Sunday, February 21, 2010

At Home in God

At Home in God
A Communion Meditation
© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder

Psalm 91:1-16
Luke 4:1-13
First Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2010

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God in whom I trust. NRSV

Depending on how familiar we are with the stories about Jesus in the gospels, we might have heard the words of Psalm 91 this morning and recognized at least two lines from the Psalm that are quoted in the New Testament in both Matthew and Luke:

He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.[1]

But there is one thing that is a little disquieting about the fact that Psalm 91 is probably one of the most well-known of the psalms. If we do recall the lines of this psalm fairly readily, it may well be because we have heard sermons on the first Sunday in Lent over the years, in which gospel lessons from either Matthew or Luke have been read. In the passages in those gospels where the devil takes Jesus into the wilderness to tempt him three times, on the third try, Satan invites Jesus – possibly we could say he dares him – to leap from the highest point of the temple, trusting in God’s protection for him as announced in Psalm 91, that ministering angels would come to his aid.

The realization that Satan could use scripture itself to tempt the Son of God can serve as one of the first and most sobering lessons for all of us about the Bible and its appropriate uses. It stands alongside the much-told story of the despairing fellow who went to his grandmother’s old family Bible for an answer to a serious problem. Not being familiar with the Bible, and treating it something like a ouija board, he decided he would follow the advice of the first verse he came upon. Letting the pages fall open randomly, his eye came upon Matthew 27:5: “he went out and hanged himself.” Thinking surely that couldn’t be God’s answer to his problems, he thought he should try one more time, and the Bible pages fell open to Luke 10:37: “Go and do likewise.” It may sound funny or perhaps morbidly humorous, but it is amazing how many of us often treat the Bible in just this way, quoting a Bible verse here and there without bothering to recall who might have said or written it, and under what sort of circumstances.

The Bible is not an answer book, and, as our seminary Bible professors tirelessly declared, a text without a context is nothing but a pretext. Jesus knew this, and when he told his disciples about the temptations he had undergone in the desert (as he must have, or how would we know about them?), he provided a clear demonstration that treating words of scripture as an arrogant declaration of special privileges deserved by those who pronounce themselves righteous is – not to put too fine a point on it – tantamount to be found doing the devil’s work for him! It is faith that can provide a sense of ultimate security in God, not some claim of inherited or earned righteousness.[2]

So it’s good for us to think about Psalm 91 today without spending too much time wondering why Satan chose to quote it to Jesus many years after it was originally written. What does the psalm itself have to say to us on its own merits?

Two things that come to my mind are these:

1. The words shelter, refuge, fortress, shadow, dwelling place. The psalm says, “Because you have made the Lord your refuge...” These terms all call to mind home, safety, and belonging. This is a psalm that speaks of ultimate things, lasting things that emerge from our deepest hearts’ desires. Because you have put your ultimate and lasting trust in God, have found your security in God, then no evil will befall, no scourge come near, in any ultimate sense. Those whose trust is in the ultimate protective love of God are given a glimpse of the eternal, with which passing troubles and fleeting friendships cannot compare.

2. Psalm 91 is a hymn that was sung in the Temple in Jerusalem 500 years before Jesus’ time, before the Temple was destroyed by invading Babylonian armies. A pervasive belief had developed about that Temple, that it was a perfectly secure place against which none of Israel’s enemies could prevail. Psalm 91 countered that belief in a building made with human hands, and promoted a faith built on something more lasting. It is not our friends, not our beautiful church, not our doctrine, not the Temple that stands as our secure place. Psalm 91 declares in bold language that it is the Lord who is our refuge. Ultimate hopes placed on anything less eventually will be disappointed.

Reflect on the powerful verbs in God’s promises in Psalm 91 as they declare God’s ultimate intention to be present in our lives:

“I will deliver...”
“I will protect...”
“I will answer...”
“I will be with them in trouble...”
“I will rescue...”
“[I will] honor...”
“I will satisfy...”
“[I will] show them my salvation.”

It is that last one I cling to most fervently. It is one of the diamonds mined by the earliest Christian preachers in their search for evidence of Jesus in the Old Testament. “I will show them my salvation...” and indeed God has, in Jesus Christ. It is the total and perfect self-giving love of the Savior whose supper we share this day that delivers, protects, answers, rescues, honors, and satisfies us, showing once and for all the salvation of God.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Luke 4:10-11. NRSV
[2] See Exploring the Psalms, by Erik Routley, Westminster Press, 1975, p. 134.