Where do we look: March 8 2020

March 11, 2020

Lent 2, Year A                                                                        

Psalm 121                                                                             

Like many of you, I have a newsfeed option that pops up on my phone.  Lately, especially because of the primaries, I have gotten in that very bad habit of checking it as soon as I wake up. I tell myself I am only checking the weather, but then I find myself scrolling through the trending news stories before I even get out of bed.  The problem with this habit, is the news is rarely good news.  It’s usually dismal and slightly terrifying.  It’s just not a good way to start the day.  It’s been even worse lately because the majority of the stories are about the coronavirus.  I mean, how many articles can you have about how important it is to wash your hands? So many…. I’ve read about how to prepare.  I have read about recent outbreaks. I have read about what regular doctors are saying, what our national leaders are saying, even what foods to have on hand when stockpiling for a quarantine.  And this isn’t me searching for articles.  These are just popping up, because they are trending…which means that everyone else is reading them and therefore I too must read them.  It is maddening. 

            While this virus is scary, a lot of news has been scary recently.  I am not sure if life is more scary now than it was 20 years ago, or it’s simply that the 24 hour news cycle and multiple ways that we have access to news, is making us more aware of all the terrifying things happening in the world.  But here’s the thing about so much of the crazy stuff going on right now– there is not much we can do about most of it.  I am not saying that we should just sit back and let the world descend into chaos.  There are all kinds of places where we can take action—where we can make our world better.  But for some things, well a lot of things, there isn’t much we can do, except pray.  At some point, when you are feeling anxious or worried, make a list of all that you are worried about.  Then put a mark next to the things you have absolutely no control over. My guess is that the majority of the things you are worrying about are things you can’t control.

            That can be both comforting and frightening.  For instance, let’s consider traveling.  If you are flying somewhere and you want to make sure you arrive safely, there are a few things you can do.  You can arrive at the airport in plenty of time.  You can make sure you have everything you need for the flight. You can fasten your seat belt and read the safety brochure.  But you can do nothing about the pilot, or the plane, or the weather.  Once you get yourself buckled in, all you can really do is pray.  And that’s where the psalms come in. The psalms are wonderful tools for prayer.

Psalm 121 is referred to as a Psalm of Ascent.  Biblical scholars believe it was written for people traveling or even going on pilgrimage.  In the time when this psalm was written, people were not worried about planes falling out of the sky.  But traveling was still a very dangerous thing.  There were animals that could attack.  You could get lost.  You could be robbed or killed. You could get stuck in a horrible storm. You could run out of food or water.  Of course, there were things you could do to prepare, but there was so much that was unknown.  Because of the fear of the unknown and their faith in an all knowing God, the Hebrew people prayed before and during a journey.  When the journey was over and they had returned safely, they gave thanks.

            The psalm begins with “I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come?” When I have read or heard this psalm, I have imagined someone looking heavenward.  Isn’t that where we imagine God?  We imagine God in heaven, looking down on us.  That might be what this psalm meant.  But it’s also possible that it was warning people about looking for help in the wrong places.  Much like today, the world then was full of false gods, false assurances of safety and control.  There was the God of the Hebrew people, the God who we pray to.  Then there were the other gods.  The Sun god, the fertility god, the god for good crops.  These were the gods that people turned to in weaker moments, moments when it was tempting to forget the one true God.  These gods lived in the high places. Altars were placed on these high places so people could worship them.

Thus when the psalm says, “I lift my eyes up to the hills…” it was imagining people in their time of need looking up to these false gods.  Now we might wonder, why look to a false god when they had the one true God? Because the false gods were easier.  They were easier to conceptualize, easier to encapsulate. They had human attributes and human expectations because they were created by and for humans.   The one true God is a lot more mysterious, more difficult to understand.

            While we are wise enough now to know that there are no moon gods, sun gods, or fertility gods resting on our hills, we still find false gods to cling to. We find them in our politicians, the Hollywood stars, the newsfeed on our phone, and even—ourselves.  When we are in trouble–when we need help and direction, it’s astounding how many places we can turn to before we turn to God.  So often, God is the last place we turn to, when all else has failed. “From where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”  It doesn’t say that our help comes from earth, or even heaven. Our help comes from the one who made heaven and earth.  Our help comes from the creator of all the places we turn to first.

            Psalm 121 is a pilgrim’s prayer.  It is a prayer for people who are on a journey. We are in the season of Lent, a season that leads to another hill, not one of the high places where altars to false gods are placed, but Golgotha, the hill where Jesus was crucified.  That is where our journey leads.  Because it is the season that leads us to the cross, perhaps we can bypass the false gods of worry and fear and instead place our fears and concerns at the foot of the cross.  I am not saying all problems will go away and you will be free from all stress, but your heart might feel a little lighter.

It’s all about perspective.  When you stand at the cross and you look up to see our God suffering for us, then sometimes our concerns and fears seem more manageable, not because they are any less of a concern, but because if we look close enough, we will see that they are already hanging there on the cross.  Jesus died carrying our burdens so that we could be free to worship him, free to serve him, free to look to him when we are in need. Remember the journey never ends at the cross.  It always ends with the resurrection.