Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
The one and only earthquake I’ve experienced in Seattle took place on February 28, 2001. I was alone over at the Wallingford Presbyterian Church building at the time, a lovely old 1915 brick structure. I remember wondering briefly, as I tried to figure out whether I was supposed to stand in a doorway or crawl under my desk (over which two large, heavy light fixtures were swinging precariously back and forth), how long it would take to dig me out of what would undoubtedly become a huge pile of lovely old bricks! Both the building and I came away unscathed, in the end. But it couldn’t have been much more than an hour later that I was in the Ravenna Boulevard Presbyterian Church, ready to help lead our joint Ash Wednesday service that day. And what should be our opening Scripture for the service but Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea…” We’ve talked on prior occasions about songs evoking memories for us; I imagine this song (this psalm) will forever remind me of that day.
Perhaps the best-known musical setting of Psalm 46 is Martin Luther’s classic, “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” which we sang this morning as our opening hymn. Where my main takeaway from Psalm 46 is a sense of solidness and stability in God – I guess I see words like refuge and fortress and think of immovable invincibility – Luther seems to lean more on the active verbs in the middle section of the psalm. In those middle verses God is busily destroying weapons of war: breaking bows and shattering spears, and burning shields with fire. Luther’s fortress-God in his hymn also works actively to defeat his enemies. The song describes a cosmic battle, in which our enemy (“our ancient foe”) is after us, “armed with cruel hate,” and without some divine intervention, “our striving would be losing.” But in comes Christ Jesus to the rescue, “and he must win the battle.” The battle imagery continues in the hymn beyond the verses we sang this morning, all of them conveying great confidence in the God who will win the fight in the end:
And though this world with devils filled
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! His doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
If you’ll pardon my irreverence, Luther’s hymn plays out a little like an old-school Batman episode, with Jesus Christ in the role of superhero, and the devil and other dark forces of our world as the villains. Just when the villains seem to be gaining the upper hand, in swoops Christ and starts smacking them around. Bam! Pow! Take that, demons! And – praise God! – victory is assured, and goodness and order is restored to the world. I’ll never forget hearing the Wheaton College Men’s Glee Club sing this hymn on a visit to my grandparents’ church when I was in high school. They might as well have been wearing superhero capes; certainly the incredible volume and strength with which they sang contributed to the sense of a majestic fight underway.
But here’s another fascinating fact about Psalm 46. It is also the psalm on which our next hymn is based: “Be Still and Know That I Am God.” A far cry from “A Mighty Fortress,” it’s a very gentle tune, and a call for quiet reflection. No active verbs here. In fact, a call to inaction: “Be still.” (Psalm 46:10) Accompanied by the simple assurance that God is exalted among the nations of the earth. This verse reminds me of a similar verse from Isaiah, which happens to have been one of my grandmother’s favorites: “in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15) Within its context in the book of Isaiah, the point of that verse is essentially “take a deep breath and don’t panic. I know your enemies are threatening, but God’s got it under control. Don’t flee to the mountains. Just be still.” “In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.” Now that we know what else is in Psalm 46, it’s clear that a similar dynamic is at work here as well. “Be still and know that I am God,” after all, doesn’t appear in a gentle psalm of trust. The psalmist doesn’t say these words, for instance, while lying down in green pastures, or being led beside still waters, as in Psalm 23. No, the “be still” command comes right smack in the middle of mountains shaking in the heart of the sea (Psalm 46:2), the nations in an uproar (Psalm 46:6), and God meanwhile charging around destroying weapons of his enemies (Psalm 46:9), and speaking with a voice that melts the earth! (Psalm 46:6)
But remember the way Psalm 46 began: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Not that we cannot find comfort in these words on gentle, peaceful days too. But the context of the psalmist’s encouragement to “be still and know” that God is God comes to us, originally, in the context of all hell breaking loose. Precisely when it’s most difficult to trust that God’s in control, that’s when we’re reminded to do so.
I love that a single psalm can speak to so many different situations we might face in our lives. When we’re feeling shaky, whether physically or metaphorically, we are invited to remember that “God is our refuge and strength,” and that “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved.” When we feel under attack, whether from human enemies or from supernatural forces of darkness arrayed against us, we’re invited to remember that God’s got our back: “Take that!” says our heavenly defender, our Mighty Fortress, engaging the enemy in cosmic battle. And when we are tempted to flee, or even to scurry around in a panic unsure which direction to turn, we’re invited simply to “be still,” and rest in the assurance that God is God, “exalted among the nations, exalted in the earth.”
So many different ways might we as individuals receive this single psalm today, that I want to allow you two more chances to read it through before we conclude this morning. First in complete silence, which I hope will provide one opportunity to “be still” for a moment, and rest in God’s presence. And then we’ll read it together as a congregation. You’ll see on your bulletin insert that I’ve written out the entire psalm for two parts, intended for the left hand side and right hand side of the room respectively. If you’ll pull that bulletin insert out, we’ll take a couple of minutes first to read the entire psalm to ourselves in silence, and then I’ll invite you to read it aloud with me, alternating sides, with the right side taking the lines in italics, and the left side taking the words in bold print.
First, let us be still and read silently…
Pastor: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Right: Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
Left: though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Right: There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
Left: God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
Right: The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
Left: He utters his voice; the earth melts.
Right: The Lord of hosts is with us;
Left: The God of Jacob is our refuge.
Right: Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
Left: He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
Right: “Be still, and know that I am God!
Left: I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
ALL: the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.