We are accustomed to think of our lives as people of faith as a journey or pilgrimage. It’s an image that’s deeply rooted in the Christian tradition, perhaps beginning with Jesus’ own journey to Jerusalem, dramatically depicted in Luke’s gospel where he writes, “and Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Devout Christians over the centuries have understood their own lives and the experience of the Christian community writ large in terms of journey or pilgrimage. Journey is a word I often use when I’m welcoming newcomers and visitors to our services on Sunday morning. Like any metaphor it can become over-used, tired, even meaningless. The question becomes whether we can breathe new life into such language and by doing that, help us to think about our own lives and experiences in new ways.
Our lessons open up the possibility of creative re-thinking of our lives and journeys. In the reading from the Hebrew Bible, we hear part of the story of Abram’s call and in the beautiful and beloved psalm we hear words from a liturgy of journey. In the gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, has an enigmatic conversation with him, and leaves with his questions unanswered, choosing not to join Jesus on his journey. But that’s not the end of his story by any means. He will reappear at the very end of John’s gospel and I’ll have more to say about that later.
First Abram. Abraham is a hero of faith, revered by Muslims as well as Christians and Jews and we know that reverence goes back deep into history. We see it with Paul, here in the letter to the Romans and elsewhere, holding up Abraham as a paragon of faith. Today, we hear the story of Abraham’s call by God. It’s simple and direct: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Abram’s response is equally simple: “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.”
Behind those few verses lies a larger story and profound questions. In its very simplicity we begin to sense its power and significance but to understand its revolutionary status we need to remind ourselves of what has happened so far in the story. Last week we heard from the early chapters of Genesis—the story of the man, woman, and the serpent. It’s a story of rebellion and sin, a rejection of the goodness of God’s creation and God’s good will. That story would be repeated in different ways—in the first murder of a brother by his brother. Finally exasperated with the evil of humanity, God tries to start over with the flood that covers the earth and destroys humanity, except for Noah and his family. But the same thing happens again. Sin and evil abound.
Now God tries again, taking another approach. As Genesis narrows its scope, so to, it seems, does God. Having created the world and humanity, having sought the destruction of that creation with the exception of a single family, from whom all humans again would descend, finally having dispersed humans across the face of the earth after the tower of Babel, now finally God focuses in one one man, one family, through whom, as our reading says, “all the peoples of the world will be blessed.
There’s a back story to Abram’s call, one that’s overlooked even in later scriptural references to it. God did not call Abram did not call in Abram’s home city of Ur in Sumeria. Rather, a few verses earlier, we learn that Abram’s father, Terah, had set out with all of his family for the land of Canaan. But for some reason they stopped when they reached Haran in what is now Syria. It was there that Abram received God’s call; from there Abram set out. It might be that he is only finishing the journey that his father had begun and inexplicably broken off.
We tend to focus on the drama and singularity of Abram’s call, and we’re right to pay attention to it. But there’s more to the story. Abram isn’t alone when he responds and follows God toward the promised land. With him go his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot. Whether or not they heard the call, they accompanied Abram and would share in Abram’s struggles along the way. They would deal with danger and disappointment, promises that went long unfulfilled. Genesis tells of their encounters with God, of covenant ceremonies, of God’s promises and when God tested Abraham, but we don’t learn much about their faith—the verse from Genesis that Paul quotes is about the extent of it: “Abraham believed and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
It’s easy, though, to imagine that on their journey Abram and Sarai expressed some of the sentiments preserved in the much later psalm that we chanted:
I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where is my help to come My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth
This wonderful psalm is the psalm of a journey. It’s likely that its original use was as a pilgrimage psalm. We could imagine Jews reciting it as they climbed the mountain toward the temple in Jerusalem. Perhaps it was among the psalms the returning exiles sang as they made their way from Babylon to Jerusalem. It’s also possible that it was used at the very beginning of a pilgrimage. Pilgrims heading off for a festival in Jerusalem might be sent off from their village with this psalm, recited in dialogue with a local priest.
But whatever its original context, it continues to speak to us and for us. I know that most of us don’t pay close attention as we’re reading or chanting the psalms. As familiar as some of the language and imagery is, some if it is also quite alien to us, coming from a far distant land and even more distant time period. The language still resonates even if we only half hear it and understand it:
Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel * shall neither slumber nor sleep;
God as a sentry, a protector of the traveler.
The psalm uses imagery from the landscape around Jerusalem, invoking imagery of a distant past—the hills and mountains were dangerous places where bandits hid. The promise that God would be a shade at the pilgrim’s right hand a reminder that the heat of the sun could be dangerous. And finally, that reassuring promise to the wayfarer:
The LORD shall watch over your going out and your coming in, * from this time forth for evermore.
The confession of faith in response to the question in the psalm’s opening line: “From where is my help to come,” “from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth, is filled out in the following verses. How does God help a traveler on a journey? By offering protection and guidance, of course. We could translate those verses for ourselves, reflecting on the ways God helps and protects us in our particular situations, but that final verse is a promise of God’s protection in every situation, forever.
One of the most powerful aspects of this psalm, of many of the psalms, is that their language and imagery continues to speak to and for us across in our contexts. As we chant or read them in the liturgy, often a verse will speak to our situation, or the words become our words, helping us give voice to our deepest fears, doubts, or needs. Often, as the psalmist responds with words of faith or reassurance, those same words will be of great comfort to us. And so today, with this Psalm, “The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.”
As I said at the outset, in our readings today we encounter people on journeys. We saw the response of Abram to God’s call and the faith of pilgrims expressed in our psalm. In Nicodemus, we encounter another enigmatic figure. He comes to Jesus by night, probably because he doesn’t want to be seen, but also likely because of John’s gospel promise that Jesus Christ is the light shining in the darkness and the darkness could not grasp or overcome it. And Nicodemus couldn’t grasp Jesus. He departs from their conversation confused. But his journey isn’t over.
He will return at the very end, at a time of true darkness. After Jesus’ death, Nicodemus assists with his burial, providing costly spices for embalming. We don’t know what happened between those two brief mentions of him in the gospel. We don’t know what happened to him afterwards. What we do know is that when Jesus was dead, Nicodemus helped with his burial, after Jesus’ closest friends and disciples had abandoned him.
We don’t know where our journeys will take us; we don’t know how long those journeys may be. We don’t know what dangers lie ahead, what doubts and fears the future holds for us. There may be dark times when we cannot know or sense God’s presence with us, but even in those dark times, I hope we can sing with the psalmist, “The Lord shall watch your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.”