Reformation Day

As always, preaching for a festival of the church brings competing goods: Do we preach the text or preach the day?

October 27, 2013

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Commentary on Psalm 46

As always, preaching for a festival of the church brings competing goods: Do we preach the text or preach the day?

I will always want to err on the side of preaching the text, though I recognize that people suffer not only from biblical illiteracy but also from historical and doctrinal illiteracy, so there will be an appropriate place in the sermon (or elsewhere in the service) to make clear just what this day is about and why it shows up in the calendar.

Still, if we want to preach justification by faith, “apart from the works of the law” (or feel the need to do so), then by all means preach on Romans 3, not on Psalm 46. Let the text drive the sermon — this text, this particular text — not a generalized doctrinal message derived from Romans and the broader teachings of Luther and the Reformers. One could make such a doctrinal sermon work, but not with integrity as a sermon on Psalm 46.

Happily, given the Reformation’s “sola scriptura” slogan, we might argue that the best and most appropriate way to preach this day is to preach the text; that is, do “sola scriptura” rather than talking about “sola scriptura.” So, what to do with Psalm 46?

The dilemma I just described seems to have existed already within Israel’s history. Psalm 46 is one of the Songs of Zion (the list often includes also Psalms 48, 76, 84, 87, and 122), those psalms that celebrate God’s presence in the temple on Mount Zion, a presence that promised security and blessing to God’s people.

But just how much security and what kind of blessing? Was Zion “inviolable,” because it was the dwelling place of God? Was Israel guaranteed success? Israel sometimes got such ideas apparently, based on a mistaken insular and nationalistic reading of lines like “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved” (Psalm 46:5). Nothing bad can happen to us, because we are God’s chosen people and this is God’s chosen nation!

The prophets had to denounce such thinking, especially, for example, Jeremiah in his temple sermon, where he reminded Israel that no slogan (“This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord”) could take the place of faithful and ethical living (Jeremiah 7:4). To turn promise into slogan, creed into talisman, is to court death, as Israel learned the hard way when Babylon had the last laugh (“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”; Psalm 137:3).

The biblical tension between celebrating promise and banking on it could certainly inform a contemporary sermon on Psalm 46. The delineation is not easy for people to grasp (or for preachers to proclaim). One wants to do nothing to undermine a faithful trust in “The Lord is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge!”; verses 7, 11); but one wants to do everything to undermine a false confidence that mouthing the verse provides temporal security or even prosperity. God is our security, but not our security blanket. God provides a home for all, not membership in an exclusive club for some.

Our trust, the psalm’s trust, is not based in a naive notion that “nothing bad can happen” — indeed, the psalm assumes the possibility of natural catastrophe and enemy attack — but it invites the singers and hearers to put their trust in God, who alone stands firm when all else shakes. The careful structure of the first part of the song (verses 1-7) is already a poetic hedge against chaos:

A God is our refuge and strength

             B The earth changes

                         C God is in the midst of the city, which therefore shall not be moved

            B’ The nations are in an uproar

A’ God (Immanuel) is our refuge

The second part is similar (verses 7-11; reusing the refrain in verse 7):

A God is our refuge

            B God is above all creation and history (earth and war)

                        C “Be still and know that I am God!”

            B’ God is above the earth and the nations

A’ God (Immanuel) is our refuge

Notice what stands out: God is our refuge and strength; God is in our midst; God is with us; “Be still and know that I am God.” The call to “be still” is radical, since it demands utter reliance on God, certainly not on human weapons, not even on the good gifts of an ever-dangerous creation. Trust in God alone!

To sing this song is to call its promise into the present, to anticipate its reality. But that must be done everyday (thus, the need for regular liturgical rehearsal of the song); it is never something once given that we now own or control. In that sense, we might say the song has an eschatological character. That is, it anticipates and invites us into the coming fulfillment of the divine promises, making them real for today without trivializing the very real threats under which God’s people always live.

An incarnational word would be in order here as the sermon moves to proclaim the text to those who live in Christ. New Testament Christians recognize the psalm’s promise (“the LORD of hosts is with us”) in Jesus as Immanuel (Matthew 1:23), Jesus as temple (Matthew 12:6; John 2:21). Now God’s presence in Christ fully shares the tests and turmoil of temporal existence. The God who stood above creation has now entered creation. In Christ, God comes not to save us from all harm — especially not to think that those like us are preserved from danger brought by the likes of them — but to wonder in amazement that God now bears with us and for us every personal, national, and natural distress.

Now, our song is not so much that we can come to saving Zion, but that saving Zion has come to us — where “us” is not defined as those who look or believe just as we do (the persistent danger of turning Reformation Day into a celebration of ourselves), but as all God’s people from every nation now called together in God’s son. God is present! We don’t build a fence around that promise — not a fence of orthodoxy, ideology, nationality, race, or gender. We open doors so that all may hear, see, and participate.