Phyllis Anderson—October 28, 2007
First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto, California
- Psalm 46
Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary is perched on a ridge of the Berkeley Hills with panoramic views overlooking the bay and the city. The President’s Residence is in the heart of the campus and we count it as a great privilege to live there. A few weeks ago, while I ate my breakfast, I studied maps on the front page of the Chronicle that show the San Pablo fault running right through our living room. We are right there too in that wide line that traces the places most at risk for wild fires. You share these dangers on your side of the bay with your own geological faults and vast stretches of dry hills and canyons ready to ignite.
The dangers remain theoretical until you see the devastation by fire this week in communities as lovely as ours in Southern California. Mansions reduced to ash. 781 square miles blackened. 1700 homes destroyed and one billion in damages in San Diego alone. Lives emptied out and turned upside down; everything lost; soot and ash and the acrid smell of smoke everywhere. Suddenly those lines from the 46th psalm—the Mighty Fortress psalm—come into sharp focus:
I shall not fear … though the earth be moved and though the mountains shake in the depths of the sea.
God speaks and the earth melts away.
…and we are afraid.
Our morning papers are also full of images of war—and violence on an unspeakable scale. Iraq is now a seemingly unredeemable mess, spiraling down into anarchy. Danger in Iran, danger in Pakistan, danger in Palestine/Israel, danger and death in Darfur.
…and we are afraid.
The nations rage, and the kingdoms shake.
Those images of rage and fear came home to us on September 11, 2001. A pastor friend of mine in New York says that this psalm, Psalm 46, was the text read at many, many 9-11 memorials in the weeks and months that followed. The psalmist understood this kind of fear. He was able to name the horror. And somehow his words also brought deep comfort.
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 shaken;
God shall help at the break of day.
We live in a time of fear. The media and the government seem intent on fueling and magnifying the very real dangers of this time of terror—terrors from nature and terrors of our own human making. Hype or no-hype, we are afraid—afraid of strangers, afraid of the rising temperature of the atmosphere, afraid of people around the world who resent our dominance, afraid of death, afraid of losing the ones we love, afraid of our own declining powers, afraid of foreclosures, afraid of the price of oil, afraid of drops in the stock market that rock our world.
The psalmist offers us a powerful word of hope in the midst of all that seems to be crumbling, He speaks to us as he spoke to Luther and to the people of his own time: “Our God is a Fortress, a Castle, a Bulwark. God is our Refuge, a very present help in trouble.” We can trust in God, even when the fires lick at the bushes around our homes.
This is not the kind of hope that protects you from anything bad ever happening. Indeed terrible things happen and they could happen to you. This is the kind of hope that sustains you through the very worst. There is a God, your God, who is stronger than all the forces that bring death and destruction, who is finally stronger even than our fears. And this God is present for you—a very present help in trouble. This God will finally triumph over all the forces of death and evil. This God will put an end to war and fires and earthquakes—in the end—in God’s own time.
Martin Luther was afraid too. He was afraid not so much about wild fires and weapons of mass destruction. His fears were more about spiritual warfare. The world for him was filled with hoards of devils all threatening to devour us. The forces of evil were very real and very dangerous. They could lure you away from God. They could enslave you. They could fool you into doing their evil bidding. They could trick you into thinking that you could appease God’s righteous anger with your puny sacrifices, your “so called” good deeds of fasting and repeating prayers and paying money. They could haunt you and taunt you and never let you rest. They could make you doubt God. They could make you hate God.
Even more troubling, Luther came to believe that the powers that bedeviled him had infiltrated the very church itself. It was to cleanse the church and set it free from these devils that Luther began his Reformation. In his struggle against the spiritual powers, he set himself against the church. Now his spirit was free, but his very life was in danger; and not only his life, but his family, his reputation, his livelihood, every shred of security, everything he had held sacred.
Luther found a bulwark, a fortress, a refuge from these devils. Luther found his ultimate safety in Christ. He put his trust in Christ alone, and finally was free from all the devils that enslaved him. He put his trust not in his own goodness, but in the promise of God’s mercy and forgiveness. He put his trust not in the church, but in God’s bottomless love for him that he came to know in Christ Jesus.
Then Luther could say with the psalmist:
Then Luther could sing with confidence: A Mighty Fortress is Our God.
God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.
We share this confidence. We can sing this song and pray this psalm as Luther did.
May this psalm and this song cut through the fears that bedevil your days.
May this psalm and this song give you courage to face the very real dangers of our time.
May this psalm and this song give you words to confess the deep, deep hope that is in you: The Lord of hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Be still then and know that I am God.