Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sermon: Psalm 46 Refuge and Strength

Charles Blondin was a famous tightrope walker. He made a name for himself by crossing the Niagra Falls many times on a tightrope. Massive crowds would come along to watch him perform his amazing feats. One day, he was about to set off, pushing a wheelbarrow across the tightrope, when he asked the crowd a question. ‘Do you believe that I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?’ The people quickly responded, ‘Yes, yes, you are the greatest tightrope walker in the world! You can do anything!’ Okay, he says, ‘Get in the wheelbarrow.’

I wonder if you had been in the crowd that day, would you have got in? It’s one thing to believe something is possible, in theory, when there’s no pressure. It’s quite different when it’s for real. Does the belief hold true? Is the faith genuine?

As we gather on Sunday mornings, we’re not just indulging in fairy stories. We don’t gather to feel good about ourselves for a wee while. Rather, we come together to declare what it is we believe about God. We remind ourselves and each other of the truth that we have received, and which we believe. But just like Blondin’s barrow, it’s not enough to just say we believe it. Does it hold true? When things are difficult, can we depend on God, or was it all just pious, religious waffle which won’t actually help or make a difference when it really matters?

Take Psalm 46, our reading today. The opening verse declares some things about God. They’re comforting things, reassuring reminders: ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.’ It’s a bold declaration about who God is, and what he is like. It’s a great verse for today and each day, something to recall every morning.

God is our refuge - a place of safety and shelter - whether it’s a mountain refuge where climbers can take cover in a storm, or a place where those in danger can be protected. The Lord is like a refuge; and is also our strength - the one who gives us power when we are weak. As well as those emergency times, this verse reminds us that God is also ‘a very present help in trouble.’ Like the RAC slogan: ‘There when you need us.’

Verse one is something that we can declare. But does it hold true when we face times of trouble? Does it make a difference to our lives when we need him most? Or are these just nice sounding, but empty words? Let’s examine the psalm.

If you have opened your pew Bibles to page 529, you’ll see that Psalm 46 breaks into three sections (1-3, 4-7, 8-11). We’ll see that the message of each of these three sections is loud and clear: God is with us as our refuge.

Have you ever seen one of those disaster /apocalyptic movies? A few years back there was a film called 2012. It showed what could happen if freak weather was unleashed on the world - and included a memorable scene where the city of New York was flooded in October 2012 - something which happened last week... A few years ago, Kevin Costner starred in a film called Waterworld - no, not about the swimming pool in Portrush, but rather about a massive worldwide flood due to global warming.

It’s a bit like the scene in view here - mountains shaking in the heart of the sea, waters roaring and foaming. This autumn we’ve been looking at the creation - this is as if creation is going in reverse, dry land consumed by the waters. Yet the writer declares: ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change...’ Even in the worst case scenario, we don’t need to fear, because God is our refuge and strength. What a great declaration of faith and trust!

Scene two moves us from geographical tumult to political turmoil. The focus shifts from the earth to the city of God. A city under attack, as the nations are in uproar, the kingdoms totter. God’s people are in danger - should we be afraid here?

Instead of the chaotic sea, we’re drawn to the river flowing in the city of God, an important water supply. But more important than the resources, we’re told that God is in the midst of the city, and therefore it will not be moved. So even if the nations attack, God will be our help - ‘he utters his voice, the earth melts.’

While the words are different, the idea is the same at the end of the section - here’s the summary: ‘The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.’ It’s the other way round from verse 1, but it’s the same theme - God is with us, God is our refuge.

Scene three takes us to the battlefield after the war. God has defeated his enemies. Wars have ceased. God gives peace to his people. The weapons of war have proven useless against him, they are destroyed. The writer is showing us how foolish it is to oppose God - we simply cannot win against him.

Then suddenly, unexpectedly, God himself speaks in verse 10. This is both a rebuke to those who would oppose God, as well as a comfort to those who are trusting in him: ‘Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.’

To those who oppose God, who fight against God, who have rejected God (and let’s face it, that’s all of us), it’s a call to lay down our weapons, to realise how foolish it is to fight against God, the one who rules over the whole earth.

Instead, we need to hear these words as those trusting in the Lord, in the real world of danger and trouble. You see, so often you hear this verse taken out of context as a cosy meditation, on a retreat in a posh hotel, surrounded by luxury, as if it’s just asking us to pause for a moment to remember that God exists. But look at the context - this is God’s word to us when things are dangerous and difficult; when we’re fearful and frightened. It’s in this context that God speaks: even though you want to fight or take flight; ‘Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.’

When we receive this reassurance, it’s only right and proper that we respond, in the only way we can - by trusting in the Lord, as we find that he is with us, he is our refuge. Whether in times of change, war or peace, ‘The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.’

As we come to our final hymn this morning, a version of this very Psalm, the challenge is there: can you make these words your own? Can you say God is my refuge? And as you say it (and sing it), will that make a difference to you this week in the difficulties you face? It’s time to get in the wheelbarrow, and turn words into deeds, and trust the Lord as we declare: ‘The Lord of hosts is with me, the God of Jacob is my refuge.’

This sermon was preached on Remembrance Sunday, 11th November 2012 in Aghavea Parish Church.

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