We're All Pilgrims

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

Be with us as we open the treasures of your Word, O Lord; we seek your kingdom above all things. For you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in you. Amen.

That beautiful line, You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in you, is quoted from Augustine of Hippo, one of the church’s greatest theologians. It helps remind us of what a gift it is to find the peace of God. But it also helps us see that restlessness is also a gift. For it is restlessness that reminds us of what’s missing, and that helps move us along on our pilgrimage.
And we are all pilgrims. That’s why I think the 121st Psalm resonates with so many of us—in fact this is my second sermon in this psalm since I’ve been here. So I hope you’re ready for some déjà-vu all over again, because I mentioned this point before. I guess I can excuse you if you don’t remember, because what I’m about to repeat concerns punctuation. Or at least the lack of it. I see most of you nodding because you remember it so well (or maybe because you’re dozing). But for those of you who don’t remember, it bears repeating: The original Bible contained no punctuation. Neither ancient Hebrew nor New Testament Greek had periods or commas or semicolons or—and this is important—question marks.

Psalm 121 starts out in a very beautiful and memorable way, and if you originally learned it in the old Authorized Version, you might remember it as, I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. But in the version we just read—as well as just about every other modern translation—there’s not a period at the end, but a question mark. If we look at the original Hebrew, of course, we can’t tell which is right, since there’s no punctuation. So let’s look at the reason why translators may have decided to put a question mark at the end of verse 1.

The reason’s actually pretty clear. The ancient Hebrews believed in one God who was a spiritual Being. They did not worship mountains or rivers or springs as gods. Nor did they fear forests or deserts as demons. All these natural elements were created by God, so there would be no reason to believe that a mountain was able to send help to a weary or frightened pilgrim.

But since this psalm was indeed sung by pilgrims on their way to the Temple in Jerusalem, it’s worth noting that the Temple—God’s dwelling-place on earth—was on a hill called Mount Zion. So before we decide to be too hard on those who translated this psalm in the 1600’s, let’s remember that they might have had a good reason to make it a statement instead of a question. Pilgrims could trust that God would send help from Mount Zion.

When I talked about this psalm in the past, I said something else I think is worth repeating: It’s a psalm for different seasons in our lives. If we are weak or confused or losing hope, if we’re questioning our faith, then it’s entirely appropriate for us to lift up our eyes to the hills and ask the question, “Where will my help come from?”

There are other seasons when we see the end of our journey, when our faith in God is unassailed, when we don’t have to wonder. All we need is to lift up our eyes and know that, whether it’s from the hills or the valleys, from the sea or the plain, God’s help is on the way.

And I think it’s important that we remember that we’re all pilgrims. The UCC has a saying that we use in this church, especially when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. It’s No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here. It’s a good statement, because it reminds all of us that Jesus didn’t turn people away. But it’s also good because it reminds us that we’re all pilgrims—we’re all on a journey. The goal of our journey may be the same: We’re journeying toward the wholeness we find in God and in God alone. But we all start out from a different place. We’re born in different places, in different kinds of families, and in different generations, to name but a few different starting points.

But add to that the infinite number of ways our lives diverge from where we started out, and the difference between my pilgrimage and any of yours becomes even more apparent. We have different experiences and make different decisions—and all this on a daily basis. No two journeys can possibly be the same. The fact that they even might be similar is probably against the odds.

But it’s important to remember that God is with each of us on our journey. When we look ahead (or beside or even behind—any direction, really) and ask, Where can I find help? The answer remains constant. Our help comes from God, the Creator of all we see—the hills and valleys, rivers and woods.

If we have a strong sense that our journey is leading us in the right direction. If we seldom question that we’re headed toward God, then these words are easy to believe: God is with us on our pilgrimage.

But sometimes our life’s journey doesn’t seem headed in the right direction. To some, it’s not so obvious that they’re headed toward God. But they are seeking God. When they look to the hills and ask, Where can I find help? The answer that it’s from God seems more distant, more difficult to hear.

But please remember: God’s love for us doesn’t depend on how we’re feeling. The realness of God’s presence with us doesn’t depend on whether or not we feel it. Through good times and bad, God does not slumber or sleep. By day or by night, God surrounds us and loves us. You may think this morning that you came to church out of habit or duty, but God called you here today. And when you leave this building, you’ll leave in God—perhaps with more questions than answers, but that’s okay, too. Remember, restlessness is no less a gift that peace.

As we gather round the table this morning, let’s meditate on this: Regardless of where we are on our pilgrimage, our help lies not in the hills, but beyond them. For the One who created us loves us will never leave us.
—©2023 Sam Greening