Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 8, 2020
Psalm 121 Commentary
For the second week in a row the Year A RCL has assigned a psalm that was also the Year C Psalm lection just a few months ago. So with modest modifications, here is a bit of a rerun on my recent thoughts on preaching this well-known—and very lovely—Hebrew poem.
When I was a little kid, I remember Psalm 121 being read in church or sometimes at our dinner table. Back then various versions of the Bible translated that first line, “ I lift up mine eyes to the hills, whence cometh my help.” Read this way, it is clear that our help comes somehow from the hills. But then somewhere along the line most Bible translations switched such that now you are likely to read, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from?”
Now it appears that whatever the psalmist sees up there in the hills, it is not per se the source of his help but instead what he sees causes him to ask where his help does in fact come from. You could fruitfully put the word “but” in front of the second line: “but where does my help come from?” It is clear that the psalmist’s help does not come from the hills, which in turn makes the next verse the true answer to his question: true help comes only from Yahweh, from the God of Israel, who created the heavens and the earth.
What’s going on here? Some commentators believe—and thus newer Bible translations reflect—that when the psalmist looks up to the hills, he sees the so-called “high places” in Canaan where the altars to Baal and the fertility poles to Asherah had been erected. Israel had been ordered to dismantle all those Canaanite shrines but we know from history that the people did not fully follow through on that command. Remnants of Canaanite religion remained in the Promised Land and—just as God (and Moses) had predicted—those remnants of idolatry became a snare for the people. So perhaps the psalmist saw the so-called “help” of false religion up there in the hills and this in turn caused him to reject those fake gods in order to embrace the real God of Israel.
Many people grew up learning that Psalm 121 was “the traveler’s psalm.” Families used to read this the night before a big vacation road trip. Of course, this is partly on target: Psalm 121 is one of many “Psalms of Ascent” in the Psalter as these were the pilgrimage songs the people of Israel would sing or recite on their way up to Jerusalem for one of Israel’s holy festivals like Passover. As such, once the true God of Israel is identified as the only true source of “help” in life, the psalm goes on to talk about the kinds of things people on a road trip might wonder or be concerned about: the heat of the sun, feet slipping on uneven paths, the harm that the moon at night might cause (the fear of moon-induced difficulties or madness was an ancient concern and is even the root of our word “lunacy”), and quite literally our comings and goings.
This is a traveler’s song after all and assigned as it is in the Year A Lectionary for the Second Sunday in Lent, we can see this as a song for our Lenten journey toward Christ’s cross. But the “travel” in question is finally so much more than just actually hitting the road for a trip. There is a larger and more urgent sense in which this poem is about our overall journey in life through a sometimes perilous world. The fact that Psalm 121 begins with the psalmist lifting up his eyes only to see the allures of false comfort and fake religion reminds us that as we travel through life, we also can look around and see all the things that some people embrace as the source of help and comfort and life itself but that the discerning pilgrim will recognize as finally hollow and a very far cry from the only true source of help through the Lord Jesus Christ.
What in our culture today might constitute the equivalent of the “high places” of false worship to the idols Baal and Asherah? In one sense these things are legion. The philosopher James K.A. Smith has written much in recent years about the idolatry of your average shopping mall—a place most of us frequent with some regularity and where a lot of young people hang out on a far more routine basis. Shopping malls are a kind of modern “church” in the sense that they put before our eyes the things we are to worship. But look at the display showcase windows, Smith advises, and what do you see?
Well, among other things you see what is held up before our eyes as the ideal male and female body: thin, athletic, beautiful, handsome. You see also as often as not highly sexualized versions of humanity, whether it is male and female models at Hollister stores or the outright sexual images of scantily clad women in the display windows of Victoria’s Secret, the message is clear: we are supposed to be all about sex, about being sexy, about buying clothes that will make us be just that attractive.
Or there is the idol of consumerism just generally. Williams Sonoma shows you the kitchen gadgets and high-end cookware you simply must have in order to cook like the celebrity chefs on Food Network. The Apple Store provides slick videos on giant wall screens that display the newest version of the iPhone or iPad that lets you know that the phone you bought 10 months ago that has only two measly cameras on it absolutely has to be replaced with the newer version with three cameras on it.
And, of course, you need all those cameras so that on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter you can take pictures of your life, of your vacation, of the accomplishments of your children that will make you the envy of all your friends. (Below is an image of a mockery of Instagram posts that skewers the actual fact that people are inciting the envy of others as often as not in what they post):
Behind all of it, of course, is the great idol of money. It’s all about the bling, the lifestyle, the high-end indulging of the best places, the best food, the best restaurants, the nicest cars, the slickest new gadget.
We, too, can lift up our eyes to “the hills” all around us and see what passes as today’s latest, greatest source of “help” in life. But it’s all false. We need the discipline of the psalmist to yank our attention back to the one true God who alone can watch over us because this God loves us, has our best interests at heart, has all the grace needed to forgive our sins and put our feet back on level paths when in our foolishness we stray and start pursuing those alluring false gods who scream their counter-messages at us every day.
The Songs of Ascent often convey the message that this journey toward God is often a fraught one. There are perils along the way. Even when we are just generally headed in the right direction, dangers abound. It is only by the grace of God that we can stay on the right path, lift up our eyes to the true Source of help, and so somehow in the end arrive at the place where our loving Creator God wanted us to be in the first place. And in this Lenten Season, there is finally one hill after all to which we can lift our eyes: Golgotha. Now that is the one hill from which all our help does come from!
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
The quintessential novel that captured the essence of the 1980s was Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. A year or so after this novel came out—a novel that adroitly and perceptively captured the spirit of acquisitiveness that so characterized that “yuppie” decade of conspicuous consumption—I heard Wolfe give a lecture at Michigan State University. Among other things he talked about the research he did for the novel. Because he wanted to deal with the whole sweep of life in a place like New York City, Wolfe spent time both in corporate boardrooms with deeply beveled oak paneling and out on the streets among gang members in the dirty back alleys of the city.
At one point Wolfe noticed that some of the gang members and other younger people he interviewed were wearing a curious kind of necklace. Upon closer inspection he realized that what some of these folks were wearing on a chain like a necklace was actually the hood ornament off of Mercedes Benz cars—hood ornaments that had clearly been literally torn off the front of such cars.
The cars from which the hood-ornament-turned-necklace came were owned and driven by the wealthy elite of New York. And that is when it dawned on Wolfe: in both higher-end and lower-end New York it was all about status symbols: those who could afford it drove the actual cars; those who could not afford it donned the key symbol of luxury from the hood of those same cars. But it was all the same: it was all about money, about status. Indeed, it was the very same status symbol for both groups!
The temptation to reach for all the wrong things as sources of status, comfort, and Psalm 121-like “help” are common to all. Believers needs to see all this and ask the key question: “Yes, but where does my help come from?”
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