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Praying the Psalms: Psalm 46

October 31, 2010

Sermon: Praying the Psalms:  Psalm 46
Text: Psalm 46

I ask you again to join in the Responsive Reading.

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear…
Be still, and know that I am God.
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.
There is a river whose steams make lad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells…
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress…
He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth;
“Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”

My grandson, Ben, and I have a game that we play.  It is one that you have probably played with children.  We stack blocks and sometimes plastic cylinders, just about anything that is unbreakable.  The game is called Set ’Em up and Knock ’Em down.  I set them up, and Ben knocks them down.

Ben has learned, at least in a beginning way, the joy of stacking objects.  Now, he can stack some things three or four high.  He speaks to me in a language I do not quite understand.  It is somewhat of an unknown tongue, but the message is very clear.  If he sets them up, he wants me to knock them down.  We can play this game for hours.  It is a lot of fun for him and a lot of fun for me, too.

I was thinking about this silly little game of Set ’Em up and Knock ’Em Down, and it occurred to me that life is so much like that game.  Life is pretty much a cycle.  When our lives are broken, in disarray, we try to bring some sense of order.  Before we know it, our life is in disarray again.  It has been this way from the very beginning.  We read in the Creation account that the Spirit of God hovered over the deep, hovered over the chaos.  Out of the hand of God came an order over the next six days.  I see this process going on in my own life.  My desk can be clean; but within a few days, it can be chaotic again.  Chaos seems to lurk always around the corner in our basement, our attic, and especially my study.

I listened this morning to our orchestra as they were tuning their instruments.  If you have you ever paid close attention to an orchestra when the musicians are warming up, you are familiar with the cacophony of sound they create.  They are not playing a piece together.  When the orchestra master or mistress stands up, the orchestra members all tune together.  Usually the oboe sounds, and they tune to A440.  Once the conductor steps up and takes the baton, that chaos becomes beautiful music.  Life is also this way.

William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet who lived in the early 1900’s, wrote a poem entitled “The Second Coming.”  Listen carefully as I read just one stanza from that poem.

Turning and turning into the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

From these few words have come numerous works of literature.  A Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe wrote a book entitled Things Fall Apart.  Achebe tells of a village in Southern Nigeria where all sense of order is lost because one good man is led astray by those who are sinful.  Elyn Saks’ memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey through Madness, tells of a woman who plunges into the depths of mental illness.  Lines from this poem by Yeats also describe the on-going plight of humanity ranging from Stephen King’s novels to movies such as Batman, Star Trek, and Sons of Anarchy.  “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

Edward Gibbon, in his book The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, said that many of the great virtues of the Roman Empire carried over into the period known as the Enlightenment.  Economic abundance, international political favor, and a common language created the greatness of Rome.  Then Rome itself fell apart due to internal decay.  Many people are afraid that the United States of America will experience this same type of collapse.

We live with great fear.  I do not know when in my life that I have found people to be more afraid and anxious than they are now about a number of issues, which range from global warming to terrorist attacks.  I have personally lived through the threat of atomic bombs and the war in Vietnam.  I have lived through some times of tremendous turbulence in this country – especially the late 1960’s and particularly 1968.  Several assassinations have rocked us during my lifetime.  President O’bama said this week that the packages containing bombs sent from the Middle East posed what he called “a credible threat to this country.”  Regardless of what happens in Tuesday’s political elections, the problem will not be solved.  The elections will not give us a solution for the great maladies of our time.

Though we have this perpetual fear that things are going to fall apart, Psalm 46 assures us that God is our refuge and our strength.  We must look to God when we are faced with any kind of catastrophe.  Only He can provide the source of confidence when our world is shaken.

Jonathan Aitken, a writer, wrote a brief commentary on Psalm 46, which he placed at the heart of his book Psalms for People under Pressure.  Aitken says that God offers our only strength, our only assurance.  We understand that some of the current pressures of our day and time, in our century, are manmade while others are natural disasters.  Regardless of the cause, the same resource is available to us.  God provides strength and refuge for us.

Following each section of Psalm 46 is the word Selah.  When you read the psalm aloud, you are not supposed to pronounce Selah.  It is an instruction to musicians, like a musical note.  Though nobody is quite sure of its exact meaning, it suggests a change in voice.  Perhaps one group sings the first stanza while two other groups sing the remaining stanzas.  A better explanation is that the word is a way of saying “Hold on.  Let’s stop and think about what these words mean.  Pause just a moment, and consider the message you have heard.  Let these words sink into your mind.”

Stanza one, a declaration of confidence, says that God is our refuge and strength.  The psalmist goes on to say, “We will not be afraid, regardless.  We will face earthquakes, explosions, floods, and mountains falling into the sea.  We will face a bombing in Oklahoma City, the great tragedy of 9-11, and fires.  We will not be afraid.”

The second portion of Psalm 43 says that God will deliver us from catastrophe.  The psalmist goes into a surprising turn.  He talks on the one hand about waters that are roaring and foaming.  Then he moves quickly into a completely different image – a river we are told, a gentle life-giving stream, symbolizing God’s grace and presence.

The final part of the psalm praises God for His protection.  Some scholars believe that perhaps the psalm was written against some epic deliverance that the people of Jerusalem experienced.  We know that in 1701 B.C. the Assyrian army of Sennacherib was just outside the walls of Jerusalem, almost certainly going to destroy the city.  When a plague afflicted the army, forcing them to abandon their mission of destruction, the people of Israel ascribed that liberation to the power of God.

On a recent trip to Charleston, South Carolina, I stood on the Battery, looked over to Fort Sumter, and thought about its history.  On December 20, 1860, South Carolina declared its plan to secede from the Union at the First Baptist Church of Columbia, South Carolina.  Six days later Major Robert Anderson abandoned Fort Moultrie, which was almost indefensible.  He took a small contingent of sixty-five men, all disguised as construction workers, across Charleston Harbor to Fort Sumter.  They got past a Southern guard boat because they said they were going to work on the fort.  They established themselves inside the fort and began making repairs to it.  Naturally, they were preparing for the war they could see looming on the horizon.

Just a couple of weeks later on January 9, 1861, the first shots of the war were fired.  When the ship called the Star of the West tried to enter Charleston Harbor to resupply Fort Sumter, cadets from the Citadel, stationed on Morris Island, had three canon emplacements.  The third of those cadets, Tuck Hanesworth from Darlington, South Carolina, pulled the lanyard, firing the first shot of the war.

The next four months saw an unsettled peace.  Then on April 12, a bombardment, which lasted thirty-four hours, began.  Guns and heavy artillery fired an estimated 3000 rounds of ammunition on Fort Sumter, yet not one single life was lost.

Finally, Major Anderson surrendered the fort, not because of the attacks but because he had no food for his men.  During the final two years of the war, the Confederates occupied Fort Sumter.  Union forces bombarded the fort eleven different times, firing an estimated 43,000 rounds against the fort.  Again, not one single life was lost.  The fort provided protection.

Psalm 46 claims that God is even stronger:  “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.”  How much more can God save?

Psalm 46, a proclamation of God’s strength and protection, was the favorite psalm of Martin Luther.  It is the psalm upon which he based his famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”  In the first stanza, Luther says that God is “A bulwark never failing; Our helper He, amid the flood Of mortal ills prevailing…”

At times, life falls apart.  It has probably happened for you, just as it has happened for many people.  Sooner or later, everyone experiences difficult times.  When life falls apart, we look for a firm place to stand.  We look for some refuge, some hope, some safe place.  In the midst of this chaos, we can never find a firm place to stand outside of the protection of God.  Protection is not in any economic policy and not in any social structure.  It is not even in the church itself.  It is only in the providence of God.  Jesus’ words from Matthew 10:28, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” appear in Luther’s hymn as, “The body they may kill:  God’s truth abideth still…”  Psalm 46 tells us to place all of our anxiety, all of our difficulties, on God.

Words from Psalm 46 appear in some unusual places.  After the terrible earthquake occurred in Haiti, Jon Stewart of the Comedy Channel, read from Psalm 46 on his program.  His doing so seemed highly improbable.  Stewart read, “…we will not fear, even though the earth be removed, though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea, though its waters roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with swelling.”

Psalm 46 tells us that God provides protection against raging and shaking and roaring and swelling and moving and anything that causes us anxiety.  Paul shared this confidence with the writer of the psalm.  Even when he was in prison on death row, facing execution, Paul learned not to be anxious.  In his letter to the Philippians 4, Paul stated,

Whatever state I am in, I have learned to be content.  I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound:  everywhere and in all things I have learned, even when I am full or when I am hungry, to be content in the presence of God.  It is through Christ that I find my strength. The Lord is at hand.  I have found the peace beyond all human understanding.

An expression used in the psalm – Lord of hosts – also appears in the New Testament in both Romans and James.  Luther uses that term as the Lord of Sabaoth.  It is a reflection of what Paul says in Romans 8:31:  “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  In that great passage in Romans 8:38-39, Paul writes, “I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor powers, nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  It is the reason Paul could say, “…we are more than conquerors through Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:37).

On September 11, 2001, I saw just a glimpse of the events involving the World Trade Center before I had to drive to the Y.M.C.A. for a meeting.  The district governor of the Rotary Club had reviewed the club, and members of the board of directors were scheduled to meet with him at 9:00 A.M. and through most of the morning.  When I arrived, other members of the board and the district governor himself had no idea about what was happening in New York.  The Y.M.C.A. set up a television monitor, and we took a moment to watch, as did so many other people, the horrors of that day as jet planes were used as weapons of destruction against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The district governor, who knew I was a pastor, turned to me and said, “At the beginning of the Rotary meeting today, I want you to say something that will give us hope.  It is almost irrelevant for me to give a district governor’s address.  I want you to say something.”  This is what I said:

A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow’r are great,
And, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
And tho’ this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph thro’ us:
The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly pow’rs,
No thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gift are ours
Thro’ Him who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

I recited those words of Martin Luther, which were based on Psalm 46.  I honestly could think of nothing better to say.

The background of the hymn is a remarkable story.  Martin Luther, a rather timid man, was determined to be a lawyer.  One day as he was walking back to his home, in a mining village in Germany, he encountered a tremendous thunderstorm.  He took refuge under a tree.  He was so frightened that he fell on his knees and promised God that he would enter the ministry if he survived the storm.  He did just that.  Luther became a monk.

Martin Luther was afflicted by a terrible sense of guilt, a malady known as scrupulosity.  He would wake up in the middle of the night at the monastery, so guilt-ridden that he would find his confessor and confess and confess and confess every sin he could remember.  Then he would return to his bed.  Unable to sleep, Luther would return to the confessor and say, “I know I have committed other sins I cannot remember.  I want to confess those sins, too.”

Realizing Luther needed a constructive task, his confessor convinced him to preside at the first mass after he became an ordained priest.  Luther could not do it because he was so nervous and distraught.  He felt so unworthy.  His spiritual director then set him to the task of translating the letters of Paul from the Latin and Greek into the German language.  It was while he was translating Galatians and then the book of Romans that he came to the phrase:  “The just shall live by faith” (Galatians 3:19, Romans 1:17).  It is a quote from Habakkuk 2:4.  That single verse led Martin Luther to nail those ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg.  That passage of Scripture was his eureka moment.  He knew that living by faith was important.

At the time, the Roman Catholic Church was trying to build a great cathedral in Rome, St. Peter’s.  Talk about a stewardship program!  That program was designed to get as much money as possible, even if it meant playing on the guilt of the people.  They said, “If you have committed a sin, you can pay this amount of money, and we will guarantee that your sin is forgiven.  If you have a family member who has committed sin but won’t repent, you can pay this amount of money on their behalf.  Their sins will be forgiven.  If you have a loved one who has died and you know they were sinful before they died, you can pay this amount of money.  The Pope will see to it that they get out of Purgatory.  If you are planning to commit some sins in the future, you can go ahead and pay now and build up a little credit.  You can have your sins forgiven.”  This attempt to raise money was called “the selling of indulgences.”

The Vatican sent a young cracker-jack ecclesiastical lawyer named Johann Tetzel into Germany to sell indulgences.  Tetzel’s little rhyme stated, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.”  Martin Luther declared, “That practice is wrong.  That is not the way God intends sins to be forgiven.  That is not the path to salvation.”  His contention with the Roman Catholic Church finally brought him to trial at a place called Worms.  It does make church history a little interesting when you read that.  Johann Eke spread all of Luther’s writings out on a big table and said, “You have to recant all of this.  Take it back.  Say you did not mean it.”

Luther responded, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture, the Word of God, I cannot and will not recant anything.  Here I stand.  I can do no other.” With those words, Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation.  He had not wanted to divide the church.  He had wanted to reform it, but the church would not change.

Two years after he finished his translation of the New Testament, Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress.”  Five years later, his first hymnal, which contained eighty-five of his hymns, was published.  “A Mighty Fortress” was the centerpiece.  It is said that sometimes when the efforts were going badly, when there was so much chaos and confusion, so much persecution, Luther would pray with his good friend Phillip Melanchthon, a colleague and fellow scholar.  They often prayed Psalm 46, taken from the book of Psalms or from Luther’s version in “A Mighty Fortress.”

Psalm 46 says, “Be still and know that I am God.”  What better way to deal with chaos than just to be still and fall silent?  When you ask a congregation to be motionless, people get fidgety.  When you try to do it on your own, you may get a little uncomfortable.  We must turn off all the media, get quiet, and just hold still.  It is in that quietness and in stillness that we encounter God.

Henri Nouwen wrote a book called The Still Point in the Turning World. Life is like a turbulent storm so much of the time.  The still point is the eye of the storm.  The same is true in our lives.  In all the confusion, the turmoil, the chaos of our lives, there is this still point, which we call “quiet time.”  The Quakers call it “finding the center.”  When we come to that point, we are in the very presence of God.  It is then that we can experience God as our refuge and strength.

Our family has a long tradition of giving children verses to memorize.  My grandmother did that with her children.  My mother gave her children verses to memorize, and Clare has done the same with our children.

One of my uncles is Kreswell Edward Neely, Jr., whom some called him Ed or Buzz.  When my grandmother found out that Buzz was going to serve in the Navy during World War II, she told him to memorize Psalm 46, which he did.  He did not know then that he was going to be in the Normandy Invasion.  Uncle Buzz was assigned a job of lowering the tailgate at the back of a small landing craft, allowing soldiers to storm the beaches during the second wave.

Like many other World War II combat veterans, Uncle Buzz did not talk about the war much.  One time, though, he told me about his job on the landing craft.  He said, “Kirk, the pilot told me that I had to get the boys off the boat quickly.  I actually had to push some of them off.  They did not want to leave the safety of the boat.  The pilot told me not to look back, but I did.  As far as I could tell, not many of the men were standing.”

When I asked Uncle Buzz how he made it through that experience, he answered, “Psalm 46.  My mother told me to memorize that Scripture, and I kept saying it over and over in my mind.  ‘The Lord is my refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble…I will not fear…Be still, and know that I am God.’”

Is your life in chaos?  Do you feel as if your life is falling apart?  Do you feel that nothing you do will ever hold together, that everything is almost futile?  Do you feel as if you cannot make your life right?  When you lie down to sleep at night, do those troubles flood your mind?  Pray Psalm 46.  “The Lord is my refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble…I will not fear…Be still and know that I am God.”

This God, who is our refuge and strength, loves us dearly.  The greatest revelation of that love is that He sent Jesus Christ into this chaotic world, into the middle of the storm, to show us how to live in this world with all of its difficulties.  He loved us so much that He sent Jesus to show us that by faith, we can find refuge.  Jesus Christ is our Savior and Lord.

If you have never made the decision to accept Christ Jesus as your Savior, could I invite you to do that today?  Some of you have other decisions to make.  You know what the Lord has laid on your heart.  I invite your response.

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