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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 2/21

Psalm 91 is a dangerous psalm.  Apparently even Satan knew that; it’s one of the passages of scripture he quoted as part of his temptation of Jesus in the wilderness perhaps because he knew that it was a psalm that could easily be taken the wrong way.  As the story goes, in the third of his three temptations he gets Jesus up on the pinnacle of the temple which would have been 150 feet up or so, 15-20 stories, and he said, “Throw yourself down,” and then quoted Psalm 91, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,” that’s verse 11; “On their hands they will bear you up lest you dash your foot against a stone,” that’s verse 12.  Satan knew his Bible, and he knew that Psalm 91 was dangerous; it still is, if it’s taken the wrong way.

          Because of that this psalm has kind of a troubled history.  One commentator has gone so far as to say, “It just is not true,” promising as it does that, “no evil shall come near you, nor shall affliction come near your dwelling,” if you take refuge in the Lord.  We know too many exceptions to that statement to take these verses as absolute truth.  I’m sure that among the thousands killed in the Haiti earthquake there were many who took shelter in the Lord yet they weren’t protected, rescued or satisfied with long life.  Am I saying then that the Bible isn’t true or that God’s promises aren’t true?  I’ll get back to that, but first… 

          What this psalm, actually what all the lessons today have to do with is safety and security and you know that that is a topic that generates considerable anxiety on many levels.  Parents worry about whether or not their kids are safe at school and in the neighborhood.  Airline security has been a huge concern since 9/11 along with national security.  Whichever party is in power wants to assure you that you’re safe, the party not in power wants to assure you that you’re not.  H1N1 has created questions about health security, all of us worry about financial security and one of the more recent safety issues is the thing with Toyota, with images of cars careening off the road at a hundred miles an hour because the gas pedal gets stuck.  Those are just a few examples but issues of safety and security are in the news all the time and telling people they aren’t safe continues to be one of the surest ways to get them riled up.

          The desire for safety and security is a pretty basic one which is why political leaders appeal to it as a tactic, why advertisers will highlight safety features in their products.  From the time we’re very young we seek safety, for example if you watch little kids play they love to build forts which might be no more than a blanket thrown over a couple of chairs but psychologists say that it provides a sense of security and shelter, kind of a return to the womb.  As we get older, we might not hide under a blanket thrown over some chairs anymore, not that there’s anything wrong with that if you do, but we still seek security in other ways, the security of money or control or power.

          I experienced this last week when completely unexpectedly I received in the mail a check for $7500 from the estate of my Aunt Helen who died back in November.  She was 97 when she died and I assumed that the nursing home had long since sucked up whatever money she had and even if there was any left I had no reason to think any of it was coming my way.  But there it was; and one of my first thoughts was, “Ah, I little security.  A little safety cushion in the bank.”

          Safety and security do represent a primal desire for us, but at some point I think we realize that despite all the promises, well intentioned or otherwise, there are no guarantees.  So does that mean that Psalm 91 isn’t true?  Well, that’s a matter of interpretation as Satan knew when he quoted it and as Jesus knew when he answered.  What you have to remember is that collectively, the Psalms represent the full range of experience with God, from praise and confidence to despair and doubt.  But no one psalm contains all there is to say about how we experience God nor is it intended to.  Each psalm is like a point on the journey, a point that honestly represents how life is experienced at that moment, but not necessarily at every moment as the journey continues. 

Psalm 91 is a psalm of confidence, an affirmation of God’s presence and protection against the many threats one can run into on the journey of life.  That was the feeling of the psalmist at that moment; now, like him we’re thankful for those times when life feels that way, when God’s in heaven an all’s right with the world.  We’re thankful for the psalms that remind us of this possibility, but we also know that’s not the whole story, that no one can feel that way all the time.       

So when this psalm is used as if it were the only word, when it is used as kind of a lucky charm or a rabbit’s foot in your pocket, intended to magically ward off evil, and it has been used that way, then it’s not true.  It’s not true when it turns faith into superstition.  In the temptation story, that is the direction Satan was trying to push Jesus, but as Jesus rightly said, that would amount to putting God to the test, playing games with God.  If Jesus took the dive, it would have been taking God’s promise of protection and turning it into permission to behave stupidly or turning it into a dare which of course is a total misuse of scripture and a violation of the relationship with God into which we are invited.  It would be an affront to the sovereignty of God.   In Jesus’ case it would have represented victory for Satan in his effort to distract Jesus from the mission to which he was called.

But a psalm like Psalm 91 is true as an expression of God’s presence and protection and support in whatever life brings our way.  It is a word of security, of real security, but it’s not a magic formula to ward off the possible slings and arrows of life that inevitably become part of things.  Those things will happen but what this psalm tells us is that when they happen we have divine resources to draw on, because God is present with us through the trouble, supporting us and, importantly, providing a vision of new possibility.    

From the very beginning, one of the purposes of the writings we have in the Bible was to remind people of God’s presence, especially in times of trouble when they might forget, and also to provide reminders of how God has acted in the past to make things new.  So they remembered the prayers of people like today’s psalmist; they told stories like the one in today’s first lesson that reminded the people of the God who had been with them when they were lost and wandering in the wilderness, the God who had provided and protected and made them a great nation.  People like the apostle Paul wrote letters assuring that God’s saving action wasn’t just about the past but  was for all people, now.  The gospel writers told the stories of Jesus who like us was tempted to forget about God’s presence with him, tempted to depend on Satan’s smooth talk about power, tempted by Satan’s vision of God as something like a magic wand. 

As we begin this Lenten season one of our goals might be to remember not to forget, not to forget where our real security lies.  The temptation to seek security in something other than the Lord of the gospel is always there and unlike Jesus, we do sometimes give in to those temptations.  But then we remember the psalms and the stories.  We hear their truth, not as magic but as reminders and as promise and realize that all those other securities are limited, but the security of the God who promises to be with us is always there, always welcoming us back, always providing refuge.

It’s a good thing to think about as we begin this year’s Lenten journey.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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