What a wonderful and reassuring piece of Scripture we have before us today. It’s one of my favorites. I often choose to read it at funeral services. I choose this psalm because, along with the 23rd Psalm, I think it affirms God’s presence even in times of doubt, grief, and fear. “I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come?” the psalmist asks.
But along with being reassuring, the Psalmist asks one of the great biblical questions …doesn’t he? I think his question is right up there with questions like, “Who is my neighbor?” or “Who do you say that I am?” or “What is truth?” “From where will my help come?”
Now, in its original context, Psalm 121 belongs to a group of psalms that have become known as “songs of ascent.” In other words, this psalm was used as a blessing for those embarking on a journey. Pilgrims, as they made their way to Jerusalem sang, chanted aloud or recited to themselves this psalm. And this was an important part of the journey. You see, as these pilgrims were making their way to Jerusalem they would have encountered many shrines on many other hills dedicated to many other gods. So, there had to be a temptation on the part of some, seeing these other expressions of faith, to question their own. There had to be a temptation to wonder, “From where will my help come?”
Eugene Peterson suggests this psalm makes it clear that Israel had two chief sources from where they were tempted to seek help. And it addresses them both, with a ringing affirmation of faith and a call for personal trust and commitment to covenant relationships.[i]
The first temptation was self-reliance. No matter what journey we find ourselves embarking on, whether that journey is physical, emotional, or spiritual, there comes a point when we are tempted to rely on ourselves above all else. That’s human nature. Especially when the going gets tough. It’s then that we use phrases like “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “leather up” …right? Or my personal favorite, “rub some dirt on it and get back in there.” Don’t get me wrong, there is some value in summoning one’s own courage or fortitude or even reason to deal with adversity. But depending on myself to the exclusion of the care and nurture of my community and of God finally isn’t helpful.
The other temptation that Peterson was describing was the temptation to put all our eggs in the leadership basket. We cast our gaze upon Capitol Hill or to Madison and hope our salvation might come from the government. Probably the one thing we can all agree on when it comes to politics, is that sooner or later politicians will disappoint us. And perhaps that’s because we, as the general public, pin too many of our hopes government. Leadership has a role in our society and in our lives, but not the only role.
Sadie knew the truth of this. First, you must picture the community of Orange City, Iowa. Picture a lovely community platted out on one square mile. After 130-some years, it now spills over that border, though developers pose no threat to the alternating fields of corn and soybeans that surround the town.
Sadie lived on a high place, a hill just outside of town, on the northwest corner, in what was referred to for years as “the county home.” That was where her parents had deposited her and her sister, both cognitively disabled, in 1955. But from the county home, Sadie could see the other high places.
On the town’s southwest corner stood grain elevators which represented to her the financial base of the community. At the center, the courthouse of Sioux County, Lady Justice standing proudly on top, representing the government.
Sally could see them clearly from the park bench on the lawn. And she understood that the money generated by the grain elevators provided tax dollars to the government who, in turn, took care of her needs. Sadie was a ward of the state and was thankful for both of those “high places” as she sat on her bench.
But there was another high place in the town, the church steeple. The church was the place where Sadie felt more than just cared for, it’s the one place where she was truly loved and accepted and welcomed. In her community of faith, this woman of low estate was elevated and treated with dignity. It was from the church that she welcomed a steady trickle of visitors. And at her life’s end, the church was filled with members to mourn her passing and celebrate her life.[ii]
The high places of the elevators and the courthouse were a part of Sadie’s help. There’s no question about that. But when we consider the deeper question of the lotus of our help, our help comes from God and God’s love. My friends, God is big enough to trust, and a God personal enough to care. Psalm 121 reflects this kind of love. It says that God will be with us no matter what. And not just caring for our physical needs, but if we open ourselves, open our hearts and minds and spirits, God will be take care of our deepest longings as well.
One final thought this morning. There was a suggestion in Bible Study this week that we re-read this passage substituting the word “love” every time we see the words “the Lord or he” And that makes sense because the first letter of John says the “God is Love” We know and often say that God’s loves us but the Epistle goes further by saying that God is actually love itself. God IS Love. So with that in mind, here’s what Psalm 121 would sound like:
I raise my eyes toward the mountains. Where will my help come from? 2 My help comes from God who is Love, the maker of heaven and earth. 3 Love won’t let your foot slip. Your protector won’t fall asleep on the job. 4 No! Israel’s protector never sleeps or rests! 5 Love is your protector; Love is your shade right beside you. 6 The sun won’t strike you during the day; neither will the moon at night. 7 Love will protect you from all evil; God will protect your very life. 8 Love will protect you on your journeys— whether going or coming— from now until forever from now.
In the name of the One who is love.
[i] Eugene Peterson. The Message Study Bible. Psalm 121 (NavPress 2010)
[ii] This illustration is based upon the life story of Sally Henningfeld as told by Matthew Floding,
(Faith and Leadership, 2012)