A month or so ago the first service choir began working on a piece of music based on the 91st Psalm. Being brash and full of myself, I volunteered to preach a sermon on Psalm 91 on the Sunday they wanted to perform the piece. I figured, give me a scripture and I can preach on it. So for the past month the choir’s version of Psalm 91 has been going through my head.
You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.
The early church theologian Athanasius wrote, “If you desire to know what confidence in God is, recite the 91st Psalm.” I must say, for the better part of a week, I completely agreed with Athanasius…………but then my mind began to wrap itself around the words.
Because you have made the Lord your refuge, no evil shall befall you; no scourge will come near your tent. God will command angels to guard you in all your ways. They will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
If you have not noticed, there is a bit of a skeptic in me. Sometimes I read or hear something that leaves me shaking my head. Is this Psalm suggesting if I daily call on the name of the Lord, I will always be protected? Or perhaps if I wear the Psalm around my neck like a cross, all harm and illness will be warded off. Quoting James Weldon Johnson, “I know my arms are too short to box with God”, and yet confusions clouds my brain when I consider these words. Actually confusion is not strong enough. I am alarmed by this kind of blind allegiance. It begins with a gesture on a football field giving God the glory after a touchdown is scored. Did the guy who missed the tackle forget to pray before the game? It moves to someone winning a lottery ticket and giving God the glory. Do we really believe Las Vegas is actually heaven? On a more serious note I have sat with folks in a hospital and someone has had the audacity to say, “Your father is going to be fine. I prayed for his complete recovery.” Then when the father dies the same person says to me, “His faith must not have been that strong.”
How often have family members, or neighbors, or folks from a different part of the county, or even different country, gone to war with each other completely convinced they are doing the will of God and therefore are protected by God from misfortune falling upon them. I saw a picture taken at the Battle of the Bulge where two young combatants literally died in each other’s arms. One was German, the other American. The belt buckle of the German read, “In God we Trust”. The same phrase was etched on the helmet cover of the young American.
I am well aware of theologians such as Calvin who go so far as to say the purposes of God can be advanced through evil and suffering. But my short arms and small brain find it difficult to make the case that God’s purpose can be furthered through murder or discrimination or exploitation or even poor religious practices. I know we live in a dangerous world in which horrible things happen. I am equally aware sometimes people hide behind their faith as a way of ignoring the sinfulness of their actions. And I find that disturbing.
I believe with all my heart that God damns war and hate and hypocrisy and lies and tyranny and exploitation and murder.
I believe with all my heart that God blesses peace and honesty and truth and freedom and cooperation and dignity.
I believe that God works patiently and mercifully to change those things God damns into those things God blesses.
What I am trying to keep is my faith and my sanity while God is in the process of working all this stuff out.
Let’s return to the Psalm.
When you call, I will answer. I will be with you in time of trouble.
The song sung by the choir did not include this phrase. I wish it had because I believe verse 15 is critical. Process theologian Burton Cooper describes God as “boundless, yet limited.” I suspect that is not what some of you wanted to hear. Yet I find it helpful. I believe God lives in relationship with us and our world. At the same time I believe God chooses to be limited in determining how particular events will end. That said, I also believe God’s self-imposed limitations does not affect God’s presence.
Once I was captured by verse 15, I began to see the rest of the poem differently. My reading returned to the third verse where the Psalmist said, “My refuge, my God in whom I trust.”
Let’s take a quick recap of my journey. My earlier reading of the Psalm seemed to imply that if I call on God, regardless of the danger, God will rescue me. The skeptic in me refused to be satisfied with this relationship. Is God to be driven or motivated by my desires, my whims, or my battles? If God does not respond, is this evidence of lack of faith or even God’s lack of authority?
By week three I began to focus on the idea that regardless of the circumstances of my life, God will be with me. This revelation was inspired by one word, “trust”.
I suspect that trust is not something easily given. Trust has to be earned. When you say you trust someone, this trust comes from experience. It comes from being in places that were not always perfect. Sometimes the places were even dark but the one that you trusted was there, regardless.
The more I read Psalm 91 the more I want to link it with two more familiar Psalms. Remember the words, “Even though I walk through valley of death, you are with me.” The writer of the 23rd Psalm was not writing about something that might happen but rather was writing from something that had already happened. Likewise in Psalm 27 we read, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” From experience, from trust, the Psalmist ends this wonderful poem by saying, “Wait for the Lord; let your heart have courage; wait for the Lord!”
Neither of these Psalms offers a direction as to how God should make the universe run or how our problems will be solved. But both trust that in the midst of life, in the midst of heart ache, in the midst of tragedy, in the midst of chaos, even in the midst of death, God is there.
Last week, as I was preparing a sermon on Jesus’ time in the Wilderness I noticed one of the lines attributed to Satan was from Psalm 91. The devil took Jesus to the top of the Temple and encouraged Jesus to jump. Quoting Psalm 91 the devil said, “God will command his angels concerning you. On their hands they will bear you up.” Jesus responded, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
I now believe the focus of the writer of Psalm 91 was not about testing but rather trust. Jesus said to his adversary, “Don’t play lightly with God.” When we call on God in prayer and speak of a loved one facing a difficult situation, I hope we are praying for God’s presence, God’s healing in ways we might not have imagined rather than some test to prove God’s existence.
Many of us raised children. Before they were born we made preparations as to how we would raise the child. Once the child was born we selected particular foods, baby proofed the house. We made sure they couldn’t wander into the street or stick their fingers in electrical outlets. We talked to them about right and wrong behavior. We coached them, we pleaded with them and sometimes we even punished them to keep them on a less harmful path. Then they reached the age of 16 and we placed a set a keys in their hands. We warned them about the dangers of an automobile, of speeding, of alcohol, of other drivers, but I am going to guess, without exception, we sent them out to the one place more harm comes to teenagers than any other place in this land. We sent them out on the American highways. We sent them trusting they would remember our lessons. We trusted they would make good decisions and would be better drivers than we were when we were their age. We could not guarantee their safety, but what we could promise was, should something happen, we could be trusted to be there for them.
God has placed in our hands a manual for living. God has placed folks in our path that have been examples of how God would have us live. God has even made the ultimate sacrifice for us in the death of Jesus. Finally God promised to be with us, regardless of the choices that might jeopardize our well being. Then God placed the steering wheel in our hands. Sometimes we go too fast. Sometimes we negotiate curves in ways that endanger others. Sometimes we even crash. God does not keep that from happening. But God is always there, regardless of the situation we or others might have created.
The bottom line is, after a month of consternation and confrontation; after a month of realizing my arms are too short to box with God; after of month of trying to place a round peg in a square hole, I had to come back to this ancient text on this side of the resurrection, and this led me to the conclusion the Psalmist had already made:
God was there yesterday………..God is there today ………
God will be there tomorrow.
Does this protect me from the terror of the night? Does it guarantee me from the arrow that flies by day? Does this justify any action I might take as Godly?
The answer to each question is a resounding no!
All I am left with is this. Right or wrong, justified or guilty as charged, God will not leave me now or forever.
And that’s enough. That’s enough. Amen.