Christ the King, Year C Psalm 46
Chaos. That is what Psalm 46 is describing. It doesn’t sound like chaos as they are using poetic words. In the psalms, a roaring sea is typically used to describe chaos. It’s a sign of cosmic disorder. The psalmist writes of the earth moving—earthquakes. Waters that rage and foam could be any extreme weather. They didn’t have weather forecasters like we have, predicting what will happen, when it will happen, and then explaining why it happens. It was all a mystery, and thus even more terrifying. The other symbol of chaos was nations at war. The psalmist wrote that the nations raged and the kingdoms were shaken. Chaos.
I don’t remember a time in my adult life when the world has not seemed a little chaotic—at times, overwhelming so. Just this week we had mass murders on two separate college campuses. Young people are traumatized and terrified, and not for the first time. It’s been a particularly bad week in our country. And of course, there is no shortage of bad weather or nations at war. Nations are shaken. The waters rage and foam.
While the causes of chaos might be slightly different than they were when the psalms were written, I don’t think the feelings were that different. We like to think that people in the Bible lived in relative peace and security. How else could they have such faith in God’s protection? Yet we know that the Hebrew people were rarely at peace. They were usually at war, often being displaced. And when things were relatively calm, there was fear and uncertainty.
Yet for some reason they were able to say, “God is our refuge and strength.” Is it because they didn’t have any other source of safety and strength? Perhaps. But I think there was more. I wonder if God’s presence was more tangible then. There were specific places where God was present. The text mentions the “city of God.” That is mostly likely a reference to Jerusalem. One of the things that made Jerusalem the city of God was that it was a place that held the ark of the covenant. Interestingly, the ark of the covenant was built to be transported. Some think it was never meant to be confined to one place. Because God was not meant to be confined to one place.
The beginning of the Psalm is: “God is our refuge and our strength.” It doesn’t say that the city of God is our refuge and strength—but God. The reality is that no city, no state, no country is impenetrable. Even our schools have become places of violence. I yearn for something solid, a place or even a moveable trunk that could hold the holiness of God, so I could reach out and touch it, feel that presence in a way that would not require faith.
In the New Testament, God delivers that divine presence in a unique way. It’s once again moveable, even transient. It’s a human body. Previously the ark of God was protected in a tabernacle. With the birth of Jesus, the tabernacle became flesh and blood. There were no walls of protection, no people standing guard. Jesus was among God’s people for about 30 years. That is what I really want, I want God in human form. I want to be able to talk directly to God, see God, feel God. I don’t want to pray for God’s presence. I just want it. Then maybe I would feel safe and secure. We all could.
But that’s not what we have. That tabernacle, that bodily temple was destroyed. It was resurrected, but then taken away again. Now we have no ark, no body. It feels at times as though we are alone in the chaos. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” We no longer have tangible connections to God’s presence, not like they once had. However, this psalm does give us some tips, a guide if you will. “The Lord of hosts is with us…Come now and look upon the works of the Lord, what awesome things he has done on earth.” In some ways we have to try harder to feel God’s presence. In other ways, God’s presence is evident when we look for it. We can see it in nature. We see it in people. We see it in the sun that comes through these gorgeous windows. The psalmist also tells us to “Be still then, and know that I am God.” The Hebrew word that is translated to still can also be translated to “stop or sink in.”
This psalm is about finding God in the midst of chaos. When the waters rage, when the nations are shaken, God tells us to stop. Most of the time, we cannot control the chaos around us. We try. Sometimes we try really hard and that can makes us absolutely crazy. My mom and I are worriers. My Dad always asks, “Why would you worry about something you can’t change?” Rationally that makes sense, but it’s hard. At some point today, make a list of those things that are stressing you out, that are maybe even creating more space between you and God’s presence. Then cross out the things you can’t control. I bet you will whittle that list down considerably. Then find a time or place to soak in some natural beauty, some part of God’s creation and stop. Just stop.
One reason we have worship is to provide that opportunity to stop, to sink into God’s presence. While God is no longer with us in an ark or the form of a human, we have the sacraments of our church that allow us to soak in God’s presence. The definition of a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace.” It’s our moveable ark. It’s why after we consecrate (bless) the bread and wine, we put the left overs in something we call an aumbry. Some denominations call it a tabernacle.
The Gospels tell the story of Jesus being in a boat with his disciples when a great storm descended upon them. The waves crashed. The ocean roared. The disciples were terrified. Jesus stood and rebuked the wind and then there was calm. What had once been chaos was now peace. If you look at the ceiling of many churches, you will see exposed beams. It almost looks like a ship upside down. In fact, the proper liturgical name of the part of the church where the pews are located is called the nave. It comes from navis, the Latin word for ship. The church is meant to be a place of safety and security where God’s presence is pronounced.
I know that a lot of people think that there is no good reason to have church buildings, that you can find God anywhere. But (and I know I am biased), I think there is something uniquely holy about churches. They are places of stillness and calm. They are place where the sacraments dwell. And hopefully, they are a safe place, a harbor in the storm for all of God’s people. Because our world is now, and will always be chaotic. Yet here is a place where we can say with assurance, “God is our refuge and our strength.”