Sermon for The Point Church / 22 May 2022 / Psalm 91
How do you feel about the psalms? Are you excited about this series or feeling a little like: ugh the Psalms…? I think they are a bit like marmite – you either love them or hate them! I am a lover of them – and of marmite!
Ever since I became a Christian I have loved pouring through them, praying them, reflecting on them. They are such a rich resource for so many things but especially I think for personal or pastoral prayer.
I’ve been taking my guys at St Edward’s through them in our Tuesday services and we’ve seen how they carry such variation in tone, language, faith levels, experiences.
So I’m just going to give us a brief intro to the psalms:
Walter Bruggeman, theologian, said that:
The psalms are profoundly subversive of the dominant culture – which wants to deny and cover over the darkness we are called to enterWalter Bruggeman
And Jose Miranda, Jesuit priest and theologian said:
It can surely be said that the Psalter presents a struggle of the just against the unjust.
As in, the justice of God against the injustice of this world.
So they are a rich resource, not to be ignored. This is a great series I hope God will really be speaking to you all through the teaching and the words of the Psalms.
The Psalms are often said to be written by King David but actually whilst some are attributed to him, others are attributed to others, for example the Sons of Korah. If you look through the psalms you might see at the top where they are named as such.
The Psalms can be itemised or sorted in different ways – poetry, theme, pairs,
Bruggeman who I mentioned uses the idea of Psalms of:
orientation, disorientation and new orientation.
So psalms of Orientation are focussed towards God, with themes of creation and wisdom for example. Those of disorientation are often focussed on lament, or problems, things which are being faced by the author. And then psalms of new orientation – usually offer thanks giving after something – a refocussing on God if you like.
Or we might put it like this –
They can be split into Psalms that we might find helpful in:
- a place of orientation, in which everything makes sense in our lives;
- a place of disorientation, in which we feel we have sunk into the pit; and
- a place of new orientation, in which we realize that God has lifted us out of the pit and we are in a new place full of gratitude and awareness about our lives and our God.
That make sense? Is that a helpful picture? Because this is the division I am going to use.
Today we are looking at Psalm 91 – And I’m going to give us a bit of an overview and then take us deeper into a few verses. This is a psalm of new orientation. There is a focus on not going back but on recognising things that have happened (not ignoring or denying them) but moving forward. And let’s remember that the Psalms are written at key times, as John noted last week, with Ps 84 a Psalm sung on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for a Holy festival. So here we might think about Israel – God’s people – singing a song of new orientation to a God they know is one who hears and who answers. They have expressed disorientation at other times, but are perhaps now in a season of resolution. Where transformation has happened where perhaps none seemed possible. But has been made possible through God, who is a God of transformation and new life.
So I wonder if we might ask ourselves – where are we today? what season of life would we identify with most? We may still feel in a time of disorientation, so many things have been thrown up in the air over the last 2 years, perhaps we still feel a bit at sea or unsure of what is certain or stable any more? Or perhaps actually lockdowns and the pandemic have helped focus us, orientate us towards God and we’re feeling good about life and our place in it?
For me personally and I think for many of us, this is definitely a season of new orientation after disorientation. Perhaps we’re just getting back to a sense of normality? Perhaps we have made new choices and changes in our lives and now we are trying to refocus ourselves on God, reorientating ourselves towards God in a new way?
For me and for us at St Edward’s it certainty feels the case – such a long season of disorientation, and actually it would have been hard to start that new orientation until now, but now we have a focus and we look forward. And to give you a quick update we have begun our vision process and are excited about where we might go. There are some moves happening already – our community café is opening again in a few weeks, a plan is developing for children’s work which is very exciting, and conversations are happening about what a 2nd service might look like.
I talked when I was here before about praying about whether God might be calling you to join us in this venture, but I know it might be hard to do that when you don’t know what the vision is – so I guess I’d just say keep praying, keep listening, keep open to God. and if you’d like to know more come visit us or have a chat to me later.
For all of us our experiences will be different and expressions of new orientation will be vast and varied. In the Psalms and perhaps for us, the most obvious expression of new orientation is thanksgiving. Being thankful to God for being brought through a season of disorientation into a more stable place. Recognising the role of God within that and honouring God.
Psalm 91 does this by expressing thanksgiving with a confidence in God.
V2 says: I WILL say of the Lord, GOD IS my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.
Expressions of confidence: Surely God WILL save you, God WILL cover you, You will NOT, I WILL be with him…
It’s so definite. So confident. A declaration.
Perhaps it was written some time after whatever had gone before, sometime after a season of lament. Perhaps it expresses a sense of a relationship with God that has been tested and proved and shown to be reliable and trustworthy, so therefore God can be celebrated abundantly and with great confidence.
You know this is one of my favourite psalms. A few years back, some of you will remember I needed surgery on my spine, and had a lengthy recovery period afterwards. When I went into surgery I wrote Psalm 91 on my hand. It was for me a prayer of confident declaration – you ARE my refuge, God you ARE my place of safety. Let me rest in your arms – or as it says here, under your wings. And I have come back to this Psalm many times over the years, at times when I needed a reminder of that confidence, to remember who God has been in my life.
I think we might find that helpful both when we feel able to declare who God is, in confidence, but perhaps also when we’re not quite there, perhaps when we are just coming out of disorientation – perhaps then we need a declaration like this more than ever.
So let’s look a bit closer at some of these verses.
Starting with verses 1-2:
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty
What an opening line!
Dwelling in God’s shelter, resting in God’s Shadow – it’s powerful imagery. Whoever is in God’s shelter, then you are in God’s shadow. Just think about what that means, if you are standing in someone’s shadow – literally not metaphorically! – you have to be close to them don’t you. The Psalmist is saying God is that close. If God is your place to seek refuge, you are so close you could just reach out and touch God.
So the first thing the Psalmist says in this psalm, is: God is close.
And he goes on with: God is all around you – a refuge and a fortress – God is a strong place, a safe place, a place to hide if you need. God is someone you can trust.
Just these opening lines tell us:
God is close. God is all around. God is trustworthy and safe
All of which points also to, and he goes on with this theme –
God is a protector –
Now, if this Psalm was written by David he knew only too well the need for the right shelter at key times. He was a shepherd boy before becoming king – in fact when Samuel was led to find this new king and to anoint him, David wasn’t even there, he was out tending the sheep, Samuel went through all the sons and said is there anyone else? And David had to be called back in from the field.
So, David knew the vital importance of shelter physically as well as spiritually. He knew the need for shelter from the relentless heat in summer, or from the cold at night in winter, or at night out in the fields from predators.
This psalm almost sounds like a personal testimony, he’s using metaphors that were personal but also that he knew others would understand too.
Surely God will save you from the fowlers snare – v3 – a trap used by those catching birds.
Perhaps he was thinking of a time he found shelter when it was really needed? When God provided?
And this theme of declaring confidently God as protector runs on in different ways in the next few verses, for example:
My favourite verses are those in v 4:
God will cover you with God’s feathers, and under God’s wings you will find refuge;
The Psalmist gives us a picture of the mothering side of God – God as a mother hen, you know how you see them with wings out and little chicks underneath sheltering, kept safe by a nurturing parent. And it again echoes v1 – if you are under God’s wing you’re in the shadow, you’re kept so close.
Perhaps you might find that a helpful picture today, of a place to rest in God’s presence.
And the writer goes on: naming fears and situations those who heard this may have faced – the fears of the night – perhaps very real fears – out in the field, dangerous animals, bandits, alone and isolated. The fear of sickness – pestilence and plague – that comes at any time and in any place – and we know that the fear of illness would have been so much greater than now – with lack of modern day medicine, sickness could so easily lead to death.Or the fear of war – those fighting or being attacked –
A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand,
These are the fears, the worries that the writer and his contemporaries faced regularly, perhaps have faced in recent times and come through them. But he can declare in truth what he has experienced – God is a refuge, no harm will come to you, no disaster will come near, God will be with you.
Then we read v 11:
For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
May sound familiar? If we look ahead to Matthew 4:5-7. We see the temptation of Jesus. What does Satan say to Jesus in the 2nd temptation:
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
The devil takes God’s word and seeks to apply it where it is not intended and Jesus calls him out on it – these are not words to test God but to declare. It’s not an insurance policy. It’s a confident description of God from one who has known God’s goodness and faithfulness.
But still, we might read some of this and find it hard. We might think well plague has come near and quite recently – perhaps we know people who have been ill or even died from Covid, we might be thinking well God didn’t protect me then. Or: I am facing disaster actually, thank you very much God. And we need to remember this is a psalm written after the event. The Psalmist has faced some of this stuff and that’s why he’s praising God – for bringing him through it all. If it was David we know he went to war, we know he will have faced dangers in the fields, we know he lost a child, so let’s remember that there are other psalms, of lament where he was less confident!
We must not feel inadequate or lacking in faith if we can’t declare this for ourselves in confidence. And in fact even here amidst all this confidence / bravado and declaration, we see in v 15, tucked away: God’s words:
I will be with him in trouble.
In trouble. Even though he’s just spent 14 verses saying how wonderful God is, there’s still a little caveat – God saying, I will be with you when you do face the darkness. Because we are not necessarily saved from things. Saved from the plague or the war or the darkness, but perhaps we are saved in it. Usually when we are in a season of darkness it is hard to be confident about our faith, we might be hanging on by our fingernails.
But afterwards, often it is afterwards we can declare as the psalmist does how faithful God is. And we may not be able to say God protected us by keeping us away from a situation but can we say that our faith was protected, our relationship with God was protected? Can we say that we found a refuge in God, sheltering under God’s wing, hiding in the shadow, unable to pray or perhaps to move, but safe?
Paul says in Romans 8 that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ – is he paraphrasing some of the psalms ? God will be with us in all things.
When I was here back in Feb I touched upon the fact that we had had a difficult year, and I can say confidently that God was my refuge in that time, that God protected us from so much, that as I called upon God, God answered. Could I have said that in that time – I’m not sure, I knew God was with me but could I have confidently and boldly declared as the Psalmist does here that all that was true? Probably not.
It is interesting that this psalm, starts out as a prayer of the author, but at the end we hear God speak: (vs 14-16)
“Because he [probs referring to the author] loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honour him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”
It’s almost as if the psalmist is sharing what God has said to him. Perhaps when he has prayed in the pit, in the darkness, as we can read in other psalms, perhaps in those moments of despair he has heard God saying: I know you love me, I know you are crying out to me, I will always listen when you call to me, I will always be with you.
And that is truth. That even when we don’t feel it, even when are asking those questions, God is with us. God is a place of refuge if we seek it.
So I want to encourage you to get into the psalms because wherever you are at you will find something in there that hits a chord for where you are at.
But for now I want us to take some time to pray.
I want us to ask ourselves what season we are in?
Are we in a great place, able to declare confidently who God is? To celebrate and worship in abandon?
Are we in a place of new orientation? Looking ahead, wanting to face back towards God and recommit today?
Or are we in a place of disorientation? Life has changed, things are uncertain? Maybe we desperately need a place of refuge, we need to know we are under God’s wing, being kept safe?