The Psalm for the 2nd Sunday of Lent this year is Psalm 121.
At the beginning of Psalm 121 someone looks at the hills (probably the hills crowned by Jerusalem, the destination of a pilgrimage for Passover or one of the other festivals) and asked “where where does our help comes from?”. This is a question about security. What is the source of your security? Who or what can you rely upon?
You may try to take care of yourself. But there are times when you become vulnerable. You are vulnerable when you travel. You are vulnerable when you sleep.
The ancient pilgrim approaching Jerusalem probably felt less secure than in his or her home village. The open road had its dangers. Jesus, remember, told a story about someone attacked and beaten on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. It is the kind of thing that could happen.
Psalm 121 goes on to answer the question by speaking of God. The Psalm says that your vulnerability is tempered by the presence of God. He is, in a phrase used by philosopher Gabriel Marcel, an “inexhaustible presence”. Gods usually were local. The Syrian general Namaan, in 2 Kings 5:17, intended to take dirt from Israel back to Syria so that he could worship Israel’s God there. A god is tied to the local dirt. But not the God of Psalm 121 who remains a presence even when you are not at home.
Whether the sun burns over the desert or the moon makes spooky shadows in the hills, God is with you. Others may worship the sun and moon, but there is a presence that transcends them both. And even when you are sleeping and cannot keep a watch, God is on alert for you. Indeed the Lord is on alert for the whole nation. He keeps Israel.
The impact of the Psalm is best felt when someone sings it. The Psalms were all meant for singing.
Why is this Psalm read during Lent? Many conceive Lent as a journey, a pilgrimage. The original singers were likely going from their villages some distance away to Jerusalem to sacrifice and worship at the Temple. It was a journey with a religious purpose. And so is Lent.
The journey from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday is not a physical journey for us. Our vulnerabilities are not to robbers or heat or cold. Our vulnerabilities are like those of Judas the betrayer. Our vulnerabilities are like those of Peter the denier or Thomas the pessimist.
The gospel of Luke is not where the Sunday gospel readings come from this cycle. But I think of how Luke set up the approach to Jerusalem as a journey, beginning way back in 9:51. The disciples of Jesus, like the pilgrims in Psalm 121 are on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It has dangers. But, just as in Psalm 121, God is their help. God is with them.