A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

Psalm 121

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying… Amen.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills 
from whence cometh my help.

When I lift up my eyes to the hills, especially in this time of spring, my thoughts go to the wildflowers that will be found there. My notice was first directed to Australian wildflowers by Bishop Bruce Rosier. After his time as bishop of Willochra, Bruce ended his full time ministry as parish priest of St Oswald’s Parkside. Six month old Lucy, in a back pack on my back, joined with me and a group of St Oswald’s parishioners on a bushwalk led by Bruce. He loved the wildflowers and he knew them by their common names and their Latin names. I met, for the first time, spider orchids and donkey orchids, fringe lilies, vanilla lilies and chocolate lilies, all sorts of pea flower including the bright red “Running Postman” and Bruce’s wife Faith’s favourite flower, a beautiful blue lily known as a squill. There were creamy white candle flowers, that bush version of those items so essential to our liturgies, a pink gravillia, and any number of yellow flowers. For year after year following from Bruce’s sharing of his love of these flowers so wonderfully made by God, a few of us would go on an annual pilgrimage to the bush to re-establish this friendship. Yes, when I lift up my eyes to the hills, it is wildflowers and the love of them nurtured in me by Bruce Rosier that enter my thoughts.

For those would have spoken the deeply loved psalm that our choir sung to us tonight the hills were not such a safe place. The hills were a place that the people of Israel journeyed through, a place of difficult terrain and ominous threat. The words of this psalm were spoken as a journey was to be embarked upon, a journey that had no guarantees of safety. And so the traveller prayed.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills 
from whence cometh my help.

The first verse of Psalm 121 is a question and the remaining verses of the psalm provide the answer. Our help comes from the Lord and who is this Lord? – the one who breathed life into creation, the creator, the one who made heaven and earth. The one who can create all things can surely guard a traveller against any threat that might oppose him on his journey.

The psalm goes on to tell us what the creator is like. In verses three and four we see three characteristics of this creator. He will not suffer our foot to be moved; in other words God will watch closely the path on which we walk. God neither slumbers nor sleeps – so God is at watch at all times with us. And God “keeps” us. The word “keep” is used four times in this psalm. This “keeper” God “guards, preserves, protects and keeps safe. … In verse 4 the question of verse1 is fully answered.”[1] It is from this God that our help comes. God who is utterly reliable.

The final four verses of Psalm 121 shed more light on the nature of the God who protects our journey through the hills. The Lord is a defence. When some form of attack comes upon us, be it physical danger, be it human violence, be it the evil referred to in verse 7, the Lord will be with us and will defend us. In fact, the Lord will keep our soul. The very being of us, the very heart of us, is kept safe and thriving by God.

Psalm 121 concludes with the word:

The Lord shall preserve thy going out, and thy coming in 
from this time forth for evermore.

Walter Brueggemann whose commentary on the Psalms sheds great insight, describes the final verse as a “benediction for travel. The traveller is safe departing and arriving, and all along the way.”[2] He writes.

Walking in the Australian hills, one might come across plants other than the wildflowers introduced to me by Bishop Bruce. Some plants, such as the, Eucalyptus and the Banksia have some very intriguing characteristics. Their cones or fruits are completely sealed with resin. These cones or fruits can only open to release their seeds after the heat of a fire has physically melted the resin. Other species, including a number of shrubs and annual plants, require the chemical signals from smoke and charred plant matter to break open their seeds. Some of these plants will only sprout in the presence of such chemicals and can remain buried in the soil for decades until a wildfire brings them to life.[3]

The hills near to us are a habitat that has woven into it the reality of bushfire. Native plants have adapted to bushfires to such an extent that fire is essential for their survival. Human beings who for the last few hundred years have lived in settled communities on land that is naturally bush, have attempted to ensure their survival by preventing fire, controlling fire. Fires, though, will not be tamed and when they do strike, the damage they cause can be catastrophic – property, livestock and human life are at serious risk in an environment where bushfire has a natural home.

Like the hills of those for whom Psalm 121 was written, our hills, too, at times are places of difficult terrain and ominous threat. Those who live in our hills know this well. Our hills, our plains, our seas, all human lives, in fact, are woven with times of safety and times of danger, be it the safety and danger inherent in the natural environment, be it the safety or danger woven into our living in physical bodies that fall prey to sickness and death, be it the safety or danger woven into our emotional lives, as members of families, communities, nations – we love and depend upon people and people let us down.

As people of faith, we look to the hills, the places of the beauty of wildflowers, the places of the threat of fire, we look to the hills and we ask, “from where does our help come?”

As people of faith …

The very asking of the question in this psalm sheds light on a life of faith.

For faith is about looking to the hills and wondering about the presence of the one made us. Faith is about looking up in times of danger and concern and calling to the one who loves us. Faith is about speaking, singing, the psalms, reaffirming character and truth of God, always with us, always watching over us, keeping us body and soul in God’s dear love.

We know that the fire at times consumes, bush, wildlife, property, human life. We know that the spider orchid and the blue squill lily that adorn the hills will return each year. We know that human life is woven with danger and delight, struggle and blessing.

But we are people of faith. And so we speak and sing the words of the psalms. That wherever we are and whatever life holds for us, God, the one who creates, redeems, sanctifies, … is our keeper. And each day, each journey, each night we will be blessed…

The Lord will preserve our going out, and our coming in 
from this time forth for evermore.

[1] Walter Brueggemann&William J. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms, p.526.

[2] Ibid., p.527.

[3] https://www.britannica.com/list/5-amazing-adaptations-of-pyrophytic-plants