Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 24, 2019
Psalm 46 Commentary
It probably counts as something of an irony that for all its soaring comfort in proclaiming the sovereignty of God and God’s rule over all things, Psalm 46 is invoked most often precisely in those times when it is most difficult to believe that a good and loving God is providentially in charge of the world. Those who surveyed the churches in North America the Sunday after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 noted that Psalm 46 was one of the most commonly preached texts that week. Substitute “falling skyscrapers” for “mountains falling into the sea” and you could understand why so many pastors made this Hebrew poem their go-to text on that disorienting Sunday after disaster had struck.
But history is doubtless replete with such examples of when Psalm 46 was evoked. And, of course, the psalm itself licenses such use by beginning with an acknowledgment of the fact that there are plenty of times when disaster does strike, when the earth trembles and everything that once seemed solid and secure—like immovable mountains—seem to be melting away. Opening this psalm just that way counts as a mighty big nod toward realism. This psalmist is not an eyes-shut sort of person who manages to hang onto his faith only by virtue of shutting out inconvenient truths.
No, the poem comes directly out of times of trouble and war. God may be said here to shatter spears and shields and cause wars to cease but at most any given moment in human history, war was being waged somewhere. Today too, of course.
But that makes Psalm 46 only more plucky. Its realism reassures that faith need not be shipwrecked on the shoals of today’s troubling headlines nor on the shoals of the hurts we all bear in life. God is our refuge but to state the merely obvious, a refuge is a needed thing only in those times when there is something FROM WHICH you need to hide and be sheltered.
In this final Year C Lectionary text for “Reign of Christ” Sunday, we are reminded that Christ became our sovereign Lord and King on a cross. As noted in also the Gospel sermon commentary from Luke 23 for this week, being exalted and coronated on a cross is about as strange a specter as getting “enthroned” on an electric chair or glorified on the fatal end of a hangman’s noose. It was an odd way to become King but then again, it was the most realistic way for Jesus to do so because the troubles of this world—all its surgings and quakings and tumultings—was precisely why the Son of God was incarnated into this reality in the first place.
It is precisely by recalling this reality also in the context of Psalm 46 that we preachers can proclaim a peace and a hope that fits people whose lives are often plenty tumultuous. At Calvin seminary we use Paul Scott Wilson’s “Four Pages” template and if you are familiar with Wilson’s homiletics at all, then you know it is motored along by a consideration of some Trouble and then a corresponding Grace. But as we remind our students, the one thing we preachers never need to do is generate Trouble. People come to church each week with plenty of that already. The wise pastor learns how to name the Trouble in people’s lives. The tougher part of preaching is to find a realistic Grace that can reach into those issues and questions and outright crises that people schlepp with them into the sanctuary every Sunday morning already.
We ought not preach Psalm 46’s depiction of uproars and a shaking earth in the abstract. The earth moves under people’s feet far more often than any literal earthquakes that strike now and then. The earth moves when a cherished job is taken away or when the prospect of a new job is not realized. The earth moves when families rattle apart and marriages crumble. The earth will probably move for not a few families the week of Reign of Christ Sunday when in the U.S. people gather together for Thanksgiving only to find some political argument over impeachment shattering any Rockwellian sense of family unity around a well-bronzed roasted turkey. The earth moves when people begin to see a loved one drifting away through one form or another of dementia.
“Be still and know I am God” the Lord counsels via the poet in Psalm 46. Much easier said than done. Because when do we need to “be still”? Well, exactly in those moments when there is the most to scream about. Exactly in those seasons when what we most want to do is shake our fists in the direction of heaven to let loose with a psalm of lament. And it is legitimate to do that at times, as the Psalms of Lament in this same Psalter validate. But there is also a time to be quiet, to take a deep breath, to try to see through all of life’s haze and smoke and fog a God who somehow still has got this thing. And we can know this because the hands that hold “the whole world” (a la the old song) are now pierced hands. Forget crowns and scepters and thrones—for Christ the trappings of royalty are the scars of suffering—indeed, the scars of suffering from the same hardships and outright tragedies that most of us know about only too well.
Advent 2019 is right around the corner. And there will be plenty of pressure on all us pastors to prop up Advent/Christmas as a serene season in which “all is calm, all is bright.” But it’s not true. Psalm 46, for all its lyric comfort, hope, and assurance, comes to us as a gritty piece of realism just when we need it most. Just when the people to whom we preach need it most.
There is something about the Louis Armstrong spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” that smacks of Psalm 46’s own combination of realistic admission of trouble in life and yet a bold proclamation that there is hope to be found in the God who can still receive us like a refuge and silence us long enough to hear God’s reassuring voice. Trouble and sorrow in the Armstrong song is nonetheless followed up with “Glory, Hallelujah” as well as the line that then reveals how any sense of praising can come in a song that otherwise centers on suffering: namely, the only one who really does know the troubles any of us see is Jesus.
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