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April 28, 2019

Sermon Psalm 46:1 . . . “Bible songs:  Our Refuge and Strength”

“Bible songs:  Our Refuge and Strength”

Psalm 46:1

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

No one knows for sure just how it started.  All anyone could say was that, in October of 1347, twelve ships from the Black Sea docked at the port of Messina, on the coast of Sicily.  Then when people gathered on the docks to meet those ships, they were met with a horrifying surprise--most of the sailors aboard those ships were already dead, and those still alive were covered in boils that were oozing blood.  Just as soon as authorities heard about it, they ordered that fleet of “death ships” out of the harbor.  But it was too late.  Over the next five years, the Black Death would kill more than twenty million people in Europe, almost one-third of the continent’s population.

But even before those “death ships” docked at Messina, many had heard rumors about a “great pestilence” that was carving a deadly path across the trade routes of the Near and Far East.  The disease had already struck China, India, Persia, Syria, and Egypt.  Now it had come to Europe.

But there was little that anyone could do about it.  As one Italian poet wrote:  “In men and women alike, at the beginning of the malady, certain swellings...waxed to the size of an apple, others to the size of an egg.”  And along with those boils came fever, chills, aches and pains, and finally, even death.  And it was terrifyingly, indiscriminately contagious--people who were perfectly healthy when they went to bed at night, could be dead by morning.

While the plague ran its course over the next ten years, in the summer of 1527, it struck again in a little town called Wittenberg, Germany.  Sickness spread so quickly that Elector John of Saxony closed the university, and ordered all of his professors, including one named Martin Luther, to take their families and leave the city.  But Luther refused, saying it was the church’s responsibility to stay and care for the sick and dying.  So he and his close friend and pastor, John Bugenhagen, stayed behind to care for those who suffered, turning Luther’s house into a makeshift hospital.

Then, when Luther’s own son, year-and-a-half old Hans, became ill, he was overcome with grief.  He wrote in a letter to a friend:  “So there are battles without and terrors within, and really grim ones.  Christ is punishing us.  It is a comfort that we can confront Satan’s fury with the Word of God, which we have and which saves souls even if that one should devour our bodies.”  And he wrote:  “Commend us to the brethren and yourself to pray for us, that we may endure bravely under the hand of the Lord and overcome the power and cunning of Satan, be it through dying or living.  Amen”

And as he struggled to understand the Word and the will of God, he found comfort in the words of Psalm 46, a psalm that would later become his favorite psalm.  And he loved it so much that he even wrote a hymn, a commentary of sorts, based on this very psalm.

You know how it goes:  “A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon; He helps us free from ev’ry need that hath us now o’ertaken.  The old evil foe now means deadly woe; deep guile and great might are his dread arms in fight; on earth is not his equal.”

Please turn with me to page 598 as I read the words of our text.  Psalm 46:  “To the Choirmaster.  Of the Sons of Korah.  According to Alamoth.  A Song.  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.  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 her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.  The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; He utters His voice, the earth melts.  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

We’ll stop there for a moment.

“To the Choirmaster,” it says, “Of the Sons of Korah.”  Apparently, this was no “average,” “ordinary” song.  It was written for the chief musician, the choirmaster himself.

And while David wrote nearly half of the Bible’s 150 psalms, eleven of them came from a band of musicians called, the “Sons of Korah.”  And thanks to them, we also have, for example, the words of Psalm 42:  “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for You, O God,” and the words of Psalm 84:  “How lovely is Your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!  Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest.”

And one more thing.  The psalm says:  “According to Alamoth.”  And that’s a word, we guess, that means, a song for “high pitched,” or “soprano” voices.

Now verse 1:  “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

Now we can’t say for sure just what the “Sons of Korah” had in mind when they wrote this psalm.  Were the Philistines or the Assyrians or the Amorites or the Hittites once again raging against them?  Were they afraid for the homes or their lives?  We can only guess.

But while we don’t know for sure what the psalm meant to them, we most certainly know what it means to us!

As one author wrote:  “We live in a deeply unsettled world, where once again the questions of war and peace rumble across the international headlines, casually, almost as a matter of routine, as if we have become inoculated to their actual meaning.”

“We have become inoculated,” he wrote.  It’s as if tragedy hardly surprises us anymore.

Take school shootings, for example.  You know about Sandy Hook and Newtown, Connecticut, and Columbine.  But you probably don’t know about Troutdale, Oregon or Seattle, Washington or Palm Bay, Florida or Salisbury, North Carolina.  They had school shootings too.

And that’s nothing to say of officers killed in the line of duty.  So far this year, we’ve lost thirty-three men, two women, and even five dogs (they were officers too!)

And each time, it seems, we become less affected, less shocked.  There’s too much to take in and to try to understand.

So where can we find refuge and strength in the midst of this storm, a help in times of trouble?

There’s only one place.  As the psalmist wrote:  “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

Then verse 2:  “Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.”

Have you ever thought about that word, “therefore”?  As one of my teachers once said, whenever you see that word “therefore,” you have to ask yourself, “What’s it ‘there for’?”

We use that word whenever we want to show “cause and effect.”  For example, we’ll say, “He studied hard for the test.  Therefore, he passed.”  Or, “It was raining today.  Therefore, she brought her umbrella.”

The Bible uses that word “therefore” pretty often too.  Paul wrote to the Colossians:  “Therefore, put to death what belongs to your earthly nature:  sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry.”  He wrote to the Romans:  “Therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.”  And Jesus said in the book of John:  “Therefore, if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

If you think about it, our entire Christian life is built on that one word:  “therefore.”

So if God is our refuge and strength, and a very present help in times of trouble, what then?  Verse 2:  “Therefore, we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea.”

Come what may--nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom, fightings and fears within and without--no matter what happens, God is still our God, and we will be His people.

Even more, look at verse 4, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.”  It’s not a puddle that’s here today, and gone tomorrow.  And neither is a mirage in the desert.  Instead, it’s a smooth, flowing river, a cool, clear, refreshing, never-ending supply.

As Jesus once said to a woman at a well:  “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him, will never be thirsty again.”

And in that city, that “holy habitation of the Most High,” who is with us?  God is!  Verse 5:  “God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.”  

And verse 10:  “Be still, and know that I am God.  I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”

Notice it doesn’t say, “Be still and know the details,” and neither does it say, “Be still and know the reasons.”  Instead, it says, “Be still and know that I am God.”

Imagine having a conversation between you and the Lord.  He asks, “So you don’t like what I just did?  You think I made a mistake?”

You answer:  “As a matter of fact, yes, I do.”

“Then do you think I should have asked for your advice?”

“Yes, and if You had, I would have told You to do something different.”

And the Lord answers:  “That’s why I didn’t ask you in advance.  I already knew how you felt.  Just keep this in mind--I did what I did for My own reasons.  And I did it without consulting you, so you would know My plan is best after all.”

Only an Almighty God can give and take away, can ride upon a storm, can send both prosperity and trouble, and can hear and answer our prayers.

Be still.  Be still and know.  Be still and know that He is God.

One more thing.  Not only did Luther face the Black Death and struggle to care for his people, there were countless other times he sought refuge in the Word and the will of God.  Think of the time he stood before the leaders of both church and state, and said, “Here I stand.  I can do no other.  God help me,” or when Pope Leo X banned him from the church and placed his name in the catalogue of heretics, or when two of his own daughters died.  It was then that he turned to his friend and fellow worker, Philipp Melanchthon and said, “Come, Philipp, let’s sing the forty-sixth Psalm.”

So together they sang:  “The Word they still shall let remain nor any thanks have for it; He’s by our side upon the plain with His good gifts and Spirit.  And take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife, though these all be gone, our vict’ry has been won; the Kingdom ours remaineth.”

As the sons of Korah once wrote:  “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”


Dear Father, though the earth gives way, though the mountains are moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, and the mountains tremble at its swelling, grant that, by Your grace, we may find our refuge and strength in You, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen


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