July 17, 2022
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
We are midway through our Summer Playlist looking at the Book of Psalms. The psalms were like the hymnbook of Israel. If you get nothing else out of this series, I hope you appreciate the way music helps us experience the presence of God unlike anything else. I hope you will be encouraged to incorporate music in an intentional way in your devotions or meditation time. Through song we experience God in unique ways.
My brother-in-law, Steve Wilke, and his wife, Beth were with us in Oberammergau, Germany for the Passion Play. One day Steve and I were talking. I can’t remember what inspired this comment from Steve, but he said, “If I were in a desperate situation, maybe stranded somewhere, next the Bible, I would want to have a hymnal with me.”
There’s something about music that helps us look up from our challenges.
As I pointed out last week, many of the psalms, if not the majority, were written in desperate situations, in which the writer’s look up to God. The psalms have since given encouragement to people in similar situations to do the same. When the Reformation leader, Martin Luther, was stowed away in a castle for fear of his life, he spent the time translating the New Testament and Book of Psalms into German.
400 years later a German pastor named Claus Westermann was forced to fight in the German army. He was serving in the Russian front and was captured. The only thing he had which he was allowed to keep was a copy of Luther’s New Testament and Psalms. One day he and his fellow prisoners of war decided to have a worship service. They stood in a circle as one of the people read Psalm 103, a Psalm of Praise. This is what Westermann said of the experience:
We were standing with our heads bowed, stooped over. But afterward I thought, “That’s not the way to praise God! Such a psalm has to be spoken with joy, your head raised, your body erect!” In that experience I learned the difference between real praise and our notion of prayer. Then I began my dissertation, writing on a little board, sometimes trading bread for paper. It was then that I discovered that the psalms of the Old Testament really come out of human experience. (article by Jim Limburg in Word and World, 1981 vol1 no.2 “The Word as Scripture” p170)
Westermann experienced new hope and a renewed sense of purpose because of words from a psalm that invited him to lift up his head.
Today we consider one of the great psalms of praise that invites us to do the same, “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence does my help come, it comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”
Psalm 121 is known as a Psalm of Ascent, which includes Psalms 120-134. They were so called because they were sung by groups of people as they made pilgrimage to Jerusalem. (map) Jerusalem is one of the highest elevated cities in Israel as you can see by this topographical map. From any direction, those traveling to Jerusalem had to climb up. Imagine coming within view of the temple. (pic) You would be looking at the place where the divine presence is believed to dwell. The Psalmist is saying, “I lift up my eyes to the hills…” I look up and remember that my greatest help in life comes from God.
It's like what the holocaust survivor, Corrie ten Boom once said, “If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within you’ll be depressed. But if you look at God you’ll be at rest.”
This is the message of Psalm 121. “Look up!” Look up from your discouragement and despair and focus on God who helps you. Look up from your busyness and give attention to the One who brings order and stability to life. Look up from the distractions around you to the God who says, “Peace, be still.”
Now there are two things I want to point out about this psalm. The first is the change of tense from verses 1-2 to the rest of the psalm. You’ll see the first verses on the screen again and as I read it I invite you to say the personal pronounce out loud with me: “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence does my help come? My help comes from the Lord…”
Four personal references, but then notice how the tense changes to the third person in the next verse: “He will not let your foot be moved. He who keeps you will not slumber; He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep…”
Old Testament professor Dr. John Hayes speculates that this was a psalm used for the start of a pilgrimage. He imagines those making the pilgrimage all meeting up at a common starting point, kind of like we do today when setting out on a trip. We might say, “Let’s meet at the church parking lot at such and such time.” And, of course, any successful trip has to have a super-charged organizer, planner type person. You know, someone who is like an Enneagram 8. Any Enneagram 8’s out there? Okay, we need you folks to make sure we leave on time.
So this person has checked the list and everyone who said they are going has arrived and there are probably different types of people. You’ve got some young people who are going on a trip away from home for the first time without mom and dad. So they are a little nervous. And then you’ve got some elderly people. Their family has begged them not to go. They are getting frail, but they said, “Stop it! We are going and that’s that.” And then there is someone who is not well. They are struggling with an illness. The journey will be demanding and some friends have come to see this person off but asking one last time, “Are you sure?” And the person says, “Oh yes, I need to do this.”
And like a lot of church groups when they leave, the leader might say “Let’s have a prayer as we start.” Except for this group of Jewish pilgrims, instead of a prayer, the Enneagram 8 leader says to everyone, “Okay, let’s sing as we begin,” and everyone knows what that means. They sing Psalm 121. The people going on the pilgrimage begin walking and sing as they go, “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence does my help come? It comes from the Lord…”
And then, as they keep walking, they hear behind them the voices of all those who came to see them off sing in response, “He will not let your foot be moved. He who keeps you will not slumber, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep…”
They set off knowing there is a community keeping faith with them.
I read one time about a church that grew concerned about declining attendance and the studies saying people don’t see a need for church. The leadership wrestled with that question, “Do people need the church?” So they decided to ask their members. They hosted a forum one evening and invited to gather at tables and wrestle with that question, “Do people need the church?” After a while they let people share highlights of their discussion. Eventually this man stood, a man who was like a pillar of the church and he shocked everyone when he said, “Sometimes I don’t think so. My faith weakens. I don’t really know if I believe anymore. But I keep coming to church, honestly because I have jobs to do. I serve coffee. I have to usher, so I show up. But there are occasions when I can’t sing the hymns or and say the creeds with integrity, because sometimes I’m not sure I believe them. So I don’t. I just stand there and listen to everyone else sing and recite, and as I listen to their voices, it’s like their faith becomes my faith. That’s why I need the church.”
There are times in the life of any believer where we need the faith of the community to be our faith. Last Sunday we looked at a Psalm of Lament and after the 11:00 service I talked to people as they came out. At the end there was one gentleman standing at the entrance of the chapel. I wasn’t sure if he was waiting to talk with me, so I went over to him. He was obviously moved by the service. He shared he was battling cancer so I prayed with him. I mentioned in the sermon how we sometimes have to get stubborn in not letting go of God, and he said that’s what he was going to do.
Then, Sunday evening he sent me this email:
Thank you Pastor Rob, once again you and your wonderful congregation got me through another day and on my way to another week of living and serving. God knows why I am suffering. You meet and serve so many deserving souls and I am grateful you took a moment, made eye contact and saw another in need of prayer.
After our prayer this morning I went home and sat on the porch and started reading the book of Psalms in the beautiful sun. I connected with the internal struggles and cries of plea told in Psalm 1 verses 1-4 so well, I had to lay it down, and with tears in my eyes I began to pray:
So long have I turned my attention and intentions in a direction not meant for me. I made it about me and all about me. I believed I needed the attention of men. I needed to believe I was worthy and loved by all and at all cost, when all I ever needed was You, our Lord and savior.
Now I will be “stubborn” and humble. I will not ever again wavier from my belief in Christ again. For it is he who sacrificed his life to make a righteous path through the unrighteousness of men. If had not strayed and stayed on that path…I may not have lost so much of myself and my Life.
Lord I am not asking for a miracle, the cure my body needs requires more. I’m not asking for a quick fix to my ever so broken heart, only time will determine how much of a scar will remain. Paster Rob filled in the blank for me today by teaching me and clarifying my need. My need Father is to just know you’re listening.
That is what you call a modern day psalm! I love how he used the expression “se-lah.” It appears in 39 of the psalms. It’s like a rest symbol in music. It means pause, rest, then go on. He learned to pause in the midst of his suffering and regrets and look up to the one who is watching over him.
And that takes me to the second thing I want to point out about Psalm 121. It is the word keep. It appears 6 times in the verses 3-8, the verses sung by the community.
• The God who keeps does not slumber
• The God who keeps never slumbers or sleeps
• The Lord is your keeper
• The Lord will keep you from all evil
• The Lord will keep your life
And then, what for me is the most meaningful verse in the Psalm, the last verse, “The Lord will keep your going out and coming in from this time forth and forever more.”
I found new meaning in that verse when I worked on my first book on the ‘I Am’ sayings of Jesus where Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd.” A shepherd keeps the sheep in a pen with a doorway. The sheep go out to find pasture, and when there is dew on the grass in the morning, that is a delight. The sheep go out to find joy. But at night, they want to come in where there is security. They come in to find peace. The shepherd keeps their going out and coming in. The shepherd provides peace and joy.
But I know in my life I too often allow my joy and peace to be taken. Or maybe a truer way to say that is I allow my joy and peace to be given away. And I have to find pause to stop and look up at the One who is really able to give me real joy and peace.
I was ten years into my ministry when I hit a wall. I had been at my first senior pastor appointment 3 years. It started off great. We had a lot of growth of new people, but then the ones who had been there a long time started feeling a loss of control and clonflict started arising. And as often happens in churches the pastor becomes the flashpoint of that conflict.
I remember coming home from a church meeting on the evening of Father’s Day. I had three small girls waiting on daddy to get home and I was too depressed and tired to celebrate. To make matters worse we needed to hire a new choir director. There was a person in the community who studied at the Julliard School of Music and I had been in communication with her about the job. She kept turning me down, and right before I was too leave on vacation, she finally wrote me a three page letter explaining why she’s not interested, because she’s heard how much conflict there is in my church. I remember coming home and throwing the letter down and saying to Susan, “The last thing I need is to hear from someone not even in our church that there’s conflict in the church!”
That’s when Susan said, “I know we are supposed to go on this vacation just the two of us, but I need you to go by yourself and have some days alone, then I will come join you.” I thought, “Great, Susan doesn’t even want to be around me.” Not even the dog was sit beside me! I was a joyless, peaceless soul.
Then to make matters worse, the morning I was flying to Colorado, Susan dropped me off at the airport at about 5:30. It was an hour and a half before the flight. I stood in line an hour waiting to check my bag and the moment I got to the counter the agent announced no more bags would be checked on the flight. I said, “You can’t do that. I’m flying to Albuquerque and will have a four-hour drive after I get there.” The person looked at the computer screen and said bluntly, “Your bags will arrive on a flight 5 hours after you get there.”
So I boarded that flight in a stew. I was mad at God. Mad at the church and mad at US Air. I spent the rest of that flight crafting a letter to the president of US Airlines, just letting him have it.
I arrived in Albuquerque, got my rental car, went to lunch, came back to the airport, walked around it many times, until my bag finally arrived. I put it in the car and started driving to Colorado. It was evening and as I got out of the city and into the desert I started thinking, “Why am I in a hurry? What does it matter that its five hours later? I’m not late for anything. No one will be there when I arrive.” So I just relaxed a little and tried to enjoy this very different scenery. As I approached the San Juan Mountains I was driving on this two-lane highway that looked like the stereotypical western scene of a road going for miles down and then up into the mountains and not a car in sight. By now the evening sun is hitting the rocks and they are glowing red. And as I got closer to the mountains I saw this eagle circling a tall rock spire. It wasn’t moving a wing, just soaring around and around. I was so captivated by it I pulled off the road and turned off the car. I sat on the hood and laid back on the windshield just mesmerized by this scene.
And in that moment something happened to me that has never happened again in my life. A song came to me. A very clear song with a melody. The words of Psalm 121 got into my head, and I didn’t want to lose it. I got my legal pad out again, and flipped over my letter to the US Air president and I started drawing music notes. I’m not a musician but I know enough music to be able to capture the melody. I laid there and sang that song to myself.
I spent several days in good spirits. Susan joined me and we had a great vacation. When I got back to the office I had a stack of mail waiting and on top was a phone message from the person I was trying to get to be our music director. She said she had a strange experience. She woke up early one morning and felt God saying to her, “Don’t close the door on this position.” So we met. She came to the church, and over the next decade God did amazing things in that church.
But that’s not why I tell this story. I tell it because of what God did to me. When I finally got to a place where I would look up and pause, I was able to experience that God was keeping me. I was kept. God was in charge not matter how out of control I felt. God was in charge and I was okay.
You know what we keep is what will keep us. If we try to keep control we will probably feel like we are being controlled. If we worry about keeping stuff, we’ll probably find that our stuff keeps us. But if we focus on keeping close to God, we will find that he keeps watch over our going out and coming in. God will give us joy and peace.
So when I shared this story with Jeff and Emory recently they wrote out the music and Brad/Kim is going to sing it, and then invite you to join them in singing it as we go into our closing song…