A sermon on Psalm 46 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 3 October 2021
Do you have a faith that could survive the end of the world?
In verses 1 to 3, the writer of Psalm 46 considers the end of the world.
God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”
It describes nothing less than the end of all things.
According to the science of their day, the ancient Hebrews believed that the world was surrounded by water. It explained why the sky is blue. There’s water on the other side. It explained why rain fell from the sky. It explained why water came up from springs even in the desert where it didn’t rain. The world as they knew it had been built by God on and under water.
The Hebrews were never a sea going people. They were nomads who made a home in the hills on either side of the Jordan River. For them this was the land flowing with milk and honey than God had given them. And so they maintained a healthy fear of the sea. Its waves that pounded the coast represented a restless, chaotic power that was beyond their control and threatened their lives. Their greatest fear is represented by the great flood in Genesis chapter 7 when the Lord withdrew his protecting hand and the rain came down and the waters rose in an enormous flood and covered the earth, and by the grace of God a remnant of humanity and of the creatures were rescued in Noah’s ark.
In Psalm 46 the writer imagines something terrible like that happening again. The waters that surround the earth will rise. Its waves will roar and surge. The mountains will come crashing down around them. It reminds me of the earthquake we had a couple of weeks ago. Except that the water didn’t rise and the mountains did not quite come crashing down, although a couple of books might have fallen off the shelf.
Perhaps to understand Psalm 46 you need to pick your own doomsday scenario. For a Cold War child like me the world was going to end in a nuclear catastrophe. Someone’s itchy finger would press the big red button and missiles would come down on every city, ending life as we know it. Your 21st century child, however, fears global warming. The temperature will rise, the ice will melt, the ocean will flood the land. Others fear the giant meteor from outer space that breaks the Earth in half. Pick your own personal apocalypse and verses 2 and 3 are about it.
But even then, the writer affirms, we will not fear. It is both a statement and an invitation. It is, of course, a statement that he will not fear. Notice that he doesn’t mean that everyone else will be afraid that the worst could happen, but that he knows it won’t. He doesn’t mean “We will not fear that the earth will give way or that the mountains will fall into the sea” because God won’t let that happen. He says, “We will not fear though the earth give way” meaning even if it does. He imagines watching it actually happen. The whole world could come crashing around him and he would not be afraid.
It is a statement, a statement of trust that when everything goes pear shaped, he will hold fast to God, his refuge and strength, his help and support. But it is also an invitation to the people of God to share that faith. “We,” it says, not “I.” We will not fear. We will not fear the end of all things, the destruction of all our achievements, the passing away of all we love. We will not fear our own personal world coming crashing down around us. We will not fear the fulfilment of all our fears. We will not fear the arrival of the apocalypse we dread. Not because it won’t happen, but even if it does.
But where will we find this kind of faith? Where will we find the strength to hold on to God?
It’s my fault completely for putting it that way, but they are the wrong questions to ask. Because we don’t have to worry about finding a faith strong enough to hold on to God. All we need is a strong enough God to hold on to. A God who is strong enough to hold on to us whatever happens. And we already have one as the writer says in verse 1.
God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble.
God is our refuge. Our safe place. He is the one we can flee to. He is the place where we will find safety. He is our strength for the Lord is the almighty God. The sun and moon and stars move at his will. The galaxies spin on the tip of his finger. Not one meteor hurtles through the emptiness of space without God charting its precise course. If there is a meteor with our planet’s name on it, God already knows the time and day and century when it will arrive. For he is not just strong, but he is our strength. He does not just give us all the strength we have, but he has an infinite source of his own. You do not need to hold on to him. Because he has all the strength he needs to hold on to you.
He is an ever present help. C lose at hand. Easy to find. Willing to help. Just the God you need in trouble, in your distress, when you feel overwhelmed and your world has fallen from beneath you. It is from this refuge, it is in his strength, it is with his ever present help that we are invited not to fear. For the end of the world is not the end of our God and so it will not be the end of us.
In verses 4 to 7 the scene shifts. It is no longer the end of the world. The waves do not roar. The mountains do not fall. The scene has changed to Jerusalem, the city of God. But now the nations roar and kingdoms fall. The city is surrounded by its enemies. They have camped around it. They plan to scale its walls and put the city to the sword. But they have miscalculated. The city is the dwelling place of God. Under the old covenant, God chose David as his king and he chose Jerusalem to contain his temple. The God of the universe does not live in buildings. But the temple is the dwelling place of his name. It is the concrete symbol of his promises. God is “within” it. The city will not fall. The nations roar, but not as they charge, but as they flee. The city does not fall. But the kingdoms who have besieged it fall.
Of course, this didn’t just happen in the psalm writer’s imagination. It actually happened during the time of King Hezekiah in 701 BC. The army of Assyria had besieged Jerusalem and threatened to destroy it. But a terrible plague killed tens of thousands of the Assyrian soldiers and the army was forced to withdraw. As the psalm writer says in verse 7 the experience taught the people of Israel,
The Lord Almighty is with us. The God of Jacob is our fortress.
It was not the walls that had protected the city. It was not its soldiers that had defended it. It was their God. He was the Lord Almighty. The God who has no equal. The God who commands and the angels obey. The God who whistles and the stars dance to his tune. The God who sits enthroned above the heavens, Lord of all he surveys. This almighty Lord is the God of Jacob. The God who blessed Jacob, who wrestled with Jacob, who confirmed the promise to give him the land of Israel and to give it to his descendants. This almighty God had chosen the people of Israel and had chosen their city Jerusalem o be the people and place from which he would bless the world.
And we know him as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God of the Church. He is with us. He is our fortress. Peter had said to Jesus,
You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
And Jesus said to him,
You are Peter, the rock, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
For we are the people and the place that God has chosen, that God has bought with the blood of his own Son, the people from whom he will bless the world. Churches may close. Churches may be turned into homes and museums and second hand book shops. The world may turn against us. But God’s Church will live on to witness to Christ and to draw the men and women and children of the future to his love.
Verses 8 to 11 call on us to see what God has done. To look upon the result of his actions. And what is the devastation that the Lord has brought on the earth? He has broken the bow. He has shattered the spear. He has set the shields on fire. He has destroyed the weapons of war and has brought peace to the world. “Be still,” says the Lord in Psalm 46. It is not a whisper, like a mother trying to shush a fussing baby. It is the loud shout of the Creator commanding the peoples of the world to stop their wars. To put an end to their fighting.
Be still and know that I am God.
It reminds us that our fighting and killing does not bring about the plan of God. We go to war because we are afraid and we only bring about the very thing that we are afraid of. But the purpose of God is to bring peace. I have seen it in my own lifetime. A Cold War child who lived with fear every day. And the end of the Cold War was engineered in the late 1980s with prayer meetings in Leipzig in what was then East Germany. Each Monday they met to pray for peace. They met for years until the churches of the city were full of people of all ages. And in May 1989 there were 70 000 people praying. And as they left they started marching in protest against communist rule. The next Monday there were 130 000. By October there were more. The police lined the streets and they were ready for anything. Ready for anything except candles and prayer. The East German president resigned and a week later the Berlin Wall came down.
Of course, the more things change the more they stay the same. One generation of greedy thugs is replaced by another. Again the soldiers arm their weapons and armies line up to fight. But it is not just a call to war. It is a call to prayer to the God of peace. The God who paid the price of peace with the cross of his own Son. Who calls upon all his enemies to lay down their weapons and to surrender to his love. Who calls them to fight not for territory or plunder or security but for justice and harmony and peace in all our relationships. Do not worry. Do not fret. Be still and know that the Lord is God. The Lord Almighty is with us. We do not need a faith strong enough to hold on to him. The God of Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus, is our fortress. We just need to trust the God who is strong enough to hold on to us, whatever happens.