Talbot Davis ~ On the Up and Up: Traveler's Advisory

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I lift up my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from? 

In the church world, this is one of the more famous, more comforting lines in all the library of the Bible.  Especially when you say it in the classic, ancient King James Version: I lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help?  I love that.  I’ve used it literally hundreds of times at bedsides in Charlotte area hospitals.  And as great as the words “whence” and “cometh” are, “hills” are even better arent’ they?  We get such a peaceful, hopeful, musical feeling when when hear the “hills” mentioned.  Why?  Julie Andrews of course! 

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And even if we don’t think of that scene from that movie, our minds go to mountain vacations, weekends in Maggie Valley, morning mists rising over the trees, beautiful soundscapes.  We hear hills and it’s usually a place of peace, hope, beauty, and music.  That’s what we think of.

And that’s nice, that may be helpful beside a hospital bed, but it’s all wrong. What we hear today in “I lift up my eyes to the hills” and what Psalm 121’s first readers, listeners, and singers heard are two completely different things.  Completely.

See, the they I’m talking about are Jewish pilgrims from about 1000 – 400 BC.  Psalm 121 is part of what is called The Songs of Ascent, a collection of 15 folk songs (Psalms 120-134) that people would sing as they trekked from their farms, towns, and villages up to Jerusalem three times a year for religious feasts:  Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.  They went those three times because the Jerusalem temple was the central religious location for all faithful Jews then.  And Jerusalem was (and is) physically at one of the highest georgraphic places in all of Israel.  So the journey from those towns, villages, and farms more literally was a climb.  A gradual climb but a relentless climb nonetheless. To go to Jerusalem with a crowd of fellow pilgrims was, literally, to go on the up and up.

And these 15 folk songs functioned almost like We Shall Overcome in the Civil Rights era or like This Land Is Your Land during the Dust Bowl era:  folks actually sang them as they marched together on the up and up.  One of those sections of the Bible when you can see how vividly biblical writings had a life before they made it into the Bible.  So these people, these ancient pilgrims with their hiking boots and their backpacks on, with their carabiners nearby in case the terrain gets really rough, with their bottled water hitched to their belts, they looked up at the hills…

…and they do not see Julie Andrews.  They see ominous storm clouds.  They see temptations. They see danger.  Because all those pilgrims who are looking, marching, and singing know people who had ventured up those same mountains headed to Jerusalem and never returned.  The route was notorious for bandits and robbers . . . like the very reason that Jesus could tell the story of the Good Samaritan is that it made sense to his audience that a guy travelling alone that way got beaten, robbed, and left for dead.  That’s what Psalm 121’s pilgrims saw when they looked at those hills.

But there’s something else they saw, something more prominent from “them thar hills”:  idol worship.  Over and over in the history books of the Old Testament we read references to the “high places” – nooks and crannies in the hill country where Israel’s pagan neighbors (Canaanites, Jebusites…) built and worshiped at shrines to Baal and it’s vital to know (in case you didn’t) that the people made Baal out of wood. A god they made.  But here’s what else was part of Baal worship at all those shrines in their gods and goddesses, gods like Asherah, Molech, and, most famously, Baal:  temple prostitutes.  And how you worshiped him was through sexual intercourse with the prostitutes which supposedly guaranteed the fertility of your crops and your family.  So any Jewish guy – married or single – who has been told all his life “you shall have no other gods” or “make no graven images” looked up at those hills and saw temptation. Excitement. Allure.  Really, the journey of ascents didn’t have a string of roadside hotels like we would today, but instead a line of sacred brothels.  Each one with a “come here” gesture.  Cunning, baffling, and powerful.  That’s what they saw when they looked up at the hills.  Not Julie Andrews, believe me.  And what they heard was not the sound of music…

Thieves and idols, ominous and alluring all at the same time.  Really, they looked up, and between their village and the city on a hill they had to navigate all the lies.  Lies about people – as if robbing is the best we can do – and lies about God – he is something we make and  manipulate, we worship him with extramarital sex.  The entire journey was a minefield of lies.  One lie after another.

Huh.  Lies are so enticing, aren’t they? You may not be headed hiking today but you are on the pilgrimage of life.  You may be headed on the up and up – or the down and down – and you are confronted with the lure of the lies.  For someone it’s the lie that what your wife can’t provide for you, your girlfriend will.  Or what your husband can’t give you, your boyfriend can.  The lie that your impulses must be indulged.  Now.  If you feel it, you need to do it, and the quicker the better.  The lie that all religions are essentially the same and that in the end God will be like Santa Claus and so good people will go to heaven and bad people won’t.  The lie that your highest calling in life is to be true to yourself.  The lie that one more hit of the cocaine will get you through the night.  The lie that it’s your money, you earned it, and you can decide what to do with it.  The lie that if she’s not making me happy, I’ll find someone else who will.  It’s the lure of the lies and every one of them, every single one of them, overpromises and underdelivers.

And about now you are thinking, “Whew! You got a lot out of I lift up my eyes to the hills…!

But look next.  The psalm singers look to those hills and ask a penetrating question: is help coming from the gods of those hills?  Will Molech or Asherah or Baal come to the rescue?  No.  The Lord – not made, but the Maker, 121:2 tells us – he is the source of help (and verse 2 is the source of the language in the Creed).

My help comes from the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth

And then these promises in 121:3-4:

He will not let your foot slip—
    he who watches over you will not slumber;
  indeed, he who watches over Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

Slumber? Sleep? And most of you are like, what?  Everyone knows God doesn’t sleep!

Oh no!  This is an “in your face” to Baal!  Remember Elijah in I Kings 18:27? Actually, Baal was notorious among Baal worshipers for sleeping and for being very difficult to wake up!  If Baal is in REM sleep, don’t even bother. The world’s first narcoleptic god?  So Psalm 121 is the Lord saying, “Nope, not me.  That other guy?  Yep.  Me.  I don’t sleep.”

And then 121:5-6:

The Lord watches over you—
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
    the sun will not harm you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

Sun, moon.  Huh?  Looking for hearts and clovers?  No, it’s actually more smackdown against the false gods.  The same people who had fertility gods (Baal) had sun gods and moon gods.  And actually, they believed that the moon could make you sick, a lunar fever, which is where we get the word – ready for this? – lunacy.

And then these concluding promises of 121:7-8:

The Lord will keep you from all harm—
    he will watch over your life;
  the Lord will watch over your coming and going
    both now and forevermore.

So the pattern is so clear when you know what you are looking for:  lies, rebuke, lies, rebuke, lies, idol smackdown, promise, embrace.

The song is much less suitable for hospital beds and much ready for a wrestling match between competing gods and differing worldviews.  It is as if every time a pilgrim hikes on the up and up and resists those lies, avoids the sacred bordello, God responds by guarding and protecting from enduring harm.  The pilgrim won’t sprain his ankle, undergo heat stroke or even get lunar (lunacy) fever.  So here’s the deal as you go on the up and up:

When you get good at DETECTING lies, you’ll discover God is great at PROTECTING you.

When you’re on the up and up, I so want you to identify the luring lies for what they are in your life and also to know that the heavy weaponry of the truth is the best defense.  I want this church to be full of lie detectors!  God actually uses truth as his protection for you.  Your internal lies are so destructive because so many of you have self-talk that is full of “I can’t,” “I won’t,” or “I’ll never.”  No!  The truest thing about you is that you are loved!  You have been declared to be of eternal value!

Because again, lies can be so enticing.  Like 22% of Christians believe in reincarnation, as if as you journey up you hear the “come here” beckon of Hinduism or Buddhism so you just pick it off the tree and add it to your Christianity.  Or even the thought that nature is divine.  It sounds nice but it has no intellectual or spiritual staying power.

And it really got to me thinking about talk – movies like Bruce Almighty or Oh God  may be lighthearted fun but the net result is that they trivialize God.  As if he really is an elderly George Burns.  And we buy right into it, at least subconsciously.  It’s the same with the book The Five People You Meet In Heaven.  God comes out like a great big version of us.  I love Tony Evans’ defintion of idolatry: when your idea of God supercedes God’s revelation of himself.

When you get good at DETECTING lies, you’ll discover God is great at PROTECTING you.

And “guarding” is part of that promise.  Note that word “watch” – it’s used six times in the NIV!  Except when you know the word, it’s not “observes.”  It’s “preserves.”  Tends, gardens, guards.   In fact, it’s the same word used when Adam is tending the Garden of Eden.  So God isn’t watching you, helpless and mute, while you try to navigate the minefield of lies all around you. Instead, it’s a protective watch, a guarding, preserving, intervening.  You have been protected from yourself – because aren’t we all our own worst enemies?  — way more than you know.

It’s like in January 2003 when Terry Drier capsized in the Caribbean.  Twenty hours in the water and he became convinced he was going to die.  Yet a helicopter spotted him and a warship headed to battle in the Persian Gulf stopped to pick him up.  On the way to battle, and they picked up one guy. Because one guy mattered.  And the name of the ship?  The USS Comforter.

Hey – one of the truths of God is that he is the Father of Compassion and the God of All Comfort.  And that’s what it’s like.  You’re floundering, you’re alone, but God intervenes.  He gets you arrested. He puts you in rehab.  He connects you in a LifeGroup. He gets you on a ServeTeam and you discover that in reaching out your issues get a whole new perspective.  You’re exchanging lies for truth and God’s protecting your direction.

When you get good at DETECTING lies, you’ll discover God is great at PROTECTING you.

But what of these promises here in Psalm 121?  No sprained ankle, no heat stroke, no lunar fever?  Hear this:  you will sprain your ankle.  You will have difficulties.  You will have trauma.  But what Psalm 121 promises is that as you anchor yourself, not to your truth but to his, as you are not true to yourself but you are true to God, none of the bad things that happen to you has separating power between you and God.  The Maker is the Protector…not necessarily in the immediate but always in the ultimate!

When you get good at DETECTING lies, you’ll discover God is great at PROTECTING you.

Back in Monroe, one of the most beloved guys in the church ever was Fred Looney.  He got saved at an advanced age and as long as we knew him he had emphysema.  He came to church with his oxygen canisters.  And after being part of us for about three years, the disease ran its course and it took him.  It was a difficult funeral, but a funeral balanced with joy for his salvation. Not long after that funeral a man at the church came up to me and said, “I hate we won’t be seeing Fred at church anymore.  But he’ll be seeing us at church, won’t he?

Yes he will. When you get good at detecting lies, you’ll discover God is great at protecting you – now and forevermore.

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Talbot Davis is the pastor of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, a modern congregation in Charlotte, North Carolina. He helps lead a talented group of pastors and support staff. He is the author of Head Scratchers, The Shadow Of A Doubt, The Storm Before The Calm, and Solve, all available from Abingdon Press. In another life, he played a lot of tennis. He married up and has two children.

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