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A Song for the Journey

March 17, 2014

“A Song for the Journey” Psalm 121 © 3.16.14 Lent 2A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Recently I was deleting some old files from my laptop, and I ran across a checklist I had made for a vacation back when. I had marked through on the screen each item as I packed it. “Brown hiking pants.” Check. “Extra glasses.” Got ‘em. “Rain jacket.” Won’t forget that.

Finding the list reminded me of the ritual I perform every time I go anywhere, such as coming here on a Wednesday. I walk around and make sure the toaster is unplugged, the stove, the coffee maker, and lights are turned off. I check my briefcase a couple of times to make sure I remembered to put everything in for the day. I pull on the front and carport doors to make sure they’re both locked. Maybe I’ll pour my warmed-up coffee in a travel mug. Then last thing, I hug the pup and put her in the kennel.

Of course, there are always the anxieties of travel, whether fifteen minutes or an hour or ten hours away from home. Is there some thoughtless person texting while driving or turning improperly from a lane? If there’s been a storm, are the roads slick? Suppose there’s a delay when I’m supposed to be somewhere at a certain time? What if I’m in a wreck? I might drive safely, but what about those other folks out there?

Travelers the world over and for centuries have prepared for their journeys in much the same way as I do—checking provisions, confirming arrangements, saying goodbye. If the trip promises to be fun and renewing and worthwhile, they’re filled with excitement and anticipation. If there are many unknowns, they may feel anxiety and be worried.

So it was with the pilgrims heading for Jerusalem, the Holy City, Zion, for a festival like Passover. They packed their things, carefully adjusting the contents so the parcel wouldn’t become too heavy to carry on a long trip. They counted their funds and met with their traveling companions at a central departure site. But then they did something I suspect few of us do before going on a trip.

They worshiped.

It was a simple service. The pilgrim spoke the first two lines of what became Psalm 121, asking and answering a question. “Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” And then a priest in the village or a friend or a neighbor would assure the traveler with the remainder of the poem, promising that Yahweh, the Lord, would keep, protect, guard, watch over the company of pilgrims together and individually. And not only would they be kept on this trip, but their whole lives long, in all their going out and their coming in, a Hebrew expression that meant “wherever you go.” The poem was their song for the journey.

Along the way, the travelers chanted the psalms that have come down to us as numbers 120-134. They’re called collectively “the psalms of ascent,” since Jerusalem was a city on hills. You had to “go up” to Jerusalem. No doubt there was also spiritual significance to the word “ascent,” as your spirits were lifted, and you aspired to a new life because you and your neighbors were going to the festival.

As the pilgrims looked at those hills in the distance, some thought only of the danger in the mountains. They focused on the possibility of bandits and beasts who could assault them along the way rather than the adventure and joy of the trip.

Another group lifted up their eyes to the hills and remembered that pagans performed rituals on the high places. Sacred stone or wood pillars were set up to Baal and his wife Astarte, the Canaanite deities, and people mimicked their intimate union to worship them. The hope was that by doing so, crops and animals and wives would be fertile. So, some pilgrims were disgusted. Others were secretly attracted and wondered why their worship couldn’t be as exciting as the Canaanites’.

Still others, I suspect the majority, looked at the shadowy peaks in the distance and felt inspired. They thought of Yahweh, whom they believed lived on high. They longed to be in worship on God’s holy hill, Mount Zion. Maybe they recited the psalm: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation. Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob” (Psalm 24:3-6). And they eagerly anticipated ascending the Temple mount.

Whatever their attitude, whatever they expected on the journey, though, their ultimate affirmation was the same. Their help came from the only One whose power was great enough to protect them; whose love was so fierce as to surround them on every side; whose wakefulness was perpetual, 24/7/365, as we would say. Their help came from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth. Their constant and faithful companion as they made their way to Jerusalem was none other than the Creator of all.

That was important to affirm. Remember this was a world with all sorts of competing deities. There was the sun god and the moon goddess, the god of the sea and of the forest, the deity of this nation and that, and on and on. Who knew whether you would anger one god by making an offering to another? Who could figure out what the goddesses wanted or whether they would protect you on your journey? They were as likely as people to fall asleep or be preoccupied or off somewhere partying with the other deities. As Elijah said mockingly about Baal: “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). The gods couldn’t be counted on, and there were too many competing agendas among them.

But with one God, who made everything, you were dealing with only one divine will. He was not off doing something else or fighting another god. He was paying attention, on the job, ready and willing to help. He was there night and day, behind and before, offering better security than an army.

All this no doubt the leader affirmed with the pilgrims as he blessed them. But the Maker of heaven and earth still could be a God out there, not right here. So the priest reminded the travelers that the Creator was also the Covenanter. This sovereign One was also the God of Israel, who had made promises to his people. Unlike Baal and Astarte, who liked to party all night, then sleep in, Yahweh never slept. To put it as we might, Yahweh always answered his phone. He checked every Facebook and Twitter post to see how you were doing, looked at all the monitors from every camera he had placed along the way. He knew every stone in the road, every treacherous turn, every place you might stumble. He was a God committed to his people with a passion, someone who could be counted on, a watchful sentry, a chronic insomniac who never closed his eyes, even for a moment.

But not only was this God the Maker of all and the Watcher of Israel, he was the Keeper of every individual along the way. Under the shadow of his wings, he would keep his children safe. When the psalmist talks about the sun, he means literally the star in the sky that could cause sunstroke if you were out in its heat too long. That was a big concern in an arid region like Palestine, on a long trip with scarce resources. But he also means Ra, the Egyptian sun god. Neither he nor any other deity could touch God’s own.

The same goes for the moon. It was commonly believed in the ancient world that the moon caused insanity; hence our word “lunatic.” It was also blamed for fever and epilepsy. In fact, later on, the Greek word for someone subject to seizures was “moonstruck.” But the moon was also a god, Nanna, as he was sometimes known in Mesopotamia. He couldn’t bother God’s people, either.

God is your Keeper. To make sure no one can miss that, the poet repeats the word six times in the psalm. Keep, keep, keep. Protect. Guard. Watch over. The bold claim is that no evil will come near you, nothing will harm you, you can go and come with no trouble. God can be counted on.

We’re tempted to respond cynically and sarcastically: yeah, right! The problems with this psalm’s claim are huge. In fact, the Bible itself raises the questions. Listen to the cry of Psalm 44: “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love” (23-26). He who keeps Israel doesn’t sleep. That’s doubtful. Or how about the observation of the mourners when Jesus’ friend Lazarus died? “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37)

And do we want to be kept? Those who are kept may feel robbed of freedom because they are solely dependent on another for their sustenance, emotional and physical. They cannot live apart from what’s given them by their keeper. In the defunct sci-fi series “V,” an alien princess imparts what she terms “bliss” to humans from her spaceship. It’s a form of mind control. As part of her speech, projected on a huge screen, she tells everyone “I am your only protector and keeper.” To be kept is to be controlled, to depend on someone so utterly that you have no alternative but to obey their will if you are to survive.

But the psalm refuses to go either of these dark places. It insists, against any evidence we can present, God is your keeper, for your good, for your safety, for your whole life long. This is a simple affirmation of faith. It’s not “cockeyed optimism,” to borrow a line from South Pacific. It’s assurance based in trust of a God who is committed to his people, together and individually. It’s the conviction that he will not let us go.

Once in a while, said the 16th century reformer Martin Luther, it may appear that the Lord has forgotten about us. When we feel this way, “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. He is surely awake and watching over us…Eventually we’ll learn that, if we can only hold fast” (cited by James Limburg).

The psalm offers us assurance on any journey, all our comings and goings. It is our comfort as we set out like Abraham and Sarah for a place yet unknown, fraught with risk and trial. That’s the use it was put to in the classic Julie Andrews version of Sound of Music. You may remember the Mother Superior reading the first lines of the psalm as the von Trapps were about to set out across the mountains to avoid Herr von Trapp having to serve in the Nazi military. David Livingstone is said to have read the psalm before he went to Africa.

As much as on our treks into the unknown, so can the psalm sustain us and our families as we come to the end of our life’s pilgrimage. Along with Psalm 23, it’s the song that most appropriately accompanies us on our final journey to the grave and beyond to life eternal.

And this poem is a song for following Jesus on the way, whether in Lent or any time. It reminds us that life is ultimately not up to us, so we may let go and let God keep us.

Someone has summed up the message of the poem nicely: “The Lord is your keeper. It’s not that you have to strain every sinew to believe all these things. It’s not that you have to have an immaculate and visceral religious experience. It’s not that you have to be following this noble and flourishing career or pursuing that self-abnegating and admirable vocation. It’s not about what you’re thinking, feeling, doing. It’s about God. God’s got you tucked away in the most precious, most defended, most durable, most trustworthy place. God is cherishing and upholding you and squeezing you tight. You can’t change that. You may not think, feel or do all the right things, but how God regards you isn’t up to you. As far as God is concerned, you are the heart of it all—for keeps” (Sam Wells, http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-02/sunday-march-20-2011).

Or maybe we should let Paul have the last word: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Thanks be to God.

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