Evening service - Psalm 46

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 6th August 2006.

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There was once an optimistic farmer who couldn't wait to greet each new day with a resounding, "Good morning, Lord!" He lived near a woman whose morning greeting was more like, "Oh great, itís the morning, Lord!" And they were each a trial to the other. Where he saw opportunity, she saw problems. Where he was satisfied, she was discontented. One bright morning he exclaimed, "Look at the beautiful sky! Did you see that glorious sunrise?" "Yeah," she countered. "It'll probably get so hot the crops will scorch!" During an afternoon shower, he commented, "Isn't this wonderful? God is giving the corn a drink today!" "And if he doesn't stop before too long," came the sour reply, "we'll wish we'd taken out flood insurance on the crops!" Convinced that he could instil some awe and wonder in her hardened attitude, he bought a remarkable dog. Not just any old mutt, but the most expensive, highly-trained and gifted dog he could find. The animal was exquisite! It could perform remarkable and impossible feats which, the farmer thought, would surely amaze even his neighbour. So he invited her to watch his dog perform. "Fetch!" he commanded, as he tossed a stick out into a lake, where it bobbed up and down in the rippling water. The dog bounded after the stick, walked on the water, and retrieved it. "What do you think of that?" he asked, beaming. But to the manís astonishment the woman was unmoved and grumpy as ever. And cynical to a tee, she muttered: "Not much of a dog. Can't even swim, can he?"

            Well thereís no pleasing some people is there? But if I were to ask you whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, I wonder how you would respond? Some amongst us are wonderfully optimistic and they bounce around always seeing the good in everything. But I guess most of us are at the very least tempted towards pessimism, for the simple reason that there seem to be many things in our lives and the world at large with which we are forced to struggle. Certainly for each of us there will be issues we are having to deal with at the moment, some of which will be extremely painful. Family issues, job issues, health issues. For every person in this building there will be a number of things playing on our minds. If we broaden the scope, we find issues challenging us as Christians in the world. The church is being sidelined and alienated, and some of us may well be facing persecution at work or in the home. And in the wider world, we only find more pain and bitterness. If truth be told, there are days when we wake up and think that the world is caving in all around us, and we can barely cope. Indeed we feel like giving up!

            Well itís at times like these that I turn to one of my favourite passages in the Bible, Psalm 46. Because in this psalm we find the author wrestling with some very serious problems. It feels to him in verses 2-3 as if the whole world is blowing up around him. Itís possible that the author wrote the psalm in the days leading up to the attack on Jerusalem by the Assyrians in the 8th century. The superpower of the day was at Jerusalemís doorstep. They were facing certain destruction. No wonder heís worried! He describes it as the mountains falling into the heart of the sea, the waters roaring and foaming and the mountains quaking with their surging. Thatís how our writer feels. His world is collapsing around him and he feels at the end of his tether. Sounds very familiar doesnít it? But this man does not despair, not does he throw in the towel. He has a quiet unshakable confidence in God. Not that everything will be rosy. But that God is in control and will never leave him or forsake him. In short his confidence in the midst of a life turned upside down is not in himself, but in his God.

            And that is a message you and I need to hear again and again in the midst of good times and bad. That our confidence need not be shaken because of the God we trust in. For the Bible does not urge us to have blind optimism, nor cynical pessimism, but Biblical realism. So why then can we have confidence in the storms of life? Well three reasons:

1) Godís Past Record

2) Godís Present Help

3) Godís Future Victory

1) Godís Past Record

So the first reason for confidence during the ups and downs of life is because of Godís past record. In other words God has done certain things which show us that he has a very good track record of trustworthiness. Now the psalm begins in verse 1 by asserting that God is to be trusted: ďGod 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.Ē That, if you like, is the main point of the psalm. God is a refuge in the storms. Heís our strength when we are weak. And that gives the psalmist confidence. ďTherefore, he says, we will not fear.Ē Because of these truths about God, we need not be afraid, whatever happens to us and whatever this life throws at us. God is our refuge and strength. But the trouble is life is full of people who make wonderful claims, and whose claims fall flat on the ground. It might be something simple like that new BBQ cleaner which claims to get everything as clean as brand new. But of course when you try it out, itís nothing like as good. Some things of course are more serious like the pensions companies who promised you a great retirement, until they lost all your money. And most disturbing of all, the religious con men, who promise health, wealth and happiness, only to leave you sick, poor and broken. So is God like that? The over zealous advertiser, the slick pensions guru, the smooth talking religious con man?. No not at all. Because God backs up his claims with solid credentials. Look at his past record and itís very impressive.

            And itís in verse 8 of the psalm that weíre invited by the psalmist to consider Godís track record: ďCome and see the works of the LORD, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire.Ē So what sort of things does the psalmist have in mind that God has done. Well here we read of desolations that God has brought on the earth. Clearly he has acted in judgement. But he has also broken the bow and shattered the spear. He has burnt shields with fire. So in judgement he has also brought about peace. God has acted to bring his judgement on nations, but through it too to bring peace to people. And what was the most significant event in the history of Israel where there was both judgement and peace. Well it was the Exodus from Egypt. This was a national event that was rooted in the collective psyche. It was a huge event for Godís people. For they were slaves in Egypt, the super power of the day. Humanly speaking, escape looked impossible. The might of the Egyptian professional army against a rag tag bunch of slave labourers. But God brought it about. He brought his judgement on the land of Egypt through the ten plagues and rescued his people through his miraculous intervention. Whilst Egypt received judgement, Israel received peace and the blessing of freedom. And it wasnít just at the beginning of Israelís history. But time and again God intervened to rescue his people from their enemies. Thatís what the psalmist looks back to. The incredible acts of God on behalf of his people. It was a catalogue of awesome works of God. 

            And notice too in verse 6 how it is that God brings about his plans for the world: ďNations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.Ē If you think about it, it is awesome power isnít it? The nations are in uproar, fighting against each other, riotous and seemingly out of control. And what does God do. He just lifts his voice and the earth melts. Just one word, and the whole thing is subdued and brought to justice. I remember my old headmaster commanded an incredible authority in the school. Heíd sometimes walk through the school and occasionally come across a class which was in mayhem because the teacher had popped out for a second. And as soon as he entered that room and spoke one word, then there was instant obedience and quiet. And itís that power and infinitely more which we are reading of here.

            But itís one thing to skim through the OT and see Godís works. Quite another to look to the NT and see Godís works in all their techno-colour beauty and depth. For in Jesus, truly we see Godís works in all their fullness. Look at the works of Jesus in bringing healing and compassion on the lost. Look at how he subdued the storm and fed the five thousand. Look at how he gave new life to the dead and walked on water. Look at how he died on the cross in agony for our sins. Look at how he rose triumphantly from the dead and ascended into heaven. Come and see the works of the Lord. Look at his track record. Itís very impressive isnít it? Surely this is a God we can trust is it not? Have you ever known a promise to be broken? Ever known a repentant sinner to be turned away? Ever known a sin too big not to be forgiven? No, come and see the works of the Lord and bow in humility before the God who can be trusted. Surely in both trouble and joy this is the only God who can help us and renew our flagging confidence.

            Of course, the trouble is we human beings are so prone to trust ourselves, even those amongst us whoíve been Christians many years. I came across a clear example of this during this week. I was listening to Noel Edmonds plugging his new book which is called: ďPositively Happy: Cosmic Ways to Change Your LifeĒ. Three years ago, in the depths of great turmoil, Edmonds latched on to a book called Cosmic Ordering, which proposes a kind of positive thinking whereby you ask from the cosmos for what you want, and it provides it: You write what you want on a piece of paper, you set a date, and you wait for your wish to arrive. Now he has written his own self-help book, Positively Happy, and the ethos springs from this belief called Cosmic Ordering. But in explaining what the book is about, he revealed what is really going on: ďThe number one thing that I took out of that book [where I first discovered all this] was the difference between being self-focused and being selfish. Self-focus is vital, and I had been lumbered with this thing of wanting parental approval, public approval and media approval. If you stop worrying about that and focus on yourself, it releases a huge amount of energyÖ..My faith is basicÖYou get back what you put in. There has to be some explanation for this world, because it's all so mad. And believing is a more comfortable way to live your life. If I'm wrong, when it's all over, does it matter?Ē Well of course, according to the Bible, he is wrong and it does matter. And do you see his fundamental problem? Itís self focus. He calls it the solution. But actually itís his biggest problem and itís our biggest problem. Because if we were to look at our track records, they would be a catalogue of failure and disappointment. Instead, our psalmist makes it clear where our trust should be. He invites us to look at the works of the Lord. Come and see. And when we look, we find Godís track record is flawless. Heís the one to trust, not ourselves. And thatís the first reason for confidence when things are hard. Godís past record.

2) Godís Present Help

But we might well say, thatís great all those things God has done in the past. But my problem is happening now. Where is God now? Well that brings us on to the psalmistís second reason for great confidence in times of trouble. Godís present help. And littered throughout the psalm are wonderful assurances of Godís present help in trouble .So verse 1: ďGod is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear.Ē Again verses 7 and 11: ďThe LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.Ē You see the psalmist is convinced that God is not aloof. He is not a God who is distant and who stands apart from us, who looks down from us from the cosy rooms of heaven at our pain. No this is a God who is intimately involved in the lives of his people. He is with us.

            So how can the writer have such confidence? Well have a look at verse 4: ďThere is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.Ē The writer is confident because God is with his people in the city. God is within her, she will not fall. Now the Old Testament people of God could rejoice that Godís presence was said to be in the very heart of the city, the Temple. There in the Holy of Holies Godís glory rested. He was with his people. And as such he protected his people from attack. He watched over the city of Jerusalem. And that was what gave the people great confidence. So notice that in verse 4 the foaming waters of verse 3 have been changed to a river of blessing. That is what happens when God is with his people. ďThere is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.Ē Itís not so much a literal river as a symbol of the blessing of God being with his people. Fear has been turned to blessing because of Godís presence with his people.

            But if the Old Testament people of God could take great confidence from Godís presence with them, then we can in a far greater way. Because God has done something even more extraordinary than dwelling in the Temple. For there, no-one could approach God in all his holiness, except the High Priest once a year. But in Jesus Christ, God has taken on human flesh to become a man and live amongst us, quite literally. He is literally Immanuel which means God with us. And as God made man, Jesus experienced our world in our flesh and faced our pressures. As the writer to the Hebrews says: ďWe do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are- yet was without sin.Ē This Lord Jesus has lived our life, heís walked our walk, heís stepped into our shoes. Heís known rejection, heís known excruciating pain, heís known betrayal and bereavement. And he knows everything about us. But even more extraordinary than this is that by His Spirit, Jesus is with us now, and he is in the heart of every believer. What did he promise before he went to his Father in heaven? ďYes, I am with you always.Ē And he promised to send his Spirit to be with his people so that they would not be orphans. That is why God can say ďI will never leave you or forsake you.Ē And if you are a Christian here today then by his Spirit God is with you. He has placed his Spirit within you and will not leave you.

            And that is why the NT believer is in a much better situation than the OT believer. Our psalmist had great confidence in Godís presence with him, but how much more should we, when we have God not just in the Temple, but in our hearts. It means we can never be alone in any situation. We never have to go through anything ever again on our own. We never have to face any situation ever again, however awful, in our own strength. For God is our strength and refuge an ever present help in trouble.

            The early American Indians had a unique practice of training young braves. On the night of a boyís thirteenth birthday, after learning hunting, scouting, and fishing skills, he was put to one final test. He was placed in a dense forest to spend the entire night alone. Until then, he had never been away from the security of the family and the tribe. But on this night, he was blindfolded and taken several miles away. When he took off the blindfold, he was in the middle of a thick woods and he was terrified! Every time a twig snapped, he visualized a wild animal ready to pounce. After what seemed like an eternity, dawn broke and the first rays of sunlight entered the interior of the forest. Looking around, the boy saw flowers, trees, and the outline of the path. Then, to his utter astonishment, he saw the figure of a man standing just a few feet away, armed with a bow and arrow. It was his father. He had been there all night long.

            Now that young man was protected all along by his unseen Father. But whilst our Father too is unseen, yet we know he is there all the time strengthening us and watching over us. And for countless Christians down the ages, that has been a source of great strength and comfort. Some Christians have faced terrible pain and suffering and yet been sustained by the knowledge of the presence of God. Sheila Cassidy is one woman who has suffered a great deal. She was in Chile under General Pinochet in 1975 and as a doctor treated a patient on the run from Pinochetís regime. As a result Dr. Cassidy herself was tortured horrifically for several weeks and put in solitary confinement. But through it all, she later said that the thing that sustained her was ďan enormous sense of the presence of God.Ē Now thankfully few of us will have been through such horrific ordeals, but many of us have known some very dark days, times in which we have felt helpless and almost hopeless. But the thing that has sustained us has been the wonderful truth of this psalm. ďGod is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear.Ē No, we are not sheltered from the pains and troubles of life. But we do know that great truth that we are never alone. And for those struggling even today, then take comfort from this wonderful truth. That God is our refuge and strength. An ever present help in trouble.

3) Godís Future Victory

But thereís one final truth to see from this psalm and that is Godís future victory. Because we might well be tempted to ask whether there is an end in sight to our difficulties and suffering? Will Godís people ever see justice? Will they ever be vindicated? Well they will because of Godís future victory. And whilst itís only a hint, we do see that future hope in verse 10: ďBe still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.Ē Now very often this is a verse which is taken out of context. Itís often said to mean something like ďenjoy the stillness and quiet and retreat from the harassment of a troubled world and know that God is GodĒ, perhaps as a verse about prayer or the like. But actually, the context of the verse shows what the psalmist has in mind. Notice what he has just said before: ďCome and see the works of the LORD, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire.Ē As weíve already seen, these are verses which speak of Godís amazing power and authority. He has been acting in judgement. And itís in that context God says to us ďbe stillĒ. Itís not a verse that encourages us to be quiet in the stillness of the presence of the Lord. Itís a verse which tells us to keep our mouths shut because of the awesome judgement of God. There is nothing more to say. The right response is silence before this majestic holy God. Itís as if we are standing before the King and kings and words would be totally inappropriate. Itís the be still in the presence of awe inspiring holiness and power. I remember when Debbie and I visited Niagara Falls on the border of Canada and America, and when you go behind the falls itís impossible to speak. The power and force is immense. You are quite literally speechless. And here ďbe stillĒ is like that. In the light of such power and authority, be quiet. One writer goes so far as to say it means ďleave off!Ē Shut up and listen to me, says the Lord. Be still, and know that I am God.

            And then, says the Lord, ďI will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the earth.Ē Itís a clear affirmation from God that his plans will not be thwarted. Godís glory will be seen throughout the earth. He will be exalted as Lord of all the nations. Victory will be his. And nothing can scupper those plans. Not proud humans beings, not even a weak and half hearted people of God. No, he will be exalted amongst the nations. God will have the last laugh, so to speak. He will conquer. And to a people harassed and hard pressed such a clear affirmation is a great encouragement. There will be justice. Godís people will be vindicated. And Godís name will be honoured. Donít despair. 

            And that is why this psalm was one of the reformer Martin Lutherís favourites. So much so that he based one of his most popular hymns on its reassuring and challenging words. People debate exactly when he composed the hymn. But it was between 1527 and 1529. Either way, they were very turbulent years for Luther and his Reformation. During those years, Luther saw a close friend martyred and suffered serious bouts of depression, as well as being hounded and persecuted himself as he fought for the truth of the gospel. During these most stressful years, Luther was himself even tempted to doubt the fundamental truths of the faith he was contending for. But it was this psalm which gave him strength. Amid the great upheavals he was facing he could read: ďGod is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear.Ē In the face of great uncertainty he could be assured: ďBe still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the earth.Ē And with renewed confidence he would write: ďA mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.Ē

            And the question for us is this: Will we place our trust in this mighty God, this fortress that Martin Luther learnt to trust. For in good times and ill, there is only one who will stay by our side no matter what. And we can have confidence that he will never let us go. Why? Because of Godís past record. Because of Godís present help. And because of Godís future victory.

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