Sermon for June 6th, 2021
To the leader. Of the Korahites. According to Alamoth. A Song. 1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; 3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah 4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. 5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. 6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. 7 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah 8 Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. 9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. 10 “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” 11 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
Psummer of Psalms IV: Psalm 46
Every summer for the last four years, we have delved deeply into the Book of Psalms. By now, some of you probably remember that I usually start this series by looking at the Psalm which corresponds to my age. Two weeks ago was my 46th birthday, so this year we start our series with Psalm 46.
If you've always wanted to read the psalms but don't know where to start, this is a great approach, because unless you are 152 years old, I guarantee there is a psalm that corresponds to your age. I can't guarantee it will be a nice, comforting psalm, so please don't take your birthday psalm as a prediction of how your life will go this year. The Psalms cover the entire range of human emotion, even some pretty horrible emotions. But Psalm 46 happens to be a great psalm, one of the all time favorite psalms, and right up there with the 23rd psalm.
If I asked right now how many of you know the words of Psalm 46 by heart (any of them), I'm guessing not many of you would raise your hand. But if I started singing... "If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall (sing it with me) or the mountains should crumble to the sea; No I won't be afraid, no I won't be afraid, just as long as you stand by me..." See, you know Psalm 46 better than you think. We just sang verses 2 and 3, and a loose paraphrase of verses 7 and 11. The psalms have always inspired some of the best music in every culture and every generation.
Psalm 46 is about remembering that God stands by us in times of trouble.
Like many psalms, it begins with a set of instructions, indicating it was probably used for musical worship in the original temple in Jerusalem. It is addressed "to the leader" (presumably the worship leader) as a composition "of the Korahites" (a musical family who composed many of the Psalms). It is to be sung "according to alamoth." עַלְמָה (almah) is the Hebrew word for a young girl and so "alamoth" (the plural of almah) could mean that this was a song meant to be sung by a women's choir, or by the women of the congregation. And finally, we read that it is (clearly) a song.
The Psalm is divided into three sections, each one ending with the cryptic, untranslatable word "Selah" which could be some sort of musical instruction, or just an indication of where each verse ends. There's a repeated refrain at the end of sections two and three, which also shows up in slightly different wording at the very beginning of verse one. The gist of the first verse, and the refrains is simply this: God is with us; God is our refuge.
The first part of the psalm expounds on that theme: Specifically, God is present in the midst of what we would call "natural disasters."
"Though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult."
All these things were real fears and dangers to people in the ancient world, and they still are to us today: Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, avalanches, volcanic eruptions. Things which, despite all our technology and knowledge and progress, are still vastly beyond our ability to stop or control. God is present with us in the midst of all these things. By the way, plagues, viruses, and pandemics have usually been included in this category of "natural disasters."
The second part of the psalm declares that God is present, too, in the midst of man-made disasters. "God is in the midst of the city," even as "the nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter." Once again, these were real fears and dangers to people in the ancient world, and still are to us, today: If you have followed the news at all in the past year, you might remember stories of riots, wars, violence, and people generally acting horribly to each other. Man-made disasters are just as devastating as natural ones, or more. But God is still present with us in the midst of all these things, too.
It's tempting to ask where, exactly IS God in the midst of all these things? And if God is truly present with us, why doesn't God intervene? Why doesn't God actually DO something to help us?
Many of you, like me, are parents of children. Often when my children encounter difficult, hard things in this life, I have the ability to step in and solve all their problems, and sometimes I do. But sometimes, instead of stepping in, I stand with them, I do all that I can to help them, to encourage them, and to give them strength for what they are facing. When they succeed, I rejoice with them (and they rejoice far more than if I had solved the problem for them!). And when they don't succeed, I comfort them, I grieve with them, and I remind myself that through adversity, they grow, and learn humility, resilience, and compassion for others.
Where is God in our times of trouble? Sometimes God is intervening on our behalf. Sometimes God is standing by us, sometimes sheltering us, sometimes strengthening us so that we can stand on our own.
A couple of years ago, on a Saturday morning, I was here at the church getting ready for Sunday morning when the news broke that there a mass shooting event near Cielo Vista Mall. Like many parents that day, my first instinct was to call my family, to make sure my children were in the safest place I know, our place of shelter and refuge, our home.
For the children of Israel who first sang this song, the temple--often referred to as the "house of the Lord" was a place like that--a place of refuge, comfort, and safety. Our modern word "sanctuary" reflects this--the word sanctuary can refer to a place of worship, but also any place of safety. To "ask for sanctuary" is to ask for shelter and protection from something that threatens us.
I am mindful of the fact that in both man-made and natural disasters, not everyone makes it safely home. Houses, temples, sanctuaries, and even mountains sometimes crumble and fall into the sea. Psalm 46 reminds us that our true refuge is not a building or a country, but the one who stands by us--God himself.
As God's children, we believe that our greatest refuge, our greatest shelter, is not even in this world at all. Even at the end of our days, God remains with us, and God carries us to our heavenly home.
We believe that a day will come (in the words of the third and final section of Psalm 46) when God will make all wars to cease, when God will break the bow, and shatter the spear, when everyone will come to behold the works of the Lord.
Verse 10, near the end of the Psalm, famously says "Be still and know that I am God!" The Hebrew word translated as "be still" is רָפָה (rafah). It can mean "be still," but a better translation (in fact the first translation given in strong's concordance) is "relax" or "let go" of all the things that frighten you, all the things over which you ultimately have no control.
Why should you do this? Also verse ten: Because, says God, "I am exalted (literally "higher" or "above") over all the nations--all of the man-made disasters. And I am exalted (higher or above) over all the earth--all of the natural disasters.
Psalm 46 is not a promise that our lives will be free from trouble, from strife, or even death.
Psalm 46 is a promise that in all these things we are not alone. When we work and fight to make the world a better place, God is with us. When we succeed and when we fail, God is with us. And when our struggles at last are over...
"The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge."
Selah. Which could quite possibly mean, "Thanks be to God."