Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 20, 2016
Psalm 46 Commentary
These are auspicious days in my country. We’re less than two weeks downwind from our elections and we know now who our next President will be and what our new Congress will look like. During this coming week, we will pause as a nation to give thanks for the blessings we have received from God, though not all our citizens will acknowledge that God is the source of our blessings. Even fewer of my compatriots will know what I mean when I say that this Sunday is an auspicious day in the life of the church.
Today we come to the end of the liturgical year. It ends not with a whimper, but with a bang, because today is the celebration of Christ the King. We began this church year with our Advent observances, in which we looked forward to the coming of the new born King. Then we followed him to his death on the cross as the “King of the Jews,” celebrated his re-coronation in his resurrection and ascension, and rejoiced in his regal outpouring of his Spirit on Pentecost. In the season after Pentecost, Ordinary Time, we focused on what it means to follow the King in a world that does not acknowledge him. Now today, we rejoice in the fact that he is King of Kings, even if our world does not seem to be under his control.
At first glance, Psalm 46 might seem a slightly peculiar choice for such a celebrative day. I mean, after the high praise commanded and modeled in our reading for last week (Psalm 98), we might expect a Psalm filled with even higher praise on this auspicious day. Instead, Psalm 46 plunges us back into a world in disarray, filled with chaos in nature and conflict among the nations. How can a Psalm so filled with trouble help us celebrate the reign of Christ over the whole world?
Upon closer examination, Psalm 46 is a perfect choice, precisely because it speaks so accurately of the world in which we live and claims with great power that the Lord is King of this very world. Psalm 46 is very honest about the two major sources of dangers in our world—nature out of control and the nations in bloody conflict. With almost daily news about earthquakes destroying cities around the world and hurricanes whipping the oceans into a fury, we can relate to verses 2 and 3 all too well. But the Psalmist is talking about more than the occasional natural disaster or even the environmental cataclysm predicted by so many scientists. He is describing the utter collapse of the continents into the sea, the return of the primeval chaos described so ominously in Genesis 1:2, the shaking of the natural foundations on which our lives absolutely depend, that is, the unmaking of the earth.
In verse 6 the Psalmist turns the camera on the turmoil caused by national upheavals. “Nations are in uproar,” he says, using the very same word that describes the raging of the waters as they “roar and foam.” And “kingdoms fall” or totter, repeating the word used in verse 3 to describe the quaking of the mountains. It is a world filled with wars and rumors of war, with desolate battlefields strewn with the modern equivalent of swords and spears and shields (verses 8 and 9). Could there be a more accurate description of the political instability and military escalations of the 21st Century?
It is against such a backdrop that Psalm 46 announces the reign of God, and I’m glad for that. The writer was not some dreamer looking at the world through rose colored glasses. These are the words of a realist who had a clear eyed perspective on the trouble in the world. So when he says that God is King, we know that his confession is not a denial of the reality that everyone can see. It is the proclamation of a higher reality that can be seen only by faith.
Here’s the way he talks about Christ the King (to use our Christian language). “God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” As we’ve just seen, he does not deny the trouble. Instead, he affirms that in the midst of the trouble, we have a refuge and a source of strength unknown to those who don’t know the true God. He repeats this confession two more times in slightly different form. “The Lord Almighty is with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress (verses 7 and 11).” Note that “God” has become “Lord” or Yahweh (a reminder of the covenant). And given all the talk of war in the context, it is not surprising that the author describes Yahweh as “Almighty,” which could be translated “Warrior.” He ties those two ideas of covenant and warrior together with the confession that “the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
At this point in his reign, The King has not yet stilled the chaotic forces of nature completely and he has not brought universal peace to the earth, though he will when he is exalted among the nations throughout the earth. For now, what the King provides to his subjects is his presence with us– not just as a pleasant friend, but as a powerful Warrior, an impregnable Fortress and a safe Refuge. In a dangerous world, the children of the King are not alone and defenseless. We are kept safe and secure.
That confession will not seem true to some of your listeners, and maybe not to you either. Too many terrible things happen to Christians all over the world. So what shall we say about the difficulties and dangers that are all too real to us? Well, we can talk about the church as “the city of God (verse 4).” Now, undoubtedly, that was originally a reference to Jerusalem, that geographical location where God chose to dwell in a special way in Old Testament times. “God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day (when enemies normally chose to attack).”
Some of my readers believe that Jerusalem is still central to God’s saving plan, but I believe that the church has replaced Israel as the focus of God’s saving work (think of Augustine’s City of God) and Jesus has replaced the temple as the “place” where God dwells in a special way. As Mays puts it, “The Psalm does not invite trust in a place, but in a Presence who wills to dwell with his people.” (Cf. John 1:14) The words of verses 4 and 5, then, offer a wonderful pair of comforts to God’s people in the world. First, God will be with us in the future. That is, when we think we are about to fall, “God will help us at break of day.” At the just the right time, when the enemy is about to attack with deadly force and we think all is lost, God will help and we will not fall.
But here’s the second comfort that comes from God’s presence with us. We don’t have to wait for God to help in some distant future, because “there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” Ancient Jerusalem didn’t have a river running through it as other major ancient cities did, and that proved problematic in times of siege and drought. But Psalm 46 isn’t talking about Jerusalem and a physical river; it is talking about the people of God throughout the ages and the river of God’s grace. No matter how hard life may be, God’s grace keeps flowing into our lives like a mighty river, giving us just the blessings we need. So we can be glad, because this river never stops flowing from the throne of grace. (Cf. Rev. 21)
Some of your listeners will be helped by the explanation given above. Others will stumble over the claim that Christ rules this earth because of the problem that arises in verses 8 and 9, the problem of endless war. If Christ the King is the Prince of Peace, how can it be that wars have never ceased to the ends of the earth, a direct contradiction of the claim of verse 9. What are we to make of those verses?
Well, some scholars say that wars are precisely “the works of the Lord” (verse 8a), that God uses war to accomplish his master plan for the world. They suggest that the “desolations he has brought on the earth” refer to such things as the defeat of Assyria and Babylon, the great enemies and captors of Israel. War is one of the ways God rids the world of unrighteousness. Other scholars point to verse 9, which says that the King makes wars cease, destroying the instruments so completely that they can never be used again (“burns the shields with fire”). It is not the will of the King that the inhabitants of earth slaughter each other forever.
It may be that both interpretations are correct. In the interim, as the King rules his subjects with a love that permits free choice, those subjects will do things of which the King disapproves mightily. As King he uses even their misdeeds to accomplish his will for the world. But his ultimate will for his world is that it be at peace completely. So the day will come when he “makes wars cease to the ends of the earth.” Then the Pax Christus will reign.
Psalm 46 calls on the subjects of the King to respond to his reign in two ways. First, do not be afraid, even though there is much to fear from the chaotic forces of nature and the organized might of nations. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear….”
We can calm the fears that naturally arise when we are threatened only if we do what verse 10 calls us to do. “Be still….” In one sense, that command is addressed to a noisy, frantic world. It means something like “enough, stop it, shut up,” the kind of thing a parent might say to a hyperactive toddler or a spouse might say to a hysterical mate. But this command means much more than “be quiet,” though it means at least that. In fact, the word in Hebrew here has the sense of sink or relax. It is used in the Bible to describe what happens to a pile of hay when it is set afire; it sinks down into itself. It describes the sun setting at the end of the day, the wings of a great bird settling in upon its body as it lands, a worker’s hands dropping after the work is completed. It refers to an inner stillness in which we loosen our grip on life, let it go, let it drop, leave it alone, and do nothing.
Oh yes, there is a legitimate place for hard work and skillful speech, for taking care of your own problems and not letting people run over you. But God is saying a very profound thing here. It is only when we are still, with our mouths and in our souls, that we truly and deeply know that “I am God.” I am, not you. I am, not nature. I am, not the nations. I am God.
Yes, the power of men and nations is great, and the temptation of trying to battle it yourself is overwhelming. But “I am God, and I will be exalted among the nations.” Yes, the forces of nature are incredible, and the effort to manage nature is as old as humanity. But “I am God, and I will be exalted in the earth.”
We know all this, and yet we don’t. We know it in our minds on our good days, but not in our hearts, in our emotions, in times of real trouble. Then we churn within, trying to find a solution, looking for the right words, wondering where God is, why the King isn’t acting for his loyal subjects. That’s why God says, “Be still and know that I am God.” We won’t know God, we won’t find the solution, we won’t get the help, until we stop, loosen our grip, let it drop, let it go, leave it alone, and do nothing except let God be God.
These are auspicious times in my nation. Especially during unsettling times of war and terror, we are tempted to place our trust in earthly powers– the military, the politicians, the nations, the academy, even the clergy. But Psalm 46 reminds us on “Christ the King Sunday” that the Lord Almighty, the God of Jacob, Jesus Christ, is our refuge, our strength, our fortress. Therefore we will not be afraid.
I was looking over some old notes of mine as I prepared this commentary. Can you relate to the kind of day my wife and I had back when I made note of it? She left the house at 6:45 AM to teach; I left at 7:45 to go to church. She taught until 2:20, then had to be at Calvin College by 2:30 to take a course for her Master’s degree. Then she had a Teacher’s Education meeting at 3:30, and another class at 6:00. I had a meeting at 3:00, then another at 6:00, and 7:30, and 8:30. So we synchronized our watches and met at 5:00 at Arnie’s restaurant on Breton Road for exactly 45 minutes of Riviera salad, muffins, coffee, and talk. It would have been much easier to just skip dinner, but we really wanted to see each other, so we made the effort. Is it any wonder we don’t meet God much in our daily lives, when we don’t make that kind of concerted effort? The famous psychologist, C. G. Jung, once said, “The three great enemies of spirituality are noise, crowds, and busyness.”
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