1You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
2will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
3For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence;
4he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day,
6or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.
8You will only look with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.
9Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place,
10no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.
11For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.
12On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
13You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
14Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.
15When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.
16With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.
I believe that nothing else has taught me more about the love of God than being a father myself. Throughout the New Testament we find Jesus referring to God as Father, or sometimes even using the more personal name “abba”.
It makes good sense that Jesus would call God father, because as Christians we profess that Jesus is the son of God. But the thing that I find interesting is that when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray in what we know as the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches his disciples to all address God as father. He teaches them to pray “Our father in heaven” not “Jesus’ father in heaven.”
I didn’t do any research on this, but I assume that each of the disciples had a father. And I am going to go out on a limb and guess that each of you has a father (living or deceased). What Jesus is trying to do is to use a metaphor to describe our relationship with God. Our relationship with God is to be like that of a child to their father.
Now I just want to address up front that this metaphor is not helpful for everyone because to be honest, there are some pretty bad fathers out there. Perhaps you have never met your father; perhaps you wish you had never met you father. But hopefully we have all seen good examples of what it means to be a loving, nurturing, caring father because there are a lot of similarities between that kind of relationship and how we are to relate to God.
As my son begins to crawl, we are finding that our house is not ready to have a little boy that has an explorer’s yearn for excitement. Electric cords are like a baby magnet, drawing young children to play with them. Stairs, I believe, will be a challenge in the very near future, a challenge that my little explorer will seek to conquer. As I walk through my home and think of all of the modern conveniences that we have, I can see that many of them can also be a danger to my little boy. The toaster, the stove top, the knife drawer, my collection of homemade fireworks (we have got to move those out of the nursery). These things are dangerous to a baby so when I see Paxton playing with the television cord, I tell him that it might hurt him. When I see him crawling toward the stairs, I say, no, you could fall and bump your head. I want to protect him, to keep him from pain, because I love him.
Verses 1 and 2 from our scripture for this morning reads, “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” These Psalms were written probably about 3000 years ago. And in that day and age building materials were a little bit difficult to come by and tools were quite primitive. So often they would have built dwellings and shelters into the side of a mountain, utilizing the natural caves in the rock. When a strong storm was coming on or an enemy was attacking, the caves would have been a safe place to find shelter and protection.
So the Psalmist takes this imagery of hiding in a cave for protection and applies it to God. God is our fortress. God is our shelter. God is the one that will provide the protection that we need. And because God will protect us, whom shall we fear? Nobody and nothing. That is why the Psalmist refers to God as “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
Does this mean that nothing bad will ever happen to you? I wish I could say yes, but we all know that isn’t true. Bad things do happen to good people. About 300 years after this Psalm was written, the Assyrians overcame the southern part of the Promised Land and carried the people off into exile. Another 150ish years after that the Babylonians came in and they finished the job that the Assyrians had begun by overtaking Jerusalem and the rest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. God is a great protector, a great shelter, a great fortress. But God does not always promise that everything is going to work out just as we would have it work out.
I don’t think that this is the purpose of Psalm 91, to tell us that God will always give us victory over our enemies or that God will always keep us from pain. We could go through countless stories in the Old and New Testament, as well as the stories of martyrs in our own faith tradition, to see that God does not always deliver us from our enemies and keep us from harm. But I think that the point of much of the Bible isn’t that God will keep us safe from harm. I think that one of the points of the Bible is that we serve a God who protects us, but also a God who suffers with us when we suffer.
If you have been to our home, you may recall that our backyard is at two different levels with a stone retaining wall separating the two levels. We have to climb up four or five steps to get to the upper level.
One day, as Paxton and I were going up to check on the garden after a rain, I slipped on the first step and began to fall forward. I was holding him in my arms so I could not reach my arms out to brace myself, so instead I turned my body sideways to avoid falling directly on him. I turned is such a way so that I landed on my side on the stone stairs. Ouch.
I wasn’t hurt badly, and neither was Paxton, but he was sure scared by the entire event. He cried. But what he didn’t realize was that I took the majority of the impact. I fell and I cushioned his fall.
When I read the Psalmist saying that God is our fortress and our refuge, I think of God taking the majority of the impact for our sake as well. A fortress in the middle of a battle endures flaming arrows, battering rams, and cannon balls. Everyone suffers in a battle, but probably no one and nothing more than the fortress itself.
I think that this is one reason that God became human, taking on flesh in the form of Jesus Christ. We do not serve a distant God that does not care about us; we serve a God that suffers beside us, knowing our pain, knowing our suffering, because he too has suffered and been tempted. He can relate. And I think that verse 11 and 12 should be a reminder to us of that.
Verses 11 and 12 say this: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” If you are familiar with the New Testament and you have never read or heard read Psalm 91, this should still sound familiar to you. Someone famous quoted these two verses in Matthew chapter four and Luke chapter four. Or maybe I should say that an infamous person quoted these two verses in Matthew and Luke, because it was none other than the devil himself.
After Jesus was baptized in the Jordan and had received the Holy Spirit, he was led out into the wilderness where he fasted and was tempted for forty days. And one of the temptations involves the devil taking Jesus up to the highest point of the temple, which would have overlooked a valley, and the devil said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” And then the devil quotes this scripture to Jesus, reminding him that God will command his angels to guard him, bearing him up so that he will not dash his foot against a stone.
Jesus knows scripture. He knows this Psalm and he knows that the devil isn’t making this stuff up! So Jesus jumps. No! He doesn’t jump, he quotes scripture right back to the devil and tells him that scripture also says that you are not to put God to the test.
So how are we to interpret this? Here we have this Psalm telling us about how God intervenes and protects those who love him and serve him. And surely Jesus fits that description! If anyone would have been saved by God, if anyone would have had angels sent to care for them and to keep them from dashing their foot upon the rocks, it was Jesus. So why didn’t he just jump to prove his identity to the devil and to himself?
This was the sin that Jesus was tempted with by the devil: testing his father. How much can I get away with? How far can I push God? As we read through the New Testament we find times when God did deliver Jesus. In chapter four of Luke’s Gospel, [one of] the same Gospel that tells us that Jesus refused to see if God would really protect him, Jesus is found preaching in his home town of Nazareth. And evidently Jesus’ message struck a cord with these people because they wanted to throw him off the high place of that city. For anyone that wants to measure the impact of a sermon, use this as a guide. If people want to throw you off something after you’re done with the sermon, then you said something that they took notice of. But when they wanted to throw Jesus off the cliff, what happened? Jesus was able to pass through the crowd of angry people who wanted to throw him off the cliff and they didn’t even see him.
Now we could try to rationalize this by saying that maybe such a crowd had gathered that Jesus just got mixed up in the group and walked through the group during the commotion. But I think it was more than that. Nazareth wasn’t that big of a city. There would have been at least ten people living in the city for them to have a synagogue, but because Nazareth is not really mentioned in other writings penned during the first century, it really couldn’t have been much of a city at all. Some have estimated that there might have been only about 30 people living in Nazareth during Jesus’ day. So they wouldn’t have lost sight of him in the crowd. This was God intervening. This was God protecting him. This is the same God that just a few verses earlier Jesus was saying that we shouldn’t put to the test. It is not that God can’t protect from harm, but that we are not to put ourselves in harm’s way so as to put God to the test.
Earlier in our service for today we got to do one of my favorite things as a pastor; we had a baby dedication. Garlan and Sylvia promised before God and this congregation that they would try to raise their son, Grayson, in the ways of Christ. And not only that, we as a congregation agreed that we too would do what we can do to help in raising this little boy so that one day he can make the decision to follow Jesus.
Now what most people don’t know is that baby Grayson didn’t have a real easy time coming into this world. Everything seemed to be going just fine. Sylvia was approaching her due date, the baby showers had taken place, all of the necessary items were purchased and in place. Then around 9 am on Saturday, the 7th of August, she started having contractions. This being her third child, Sylvia figured that the baby would be coming soon. At 6:06 pm that same evening I got a call from Garlan saying that they would not be at church on Sunday.
I figured that the baby would come at some time in the evening or over night. I had asked Garlan to send me an email when the baby came. But when I checked my email in the morning, I did not have an email from Garlan. I didn’t think much of this because emailing your pastor probably isn’t the highest thing on your priority list when your wife has a baby and you have two little girls to care for at home.
Just before going to church I got an email from Garlan saying that there was still no baby. It had been about 24 hours since Sylvia had started contractions. She didn’t sleep that night, Garlan barely slept, and what sleep he did get wasn’t good sleep. Things just were not progressing as they had with the girls when they were born.
I kept checking email throughout the morning. I checked it before we started church, I even checked my email during church (which is not something that I am advocating). No word from the Yoders. Finally, after we returned home, I got an email around noon saying that Sylvia would be going in for a C-section.
This was not the plan for the birth of Grayson. Or maybe I should say that this was not Garlan and Sylvia’s plan for the birth of Grayson. What we found out later is that during labor, as Sylvia was enduring pain and exhaustion from getting no sleep, the stress in her body caused an infection in her system to manifest itself in the form of a 101 degree temperature. Her temperature spiked from normal to 101 almost instantly. So after the lack of progress in the baby and the 101 temperature, the midwife decided that the baby needed to come out NOW. And at 12:33 pm, a 7 lb. 11 oz baby boy took his first breath.
But now came the puzzling part for the staff at the hospital: to figure out why Sylvia’s temperature spiked. Grayson was started on oxygen and antibiotics just to make sure that he would remain healthy. And it was determined that Sylvia had an infection that was later found to be E. coli.
Now to a grown person like Sylvia and like me, E. coli doesn’t always present a serious health risk. There are a number of different strains of E. coli, some more dangerous than others. Most of us have E. coli in our system right now and we just don’t know it. The bad E. coli often only manifests itself when we are under extreme stress (like 24 hours of labor). But to a child, E. coli can be deadly.
E. coli tends to live in parts of the human body that we normally don’t talk about in church, and it was no different with Sylvia’s infection. The E. coli bacteria was found in her urinary tract. And if you know anything about babies, you know that little Grayson would have been sliding right through that bacteria-laden area of her body, being exposed to the potentially deadly disease, if he would have had a natural birth rather than the C-section.
We could easily say that all of these things happened by chance. We could say that this was a lucky baby and a lucky family to have had a healthy child. And that is one of two options. When things go right, we can simply call it luck. But I prefer the other option. I prefer to think that we serve a God who does intervene, a God that does burst into our world to help us, a God who is our protector, our shelter, our refuge. I choose to believe in a God that slowed up that birthing process so as to protect Grayson from becoming infected with E. coli.
Of course this leaves all sorts of questions as to why God intervenes at some times and not at others. To be honest with you, I don’t have those answers. But I would rather believe in a God who sometimes intervenes and other times does not, than to believe in some distant God that does not care about us and never lifts a finger to help those who he created in his own image.
As a father I know that I will go out of my way to see to it that my son is safe. But I also know that there will be times when he will be hurt. And though I would love it if Paxton would never have to experience pain or suffering in his life, I don’t think that my job is to keep him free of pain and suffering. To do that would require that I never really let him live. If I never wanted him to get hurt, I would never allow him to climb a tree, play baseball, or fall in love with a girl. No, my job as a father is not to keep him free of pain. My job is to lessen his pain when I can, which often means absorbing that pain myself. My job is be there when he is in pain. And my job is to help him to see how he can help others with the pain and suffering in their lives as well.