“I will lift my eyes” – a Facebook Live sermon, based on Psalm 121, preached for The First United Methodist Church of Orlando, on March 29, 2020

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore. (Psalm 121)

Last Sunday morning, before worship, a First Church friend sent me a beautiful YouTube video of the University of British Columbia Choir, singing a choral arrangement of Psalm 121, called “I will lift my eyes,” that literally moved me to tears.  Partially, I was moved, because Psalm 121 was one of the first Psalms I ever knew, as it was part of my Fraternity’s initiation ritual.  Partially, I was moved, by the beauty of the music.  Mostly, I was reminded to lift my eyes to God, where my help comes from.  I needed that reminder badly!

 “I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (121:1-2)

Why the mountains?  The mountain in Psalm 121 refers to Mount Zion, in Jerusalem – the location of the Jewish Temple.  Psalm 121 is called a Psalm of Assent.  If you want to read more Psalms of Assent, check out Psalms 120-134.

In Biblical times, Jews from across Israel, and beyond, travelled to Jerusalem, and the Temple, for religious festivals – like the Passover.  For instance, you may know the story of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph going to Jerusalem when he was about twelve.  Jerusalem is on a higher elevation than the land around it, so as the travelers approached – ascending in elevation – they would look “up” to see the city, and especially the Temple mount.

Many believe the travelers would say these Psalms together as they approached Jerusalem.  Together, as the Temple came into view, they’d collectively say,

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (121:1-2)

Unfortunately, recently, my eyes have been far too focused on everything else, BUT the Lord  – 24/7 news reports of this crisis; social media, both serious and silly; the President’s daily news conferences; the growing grim statistics; how much food and toilet paper is left in my pantry; the church’s budget; my personal, pastoral “to do” list; ZOOM meetings, etc.

And, honestly, as a feeler and an introvert, my attention and focus are often more inward, than on external things – focusing too much on my inner fears, worries, anxieties.

What have your eyes been focused on these days?  Some of the things I’ve already mentioned?  Maybe, Netflix?  The stock market?  Work from home?  Your kid’s at-home school work?  Concern for a loved one?

Have you taken time, in the midst of this crisis, to lift up your eyes?

Where we focus our eyes, our attention, our focus matters, a lot.

Jesus once said,

“The eye is the lamp of the body. Therefore, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how terrible that darkness will be! (Matthew 6:22-23)

In a nutshell, Jesus cautions us to be careful about what we allow into our thoughts and our souls, by being careful what we fix out attention upon.  Plato called the eyes, “the window to the soul.”

We all know this is true.  What we see leaves an impression.  All of us can close our eyes, and recall what we’ve seen before, in our mind’s eye.  And, different sights impact us differently.  Recalling the face of someone we love affects us one way.  But, a photo of starving children in the third world affects us differently.  A beautiful view or a work of art inspires.  Signs of hate are disturbing.  Sometimes, the lingering mental images of traumatic events are especially hard to shake.

Then there’s stuff like Netflix, or Youtube, or TikTok, which is entertaining, possibly even educational, but also kind of mind numbing.

Likewise, focusing 24/7 on this terrible crisis absolutely affects us.  I can personally attest to feeling more anxious, more worried, more uncertain, more insecure, and sometimes even more angry.  I’ve had to stop watching the President’s daily briefings because they were filling me with so much anger.  Twitter has had a similar effect on me.

I still remember watching TV news, 24/7, after the 9/11 tragedy.  I’m convinced that had a terrible effect on me.  It became a daily obsession, needing to know the latest, and I feel the same thing happening now.

What we focus on, affects us – relationally, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually.

The famous Methodist missionary and writer, E. Stanley Jones wrote, “Whatever we focus on determines what we become.”   If you think about it, that’s both an encouraging statement, and a scary one, depending on what you focus on.  If I focus on fearful things, I’ll become more fearful.  If I focus on negative things, I’ll become more negative.  But, if I “lift my eyes” that’s something else.

Similarly, Julia Cameron, who wrote the book, The Artist’s Way, wrote, “What we focus on, we empower and enlarge.  Good multiplies when focused upon.  Negativity multiplies when focused on upon.  The choice is ours:  Which do we want more of?”

Those ancient pilgrims to Jerusalem would leave behind all of the normal stresses and worries of life, journey to Jerusalem with friends and family, and for several days focus on God.  They’d lift their eyes, to God – their helper, the maker of Heaven and Earth.

We may not be able to take a literal journey to Jerusalem – not right now.  But, we all need moments like this – to pause, to stop focusing on the wrong things, the distracting things, the harmful things, sometimes even evil things, and to lift our eyes.  I think that’s the purpose of worship.  That’s why we need moments in our daily routines to re-focus our eyes.

As I was reflecting on this idea of where we focus our eyes, and our attention, I was reminded of Paul’s teaching about the armor of God, in Ephesians 6.  Pay attention specifically to the shield,

Therefore, pick up the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground on the evil day and after you have done everything possible to still stand.”  (6:13)

That sounds pretty relevant to our current situation, doesn’t it?  These are “evil” days.

“So stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate, and put shoes on your feet so that you are ready to spread the good news of peace. Above all, carry the shield of faith so that you can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word.” (6:14-17)

So, I said, specifically, pay attention to the shield.  Paul says, “Above all, carry the shield of faith so that you can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one.”  Above all.  For Paul, the shield of faith was the most important piece of the armor we need for spiritual protection.  Why?  Because, Paul was keenly aware of where we tend to focus our attention.

Think about it.  If someone shoots arrows at you, where should your eyes be focused?  On the back of your shield, of course!  You want the shield in front of you, to block those arrows!  If you’re looking at the arrows coming toward you, you’re not protecting yourself!  You’ll likely end up with an arrow right between your eyes!  You need to keep the shield in front, your head down, and your eyes fixed on the back of the shield!

Paul’s using the image of the shield metaphorically, of course.  When danger approaches, focus your faith on God, not on your danger.  Hold up your shield of faith, and focus on it.

But, that’s not what we do in real life.  At least, not when the arrows are something like coronavirus, or the economy.  In real life, whatever’s frightening, troubling, concerning, worrying, is what gets ALL of our focus and attention.  We fixate on it. It’s all we see.

I’m betting, for many of us, that’s been true for the last month.  Coronavirus, and the stock market, and the jobless rates, and the empty grocery store shelves, and the terrible newscasts have consumed our attention.  It certainly has for me!

Paul says, Above all –  pick up your shield of faith – look at it!”  Psalm 121 says, “Lift up your eyes and look – your help comes from God!”

So, practically, how do we do that?  Here’s one trick.  There was a famous missionary, in the last century, named Frank Laubach, who took the Bible’s teaching about “Praying without ceasing,” very seriously.  He sincerely desired to direct his mind to thoughts of God, every waking minute.  So, Laubach developed what he called a “Game of Minutes,” by placing around himself reminders of Jesus.  There are two that I recall.

  1. He placed a note by his telephone – back in the days of landlines – that said, “The person you are speaking with, is a child of God.” And, he read that note every time the phone rang, or he picked it up to call.
  2. He also put visual reminders around his work and living space – crosses, images of Jesus, quotes, sayings, Bible verses, as reminders to turn his attention to Jesus. If you’ve ever come to my office, you know I’ve taken that idea to heart!

Why not devise some kind of Game of Minutes for your life?  Maybe it’s a post-it note on your computer that says, “Lift your eyes.”  Or maybe, it’s a similar note on your refrigerator or bathroom mirror.  You come up with something.  Be creative.

As important as it is for us to take care what we fix our eyes on, and what we let into our spirits and our souls, Psalm 121 reminds us of something even more important – God eyes are always watching over us,

“He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you— the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”  (Psalm 121:3-8)

One time, Psalm 121 tells us to lift our eyes to God.  Five times, the Psalm tells us that God is watching over us!  God doesn’t sleep – God watches us.  God watches and protects us.  God watches over and our coming and going, and will forever!  Even when our eyes are elsewhere, God’s eyes are watching us.

And, as we shift our gaze to God, we discover God’s loving gaze is already focused on us.

About a year ago, I stumbled across a 14th Century German mystic named Nicholas of Cusa.  I found one of his books called, The Vision of God, on a free book table, at a pastor’s meeting.  In it, he talks about the “omnivoyance” of God.  That was new to me.  We’re all familiar with the other “omnis” of God: God’s omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence.  “Omnipotence” means God is all powerful.  “Omniscience” means God is all knowing.  “Omnipresence” means God is in all places at once.  “Omnivoyance” means that God is always watching over us; nothing escapes God’s loving gaze.

And, that is especially important.  God isn’t watching over us like some sort of divine peeping Tom, always watching the secret things we do.  God isn’t doing government surveillance, spying on us.  God watches over us, like a shepherd watches over his/her sheep, or like parents watches over children.  God’s gaze is always a loving, caring, protective, concerned gaze.

Jesus said,

“Aren’t two sparrows sold for a small coin? But not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father knowing about it already. Even the hairs of your head are all counted. Don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)

A tiny bird doesn’t die, without God knowing and seeing.  You and I are worth far more that sparrows to God! But, in the same way, nothing happens to us without God knowing and seeing.

That means, whatever you’ve been going through – before, during, or after coronavirus, God cares about you and is watching over you.  Whatever your loved ones are going through, God is watching over them.  That doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen to them, or us.  I can’t promise that.  I wish I could.  We all know God isn’t in the business of constantly intervening in the affairs of this world.  But, we do believe, in faith, God works behind the scenes in ways we can’t comprehend.  And, we can be sure, nothing escapes God’s loving gaze.

So, this morning, whatever effect, whatever impact this season is having on you, for a moment, lift your eyes to God, shift your eyes from your fears to your faith, and know that God, the maker of Heaven and Earth, is watching over you.

 

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