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"God is Our Refuge" - Psalm 46 by Joe Ellis - May 26, 2024

By far, this is one of my favourite Psalms — time and again, I’ve come to this Psalm whenever I feel myself in a place of trouble, a place of fear, a place when the world seems to be falling apart around me. This Psalm has helped me to pray whenever I feel I’m in dire straights and troubling circumstances. Let’s look at the first stanza:

God is our refuge and strength,

an ever-present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way

and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,

though its waters roar and foam

and the mountains quake with their surging.


Did you notice that you cannot pray this Psalm alone — even if you try? The writer of the Psalm knows they can’t go it alone so he keeps reminding himself (and us) of this through the Psalm. He says things like “God is our refuge,” “Therefore we will not fear,” “The Lord Almighty is with us,” “the God of Jacob is our fortress.” This Psalm guides us through our fear by bringing us into community before God — we are a community that belongs in the Lord Almighty. Even when we pray this Psalm alone, we are reminded that we are not alone — we are a part of a community whose refuge is in God Almighty. Jesus did the same when he taught us the Lord’s Prayer, he has us always praying together, even when we’re alone. So we start the prayer with “Our Father,” and we pray for ‘our daily bread” and forgiveness for “our sins” and we ask God to deliver “us from evil.” In these prayers, we do not pray alone even when we are by ourselves. These prayers bring us into the presence of God in which we are surrounded by the communion of Saints.


So the poet of Psalm 46 encourages us that we need not fear “though the earth give way, though the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, and the mountains quake with their surging.”  In Old Testament geography, the land was thought to be held up by pillars that reached to the bottom of the ocean floor. Mountains were rooted to the bottom of the ocean. The Psalm writer imagines such a cataclysmic earthquake that creation itself is undone. The very pillars believed to hold up creation snap. The mountains fall straight into the heart of the sea. That’s the moment that the Psalmist says, should this happen, “We will not fear, for God is our refuge.”


I wonder what this imagery moves you to remember — this imagery of the land dropping out beneath your feet. For me, I most viscerally felt this way when my mom was going in for her last round of chemotherapy and my parents, for a time, closed the door on me coming to them for a visit. I remember this visceral sense of falling as though the ground had dropped out from under my feet. I remember flailing about as though in an ocean. In such moments the Psalmist grounds us, saying, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way / and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, / though its waters roar and foam / and the mountains quake with their surging.” What does this imagery bring you to remember? In this church family, we’ve journeyed together through moments like this — and in those moments the Psalmist is ever reminding us to stand together on these words; “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way — for God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”


Then the Psalm writer describes where to go when we feel as though the ground has dropped out from beneath us:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,

the holy place where the Most High dwells.

God is within her, she will not fall;

God will help her at break of day.

Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;

he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord Almighty is with us;

the God of Jacob is our fortress.


The Psalmist is describing Jerusalem, the Holy City, the place where the temple rested, the Holy Place where the Divine Presence most fully lived in the times before Jesus. In various Ancient Near Eastern different cities would have temples for their gods. These cultures held the belief that as long as the deity inhabited the local temple, the city was invulnerable to attack. You can still read ancient lamentation poems written in despair when a god was believed to have abandoned the temple. This was crushing, because if the temple was abandoned the city would certainly be destroyed. Psalm 46 is the opposite of that type of lament. The Psalm writer has full confidence that God is in the holy place, “God is within her, she will not fall,” which is the reason for his confidence in the poem’s beginning, “Therefore we will not fear though the earth give way.” When God is in His temple, we are safe.


Now I’d like you to notice that the poet of Psalm 46 describes a river, coming from the city of God, from the holy place where the Most High dwells. Now there is no river that flows out of Jerusalem, certainly not one that flows from the temple. But significantly, the poets of Israel always believed that this would be a future reality — there will come a day when a stream shall flow from the temple, the day when God restores all things. You can read in the 47th chapter of Ezekiel, the prophet sees a day when there shall be a new temple, and out of this temple shall flow a stream of water. The flow of water from the temple begins as a stream, and slowly enlarges, transforming into an enormous river, giving life to all that the water touches. Ezekiel says of this of river that one day shall flow from the temple: “On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”


Now compare what Ezekiel saw to what John saw and describes at the end of his book, Revelation. John says: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.


You wonder if the writer of Psalm 46, Ezekiel, and John all had a glimpse of the same vision — the living waters of God flowing from the new temple in the new Jerusalem — on that day, when all would be well. When everything that creates tumult and chaos in this life would finally be healed by the life giving water flowing from the temple.

But this imagery of living water flowing from the temple does not only point us forward in hopes for the future, it also grounds us in the person of Jesus. Let’s look at how the imagery of the temple, and living water is taken up in the Gospel of John. In John chapter 2, after Jesus kicked the money changers out of the temple, Jesus says, “‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again’. Then the Jewish leaders said to him, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty six years, and are you going to raise it up in three days?’” But then John helps clarify things for his readers, saying “But Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body. So after he was raised from the dead his disciples remembered that he had said this.”  Here, Jesus also talks about the arrival of a new temple, but this is not a temple of stone, it's a temple of flesh — and to underscore the point, thirty seven years after Jesus’ death, God would destroy the stone temple. Jesus is saying, my body is the temple, the Holy Place where the Most High dwells.


Hold that in your mind, Jesus’ body as the temple, as you hear Jesus take this temple imagery deeper in John chapter 7. Jesus says, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. Just as the scripture says, ‘from within him will flow rivers of living water.’ And again, John helps us understand Jesus by saying “Now he said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were going to receive.”  Notice the significance of this — Jesus is the temple, and from Jesus will flow streams of living water, which is the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Place of the Most High is the body of Jesus — and the river flowing from Him is the Holy Spirit. This is how it will be in eternity, and this is who Jesus was when he walked the earth. And the Apostle Paul reminds us that this is where we live. We ourselves are invited into this imagery — In the sixth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?”  Jesus has poured His Spirit into each of us, and so we become an embodiment of God’s temple. But, that’s not yet the full picture either — in 1 Corinthians chapter 3 Paul says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”  At first blush, this seems very similar — but where in chapter 6 Paul is talking about our individual bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, here in chapter 3 he is referring to the church as the temple of the Holy.

Listen to how you hear these lines from Psalm 46 now:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,

the holy place where the Most High dwells.

God is within her, she will not fall;

God will help her at break of day.


When we come to that place where we feel as though the ground beneath us has collapsed, and the land itself seems to be falling into the heart of the sea — what can we then do but turn to God, our refuge and strength. Yes — and where will we find God? The Psalmist tells us that we find him in the midst of the city, in the Holy Place, the temple where the Most High dwells, from whom rivers of living water flow. And so taking the whole vast scope of this biblical imagery together, we know that when we are so terribly troubled, when we need find refuge, we are not intended to do this alone. God intends for us to find refuge in His presence through the gathered people of God. We are His temple, and we find refuge in Him together.


With that, let’s sit with the final stanza of Psalm 46:

Come, behold the works of the Lord;

see what desolations he has brought on the earth.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;

he burns the shields with fire.

Be still, and know that I am God!

I am exalted among the nations,

I am exalted in the earth.”

The Lord of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our refuge.


In this last section, we are invited together to look forward to the day when God Almighty brings a final end to chaos, and brings everlasting peace. Again, I’m brought to Revelation 21 where John foresaw and heard :


a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”


When we experience the ground has fallen beneath our feet, when we feel that the chaos, the tumult of world events, when the slings and arrows of misfortune besiege us — God invites us, the people of the Most High, to come together and be still in His presence. The Hebrew that is translated “Be still” literally says, “Let go.” “Let go and know that I am God.” When the cares of the world overwhelm us, we come together in His presence — and we are invited there, in that place, to let go. Perhaps only for a moment. We let go of our need to control, our need to manage, our need to make things right, our need to worry. We let go, and together in His presence, our refuge, we learn to trust Him to do the work that only God can do. That He will make things right, He will heal all people, and He will restore all things.

Let go, and know that I am God.

I loom among the nations. I loom upon the earth.”

The Lord of armies is with us,

a fortress for us, Jacob’s God.

Amen.

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