Sunday, May 5, 2024
God’s Playlist
Psalm 130 & Psalm 121
Rev. Dr. Troy Hauser Brydon

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Did you know that Mount Zion in Jerusalem is the highest point on earth, according to the Bible? Towering over all the earth at a whopping 2428 feet above sea level, Mount Zion is always up from where you are. Surprised aren’t you? 

Forget about Mount Denali in Alaska, the highest mountain in North America at 20,310 feet. Never you worry about Mount Everest and those who pay massive sums to summit it at 29,029 feet. Don’t even concern yourself with the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean that sits 36,200 feet below sea level. 

Mount Zion: the pinnacle of the earth. At least theologically it is. It may be ten times shorter than Mount Everest in actual measurement, but in the estimation of the Bible, even glorious Everest would bow in the direction of Zion where the temple of the Lord is. At least we in Michigan can look up to Mount Zion, since our highest peak is Mount Arvon in the Upper Peninsula, just shy of 2000 feet tall. 

Truthfully, Mount Zion is not actually even the tallest mountain within sight of Jerusalem. That would be Mount Hermon, standing at 9232 feet tall, whose snows feed the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized. So, all scientific facts aside, the Scriptures treat Mount Zion in Jerusalem as the theological pinnacle of the earth because it is the place where the Lord resides. 

As we read the gospels, we can notice that Jerusalem is always “up,” which it actually is in its region. Just look at how Luke writes about pilgrimage to and from Jerusalem. In Luke 2, just after the birth narrative, we read this, “Now every year [Jesus’] parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.” Luke shares the story of how Jesus got separated from his parents while he’s debating around the temple. After three days of traveling without him, his parents notice, return to find him, and make him leave with them. Luke recounts, “Then [Jesus] went down with them and came to Nazareth.” 

So, any time you go to Jerusalem, you go up to Jerusalem. Any time you leave Jerusalem, you go down from Jerusalem. Should you ever go to Jerusalem today, you’ll experience for yourself that this is true in a local topographic sense and also in a spiritual sense. 

For the past few weeks we’ve been focusing on the psalms. We’ve heard one of Pastor Kristine’s favorite psalms; we’ve considered psalms of lament, creation, and thanksgiving. Today we’re focusing on psalms of ascent. I know that sounds strange relative to lament, creation, and thanksgiving, so let me explain what psalms of ascent are. There are 150 psalms in the Bible. Ten percent of them are psalms of ascent, and they are all found together — Psalms 120-134. To ascend is to go up. You just heard me talk about how you always go up to Jerusalem, so what would psalms of ascent be? They are psalms used for pilgrimage on the way to worship in Jerusalem. They are psalms on our way up. 

These were especially for festivals like Passover when folks would stop their everyday lives to gather together in Jerusalem to recount the stories of their relationship with God, the One who freed their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. From east and west, from north and south, people streamed together to worship the Lord. Individuals. Families. Entire communities. They stopped what they were doing — farming, building, educating, selling — and make their way together to worship in Jerusalem. 

In our own way, it’s what we do Sunday after Sunday in this sanctuary. It’s the physical presence of God’s people together that creates the space for the Spirit to move through the community, which is why I keep pushing for us to be physically present with each other in worship whenever possible. The gathering of the people of God creates an environment that cannot be replicated over the internet. 

So, these fifteen psalms are all about God’s people going up to worship together, but here’s what’s really interesting about them: They run the gamut of human emotion. They aren’t just happy, happy, joy, joy as people go to worship. Honestly, the two psalms of ascent we heard today are pretty somber. One is a cry for help. The other begins in the depths.

Psalm 121 begins with a question. “I lift my eyes up to the hills. From where does my help come?” It’s easy to imagine the pilgrims on their way to worship, going up to Jerusalem, and seeing the hills all around them. Could enemies or danger lurk just over the horizon? Who will help me when I’m all alone? Now, imagine this is several thousand years ago. All modern conveniences are not part of your existence. No grocery store. No air conditioning. No electricity. Threats aren’t just armies who might invade. There are wild animals. There are darkness and heat. There is drought. Yet, this psalm reminds that it is the Lord who is our help, come what may. The Lord is creator, caretaker, and keeper, the One who never sleeps and watches over you. The Lord is the One worthy of worship. 

We may not face the same dangers today, but there is still a lot of life that happens to us. Before I became a pastor, I was required to intern as a chaplain in a hospital. I had no idea what I was doing, so as difficult as the internship was, it really was essential in teaching me how to be present to people in trouble. To comfort me, I usually carried a Bible around because it was something I could turn to if someone I was visiting asked for care. 

I can vividly recall one visit where a patient asked me to read a psalm. This person was in a pretty bad way, and so was I because I had no idea what I was doing. My mind went blank. So, I opened to the psalms, and miraculously, my eyes fell on Psalm 121. I lifted my eyes to the hills wondering where my help would come, and it came through God’s intervention in giving me this psalm, which I then shared with this person. We both needed God’s help, and God showed up! It was meaningful to this person in that moment, and it has stuck with me through the years.

Psalm 130 is another psalm of ascent, and its structure actually ascends. It begins, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice!” Imagine with me that this psalm starts in a valley, the depths if you will. This psalm is a cry for help. The pilgrim begins up the hill, recognizing their own brokenness. “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” But then they recall that there is forgiveness. The pilgrim keeps going up, seeing the presence of God ahead. “My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning,” a sentiment so lovely the psalm repeats it. The psalm ends in hope, hope that is found in the presence of God and the end of the journey up the mountain. 

Isn’t that the very structure of worship? We gather together, turning our eyes towards Jesus, recognizing our own frailty, but seeing in Jesus all that we need. 

This psalm was important to Martin Luther, who called this a “proper master and doctor of Scripture” because it concisely contains the gospel. John Wesley heard this sung on the afternoon before his transforming experience at Aldersgate, which led to the Methodist movement. It’s a psalm that still resonates with our experience. We come to worship because it is God who draws us from the depths into the place of sure hope of salvation. 

We no longer go up to worship in Jerusalem (although it is a very sacred place for many). We are pilgrims who go “up” to worship here. What do we bring to worship? We must bring our whole selves. Not just the happy parts. Not just the tame, well-behaved parts. Everything. 

What are we expecting in worship? An encounter with the Jesus who heals us? Are we going up to worship hoping to run into the One who is great enough to create everything and bring wholeness to it all? Or is it something less than that?

The psalms of ascent show us that we can bring our whole and broken selves to worship. We don’t just come when we’ve got it all together — although we should come then too. We come broken and poured out. We come hopeful and downcast. We come because God’s story shapes our story. We come because God calls us to worship. On our way up to worship, we bring everything. And God meets us here, even on this little patch of earth that is far from the highest place in town.