When last I wrote to you, I was wrangling chickens and Labradors in a very different season. It was late summer and the grass was still green, but now as I look out my window, the weather has turned gray and sleety. On the farm, we are watching the corn every day, wondering when the farmers will begin the harvest. This is an uncertain season in Minnesota and the uncertainty in the weather has me thinking about the ways in which we mark time, especially as Working Preachers. The lectionary year is an interesting calendar to me because of the way in which it incorporates both fixed dates (Christmas) and variable dates (Easter). Sometimes we blur the difference between the two; even though Reformation Day technically falls on October 31st, many churches choose to make it a movable festival by celebrating it on the closest Sunday on or before that date.
Because of the choice to make Reformation Day a moveable feast, I have been contemplating the readings assigned to that celebration. In particular, Psalm 46 has caught my eye for the way in which the Psalmist meditates on the problem of timing. Just as the farm has inspired me to meditate on the difference between fixed times and variable times, Psalm 46 has inspired me to meditate on the timing of God.
To begin with, the Psalmist notes that the psalm is directed to those who live in times of trouble, times when the mountains quake and nations are in an uproar. My wife and I have been watching the Lord of the Rings movies again, and a constant refrain throughout them has been the characters lamenting that they live in such evil times. Though I sometimes have an impulse to say that “it could be worse,” the truth is that evil times are all too common. The Psalmist writes to the people of God in all such times: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:2). There is a certainty in the Psalm, like the certainty that Christmas will always be on the 25th of December. God is ever-present in our trouble and God will help when the morning dawns (46:5). It is a comfort to me and I hope that it is a comfort and inspiration to you to know that the time that God helps is now.
But the certainty of the Psalmist contrasts with a more variable sense of timing. In Psalm 46, we read that God “makes wars cease to the ends of earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire” (46:9). This is a gospel promise, but as we look at our weary world, the question bubbles up: when? When will wars cease to the ends of the earth? When will all bows be broken and spears shattered? So much of our Christian lives and ministries are lived in the tension between the certainty that God is a help in our present time of trouble and the uncertainty of when God’s peaceable kingdom will finally come to pass.
Reflecting on this tension in preparation for Reformation day brought to mind two of Martin Luther’s hymns, each of which addresses a different aspect of God’s timing. Perhaps the more famous of the two, A Mighty Fortress is our God is actually based on Psalm 46. The hymn has been translated into English many times, but one popular translation captures the feeling of certainty contained in the first lines of the psalm: “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing: Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.” Through language of fortress and bulwark, the hymn proclaims God’s present help. Another hymn of Luther, however, captures a different spirit. Out of the Depths, based on Psalm 130, contains the lines “My soul is waiting on the Lord as one who waits for morning.” Now at first glance, waiting for dawn may seem more certain than variable. It is true that in the modern world, with the ubiquity of clocks, we can quantify the time until morning. But for the medieval person, alone in the dark, when the sun would rise was a much more uncertain proposition. Together these two hymns paint a picture of the paradox that God is our present fortress and helper, and yet, we still wait for the day of the Lord to dawn.
Dear Working Preacher, in this time of seasonal transition, I hope that you can hold these two promises together. The Lord is our help right now and the Lord will do even greater things. May the knowledge of the former give you hope for the latter.
In the name of Jesus,