“The Power of Praise”Rev. David J. Hughes Psalm 121 Year C; Nineteeth Sunday after Pentecost
I lift up my eyes to the mountains
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
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.
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.
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.
The year was 1803, and The United States of America had more than doubled its size through the Louisiana Purchase. Within this vast expanse of newly acquired land lay endless possibility through exploration. President Thomas Jefferson commissioned two men, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who with 45 other individuals began a journey to explore the new lands and more specifically, find a waterway that connected the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.
For 300 years conventional wisdom believed that such a waterway existed and upon its discovery a new portal to trade and commerce would avail itself to a growing nation. Instead of finding that river, however, they found The Rocky Mountains. Lewis and Clark were trained to navigate rivers, not mountain peaks. It was supposed to be a gentle downstream paddle after crossing the continental divide, but instead they were faced with a seemingly impossible task – cross the mountains, find passage to the Pacific, continue on in spite of difficulty.
Fueled by the desire to contribute to the discovery of their country, Lewis and Clarke said, “Forward.” No monument can be linked to this decisive moment of their trip, and perhaps that’s for the best. As Faulkner once said, “A monument only says, “At least I got this far,” while a footprint says, “This is where I was when I moved again.” To that end, you can still trace the path their feet trod all the way to the coast of what is today known as Oregon.
Their footsteps left a legacy. If it wasn’t for the mountains, there would have still been a pathway to the Pacific but not a story that inspires us today. In that sense, the presence of mountains in life makes the journey memorable.
(Bolsinger, Tod. Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, Intervarsity Press, 2018.)
At some point, we will all face life’s real mountains. Perhaps we heard about them from afar and awaited them with trepidation. Perhaps they descended upon us suddenly and we are now in their midst. We feel overwhelmed by their stature. These are the things that not only look but are bigger than us. To gaze at them makes us like the Psalmist ask, “Where will my strength come from?”
These mountains can be personal as we ask God if a relationship with this person will ever live again.
These mountains can be physical when health fails and physical pain rages.
These mountains can also be spiritual, as we desire help beyond ourselves and this world.
Answers will not come from conventional sources. No self-help book will get us over them.
We need a power that is beyond ourselves.
We need a God who will watch over and protect us.
This is when the power reveled within our praise of God is paramount.
It reminds us, as it did a people over 5,000 years ago, of a God whose power created the heavens and earth but yet whose person is ever present in the lives of his people.
He provides protection for each day of our journey and this makes us say “Praise God!”
Within that acclamation of praise, God gives us the power to move again even when our strength is gone.
Psalm 121 asks us to imagine the pilgrimage being made to Jerusalem by those who want to see the holy city and worship God in the temple. The journey is fraught with danger. The mountainous pass has treacherous trails covered with loose stone. One wrong step and you would risk serious injury or possibly even death.
The sun during the day saps your strength. Its violent rays can wither even the hardiest of travelers.
At night the moon illuminates the reality of thieves and bandits lying in wait in the cover of darkness. Furthermore, the moon’s mysterious rays are feared as they were believed to cause debilitating fever and seizures in a condition described as being “moonstruck.”
Lastly, there are the ever present tall peaks of the foreboding mountains that you must navigate. Many of them are populated by religious cults. Their allure was the quick fix kind. If you worshiped their god or bought their spell, the trail, sun, and moon would grant you clemency. If not, you would face the wrath of the gods.
With all of these realities swirling in hearts and minds, one of your fellow travelers asks, “Where does my help come from?” The psalmist’s response is clear, “My help comes from the LORD the maker of heaven and earth.” Within the call and response, the power of praise begins to be unleashed!
The psalm reveals that the ancients knew that the power of their praise was best experienced in the combined voices with other worshipers. Within the psalter, Psalm 121 is one of fifteen different ascent songs of praise that travelers sang on their way to Jerusalem. Their praise is quite simple when you think about it. It was based on their assurance of what they knew about God.
In this instance, there are four key actions surrounding how The LORD watches over them. Another word used interchangeably with watches in our English translations is “protector.” God protects them.
How does God protect?
First, he protects them from the dangers that they don’t see. The psalmist parallels this to the pebbles beneath their feet that could cause them to slip. They don’t see these dangers but God does, and they are under his care.
Second, he protects them from what goes into their life. He is their shade at their right hand by day and by night. Like a fortress wall, not even a ray of light from the brightest sun or moon can come into their lives without God allowing it to filter through. God is a mighty champion who’s at their right hand, for he is the best at protecting them.
Third, he protects them during every moment of their lives. Even in the mundane “coming and going,” God is vigilant, for God never sleeps. Unlike the pagan gods, they didn’t have to wake God up for the important or so called “unimportant” moments of life, for he was already there.
Fourth, God protects them regardless of their personal performance record. They didn’t have to be perfect for God to protect them. He protects them because that is his person. As the psalmist relays, it is God’s “now and forevermore” commitment, regardless of their individual circumstance. God will protect them and for that reason the power of praise carries them forward.
The properties of God’s protection for us are no different today. As such, we too can turn our hearts fully to praising him and accessing the power of praise we need to endure life’s mountains. Hear now the sequence which Psalm 121 reveals that we can follow so that corporate praise can occur and our strength can be renewed.
It starts when someone amongst us acknowledges the mountains of life and cries out for help. Far too often, this is a nonstarter for those who desire to maintain an image of having it all together. It’s no easy thing to admit that life has you wrecked and desperate, yet if you want to get true corporate praise started, someone has got to be real! Who amongst us can’t relate to one of the following? “I’m struggling with raising my child,” “I suffer from anxiety,” “This addiction is getting the better of me,” or “My financial decisions have me in deep trouble.” These are difficult confessions of need but how can one hope for others to respond if they don’t name the mountain they are facing? They cannot.
The sequence continues when those who hear the cry for help answer in affirmation to what they know about the God who watches and protects us. To be clear, the response isn’t, “Well if you think that’s bad, you should hear this about my life.” Nor is it to say, “I’ll be praying for you,” as an avenue to move on to something you’d rather talk about.
Together it’s a moment to affirm the power and the person of God in that individual’s life, as we say words similar to the affirmations in Psalm 121. In our own words we might say,
“God is with you in every moment and through every trial.
He cares for you. He will never leave or forsake you.
God will protect you!”
In so many words, together we aren’t telling God how big the mountain is, we are telling the mountain how big God is.
Lastly, the sequence crescendos when we reach the final destination together. For the sojourners of ancient Israel, the final destination was Jerusalem and the temple. There they feasted, rejoiced in the safety of their citadel city, and made sacrifices to God.
Today for all who hold strong to the protection of Jesus Christ who is the fulfillment of God’s promises, the destination is sweeter still. It’s the New Jerusalem.
(Peterson, Eugene H. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. InterVarsity Press, 2019)
It’s heaven which is the place Jesus promised would be ours because he and the Heavenly Father would prepare it for us after his victory over death. It’s a home in which we will reside forever and ever.
Unlike the pilgrims in ancient Israel, we won’t have to leave it once the celebration has ended, for the party will keep going and going. Together we will praise the God who watched over us, protected us, and made a way for us to come and live with him in his home.
What are your mountains today? I ask you to take time to think about them and name them specifically. As you do, think of trusted individuals who are within your church community that you can name them aloud to. I pray that you will find that moment to share and feel the blessing of having others speak God’s power over a difficult situation like the one you are facing.
I hope that the power of praise will burst forward within your midst as you proclaim today that which has inspired worshipers for thousands of years. God does watch over us! He does protect us both now and forevermore!
However, if you cannot name the mountains aloud just yet, know that I understand. It takes time to process and it’s a difficult and bold step to make to share so openly. If that’s you, I would like for you to at least hear my voice speaking over you as one who is fellow pilgrim in life’s journey.
No, I don’t know your personal situation, but I do know the God who protects us!
Here is the blessing I speak to you wherever you are in your journey: “I know the mountains of your past, present, and future are real, but I want you to know that our God’s strength is mightier still. He will not let you go no matter what. He loves you and will never stop protecting you!”
I hope that helps you even if it’s in the smallest way so that you can take another step forward today. As you do, remember you are leaving footsteps that future generations will admire greatly and desire to follow. As they do, they will see the promises of Psalm 121 etched in your life, as you decided to not leave a monument that said “I made it this far” but instead declared because of God I moved again.
About the writer:
The Rev. David J. Hughes is a native of Pickens, S.C. His upbringing includes fond memories of hearing God’s word proclaimed at Pickens First Baptist Church, frequent trips to Furman University to see the Paladins play, and summers at Camp McCall and Lake Wateree, S.C. David was deeply influenced by the faith of his parents and grandparents who exemplified what it means to follow Jesus. He graduated from Furman University in 2005 with a major in Spanish. Upon graduation he along with his wife, Rebecca Hughes, began serving in missions at home and then abroad in Chile, South America.
Upon returning to the states, he served as Minister to Students at Easley First Baptist Church from 2011 – 2018 while completing his Masters of Divinity at Erskine Theological Seminary where he graduated in 2018. David and Rebecca now currently live in Augusta, Georgia with their daughter Maggie where he serves as the Minister to Students at First Baptist Church of Augusta (www.discoverfbc.org).
David is grateful for those who have mentored and supported his ministry in special ways. They are Rev. Rick Fisher, Dr. John Adams, Pastor Boris Rodriguez, and his parents; Murray and Martha Hughes. He thanks those who blessed his life and are now with The Lord. They are Dr. Lloyd Batson, Dr. Ralph E. Lattimore, Mrs. Alice Lattimore, and Mrs. Kate Hughes.
Scripture and Music:
2 Timothy 3:14-17; 4:1-5
O Word of God Incarnate
Here I Am, Lord
Teach Me, O Lord, I Pray
We Plow the Fields and Scatter
O Master Let Me Walk with Thee
This Is A Day of New Beginnings
Be Thou My vision
Seed to Sow (Michael Smith)
Be Thou My Vision
Thy Word Is Like A Garden, Lord (Benjamin Harlan)
Standing in the Need of Prayer (Moses Hogan)
Notes from Paul (Eugene Butler)
Forgiven (Buryl Red)
Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying (Ken Medema)
We Plow the Fields and Scatter (from Godspell)
If with All Your Hearts (Mendelssohn)
Forgiven (Buryl Red)
Be Thou My Vision