Sermon for September 11th, 2016
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
Selah: Ancient Songs Our Souls Still Sing
Psalm 46 is about remembering the Lord in times of trouble. I'm reminded of another story about Bubba and Tiny--the time they took a shortcut across farmer Jim's field. They went past the "no trespassing" sign, climbed under the fence with no trouble, but they hadn't gotten too far across the field when they saw the farmer Jim's prize Angus Bull. And the bull saw them. And the bull was angry. And the bull began to run. And Bubba and Tiny began to run. And as they ran, with the bull in hot pursuit, Tiny yelled out to Bubba, "you better pray for us, Bubba!" Bubba yelled back, "I only know one prayer, Tiny, but I don't think it's the right one!" By this time, the bull is almost right on top of them, and Tiny yells back, "I don't care, Bubba--just pray something!" So Bubba, still running, lowers his eyes and folds his hands and says, "O Lord, for what we are about to receive, make us truly thankful."
Written on a dry erase board in my office, in large capital letters, is some advice I wrote to myself four years ago when I first came here as your pastor. Since it's written in dry erase marker, sometimes it gets erased, and I forget to do these things. But eventually, I always remember, and write it out again so that I will see it and live by it every day.
I call it the "pastor's haiku" although it's not really a haiku, and I suppose it's probably good advice for just about any profession. It consists of three short sentences, each one written in a different color. And if I accomplish even two out of these three things on any given day, I consider it to be a successful one. Here's the advice, my pastor's haiku:
Chill out. Love the people. Trust the Lord.
Those of you who know me well probably understand that for me, that first part is the hardest. I am not prone to chill out, especially in the midst of all the crises and challenges that are an everyday part of church ministry. Loving the people is a lot easier for me, but even that one is sometimes challinging--although I imagine that in every profession there are those special people who work really hard at making themselves difficult to love. And trusting the Lord, by definition, means not placing my trust in my own instincts and inclinations, or in the voices of power, wealth and prestige in our culture, which beckon all of us to put our trust in them and them alone.
So...every day I remind myself to do these three things: Chill out. Love the people. Trust the Lord.
The people of ancient Israel reminded themselves of these things too (although much more poetically) with the words of Psalm 46. The instructions at the beginning of the Psalm, the refrain at the end of the second and third verses, and other features of this psalm indicate that it was likely used in temple worship services, perhaps as a call-and-response liturgy, or perhaps for a chorus of female voices.
Like my "pastor's haiku," Psalm 46 is divided into three parts, each verse ending with the untranslatable Hebrew word "Selah." We'll talk more about that word later.
The first part of Psalm 46 declares that 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. These things were all 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. These things used to be called "acts of God" not so much because we believe God intentionally inflicted them upon us (although some have believed that!) but to distinguish them from man-made calamities like warfare, persecution, and exploitation.
On that note, the second part of Psalm 46 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 are real fears and dangers to people in the ancient world, and to us today: Especially today, as we observe the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, yesterday as a law enforcement officer was laid to rest in our sister city of Alamagordo, another victim of senseless violence, and the day before yesterday, as the country of North Korea demonstrated its ability to use powerful, destructive nuclear weapons. We need no reminders that man-made disasters are just as devastating as natural ones, or more.
All these things make it really hard to chill out, to love certain people, and to trust the Lord.
In fact, forget trusting the Lord--we're more likely to ask, "Where are you Lord, in the midst of all these horrible things?"
When the flood waters rise in New Orelans; when the Zika virus continues to spread; when war continues to rage in Syria and in Afghanistan; when a young mother in our own community succumbs to cancer, leaving behind husband and child far too soon...
All of us ask at some point or another: Where is God? And more importantly, why doesn't God stop these things from happening? Is it because God is not powerful enough to stop them? Or is it because God is--for some reason beyond our comprehension--not willing to stop them? Or is it because God just isn't there?
And to this timeless, ancient and very present question on our hearts, Psalm 46 speaks:
God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.
The second part of that refrain answers the question, where is God? עִמָּ֫נוּאֵ֫ל (imanu-el). God is with us. The first part of the refrain tells us what God is doing: God is our refuge and our strength.
But if God is so strong, then why not stop the things that trouble us?
I think of my children. Often when they encounter difficult, hard things in this life, I have the ability to step in and solve 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, grieve with them, and remind myself that in either case, they grow, and learn humility, resilience, and compassion for others.
So where is God in our times of trouble? God is standing with us, sometimes sheltering us, sometimes stengthening us so that we can stand on our own.
For my children, the safest place I know, the place of shelter and refuge, is when they are at home, with me, far from the dangers, troubles, and sufferings out there outside of our home.
Likewise, we should remember that as God's children, our greatest refuge, our greatest shelter, is our heavenly home. When the troubles of this world are too great, our final promise is that at the end of our days, God will always carry us home.
I promised earlier in the sermon that I would talk more about this untranslatable word that occurs three times in Psalm 46. It's the word "Selah." In most translations, it's just spelled out phonetically from the Hebrew. Some translations, like the NIV, just remove it altogether. That's because no one really knows what it means. The word Selah appears 74 times in the Bible--71 times in Psalms, 3 times in another book, and nowhere else.
Incidentally, that makes Selah more frequent than two other famous Hebrew words from the Bible: Amen and Hallelujah. So it's definitely an important word. We just have no idea what it means. Some biblical scholars speculate that it's a kind of musical notation, maybe indicating something like a key change, or a repeat. Others think maybe it marks a pause, or a shift in subject or tone. But that's all speculation. The word Selah is, and will remain, a mystery.
I think that's kind of fitting. Listening to some pastors and sermons (maybe even mine!) you might think that that Bible is simple, straightforward, and all figured out. Just read it, and do what it says. It's an answer book.
There are certainly some answers to life's questions in the Bible, but Psalms, and Selah remind us that there are a lot of unanswered questions, a lot of mysteries, too. Our God is a God of mystery.
If I were to summarize the message of Psalm 46, it wouldn't be "Chill out. Love the people. Trust the Lord," although in some ways that comes close. Psalm 46 is not, for the most part, advice. It does contain the well-known and oft-quoted advice "Be still and know that I am God." That's kind of like "Chill out" and "Trust the Lord."
Ultimately, however, Psalm 46 is not advice, like Proverbs or Psalm 1. It's not about me, or you. Psalm 46 is about God. It's reassurance about who God is, where God is, and what God has promised us.
If I were to summarize the message of Psalm 46, it would be with three "M's."
First, our God is a God of Might. As in, God is our strength. The one who breaks the bow and shatters the spear, who will someday make wars cease to the end of the earth. Or, as Martin Luther famously paraphrased this Psalm: A Mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing!
Our God is a God of Might.
Second, our God is a God of Mystery. Selah. Psalm 46 reminds me that no matter how desperately I want to understand why things happen in this world, why God does or does not do the things I think God should do...there will always be some things beyond my ability to comprehend. Selah.
Our God is a God of Might, and our God is a God of Mystery.
But finally, and perhaps most importantly, our God is a God in our Midst.
God with us, among us, ever present;
Before our birth, throughout our lives, and after our days are done;
God who stands with us and strengthens us for the road ahead;
God who watches over us in times of trouble, and God finally who carries us home.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.