Sunday, January 21, 2018

God our Refuge (a sermon on Psalm 62)

I wonder what you think about when you hear the word ‘refuge’?

A few years ago, Marci and I were up in Jasper and we decided to ride the tramway up Whistler’s Mountain. For those of you who haven’t been there, the tramway takes you about 80% of the way to the top. There are great views from the upper tramway station and if all you’re looking for is a good photo opportunity and a chance for a coffee in a restaurant near the top of a mountain, you’ll probably be happy with that!

But if you want to, you can also hike up from the station to the actual summit of the mountain; it takes me about an hour, although of course some people are faster than me. On this particular occasion the weather up there was a little iffy; the clouds kept coming down and then lifting again, and those clouds had snow in them. At one point the snow began to fly furiously and the wind was wickedly cold, and Marci and I decided to take shelter until the weather blew over. We found a nice big rock and hunkered down on the lee side of it, where we sat and munched on granola bars for a few minutes until the clouds lifted and the sun came out again!

‘Refuge’. That rock was a place of refuge for us. Move away from the rock, and we were subject to the battering of the wind and the cold. Move into the shelter of the rock, and we experienced protection. In the words of today’s psalm, it was ‘our mighty rock, our refuge’ (see Psalm 62:7b).

The theme of Psalm 62 is trust in God. And not just ‘trust in God’ in general – trust in God when the wind blows and the snow flies and life gets hard. Trust in God when you need shelter, when you need protection. In other words, this wasn’t just an academic exercise for the psalmist. When he wrote these words, he wasn’t just taking part in a poetry exercise. He was going through a battering of some kind, and he had discovered from his own personal experience that God was a place of refuge for him in times of trouble.

Before we go any further, let me remind you of a couple of things about the psalms.

First – and I say this because some of us here are very new to church and may not know this – the psalms that we read together each week as part of our service are very old. They were originally written in Hebrew and are included in what we call the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. We don’t know for sure who wrote them or when they were written, although some of them may go back to the time of King David, about a thousand years before Christ. Many of them are probably not be that old, but all of them come from well before the time of Christ. They were collected and used as the prayer book and hymn book of the Jewish people, and Jesus would have been very familiar with them – indeed, he probably had many of them memorized, just like some of you have favourite hymns and songs memorized. So when we pray the psalms together, we’re actually joining in the prayers of the Old Testament people and of Jesus himself.

Second, the psalms are different from the rest of the Bible. In the rest of the Bible what we often get is God speaking to his people - and through them, to us today. But the psalms don’t speak to us – they speak for us. First and foremost, they’re prayers, and very honest prayers too. So we don’t read them in the same way we would read a letter of Paul or a prophecy of Isaiah. The best way to use the psalms is to pray them - and as we pray them, we’ll learn to understand them better.

Third, the psalms are poetry. Poetry isn’t meant to be understood literally – it uses imagery and metaphor to draw us into its world of feeling and experience. When philosophy tries to describe God, it uses words like ‘omniscient’ (he knows everything), or ‘omnipresent’ (he’s present everywhere), or ‘almighty’ (he can do anything). But the psalms don’t tend to use philosophical language for God; they call God ‘my shepherd’, ‘my rock’, ‘my fortress’, ‘my refuge’. These aren’t literal statements - they’re powerful metaphors to help us enter into an experience of God.

So let’s look for a few minutes at Psalm 62. As I said the psalms were written in ancient Hebrew, and sometimes it’s a tricky language to translate into modern English. Archeologists have discovered quite a lot of ancient manuscripts, and sometimes there are differences between them. If you look at different English translations like the New Revised Standard Version or the New International Version, you’re going to see some differences. I’m going to base my thoughts today on the NRSV, which is a little different from the version we read a few minutes ago in our Book of Alternative Services.

As I said, the theme of this psalm is trusting in God in the time of trouble. The first thing I want you to notice is the structure of the psalm; it jumps back and forth from God, to people, to God, to people, and finally to God again. Turn to it in your pew Bible and look at it on the page. Notice that there are basically five sections. Verses 1-2 are about trusting God. Verses 3-4 are about the actions of the enemies. Verses 5-8 are about trusting God again. Verses 9-10 are about the attributes of humans. And finally, verses 11-12 return to the theme of trusting God. Neat, isn’t it?

So why does the psalmist write this prayer? Apparently, because he was being assailed in some way by people who were out to get him. Look at verses 3-4:
‘How long will you assail a person, will you batter your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence? Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse’.

I love that image of the wall: ‘How long will you assail a person, will you batter a victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?’ We can imagine a rickety old wall, in such poor shape that a little gust of wind could bring it down! And we get the point right away: the writer of the psalm is feeling fragile, because he’s being persecuted.

It doesn’t sound to me as if the persecution is imprisonment or torture or danger of death - at least, not yet. What seems to be happening is that people are spreading lies about him. To his face, they’re being nice to him: “Well, hello there, my friend! How are you doing these days! It’s so good to see you!” But he’s not deceived by these greetings, because he’s heard rumours about what they’re saying behind his back. ‘Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood’ (v.4) – or, as the B.A.S. version says, ‘lies are their chief delight’.

I’ve got a couple of things to say about this. First of all, this is a form of persecution most of us can identify with. Most of us here haven’t been imprisoned or tortured for our faith. Most of us haven’t had to flee our homes as refugees. But all of us, from time to time, have been the victims of gossip campaigns. We’ve all experienced those who greeted us warmly but whose greetings made our skin crawl, because we knew what they were saying about us behind our backs.

Second, let’s not minimize this form of persecution as if it wasn’t serious. Sometimes it can be devastating. A person’s reputation - and their entire life - can be destroyed by a false story. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a story; sometimes it can just be a question raised about their character or their history. It doesn’t matter - the damage is done. A lie once told can’t be recalled. Even if it’s later disproved, the victim will still be affected by it.

So what do we do about this situation? What does the psalmist recommend?

Negatively, we’re not to be surprised by it. People are not saints. People are complicated. We’re a bag of contradictions: joys and fears, loves and resentments, strengths and weaknesses. Good people do bad things sometimes; none of us is completely without our skeletons in the closet. The psalmist has a lovely poetic way of describing the human condition: look at verse 9:
‘Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath’.

I love the way the New Living Translation puts this verse:
‘Common people are as worthless as a puff of wind, and the powerful are not what they appear to be. If you weigh them on the scales, together they are lighter than a breath of air’.

So human beings might be able to give us a little help, the writer says, but in the end they’re strictly limited. Even the powerful, the rich, the movers and shakers, are ‘a delusion’. All their grandeur and their wealth and their fine clothes can’t change the fact that underneath, they’re just fallible human brings with the same weaknesses and frailties as the rest of us. They make mistakes, their projects fail, and one day – like everyone else – they die.

No, the psalmist tells us – trust in God. In the long run, God is the one who can be trusted.

Look at these poetic images the psalmist uses for God: ‘He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken’ (v.2) - ‘My mighty rock, my refuge is in God’ (v.7) - ‘God is a refuge for us’ (v.8) – ‘Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord’ (vv.11-12a). We get the message: when the wind is blowing on the top of the mountain, threatening to freeze your bones, God is the rock you can get behind for shelter. “Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee”.

How does that work? What do we actually do to take refuge in God? The psalmist offers us two insights that seem at first to be contradicting each other.

First, he seems to counsel silence. Verse 1 says ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation’. Verse 5 returns to the theme: ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him’. The idea seems to be ‘Wait for God to help you, and while you’re waiting, keep your mouth shut!’

But this can’t be what the verse means, because verse 8 goes on to counsel speaking! ‘Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us’. This makes sense to us; as someone once said, ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ How many of us have had the experience of carrying around a heavy load on our hearts, and then finally being able to tell someone about it. The load was lifted! The problem hadn’t gone away, but just the fact that we could pour out our hearts to someone else made us feel better! We weren’t alone any more!

How do we resolve this contradiction?

As I mentioned at the beginning, the psalms were written in ancient Hebrew, and it isn’t always easy to translate into English. Many words don’t have exact English equivalents. With some words, scholars aren’t completely sure what they mean. And sometimes archeologists have found many manuscript copies of a particular passage, and they aren’t exactly the same – a copyist has made an error and transmitted it to others.

So ‘waiting on God in silence’ might not be the best translation of what the author originally wrote in verses 1 and 7. One of the commentaries I read suggests this translation: ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God; from him is my salvation’. I love that! I get the picture of someone who has cultivated a close relationship with God: they’ve spent time with God in prayer, speaking and listening. They’ve learned from God’s commandments and God’s teachings and tried to shape their lives by what God says. And the result is this feeling of restfulness. Couples with good marriages know what this is about! It’s not that you don’t try to please each other; of course you do! But you’re not anxious about it; you’ve been together for a long time and you feel totally secure in each other’s love. That’s the way the psalmist is in his relationship with God. ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God; from him is my salvation’.

Our NRSV translates verse 7 in exactly the same way, but some other ancient versions put it slightly differently: ‘Truly, my soul, take rest in God’. In verse 1 his soul is at rest in God, but in verse 7 he’s encouraging himself to stay there. He’s just had this huge shock of discovering this awful gossip campaign that his friend has started against him; he feels like a leaning wall, a tottering fence, as if his life is shaken to the foundations. But then he stops, takes a deep breath, remembers his experience of the love of God, and says to himself, ‘Truly, my soul take rest in God’.

When we understand the verses in this way, verse 8 flows right along: ‘Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us’. This is part of resting in God: sharing with him what’s on our hearts. Sometimes that’s an experience of joy, sometimes it’s an experience of anguish. Whatever is on our hearts, we’re encouraged to ‘pour it out to God’.

I experienced this for myself in a powerful way a few years ago when my friend Joe Walker died. Some of you knew Joe; he was forty-seven when he died of cancer; he left behind a wife and four children under the age of twelve. He was a great priest, a great evangelist, a thoughtful and genuine Christian. And I was mightily annoyed at God when he died.

I found it difficult to pray. I couldn’t make all the usual affirmations about God’s goodness and love. They rang hollow for me. I would go for my morning walk around Blue Quill park, and the only thing I could do was yell at God. I told him that if he’d wanted a list of people to snuff out, I could have given him one, but Joe definitely wouldn’t have been on it. I asked him what sort of loving care it was for Joe’s kids to do this to them. It wasn’t rational; it was visceral. But it was honest; it was how I felt.

The funny thing was: it helped. When I came back from those walks, I felt better. More than better: I had the sense that God was with me much more than when I tried to mouth platitudes I couldn’t bring myself to believe. I was pouring out my heart to God, and God heard my prayer. I didn’t get answers, but I did get God.

So this is the experience the psalmist is inviting us into this morning. Have you experienced it?

We all go through blizzards of one kind or another. Relationships are tough and sometimes people let us down; sometimes they hurt us badly. The good news is: God can be a place of refuge for us. God can be a fortress, a mighty rock.

But it doesn’t happen instantly; it takes time to cultivate that sort of relationship with God. ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God…Truly, my soul, take rest in God’. This is a daily decision: to turn to God, to listen to God, to be quiet in God’s presence, to listen for God’s word, to trust in God. This is a lifetime’s journey, but it begins tonight, or tomorrow morning, when you make the decision to open your Bible and read, and to say your prayers.


And say your prayers honestly. ‘Pour out your heart before him’. There’s no point in trying to deceive God; he knows what’s in your heart! So be the real ‘you’ when you pray. Tell God the truth, warts and all. He can take it! Martin Luther apparently once said ‘It’s better to shake your fist at God than turn your back on God’. So let’s turn to God, pour out our hearts to him, and find rest in him, so that we can learn to say from our own experience, ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God; from him is my salvation’.

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