One day last summer Daniel and I decided to go for a long jog together down the Needwood trail heading toward the D.C. line. There had been thunderstorms that morning but they had dumped their rain and moved on and the heat of the day had dissipated so we felt it was a great time for a run. Well, we had only gone about three miles down the trail when suddenly, without warning, dark clouds rolled in and the sky took on a sort of greenish hue. Lightening began to flash all around us and we quickly decided that it was time to turn back-but not too long after we did, the skies opened and golf ball-sized hail stones began to fall. There was no place we could go for refuge-we were stuck out in the open. All we could do was run as quickly as possible back up the trail-as we were constantly pelted by thousands of those little chunks of ice. Oddly enough we had only covered about a mile when the skies cleared-and by the time we got back to our car bright sunshine was everywhere once again.
As I was studying this week, I thought of our experience that day because the terrifying truth is that many times life is like what we went through on the Needwood trail. I mean-we can be “jogging” along the road of life, minding our own business when suddenly, without warning, the storm clouds of crisis come rolling in. We’re “out in the open” and unprepared, when abruptly painful tragedy rains down on us.
Being a minister has allowed me to see this in the lives of people over and over again. All the time people either drop by my office or call me on the phone to tell me of a sudden crisis that has loomed on the horizon:
< Someone has been rushed to the hospital.
< Unexpectedly a husband has abandoned his wife or vice versa.
< Doctors have shared test results that reveal the presence of a potentially fatal illness.
< Someone has received a memo saying their job has just been eliminated.
< A young child or infant has unexpectedly died.
Well, what would YOU do if something like this happened? I mean, where would you turn if the storm of crisis suddenly unleashed its fury on you or your family? How would you cope? What would you cling to in order to weather something like this?
I told you last week that the book of Psalms has been compared to a “spiritual medicine cabinet” which we can open to find a remedy for any issue in life. And, that includes the experience of EXTREME crisis. In fact, several of these beloved songs were written in response to just that kind of situation.
Well, the psalm I want us to focus on today is a great example of this kind of tragedy-driven psalm. It was composed in response to a terrifying event in the life of Good King Jehoshaphat. We read all about it in 2 Chronicles 20 where we says that he was indeed a good king-a Godly king. And one day his patrolling troops looked out on the horizon and saw the dust clouds of three mighty armies marching toward Judah. They investigated and found out that the Moabites and the Ammonites and the Meunites-had made a treaty to attack and plunder their nation.
Well, Good King Jehoshaphat was understandably afraid. I mean there was no way that he could have even hoped to win the battle that was about to come-not with his tiny, ill-equipped army. So he did what righteous people should do when they are afraid of an approaching crisis. He prayed. He poured his heart out to God. And in response God send the prophet Jahaziel with a message. He said,
“Listen, King Jehoshaphat. This is what the Lord says to you; ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours but the Lord’s.”
When he heard this, Jehoshaphat led the people in a worship service and the next day he and his army went out to meet their enemy with the choir leading the way still singing God’s praises. And, as they crested the hill and looked down on the enemy camp, all they saw were dead bodies. It looked as if a great battle had already taken place-and it had. You see, in the night, God had confused the enemy soldiers so much that they had attacked each other and not one warrior in that vast army had remained alive. Well, this inspired Jehoshaphat’s music minister to write the 46th Psalm. Let’s read it together now and you’ll see this miraculous event reflected in its words:
1 – God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
2 – Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 – though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.
4 – There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.
5 – God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.
6 – Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; He lifts His voice, the earth melts.
7 – The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
8 – Come and see the works of the Lord, the desolations He has brought on the earth.
9 – He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; He breaks the bow and shatters the spear, He burns the shields with fire.
10 – “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
11 – The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Now, sometimes a psalm is structured so it’s theme is in the first verse. This is the case with the psalm we studied last week-the 23rd. That beloved psalm is built around the first five words, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Well, other psalms are written such that instead of being at the BEGINNING, the theme is toward the END and that is the case with this, the 46th psalm. The foundational truth-the basic message upon which this psalm is based is way down in verse 10 where we read God’s instructions for tough times-the things we are to do when a storm of crisis suddenly rears its ugly head in our lives.
Now-our Heavenly Father’s directions in this verse are very clear. In fact they take up only two words. Look at verse 10. God says-when tough, terrifying times come, you and I must: “BE STILL.”
All of us are familiar with these two words because when we were children our moms were constantly using them on us. Remember? Any time we had to keep quiet and behave-like during a pastor’s sermon-our mothers would squeeze our knees and say, “BE STILL!” In fact, depending on how well behaved you were in church as a child, you may still have a thumb and forefinger imprint permanently imbedded just above your knee!
But using these two words in THIS sense doesn’t catch the full meaning of the Hebrew here. You see, what it literally says is, “Let go. Put your arms down to your side.” Some translations word it this way, “Cease striving” or “relax.” But it carries the idea of God saying to us, “When you face a terrifying situation, lay down your arms. Put down your ‘sword and shield.’ Step aside and acknowledge that I am the one and only victorious God.” This is what God told Jehoshaphat as the armies of all those “ites” came his way. Remember? In essence He said,
“Relax Jehoshaphat. Lay down your arms. Put the army at the end of the column and the choir singing My praises in the front because the battle is not yours to fight. It is Mine.”
Now-I don’t know about you, but when I am facing a crisis, RELAXING-being still-is the last thing I want to do. My first tendency is to do just the opposite-defend myself or counter attack in some way-or run-like Daniel and I did that day on the jogging trail-but never simply BE STILL. And you understand what I’m saying here. I mean think how vulnerable you feel in the face of an attack-when you drop your arms, let go, cease striving, and relax!”
Yet, this is exactly what God tells us to do. But I want you to be sure and know that our loving Heavenly Father doesn’t stop there. In this psalm, He doesn’t just tell us to RELAX. He tells us HOW to relax. Look at verse 10 again. He says, “Be still-and KNOW that I am God.” In other words He reminds us that there is something we can KNOW, that will HELP US TO CEASE STRIVING AND RELAX when things get rough. As Joseph Stowel points out in his commentary on this text-most of the times when terrifying times come, we respond emotionally-we entertain feelings of fear and insecurity and panic. Well, in this Psalm, God challenges you and me to respond-not emotionally but cognitively-to respond on the basis of something we KNOW-in stead of something we FEEL.
I remember back in 1991 our youth Senior Varsity basketball team was having a great season. To give you an idea of how long ago this was-Graham was on the team that year. So was Andy Rowe and Keith Main and Brandon Norris. Jim Main was their coach and it was so much fun to watch them play. They were great ball players and played together like a well-oiled machine. So, every Saturday night Sue and I would bundle up the kids and go to the game.
Well, our guys had a great season that year. In fact they were undefeated as they went into their last game against a rival Baptist church. This other church’s team was also undefeated and they had a reputation for poor sportsmanship. Well, I of course wanted our team to beat theirs very much. I may have been a little biased but in my mind we were the good guys-and they were the bad guys-and I wanted us to show them once and for all that truth and justice always win out.
Well I wasn’t the only one who looked at this game as a battle between two arch rivals because the stands were packed with members from both churches that night. And you could cut the tension with a knife.
As I sat there on the bleachers at Baker Middle School and watched the game, my tension grew with every minute of play. I became more and more nervous-because both teams were obviously very closely matched. The lead went back and forth throughout the game so with every tick of the clock my knuckles got whiter. The muscles in my neck knotted tighter and tighter. I could hear my heart pounding louder and louder. I had to keep reminding myself to breathe. The acid in my stomach churned. I wondered, “Can our guys do it? Will we pull it off? Who will win?” Well, we did-by one basket! IT was a great game! In fact, I think it was better than any MARCH MADNESS game I have watched before or since.
A couple of days later we had a fellowship at our house and all the youth came over to see the video of that game. Now as I watched this same game this second time, I wasn’t tense at all. My heart was calm. My knuckles weren’t white. My neck was loose as I drank a coke and munched on pizza and chips, and dip. I had no problem with stomach acid. I was totally relaxed. Now it was the same game…same players. Why did I respond differently? What made it possible for me to “RELAX…to CEASE STRIVING” as I watched the game this time? Well, the answer should be obvious. I knew the outcome. I knew we were going to win.
Now, you may be thinking, “I know where you are going with this Mark. I’m way ahead of you. If God tells me how my current crisis will work out, I will relax too.” He usually doesn’t do that does He? No-God usually just gives us enough light to see to take the next step. But, in this Psalm God is saying you can still RELAX. You and I can still cease striving, even if you don’t know HOW something is going to turn out-because we CAN know WHO is going to work it out. God is! And knowing God is better than knowing the outcome.
Elisabeth Elliot is widely known for the books she has written telling about her life as a missionary and about all the wonderful things God has taught her over the years. She has had a rough life-suffering the loss of two husbands: the first, missionary Jim Elliot was killed by the Auca Indians in Ecuador while he was trying to reach them with the gospel. The second, Addison Leitch, was slowly consumed by cancer. In relating what these experiences were like, she referred to this psalm, saying, “in the first shock of death, everything that has seemed most dependable has given way. Mountains are falling, earth is reeling. In such a time it is a profound comfort to KNOW that although all things seem to be shaken, one thing is not: God is not shaken.”
Well, in verse one of this Psalm we find three things that we can know about our unshakable God that will help us relax in spite of the outcome of any battle we face. Let’s look at them together this morning.
1. First of all the psalmist reminds us that God is our REFUGE.
And “REFUGE” is a concept that the first readers of this psalm would have certainly understood.
You see, the Old Testament records that in ancient Middle Eastern times, they lived by a rudimentary form of justice that called for the services of someone who was known as “a blood avenger.” If a member of your family was killed, your relatives would call a meeting and appoint someone to fulfill this role-and their task was as gruesome as their job title sounded., because as a representative of the family of the victim, the blood avenger was to track down the killer and end his or her life. Now-I admit-this was a crude judicial system but it worked. I’m not recommending that we start something like that today, but back then it was a definite deterrent to murder! However, this system did have one rather major problem. You see it did not allow for ACCIDENTAL homicide.
Bill Hybels puts it this way, “Let’s say a woman is in a hurry to go to the market. She jumps on her camel and takes off. A five year old steps out in front of her. She tries to stop-she screams out a warning and pulls on the reins with all her might, but the child is trampled. Horrified, the woman jumps down and tends the little one as best she can but it’s too late. He dies. Well, the five-year-old’s family calls a meeting and they appoint a blood avenger whose orders are clear: ‘TRACK DOWN THAT HOUSEWIFE AND CATCH HER OUT IN THE OPEN WHEN HER BACK IS TURNED. CHASE HER UNTIL SHE CAN’T RUN ANOTHER STEP. THEN KILL HER AND BRING US PROOF.’
Now, if you’re like me you’re thinking-that is not fair! She didn’t mean to kill the little boy. And you are right. So In the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Joshua God addressed the problem by establishing, “cities of refuge.” Throughout the nation of Israel six such cities were set aside as safe zones where someone like this housewife could flee for safety.
Once inside the city gates, she would be safe from the blood avenger’s wrath and this place of respite gave time for a fair trial to be held so that justice could be done.
Well, as Hybels points out, these cities of refuge give us a picture of God’s heart because bound up in His nature and character is the desire to provide safety and refuge for people like you and me, especially in those times when we feel the crushing onset of crisis. God knows that when bad times come our way sometimes what we need most is a place to flee-somewhere that we can feel safe and catch our breath. One of the most beautiful word pictures of this comforting truth is found in Psalm 91:4 where it says, “God will shield you with His wings.” Now, I know most of you have never spent much time on a farm but maybe you saw a chicken documentary on Animal Planet. And if you did then you may know that when a mother hen becomes aware of a predator or a threat to her offspring, she responds by lifting her wings and within seconds, all the baby chicks disappear underneath them. And then, where once there was a doting hen and several cute little down-covered chicken nuggets-now the predator sees nothing but one mean-looking mama who just dares him to take a step forward. She is a refuge for her children. She is their protection. Now eventually, the chicks will have to crawl out and face the real world again but for a little while, there is nothing quite like the soft shelter of those wings-their mom’s feathers caressing their heads; her warmth stilling their shakes; her heart’s steady beating gradually calming their fears. And this Psalm reminds us that God delights in spreading His protective wings and enfolding His frightened children. “Hide here for a time,” He says, “Get out of the danger. Regroup, Recuperate. Find new strength.”
You know, nobody before or since has faced the responsibilities, duties, and pressures that Jesus did. Well our Lord modeled this practice of taking “time-out” from the struggles of life to find refuge under God’s wings. Sometimes He would take an entire day and an entire night, grab a couple of disciples, and retreat to a safe place—a boat, the far side of a mountain, or a secluded spot in the desert. There, Jesus would enter the refuge that His father had prepared for Him. In that place of shelter, our Lord would restore His strength, and sense of purpose, and get ready to go back into the world, working with all His might to claim it for the Father’s love.
Well if you feel oppressed or weary or afraid-if you are grieving or anxious or disappointed or lonely or heartbroken-then hear this: Psalm 9:9 promises, “The Lord will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble.” And all you need to enter this refuge is to ask. Psalm 62:8 says, “Pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us.” So, fellow struggler this morning, hear the words of our heavenly Father and remember that as we face the crises of life we can relax because He is our refuge. In fact we should build our lives around regular times spent in the comforting refuge of God’s presence.
And then the second thing this Psalm says we can KNOW about God is that….
2. He is our STRENGTH.
And this is a wonderful truth to claim for our own because nothing saps our energy like a crisis. Trials drain us and make us feel as if we simply can’t go on. Well, throughout His word God promises to give us the strength we need to get through trying times. Psalm 27:1 says, “The Lord is my light and my salvation Whom shall I Fear? The Lord is the strength of my life…of whom shall I be afraid?” In Philippians 4:13 Paul said, “I can do all things-I can face any crises-through Him Who gives me strength.” And this Psalm echoes this truth. God is our source of power for facing any battle of life.
In his book, GLIMPSES OF GOD, Scott Walker chronicles the story of the Herold family-a godly couple who had gone to the Philippines as teachers around the turn of the century. The Herolds opened schools for tribesmen known as the IGAROT who live in the remote mountainous regions of this country. Mr. Herold combined his teaching duties with efforts to build roads through this region. The work was back-breaking and was made even more difficult by the fact that there was no modern machinery. All they had was dynamite and their bare hands.
So they’d blow up a huge section of rock and then the Igarot people would move it piece by piece-by hand. One day Mr. Herold rode horseback into town for supplies and while there he spotted a crate filled with brand new wheel barrows. He couldn’t believe his good fortune, so he quickly bought them, loaded them on an old borrowed truck, and hastily bumped and banged his way up the rutted new roadbed. When he arrived at the base camp he instructed the Igorot foreman to guard these novelties so they would not be stolen and immediately drove back to town to return the truck. He then retrieved his horse, finished his shopping and started back. It was three days later that he returned to the work site. When he rode up he almost fell off his horse with laughter…because there before him were the Igorot energetically and enthusiastically using the wheel barrows. But, having never seen one, the Igorot foreman had assigned four men to each wheel barrow. They would quickly fill the wheelbarrows to the rim with rock and dirt. Then the four men would each grab a corner of the wheel barrow, grimace as they lifted it, then grunt and groan as they carried it on their shoulders to a ravine where the dirt was dumped. For them, a wheelbarrow was simply a large metal container to carry huge loads. They had never seen a wheel and so they never even considered using it. In other words, there was amazing power at their disposal as they struggled to build that road but they never accessed it.
Well the truth of the matter is that many times you and I are just as foolish as these Igarot tribesmen. When a trial comes we attempt to carry that burden on our own shoulders, when we should heed the instruction of this Psalm and rely on the power of the Spirit of God. And by the way, RELAXING is a requirement for accessing Gods’ power. Jesus said, “My power is made perfect in weakness….” Paul rejoiced in relaxing his own efforts so that he could draw on God’s power. In 2 Corinthians 12 he said, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (Vs 10-11)
So Psalm 46 tells us that we can relax even in the midst of the trials of life. We can cease striving-because God is not only our refuge but our strength as well. But the Psalmist says there is one more RELAXING truth we can know about God…
3. We can know that even in the midst of crisis, He is WITH US.
In his book, The God You Are Looking For, Bill Hybels points out that we are relational beings. God created us to require companionship. This is why….
< Kids as young as three years old start asking their parents, "Can Johnny spend the night?"
< Adolescents are obsessed with finding "the one."
< Middle-aged adults love to go out to dinner together.
< And few things put a smile on an elderly person's face like the appearance of grandchildren or a lifelong friend.
Well, God meets our inborn need for constant companionship because He is always with us. God does not promise to remove suffering from our lives, but He does promise His presence in the midst of our suffering. And this is possible because, as I reminded you last Sunday God is an “everywhere-present God.” There is no place where He is not.
Now-to give you an illustration of this think back with me to the opening of the National Football League season back in 1996. History was made back then by the Dallas Cowboys when one of their players, Deion Sanders, did something that has rarely been done since the early days of professional football. He started playing both DEFENSE (corner back) and OFFENSE (Wide receiver), frequently logging over one hundred plays in the same game. I’m told it was amazing to watch. On one play, during the third game of the season, Deion even blitzed a run and stopped the running back behind the line of scrimmage. When Dallas got the ball back, he suddenly became a deep threat for a long pass from quarterback Troy Aikman. The announcers declared, “He’s all over the field friends! He’s everywhere!”
Now, Deion wasn’t REALLY everywhere. I mean if you left your seat to buy a hot dog, he wouldn’t have been working the concession stand. If you had to get out of the stadium early, Deion wouldn’t have been directing the traffic. But in hyperbolic language, the sportscaster was expressing the notion that Deion was covering an amazing amount of territory-something football fans hadn’t seen in years. Well, when we talk about the omnipresence of God, we’re not using the hyperbolic language of a sportscaster. God is literally everywhere. Wherever you are, God is. Whatever crisis you are facing, God is near. He is right there with you. He doesn’t leave or turn His focus elsewhere when times Get tough.
In Hebrews 13:5 God promises, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” The Greek in this passage has five negatives and so literally it reads, “I will not, not leave thee; neither will I not, not forsake thee.” In other words, in this text God emphasizes over and over and over and over and over again that He will not forsake us. He won’t leave us alone. He wants us to grasp firmly the truth that no matter what circumstances may indicate, we can know that He will not leave us to the mercy of those circumstances. We can relax because God doesn’t leave us on our own when life goes in the ditch.
He is very near to us in times of trouble. And we can stand anything…if we KNOW that Almighty God is with us. Remember-as this Psalmist reminds us, no crisis is too big for God. The earth could give way-the mountains could fall into the sea-and even that would not cause us fear-because God is with us. Our omnipotent God is an “ever-present help.”
Well, do you feel a little calmer? Have you been able to relax a little after looking at this Psalm? You can as long as you KNOW, that God is your REFUGE and STRENGTH-a VERY PRESENT HELP in times of trouble.
In his book, Reaching For The Invisible God, Philip Yancey points out that when it comes down to it, when crisis comes we have two choices: fear the crisis or fear God. Believe the crisis is bigger than God or that God is bigger than the crisis. The 17th century poet and pastor, John Donne was a man who was well-acquainted with the storms of crisis. During his pastorate of London’s largest church, three waves of bubonic plague swept through he city. The last one alone killed 40,000 people. Donne himself became ill and through this experience he wisely concluded that life will always involve circumstances that incite fear: If not illness, then financial hardship, if not poverty, the rejection, if not loneliness the failure. In such a world, Donne realized that he had a clear choice: to fear God or to fear everything else, to trust God or to trust nothing. He discovered that it only made sense to trust in God and he was right. I mean think about it. Enemies pose no real threat-for, as Jehoshaphat learned, God can vanquish any enemy.
Famine is not really a problem because God can supply our needs according to His riches in glory. Not even death is a threat for those of us who put our trust in Jesus. Donne concluded that his best course was to cultivate a proper fear of the Lord, for that fear can supplant all others. He prayed, “As Thou hast given me a repentance not to be repented of, so give me, O Lord, a fear of which I may not be afraid.”
Today-I challenge you to examine your own life. Ask yourself, what do I fear more-whose power do I respect more-the power of our loving God or the power of crisis? Remember, as I quoted earlier, “The Lord is my light and my salvation-whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life-of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1) This morning let’s all ask ourselves, “Am I responding to the inevitable trials of life based on my feelings of fear or on what the Bible says we can KNOW about God?” “Am I standing on His promises or am I floundering on my feelings?” “Am I responding to the trustworthiness of God by placing my trust in Him?”If you are here this morning and are not a Christian then I challenge you to do just that-put your faith and trust in our trustworthy God. Jesus quoted this same Psalm 91 that I referred to earlier when He said, “How often I have longed to gather you together as a hen gathers her chicks but you would not.” Jesus said this because God yearns for you to experience His love. He wants to be your refuge and strength. He wants you to experience the peace of His constant presence. But He won’t force that on you. It is your decision. Won’t you make that decision today by asking Jesus to forgive you of your sin and come into your heart and life? Christians-God may be calling you to respond as well: to commit yourself to trusting Him more….to follow His leading by joining this church. Won’t you come now…as God leads?