Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"I lift up my eyes"

Message preached February 24, 2002
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Psalm 121

Order of Worship

            Twenty years ago, I went on a hike in the Rocky Mountains with a group of young people at our National Youth Conference. Resting at a beautiful spot along the way, I took out my Bible, opened it to the 121st Psalm and placed it upon a rock. Then, with my camera, I tried to capture a bit of the awesome majesty of the mountains as a backdrop to the wondrous glory of this Word of God. "I lift up my eyes to the hills..."

            I also remember climbing a mountain in the Adirondacks of New York state when I was in college. The weather outside that day was terrible. When the group with which I was hiking made it to the summit, we couldnít see a thing. The fog limited our vision to barely ten feet in front of our faces. Someone who had climbed this hill before filled us in on what could be seen, if only we could see. Strangely enough, though, I donít recall being disappointed, for I was with good friends on a weekend adventure. Furthermore, it felt so good then to return back to the cabin on the lake where we were staying, with its roaring fire and good fellowship.

            "I lift up my eyes to the hills..." From memory, I could also describe other occasions when the weather on the outside was just fine, but some inner storm clouded my ability to see anything glorious in front of my eyes. How about you? There are days when its hard to lift up your eyes, even when the weather outside isnít "frightful."

            There is another Psalm in the Bible, one which repeat a phrase several times - a question which describes such days. "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?" (42:5a, 6b, 11a, 43:5a) In other words, why do you keep looking down when you should be looking up? There are days, seasons even, when all we can seem to do is look down. Been there? Done that? ... Of course, this other Psalm (#42-43 - they fit together) which keeps asking like a litany, "why are you looking down, O my soul?" - responds to this question every time with these words: "Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God" (42:5b, 11b, 43:5b). Even when all you can do is look down, the Psalmist encourages us, know that the time will come when those eyes will look up.

            "I lift up my eyes to the hills..." Unlike Psalm 42, which weíd probably call a "complaint" or a "lament," (and, to be honest, there are days for complaining and lamenting, arenít there?), this morningís psalm (121) is subtitled, "a song of Ascents." On the surface it looks like something youíd place on a rock with majestic mountains in the background. "I lift up my eyes to the hills..." Picture perfect! However, letís not forget a certain fact. When I took that photo at NYC twenty years ago, there was a strenuous walk involved. I imagine this summer hiking at NYC, Iíll be doing a bit more huffing and puffing along the way. The same is true of Psalm 121, a "a song of Ascents." It isnít just the eyes that move "up" in this scripture, itís the whole body.

            One thing Iíve noticed about taking a hike. The more you huff and puff as you head uphill, the more your eyes focus upon your feet. Even on a beautiful day, when the weather is good and youíre feeling fine. How often have you heard these words spoken this way: (huff, puff) "I lift up (huff, puff) my eyes (huff, puff) to the hills" (huff, puff)... Takes on a different meaning, doesnít it? Probably truer to life, wouldnít you say? Even on days when the weather is just fine and weíre headed upward and onward, walking by faith is still a strenuous climb. There are rest stops along the way, indeed, but most of the journey is a hike, not a sit-down.

            Now, we speak of "following Jesus," as his disciples. Well, if you read the gospel story, where is the classroom? Jesus didnít teach those first disciples in a room with a blackboard and enough desks for everyone to sit down and take notes. No, his classroom was the road, hiking through the land of Israel, with rest stops here and there, eventually ending up in Jerusalem.

            Jerusalem... Thereís a good chance this Psalm originally had in mind a pilgrimage to this very city, and the temple within it. Jerusalem is not a mid-west sort of town, mind you, situated on flat land. Itís built upon a hill, and is surrounded by hills. Hiking through the narrow valleys toward it, you wouldnít see much if you didnít look up. Imagine making your way to this place, perhaps like many other people did in preparation for a special occasion - Passover, for instance. Walking between the hills, you keep your eyes upon the horizon, waiting for the first sight of your destination - maybe just around the next bend in the path. (huff, puff) "I lift up (huff, puff) my eyes (huff, puff) to the hills" (huff, puff)...

            Anyone who has read the 23rd Psalm, which speaks of "the valley of the shadow of death," or heard the story of the good Samaritan, who took care of a stranger attacked and left to die by robbers on the dangerous "dark valley" road between Jerusalem and Jericho (Luke 10:30-37), knows that even when the weather is clear, and youíre feeling fine, unexpected things happen along the way. The hills can hide danger. We look down to make sure we donít trip and fall. We look up to make sure possible trouble doesnít catch us unaware. How often have you heard the words of the 121st Psalm spoken in this way: (glance furtively this way and that) "I lift up my eyes to the hills..." (cautiously look around) "...from where will..." (look around some more) "...my help come?..." Again, it takes on yet another meaning, doesnít it?

            This "song of Ascents" is not merely full to the brim with optimism. Of course, thatís how we can read it at times - especially on those days when we havenít a care in the world and things are looking up. However, this psalm is for all occasions - no matter the weather. Itís for "huff-n-puff-n" hikes as well as for "fearful valley" walks. You see, this "a song of Ascents" is not so much about being optimistic, about always looking up - as important as that may be. What really matters in this psalm, what really matters in our walk as disciples, is the One to whom these eyes look when they look up - seeing beyond the hills, beyond the exercise, beyond the danger and the fear - looking up to the Lord.

            This psalm is a simple song of trust for disciples along the way. As we walk by faith, we trust in the Lord, who made these hills, these mountains. In fact, God created everything that is, what we can see, as well as what we canít see. This God will "keep" us, it says... That word, "keep" is an important one in this song of trust along the upward way. It is repeated several times. "He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep" (vs. 4)... "The Lord is your keeper" (vs. 5)... "The Lord will keep you from all evil, he will keep your life" (vs. 7)... "The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore" (vs. 8).

            When I looked this English word, keep, up in my Websterís dictionary (7th New Collegiate, ©1970, p. 463), I found a definition that took up nearly a third of a page. This must be quite a word, my friends! Itís rooted in an old high German word (chapfen) which means "to look." Of course, we know the Bible wasnít written in German or English, but when we turn to the Hebrew (shamar, in the LXX, the Greek word is phylasso), we find this word in its original setting also is very visual. It means "to watch," "to watch over," "to keep watch."

            "I lift up my eyes to the hills" and what do I see? Someone who is keeping watch over me! Think of a watchman in the night, who is vigilantly looking out for the safety of those entrusted to his care, not falling asleep on the job. A watchman is a guard, a protector. Thatís also what it means "to keep." God is our guardian, our protector, the One who really and truly sees." (cf. Genesis 16:13, where Hagar names God "El-roi," the "God who sees," when she is visited by a guardian angel.)

            Now, thinking of God as our "keeper" may not always be a comforting thought. In the first place, it means that God is always watching over us, even when we might not want to be seen. You know that eery feeling when you know someone is looking at you, even when you canít see whoever it is? Well, scripture says that God is always watching. Does that have an impact upon how we then live? I wonder...

            Furthermore, if God is our "keeper," does that mean we are "kept" people? I guess it all boils down to whether we see this "keeper" as a prison guard keeping us in custody, or a protector keeping us from harm. Some folks run away, or at least try to run away from a God they perceive as a prison guard. Letís be honest, folks, there is in scripture a sense in which we "belong" to God, we are not our own. We are Godís "servants." We are "kept."

            However, when I think of "belonging to God," of my life not really belonging to me, of being a servant - a "slave" even - well, "I lift up my eyes to the hills..." Actually, one hill in particular. Call it "Mt. Trashmore," if you will, for that is what this hill was - a mound of refuse outside the gates of Jerusalem. This landfill - Golgotha - was where some Roman guards set up a scaffold nearly 2,000 years ago. The journey of Jesus through Galilee, through Israel to this city led him to this very place. You know the story, it lies at the center of our faith. Upon this hill, this mountain of human garbage, God in Jesus Christ, our "keeper," was put to death.

            If you lift up your eyes to this One who "keeps your life," and you see only a prison guard, seeking to keep you in line, I wonder if you are looking in the right direction. Thatís certainly not what I see. Of course, on the other hand, I suppose you could lift up your eyes to this hill and see someone who has absolutely no ability to keep, to guard, to preserve, to protect anyone, least of all himself. After all, he died. Itís not exactly a "perfect picture," though this scene has been portrayed in art more than perhaps any other... As we lift up our eyes to this hill, it may be wise not to forget a certain fact. What happened on "Mt. Trashmore" was but part of a larger "hike," if you will. You see, there was yet another hill to be climbed, and more to Christís pilgrimage here on earth, but thatís a story for another day.

            For today, I encourage you to lift up your eyes to the hills, from whence cometh your help. Our final hymn this morning is one that looks up. Letís sing it that way, from beginning to end. Not with our eyes downcast, but looking up - remembering that this is not the end of the journey. Now, I know, the last two verses speak of treading "lifeís dark maze" surrounded by "grief" and "death." There are days, seasons like that, indeed. However, donít get stuck in that location, my friends. There is more to the story. Trust in the One who keeps your life. Lift up your eyes, lift up your heart, and sing this hymn as if it were a song of ascents. For, believe it or not, it is.

"My faith looks up to thee" #565

For commentaries consulted, see Psalms


©2002 Peter L. Haynes

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