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Jacob and the Jedi
by Tony Grant
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to Psalm 46 and follow along as I read the Psalm.
Before I read this morning, I would like to begin with a few explanatory notes. Psalm 46 has the ascription: "To the chief Musician for the sons of Korah, A Song upon Alamoth." The book of Chronicles tells us that two major groups coordinated the singing and the liturgy in the templeKohathites and Korahites. Both groups trace their lineage to Levi, son of Jacob, ancestor of all the Levitical priests. The first Korah was a cousin to Moses and Aaron (EX6:21). According to I Chronicles 6:31, Heman was a descendent of Korah who served as a singer in the temple. Heman is the author of Psalm 88. Almost a dozen psalms are attributed to the "sons of Korah." So the Korahites, had some part in the worship service in the temple.
The phrase, "A song upon Alamoth" may be the name of the tune to which the psalm is to be sung. Of course, we no longer have any idea as to what that tune may have been. In the body of the psalm, we find the term "selah." Most people think that the term is some sort of musical notation. It may have indicated a instrumental interlude. With that preliminary then, let us read the text of the psalm.
1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
3 Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.
4 There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.
5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.
6 The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.
7 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
8 Come, behold the works of the LORD, what desolations he hath made in the earth.
9 He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.
10 Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be 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.
It happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. The year was 1977, and, in so many ways, we were all living on a different planet. The Soviet Union was Americas biggest threat. Disco ruled. Students wrote papers on typewriters. No one was surfing the Internet. Cell phones were not chirping in church services. That summer, twenty-five years ago, the first Star Wars movie appeared, and in it an impetuous young hero named Luke Skywalker was told that Obi-Wan Kenobi had fought with Skywalkers father in "the Clone Wars." At the time, no one thought much about it. People were too stunned by the films brand-spanking-new special effects to notice any mention of "the Clone Wars." But now, the war has started.
Two weeks ago, the fifth film of the popular Star Wars series debuted: Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones. This is the sequel to 1999s Episode I - The Phantom Menace, and a prequel to the first 1977 Star Wars, which has been renamed A New Hope. I know that sounds confusing. It is confusing even to Star Wars fans. Attack of the Clones picks up ten years after the action in The Phantom Menace. The galaxy is in turmoil. Thousands of solar systems are threatening to secede from the Galactic Republic under the leadership of a charismatic separatist. Without a standing army of the Republic, the overwhelmed Jedi Knights struggle to maintain order as the very foundation of peace and democracy is in jeopardy. If you have not seen the movie, I will not tell you what happens, but you can be sure that there will be some thrilling deep space battle scenes. High-tech weaponry has always been a staple of Star Wars, from light sabers to laser cannons, and the destruction of evil forces has consistently included spectacular cinematic pyrotechnics.
But otherworldly weapons are not limited to movies any more. We can see them on the nightly news. These days we Americans fight our wars with weapons that seem to spring straight out of the pages of a science fiction novel. Our stealth bombers are sleek, ugly things. Our professional soldiers are more technicians than warriors, more at home looking at a computer screen than carrying a rifle. Even our infantry today, when they are arrayed in all their battle armor and high tech weaponry look different from any soldiers this planet has ever seen before.
And how about signs that the galaxy is in turmoil? Once again, you dont have to pay eight dollarswhich is the average cost of a movie today--to see such scenes in Star Wars: Episode II. Click on CNN, and you will find all the death and destruction your stomach can handle.
Good Vs Evil
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 charismatic separatists. Ambitious leaders have made selfish grabs for power, while good and noble people have struggled to maintain order and preserve the peace. Truly, nothing is new under the sun, or under the stars. The saga of Star Wars is only the latest retelling of the eternal struggle between good and evil. Attack of the Clones is a clone of a conflict we know only too well
That is exactly what Lucas meant it to be. I know that there has been hostility between some preachers and Star Wars. I have heard sermons preached against Star Wars, but these days we need to take our allies wherever we can find them.
A question that has been asked several million times since 1977 goes like this: Is the force in Star Wars the same thing as the Holy Spirit? The ultimate answer is "no," but there are similarities. George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars saga, is well aware that his work invades turf traditionally reserved for parents and preachers. Lucas wrote Star Wars shortly after the cultural revolution of the 60s. He sensed a spiritual void. "I wanted it to be a traditional moral study, to have some sort of palpable precepts in it that children could understand," said Lucas, in a recent New Yorker interview. "There is always a lesson to be learned ... . Traditionally, we get them from church, the family, art and in the modern world we get them from the media--from movies." Now I know that church people do not want to hear Lucas saying that we USED to get our ideas about right and wrong from church and family, but now we get them from the movies, but the statistics say he is pretty much right. Most people are not in church on any given Sunday. Most children are not being raised in a traditional family. We are a minority, folks, and like I said earlier we must take our allies where we can find them.
Lucas is not a bad ally. He deliberately set out to create a modern mythology to teach right and wrong. The result was a fusion of Flash Gordon and Joseph Campbells The Hero with a Thousand Faces, of the legends of King Arthur and of the Japanese samurai, of Carlos Castanedas Tales of Power and the Narnia tales of C.S. Lewis.
Roger Ebert says of the Star Wars saga: "The series is essentially human mythology, set in space, but not occupying it. If Stanley Kubrick gave us man humbled by the universe, Lucas gives us the universe domesticated by man." Speaking of the Phantom Menace, Ebert says. "This movie is about what every real religion is about. Namely, the contest between good and evil and the story of how a particular individual, and by extension, an entire people, can triumph over evil." [Charles Henderson, "Star Wars brings pop spirituality to life," About.com.]
Specific references are made to traditional religious themes. For example, Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn, is the image of a bearded and robed teacher who sacrifices his life that the world may be saved. His enemy, Darth Maul, is clearly a stand-in for Satan, complete with red skin and horns. Their first confrontation takes place in the desert, reminding us of Jesus confrontation with the devil in the desert.
Is God With Us?
The impact of Lucas work has led some researchers to speak of this generation as the "Star Wars" generation. A modern preacher who wants to discuss right and wrong will be understood by more people if she uses the example of Darth Vader vs Luke Skywalker. Or, in the case of the latest movie, Obi-wan Kenobi vs Senator Palpatine. All the Star Wars movies are blockbuster epics because they speak to an ongoing struggle from real life. We live in a troubled world, and we want to know if the good guys can actually win.
To put the question in other words: In such a troubled world, can we really believe that "The LORD of hosts is with us" (v. 7), a very present help in trouble? Any witness for Christ in the third millennium must be able to deal with this question and answer convincingly and definitely. If I would criticize Star Wars, I would say that its spirituality is too vague. It is all very well to say "May the Force be with you," and I would certainly say that I have an intuition of a spiritual world. But God is more than that and real religion is more than that.
Certainly, the God of the psalmist is more than that. God is the one and only creator and ruler of the universe. Look at the language of Psalm 46. God is a "refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble" (v. 1). The God of Jacob, were told, is a "fortress" (v. 7, NIV). He breaks bows, shatters spears. If the earth implodes, God is God (v. 2), if the Himalayas are tossed into the depths of the Atlantic, God is God (v. 2); come typhoons, hurricanes and earthquakes, God is God (v. 3).
Scholars speak of the "Divine Warrior Imagery" of the psalm. God is described as having the powers and qualities of a warrior who defends his people. God is a refuge or fortress. God is the lord of hosts, the captain general of armies. Since God is the supreme warrior who breaks bows, shatters spears, burns chariots, no other god, nor the army of any nation of any other god, can challenge Jacobs God. They are imitations only, and before Jacobs God all other peoples and gods fall silent.
Now granted, this is imagery, this is figurative language, but the psalmist has a basic point that he wants to convey to all of us in our time of trouble and worry. God is in control.
Chapter five of the Westminster Confession of Faith is "On Providence," on Gods presence in and control of his creation. The chapter opens with this statement: "God, the great creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions and things, from the greatest, even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy." Here God is identified as the creator, the power and source of the universe. Paul Tillich used to call God "the ground of being." This then is the God who upholds "all creatures, actions and things, from the greatest, even to the least,"that is to say God sustains and supports all of his creation. God is not an absentee landlord. God directly governs the world. When we speak of Gods providence, we speak of Gods guidance and management. God has all knowledge and therefore God guides and controls the world, and the Confession gives us Gods motive:"to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy." In other words God has his own ends and his own goals in mind and God accomplishes those ends and goals.
Charismatic separatists and Islamic terrorists may make a grab for ultimate power, but they are doomed to fail. No individuals or movements or nations can change the agenda of the one true God, the one whom Psalm 47:2 calls "a great king over all the earth."
The Question Again
Back to our question: In such a troubled world, can we really believe that "The LORD of hosts is with us" (v. 7), a very present help in trouble? The psalmists answer is a loud, proud "Yes." Gods power 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."
Again, to return to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the last sentence of chapter five reads: "As the providence of God doth, in general, reach to all creatures: so after a most special manner, it taketh care of his church, and disposeth all things to the good thereof." God is in control of everything. In particular, God is in control of his church and his people. This is a doctrine of comfort. The confession assures us that God arranges all things in the best way for us. This reminds us of Romans 8:28 "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." When it comes to Gods people, this is what RM8:28 says, God works out everything for the best.
That is also what the psalmist is saying, God is for us. In our darkest hour, God is our refuge. God is "for us" all that we need. It is Gods nature to be for us a tower of strength, a rock of Gibraltar, a fortress of protection. This is who God is; this is what God does.
Back in December People magazine carried a story entitled "Beyond the call." It describes how on August 18, 2001 six friends from Orlando decided to take a moonlight dip in a nearby Lake. As they splashed in the water, something suddenly rose from the depths and clamped onto Edna Wilks left arm. "At first I thought it was someone playing around," Edna said. "Then I saw the alligators head. I didnt even have time to scream; he just pulled me under" Amanda Valance said "For a second I was like, I gotta get out of here. Then I thought, No, I cant leave my best friend out here to die." When she reached Edna, she saw that the girls arm was bleeding heavily, and she saw the gator surface just a few feet away. With the gator staring, Amanda pushed Edna onto her boogie board and began swimming the fifty yards to shore. As she swam, Amanda said she was thinking, "I hope God takes us in his hands like Im taking Edna." And that is what God did. God took those girls in his hands and saved them. God takes us in his hands everyday.
Be Still and Know
Now this knowledge is of immense practical help to us. God will protect you and keep you safe. Let us talk about how to apply that. When you are frightened, upset, or anxious, close your eyes and imagine that God is all around you, like the walls of a fortress: tall, strong, sturdy, unbreakable. Picture the greatest castle you can imagine and know that you can be in this castle. You have the key to the castle. All that you have to do is be still, and know that God is God.
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, the wheeler-dealer, the snake-oil salesman. But Jacob is also the one who learned about God. He is the one who wrestled all night with the Lord, and the one who spent the rest of his life walking with a limp. Jacob knows God. Jacob would say to us that God is who he says he is: mountain-mover, earth-shaker, God of all creation.
Back to our question: In such a troubled world, can we really believe that "The LORD of hosts is with us"? The psalmist says to us in v10: Shut up and listen. If you do, you will know that God is God, and by the very nature of being God, God is with us. Amen.
McCann, J. Clinton Jr., "The book of Psalms." The New Interpreters Bible [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996], 864-65.
"Ten Years Later," Star Wars Web site. Starwars.com. Retrieved November 20, 2001.
Nick Charles et al., "Beyond the call," People magazine, December 10, 2001, 88-90.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 8/13/02