Christ the King Sunday on the church’s calendar has its genesis through the decree of Pope Pius XI in 1925 who called for a special service in order "to celebrate the kingship of Christ as a way of combating the destructive forces of this age."1 Without a doubt much has happened on the geo-political stage since 1925 that could use combating. If you didn’t know any better, you might say the world, much of the time, is a big, hopeless mess. But, as our text claims, in fact, we do know better2 …
Listen for God’s Word from Psalm 46:
1God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
4There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
8Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10"Be still and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth."
11The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
The Word of God for the People of God.
It was a week just like so many others recently – full of bad news. The paper on Friday and Saturday was a smattering of the same: cleanup from the destruction in the Philippines; Senate Democrats changing the filibuster rule in hopes of making our dysfunctional congress work somewhat better. Instability throughout much of the Middle East, relentless violence in Syria. Controversy with our police department; NC Central’s campus Thursday. And top it all off with 50 years before, a moment many of you remember, when our president was driving throughout downtown Dallas, just past the school book depository, and shots rang out.
Our psalmist speaks right into this bad news, from the heart of the city: God is our refuge and strength. The psalmist DARES to claim that GOD, not us, not our power or wisdom or might -GOD is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, because of this truth, we will NOT FEAR. Though the earth should change, though typhoons or tornadoes or hurricanes come, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea. While the theological point is about God’s greater sovereignty, this first section places emphasis on the natural world. The world is big and scary and powerful, the psalmist says. But not as powerful as God. This ends the first of three stanzas, with that little word you see in your pew bibles, selah, a word we don’t quite understand. It is not a part of the text, either a place for a musical interlude, or liturgical instruction, something like, ‘stop and listen.’
The second section, verses 4-6, paint a picture of that refuge. Early on the focus is on water. Whereas water can be about disorder and chaos (roaring and foaming in v. 3), – echoing waters roiling at creation – it is also the source of life. Now the waters are confident, calm, making clear that God is in the heart of the city; it will not be moved. God will help when the morning comes. We then step back out, for more vivid description. There is also some fun Hebrew wordplay. In verse 3, the root for roar (the waters roar), is the same as in verse 6, uproar (the nations are in an uproar). The same parallel happens with tremble in verse 3, and totter in verse 6 (the kingdoms totter). Whether the threats are cosmic or, here in verse 6, political, the theological truth of God’s strength remains: God utters God’s voice, the earth melts.3 The refrain again in verse 7: "The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge."
The final stanza underlines God’s sovereign power, but is more invitational. Come, the psalmist says, come and behold, see, the works of the Lord. See what desolations he has brought. That word initially strikes me as harsh, as a little too, "God will wipe you and out smite you," for my taste. But, the ‘horror’ God brings is in fact an end to war, ceasing to the ends of the earth, breaking the bow, shattering the spear, burning the shields with fire. As the piles of the implements of war smolder, as the ashes glow, God speaks: Be still, and know that I am God! This is a phrase we’ll often say with a whisper, encouraging quiet contemplation. And in our harried lives we should make claiming space for God a priority. But John Calvin writes that this statement comes less as an invitation to sit in silence and more as a warning to those who would create chaos out of God’s established order.4 As one scholar writes, "This phrase is more like the sound of a parent sharply correcting his or her fidgeting child: ‘Be still!’ It is a stillness of snapping to attention, of hyper-attentiveness, of dropping whatever is in your hands or distracting you, and attending carefully to God’s word."5 I AM exalted among the nations, God says. I am exalted in the earth! And our refrain returns to close, the exact language as verse 7: The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob our refuge.
It is hard to think of this text without thinking of the way Martin Luther crafted it in the wonderful hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." It is one of my favorites, especially as Monica cranks up the organ – it is great to be up front here where I can belt it out and not worry about anyone hearing my pitiful voice. We sing it with power, as we have at both Anne Young and Tommy Stokes’ funerals recently. It hasn’t been called the Battle Hymn of the Reformation for nothing. But it changes things to learn, however, that when Luther wrote this hymn he first sang it accompanied by a solitary lute.6 As a young student, Luther earned money to pay his school fees by singing and strumming in the streets of Eisenach.7 So the hymn began not the massive organ, as much as I love it, but a simple stringed instrument, small, rounded in the back, kind of like a guitar.
That got me thinking about the nature of our hope, especially on the verge of the holidays. I don’t know about you, but the times in my life I have really needed hope, have been exhausted and afraid things were falling apart, I wasn’t looking for a battle hymn. I didn’t have the energy to stand up and wave a banner. It is those nights, and we’ve all had them in some way, when we didn’t know what other shoe could drop – the job or the marriage or the bills, if the drinking would stop; the problem the kids were having that felt overwhelming. Too much of too much in these frantic days. Maybe you sat beside a hospital bed or walked the halls with a sick child, night after night. And I began to really like the way that might sound with a lute. Simple. Tentative, yet clear. Kind of like the hope born of a little baby – a God come to earth not in marching armies but in cries in the hay, born in a stable and in our hearts again in a few short weeks. I wondered how that might feel. So, here in a moment, we’ll sing this amazing hymn. But Monica won’t crank up the organ. Jack Mountain is going to come up here and play his guitar, and we’ll sing a bit slower, to this simple tune, as Luther initially sang it. See what it feels like. See what hope it might offer you in the middle of the night.
That doesn’t mean the psalmist isn’t clear. God IS our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. We are not to be insulated from pain – we know that all too well. But through it we are given strength and courage enough to lean into grace, so that we might be held. Perhaps the psalmist is in fact afraid, and rightfully so, as kingdoms totter and angry waters rise, as cancer comes. Perhaps then the song is also a midnight prayer alone at a kitchen table in a time of trouble, the kind that lays open the heart’s fragile hope and stills the mind, the kind best sung with a single lute.8 Be STILL and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations, the psalmist writes. I am exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts IS with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. From the Rev. Elizabeth Goodrich’s paper on this text at the 2012 gathering of The Well, in Austin.
2. The rest of this intro comes from the Rev. Pen Peery’s
paper on this text at The Well, 2013, Baltimore.
3. This great language work also comes from Pen’s paper.
4. From Pen’s paper, but also from Calvin’s Commentaries: The Psalms, Volume 2, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 196.
5. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, Homiletical Pespective, by Susan K. Olson, p 325.
6 First noted in Pen’s paper, from Feasting on the Word, Theological Perspective, by Laurel Schneider, p 324.
7. "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," Christianity.com
8. Much of this paragraph comes from Feasting, Schneider, 324.