Rev. Ed Searcy
University Hill United Church : Sun, October 1, 2006
“If it had not been the LORD who was on our side.” If. It is a great way to begin a song. If this, when that? Then ... oh, we don’t even want to think about it. Terrible things would have happened. Awful consequences would have resulted. This is a reminding song. This is a remembering song. This is an encouraging song. It is one of the fourteen “Songs of Ascent” - Psalm 120 through to Psalm 133. They are the climbing songs. They are the pilgrimage songs. This is the section in Israel’s hymn book that is reserved for pilgrimages up to Jerusalem. And it is always up to Jerusalem. Going to Jerusalem means ascending. Not many of us have been on pilgrimage. It is something Muslims must do, if they are able, at least once. Get to Mecca. But Christians? Well, we travel. We visit. But pilgrims ... on a pilgrimage? We mostly answer, “No, I have never been on a pilgrimage”. Except that every Sunday you make your way here, out to the end of Point Grey from Vancouver and Burnaby, Richmond and Delta and Surrey. You climb University Hill. Well, the bus does or your car climbs it for you. Imagine making this weekly pilgrimage a reality. Imagine solving the congregation’s parking problems at the same time. Here is the plan. We invite everyone to park down the hill, at Jericho Beach. After all, Jericho is itself at the bottom of the long, steep climb to the holy hill of Jerusalem. Then each week we have a pilgrimage of all ages. The small band of travelers help those who have little ones and those with canes or in wheel chairs. It is a long, slow climb. Perfect for singing the Songs of Ascent, including this one - the 124th - “If it had not been for the LORD who was on our side.” On first glance the psalm seems so sure, so confident, so simple. You can’t miss the point of the song. It’s in the last line: “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth”. Right. This is a hymn. It’s in the Bible. What else is it going to say? On first glance there’s not much else to say. I mean what else can the preacher add to this basic claim of the faith - “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth”? But the preacher doesn’t have to say anything. The text does. The first hint of trouble is in the opening line. The leader of the pilgrim band that is struggling up the holy hill calls for a choral response. Do they not sing the opening line strongly enough? Or is it sung first by a solo voice, and then repeated by the line of travelers? One thing is clear - after the first line has been chanted the leader cries: “Let Israel now say” and all join in with the familiar response: “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side”. The ascent Psalms are like this. They are songs meant to sing the crowd up the long steep road. They are songs intended to sing us up the long steep road. It is no easy journey. More than a few turn back, and many grumble, struggle and ache. The song is challenging those who give up on God, who throw in the towel on the pilgrimage, who imagine that they can go it alone and do not need the help that the LORD provides. “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side when” ... when what? “When our enemies attacked us ... when their anger was kindled against us.” Apparently having the LORD on side does not prevent trouble. Apparently these travelers have been attacked, they have faced an angry enemy. The song remembers that they would have been prey torn apart in the teeth of these enemies. What kind of enemies? Wild animals? Wild humans? Wild nations at war? These pilgrims live in a world where there are enemies to living in God’s ways, to keeping faith with God and with neighbour. If the enemies get the upper hand, if the enemies win, if the LORD is not on our side then what? “Then they would have swallowed us up alive ... then the flood would have swept us away, then over us would have gone the raging waters.” These are dangerous enemies. Enemies that swallow alive. Enemies whose power overwhelms all our defenses, drowning and extinguishing life. The song says that life is no picnic. It sings that life is a dangerous existence. There are enemies waiting to destroy faith. Enemies eager to devour hope. Enemies that sweep love away in a torrent. We call these enemies by a name - Satan, the Devil, the Evil One. This is no medieval caricature with horns and a pitch fork. This is the truth. It’s the central reason for our life together. We make this pilgrimage to remember the drama that we inhabit. We live among strong forces and great powers that seek to eradicate the goodness God intends. Do you know what I am talking about? Do you battle these demons? Do you recognize the enemies that convince us to give up on God, to give up on the future, to give up on your self? I do. Every time we come together to sing the songs of praise and read the texts of trust and pray the prayers of ache we hope to ward off the enemies, to come alongside the LORD - the great friend and lover of the earth. That is why the song turns on the hinge of a blessing. It is not a blessing of the pilgrims. They will receive that at their destination. No. While they climb and sing, the travelers bless the LORD. Yes. They give a blessing to God. This seems odd. Does God need a blessing? Aren’t blessings ways of invoking God in order to stave off evil? Isn’t that why we say “bless you” when someone sneezes? We say it to keep an evil spirit from slipping in with the sudden intake of breath. And now, part way up the long journey, the pilgrims say “bless you” to the LORD. They do not say “thank you”. They say “bless you”. They give whatever power they can back to the LORD. The LORD needs all the holy energy that can be mustered to engage the enemies, the troubles, the powers. It is fascinating, don’t you think? We thought that it was all a one way street. God gives. We receive. It is the normal order of things. But here, in the middle of Psalm 124 we give a blessing that God receives. It is a blessing in response to the impossible freedom that we enjoy - freedom after being captured, freedom after being locked up, freedom after being given up for dead. The pilgrims are traveling because they were once lost, but now are found, were dead, but are now alive. They sing “We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped.” It is not that they avoided the snare. It is that they were snared, trapped, caught but have miraculously escaped. How does the third verse of “Amazing Grace” put it: “Through many dangers, toils and snares we have already come ...” This is our story. It is your story. You have told me. I have heard you. This is not a congregation of people who have made it through life without being trapped, lost, caught, or overwhelmed. I dare say that you are all pilgrims who, one way or another, have known what it is to be trapped by a troubled past or caught in a desperate present or snared by a hopeless future. Gathering here is an act of gratitude for freedom from the troubles of the past, freedom from the desperation of the present, freedom from the hopelessness of the future. That is why we gather under the sign of the snare - the cross. It is the snare in which God’s own was caught, trapped, killed. It reminds us that freedom from the snare does not always come when we want it or expect it. Jesus flies free, but not before the seeming triumph of evil. Our own freedom is not so simple as we would wish. Our freedom will also be found by living through our sufferings, not by running from them. Now the song reaches it climax, makes its point, reminds the travelers that “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” The pilgrims know this. They have passed the song on from generation to generation. They sing it every time they make this familiar journey. They travel this way, worship this God because they know this is true. The name of the LORD is Yahweh - “the one who acts”. Yes. “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” But knowing this and trusting it, believing it, living it is another thing entirely. Because the pilgrims live in a world which teaches other songs. They also sing and too easily believe that “Our help is in the name of the bank”. Yes, the bank and the credit cards and the mutual funds offer help. But they offer no help when it comes to the enemies of faith, of hope, of love. In fact, they are regularly caught up and used by those enemies. Where is our help? Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” Our help is not in the name of the party. Our help is not in the name of our side - whatever side we’re on. Our help is not in the power of the slogan. No matter how right it seems. The party might help, our side might help, the slogan might help ... for some things. But we need help with big things. We need help with the very forces that twist the party, and that make our side arrogant and that use the slogan for evil instead of good. Where is our help? Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” Hardest of all to believe - our help is not in our own ability, not in our own faithfulness, not in our own goodness. Our help is not in a church or in its programs or in its morality or its purity. Yes, we can help with some things and our church can help with some things. But we cannot stand in the face of enemies that have the power to drown the human soul in violence or bitterness or greed or grief or despair. Where is our help? “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” Our help is in the LORD who shaped the moon and the stars and the sun. Our help is in the LORD who heard the cries of the slaves and set them free. Our help is in the LORD who did not abandon the Crucified One when we fled and betrayed and denied. Our help is in the LORD who has already brought us through many dangers, toils and snares. Our help is in the name of the LORD who has brought us safe thus far, the LORD who will surely lead us home.