Sunday, June 22, 2015

June 21, 2015

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC

MOUNTAIN CLIMBING

Psalm 121

 

This year VacationBibleSchool Sunday is also Father’s Day.  I don’t get to preach many Father’s Day sermons because I’m almost always at Annual Conference this weekend.  This year I get to preach a Father’s Day sermon and I also get to preach a VacationBibleSchool sermon.  How cool is that!  Just one sermon though, in case anyone is worried.

The theme of VacationBibleSchool fits perfectly with Father’s Day for me, because whenever I think about my father, I think about mountains.  Here’s a picture of him on one of our many mountain adventures.  Since he passed away we’ve realized that pictures of him in the mountains are rare because he took all the pictures.  Those were the days before “selfies”.

I loved climbing mountains, my sister hated it, my mom put up with it because she’d rather be with us than home worrying about us, and my brother developed a passion for climbing that turned into something pretty extraordinary.

Here’s my brother.  This is the kind of thing he did from about age 18 to 30.  He tried to get me interested.  I prefer mountains you can walk up.  But he really became quite well known in the world of rock climbing.  Google “Alan Watts” and you’ll get the guru of Eastern philosophy.  But Google “Alan Watts climber” and you’ll get my brother.  Here’s something funny they did on him recently for Oregon Public Broadcasting:

 

(YouTube: “Looking good!  Rock climbing tights of the 1980’s”)

 

The Bible tells us there’s a connection between mountains and God.  Long before people dreamed of climbing the mountains, they looked at the mountains and they dreamed of God.  Their eyes got big.  Their mouths fell open.  They felt that sensation that might best be described with the word “awe”.   That feeling tends to be the feeling that is felt at the same time that you’re thinking about God.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills.  Where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121).

I read that verse every time I conduct a graveside service.  Most recently it was for Gene Bowman.  We were at the MelbaCemetery.  It’s one of the most picturesque cemeteries I have ever seen.  If you’ve never been there, if you’ve only been to Melba, you might be saying, “What???”  But just south of Melba, where the cemetery is, there is an overlook.  You can see forever.  You look down on the Snake River.  Just beyond the river there is a funny looking knob called Guffey Butte.  And off in the distance, the Owyhees.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills”.  As I was reading those words, everybody was doing just that.

There was a lady who had moved from Topeka, Kansas to Denver, Colorado.  Denver was OK she said, but she didn’t like the Rocky Mountains.  Why?  She said they blocked her view.

I wonder what hills David was looking at when he wrote this Psalm.  The Holy Land is not flat country.  There are lots of ups and downs.  In fact, a little known fact is that there is a mountain in the Holy Land that has snow on it year around.  Mt.Hermon.  Maybe that was the big hill he was looking at.

As he looked at it, he thought of God.  And he had a very specific thought about God.  Here’s what occurred to him:  My help is the One who made all this!  When I need help with my small problems that always seem like big problems to me, I can count on the One who figured out how to build mountains to figure out how to help me.

The theme of VBS this year has been:  “Everest — Conquering Challenges with God’s Mighty Power”.  In other words:  When I need help I can know that God who made Mount Everest is powerful enough to help me.

And we all need help.  Sometimes we forget that.  Sometimes we think we are strong enough and smart enough and capable enough to conquer big challenges all by ourselves.  We aren’t.  Nobody is.  And climbing mountains reminds you of this.  It is foolish to climb a mountain all by yourself, even a small mountain.  But when it comes to big mountains, especially the biggest mountain of all, Mt.Everest, nobody ever climbs alone.  It’s not only foolish.  It’s impossible.

You need a team to get to the top.  The whole team won’t get there.  Just a few will stand on the summit.  But without all the others who carry the food, the tents, the sleeping bags, the oxygen tanks, who set the ladders across crevasses and the rope lines on steep slopes, you’ll never make it.  It can’t be done.

There’s an interesting verse in this Psalm that relates to mountain climbing.  “He will not let your foot slip.”  That’s the big danger when you climb big mountains.  Your foot might slip.  And if your foot slips, the rest of you might follow.  And it’s a long way down.

But God is there to help you.  To keep you safe.  And if you know that and believe that, it makes you braver.

I spent some time with my brother last week.  He had just climbed a mountain with his 18-year-old daughter, Morgan.  It’s called Three-Fingered Jack.  I’ve climbed it.  It’s a scary mountain.  When you get near the top, it’s a long way down.  But he said Morgan wasn’t scared at all.  He said it was because she trusted him so much.  He said she trusted him too much.  You should feel some fear when you climb a mountain like that.  And I said, “Just like we weren’t scared when we climbed mountains with our dad.”

Dads are there to help us, to keep us safe, to make us brave.  Dads seem like God when you’re small enough.  As you get older you figure it out that dads are human, too.  But hopefully by then you’ve also figured it out that we can’t trust our Heavenly Father too much.

“He will not let your foot slip — he who watches you will not slumber . . . the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.”

God is watching us day and night.  24/7.  Long after our dads and the other humans we count on have fallen asleep, God is still wide awake. God is always there for us.

And this Psalm tells us that God is there for us in two important ways.  To help us and to keep us.

The question at the beginning is, “Where does my help come from?”  And the answer:  “My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”  Sometimes all we need is a helping hand.  We’re doing OK.  We’re getting there.  Our situation isn’t desperate.  We don’t need to be rescued.  We just need a little help.  God is always there to help us.  I love Hebrews 13:6.  “The Lord is my helper.  I will not be afraid.  What can man do to me?”

But sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we need more than just a little help.  We’re in trouble.  We’re in danger.  It might be a life or death situation.  Those are the moments when we discover that God is more than just our helper.  God is also our keeper.

That word is found all through this Psalm.  “The Lord is your keeper . . . The Lord will keep you from all evil  . . . [The Lord] will keep your life . . . [The Lord] will keep your going out . . . [The Lord will keep] your coming in.”  Sometimes we’re so bad off we don’t know if we’re coming or going.  It doesn’t matter.  God has it covered!  “The Lord will keep you going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”

When God keeps us, God does more than just help us.  God helps us when we aren’t helpless.  We have that saying:  God helps those who help themselves.  That’s the way it usually works.  But sometimes it doesn’t work that way.  Because we are helpless.  Helpless and hopeless.  We don’t need a helper.  We need a keeper.

The Hebrew word is “shamar”.  It means “protector”.  It means “rescuer”.  It means “deliverer”.  It means that God takes care of us when we can’t take care of ourselves.

It’s the same word we find in Genesis 4.  That terrible moment at the very beginning of the Bible’s story when Cain has murdered his brother.  God knows what he has done.  “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel, your brother?’ ”  Cain lied.  He told God he didn’t know.  Then he added:  “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)

God is our keeper.  Our helper when we just need a little help.  Our keeper when we need more than just a little help.

William Broyles found himself in a helpless and hopeless situation.  This is the William Broyles who is best known for his movies.  He was the screenwriter for “Apollo 13”, “Cast Away”, and “Polar Express”, to name just a few.  But years before this success, he felt like a failure.  His marriage was ending.  He was nearly broke.  He didn’t know if he was coming or going.

So what did he do?  He climbed a mountain.  And not just any mountain.  He climbed Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere.  22,837 feet above sea level.  He had never climbed a mountain before.  He was afraid of heights.  What he was doing made no sense at all.  But somehow he knew he needed to do it.

He joined an expedition.  They started at 9,000 feet.  They built a base camp at 14,000, then another one at 19,000 feet.  The air was so thin it was almost impossible to breathe.  But there were 4,000 more feet to climb.

He was trying to keep up with the others.  They were all in their 20’s.  They weren’t just mountain climbers.  They were marathoners and triathletes.  William Broyles was a competitive guy, but he couldn’t compete with them.  He said the problem was he was trying to be young but they were young.  That’s when he realized, “The struggle was not between them and me, but between me and the mountain.”

The final 1,000 feet took three hours.  But he made it.  He was standing on top of this mountain, the highest point in the Western Hemisphere.

He said that while he was standing there, looking down on the world below, he expected some profound wisdom about the meaning of life would come to him.  This didn’t happen.  “Up there at the top I had only one thought:  Get me down from here!”

Climbing this mountain changed his life.  It was a profound spiritual experience.  He recalled the story of George Mallory who died on Mt.Everest in 1924.  The year my dad was born.  He was asked why he want to climb this mountain.  He said, “Because it is there.”  Williams Broyles said, “That’s not the way I would answer.  I didn’t climb because it was there.  I climbed because I was there.”

Do you hear what he’s saying?  Mountains don’t challenge us.  There is something inside us that challenges mountains.  There is something inside us that makes us unsatisfied with life as it is.  There is something inside us that makes us restless.  When we are feeling helpless and hopeless, something inside us draws our eyes away from ourselves and our problems.  “I lift up my eyes to the hills.  Where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord.”

Sometimes we just need a little help.  Maybe a little kick in the pants to interrupt our pity party.  Sometimes we need a keeper, to protect us, to defend us, get us through a tough spot.

As we think about our own fathers on this Father’s Day, we remember moments when they fulfilled both roles.  That helping hand and that coming to our rescue.  Some did it well.  Some not so well.  None as well as our Heavenly Father, the maker of heaven and earth. The One who made the mountains.  The mountains that we cannot help but look up to.  When we do it takes our eyes away from ourselves and lifts them up to God.

 

Dear God, our helper and our keeper, thank you for this special day.  The conclusion of VacationBibleSchool.  Thank you for each child whose life was touched this week.  Maybe just by having some fun at church to interrupt the summer boredom.  Maybe with some spiritual seeds that have been planted that will bear fruit later.  To help them conquer with your mighty power the challenges they will one day face.  And God, thank you for fathers.  Thank you for the men who helped us and kept us and were there for us.   Thank you for helping and keeping and being there for those of us who have been called to be fathers.  Strengthen our families, dear God.  May we love as we have been loved by you.  In Jesus’ name,  Amen.