Comfort in Psalm 91, Psalm 91, First Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2019
The Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Lent always relates to the devil’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, which textually, immediately follows His Baptism. This year we heard Luke’s particular portrayal of that event.
Perhaps it is with good reason we consider Jesus conquering temptation, and the tempter of His people. We certainly have made a mess of things. The world seems to becoming such a dangerous place. The circus that has unfolded in our national government hardly inspires confidence. But we should not be looking there for our comfort anyway. Where should we look for our comfort? The Sunday school answer is Jesus, right? But it’s often easier said than done.
It is truly a difficult thing to be reminded that we are utterly dependent on Jesus for our success and wellbeing. We would like to think that surely we can get some of this right, but that would be foolish of us, indeed it might be playing right into the enemy’s hands.
Today we are at the beginning of our long Lenten journey. Journeys can often be daunting when you first start out. We have so far to go. Our lives are such a mess and heaven is so perfect, and so far away. How will we ever reach true Easter joy? Will we just have to fake it when we come to April 21st, when the Easter lilies and white paraments replace the somberness of Lent? Our Psalm today speaks to people like us. It speaks words of hope.
There’s a strange sort of power in Psalm 91. It just does things to people. There’s a story, now over a century old, about the 91st Infantry Brigade. The 91st Infantry Brigade! The story dates from World War I. The brigade was about to head to the war zone, so the Commander gave each one of his troops a little printed card of this psalm and they decided to recite the Psalm together every day.
As the story goes (and it is only a story, history says it’s not true) the brigade was involved in three of the bloodiest battles of World War I, and while other units suffered about 90% casualties, the 91st Brigade did not suffer a single combat related casualty. Psalm 91, has a strange power over people. It even gets them talking about, and believing mythical war stories.
Please read verses one and two with me.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
The psalmist begins with a firm confession of faith, which moves quickly from a general statement to a personal one. Despite being metaphoric, the words convey the very real presence of the Lord with His people. He is our refuge, like protection from rain or storms.
We just sang the hymn of the Reformation, A Mighty Fortress. It may sound a little odd to sing this on the First Sunday in Lent. But the Christian is never alone. Our strength is always that of God, and His Christ. We are not relying upon our own strength, but on His.
The busyness of this life can easily get in the way of our repentance and contemplation. This psalm reminds us that the most important thing about us, is what we are. We are the people who dwell in God’s protection. We are the people whom God has promised to love, cherish, and protect in the water of Holy Baptism. We are the people He feeds at His altar. We are the sheep of His flock. We are the children to whose prayer turns a father’s ear.
Let’s read verse three and four together.
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
It doesn’t matter, man-made or natural; God protects us from all dangers. The wings of the cherubim above the Ark of the Covenant were thought to be where God was. Hence, this image is one of being taken under God’s wing for protection, like what a mother bird would do with her young. Look at what this God does for us! We are helpless little birds in a scary and dangerous world.
Eventually death will have its way with us. But even on that deadly day God covers us with His wings and under His protection we are safe. Jesus has not only conquered our tempting foe, but also our most bitter enemy, death.
So now, let’s read verse five, six, seven and eight together.
You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked.
These verses bring back to mind the picture of a battlefield. Surrounded by the enemy, outnumbered in strength, we are still protected. This will not always be easy to bear. We are not promised an easy victory in which our foes simply melt before us.
As a matter of fact, just how serious are the dangers? A thousand, even ten thousand, may fall around us. Evil may surround us, but it cannot ultimately lay waste to us. While those whom the Lord protects may behold the devastation with our own eyes, retribution is reserved for the wicked. We do not take delight in the misfortune of the wicked, but we are certain that God will manifest His justice.
Indeed, even though death’s bitter grip will eventually take hold of us, we see these things differently now. Even though sin affects and afflicts us all, that is not the part of the story to which we listen. There is another story, another narrative which speaks of a greater truth than sin, death, and grave.
Let’s read verses nine and ten.
Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—the Most High, who is my refuge—no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.
Does this mean that for Christians everything will be all “sweetness and light”? Does this mean that sickness and other evils are a result of not having enough faith? Does this mean that if you pray hard enough everything will be fine? Such was not the case with our Lord Jesus Christ, whose sinless earthly life ended on a cross, nor was it the case for St. Paul, who prayed that he would be relieved of his thorn in the flesh. Nor was it the case with the other apostles, all of whom, except John, were martyred.
Today we see around us disasters, floods, fires, earthquakes, and horrible diseases. Christians are not immune from these calamities. Even if we avoid outward gross sins, we may suffer simply because we live in a corrupt world that is staggering toward its final destruction.
The difference between Christians and the wicked is not necessarily evident in the degree of misery that comes our way. Rather, the difference is that we who believe in the triune God take refuge in Him, particularly during times of affliction.
Let’s read verses eleven, twelve and thirteen together.
For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
This is the line that Satan quoted to Jesus in our Gospel text. But, did you notice what he left off? Verse eleven actually says, “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” Satan dropped just four little words: in all your ways. That’s really sly of Satan! Those four little words could sound like the most insignificant part of the promise. Until you realize that Satan was actually dropping off the words that made the promise complete, practical, and concrete. Satan dropped those words, so that Jesus (and us) might forget that God is promising to perfectly protect us, as we go about our daily, normal lives.
Satan doesn’t want us to believe that God’s unseen commandos ride the bus with you. His spiritual Navy SEALS have your back when Satan wants to really stick it to you. He didn’t want Jesus thinking about the part of the promise that might remind Him that taking a swan dive into the Kidron Valley doesn’t exactly qualify as what God means when He asks us to walk out in faith.
This phrase needs to be understood in light of Proverbs 3:5–6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart…in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” God does not promise blanket protection, should we deliberately choose to depart from His ways, as Satan urged.
And He does not endow us with some super-human strength which we can demonstrate to the world. Our weakness does not depart from us, but His angels carry us. Whether at home or on a journey, the believer is safe. Even when unaware of His presence, angels are assigned to protect God’s children.
There is an interesting Jewish teaching, that two ministering angels accompany a person through life and testify about his or her life at judgment.
We also know of an angel “strengthening” Jesus as He prayed in Gethsemane (Lk 22:43). If even the Son of God benefited from the ministry of angels, how much more do we!
Let’s conclude by reading the rest of the Psalm together (14/15/16)
“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”
Now, surprisingly God Himself speaks! This amounts to His “Amen” to what has already been asserted.
These verses are both important and profound. They speak of one person’s love for another, God’s love for us, and our devotion to God. And “loving of God” is synonymous with “knowing his name” It points to a close relationship with God, based on loyalty and obedience. It is the language of intimacy, not law, signifying cleaving, yearning and desiring.
Psalm 91 does not promise a lack of trouble, harm or woe. It does promise that God grants His protection in such a way that each trial He escorts us through, leaves us stronger and more confident of His loving care.
In the midst of it all we can be at peace, sensing His presence, bringing joy, and delighting in how He works. Yes, the Lord indeed promises protection in the midst of dangers. He promises that nothing can separate us from His love in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:39). Amen