Monday, March 28, 2011

The Tyranny of Second Best

Lent 2, March 20, 2011St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, the Rev. Paul Moore

Psalm 121 is the second of a series of psalms called the Psalms of Ascent. They are usually thought to be used in procession as worshippers approached the Holy Mount on which the Temple stood. They tend to be upbeat and hopeful, it seems almost strange to be reciting a Psalm of Ascent during Lent. But on closer inspection it fits rather nicely.

In this psalm there are two predominant images, that of the hills, and that of the Lord. The Hills represent everything that is penultimate in life. One interpretation of "the hills" in vs. 1 is in reference to the "high places" of the Old Testament. These were shrines located at the tops of strategic hills, dedicated to the “baals,” the gods of water and fertility of the Canaanites. Against these the prophets railed incessantly. Why? Because Israel's God is different. Israel's God is not merely the god of recurrent seasons, of the necessities of agricultural life, or of locations precious to the worshippers. The gods of these things are not ultimate. They are the gods of the created order, and of recurrent events, and of local places. But Israel's God revealed Himself in the Exodus, a breaking into human history and altering the direction of things, a once-for-all revelation. Therefore Israel's God, while concerned with agriculture, is just as concerned with politics, that is, with issues of justice and peace and social relations. The psalmist might be saying, then, Do I look to the local gods for my help? No, my help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.

Another interpretation applies "the hills" to the very hills upon which Jerusalem sits, and therefore to the Holy Mount itself. Interesting, then, that the psalmist denies even this hill as the source of his help. His help is still from the Lord, the one worshipped on the Holy Mount. The result is the same. Even the Holy Mount itself is penultimate, it points to something greater than itself, it points to the true source of help, the Lord Himself.

The Lord is described in the bulk of the text of the psalm. The Lord is the maker of heaven and earth. He is not merely the controller of local seasonal shifts and changes, He is not the just one whose hand is on the floodgates of the rain. He is the maker of both of those things! As sure as the Lord is master of heaven and earth, so sure is His care for His worshippers. Slumber, that element of created life that steals from us our awareness for a requisite time, is not something to which He is subject, for He is subject to no one and no thing.

The movements of the procession up to the Holy Mount are no different from the movements of the soul toward heaven. Over all the Lord is the guardian, the providential presence guiding and sustaining and keeping. The Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun, with its Middle-Eastern or Texan heat will not overcome you, neither need you fear the sun-gods of the Egyptians, nor the moon-god with links to orchards and fruit in Canaan, nor even Shachar and Shalim, twin gods of dawn and dusk, the morning and evening stars. We might say in today's world, the gas prices, or the stock market, or the cost of health care, or votes in Congress about funding. It is the Lord who will keep you safe from all evil. The Lord shall watch over your going out from the Temple into the business of daily living, and your return to the temple for worship, renewal and strengthening. God, the creator of heaven and earth, is Lord of not just part of life, but all of it.

We find our Lenten theme in the transition from vs. 1 to vs. 2. The spiritual masters called it an apophatic move, away from that which is unessential, stripping away of secondary things, to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. The Lenten message then, on this second Sunday of Lent, is to fearlessly forge beyond all that is penultimate. There is no hill or high place, there is no god of sun, moon, or economy of this world, there is no deity of fame or fortune whose allegiance is equal to the allegiance due to the God of Heaven and Earth. It is not that these penultimate things are bad, only that when our hope is in them we lose sight of the true source of help, and end up like Nicodemus, in the night, asking questions to which we cannot understand the answers. It is only when the God of Heaven and Earth is our help that all the rest takes its proper place.

Do not look to the hills. Sacrifice their magnificence, their splendor and their seductive attractiveness. Settle for nothing less than the Maker of Heaven and Earth.

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