“Wanaka Lake (New Zealand)” by Mariano Mantel, 2018 (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Colossians 1:15-20 (NIV)
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
The plan for our Elijah sermon series was to read 1 Kings 21 today; the story of Naboth’s vineyard.
It is a good story but, as I read through it, I got to thinking that after a really tough week, I’m not sure that it would be helpful to hear another sermon about King Ahab doing something selfish and awful.
I have had Psalm 46 on my mind this week.
Today is Reformation Sunday, the Sunday many Christians remember the start of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany.
I would guess that because of its connection with Martin Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” Psalm 46 has become one of the “traditional” Reformation Day scripture readings.
Today I would like to look a little closer at this psalm with you all.
Psalm 46 (NIV)
1 God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
5 God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
8 Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Many Bible scholars think this psalm was used by a community in their worship together. I like that picture of community affirming their faith, affirming their trust in God, as they speak this Psalm together.
The psalm offers an important reminder.
We have this human habit of hanging our hopes on things that, while they can be good, have a knack for disappointing us.
Football teams lose. Houses wear out. Cars break down. Friends say and do things that hurt (sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose). Stock-markets crash. Savings accounts get used up. Politicians break promises. Insurance companies find loopholes and exceptions. There is so much around us that, if we place our hope in it, has all the potential in the world to disappoint us. Things that looked so sure and solid, can crumble to pieces. They can be so disappointing.
Psalm 46 gives us a vivid picture of things that once looked so powerful and so steadfast, falling apart and letting us down.
In the midst of mountains shaking, seas roaring and raging, kingdoms tottering, Psalm 46 gives us a solid handhold:
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble … the Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
Like they are for us, mountains in the Ancient Near East were symbols of stability … actually, they were even more important, more essential symbols of stability.
Ancient Israelites understood mountains to be the glue holding the earth together.
Listen to what J. Clinton McCann writes about this psalm and the way ancient Israelites’ understood the world:
“The ‘change’ in the earth described in vv. 2-3 seems like a simultaneous 10.0 earthquake and class-five hurricane, but actually it is even worse! According to the ancient Near Eastern view of the universe, the mountains were both the foundations that anchored the dry land in the midst of a watery chaos and the pillars that held up the sky. Thus the worst thing that could happen would be for the mountains to shake (v.2) or tremble (v.3), for the earth would be threatened from below by water and from above by the sky’s falling. Verses 2-3, then, may be thought of as an ancient version of the contemporary doomsday scenarios that are more familiar to us … Even in this degree of trouble – when the structures of the universe as we know it cannot be depended upon, when our world is falling apart – God is still a reliable refuge. God can be trusted. Therefore, the astounding affirmation in the face of the ultimate worst-case scenario is simple, ‘We will not fear’“(NIB, p. 432).
It couldn’t get any worse than the picture the psalmist painted.
All around, the world is falling apart.
Yet in the midst of that chaos and uncertainty we are reminded – God is stable, God is reliable, God is steadfast. God will not fail even if everything around us looks like it is coming apart at the seams.
The psalmist’s faith is grounded fully in God’s character, God’s goodness, God’s trustworthiness.
The psalmist lead’s the community’s prayer, the community’s affirmation, that even though everything around seems to be changing … caving in all around … God is our safety … God is our shelter … God is our ever-present help in trouble.
Can we say that along with the Psalmist?
Can I say that?
“Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging … God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble …”
Could we say that? Can we rely on God’s promises, hold on to the hope that God loves us and promises to be with us … even as we walk through worst-case scenarios?
Worst-case scenarios aren’t unknown to God’s people.
In fact, throughout history God’s people have been very familiar with worst-case scenarios. The Bible is full of them. The history of our faith is full of them.
That section of Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae Russell read to us earlier, that may come from a worst case scenario. Many people believe Colossians was written while the Apostle Paul was in prison. The section we read may have been part of an early Christian hymn. Can you picture that? Paul sitting in a prison, writing a letter, remembering a hymn, reminding the Christian community that regardless of their circumstances, Christ is holding all things together” (Col. 1.17).
Jesus holds life together … even when Paul was stuck in prison!
Or think of Martin Luther, the great church reformer – The pope quoted a part of Psalm 74 against Luther, “God, rise up! Make your case! Remember how unbelieving fools insult you all day long. Don’t forget the voices of your enemies, the racket of your adversaries that never quits” (Ps. 74.22-23). That was a threat! Martin Luther responded to the threat of bad things happening to him (and bad things happening to anyone who was caught reading or agreeing with anything he had said or written) by holding onto Psalm 46. Sometime during all this, he wrote the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” putting Psalm 46 into his own words:
“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing…”
In the midst of worst-case scenarios these people trusted in God … even though it must have seemed like the world was caving in around them. They held onto God … confident in God’s character, they trusted that God is consistent, faithful, and reliable.
The Psalmist, the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, you and me, countless others have joined in this song.
The Psalms are our ancient prayer and songbook, they invite us to reflect on our own experiences and to sing and pray with the faithful.
What is our part in this song?
What will we sing when the earth is changing, when the mountains are crumbling, and the seas are raging?
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble …
… The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”