Psalm 121 has been significant in my life. We lived on the Titirangi road ridge in west Auckland when I was growing up and we had a panoramic view of the bush clad Waitakere rangers out our French doors. We often looked to the mountains and at least the first part of this psalm came to mind. My mum got me to read it at my Father’s funeral, and she asked for it to be read at her funeral. After the initial question, from where does my help come from, it is a wonderful assurance of God’s continued presence and protection on a pilgrims journey to Jerusalem and in a wider sense for the whole of life’s journey Godward.
Psalm 121 is a short Psalm as all the psalms of ascent are. It’s setting is best seen as a pilgrims camp on the journey to Jerusalem.In verse 1 and 2 it starts with the psalmist gazing off into the distance, probably at the end of the day’s journey as the heat haze and glare die down and the horizon stretches back. There off in the distance he spots his destination the hills of Judea and the highest amongst them Mt Zion. ‘ I look to the Hills’. It’s an ambiguous statement we don’t know if it’s with a sigh of relief that this sojourner can see his destination, and it inspires him, or with a heavy sigh as he is aware of how far he has to go with all its hardship and obstacles. If we are real about things it’s probably a bit of both rather than an either or situation. When we set ourselves goals and have a vision of where we want to be, we also become aware of the obstacles for getting there. In response to this he asks the question where does my help come? Help for the journey to get to my goal, help for the journey to face the obstacles.
Then the psalm changes, from the first person to the second person. The psalmist receives his answer, maybe it is in remembering a blessing he received at the beginning of his journey as he walked out the door or it is as he listens to a fellow pilgrim at the desert camp say his evening prayers. But he is aware that God is able to help make the journey. God is able to help face the obstacles. God is able to help reach the goal off their in the distance.
In the psalm now in this blessing or prayer God’s protection and help is couched in terms of all the possible dangers of the pilgrim’s journey. He will be s sure guide and lead them along shore paths, he is there to brace the staggered tired misstep, and will not let us fall. He is able to provide shade from the blazing mid-day sun. Unlike human guards of the caravan at night he does not slumber or sleep, he’s able to stand guard and protect against the unknown things that lurk in the night. He is trusted to be there in conflict and battle. Like a good caravan leader he will keep you safe from the start of the journey till its end. Not only that one journey but for the whole of life. This gives the pilgrim strength to face the challenges ahead and assurance that he will reach his goal.
For us to grow spiritually there is a need for us to be discontent with the way things are now. But also there needs to be a vision and a goal of where we are heading, or as Andrew Stanley puts it in his book ‘Visioneering’ we need to catch a glimpse of God’s preferred future and to work towards seeing that come to fruition. I did a course with a business mentor a few years ago. One of the key things we did was set goals for ourselves; for our working life, for our family, economically in terms of personal development, even what kind of person we wanted to be. Being A Christian of course I set myself some goals in terms of my devotional life. The rest of the course looked at the steps that we needed to take to achieve those goals. It was a good process to go through and I need to go back very often and revisit those goals. They lead to me working on areas of my life I needed to improve. But I found it would be easy in a lot of those areas to crouch my goals and vision not in terms of the kingdom of God, but like when we talked about last week with discontent, to simply talk about the western dream of prosperity and security. Don’t get me wrong there is nothing wrong with wanting those things but it’s important that our vision and goal for all those areas of life be formed and shaped by a god given vision.
In the exile the people of Israel came back from Babylon to Jerusalem and as a rag tag group of returnees they set about re-establishing themselves amongst the ruins of the city. They began developing there economy, agriculture and trade. They rebuilt the infrastructure. They prospered and started to build wooden panelled houses for themselves. In the midst of that the prophet Haggai came and called them to rebuild the temple of God in their midst. It was symbolic of the centrality of the worship of God and living in a way that reflected God’s reign. God’s vision for their redemption and return to Jerusalem hadn’t changed it was that they would be a people who would reflect God’s justice to the world and draw all natiopns to come and worship and live likewise.
In the passage we had read from Luke’s gospel we see that Jesus is very clear about what his ministry and life is all about. He comes to Nazareth his home town and is invited to read from the scroll of Isaiah, in that we see him setting the scope of his mission, articulating from the scriptures what his ministry will be, what the kingdom of God will look like. Of course we stopped the reading before we got to the reaction of the people of the town. Right from the start there was a violent reaction. Who is this person Jesus, isn’t he just the carpenters’ boy, and if I remember correctly wasn’t there some scandal about his birth… That’s the revised soap opera version. Who is this person Jesus, coming not just for us good religious folk but with Good news for the poor, recovery of sight for the blind, release to the captive and declaring a year of jubilee, when there will be economic and social justice.’ Right away Jesus faces obstacles and opposition on his journey towards seeing God’s Kingdom inaugurated and he has to trust God to protect him and guide him through.
Likewise in Hebrews you and I, surrounded by a great cloud of witness, men and women of faith who have gone before us, journeyed through life, facing all sorts of trials and trusting in God’s promises we are called to fix our eyes on Christ the author and perfecter of our faith, and using a metaphor so applicable in this Olympic year, run the race set before us, throwing off all the things that would slow us down and the sins that would try and hold us back. We are called to have a Christ shaped goal and vision of our destination: A kingdom of God destination.
For us as a church I believe it is that we grow in Christ, in our love for God, we grow in our love for one another, and we grow in our love for this community and city and world that God has called us to be witness to his great love to.
Individually and corporately it calls us to look at where we work, our finances, our family life and have a Kingdom of God vision for what we do. It’s interesting you might say Howard that’s easy for you to say you’re a minister, but can I say it is easy to simply fall into the trap of thinking about where you want to go and do in terms of ABC… Attendance, Buildings and Cashflow, there is ego involved, if you’ll excuse the expression a sort of ecclesiastical penis envy. Rather than seeing it terms of being faithful to what God is calling us to do. What would that look like at the place you work, in going on such a pilgrimage, what desert land would it lead you through? What would that look like
Having that god given vision also stops us from settling for less. If you read through pilgrim’s progress, you see that Christian is often tempted to stay put and to stop his journeying to settle for being away from the city of destruction he has to be reminded again and again of his destination the celestial city and carry on. Yes ts important to know that there are times of rest and recharging, the pilgrim stops to rest for the night on his journey.
St Brendan and his monk’s on their amazing voyage across the vastness of the wild Atlantic found rest on Island’ one where the sheep were as big as houses, another where a giant monk all dressed in white fur, knew them by name and had set a table for them, again they celebrated Easter on the back of a whale, and the sea birds joined in their singing of the psalms. But we need to be aware of the destination of the goal of the vision of Christ and to be prepared to continue following.
The encouragement for the psalmist and from psalm 121 is that God will protect us on that journey. That the vision and goals, the destination we have may seem far off in the distance. The mountains may seem step and high, the path may seem fraught with danger and the steps unsure, but people God is with us on the journey. Christ has gone before us and he leaves his spirit with us to lead and to guide. You’ll notice that the things that the dangers and obstacles in that psalm may seem a bit romantic to us, we are not a desert people. But they were the very real every day troubles that people faced in that time and place and God can be trusted to protect and be with us as we face the same real life issues we face. So what is the vision God is forming in your heart? What are the obstacles on the journey you are facing in your life? Hear the assurance the psalmist give us of God’s ability to see us through.