A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 16, 2014
Psalm 121 ESV
In the first, small, rural congregation I served, I often spent Saturday mornings visiting in the community, introducing myself and inviting people to church. Living close to the church was a man who never attended church services—at our church or any other church. If I remember correctly, his name was Aubrey. Well, I stopped by to visit with Aubrey two or three times during the three and one-half years I served that church. And once when I invited him to church, Aubrey said to me, “Preacher, let me tell you something. I often go to the mountains on Sunday mornings. And when I get up in the mountains, I feel closer to God there than I ever could in church.” Well, as a young preacher, I sort of took that remark personally. To think that someone would feel closer to God upon a mountain than in a church service I was leading sort of hurt my ego. That was one level of my reaction. But on another level, at that point in my life I couldn’t understand the “God attraction,” for lack of a better term, that the mountains could hold for someone. The place that we meet God is in church; in the context of corporate worship. That is what I had been taught to believe, and that is what I thought. Well, that was some 35 years ago. Although I am sure that Aubrey is long gone by now, today I have a much better understanding of what he was saying about feeling close to God when he visited the mountains.
From ancient times, people have associated God or the Sacred with mountains or hills. The ancient Greeks, you remember, had their Mt. Olympus where they believed was home of the twelve Olympian Greek gods. Perhaps Mt. Olympus was chosen as the home of the Greek gods because it is the highest mountain in Greece, boasting 52 peaks, the highest one reaching to 9,570 feet.
But we need not draw from Greek mythology to support the point that people have long associated hills or mountains with the presence or abode of God. The ancient Hebrews had Mt. Sinai where Moses is said to have encountered God and received the Ten Commandments. And then there is the mountain where Moses is said to have died. On the last day of my trip to Israel and Jordan, we climbed Mt. Nebo where tradition says Moses was able to view the Promised Land. And Moses, tradition says, died there and was buried in an unknown grave (Deuteronomy 34:1-7). There is a church built atop Mt. Nebo in Moses’ memory. And then there is that mysterious story about Jesus, you may remember, taking three of his disciples upon a mountain or high hill where he was transfigured before them. So hills or mountains as the special abode of God or the Sacred has a strong biblical basis.
Well, it was only natural for the psalmist who penned the beloved 121st Psalm to associate God with the hills, or Mt. Zion. As put by the King James Version,
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
This is one of my favorite psalms, for a number of reasons: the poetic imagery and beauty, the cadence and the rhythm, and the comforting images it evokes. And as you also know, this psalm is often read at funerals and memorial services, and especially at graveside services. In fact, I read it yesterday for the graveside committal of ashes for one of our recently deceased members.
Some scholars think that Psalm 121 was sung by pilgrims as they journeyed to Jerusalem for the religious festivals. If this is true, it makes this psalm one of the so-called Pilgrimage Hymns, psalms the people sang as they made their religious journeys. The city of Jerusalem is built upon a hill. In order to get to Jerusalem, you have to go up, regardless of the direction you come from. So as the ancient pilgrims made their way toward Jerusalem, they would lift up their eyes toward the hills surrounding their holy city. There, it was believed, was the earthly dwelling of God. The psalm concerns itself with the need for protection as the pilgrims traveled: stumbling over the rough terrain, protection from the oppressive heat of the sun, and the dangers of darkness. At certain times of the year, the heat of the sun could be deadly for foot travelers. And ancient peoples believed that rays of the moon could be harmful; hence, the term “moonstruck.” Evils were thought to lurk in the dark. And so, the psalm proved to be a reassuring antidote to all of these possible dangers that could befall the religious pilgrim, as it called them to look toward the hills which reminded them of God’s presence, care, protection, and safekeeping. And over the centuries ever since then, many travelers have read or recited Psalm 121 before embarking on a journey. In fact, the new Common English Bible translates the last verse of the psalm, “The Lord will protect you on your journeys. . . “
But let’s return to my original thought and conversation with Aubrey about feeling close to God on the mountaintop. The older I get, the more I can understand Aubrey’s response. Not that I would rather be on the mountaintop than in church on Sunday morning, and I am not suggesting that for you either J . We need Sunday morning corporate worship and fellowship for many different reasons. Rather, I can identify with Aubrey in feeling a sense of the presence of God or the Sacred whenever I am in the Great Smoky Mountains. And I know some members of this United Church probably feel the same way.
As I have shared previously, last summer, when I was searching for a class or workshop having to do with creation or the environment, I looked for weeks. I signed up for a course on environmentalism or Earth care at Pendle Hill, a Quaker Retreat Center in Pennsylvania, and even paid the fees. But then I decided that was a long way to drive, and was very expensive, and I was going to be pushed to get back home in time for a weekend wedding. So I cancelled it. I got on the Internet again and considered a silent retreat at Penuel Ridge in Nashville. But that option didn’t seem to be very practical either. Finally I stumbled upon the Naturalist Certification program at Tremont, right in my own backyard, almost. And what a perfect fit the Naturalist Certification program is for me. It was exactly what I was looking for and needed. I have completed three and one-half courses and I have four more to go. But going to Tremont and being out in the Great Smoky Mountains and learning firsthand about the ecology, plant life, and wildlife of the Great Smoky Mountains is good for my soul. For I experience there not just the beauties and mysteries of the natural world, but I also have there an experience of the Sacred.
I just started reading a book by Richard Louv titled The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age. I will be referring to it again in a few weeks when I give my Earth Day sermon. But what I want to share with you at this point is what Louv has to say about Nature being good for us. He cites a study done by environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. The Kaplans “found that the natural world is a particularly effective place for the human brain to overcome mental fatigue, to be restored. The Kaplan’s work suggests that nature simultaneously calms and focuses the mind, and at the same time offers a state that transcends relaxation.” A few chapters later, Louv continues the thought: “Spending time in natural settings is . . . not a total replacement for other forms of professional therapy or self-healing, but it can be a powerful tool in maintaining or improving mental health.”1
The practical truth is, there is help in those hills; those mountains. Going to the mountains is good for us in many different ways—emotionally, physically, spiritually. Just looking up at the mountains proves to be helpful for the soul. And so, the psalmist who penned the beloved 121st Psalm had his finger on the truth, but perhaps much deeper than he may have imagined. When I join with the psalmist in lifting up my eyes to the hills or mountains, I, too, find there help for the soul—in more ways than one.
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Amen.
1Richard Louv, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2012. Pp. 28, 57.