God is our refuge and strength – Remembering Sunday
God is our refuge and strength: reflections on Psalm 46 on Remembering Sunday (Nov 24, 2013)
It is important for us to take time like this – at least once a year – to remember and reflect on our own finitude, our own mortality. It is important for us to look back and see those who have gone before us and remember them, remember their lives and loves and the important place they had and still have in our world. It is important to look forward to a time when others will be remembering us and who we were (or at least we hope they will).
It’s important, as well, to reflect on the larger mystery of God’s goodness and grace amidst the death and dying that we are part of. It’s important to hold in tension the wonder of life with all its beauty and surprise, as well as the cruelty and barbarity of natural disasters like the one in the Philippines or ones we have made ourselves like the one in Syria.
It is important to reflect on the God we worship and recognize as being the all in all, and also recognize the hard reality that things don’t always turn out right, at least as far as we can tell. It’s important for us to be reminded that we live in a mystery of knowing and not knowing, between faith and hope, between the beauty of God’s salvation and of God’s absence.
It’s important to listen to the story of Jesus’ last day, which we heard read from Luke’s Gospel. In this story Jesus blesses a dying criminal and invites him to paradise as his final act before Jesus himself then peacefully commends his spirit to God.
But then it’s also important to listen to a different story that we didn’t read this morning, from another Gospel where Jesus cries out in anguish and despair: ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me’. It’s important to recognize that this is all part of the picture, part of the wonder of the life we live in the presence of God. All the stories are put together in a way that we get a full-orbed view of the diverse aspects of our humanity, as well as Jesus’ humanity as he faced his death.
It’s important for us to read scriptures like Psalm 46 because it reminds us that all that goes on around us is what life is like. The good and the bad, the living and the dying, the suffering and the elation, the birth of a new one come from some place other and the death of an old one gone back to that place. It’s important to read scripture like Psalm 46 because it invites us to see the world with new eyes or maybe renewed eyes – eyes that see clearly what is going on and yet also see clearly what is not as obvious, not as evident.
The psalmist begins ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.’ There is no question in the author’s mind that this is what is. God is a sanctuary from all that may harm him and his community. God is the one who gives power to be able to live well and in all situations. It is a confident statement assuring those who read it that this God is one who is ‘a very present help,’ not some possibility that might be there but here now when most needed.
We do know that there are times when the Psalmists start from a different place, with the hard reality of life like the one written in the anguish of being prisoners of war, when the psalm begins with the words. By the waters of Babylon there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.’
Stark reality overwhelms the author and the people, and they hear the unvarnished truth about their situations. But even in these situations the deeper truth that is spoken most often and undergirds all the Psalms, even ones that end in anguish is most clearly heard in the Hebrew word hesed that describes the relationship between God and God’s people. The hesed of God is variously translated as everlasting love, steadfast love, kindness and compassion.
This word is the one that comes up again and again in the Psalms and in the prophets as they try to describe the God of Israel. This is also the way in which Jesus describes and personifies, and lives out what God is all about – loving kindness and compassion.
So the Psalm begins with the affirmation of God’s presence. It doesn’t negate anything that is going on but simply states the reality that the author is living. God is and God is on our side. As a result he writes
‘Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.’
Though these things happen we will not lose heart or faith in our God. When we read this, we recognize it. We’ve seen these images on our television and computer screens, and in our newspapers. This is a reality not just an old poem in an old book. This is here and now. And yet what the Psalmist is affirming is that the power of God is greater than the destructive power of the hurricane or the earthquake or the tsunami.
This force of grace and goodness and suffering love is more powerful than anything that destructive forces can throw at it. It is a different power, one that is manifest and made known through compassion and solidarity and suffering along with those who are in the midst of the tragedies. The God the Psalmist is speaking of is one who knows what it means to go through anguish and can say along with those in despair ‘my God, why have you deserted us?’ But it is also a God of resurrection, of hope.
The writer then goes on to speak of the image he has of what God is about. It is the opposite of waters foaming and roaring, or of mountains shaking in the sea. Rather the image of God is one that brings calm and hope and ultimately joy. Rather than fear there is deep hope.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
God is there in the midst of the community. The sign of hope is the dawning of a new day. There is the darkness, both literal and physical that can overwhelm us. But there is also the way in which the hesed, the loving kindness and compassion of God is made known – through loving and caring that we do God is present. The signs of God’s presence are seen by what those who walk along side and suffer alongside and carry burdens alongside do in the name of the God of the most vulnerable.
God’s mercy and grace work through communities of God’s people who walk along side those in need. God is in the midst of the people through the Spirit’s work in people like us who take Jesus call to love our neighbour seriously. The hesed of God is seen in our actions.
Darkness when all those fears and worries and oppressive emotions and thoughts overwhelm us but the dawn does come. The sun rising over the horizon brings a whole new way of seeing. And the Psalmist says that this dawning of a new day is the promise God gives to God’s people – especially those who are at the mercy of forces too powerful for them.
The psalmist then moves to describe another aspect of the world we know that was his reality as well.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; God utters, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
And again there is the contrast, but this time not nature that is erupting and causing distress but also that ‘nations are in uproar’ – the destructive power of war and terrorism, of marauding bands of armed rebels and those looking to take advantage of the less powerful. And yet there is hope. Even in the midst of violence that human beings do to each other the signs of God’s suffering love are evident.
During my sabbatical, Edith and I had the chance to go to the cathedral in Coventry, England. It was one of the first cities to be bombed in 1940 during World War Two and the town and the cathedral were destroyed. But, following the destruction, the Archdeacon Provost Howard made a commitment that it would not be revenge but rather forgiveness and reconciliation that would be the response to those who had been responsible for the bombing. He went on public radio from the cathedral that lay in ruins on Christmas day, 1940 and stated that when the war was over he would work together with those who had been enemies ‘to build a kinder, more Christ-child-like world.’ It was this moral and prophetic vision that has led to Coventry Cathedral becoming a world centre for Reconciliation. The first action that was made was to partner with Dresden, Germany which experienced the fury of the Allied fire bombing. Today there is an international group called ‘The Community of the cross of nails’ working for peace and reconciliation.
The Psalmist continues with these words:
Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations God has brought on the earth. God makes wars cease to the end of the earth; God breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; God burns the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
This is the hope we have and that we cling to, sometimes firmly and full of assurance and other times with our fingers just about the slip off. Along with the Psalmist and his community, we do this together and with many others around the globe and with those who have gone before us.
The Psalmist continues to affirm that ‘the God of Jacob is with us’. For the writer it is not a question of whether God exists or not, or whether there is evidence for God in the face of the tragedies that have unfolded. For the Psalmist, God is a given and that God is on the side of the suffering is a given as well. How this will work itself out isn’t explained. But that God will prevail – that justice and grace and mercy will win the day – is simply expected to happen. This work and countless other examples like this are evidence of the God of the Psalmist at work in our world.
In ‘Rumours of another world’ Philip Yancey writes, ‘It takes the mystery of faith always, to believe, for God has no apparent interest in compelling belief…they are just that, rumors and not proofs [for] a thin membrane of belief separates the natural from the supernatural…We do not have the capacity to apprehend God directly. [Rather] we see God best in the same way we see a solar eclipse: not by staring at the sun, which would cause blindness, but through something on which the sun is projected’ (pp. 35, 41). God is at work, but it takes eyes of faith to see.
As we remember those who have gone on before us we reflect on the promise of the Psalmist. That a new heaven and a new earth are part of what is being spoken of, for what is promised is the renewal of all things. From the Psalmist on through the story of Jesus and to the end of the New Testament assurance is given that a new world has begun.
In reflecting on this in his book ‘Surprised by Hope’ N.T. Wright writes, when the final resurrection occurs…we will discover that everything done in the present world in the power of Jesus’ own resurrection will be celebrated and included…transformed… and that every act of love, every deed done in Christ and by the Spirit, every work of true creativity like doing justice, or making peace, healing families, and resisting temptation, like seeking and winning true freedom – is an earthly event in the long history of things that implement Jesus’ own resurrection and anticipate the final new creation…’
The Psalmist proclaims what we can continue to affirm, that ‘God is our refuge and strength’. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have anything to do or simply passively sit back. Rather it means that the actions we take for justice, and the prayers we offer up for healing, and the ways in which we long to bring healing to others and the opportunities we have to say a kind word or give a helping hand or give of our wealth or poverty will all be honored and valued and not lost. All that is good and lovely will find fruit. And our task is to continue to be reconcilers and carriers of this gospel of suffering love for each other, for those who have no faith and for those who are too weak or lonely or overwhelmed to carry it on their own. Together along with the Psalmist we can continue to proclaim that we do not need to fear for love is stronger than fear.
Voices From Lemnos~ Seamus Heaney
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.