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Praying the Psalms: Psalm 121

October 24, 2010
Sermon: Praying the Psalms
Text: Psalm 121

I would like you to join with me as we read responsively from Psalm 121, our text for today.

I will lift up my eyes to the hills –
from whence comes my help?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
The LORD who keeps Israel
shall 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 shall preserve you from all evil.
he shall preserve your soul
the LORD shall preserve your going out and your coming in
from this time forth, and even forevermore.

This year, 2010, is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The Parkway, which extends 469 miles, is a product of the New Deal, an effort under the Franklin Roosevelt administration to provide jobs for those unemployed during the period known as The Great Depression.  This particular project provided income for some of the poorest families in the eastern part of the United States.  Most of the people hired to work on the Parkway were local mountain people.  Construction began in September of 1935 at Cumberland Knob near the North Carolina/Virginia border.  The idea was to recreate a link between the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee.

The project was not finished until 1983.  The reason for the long delay was that Grandfather Mountain was privately owned by an individual who insisted that the Parkway go around his property instead of cutting through it.  If you have traveled the Parkway, you know what a beautiful section of highway was created.  Called the Lin Cove Viaduct, this route skirts the edge of Grandfather Mountain.

Ken Burns has documented the history of the Parkway in one of his films.  The drive has also been the subject of other public broadcasting features.  The outstanding scenery of the Parkway has led to the epithet “America’s Favorite Drive.”  It is characterized by some of the most stunning views in the Appalachian Mountains.  You see beautiful scenes like split-rail fences, old farmsteads, and mountain meadows; but nothing compares to those vistas when you stop at an overlook and take in the majesty of the mountains.

The annual display of fall colors, as you know, is an especially popular season to visit the Parkway.  As the days grow shorter and the nights become cooler, the leaves begin to change color and put on a spectacular display before winter.  I have every confidence that very fine Morningside members, at this very moment, are driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  In fact, if I did not have a job to do, I might be there, too.

People say that riding along the Parkway is a wonderful religious experience, a devotional experience.  Because the speed limit is forty-five, you cannot really go fast.  You just have to soak in all the beauty.  My good friend George Schrieffer, not an especially good poet, wrote a couple of lines about this very topic: “The leaves reach their peak in the middle of the week.”  Every pastor cherishes those lines.  If you are going to the mountains to drive along the Parkway, please go in the middle of the week and not on Sunday.

The mountains are special places for many people in the United States.  Native Americans such as the Navaho of New Mexico and Arizona and the Crow Indians of the Montana area have long regarded the mountains as sacred land, as holy places.  The Crow people found the area called the Sweet Grass Hills holy while the Sioux of South Dakota regarded the Black Hills in very much the same way.  Mount Shasta, in the Cascades of California, is still regarded by Native Americans as a sacred peak.  Today, it is also the center of what has been called New Age Spirituality.

The mountains also provide a kind of sacred space for other people around the world.  Some of you perhaps know of Machu Picchu in Peru, a high mountain site of an ancient Inca worship center regarded as sacred.  Mount Kailash, a diamond-shaped peak in the Himalayas of Tibet is also regarded as a sacred mountain by the people of the Hindu faith, the Buddhist faith, and those who practice what is called Jainism.  Mount Fuji in Japan, a peak named for the Buddhist goddess of fire, is sacred to those of the Shinto faith.  The Chinese consider four Buddhist mountains and five Taoist mountains sacred.  Mountains have always been regarded as holy places of worship for people of various religious beliefs and backgrounds.

In the Bible, we find the same dynamic.  The Canaanite culture regarded mountains, called “high places” or “holy places,” as a place to worship their pantheon of thirty or forty different deities.  Among those were several goddesses: Anat, the sister of Baal; Asherah, the mother goddess and wife of Baal; and Ashtart, also called Astarte, a mistress of Baal.  The primary focus of the Canaanite religion, which centered on the idea of fertility, was worshipping and encouraging Baal to provide good crops, increase herds and flocks, and bless parents with many children.

A prominent belief in the Canaanite religion was that mountains were important, not only as places of worship, but also as symbols of fertility and nurture.  They were regarded as the breast of the earth, as if Mother Earth were trying to nurture people through the mountains themselves.  Two sacred mountains were associated with each other.  This notion is not very different from the Shoshoni Indians of Wyoming who named a prominent mountain range the Tetons, their name for “breast.”

Consider some events that occurred on mountains in the New Testament.  Remember that Abraham and Sarah left Ur of the Chaldees and moved into the land of Canaan where they encountered the culture.  Many aspects of that culture appear in our biblical text.  We see evidence that Abraham especially reacted against some of the Canaanite practices.  For example, he took his son Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah, preparing to offer him as a sacrifice.  In the Canaanite culture, parents were expected to sacrifice their first-born child.  What is so remarkable about that story is that Abraham received a different message from the Lord.  He did not have to sacrifice his son; God provided a substitute.  This, of course, from our Christian perspective, is a prelude to what we see later in the New Testament.  On another mountain, God provided a sacrifice for all of us, the substitute sacrifice.

The covenants God made with His people were made on mountaintops.  Noah made a covenant on top of Mount Ararat.  Abraham made a covenant with God on top of mountains.  Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai.  David built his holy city on Mount Zion.  Elijah won the victory for the Lord God in his contention with prophets of Baal on the top of Mount Carmel.

Even the different names of God reflect this idea that the mountains are the abode of God, that they are God’s dwelling place:  El Eliom – God Most High; El Shaddai – God Almighty; El Eloim – Eternal God.  You can see the importance of mountains in the Canaanite culture.

Fast forward to the New Testament, and think about the events in Jesus’ life that happened on mountains.  Jesus went to the mountains to pray.  He gave the Sermon on the Mount on a mountaintop.  He experienced the transfiguration on Mount Tabor.  In the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, he made the most important decision of his life.  He taught on the Temple mount, and he gave his life on a mountain named Calvary or Golgotha – the place of the Skull.  Jesus also ascended into heaven on a mountaintop.

Consider mountains with two names:  Mount Horeb and Sinai, and Pisgah and Nebo.  The idea is that the mountains are a special place, a place of God’s dwelling, a place of God’s abode.

We must consider the meaning of the beginning words of Psalm 121:  “I lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help.”  Does this line mean that I am to consider the mountains as a source of help?  Does it mean that I am to realize my help is not really coming from the mountains but from God?  The meaning depends on how you read the Scripture, how you interpret the Hebrew.  Either way, it is worship of God.  Even when God is thought to abide on the mountain, it is still the worship of God, not worship of the mountain.  God is everywhere.  He is the God of the Piedmont.  He is the God of the coastal plain.  He is the God of islands and deserts.  He is the God of it all.

I have been reading an interesting book by William P. Brown, a professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary.  His book, Singing the Psalms: The Theology of Metaphor, does not take the psalms in order and dissect each psalm in turn.  Rather, the book takes a kind of thematic approach to the psalms.

Brown speaks of two metaphors that are especially important in our study of Psalm 121.  The first one is God’s shadow, which we do not ordinarily discuss.  This psalm talks about the safety that can be found in the shadow of Shaddai.  In Psalm 91, God’s shadow takes on a variety of meanings.  One meaning is that God is like a giant bird, protecting us with the shadow of His wings.  Under the shelter of His wings, we find rest and security.  It seems to be a strange way of talking about God using that image from ornithology.

It is not so strange, however, when we think about some events that happen in nature.  Following a forest fire that occurred in California, some workers began looking at the fire’s effect on wildlife.  In an area that had been badly burned, a worker found a dead bird that was charred.  When he reached down to pick up the bird, three baby birds scampered out from underneath the wings of that mother bird.  Though the mother bird died in the fire, those little birds survived under the protection of her wings.  The imagery of the shadow of God’s wings that protect us is particularly apparent in Psalm 91.

We also see the idea that a shadow is shade that offers rest and protection.  If you find shelter from the heat of the day, you will not have sunstroke.  Likewise, according to an old Canaanite idea, if you find shelter from the assault of the moon, you will not be moonstruck.  Day and night, you receive protection from the shade of the Lord.  Whether thinking about a cloudy sky or a tree on the mountain, the writer interprets this as God providing shade.  “The Lord is your shade at your right hand,” which is a way of saying that God protects you 24/7.  God’s protection is constant in every circumstance and every occasion.

Some of you will remember the musical The Sound of Music, the story of the Van Trapp family living in Austria and caught in that vortex of Nazi Germany.  Captain Van Trapp was actually a captain in the Austrian navy.  His wife, a woman named Maria, had been a novice in a Roman Catholic convent.  Disagreeing with the Nazis and trying to escape, the family sought refuge in that convent.  At one point when they wondered if they would be able to escape, Maria prayed this psalm:  “I lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help.”  The family actually did escape to the mountains.  There they found protection.

In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, we see this idea that we can be closer to God through our experience in the mountains.  The mountains provide a kind of stability.  They certainly have a grandeur that inspires within us a kind of reverence.  We see God’s formidable presence, His unmistakable majesty, in the mountains.  God is the creator of this splendor.

Some years ago, I went to Cherokee, North Carolina, with a friend who is a full-blooded Cherokee.  Along the main drag – Highway 441 – are numerous shops and casinos built to attract tourists.  One way the Native Americans have learned ways to get money out of tourists is to teach their young men to dress and dance in western Indian regalia.  The Cherokees would never wear those costumes otherwise.  Tourists have their photographs taken with the dancers for a price.  The real Cherokee culture is found one block over on either side of that main road.  When you get away from the casinos and bingo parlors, you find dear people, many Christians, living life day-by-day.

My friend and I visited with an old man who was eighty years old at the time.  He was an outstanding woodcarver.  You will see some of the carvings of this man, G.B. Chilkosty, at the Qualla reservation museum at Cherokee.  Chilkosty, his family name, is a Cherokee word for “dogwood tree.”  In talking to him, I found out that he was a veteran of World War II.  His assignment was to make to-scale models of German cities.  American pilots used those models to identify their bombing targets.

I asked Mr. Chilkosty what his initials meant, and he explained, “G.B. stands for ‘Going back.’  My name started with the Trail of Tears.  I was not there, of course, but my ancestors were.  They walked the Trail of Tears from North Carolina to Oklahoma.  I was born about the time my family decided to return to these mountains that are our home.  My parents named me ‘Going Back.’”

The mountains have a special attraction.  For some, they hold special meaning.

I did a funeral one time for a woman who was from a place near Bakersville, North Carolina, called Toecane, where the confluence of the Toe and the Cane rivers occurs.  This woman’s daughter and son-in-law, a physician at Bowman Gray, convinced her to move away from the mountains.  They wanted her to live near them in Winston-Salem so that they could take care of her.  This woman lived in a condominium near them, but boy, did she miss those mountains!  When she died, her request was to be buried in a high mountain cemetery near Toecane.  She was going back to the place that was home.  More importantly, she was going to heaven.  What a treat it was to be a part of that ceremony in the mountains.

Psalm 121 has held special meaning to many people over the years.  The outdoor drama Unto These Hills, the story of the Cherokee removal from North Carolina, is based on this psalm.  In a particularly poignant scene, Chief John Ross tells his people that they must leave their home in North Carolina and travel to Oklahoma.  In the bitter, bitter walk through the winter in 1838 and 1839, many of the Cherokee people died along this Trail of Tears.  Some died from exposure.  Others died from smallpox.  The Cherokee people were given unwashed blankets used by people who had smallpox in an army hospital.

Before leaving on the difficult trek, Chief John Ross opened the Bible and read the words of Psalm 121:  “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.”  The psalm reminds us that God is sovereign.

Recently, a news story about Chilean miners trapped underground for almost two months has touched our hearts.  While the group was still trapped, a group of Christians wanted to send these miners a copy of the Jesus film.  Somehow an MP3 player was lowered into the mine.  Those men worshipped every day at 12:00 and at 6:00, listening to a recording of the New Testament and the words of the Jesus film.  One man sent a letter out of the mine through the opening.  He closed with words from Psalm 95:4:  “In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him.”

People all over the world watched as these men were brought out of the mine.  Did you notice that many of them were wearing a t-shirt underneath their coveralls?  The Christian organization that supplied the t-shirts had printed on the front “Gracious, Senior,” which means “Thank you God or Lord.”  The back of the t-shirt was printed with the words of Psalm 95:4.

That simple verse says that we cannot go beyond the reach of God.  He can always find us.  He always knows where we are.  God’s reach can find us among the mountain peaks to be sure, but He can also reach us in the depths of the earth.  The front of the shirt was simply a statement of praise, and the back was an affirmation that we never go beyond God’s presence.

Printed on the sleeve was just one word:  “Jesus.”  It is as if whoever made those shirts was asking, “How does God reach us?  He reaches us through His Son, his incarnate presence in His Son, Jesus.”

Some years ago, I was a youth minister, foolhardy, as many youth ministers are.  I took a group of twenty young people hiking to Mount Rogers on the Appalachian Trail.  I had excellent chaperones, and I thought we had led a good training program.  We saw pink rhododendron blooming everywhere on our walk up the side of Mount Rogers.  A beautiful conifer forest covered the top of the mountain.

As we came back down the top of the mountain onto a very narrow ridge called Rhododendron Gap, I looked off to my left and saw that a storm was quickly approaching.  I realized that we were not going to be able to make it across that ridge before the storm reached us.  We found a niche under the huge granite outcroppings located all along the ridge.  A tarp tent I had packed in my backpack protected us from the storm.  The temperature dropped about twenty degrees in five minutes, and the storm pelted us with hail.  After the thunder and lightning, the rain began and continued for three days straight.

While under that tent, I told the youth the story about God’s presence passing by Moses, who was in the cleft of the rock.  Then I told them the story about Elijah in a cave on Mount Horeb.  God’s presence was not in the wind, and it was not in the fire.  It was not in the earthquake.  It was not in the storm that Elijah experienced God.  God’s presence was in that still, small voice, a gentle whisper.

I thought the worst of the hiking experience was over, but I lost three hikers the next day.  Three boys decided that the rest of us were too slow.  They were like mountain goats.  They went on ahead, saying they would meet us at a shelter along the trail.  When we reached the shelter, they were not there.  Continuing the hike, I kept thinking, “They must be way ahead of us.”

We reached the campsite for the night, but the boys were nowhere to be found.  I left the other youth with the chaperones and started backtracking.  Using my flashlight to see, I drew arrows on rocks and signs with a piece of chalk, trying to give direction.  Losing three kids in the Appalachian Mountains is scary.  As I searched and searched for those boys, I was praying that the God of those mountains and the valleys would protect these boys.  They were not beyond His reach.

Finally, it was so dark I could not see.  Even though I could not find the three anywhere, I returned to the campsite.  As we were cooking supper later that night, they arrived at camp.  They had seen all those chalk markings I had made and followed them.  They had mistakenly followed the trail marked with blue blazes rather than the one we had taken – the one marked with white blazes.  I have told them ever since that they were going to Blue Blazes.

I ask you:  Are you lost?  Are you lost in the pit of sin?  Are you lost because you have taken the wrong path?  Have you wandered away?  Somebody is looking for you.  The Lord Jesus said, “I came to seek and to save the lost.”  He wants, with all of his heart, to find you and bring you back into his care.  Isn’t that what you want?  If you have never accepted Christ Jesus as your Savior, that is the decision to make today.  If you have wandered away, taken the wrong path, this is the time to get back on track.  Come to Jesus.  He is looking for you.  We invite your response.

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