, in shared purpose and will as together they climb higher and higher, closer and closer.
Verse 4 reflects the growing throng: “He who keeps Israel–all Israel–will neither slumber nor sleep.”
One of the biggest falacies in 21st century American thinking is this: It’s MY spiritual journey. I can go it alone. I can find God all by my self.
Our Spiritual journeys may start off that way, but if we don’t eventually become part of a greater community, we’re just wandering aimlessly in the desert. If you want to draw closer to God, you have to draw closer to the people God created. It is the very act of coming together each week in worship, in fellowship, in study, in song, that lifts our hearts upward, and at the same time extends our embrace outward, to each other.
Spiritual journeys are, in the end, community journeys.
So to recap all these lessons from Psalm 121:
1. If you want to get somewhere physically, you go on a journey. If you want to get somewhere spiritually, you have to go on a spiritual journey.
2. Journeys (both physical and spiritual ones) are risky, dangerous, and filled with vulnerability and uncertainty. But if they weren’t all of these things, they would be worthless, and have no life-transforming power. So lift your eyes to the hills, follow God’s call, and trust God to watch over you along the way.
3. Journeys require commitment. Sometimes that means putting all your eggs in one basket. And sometimes your basket may look radically different than everyone else’s.
4. Finally, Journeys lead us deeper into the community of faith. We may strike out on our own, but sooner or later we all start to come closer and closer together. We laugh together, sing together, worship and pray together.
And step by step we rise together, until one day to our delight and surprise, we find ourselves in God’s holy city, among God’s holy people, surrounded by God’s holy presence.
And then, like David…we dance (or, if you’re Presbyterian…you potluck).