Psalm 121 and Flattening the Mountain: Gaining Perspective through COVID-19

Psalm 121 is part of a wonderful mini collection within the Psalter known as the Songs of Ascents. It is a collection of fifteen psalms from Psalm 120 to 134. These are the pilgrim psalms that were sung by the Israelites as they journeyed up to Jerusalem.

Psalm 121, along with all others in this collection, is very helpful for us during this time of national and global crisis with the coronavirus. It envisions the people of God traveling through a dangerous, hostile, and arduous trek from their home up to Jerusalem when they would enter the gates with joy and worship the true and living God. The national call to social distancing and the restrictions on travel, and the very real dangers of this disease, have created considerable anxiety across the world. We are on an unknown journey with unforeseen challenges.

The opening verse of Psalm 121 is one of the most familiar verses in Scripture, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” The hills and mountains of the ancient world had two connotations in the Old Testament—one of fear and anxiety; the other, inspiration and awe. Traveling was a source of fear and danger in the ancient world, especially traveling through hills and mountains. Robbers would hide in the midst of the ragged rocks on those very sacred, pilgrim paths to rob and harm people. It was a real fear. Remember the setting of the parable of the good Samaritan was the very trip from Jerusalem down to Jericho, which was so dangerous that the traveler was beaten, robbed, and left half dead.

But, in Scripture, hills and mountains are also signs of God’s beautiful creation, his awesome power, his steadfast solidity, and his glorious majesty. Let’s keep both of these views of mountains in mind for a few moments.

Today, there is great anxiety about where things are going in terms of this COVID-19 health crisis that has engulfed the world. The news coverage of the Coronavirus has been overwhelming. Other stories have been pushed off the headlines and this has dominated the news. One of the most dominant images is the famous COVID-19 curve that shows the rise of the disease, its spread, its spike in transmission infection rate, and eventually the end of the virus. We don’t know exactly where we are in the curve or when we will crest it and begin to get to the other side of it. You hear a lot of talk about “flattening the curve,” i.e. to make this mountain smaller. You see, looking at the ever-growing number of transmissions of COVID-19 across our land, they are going up and up each day. It looks like a very high mountain. We are hiking up this mountain together as a community—like pilgrims—but we don’t even know how high this mountain is. We wonder if we can get over it. We have anxiety about whether this invisible enemy might reach out from behind some craggy rock (or maybe from an unsuspecting cough or a solid surface that has not been deep cleaned) and cause us harm. When we see the curve go up and up we wonder if the pathogen might strike down someone we love, or even ourselves.

In the midst of fear and possible unseen danger, like the coronavirus, Psalm 121 delivers the decisive answer: My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth! What a great and bold declaration. I also love how this psalm gives us a beautiful verb to describe God’s action—what he does in this time of fear, anxiety, and danger. The verb in the Hebrew is shamar. It is used in verse 3, verse 4, verse, 5, twice in verse 7, and finally in verse 8 (six times in eight verses). Some translations use a range of words like “keep” and “watch” and “guard,” but it is the same word all six times. When the Bible says that God “keeps” you, it means that in his sovereignty he has the power to keep you from some danger, he can deliver you from or out of any particular danger which you may face. But “keep” can also mean that he keeps you through danger—he walks with you in the midst of danger. Remember that other familiar psalm . . . “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, because you are with me.” He walks with us through the valley or “over the mountain.” I will fear no evil, for you are with me. God will sustain you through this time.

The church has faced this before, especially during the great plagues such as the black death. Martin Luther once wrote to a friend about the plague, which was raging in Europe in the sixteenth century and this is what he said—which I think is a good word for us:

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it . . .” (we would say, I shall wash my hands, keep social distance, and not touch my eyes). Luther goes on . . . “I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance to inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence . . .” (this is Luther’s version of social distancing and not going on Spring break to Florida beaches). Luther goes on . . . “If my neighbor needs me, I shall not avoid either place or person, but will go freely.” We are never exempted from service; we cannot just pass by on the other side if a neighbor is in need. Finally, Luther concludes . . . “If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me.” This reminds us that our lives are always in his hands. He is our keeper and if he chooses to take me, I am ready to go because, brothers and sisters, there is no COVID-19 in heaven. There is no coronavirus in the presence of God. That is the gospel.

I want to conclude by returning to the opening question, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?”

We want to return to those other mountains—the mountains that inspire hope and presence and power. I lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? This is the central question in the midst of fear, of CDC reports, of someone coughing in your presence, of social distancing. The psalmist sees through the eyes of faith that there is something—no not something, he sees that there is someone greater than the hills and mountains. God’s presence is what transforms every mountain, whether the mountain of fear or the awe-inspiring mountains of his day or ours. You see, for our Jewish forefathers and foremothers, God met his people on mountains, didn’t he?

God met Abraham on Mt. Moriah and provided the sacrificial substitute for Isaac: Jehovah Jireh and the birth of substitutionary atonement in the midst of a great crisis. God met Moses on Mt. Sinai where there were flashes of lightening, and the earth trembled, and God gave Moses both the Law and promises.

God met Elijah on Mt. Carmel and revealed himself as the true and living God, not like the idols of the nations. There is no greater crisis than a nation that trusts in idols. Jesus met us on the Mount of Beatitudes and taught us the ways of the kingdom. Jesus met us on the Mount of Transfiguration and revealed at the very threshold of his passion and suffering, his coming glory. Finally, in the greatest act of all, Jesus climbed Mt. Calvary for us. There in the midst of suffering he revealed his greatest glory right there on Golgotha. If the cross teaches us anything it is that God sometimes does his greatest work under a cloak of failure.

We are facing the mountain of coronavirus. We don’t know how high it is or how long it will take to get to the other side of it. What we do know is that there is someone greater than the mountains—even this mountain we are facing now—because he walks with us. He can flatten any mountain. He can quell every fear. He can help us to live and act with wisdom. We can face hard things because we are not alone. He transforms every mountain; he is here. God requisitions all things for his purposes, even as we bear witness to his sufferings in the world. God will use even this pandemic to reveal his purposes, declare his glory, and draw people to himself.

The “Crown” in the Coronavirus: A Theological Reflection on the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 virus has dominated the news unlike anything we have ever seen. Thousands of schools across the country have closed, followed by restaurants and other public locations. Air travel has almost ground to a halt. Entire cities, and in some cases, entire countries, are on lockdown with many normal movements around the city prohibited. Some grocery stores have experienced “panic buying” and, of course, the phrase “social distancing” has been introduced to our vocabulary. Many of you have had to cancel your worship services. At the time of this writing (3/18/20), more than 216,000 people have contracted the coronavirus, leaving almost 9,000 dead around the world. The virus has not left any continent (except Antarctica) untouched.

I do not think any of you need much more “public” information about the virus or any need for a reminder from me to wash your hands or be particularly sensitive to those who are in high-risk populations or areas. However, we may not have had sufficient theological reflection on the coronavirus. Therefore, I would like to provide five reflections from a theological standpoint:

First, we are a people of faith, not fear. The gospel is, among other things, the triumph over fear. The apostle John says in 1 John 4:18 that “Perfect love casts out fear.” That verse is often quoted without reference to the context where John states three times that we have been “perfected in love” (vv. 12, 17, and 18). It is precisely that sanctifying work of God’s love in us which enables, through his empowering presence, for all fear to be cast out. The apostle Paul admonishes us in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control” (ESV). This means that even if we have canceled our classes, or your church has canceled public services and postponed many events, it is not done out of fear, but out of love. It is because we have compassion and love for those who are most vulnerable among us. Even if our seminary is filled with mostly vibrant young people who are the most resistant to any serious effect of this virus, we know that anyone can be a vector for transmission to someone else. Therefore, Asbury, or your local church, has taken this action—not out of self-interest, but out of compassion and love for others. For us, whatever social distancing we do is an act of faith, not fear.

Second, reaching out and touching is a sign of the incarnation; therefore, the knot in your stomach about social distancing is actually tied to the temporary loss of this. It is only when you feel compelled to not touch someone or come within six feet of someone, are you fully cognizant of just how much we touch each other. Hugging, kissing, and holding hands are at the heart of all healthy family life. Hand-shaking is at the heart of friendship exchanges, and professional hand-shaking is an important way we interact with our constituents. When I became President, I talked to past Presidents to get a feel for what the job was like. I read several books about it. I even went through a three-year training program between 2005–2008 to prepare me for executive academic leadership before I became President of Asbury Theological Seminary in 2009. But no one ever told me how much hand-shaking is involved in the job. Over the next two weeks there will be many hands I will not shake, which I would have shaken, if not for COVID-19. Graduation Day was the real surprise. Over the course of one week, I shake hundreds of hands, on both campuses and multiple graduation services. When it is all over, my hand is swollen from the hand-shaking, because when someone graduates, they do not just casually shake your hand, they really shake it—and in our case they shake and hold it for a photograph! Post-graduation hand-rehab had never dawned on me before I became President.

But, I have thought a lot more about the theology of hand-shaking. That personal touch is a sign or a pointer to the very incarnation. God did not save us with a decree from heaven. He did not send us an email to tell us he loved us. God did not just think good thoughts about us. No, God loved us so much that he sent his one and only son to dwell among us. John 3:16 more precisely says, “This is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son . . .” (NLT). It was about embodiment. It was about touch. Jesus touched lepers. If we touch lepers, we catch leprosy, but when Jesus touched lepers, they caught his healing and wholeness. Therefore, whenever Christians reach out their hands to touch the face of the dying, to hold hands and pray with the grieved, to hug those in distress, it is fundamentally a Christian act. The absence of all of this hand-shaking and personal touch creates a godly ache in your gut, because we were meant and designed to touch. So, give yourself space to lament during this time. Let this time of social distancing remind us afresh how central and important personal touch is in the Christian community—it is the root of the incarnation, and all the ways we reflect the incarnation for the sake of the world.

Third, the coronavirus has reminded us anew of the fragile nature of the world system. Just a few weeks ago we heard boasting about how strong the economy was and how good trade was. The stock market was booming and all was well. Then, in a matter of a few weeks, it seemed like overnight, everything was changed. It is like a hurricane blowing through, or a tsunami hitting our shores, or an earthquake which suddenly shakes a city. God allows these phenomena because they serve a larger redemptive purpose. They force the world to look straight into the eyes of our own frailty. James makes this very clear when he says to us,

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13–15 NIV)

It is an important reality check in a world of pompous boasting about our strength, our capacities, our will to do this or that. Book 3 of the Psalms is filled with very troubling questions, mostly from the Psalms of Asaph, and climaxing in Psalm 88 from Heman the Ezrahite (brother of Asaph) and Psalm 89 from Ethan the Ezrahite. These are two of the five unresolved psalms: “darkness is my closest friend” is the closing line of 88, and 89 ends with “taunts” being heaped upon us. Book 3 opens with Psalm 90 from Moses (the only psalm from Moses in the Psalter). Famous phrases like “dust we are and to dust we return” and a “thousand years are like a day in your sight” and “our length of days is but seventy or eighty if strength lasts” and “our days pass quickly” and “I’ll fly away” come from Psalm 90, culminating in this word of advice: “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v. 12 NIV). It is a great wisdom psalm. It is considered the great re-set button of the Psalms—that important reminder to not forget who we are, and who God is. The coronavirus is like a global “re-set” button, reminding us of our frailty and his sovereign grace in our lives.

Fourth, the church is a people, not a place. Most of you have had your church canceled for at least two weeks. It is a strange thing for a Christian to wake up on Sunday morning and not be in the fellowship of God’s people. But, from a theological perspective, it is impossible to “cancel church.” Because, as the famous church nursery rhyme goes, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church of God is people!” We are the church whether we are dispersed in the world, inside our homes, or watching our services on livestream. The church cannot be “closed,” only buildings can be closed. Your parking lot may be empty for a few weeks, but you—my beloved Asburians—are still the living embodiment of the gospel wherever you are or wherever you go!

Fifth, the “white space” in your calendar may be a means of grace. It is important for Christians to remember that this coronavirus spread has been taking place during the season of Lent. Lent has always been designated as a time for deeper reflection. However, in the busyness of the season and the planning of services, we may not have taken time to stop for times of extended prayer. The growing number of postponed meetings, canceled flights, and services stopped may actually provide more time to “keep Lent” well. Calendars, which once were filled with meetings and appointments, have been suddenly cleared, freeing up time. Many meetings are happening through Zoom or Skype; but the point is, there has been whitespace created in most of your calendars. This is a means of grace. Take time to pray. To seek God’s face. To listen to the voice of the Lord. To keep Lent well.

One of the central symbols of Lent is the thorny crown. It reminds us of sacrifice and self-denial. It is a symbol of the cost Jesus paid. The term “corona” in “coronavirus” is a word meaning “crown.” It is because the virus, under extreme magnification, actually looks like a thorny crown; therefore, it is—quite literally—the thorny crown virus. The coronavirus reminds us that as Christians we always—even when there is no virus in our midst—embody the sufferings of the world. Lent is the time when we are particularly reminded of that great truth.

So, in conclusion, brothers and sisters, be bold in your faith. Allow yourself space to lament. Remember the fragile nature of this world and long for a better one. Never forget that the church is always the church in the world. Take time to pray more and reflect more. Finally, during this holy season, remember that we bear in our bodies the blessed marks of Jesus as we retrace his passion in the world. Amen.