May the Road Rise Up to Meet You
A Sermon on Psalm 121
Please turn with me to PSALM 121. This is known as “The Traveler’s Psalm.” It describes a liturgy that took place when pilgrims would depart from their villages to travel up to Jerusalem for the annual feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.
I remember being introduced to a simple departure ritual when Gail and I were dating. During our college years, we would sometimes visit her family at their home in Vermont. After a long weekend there, when we would get ready to head back to school, the family would all gather in a prayer circle in the driveway, hold hands, and Gail’s father would pray for God’s protection and help on our trip back to Pennsylvania. I felt blest and encouraged by those prayers as we climbed in the car and took off to make our long journey.
Another ritual of departing that is special in my memory took place when Gail and I used to go on mission trips, especially our first trips to India back in the late 1990’s. In those days, family and friends were able to go down the concourse to the gate with travelers. After we checked all our luggage, a huge hoard of people from our families and churches would make our way down to the gate. There would be much conversation, picture-taking, and hugging. We were leaving four young children behind, and so we spent a lot of time sharing last minute reminders and instructions. Then, as the time drew near, we’d gather in a large group near our plane and one of the pastors would lead in prayer, asking for God’s help and favor on our journey and work. He prayed for our health, for uneventful travel, for safety, for effectiveness in our ministry and unity on our team. He prayed for our families and those we were leaving behind. Pretty soon, we gave our final hugs and made our way down the passageway to the plane to begin our journey.
I imagine we all have memories like that — memories of bittersweet departures when you said goodbye to loved ones, and a new journey was undertaken. Some of you, like me, may have moved many times over the years, relocating to a new house or community. I can still remember the tears in my grandfather’s eyes as we drove away from my dad’s hometown to live in the Chicago suburbs. I recall my own tears when my family moved from Chicago a few years later to the east coast just before my senior year in high school. We have lived in Indiana for twenty years now, and I can see it in my mind as clearly as if it were today when we left our friends’ home on a bitter, below zero January morning and made our way south down I-65 to our new life and ministry.
Now Gail and I are in that season when we are sending our children out into the world to establish their own lives. I recall how hard it was to see the road through misty eyes when I drove away after dropping our first daughter off at college. That same bittersweet sense of joy and longing came again to us last summer when we moved our second daughter and her family to northern Indiana. As each of our children breaks the apron strings and enters the world of adulthood, there is a departing which we mourn even as we welcome the joys that come with a new stage of life.
Sometimes the pain of departing proves to be too much. One of our sweetest hymns, “Blest Be the Tie that Binds Our Hearts in Christian Love,” was written by a pastor named John Fawcett. In 1776, he went to serve a small, poor Baptist congregation in northern England. His salary was meager, and his family grew. After several years, he received a call to a large and influential church in London. When the day for their departure arrived, the sad parishioners of that humble little church gathered around the family and their wagons. Mrs. Fawcett, the pastor’s wife, finally broke down and said, “John, I cannot bear to leave. I don’t know how I can go.” The saddened pastor replied, “I don’t either.” Soon they unpacked the wagons and decided they would stay. In the wake of that experience, he wrote his famous hymn:
Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.
Before our Father’s throne we pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, our comforts and our cares.
The pain of departing was too much for them. They decided that, instead of embarking on a new journey, they would continue their journey of ministry with the people of that little church.
We make all kinds of journeys in our lives. Some are brief and inconsequential, others represent major changes of direction that lead us down long and winding roads of discovery, opportunity, and difficulty. This psalm teaches us that, at the beginning of every new journey we have a chance to remind ourselves of the One who watches over us on every road we travel through in this life.
We all know that the road can be a challenging place. There are dangers when you’re out on the road. There are obstacles and hindrances. You may face unforeseen delays. You may get diverted and have to take a detour. The traffic may be thick or you may find yourself alone. Directions may not be clear and you might get lost. You can get lonely at points along the way, and then again, you might make some new friends. You never know. You may come around a bend and see a sight you’ve never witnessed before. You might come up over a hill and have to suddenly swerve to avoid an accident. Your vehicle might break down and you get stuck with unexpected expenses. You get a flat tire, you run out of gas, you need a new fuel pump. They can’t get to it until morning, so you have to spend the night in hotel.
That’s why, at the beginning of every journey, it is good to pause a moment and remember that there is Someone who guides our way, who is there for us, who cares for us, who can protect and provide for us.
Psalm 121 is a song for travelers that does just that. It is part of a group of psalms known as “Psalms of Ascent.” You can see that title in Psalms 120-134. This collection contains fifteen short, simple songs that are like folk-songs, reflecting the rural setting of the people of Israel. Three times a year, according to Deuteronomy 16:16, Israel’s males were supposed to take a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. At Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacle, three harvest festivals, the Hebrew people were to go to Jerusalem and thank God for his provision. They took offerings and sacrifices from their harvests and worshiped God at the Temple. And they sang songs as they traveled. Songs like these.
Psalm 121 is a song about the day when the pilgrim departs on his journey. Picture a traveler with his bags packed, ready to head out of the city gate to Jerusalem. It’s one of those goodbye scenes. The priest is there, and so are the members of his family and his community. They have come to see him off, to wish him well on his journey. Then the time has come for him to depart. The pilgrim speaks first, in vv. 1-2:
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He says, “Look at those hills. That’s where I’m going. I’m going beyond them to Mt. Zion, to Jerusalem. It’s a hard journey, and I know I’m going to need help. Who will help me on my way? Will the so-called “gods” of the nations, the gods they worship in the hills help me? No! My help doesn’t come from the hills, it comes from the One who made the hills! I’m trusting in the true and living God, the Creator of everything, to be my Helper!” At the beginning of the journey the pilgrim lets everyone know he’s trusting in the Lord to guide his way.
And then it’s time for his friends to speak. This is represented in rest of the psalm, which may have been sung by the community or by the priest, who spoke these words on their behalf:
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore.
So, what you have in this psalm is a simple liturgy, sung first by the pilgrim and then by his community. After the pilgrim announces his intention to go to Jerusalem, trusting the Lord, the ones who love this pilgrim answer his statement of trust with words of promise and benediction. They give him the Gospel message that that the Lord is his Keeper and that God will take care of him by his grace. “The Lord will be your keeper. God will protect you from stumbling. God will keep you through the dangers of the day and of the night. From the time you depart to to the time you arrive, the Lord will keep you. We commit you into God’s care and protection!”
At the beginning of the journey, at the time of departure, then, the pilgrim affirms his faith, and his friends proclaim the Gospel to him. Together they affirm that there is a true and living God who made the heavens and the earth, that he loves us and that he will be present and ever-vigilant to help us on our journey through life.
* * *
Let me share three thoughts with you about how this psalm can apply to your life and mine.
First: At the beginning of every new journey, it calls me to focus on the Lord and the Good News of his love. And really, that starts with every morning of my life. What if I would view each and every morning as the start of a new pilgrimage, a new journey toward the New Jerusalem, another step toward the day when we will worship together in the new heavens and new earth? I wake up, and the first words that come to mind are from Psalm 121:
I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
I start every day reminding myself that my life is a journey, that the way is challenging and I need help, that the only One who can truly help me is the true and living God, the Creator of all things.
This is also why we meet together on Sundays. We come to church to remind ourselves that the week ahead is going to involve a journey. We don’t know what we’re going to face. But we start the week off singing “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.” We acknowledge our faith when we recite the Creed. We take our prayer needs to the Lord. We hear the Word of the Gospel. We get nourishment from the Sacrament. Think of each Sunday morning in worship as the beginning of a journey and reinforce your faith in the One who will keep you throughout the week to come.
That leads to my second point, which is: We face the journey of life best when we are in a community of faith that encourages us by reminding us of the Good News of God’s love. You see, this psalm is not just about my personal journey with Jesus. It’s about making my journey with the support and blessing and encouragement of my faith community. Yes, I make my own profession of faith, as the pilgrim does in verses 1-2 of the Psalm, but the rest of the psalm, the majority of the verses in the Psalm, reflect what the community says to me. They give me the Gospel. They point me to the Lord. They remind me that my journey is undergirded by God’s grace. They let me know that the Lord is my Shepherd, and I shall not want. They assure me that nothing I face or go through on the journey can ever separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
My final point is an important one: This Psalm reflects the beginning of the journey, and doesn’t tell the whole story. Psalm 121 is a completely positive psalm, and if this were all we had in Scripture, I might be tempted to think that my journey through life is going to be trouble free. After all, the Lord is my Keeper! He never slumbers or sleeps! He will keep my foot from slipping. He will keep me from all evil!
Now we all know that these promises are true, but they only represent one part of the story. Our journey is much more complex and mysterious than that. Most of the psalms in the Book of Psalms are of the type scholars call, “laments.” We pray and sing laments when life isn’t going the way we think it should be going, when the journey gets hard and we can’t find our way, when it feels like God is absent and uncaring and we wonder if he has forgotten us. In fact, just turn the page and look at Psalm 130. It begins:
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
That’s the same pilgrim, just a few more miles down the road, with a bit of different tune. The point is that God keeps me as I go through the journey. He doesn’t raise me up and give me wings to fly over all the troubles on the road, he doesn’t allow me to escape the hard parts — he keeps me in and through those challenges. And no matter what I face, it can’t ultimately separate me from his love.
So, here we are at the beginning of another journey, the start of a new week to come. We’ve come together, we’ve turned our attention to God, we’ve confessed our faith in him, we’ve heard the Word of the Gospel, we’re about to partake of the Sacrament. I’d like to commend us all to the Lord for our upcoming journey by using the words of the old Gaelic blessing:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
All pictures used by permission. Visit David Cornwell’s Photostream on Flickr