There come wintery episodes in the course of a snow battered lifetime that place us deep in the shadows. If the shadow is dark enough, we may not feel able to move forward, for our foresight and insight and eyesight are so limited. We may become frozen, snowed in.
You may have known this condition—of confusion or disorientation or ennui or acedia. You may know it still. The death of a loved one can bring such a feeling. The loss of a position or job can bring such a feeling. The recognition of a major life mistake can bring such a feeling. The recollection of a past loss can bring such a feeling. The disappearance of a once radiant affection, or love, for a person or a cause or an institution can bring such a feeling. The senselessness of violence inflicted on the innocent can bring such a feeling.
(Over the years I have grown frustrated by my own mother tongue in various ways. English places such a fence between thought and feeling, when real thought is almost always deeply felt, and real feeling is almost always keenly thought. We need another word like thoughtfeeling or feltthought. When C Wesley sang ‘unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, learning and holiness combined, and truth and love let us all see’ he described something so bone marrow close to my own life, happiness, hope, ministry, faith. And he also I think was wrestling with the limits of our beautiful language. Anyway, you by nature and discipline live the thoughtfeeling gospel, and for that I am lastingly thankful.)
Be it then thought or feeling or thoughtfeeling, there do come episodes, all in a lifetime, that place us, if not in the dark, at least well into the shadows. You may have known all about this at one time. You may know it still.
Come Sunday, some snippet of song, or verse, or preachment, or prayer, it may be, will touch you as you meander about in the dim shadow twilight. Hold onto that snippet. Follow its contours along the cave of darkness in which you now move. Let the snippet—song, verse, sermon, prayer—let it guide you along. So you may be able to murmur: ‘I can do this…I can make my way…I can find a handhold or foothold…I can abide in this shadow…For now I can abide here…I can make it for now, at least for now, for the time being.’
This Lent we shall await a word about war and peace, about drones and defense, about our beloved country in this year of our Lord. We will rightly desire a word of interpretation about a passage in Scripture—Old Testament, Gen. 22, or Epistle, Rom 10. or Gospel, Luke 4. This Lent we will rightly desire a communication about how to live, in discipline and obedience and faith, during a time of penitence and preparation and we will want a word from our Lenten conversation partner Marilynn Robinson. All in due time. Today , first, though, the word, near to us, on our lips and in our heart, is a word of faith, the given courage to abide in the shadow. Health is such a word, and very salvation, for those who are stumbling a bit and stumbling about in the dark today. On this plea for faith all our other attentions depend. So says the 91 Psalm.
Today the psalmist lifts a hymn of faith, a song of courage in the face of adversity. He speaks from his experience. He teaches, like a grandfather teaching a grandson. Spinning a fishing fly. Boiling the sap down in the sugar house. Watching a basketball game. Watching the sun set.
Given the wintery snares, cold air illness, icy night terrors, and snow bound disease, noonday destruction, evil, scourge, wild beasts of this very day, it could be that a sober reading of the 91st psalm, a trusting hymn of a faithful heart, will sustain us this morning. In this psalm we are promised divine deliverance in five ways…So…
1. Deliverance from snares…
Our singer is a person of simple faith. He has one, and only one, word for us: You are covered. Abide in the shadow.
We could make many complaints about this hymn and its singer. He has a dangerously simple view of evil, especially for the complexity of a post-modern world. He has a way of implying that trust, or belief, are rewarded with safety, a notion that Jesus in Luke 13 scornfully dismisses, and we know to be untrue. He has an appalling lack of interest in the scores of others, other than you, who fall by the wayside. He seems to celebrate a foreordained, foreknown providence that ill fits our sense of the openness of God to the future, and the open freedom God has given us for the future. He makes dramatic and outlandish promises not about what might happen, but about what will be. As a thinking theologian, this psalmist of psalm 91 fails. He fails us in our need to rely on something sounder and truer than blind faith. He seems to us to be whistling past the graveyard.
And yet… for those who have walked past a February graveyard or two, for those who have walked the valley of the shadow of death, for a country at war for a decade now, for a world searching to match its ideals of peace with its realities of hatred, for you today if you are in trouble, and who are worried today about others and other graves and other yards, and who have seen the hidden traps, unforeseeable dangers, and steel jawed snares of life, there is something encouraging about this simple song: “he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler”.
2. Deliverance from illness…
Our writer is not a philosopher. He is a musician, perhaps, but not a systematic thinker. He has one interest: getting by, getting through, getting out, and getting home. So he does not worry about the small stuff. In fact, I have a sense that the psalmist is desperate. His song is one for that point on the road when you just have to go ahead and risk and jump. You have made your assessment, you have made your plan, you have made your study, then you have prayed. Yet you see all the pestilence about you in homes and institutions and nations, so you wonder, is it worth the risk? You are not sure.
This hymn of the heart is one you sing when you are not sure, but you are confident. Not certain, but confident. You can be confident without being certain. In fact, a genuine honest confidence includes the confidence to admit you are not sure. Faith means risk. Isn’t that part of what we mean by faith? Our writer is at that point, the point of decision. Once you are there, you have to choose between walking forward and slinking away. It becomes very simple. Either God lives or not. Either God is in Christ or not. Either God in Christ touches us by Spirit or not. Either we move forward in faith, or not. Choose. And the Psalmist wants his student or grandson or parishioner to choose in faith. So he urges: abide in the shadow of the Almighty … “He will deliver you from the deadly pestilence.”
3. Deliverance from night terror…
Our psalmist is speaking just here to our immediate need. Fear not the terror of the night. Go about your discipleship: pray, study, learn, make peace, love your neighbor, agree to disagree agreeably, every one be convinced in his own mind. The night is not as terrifying as you fear…”You will not fear the terror of the night”.
4. Deliverance from noonday destruction…
It is in the heart of the Psalm that one senses the singer’s desperation. There is an irrational side to his message. ‘Thousands will fall but you will be spared.’ It will not help us to ask about the ethics of this promise. Nor will it help us to question the sense of destiny involved here. I hear this psalm in another way. I hear it as a father’s prayer, or a mother’s dearest hope. I cannot help but think that this psalm perfectly captures the hope, the visceral hope, which this decade has been on the minds of our own parents of soldiers and sailors. Noonday destruction will not come near you. I pray that noonday destruction will not come near you.
I remember a Day Care center where I used to see notes pinned to the coats and sweaters of daycare toddlers. This psalm is a note pinned to the shirt of a loved one heading into danger. When there is nothing else we can give our daughters and sons we want them to have faith. Faith to go forward, bravely, without being sure of what they will find at noonday. And we are passionately desperate for one hope: that they will come home. And we sing the song without any chords of doubt, because we want to admit none. We make no uncertain sound because we want our beloved to carry no worry, but to be armed with the confidence of the Lord. This is a battle hymn. It is the kind of song you sing to yourself when all about you there is mayhem. If I were a chaplain it is the kind of psalm I might give to a soldier to memorize by day and recite by night in the face of mayhem. “You will not fear the destruction that wastes at noonday.”
5. Deliverance from evil…
The teacher implores his student to make God his place of dwelling, his home. To rest in God, so that all else is secondary. Evil will not befall, or at least will not define, such an one. How can someone escape all evil? We know better. We know that evil touches us all. But this misses the meaning of the poem. The writer is praying! In the same way we pray, every Sunday. Deliver him from evil! Not from some, or most, almost all evil, but from evil! Religion is a matter of the heart before it is a matter of the head. As Wesley said, the mind is the bit and bridle, but the heart is the great horse, the mighty steed of faith. “He will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
Coda: “I will deliver him…”
Deliverance from snares, illness, terror, destruction, and evil.
Our psalm ends, as does this sermon, at the edge of a remarkable announcement. Like lightening flashing over a darkened sky, or like a burst of sunlight separating clouds, the voice of the poem shifts. God speaks directly to the human heart. It is a shift devoutly to be desired. All of the speaking, from teacher to student and grandfather to grandson, all of the instructional lines are now interrupted, and on a grand scale, and on a profound scale. Like Yahweh addressing Job, the psalm ends with a divine word. It is a shift, yes, devoutly to be desired. It is what we hope will happen with every one of our children. It is what we hope will happen in every one of our worship services. Frankly, it is what we hope will happen in every sermon. All the rest gives way to…God. Now the fumbling voice of the teacher is replaced by a divine voice. Now the Lord speaks in the first person, and his word is a lasting joy: “I will deliver him…I will protect him…I will answer him…I will be with him…I will rescue him…I will honor him”
When we have nothing else to go on, there is something irreducibly solid, something strong and good—the divine voice in the faith of Christ—to which we may cleave and cling. Finally, this is what brings you to the pew and me to the pulpit and us to the church, the hope that something may be said and heard that is divine, saving, satisfying and true. In the silence that follows all our speaking, like the priestly verses that follow the human voice in this psalm, we may hear something that changes everything. So Charles Wesley, as ever, in perfect pitch:
Let us plead for faith alone
Faith which by our works is shown
God it is who justifies
Only faith the grace supplies
Active faith that lives within
Conquers hell and death and sin
Hallows whom it first made whole
Forms the Savior in the soul
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel