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I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to Psalm 46 and follow along as I read verses 1-11. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
8 Come, behold the works of the LORD; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
10 "Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth."
11 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Back in the year 2000, Bill Joy, co founder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, made the following prophetic statement: “I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals” [quoted in Critique, issue 6, 2000, 11].
The terrorist attacks of the last four years seem to fulfill Bill Joy’s presentiment about “terrible empowerment of extreme individuals.”
Last week Chechen terrorists with links to the Al Qaida movement of Osama Bin Laden seized a Russian school and murdered over three hundred people, many of them children. I vividly remember a photograph of a Russian rescue worker holding a bloody child. A couple of weeks ago, two Russian aircraft blew up in flight. Again, most people think that it was the work of terrorists.
All of this reminds us of September 11, 2001. As long as we live, we will not forget that day. We will remember what we were doing when we heard what happened. We will remember how we turned on the TV and saw that video of the plane crashing into the world trade center, and saw it over and over.
When the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Roosevelt characterized it as "a day that will live in infamy." September 11, 2001 is also “a day that will live in infamy.”
When we first became aware of what happened that day, we were sort of struck dumb. We could not believe what was happening before our very eyes. Then we were afraid. What was going to happen next? Would the attacks continue? Then we got angry. We wanted to strike back, even to use nuclear weapons. The comic strip character, Hagar the Horrible, gave this advice to his son: "Son, don’t let the sun go down on your wrath. Attack your enemy at once and waste him while what he did to you is still fresh in your mind." Jesus would certainly not approve of that advice, but that is the way a lot of us felt on 9/11/01.
Then we started to place blame. Where was the President? Where was the Airport Security?
And finally, the most important question: Where Was God? Where was God on 9-11-01? Was God distracted by something that happened in the Andromeda galaxy? Or, some suggested that God was judging America. Or, were the skeptics right after all, and God did not exist?
Perhaps you remember the old children’s prayer: "God is great, God is good. Let us thank Him, for our food." God is indeed Great. God is the powerful creator of the universe. And God is good. God is love, mercy, and grace. But 9/11 brings us to the question: how can evil happen in a world ruled by a great and good God?
The first thing we must do is to acknowledge the reality of evil? Richard Adam’s novel, Watership Down, published in 1972, tells of a colony of wild rabbits uprooted from their homes by a construction project. As they wander, they come across a new breed of rabbits huge and beautiful, with sleek, shiny hair and perfect claws and teeth. How do you live so well? The wild rabbits ask. Don’t you forage for food? The tame rabbits explain that food is provided for them, in the form of carrots and apples and corn and kale. Life is grand and wonderful. After a few days, however, the wild rabbits notice that one of the fattest and sleekest of the tame rabbits has disappeared. Oh, that happens occasionally, the tame rabbits explain. But we don’t let it interfere with our lives. There is too much good to enjoy. Eventually, the wild rabbits find that the land is studded with traps, and death ‘hangs like a mist’ over their heads. The tame rabbits, in exchange for their plush, comfortable lives, had willingly closed their eyes to the imminent danger of death.
Sometimes we are all like the tame rabbits of Watership Down. We blind ourselves to the reality of evil and suffering and death. It is easier to wear blinders and pretend that we are all good people living happily ever after.
Then something like 9/11 happens or something like the school massacre in Russia happens, or something like the murder of Amanda Cope happens over in Rock Hill. She was 12 years old and she was found beaten and raped and strangled, and her own father and another man stand accused of her murder.
And we ask, where is God? Where is God when it hurts? People of every generation have asked that question. In the gospel of Luke, chapter 13, we read:
1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
2 He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?
5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
In these verses, Jesus describes two types of disasters. Some Galileans had caused a disturbance in the temple in Jerusalem, where the sacrifices were offered. Perhaps they were chanting, “Down with the Romans.” Pilate slaughtered them. The second incident was a natural disaster. Eighteen people died when a tower fell on them.
And our question is: Where was God when Pilate slaughtered the Galileans? Where was God when the tower of Siloam fell on those people? God was there.
God is the sovereign of the universe. Psalm 135:5-6, “For I know that the LORD is great; our Lord is above all gods. Whatever the LORD pleases he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.” God is in control of what happens. While we may not like, or understand, what is taking place in our world, we trust in the fact that God is absolutely in control.
Notice that Jesus in dealing with these two disasters of Luke 13, does not even mention the possibility that God might not be in control of the world. That is not a question that even occurs to him because he is so permeated with the presence of God and the knowledge of God
Instead Jesus says, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. And he said, “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them —do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."
What then would Jesus say if we asked him about 9/11/01? He would say, Do you think New Yorkers are worse sinners than you in the South? Do you think the people in the Pentagon were worse sinners than you in South Carolina? That is the wrong question. Jesus would say to us: “I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."
When disaster occurs, it does not mean that the people who suffer are bad people, but it certainly does mean that we should wake up, and repent, and turn back to God.
The twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were symbols of American strength and stability, and suddenly the towers lay in ruins, and the Pentagon partially destroyed and thousands were dead by terrorist attack. The four homicidal jet crashes of September 11 changed our lives forever. Today, three years later, as we re-visit those events, we grieve again for those who died, for their families, and for those who suffered harm that day. In a way, we all suffered harm. We lost our innocence, we were attacked, and we will never feel completely safe again.
Perhaps there is a term we should learn today. It is: SCATANA. It’s a new term for me. SCATANA is a term for a special military operation, meaning Security Control of Air Traffic and Navigation Aids. In a time of national crisis, all civilian aircraft go to the ground, and all military aircraft go into the air, to provide for strong defense.
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration closed all the nation's airports, for the first time in history invoking SCATANA, Security Control of Air Traffic and Navigation Aids. As Christians, we may not have a role in the grounding of any aircraft, but in a time of crisis we are challenged to practice a kind of spiritual SCATANA: To go to the ground of our being, to turn to that sense of the holy that we find in our souls, to turn back to Almighty God.
"God is our refuge and strength," Psalm 46 reminds us, "a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea" ... though jets should crash ... though buildings should crumble ... though countless lives should be lost.
V5 reads, “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.” It may be that the city the psalmist was thinking about was Jerusalem, and the temple in the midst of Jerusalem where God was especially present, but certainly these words also apply to every city. God was in New York City on 9/11/01. God was in Washington D.C. that day. Although the nations are in an uproar and the kingdoms totter, God remains in control. "The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge."
911 causes us all to go to ground, to the solid ground that is our creating, redeeming, and sustaining Lord. And going to ground, we land on the firmest of foundations, the mighty fortress that is our God, the only place of strength and stability.
Is the world safer now than it was in 2001? Not noticeably. We reached this week that grim milestone of losing a thousand soldiers in Iraq. And I already mentioned the terrorist attacks in Russia. Click on CNN, and you will still find all the death and destruction your stomach can handle.
Not that this is anything new. “The nations are in an uproar,” observes Psalm 46, “the kingdoms totter” (v. 6). Since biblical times, and even before, there have been countless international struggles, civil wars and divisive plots hatched by terrorists of the time.
In Jesus time, Jewish terrorists were called Zealots. In the generation after Jesus, the Zealots seized power in Judea and led a revolution against the Romans. In the ensuing war, the Romans so completely destroyed Judea that it seemed almost as if the Jews and Judaism would be completely extinguished from the face of the earth forever.
This is our history. Ambitious leaders make selfish grabs for power, while good and noble people struggled to maintain order and preserve the peace. Truly, in dealing with human affairs, there is nothing new under the sun. The struggle between good and evil continues.
So here is the question we have been asking in a little different form: In such a troubled world, can we really believe that “The LORD of hosts is with us”? That is the most important question about God. We are impressed when we talk about God as creator of this awesome universe, but that does not move us to worship God. The only thing that can move us to worship God is the knowledge that God is with us now. If God is not with us, then we might as well all go home. If God is not with us, then God is no God at all.
But the psalm reassures us, God is our “refuge” God is our fortress. This past summer, I went to Mesa Verde in Colorado and saw the Anasazi cliff dwellings. When they were built 800 years ago, they comprised a well-nigh impregnable fortress. The dwellings were far enough back under the cliff that you could not through stones down on them from the top, and they were high enough up so that you could not assault them from the bottom of the cliff. Moreover, there were springs coming out of the rock, so they had a source of water. In A.D. 1200, facing only stone weapons in the American Southwest, those Indians must have thought they were safe.
But Psalm 46 tells us that God is our safety. God is a mighty fortress for us, able to remove our fear when scary things are happening. God is all around us, like the walls of a fortress: tall, strong, and unbreakable. All we have to do is be still, and know that God is God.
Scholars note what they call the “divine warrior imagery” of this psalm. God is the “LORD of hosts,” or “Commander of the heavenly armies.” He is the breaker of bows, the shatterer of spears, the burner of shields.
If the earth implodes, God is God (v. 2), if the Himalayas are tossed into the depths of the ocean, God is God (v. 2); No matter how many hurricanes may come across the Atlantic, God is God.
In short, God is in control. Chechen separatists and Islamic terrorists may make a grab for ultimate power, but they are doomed to fail. No individuals or movements or nations can overwhelm the agenda of the one true God.
And the power of the one true God is directed “for us,” for our good and for our benefit. The original Hebrew of verse 1 actually reads, “God is for us a refuge and strength.” God is for us. Now this does not mean that God is “for us” and not for anyone else. This does not mean that God is only for Americans. God is for Russians as well as Americans. God is for all his people everywhere. In our darkest hour, God comes to us in power and strength. God is on our side. God is with us. It is God’s nature to be for us a rock of Gibraltar, a fortress of protection. This is who God is; this is what God does. The identity of God is that God is for us.
Notice that the psalmist does not refer to God as the God of Abraham, but the God of Jacob. Of all the patriarchs, Jacob is the scoundrel, fast-talker, wheeler-dealer, snake-oil salesman. But Jacob is also the “go-to” guy who gets the job done, the fellow who does not buy into sentimental claptrap. If God is a refuge and fortress, Jacob is the one to put that to the test. Jacob wrestled with the Angel of the Lord, and spent the rest of his life looking for a hip replacement. Jacob knows that God is who is says he is. God is mountain-mover, earth-shaker, fortress, refuge and strength.
Back to our question: In such a troubled world, can we really believe that “The LORD of hosts” is “a very present help in trouble”?
Yes, we can, the Psalmist reassures us. The Psalmist says, Shut up and listen. Listen to your soul, listen to the depths of your being. Go to ground, and you will know that God is the God who is with us now and forever. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 12/06.04