Psalm 91 Grappling with the Psalms


A sermon preached on September 26th, 2010 and based upon Psalm 91.

Yesterday I officiated at a funeral in the morning — BI’s mother Marcie, Al Booth’s sister, and a wedding – Tom and Jean’s in the afternoon.  Life is like that.   There was sorrow at the funeral and there was joy at the wedding, but there was also joy at the funeral and there were some tears at the wedding (mostly Kathyrn’s – she missed her afternoon nap.)

But life is like that.  Times of joy and times of sorrow can come right next to each other.  We travel between various states of mind, and to a large extent, which state we are in at a given moment is beyond our control.

The images and sentiments expressed in the 91st psalm are striking to say the least.  It starts out:

“You who live in the shelter of the Most High,

who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,*

will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;

my God, in whom I trust…’

It proceeds from there to list all kinds of potential threats on our lives that, the psalmist says, we need not fear because we live in God’s presence.

I suspect that your emotional response to these strong words varied greatly, depending upon where you are personally coming from this morning.  Perhaps the words struck you as reassuring, comforting, and in the hearing of them you were led into that place within your heart where you can indeed put your trust in God.

But maybe you had quite a different response.   Perhaps the words struck you as hollow, empty, particularly in the face of all the terrible stuff that routinely happens in this world:  who does this psalmist think he is to speak of a God who will protect us from all the bad stuff out there?   It might strike your ears as magical thinking.  What, you might want to ask,  of all the folks who turned to God for deliverance but nonetheless were taken down by the dangers listed in this psalm?

Or maybe the psalm strikes you as neither comforting nor absurd, but instead leads you to feel badly about yourself:

The psalm declares,

“You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.” 

But what if we ARE fearing these kinds of things, and can’t help ourselves?

What if our job and livelihood is threatened, or we are facing serious surgery, or are awaiting the results of a biopsy test that could bring bad news, or we’re waiting to hear from a loved one whom we have reason to believe is in serious danger?

What if we are undergoing such an assault, and we can’t help ourselves – we are terrified! and the words of this psalm strike our ears as an indictment?   What is wrong with me that I don’t seem to have any faith?

It is interesting that two verses from this psalm show up in a strange place in the Gospels, when Jesus went out into the wilderness before beginning his ministry.   The verses are quoted by the devil himself as part of his temptation of Jesus.  The devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem and dares him to jump off, reminding him that

He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

Jesus refuses the temptation, declaring a person shouldn’t put God to the test.  Clearly the devil is trying to mess with Jesus’ head, tempting Jesus to locate his faith inside himself rather than in God, but Jesus won’t go for it.

The question raised by this is:  Who do I trust in?  Is it in the feelings inside me that I associate with faith, or is my faith located beyond myself, in God, who is greater than my fleeting feelings?

In Hebrews Jesus is referred to as the pioneer and perfector of our faith.  When we look to what it means to live by faith our primary example is Jesus who was a real flesh and blood human being who dealt with the same sort of basic human stuff that you and I deal with.

Oftentimes, especially if we haven’t really read the Gospels, we picture Jesus as having existed in a permanent state of serenity and fearlessness.

But the truth is that Jesus got irritable, impatient, angry and afraid.

As a faithful Jew, Jesus would have been brought up on the 150 psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures.   He would have prayed them all, routinely.  In all likelihood he knew them all by heart, and turned to them to express the sentiments of his soul.  Someone has referred to the psalms as “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul”  because you can find pretty much any human emotion that either blesses or torments a human soul.  Jesus turned to the psalms for this very purpose, the best known instance being when he hung on the cross and cried out the first verse of the 22nd psalm, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?!” because at that precise moment, that’s precisely what he was feeling.

But life flows between funerals and weddings, and so the very next psalm, the beloved 23rd, a state of sublime serenity is once again expressed.

It is helpful to remind ourselves that the spiritual life is a journey that covers a whole lot of varied terrain: peaks and valley, deserts and lush gardens.  In this life we are constantly on the move, and cannot assume permanent residence anywhere.  “This too will pass,” is our unavoidable motto.  The good news regarding this is that the moments of deepest terror and greatest sadness, they too will pass.

Recognizing the inevitable harshness of the journey, we do well to be gentle with ourselves.  Our faith is not in ourselves but in God, and it is an important distinction, because our feelings will come and go, but God changeth not.

It is also important to remember that the state of mind described in Psalm 91 is a state of grace, and we’re not in charge of states of grace, God is.  They are blessings bestowed by God.

I have mentioned many times the time in my childhood when I almost drowned and then in the weeks and months afterwards, I was literally ravaged routinely by, in the words of the 91st psalm, “the terror of the night,” for it was alone at night in my bed when I would obsess over how close I had come to death, breaking into cold sweats.  And how one night, mysteriously, I called out to God in one such cold sweat, and suddenly the terror broke, and I ceased to obsess, and was able once more feel calm in my bed at night.

It is important to note that this experience wasn’t in my control.  All that I did was to cry out to God in my desperation, but that is no guarantee that in every other moment of terror a cry to God will bring peace.  It happened that night, and it was God’s doing, not mine.

And although from that moment on I ceased to worry much about the fact that I had nearly drowned, I did not from that point on take up residence in perpetual state of trust and serenity.  Hardly.

But the helpful part for me as I move along this journey is the knowledge that there is a state of grace where such serenity exists, and though I cannot manipulate the state, I do trust that in time, by and by, I will be led back to this place, imperfectly at times in this life, and, I believe in completeness in the life to come.

One of the wisest of psalms is the 42nd, which expresses a state of mind of deep sorrow and depression.

“When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food   day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’

At this point in the psalm, the psalmist returns to his memories to a time when he was in a state of grace, his heart full of thanksgiving and joy:

These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng,and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,  a multitude keeping festival.”  

With this memory to draw on, the psalmist seeks to reassure himself:

“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”

The psalms, taken in their entirety, encourage us to embrace our humanity; to accept the fact that in this journey our spiritual and emotional states will range widely over time.  It was so for Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith; it will be so for us as well.

But fear not, in the end we will be led home.

We are called to be gentle with ourselves, and to draw strength from spiritual sisters and brothers as well.  On any given Sunday morning, we who gather in this sanctuary will be all over the map in terms.  Some will feel the capacity to praise God, others may not.  And that’s okay.  Others will praise God for us until the clouds part and the sun once more shines for us.  And in the meantime, we can hold one another in a gentle embrace.