God is our Fortress

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What's your hearing like? Those who struggle to hear can have small hearing aids that are hardly seen. But in the past people had large ear trumpets which were highly visible. I'm reminded of Alfred Christopher (known as Canon Christopher) the rector of St Aldates' in Oxford. He was very deaf and needed to have two ear-trumpets. And so when his curates preached there was Canon Christopher crouching below the pulpit listening to the sermon and looking and for all the world like some out-of-place reindeer or, if you remember a certain hotel in Torquay, just like Basil Fawlty's 'Mr Moose'. One lady missionary who saw Canon Christopher said that the two ear trumpets reminded her of 'the elephants raising their trunks to do homage to Buddha'.

But the question remains… What's your hearing like? How prepared are you to hear the Word of God? And how do you encounter that living Word? Is it when you are by yourself or with other people? Is it at home or in church? Is it when the Bible is read or when a sermon is preached? Does it come to you through liturgy, music or song? And when did you last hear the word of God? Yesterday? Last month? Last year? And when you come here on a Sunday are you ever expecting to hear God's Word speaking to you? And when you do hear it, how do you respond to it?

Tonight we encounter God's word in the book of Psalms. The Psalms are not narrative or history but poetry. And poetry is not like history. It's not like narrative. It's picture language. Think of the Psalms as being more like hymns or songs – that's why they have been called the hymnbook of the Jewish church. And not just for the Jews but for Christians. For us, that continuity is expressed when we say the words of the Gloria at the end of the Psalms. The words are not in the Bible, but they express our Christian response to the Psalms. "Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be for ever". The God who has spoken still speaks today. But are we listening as they listened?

The words of the poets of the Bible can touch our hearts and warm our hearts. They give us the words to say when words fail us. They encourage and challenge and comfort us. They can often speak more powerfully and more directly than narrative or history. The words of the poets lead us into the very presence of Almighty God. So what's your hearing like? How is God speaking to you tonight in Psalm 46? As we look at the Psalm - think of a painting – 1: The Canvas, 2: The Picture, 3: The Detail.

1. The Canvas

Before we look at the text, I want us to look at the background to Psalm 46. First, concerning the structure of the Psalm. The eleven verses are subdivided into three sections, each part ending with the word selah. Commentators suggest that the refrain in verses 7 and 11 may also have been said after verse 3:

"The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress".

Second, I've already referred to the word 'selah'. It's found 71 times in the Psalter and three times in Psalm 46. The commentators believe it to be an instruction, addressed to the worship leaders in the Temple. It may well mean 'pause'. In other words, 'Pause here and reflect on what you have just said or sung'. 'Pause here and give the Lord the opportunity to speak to you.' Isn't that something that we need to do in our worship? To be still and to be silent. To be ready to hear the still small voice? Too often we rush through the service and never have time to reflect and to listen.

Third, by way of background, did you notice the words in capital letters at the top of the Psalm? "To the choirmaster. Of the sons of Korah. According to Alamoth. A song." The commentators disagree about their place and significance. Are they an integral part of the Psalm or were they added later by an editor? Do the words at the top of some of the Psalms refer to an actual situation or are they simply illustrations of things that had already happened? It's probably best to take them at their face value, and to take note of what they say. So here then, in Psalm 46 the words are addressed 'to the choirmaster' – presumably the worship leader in the temple. Seventy-three Psalms are attributed to David and eleven to 'the sons of Korah'. Who were they? They were Levites who served as gatekeepers or choir members (Numbers 26.9-11; 1 Chronicles 9.19). And the words 'according to Alamoth' may be a musical direction for female voices. So do you see what we have here? A poem, or hymn or song that was sung by the choir in the Jerusalem Temple. That location is hinted at in verses 4 and 5 where it speaks of "the holy habitation of the Most High" where "God is in the midst of her".

Where was God to be encountered? Not by the seashore or in the hills, but in the Temple, in his 'holy habitation'. It was there in the Temple that God revealed himself. In the Temple he was the object of their worship. In the Temple he became accessible to them. Though distant from them he was near to them. He was their God and they were his people. For most of the time and for many people (including some Christian people) God is a distant figure, a concept, an idea, rather than a personal reality who is alongside us in the midst of our difficulties and doubts and uncertainties. Alongside us in the midst of our sufferings and struggles and despair. Alongside us even when we fall – and yet still ready and willing to pick us up and dust us down, and to point us again in the right direction. Not to abandon us, but ready to walk with us and to support us even in our darkest days. Faith looks to God and we trust in Jesus.

Selah – pause, stop and reflect – is this the word from the Lord that you need to hear today?

2. The Picture

A picture may be a Canaletto – an almost photographic record of what the artist saw. A picture might express surrealism with illogical scenes and weird objects in bold colours. A picture may be a Rowlandson caricature with exaggerated, ugly people in ridiculous poses. And what sort of picture do we find painted in Psalm 46? It would appear to portray a serious crisis. It may well be the time when the Assyrian king Sennacherib laid siege to Jerusalem in 701 BC. Though the people were fearful they were confident in their divine protector.

Remember that Psalm 46 is poetry. It's picture language. It speaks of a fearful people (v.2), of an earthquake or tsunami (vv.2-3), of nations at war, of earthly kingdoms falling apart (v. 6). Notice too that God might bring about the chaos (v. 8). This is a hard one. It was a lesson that the Jews had to learn. That God had sent them into exile. That God had sent them from their land, their city and their Temple. In Psalm 46 this was a warning: in Exile it was to become a reality.

In October 2017 we will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, when Martin Luther challenged the false teaching of the Catholic Church and through his Bible translation, his sermons, his hymns and his liturgy, pushed forward a movement that created the Protestant Reformation. Life for Luther wasn't easy. He had many battles to fight. Frequently he got into difficult and demanding situations. When things were really tough he paused and recited his favourite – Psalm 46 – "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble" (v.1). These words he used in his famous hymn - 'A safe stronghold our God is still, a trusty shield and weapon'.

Psalm 46 was also an inspiration for Charles Wesley who composed two 'earthquake' hymns. In 1750 there were a number of earthquakes that shook London. At the time people thought it was the end of the world. Men like John and Charles Wesley preached sermons on the tremors as being signs of divine judgment upon a sinful nation. Much more serious was the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1775 which devastated that city and was again the inspiration for sermons on sin and judgment.

Now we may not interpret earthquakes like that today (and Psalm 46 may not even refer to an actual earthquake) but do we too readily ignore and fail to take seriously the teaching in the Bible - about the consequences of sin - and the reality of divine judgment? I wonder how Psalm 46 might apply to you, today? You might be despairing and not knowing where to turn? Or you might know where to turn (to the Lord) but are not prepared to do so. Just as a mist hides the view, so your pride hides the face of God.

While you might not be caught up in an earthquake there might be some significant disruption in your life. It may be an illness in your family? It might be the birth of a baby? It may be a move to another part of the country. It may be a pressing decision to make about applying for another job? Psalm 46 might just be nudging you to put your trust in God. You might be anxious about today or concerned about tomorrow. Life was once calm and you felt secure, but now it's chaotic and uncertain. Where then for you is your professed faith in Christ? Psalm 46 might help you to reflect upon the all-sufficient Saviour.

Selah – pause, stop and reflect – is this the word from the Lord that you need to hear today?

3. The Detail

Of course Psalm 46 is not all about earthquakes and wars and disasters. It has much else to say. It's not all doom and gloom. Yes, there is divine judgement but there is also divine mercy. Of a God who hears the cries of his people in their sufferings, of a God who steps in and rescues them and restores them, of a God living in the midst of his people (v.5), of a God who brings peace in place of conflict (v.9). It was believed that the people could encounter the living God in the Temple, where the one who delighted in their praises heard their cries and calmed their fears. He came to hem and was alongside them. There were troubles without but there could be peace within.

Did you notice the words of invitation – "Come, behold the works of the Lord" (v.8) – and also the words of promise – "Be still, and know that I am God" (v.10)? 'Be still' should be taken as a rebuke to a fallen world – 'be quiet – like the words of Jesus in the boat – "Peace, be still" (Mark 4.39).

Psalm 46 certainly helps us to connect with the New Testament – to anticipate what was to come as the story of redemption unfolded. In Psalm 46 there are three prophetic images:

a) The Water of Life

Though Jerusalem was located high in the Judean hills and had no river, it did have a water supply, the Gihon Spring. King Hezekiah diverted the water supply so that the inhabitants of the city should enjoy its benefits and not the Assyrian invaders! (2 Chronicles 32.2-4; 2 Kings 20.20). So here in Psalm 46 is a reference to the "river whose streams make glad the city of God" (v.4) – this life-giving water supply was in contrast to the fearful storms at sea (v.2). Later in Jerusalem would come the One who was to be the water of life (John. 7:37-39), the Lord Jesus Christ.

b) The Heavenly City

Fast forward to the book of Revelation and we have another picture (also an impressionistic picture) of the heavenly Jerusalem, where there was no Temple – for the temple was the "Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb" (Revelation 21.22). It was to be the light to the nations, "and its lamp the Lamb" (v.23), and where "the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, [flowed] from the throne of God and of the Lamb" (Revelation 22.1).

c) The Presence of the Lord

Yet more remarkable are the words in verses 7 and 11 – "The Lord of hosts is with us". Doesn't that remind you of something? When Isaiah the prophet foretold that "The Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7.14; 8.8,10). These words were later quoted by Matthew in Matthew 1.23:

""they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us)."

The Lord Jesus Christ was Immanuel – 'God with us', God alongside us, God carrying our burden of guilt and sin and shame. "The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress". God is with us. God is our stronghold. God is accessible to us. God comes to us in the person of Jesus. When John Wesley lay dying, a friend offered to write down anything he wanted, and he replied, 'Nothing, but that God is with us'. The God who had been with him throughout his life, would not desert him at the end.

So here we have – in Psalm 46 – a picture that speaks of Jesus whose presence we can enjoy, whose forgiveness we can know. In him is life, and joy and peace. He is "our refuge and strength a very help in trouble" (v.1).

Selah – pause, stop and reflect – is this the word from the Lord that you need to hear today?

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