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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 03/20/2011

There’s probably no theme I return to more often than that of “faith as a journey.”  It’s a metaphor that works for me and I think for many of you too as you’re aware that your life with God isn’t stagnant but is always moving and changing as is true with any healthy relationship; it’s a big reason why faith as a journey has been the main theme of the TV6 advertising we’ve done. 

Lent, of course, is also often understood as a journey, a yearly time of reflection on the larger journey of life and faith, a time to honestly think about who we are and who God is, in particular to consider again the meaning of Jesus’ passion and death which is where our Lenten journey ultimately leads us.

Journey is a useful image for life and faith and Lent and Psalm 121 is a psalm appropriate for a journey although it might not be readily apparent at first.  If you looked in your Bible though, you would see that it is identified as a Song of Ascents, a group of psalms that starts at number 120 and ends with 134..  Exactly what Song of Ascents means is uncertain, but the best guess is that “ascents” refers to the journey made by pilgrims up to city of Jerusalem for the annual festivals that were held there.  I’ve never been there but I guess Jerusalem is located on a plateau in the Judean hills or mountains so as one approaches, the city is “up;” one must ascend to get there, hence songs of ascent.

It also seems that the first three Songs of Ascent are something of a journey in themselves as they start the psalmist in a place outside the land, move him toward the hills of Jerusalem and then finally into the gates of the city.  This is evidenced by the fact that Psalm 120 mentions Meshech and Kedar which are both understood to be far away places, then the psalmist is looking toward the hills of Jerusalem in today’s Psalm 121 and then in Psalm 122 you hear, “Now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.  Within these three psalms then, there is movement, a journey, ascent into the city.

So regarding today’s psalm perhaps we can picture a traveler, having come a long way, now drawing closer to Jerusalem, looking at the surrounding hills between him and his destination maybe with some fear and uncertainty, thus posing the question, “From where is my help to come?” 

We can’t know for sure that this is what the psalmist is thinking as he gazes at these hills because hills or mountains can represent different things depending on your perspective.  From gently rolling hills to majestic mountains they are lovely to look at, but if you have to get through them or over them, then it might be a different story.  If Jerusalem is the object of the pilgrimage, then these hills may represent a final obstacle to getting there and perhaps the psalmist wonders if he can make it.  The hills represent a physical barrier and, in addition to that, who knew what danger might lurk there.  The hills were known to be the refuge of bandits who knew their way around in them.  For them the hills represented shelter but for the travelers they were ready to prey on this was another obstacle to be concerned about. 

It’s all very Lenten actually, as life includes many points similar to the one we can picture the psalmist encountering.  Things go along smoothly for awhile but then the journey gets rough, there are obstacles.  The hills you have to get through can be all kinds of things depending on where you are on your journey and the dangers hidden in those hills are just as varied.  We’ve all been there in some fashion, some more recently than others, some even as we speak.

“From where is my help to come?” we ask with the psalmist.  His answer is clear and confident; “My help comes from the Lord!”  He knows that real help can only come from the one who created the hills he’s gazing at.  It is a confident response, but of course what we don’t know is what other possibilities may have been considered along the way.  Certainly there are other psalms that express much less confidence in the Lord’s help and we’ve been there too, maybe feeling like God has let us down.  In addition, for many of us, being good Americans, we’ve got that bootstrap mentality of the need to help ourselves, to pick ourselves up and not be dependent on anyone else for help; the old Protestant work ethic.

This psalm though is not about any of that.  It is a confident statement of trust in the Lord’s help which then moves into powerful statements about exactly what that help looks like and in the Hebrew of this psalm one word gets repeated six times in describing the Lord’s help.  The Hebrew word is shamar and in the version of the psalm we used it is variously translated as keep or watch over or preserve.  So the keeper of Israel will neither slumber nor sleep; the Lord watches over you; the Lord will preserve you from all evil and keep your life; the Lord will watch over your going out and your coming in.

In Hebrew it’s all the same word but the different ways of translating it are useful in describing the different dimensions of this word.  The different translations also serve to highlight the nature of the relationship described here especially because they serve to emphasize the difference between having something and keeping it.  We all have things and some of those things we probably care very deeply about.  But then there are other things.  For example, you don’t just have children; you keep them, you watch over them, you preserve or protect them as best you can.  Some might feel the same way about their pets, their flowers or gardens.  They don’t just have them, it’s something different. 

What the psalmist knows then, is that the Lord doesn’t just have him, he keeps him, and that is different.  At this point in his journey, the psalmist knows that the Lord is his keeper in all the ways the word can be nuanced.  He’s ready to continue his journey, into the hills and beyond into Jerusalem because while there are still some things he doesn’t know about what lies ahead, he knows the Lord will keep him.

It’s a good moment; it’s a good place to be.  It would seem that in the first lesson today Abram also experiences such a moment as based only on the promise of the Lord, he’s ready to begin his journey from his homeland to a place God only knows, but still Abram went as the Lord told him.  Abram or Abraham as he became, would have less confident moments in the long journey he was beginning, but at this moment, he too knows that help comes from the Lord.

In both of these cases there is mystery about the confident response.  Neither Abraham nor the psalmist have any proof of anything, yet they dare move into the unknown of God’s future, they dare to go to where they have not yet been confident in God’s possibilities.  They’re at a point where we’d all like to be.

It might be Nicodemus though, the subject of today’s gospel lesson, who is closer to where we really are.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee, part of the Jewish leadership that was largely opposed to Jesus.  We tend to portray the Pharisees as the bad guys but keep in mind that mostly they were defending the faith tradition handed down to them.  Nicodemus was part of that, but he was curious too so he came by night to question Jesus.  They engaged in the kind of dialogue typical to John’s gospel where the characters seem to talk past each other, but in the midst of talk about being born again Nicodemus poses a question that is central to any honest faith journey; “How can these things be?” he asked. 

He wanted to know, but the kind of answers he was looking for weren’t forthcoming; they never are; so for the moment, Nicodemus disappears from the text.  He was on the journey though, it’s important to emphasize that.  His questions were hills he had to find his way through on the journey.   As a pious Jew it’s also safe to say that he knew Psalm 121 and no doubt had many times proclaimed “My help comes from the Lord.”  What he didn’t know was how Jesus could fit into this proclamation.  “How can these things be?”

We want to be where Abram was; we want to be where the psalmist was confidently on the journey into God’s future.  Sometimes though, we’re closer to Nicodemus.  But we’re on the journey, safe in God’s care because God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn Nicodemus or any of us, but in order that all might be saved through him.   We’re on the journey and with the help of the Lord who keeps us, who watches over us, who preserves us, we’ll get there.

Rev. Warren Geier
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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