Grace Presbyterian Church
February 14, 2016, Lent 1C
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Luke 4:1-13
A Psalm of Confidence
The Psalms are a fairly constant presence in the life of the church. Certain individual psalms are irreversibly locked into the memory banks of the body of Christ – Psalm 23 most notably, but there are others. Musicians come to know Psalm 150 very well, as well as Psalm 100. Individual verses from particular psalms also stand out as well.
Presbyterians, taking a cue from their heritage in the Reformation as inspired by John Calvin, have given particular emphasis to the inclusion of psalms as a regular part of worship. It wasn’t always a good thing, mind you; the song of the church would be infinitely poorer if, as under Calvin’s control, psalms were the only songs that could be sung in the church’s worship. But consciously including psalms in worship is a good thing. It was a relief to me to see, upon arriving at Grace a little over a year ago, that psalms were regularly included in worship in the form of the responsive reading. Mind you, the musician in me can’t help but feel that’s not quite as good as singing them, but it’s still good.
I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t also acknowledge that there is risk in such regular hearing of the psalms in such a fashion, as there is with anything that is repeated on a regular basis in worship or any other part of our life together. We can become so accustomed to hearing the psalm in worship that we forget to listen to it. The risk is present that it becomes merely background noise. Again, that can be true of many parts of worship – the choir anthem, the prayers, any of the scripture readings, even (shudder) the sermon.
This would be a shame, because Psalms is unique in the Bible as the one book in which we are given models for a human response to the revelation of God.
Now before anybody gets in a theological panic, let’s be clear here: Psalms is just as much a book of divine inspiration as any other in the Bible. But note how many of the psalm texts are composed from a decidedly human point of view: “The Lord is my shepherd…” or “Create in me a clean heart, O God” from Psalm 51, “O come, let us sing unto the Lord” from Psalm 95, just for a few examples.
Another way in which individual psalms model a human response to God is found in today’s reading from Psalm 91. Here the psalmist offers testimony to the faithfulness of God directed to his (or her) fellow worshipers. It’s a pretty simple effect: the psalmist has known and experienced the goodness of God, and testifies to that goodness to others, expressing confidence in the God who has shown goodness and graciousness to all of the children of God.
The psalmist proclaims God’s protection, speaking of God as a “refuge” and “fortress.” Perhaps the psalmist has known God’s deliverance from great trouble or distress. Or possibly the psalmist is creating this expression of confidence as an act of devotion, given for the corporate worship of the people of Israel.
In either case, we are witnessing the psalmist wrestling with the perennial challenge of God’s people: how do we express our devotion to a God who is beyond expression? What words do we, word-bound creatures as we are, use for a God who is beyond words?
It would be a mistake to assume that a passage like this one has to become a fixed text. We are not going to find our way to a most effective expression of worship or prayer or anything by taking verses like these first two and turning them into inflexible and rote mantras we repeat mindlessly. That’s not what these psalms are meant to be. Rather, we take these psalms and let their language shape and inform and inspire our own hearts in our own language. We learn to speak confidence not by turning the verses into a repeated formula but by taking them into our hearts, learning confidence as we live with the guidance of the Spirit in the body of Christ. Let the psalm teach you how to praise.
There is, of course, a risk to all this confidence. We humans are pretty good at taking such confidence and becoming jerks with it. We take such words as this psalm offers and, instead of learning how to live and give praise and be in the body, turn them into weapons. Confidence in God too easily becomes pride in our own righteousness. We get tempted to flaunt that confidence, to act as if we have somehow earned that refuge or that shelter or that fortress by our superior faith. Or we are tempted to use that confidence as a means to wield power.
This is the crux of the temptation Jesus faces in our gospel reading. The outlines of the story are familiar. Jesus, after being baptized, is led by the Spirit out into the wilderness. He eats nothing for those forty days, and faces temptation from the devil. First, appropriately enough for someone who hasn’t eaten for forty days, Jesus is tempted to use his power to turn stones into bread. Jesus refuses, using the words of Deuteronomy 8:3. The second temptation, a temptation to claim ultimate power in turn for allegiance to the devil, Jesus turns away with words from Deuteronomy 6:3.
Then comes the kicker: it turns out, as Shakespeare would say many centuries later, that the devil can cite scripture for his purpose. If Jesus is going to keep quoting scripture at the devil, well, two can play at that game, and the devil does exactly that, pulling out a couple of verses from today’s psalm.
Sounds like checkmate, huh? I can quote scripture just as much as you. So there. But there’s a big difference between being able to quote scripture and knowing it. At minimum, this should be a reminder that the person quoting scripture at us isn’t always the nice guy.
Our call isn’t to become a quote machine. We can memorize all the Bible verses we want, but if the message of that scripture doesn’t sink into our minds and hearts and inform the very way we think and act and speak, it’s not all that useful. Certainly Jesus knew the psalm the devil quoted, but Jesus also knew that the devil’s use of that scripture was a twisting and distorting of its message. The psalmist didn’t talk about angels guarding you from dashing your foot against a stone in order to encourage you to jump off tall buildings to prove your faith or to prove that God likes you best. The psalm teaches confidence in God’s refuge, not putting God to the test – which of course Jesus answers to the devil, using one more passage from Deuteronomy, 6:16.
Let the Psalms be a teacher for these next few weeks, particularly in this season of Lent. If the great challenge of Lent is to examine ourselves and know our need for repentance, these psalms help us to find that language of confidence in God, as well as such things as trust, dependence, wisdom, repentance, and many more responses to God with which we modern followers of Christ so often struggle. Let the words of these psalms be more than just words; let them be wisdom, “wisdom in my secret heart” as Psalm 51:6 describes. Take in these verses and let them help you form a language for self-examination, for looking into those darkest corners of the soul and seeing what God sees in you, both the good and the bad.
For scriptures that help us pray and reflect, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH 90): “O God, Our Help In Ages Past” (210); “Within Your Shelter, Loving God” (212); “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” (81); “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” (540).