Finding Refuge in God’s Presence — A Sermon for Lent 1C (Psalm 91)

Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

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.

During this Lenten Season, I will be drawing my sermons from the Psalms, and it is with these words from Psalm 91 that we begin our Lenten journey.  The prayers and songs that make up the Book of Psalms speak to our deepest concerns. They allow us to sing from the heart to God, offering words of praise, thanksgiving, lament, and even anger with God. They allow us to speak and to hear God’s response.   

Singing stands at the heart of the Christian faith, but why do we sing? Walter Brueggemann responds to this question by writing: “We sing because life is God-given, God-sustained, and God-claimed. Our singing is our glad assent to that God-givenness and refusal to have our lives be less than, more than, or other than that” [A Glad Obedience, p. 2]. 
So, we sang this morning with Martin Luther: 

A Mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing, 
our present help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe,
with craft and power great and armed with cruel hate,
on earth without an equal. 

Luther drew this hymn from his reflections on Psalm 46, but the hymn also reflects the message we find here in Psalm 91. God is our refuge and fortress, “a bulwark never failing,” in whom we can put our trust.

Lent is a time for reflecting on life lived in the presence of God. We live in challenging times, with many people unsettled by things going on around them. It’s in this context that we hear this invitation to put our full trust in the Most High and live in the shadow of the Almighty. Although the psalmist promises that “no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent,” this psalm isn’t a magic amulet. It’s not a magic spell, to be chanted like the patronus of Harry Potter. You can’t recite it and expect a ring of protection to emerge around you. But, you can take comfort in knowing that God is present with creation, covering God’s people with wings like an eagle. 
As we reflect on this Psalm and its promise of protection, it’s good to remember that the devil used the words of this Psalm to test Jesus in the wilderness. The devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and challenged Jesus to jump. After all, won’t God “command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways?” Jesus didn’t take the bait. Instead,  he reminded  the devil that it’s not appropriate to test God, even if the spectacle of angels coming to his rescue might draw a crowd. [Luke 4:9-12].

We have heard a word of assurance this morning. We’ve heard the call to abide in the shadow of the Almighty. While this is true, we also know that God doesn’t rescue us from every disaster, whether of our own making or not. So, why put our trust in God? In what ways is God our fortress and refuge? Paul answers this question in his letter to the Roman church:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39). 

Although the economy appears to be going relatively well, if we judge it by the stock market, there are signs of trouble all around us. People are on the move across the globe. It might be because of war, bad government, famine, climate change, violence, or economic upheaval. The reports from the southern border suggest that growing numbers of women and children are fleeing the violence of Central America and seeking asylum in the United States. The people of Syria have been on the move for several years, fleeing violence in that land. Some have sought refuge here in the United States; others have looked to Europe. Even as people are on the move, doors are closing. 

Lent gives us an opportunity to reflect on many things, including the way we experience and respond to the realities of our day. We can live in fear and anxiety, or we can take hold of the invitation to take refuge in the presence of the LORD, knowing that nothing can separate us from God’s love.  

When Tom Oord was with us, he reminded us that God is love and that God acts in partnership with us. It’s this promise of God’s eternal presence, providing us refuge, that enables us to live boldly in the world. In verses 14 to 16 we hear God respond to the statement of trust made by the people of God:   “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.” 

This Psalm begins by affirming the names of God—Most High, Almighty, LORD—and it ends with God’s reminder that if we call on the name of God, God will answer. In other words, God is saying to us, I’m ready and willing to partner with you, I will be with you in times of trouble. I will show you the way of salvation, the pathway to wholeness.  So call out to me!

In Deuteronomy 26, which is one of the appointed lectionary readings for today, Moses gives instructions on how the people should give thanks to God after they settle in the land of Promise. He tells them to bring the first fruits of their harvest to the altar. By doing this, they affirm the covenant God made with them in the wilderness. Moses also instructs the people to recite a confession of faith that begins with the words “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” This is the confession of a migrant people, who live in the hope that one day they can settle down in one place. In this confession the people speak of the sojourn in Egypt, where a small band became a great nation, which the Egyptians came to fear and oppress. When the people cried out to God, God heard their voices,  saw their affliction and oppression, and then delivered them from this oppressive situation. It took some time wandering in the wilderness, but the promise remained with them. God would lead them to a land filled with milk and honey. That is, God would lead them to a land of abundance and freedom.

There is a monument on the Detroit River waterfront pointing across the river to a land of freedom. This monument marks the end of the Underground Railroad.  Like the people of Israel, and many migrants today, the women, men, and children who reached this point in their journey sought a home where freedom and refuge could be found. Moses told the people that when they crossed the river into the Promised Land, they should bring an offering of first fruits to the altar to share with the priests and with the “aliens who reside among you,” so that together they might “celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.” (Deut. 26:1-11). 

As we begin this Lenten journey, let us reflect together on God’s promise to be with us in times of trouble; God’s promise to be our refuge and fortress. Let us confess that 

        God’s word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth. 
        The Spirit and the gifts are ours, through Christ, who with us sideth.
        Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. 
        The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still,
        God’s reign endures forever.

Why do we sing? We sing because the hymns and songs of our faith, are the scripts of the life of faith. As another beloved hymn reminds us, “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, for his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” Of this simple hymn, Walter Brueggemann comments: “In the end it comes to a simple conclusion: God cares for every modest creature. How much more does God care for me, us, the suffering, and the left behind!?” [A Glad Obedience, p. 155].  So, as we gather during Lent and focus our attention on God’s unfailing presence in our midst, no matter what the circumstances of our lives might be, we can take comfort and encouragement so we can be fully embraced by the salvation of God, with songs of praise, thanksgiving, and even lament upon our lips. Then, we “who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in God’s shadow for life, say to the Lord: ‘My refuge, my rock in whom I trust!’” [Michael Joncas, “On Eagle’s Wings,” CH 77]. 

Preached by Dr. Robert Cornwall, Pastor