Sermon Reformation Day October 30th, 2011 Refuge and strength Psalm 46
For the director of music. Of the Sons of Korah. A song. 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 “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.
It is interesting how different psalms seem to just speak into particular events and moments we face in life. They are words that capture our joy or pain and express them in a way that has been expressed by faithful people of God. It is as if God is actually speaking out our own response to what we are experiencing. When I think of Psalm 23, I thing of comfort in the face of death – at a funeral, or in a war Zone with the padre reciting those famous words – The Lord is my shepherd…..even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…..” For those darker days when thing seem to overtake us; Psalm 130…
1 Out of the depths I cry to you, LORD; 2 Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.
When we need to feel the pain of God in the crucifixion of his Son and so, express our own sorrow for our sin and for the evil that we experience and do – Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me….” As the church gathers in the presence of God and uses those bright words of Psalm 95 to gather:
Come let us worship the Lord, let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us shout aloud to him with songs of praise, for he is a great God, a king above all the earth, Come let us worship and bend low before the Lord our maker……”
And so it goes, Psalm after psalm gives expression to who we are , who we are putting our hope in and God’s understanding of our joy and trouble.
I did not really become aware of Psalm 46 until I learnt that it was the Psalm upon which Luther’s most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress” was based. To me, this psalm is all about hope – hope when there seems to be none; strength when there seems to be none left; future when there does not seem to be a good one.
Luther in his great inner struggle obviously found great solace in this psalm. So have others. So have I. It is the psalm for the darkness, the trouble, the evil and fear we face at times. When I think of this psalm I think of a huge castle with towers and turrets and security from the raging battle below. I actually think of the Wartburg Castle in Southern Germany where Luther found refuge when his life was under threat – as he went about translating the Latin, Greek and Hebrew bible into the language of his people – everyday German.
This Psalm covers those moments when despair and fear overwhelm us; it brings God’s hope in hopelessness…
In numerous letters, which she repeatedly begged her superiors to destroy, Mother Teresa describes her experiences of profound spiritual darkness that haunted her for fifty years. She admits that she didn’t practice what she preached, and laments the stark contrast between her exterior demeanor and her interior desolation: “The smile is a big cloak which covers a multitude of pains. . . . my cheerfulness is a cloak by which I cover the emptiness and misery. . . . I deceive people with this weapon.”
Mother Teresa describes the absence of God’s presence in various ways—an emptiness, loneliness, pain, spiritual dryness, or lack of consolation. “There is so much contradiction in my soul, no faith, no love, no zeal. . . . I find no words to express the depths of the darkness. . . . My heart is so empty. . . . so full of darkness. . . . I don’t pray any longer. The work holds no joy, no attraction, no zeal. . . . I have no faith, I don’t believe.” She rebukes herself as a “shameless hypocrite” for teaching her sisters one thing while experiencing something far different. David Van Bima of Time magazine calls this disparity between her private and public worlds “a startling portrait in self-contradiction” (August 23, 2007). The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself, Weekly essays by Dan Clendenin , Essay posted 19 November 2007
Psalm 46 is a psalm for what the 16th century Spanish mystic, John of the Cross (1542–1591) famously named, —the “dark night of the soul.” Some have drawn parallels between the experiences of Mother Teresa and Martin Luther (1483–1546). Luther used the German word Anfechtungen to describe his difficult interior struggles with God.
Anfechtungen; it’s a word that’s hard to translate but easy to appreciate. Anfechtungen came on before a crisis of certainty for which the believer could only cast himself upon the mercy of God. Martin Marty, the Amercian Lutheran writer, hangs his whole biography of Luther on the word: “God present and God absent, God too near and God too far, the God of wrath and the God of love, God weak and God almighty, God real and God as illusion, God hidden and God revealed.” Anfechtungen, says Marty, are “the spiritual assaults that Luther said kept people from finding certainty in a loving God.” The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself, Weekly essays by Dan Clendenin , Essay posted 19 November 2007
Luther found great solace in Psalm 46, and some have even called it his favourite psalm.
It begins with descriptions of global cataclysms—the earth giving way, mountains crumbling into the sea, and waters that “roar and foam.” It speaks of global concerns (not unlike CHOGM concerns this week!). “Nations are in an uproar, kingdoms fall.”
Nevertheless, says the psalmist, “The Lord Almighty is with us / The God of Jacob is our fortress.” He advises us to “be still and know that I am God,” for God “makes wars cease, breaks the bow, shatters the spear, and burns the shields.”
In 1527, the “deepest year of Luther’s depression” according to Roland Bainton, (Author of one of the Luther biographies) Psalm 46 inspired Luther to write his classic hymn “A Mighty Fortress” (translated from the German by Frederick Hedge in 1853): The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself, Weekly essays by Dan Clendenin , Essay posted 19 November 2007 A mighty Fortress is our God, a Bulwark never failing, Our Helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing…..
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through 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 powers, no thanks to them, abideth; The Spirit and the gifts are ours through 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.
For Luther, we believers should not imagine that we will be spared “the flood of mortal ills prevailing.” We can, though, experience a deep security in the words of Psalm 46 that however much the earth shakes, a more powerful God is with us and for us wherever we find ourselves. We rest in the knowledge not that the darkness will always turn to dawn—Mother Teresa’s “dark night” lasted fifty years—but in the confidence that God in Christ says to us, “I am more certain to you than your own heart and conscience.” To unlock the gift of this Psalm and the gift of God’s hope in seeming hopelessness in this Psalm for the inner darkness we experience, we need do two things: “Be still” before the Lord, and “know” that he is God. Even when the basics fall away— even the really base basics, the foundations of dirt under our feet (like the people in Thailand are now experiencing) and those higher grounds that will save us from the rushing waters—even then as we free fall, we’ll have a refuge, an outpost, in this God of All Things. Like an ever-flowing river providing sustenance to its people, He is there always, even as the banks crumble, as branches fall and are drowned in her depths, as giant boulders are consumed. Catastrophes, battles, inner and outward, loss, grief, despair, evil, fear of what will happen…all of them are depleted as the rush of God’s hope from the crucified man on the cross continues. There He is, our crucified God whose words are cascading across the plains and off into the valleys, their force undiminished as the furthest of the mountains perks up and obeys his commanding voice.“Be still,” He speaks, and so it is, and the nations shudder with shock and awe at this power – the power to forgive and heal the wounded human heart.
Hosanna, Son of David, Save us. All power and glory to our Refuge and Strength, Jesus Christ; his kingdom and his Church is forever.