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God in The City

A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on November 21, 2010.                                   

Psalm 46:1-11; Colossians 1:11-14

George Buttrick, whose name might not mean anything to you, was one of the most famous American preachers of the twentieth century. He was pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, and went from there to teach and serve as the chapel preacher at Harvard. Born and raised in England, he came to the States as a young man and made his mark as one of the brightest minds ever to occupy a modern pulpit.

I had the privilege of taking Dr. Buttrick’s preaching course in seminary. He had come to Louisville in retirement, and my alma mater had the good sense to put him to work on a part-time basis. That turned out to be my good fortune indeed. Not only did he instruct us, he befriended us and made sure that each of us had the opportunity to visit with him one-on-one in his study at his home.

I will never forget our conversation that fall afternoon as we sat together at his desk. He asked me if I was an athlete. He said I looked like an athlete. When I told him that I had indeed played some ball in my time, he began waxing nostalgic about his youthful days playing cricket in his native country.

One of the things I learned from Dr. Buttrick, among many others, was that when approaching a biblical text in preparation for a sermon, you don’t necessarily have to begin at the beginning. Sometimes a text speaks to you from the last word it says. Or perhaps it is best to start in the middle and work with that for awhile before considering where the text will take you from there. I have found over the years that this was good advice, and I’ve tried to employ it every week as I begin thinking about what I will say on the following Sunday. Following Dr. Buttrick’s lead, I commend it to you in your own personal study of scripture.

But I found it’s a dangerous thing to do when it comes to Psalm 46. As I began to delve into the psalm, I realized this and thought of Dr. Buttrick and his approach to the interpretation of scripture. If you start in the middle of the psalm, what you get is this terrifying depiction of the very worst natural calamities that could possibly occur…

Though the earth should change…

says the psalmist. Think about that, if you will, and the repercussions of what that would mean for all of us.

Though the earth should change…

Scientists tell us that if, for some reason, the earth were to tilt off its axis by just a fraction of a degree, our planet would go spinning into the cosmos and would burn up and be completely destroyed.

Though the earth should change,

though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

Start your journey through Psalm 46 in the middle with all the images of the world’s chaos and you might just be filled with fear. But did you notice the use of the word “though”?

Though the earth should change,

though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble with its tumult…

The word “though” leads us back to the beginning of the psalm. And what does the psalmist say at the beginning?

God is our refuge and strength,

a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear

Even if all these terrible things were to occur, we would have no reason to fear because God is our refuge and our strength. When we are troubled, God is a very present help.

George Mason tells of the time he was shopping at Target just before Halloween. As he was searching for light bulbs and various other items his wife had included on her honey-do list, he heard a small voice nearby saying over and over again, “I am not afraid. I am not afraid. I am not afraid, I am not afraid.”

The store, as George explains it, was “decorated with Halloween-themed creatures and colors – lots of skeletons and ghouls; black, white and orange.” Evidently, the girl’s mother had suggested to her little daughter that this was a good way of dealing with the obvious fear of being surrounded by such devilish images. After all, as George puts it, this kind of experience can be a “scawy, scawy thing” for a young child. He finally concludes, however, that it obviously didn’t work.1 The little girl was fearful anyway, despite her best efforts at convincing herself she was not.

What if this young girl lived in the world envisioned by the psalmist?

Though the earth should change,

though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

The psalmist is thinking of the most radical and violent action that nature can possibly throw at us, except that in the mind-set of his day, he would not have considered these things as acts of nature. To his way of thinking, as well as those to whom he is sharing his testimony, tsunamis and floods, earthquakes and tornadoes and such are directly attributable to the actions of God. After all, as the psalmist puts it…

the nations are in an uproar,

the kingdoms totter;

and what does God do?…

he utters his voice, (and) the earth melts.

When 9/11 occurred, we turned to this psalm as a hopeful response to the terrorist attacks on our country. Psalm 46 was quoted in many a church that following Sunday. The next year, on the first anniversary of the attacks, we held a special service in our church. It was on a Wednesday night. Do you recall? One of the things I said, and that I still after almost a decade continue to believe, was that our common sorrow – as deep as it was – would not sustain us. Nor would our obvious anger. There has to be something more, there has to be something deeper and more meaningful, that binds us together. Something eternal. Something filled with hope.

I think that has been proven out. As I understand it, the people of New York have gone back, as it was before, to not speaking to one another on the street. The anger still remains after all this time, though it does not bind us together in a common spirit. Anger never does, for anger is not a good healer. That’s been proven in the opposition to building the mosque nearby. Common sorrow will not sustain people and keep them together, nor will anger.

But hope will. Hope built on the faith that God is in the city, that God is with his people.

There is a river whose streams make glad

the city of God,

the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved.

If this psalm sounds familiar to you, it may be because we often read it in funeral services around here. A few months ago, a friend called me to tell me there had been a death in the family. I wasn’t being asked to officiate the service. That wasn’t the purpose of the call. The funeral would be held in another state. And besides, I’m not their pastor. However, the family was afraid that the pastor who would conduct the service, and did not know the deceased, might not choose scriptures they felt would be appropriate for the occasion. Would I be willing to suggest some scriptures they could then ask him to read?

I told her about Psalm 46, along with a couple of others that I often read at such services. A few days later, after the family had returned, I was told that the pastor who conducted the service said he had never thought of this psalm when it came to doing funerals. Excuse me? Really? When you’ve lost a loved one, don’t you feel like the earth has changed, that the mountains are indeed shaking in the heart of the sea, that its waters are roaring and foaming and the mountains are trembling with the tumult of what is going on in your heart and life? That’s the way I have felt.

I wonder what it was that caused the psalmist to reflect on such chaos. It could have been the exile, when his people were forcibly taken into a foreign land. Or maybe it was a death in the family. Whatever it may have been, he imagines the very worst thing that could possibly happen, and then he says…

God is in the midst of the city;

You can’t help but get this image of God walking the streets, encouraging people to hold their heads up, not to be discouraged by the difficulty of their circumstances, to look with hope to God for that which they need when their world is changing.

God is in the midst of the city;

it shall not be moved;

God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;

God utters his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our refuge.

What is the antidote to fear? Is it courage? Maybe. Is it good old-fashioned gumption? What do you think? Let’s frame our response in the context of faith, and see what we come up with. What do you think it might be? What would you say to that little girl in Target? More seriously, what would you offer as testimony to the families of those who died on 9/11? What would you say when you encounter your own 9/11, when you lose someone very near and dear to your heart? What is it that sustains you when you find yourself in your own personal exile?

May I offer a suggestion, spurred no doubt by this season of the year. I think the antidote to such fear is gratitude. But here’s the key: don’t wait until your earth is changing, or the mountains are shaking in the heart of your emotional sea. Don’t wait until you find your mountain trembling with the tumult of the worst that life can throw at you. Start practicing your gratitude now when things are going pretty well, so that it will be deeply embedded in your heart and soul when that time comes that you don’t like very much what is happening to you. Give thanks for what is, instead of withholding your gratitude until everything is as you think it should be.2

We talked about Dr. Buttrick’s idea of taking a look at the biblical text in the middle or perhaps at the end. Look toward the end of Psalm 46 and as the psalmist continues his testimony he says,

Come, behold the works of the LORD;

see what desolations he has brought on the earth.

God makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;

he burns the shields with fire.

And then, did you notice that God takes over the conversation? As instruments of war are being destroyed – or to use the imagery of the prophet Isaiah, swords are being turned into plowshares – God says,

“Be still, and know that I am God!

I am exalted among the nations,

I am exalted in the earth.”

If you are fearful, I would suggest that you do this… First of all, take the counsel of God and be still for just a moment. Hard to do, isn’t it? Let God’s presence slowly but surely take over your heart and settle into your soul. As the heart rate slows down a bit and you begin to see things just a bit more clearly, consider your blessings, as the song goes, one by one. Make a list, if need be. Let those blessings penetrate your mind and heart and realize nothing comes your way that does not have the presence of God within it.

Another minister who has had a marked influence on my life is John Claypool. He speaks of “the awesome challenge of handling responsibly the promises of God.”3 Look around you. This place, these people sharing the pews with you, are absolutely filled with the promises of God. Why? How?

God is in the midst of the city;

it shall not be moved;

God will help it when the morning dawns…

Though the earth should change,

though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

Filled with the promises of God. Now, isn’t that something to be grateful for?

Lord, may we see the promises you give us and handle responsibility the challenge that comes from it. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.

Notes

            1George Mason,“Secret Potion,” unpublished sermon, October 30, 2005.

            2this idea from Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), p. 142.

            3The Hopeful Heart, (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Morehouse Publishing, 2003) p. 39.