“Selah”. Don’t know what it means? Neither do I. “Selah”. It is a mysterious instruction, written in the margin of this – and other – psalms. No one knows how to translate the word “selah”. Perhaps it means “Amen, we agree, that’s right”. Those who have thought about this much more than I argue that it stands for “chorus” or “refrain”. That is how Gerald Hobbs lined out Psalm 46 when he translated it for Voices United. Notice the letter “R” for “Refrain” repeated three times in the 46th Psalm (p. 770). In each case it appears in place of the word “selah”. And, in each case, the refrain – like the word “selah” – comes at a turning point in the song. So here is how we will host the text this morning. Each time the sermon is about to turn a corner from one section of the Psalm to the next we will become the choir singing the refrain:“The God of Jacob is for us a refuge strong and sure.” That’s one way to be kept on our toes. Listen for the “selah”.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” The opening line is one of the 46th Psalm’s most memorable verses. No surprise here. What else do we expect to sing and preach and teach our children in a church? This sounds as confident as the coinage that declares “In God we trust”. Sometimes faith is like that – confident, sure, taken for granted. But that is not how the 46th Psalm sounds to me this morning. To me it sounds less like the status quo and more like a daring claim. I imagine that it is a counter-song, a protest song to be sung over against so many songs that name something other than God as the location of reliable safety. They promise to hold our troubles at bay and to keep our secrets and to soothe our deep ache. They teach us that “having a good reputation and always being right is our refuge and strength”. They promise that “a home and secure investments is our refuge and strength”. They seduce us into believing that “our medication – more booze or more dope or more sex or more clothes or more food – is our refuge and strength”. We sing Psalm 46 in the face of the oppressive idolatry that regularly holds us hostage. We sing it knowing our deep temptation to mistrust God.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Did you notice? This is a song to be sung in trouble. It declares that God is “very present in trouble”. It does not announce that to believe in God is to be spared trouble. It sings that God is “intensely found” in trouble. “Intensely found”. That is a literal translation of the Hebrew. It is what we mean when we sing and preach and teach our children that the gospel is a journey that leads us through our own dark Good Friday, that bears us during the anxious absences of our own long Holy Saturday and that continues into the newness of an Easter Sunday that inevitably results in trouble for those who then live the new ways of God’s kingdom come, God’s eastering will done. The God we meet in Jesus Christ is very present – intensely found – in trouble. We want to sing that God is intensely found in a sunset, in the birth of a child, in the joys of living in a harmonious congregation. But Psalm 46 teaches us to sing this bold song: “God is our refuge and strength, intensely found in trouble.”
“Therefore we will not fear”. Some might sing this fearlessness with certitude. We sing it as a defiant act of courage. The truth is that we are terrified when confronted by overpowering forces of destruction. Learning Psalm 46 is about learning to sing through our fear. Four times the Psalm names reasons to fear for our life: “though the earth should change (1), though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea (2); though its waters roar and foam (3), though the mountains tremble with its tumult (4).” It is singing us through the primeval chaos that God’s good creation normally holds at bay. Remember how the creation story frames the cosmos. It portrays the world kept dry and stable by God’s firmament – the dome in the sky and the pillars beneath the earth that keep the dangerous waters of chaos at bay. All it takes to flood the earth in the time of Noah is for God to open the trap doors beneath and above so that trouble floods in and chaos sweeps life away in a stormy sea of grief and loss. Such tsunamis of sorrow are not restricted to the ancients. We know what it is to live in fear that the world is coming unglued, that our carefully ordered lives are breaking apart. The trouble is global and ecological and geo-political. It is also local and familial and ecclesial. The neighbourhood and the household and the church are not immune from chaos. The places we know best can suddenly be swamped by trauma that overwhelms every attempt we make to dam the waters and hold back the pain. Which is not to mention the closest and most terrifying trouble of all – the deep chaotic waters of our own psyche and subconscious that leak into our dreams and fuel our anxieties and, more often than we know, guide our choices. The 46th Psalm teaches us how and what to sing and preach and teach our children in the face of these rising, raging flood waters. <Selah>
“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” The Psalm takes a sudden turn. Now the water is not chaos, not terrifying, not drowning. It is the elemental water that rises up as a life-giving spring in the Garden of Eden, dividing there into the four great rivers that water the earth. This is the same elemental water that God has held back in creation. Now it comes not to sweep away but to nourish and to quench and to bless. In God’s habitation this primal water gives life. See why the baptismal font is central here. It is the life-giving fountain, the river whose streams make glad the city of God. In baptism we die to seeking refuge in the false promises of other so-called gods. At the font of life we are reborn in Christ singing: the LORD of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.
“Our refuge.” Three times in Psalm 46 we sing“our refuge”. This is the heart of the matter. Those who sing Psalm 46 are refugees. Psalm 46 is a song for any who have been cut off from a place that once seemed solid, from a time that once seemed dependable, from a way of life that once seemed secure. That place and time and way is no longer a safe refuge. These refugees find themselves in need and unable to save themselves. They seek sanctuary. They long for safe refuge. This is the reason that the church has long been portrayed as a ship – like Noah’s ark in the midst of the terrible flood. It is the reason that the Latin word for a place of worship is the “nave” from which we get “navy” because it is the word that means “ship”. Remember the old adage about enduring life in the church: “If it weren’t for the raging storm outside you couldn’t stand the awful stench inside.” The church is a ship whose passengers are refugees. We gather seeking sanctuary. Stop and think about the reason that we call this holy place a “sanctuary”. It means that we are safe in God’s presence. Safe. Safe with our stories and our secrets. Safe with our grief and our doubt. Safe with our sin. Safe with our soul.
Perhaps you are not so sure about that last part. Perhaps you want to believe that your dark side and your precious soul are as safe with God as they are on a therapist’s couch. Perhaps you wish the Bible said so. Perhaps you don’t realize that it does. Don’t you see? It’s right here, in black and white: “The God of Jacob is our refuge.” Remember Jacob? Jacob who cheats brother Esau of father Isaac’s blessing. Jacob who dreams of a stairway to heaven as he flees - not a ladder that Jacob climbs but a ramp that God’s messengers descend. Jacob who wrestles with God through a long shadowed night before the fateful reunion with his brother. Jacob who leaves that terrifying bout at once lame and renamed: “Israel” (in Hebrew: “God-wrestler”). If Psalm 46 were a song reserved for those who have already been transformed and reborn and redeemed and renamed by their encounter with God then surely the lyric would read: “the God of Israel is our refuge.” But it does not. Psalm 46 teaches us to teach our children to sing this into our bones: “The God of Jacob is our refuge.” The God of the prodigal is our refuge. The God of the sinner is our sanctuary. The God of the outcast is our haven. The God of Jesus Christ is our host. Amen? <Selah>
“Come, behold the works of the LORD.” The 46th Psalm concludes by inviting us on an inspection tour of God’s latest project. We expect to be shown some fantastic new construction. Instead we lay eyes on a scene of massive deconstruction: “See what desolations God has brought on the earth.” See what God is destroying. War and conflict and feuding is dying; tanks are left in the lane for recycling; junkyards are stockpiled with useless missiles; bullet-proof vests have become fuel for great bonfires. Spying this panorama requires a particular kind of seeing, a biblical angle of vision. It is called proleptic sight. It is sight that is seen before it occurs. It is not yet but it is certain. It is impossible but it is inevitable. It is so sure that we can sing of it as something that God has already accomplished. Yet we act as if we do not believe it. We hang on to our favorite weapons. We cannot let go of our beloved old quarrels. We live as if we do not trust that God is destroying all of our battles. This is too much for God. So far the Psalm has been all our song. God has not managed a word in edgewise. But God can no longer remain mum. In the face of such blatant distrust God speaks:“Be still, and know that I am God!” We know this verse. It is a familiar part of our spiritual lexicon. We have imagined that it is spoken in the hushed tones of a monastery, God’s index finger raised to God’s lips with a whispered: “Shhhh ... be still”. But, of course, in the 46th Psalm this is the thundering voice of God booming out over the din of our tribal warfare and of all human conflict in order to be heard. The Hebrew is not so much “be still” as it is “step back … let go ... shut up … cease fire … and know that I am God!” Be still. Cease fire. Drop your slogans. End your war of words. Resolve your family feud. Reconcile with your sisters and brothers. Make peace with yourself. And know that I am God. <Selah>