Lift up your eyes

Good morning, Friends! I’m so glad you’re here this morning!

It’s good to be back from vacation. Actually, I was back here last Sunday. But when I came back, I had a lot of urgent things to deal with.

The smoke from the fire over across the street at the Allen Jay house was still filling the air. We had a bunch of people from the meeting who were in the hospital in very serious shape.

I had a big stack of mail on my desk and at home, and hundreds of emails in my inbox. So, I was very grateful that Ministry and Counsel had asked Tanna to bring the message last Sunday.

Today for our Scripture, I’m going to read one of the psalms of the Old Testament. It’s one of a collection of psalms – Psalms 120 through 134 – which were written for pilgrims and travelers.

In the old days, people traveled on foot. And as you probably know, the Holy Land is a land of many hills and mountains. Walking on a flat, level road is no problem, but when you hit the uphill grade, you need something extra to help you make it up to the top.

That was the original purpose of this special collection of psalms, which are often called “songs of ascent”, which means, “songs for that last uphill stretch”, songs to lift the spirit, songs to give you hope and strength.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.

Psalm 121

My wife and I had a really good time on our vacation. As always, we went to our family cabin up in the mountains of Vermont. We own it, together with my two brothers and our families, and we share it each summer, so that each family gets a turn.

It’s been in our family for close to 100 years now. Four generations have loved and enjoyed it.

It isn’t much – one big living room, a small master bedroom, and two other very small bedrooms. The kitchen is tiny. Only two people can work in it at the same time, and they’d better like each other.

Back in my parents’ time, it was water from a well, and no indoor plumbing. They finally added a bathroom about the time I was born. It’s the complete opposite of an en suite. To get to the bathroom, you go out the kitchen door, out onto the deck, which is a lot of fun on cold nights and rainy days.

There’s a screened-in front porch, and a deck for sitting on, and a small barn out back. Out front, there’s about four acres of meadow, surrounded by hundreds of acres of forest. That’s all.

There’s a dirt road that goes down to the village. The village is about 130 people, with a church, a small library, a little museum, a tiny craft shop and a café with two tables that struggles to keep going.

When I was a boy, the dirt road was only one lane wide, and had grass growing down the middle. My grandparents lived a quarter of a mile down the road, and we spent the whole summer there with them and my cousins. Everybody went bare foot. It was heaven on earth.

This year, like always, I got up every morning to watch the sun rise. In the evening, my wife and I would sit on the screen porch, and watch the sun set, and the pageant of fire flies in the meadow.

Late at night, we’d go out on the deck, and there would be millions of stars to watch. I’d take a walk every day, down the road to where my grandparents’ place used to be, or to the maple sugar house where they boil the sap every spring.

Or I’d walk up the road, past the woods we still own, to the beaver pond. Or if it rained – which it did quite a lot this year – we’d listen to the sound of the rain on the metal roof. It’s one of the most soothing sounds in the world.

During thunder storms, we’d see the flash, and then count the seconds till we heard the thunder. I learned when I was a boy that if you can count to six, then the lightning is a mile away. A few times last month, the thunder was as loud as I’ve ever heard it in my life. The pictures on the wall rattled. You could feel the sound in your chest, like a drum. Awsome!

We went to the store, and bought fresh-made, maple-syrup glazed doughnuts. Or we’d drive into town, to get a dish of locally-made ice cream. We always had wild flowers on our table. It was cool at night, so several times we had a fire going in the wood stove.
We had no TV for a whole month. No news. No commercials.

There’s no internet, unless you go down to the library. There’s almost no cell phone service. To make a call, you have to go out on the deck, and face due east, and hope the wind is blowing in the right direction from the cell tower, two towns away. After the first couple of days, I didn’t miss it.

We went to a movie one day over at the county seat. We drove to a farm that raises perennial flowers, which is also a bed and breakfast and a tea shop, and we had an English cream tea with fresh scones and cucumber sandwiches and home-made jam.

Today’s Scripture starts out, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. . .” That’s what it’s all about.

Most people spend their lives looking down, not up. We spend our lives looking down at the sidewalk, so that we don’t trip on the cracks. We look down at the details of daily life — what to eat, what to wear, how to make a living, what kind of trouble are our kids getting into now?

Jesus used to say, “Why do you worry about these things? Isn’t your life more than food? Isn’t your body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air! They don’t plant or harvest or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”

“Why do you worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field!”

(The orange tiger lilies were all in bloom everywhere by the road side in Vermont the whole time we were there, so I know what Jesus meant.)

“They don’t work or spin,” Jesus said, “Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory was dressed like one of them. . .”

Jesus said, “Can you add one single hour to your life, by worrying about it?” Yet we spend our whole lives worrying.

We look down because we get depressed. We look down because we’re bent over by the burdens of living. We look down so much that we forget there’s an up.

Most people spend their whole lives never even looking up enough to notice that there’s a horizon.

People who live in the city go years without ever seeing the stars, or even enjoying a sunrise or a sunset.

When we look up, we don’t just see the stars and the sunrises. We see God. We see the world that God has made. We see the power of God, the scale of time. We appreciate the uncountable centuries that God has been at work.

We take vacations to rest, to refresh ourselves, to get away from our daily lives. Some of you prefer going to the beach. That’s OK. I prefer going to the mountains.

I don’t know how many people here in our meeting have told me that going to the beach was the favorite time in their childhood. You built memories to last a whole lifetime.

I think that most people don’t take vacations that are long enough. It takes a week or two weeks just to shake off your daily routine. A cruise lasts for 3 or 4 days, maybe a week. That’s not enough.

Part of the purpose of a vacation is to get away from it all. The word “vacation” comes from an old Latin word which means “leisure, freedom, exemption, a being free from duty, immunity from service.” It also comes from an old French word which means “to be unoccupied.”

Contemporary meaning of vacation is “an extended period of leisure and recreation, especially one spent away from home or in traveling”.

You work hard all year, you maybe work overtime, in order to be able to get away and rest, to get away and enjoy life, to come back ready to work again.

You know, Jesus took vacations. The gospel says that Jesus would go up into the mountains by himself to pray. He probably remembered the words of Psalm 121 when he did it.

In the Old Testament, God commanded us to take a full day off every single week. It wasn’t a day to catch up on your yard work, to go shopping, to zone out and watch a game on TV. The Sabbath is a day to remember the Lord, and to remember that God made the world in six days, and rested on the seventh.

On the Sabbath, God said that we were to do no work — not us, not our children, not our employees, not our slaves, not even the foreigners and immigrants who lived among us.

“No work” in the Old Testament meant not cooking, not gathering firewood, not working out in the fields, not sewing up tears in your clothes, not walking long distances to get water, not a hundred other things we do every day.

The Sabbath is God’s day. The Sabbath is a weekly vacation, a break from our burdens. It’s a gift, a time for rest and pleasure.

The Sabbath is also a reminder that God didn’t make anyone to be a slave to work — not to work for yourself or anyone else.

I know so many people today who treat their work like slavery. It’s an unending burden, with no limits on the hours they feel they have to put in.

We’re not meant to live that way. God didn’t create us to be slaves, even to ourselves.

When I was in high school, I worked on a dairy farm. Summer was the busiest time of year, because we were getting in hay for the long Vermont winter.

Farming is a risky business. A lot depends on the weather. Hay has to be dry before it goes into the barn. Wet hay gets moldy and isn’t fit for cows to eat. Wet hay can also ferment and heat up, and even set the barn on fire.

Sometimes we would work long extra hours, way into the evening, to gather up hay while it was dry. I would rake it and turn it over and over again, to make sure it would dry out.

The farmer I worked for wasn’t a church-going man. His wife went to church, and sang in the choir. He’d go to church suppers, but almost never went to church on Sunday morning.

Cows have to be milked twice a day. They suffer if they’re not milked. But Sunday he always gave me the day off, and did the milking himself.

And even though harvesting the hay meant his livelihood for the whole year, even when the hay was already cut and laying on the ground, he wouldn’t bale it or bring it in on a Sunday. That was the day of rest, even when pouring rain was predicted. Sunday was a rest day, as much as a farmer could.

In the New Testament, the focus changed. Instead of meeting on the Sabbath, the last day of the week, Christians met on Sunday, the first day of the week.

They met to celebrate the reality that Jesus is alive in our world. They met to sing and rejoice. They met to welcome the Holy Spirit. They met for fellowship.

People brought food to share. People who were rich brought extra. For people who were poor or who were slaves, the Sunday meal was probably the best meal they had all week.

But Sunday was a celebration that Jesus is alive, that death never has the last word, that God can make anything possible, if only we believe.

Psalm 121 tells us “lift our eyes to the hills.” That’s important. Look up, not down all the time.

But it also says God watches over you. God cares for you. God knows everything there is to know about you. God knows your daily routine and your daily business. God knows when you’re born, when you come in and out of your home, when you cry, when your heart is heavy. There is no time when God ever abandons you.

When you want to pray, and you can’t think of what to say, Paul says that the Holy Spirit prays for you. The Holy Spirit supplies the words, when you don’t have any idea what’s right to say.

Those eight short verses of Psalm 121 are enough to re-shape your entire outlook on life. They give you hope, lift you up, and give you a promise.

Children in Sunday School used to have to memorize large sections of the Bible. How many of you had to learn memory verses?

In the old days, monks in monasteries used to sing the Psalms to each other, back and forth, every day. This was considered one of the highest forms of prayer.

I wonder how our lives would change, if we took time to get away to renew and refresh our spirit more often.

Whether it’s a retreat, or a Sabbath, or a vacation, what it we stopped being slaves to work, and took time to see God’s world, and re-discover why we’re here, and rejoice in God’s creation?

What if we added Psalm 121 to the parts of the Bible we know by heart, like the Lord’s prayer and the shepherd psalm?

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.

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