Sermon: Our Thankfulness Requires a Rest
Scripture: Psalm 46
Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location: First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date: November 20, 2016, Christ the King Sunday, Proper 29
1God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
4There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
5God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
6The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
8Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
10“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
11The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
Today is the very last Sunday on the Christian calendar. It is known as Christ the King Sunday and it culminates the divine drama that has unfolded before us since the first Sunday in Advent last November. Advent is the time on the calendar we prepare for the inbreaking of God into our world on Christmas and Advent begins next week. We then make our way through the through the season of Epiphany when people finally begin to recognize who Jesus is. It’s at this point we begin our long walk through Lent as we learn about the sacrifice required to reunite all of God’s people back to one another and to the Lord God Himself. The dark days of Lent culminate with the empty tomb on Easter morning and Christ’s resurrection. Following the time of celebrating Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, the Church remembers her birthday on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given to the people. In the summer months, we enter a long stretch of time called “Ordinary Time” when Christians look at the life of Jesus, the Covenant people of Israel and what it means to live in the world as a Christ-follower. So today, we end our Church year with a celebration that the child born of Mary lived, died, rose, and ascended to God and is now reigning in the heavenly realms literally holding the whole wide world in his hands. It’s a day we celebrate that Christ reigns supreme! And the people said, Selah! “Selah?” you ask? Hold onto that for a moment; we will get to it in a minute.
Today’s lectionary text is one that many of us have heard before whether we knew where it came from or not. It was the basis for Martin Luther’s famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, and it is also known for one of the most memorized scripture verses in the Bible: Be still and know that I am God (vs. 10).
What did this Psalm, or song, mean for those in Israel who first heard it? Let’s get into their ancient-thinking heads a moment and then see how it connects with us today.
First and foremost, the song’s very opening line tells us that for the ancient Jew, this was a song that affirmed the heart of their faith. The Creator God is a God of solace, fortitude and safety for the people. The psalm leads with this because it serves as the reminder for what is to follow in verses 2 through 3 as well as in verses 4 through 9.
Verses 2 and 3 speak of the calamities of a world falling apart. In their ancient understanding, the mountains were The Pillars of the Earth holding the heavens in their place. Should The Pillars of the Earth fall, what hope do they have for survival? The water was the place of chaos and uncertainty. Water was destructive, swallowed ships and was the source of sea creatures who were large and foreboding. The sea was a dangerous place and the way the psalmist describes events in verses 2 and 3, it sounds very much to what today’s Christians hear in the New Testament book of Revelation. These are apocalyptic words which describe the destruction of everything they knew and loved.
If you look in your Bible you will see a word that might be italicized and it stands alone at the end of verse 3. It’s the word, Selah. It occurs some 71 times in the psalms and it is one of those ancient Hebrew words that has never been fully translated. So why is it there? Scholars believe that Selah is a musical notation that simply means to stop and pause. It serves as an “amen” of sorts that functions like a musical rest note in the middle of the psalm. What is it that we are to stop, pause and reflect about? Selah points us back to the very first affirmation of our text today which declares, “God is our refuge a very present help in time of trouble” – a promise that repeats a variation of God’s protection at the end of each stanza in the song.
The psalmist has the people sing that even though the end of the world seems near, although Mother Nature seems to be collapsing in on herself, we are not to have fear because God is our place of refuge and is our source of strength.
And all the people of God say, “Selah!”
Stop. Reflect on what verses 1 through 3 mean to you.
Then the song continues with verse 4. We read of a river that flows from the city of God, Zion, Jerusalem. The stream from Zion is a metaphor for God’s refreshing goodness and these waters will flow even bringing comfort and solace even though the chaos waters of life outside of the city gates feel like they will overwhelm us. We read how God is in the midst of Jerusalem and even though the world seems falling apart, Zion will not be moved.
Verses 6 through 9 go on to describe to the ancient Jew how there are wars all around them. Nations are rising up against the people of God. Rulers will rule who will do whatever they can to overthrow the power of God and the holy city of Zion. And then once more we are given the assurance in verse 7 that Yahweh himself is with us and the God of Jacob will be our protection.
And then there is that word again – Selah. Once again we are asked to pause and let the reality of verses 4 through 7 sink into the depths of our being. Yahweh is with us so there is nothing to fear from our political or national leaders, because ultimately, they are not in control of our, nor the world’s, destiny.
And all the people of God say, “Selah!”
Stop. Reflect on what verses 4 through 7 mean to you.
The final stanza of our song goes on to do two things. First, verses 8 and 9 go on to reaffirm the power and majesty of God and how God is the One who is in ultimate control of the Earth. It affirms that God is greater than any President, Congress, Politburo, dictator or queen and king. Second, verse 10 is a verse that contains two imperatives directing the people to, “Be still” and it demands that we are “to know” God and that God alone is to be worshipped.
These demands are set off with the only quotation marks in our song; it’s a writer’s technique inviting us to slow down, pay attention and ask, “To whom are the quoted words directed towards?” One particular group these words are declared to are the Jews themselves. They are, in the midst of all the chaos they are undergoing, told to pause, stop, and remember Whose they are in the midst of the chaos: They are the Lord God’s; they are the beloved of the Most High Creator God! In the midst of life’s swirliness, you and I are also beckoned to drop what we are doing and remember Whose we are and that the One who loves us will never let us go.
The other group verse 10 is directed towards are the kings, rulers, presidents and nations of the world. The cultural leaders are being forcefully reminded to literally cease and desist what they are doing and know God is God and that the Almighty is in control. The ancient Jews heard this as more than just “quiet yourselves for some meditation;” the power of the Hebrew is a command to drop whatever it is your holding onto and pay attention! Like a police officer encountering someone with a weapon, the demand is made to “Drop it right there!”
And all the people of God say together, “Selah!”
Stop a moment. Reflect on what verses 10 and 11 mean to you.
Beloved, we begin “The Holiday Season” this week. There are two very distinct and very different agendas that are paralleling one another and each of us is asked to choose which agenda we will participate in. One path is marked out by our compass-less culture demanding we be rampant consumers of food, goods, and stuff. The other path follows the Church calendar and invites us to slow down and walk through this compass-less world and look at it, experience it, and revel in it with the eyes of God. Let’s remember that “the holidays” literally meant “the holy days” long before Black Friday and Cyber Monday ever were thought about.
My prayer this week as we each approach Thanksgiving and the holidays that we will write into our daily routine those Selah moments whereby we stop and reflect upon all God has done, is doing, and will do in each of our lives. For those of you who find Thanksgiving and holidays hard, my prayer is your Selah-moments will help you to redeem your sense of loss or sadness. For those of you who love this time of year, my prayer is your Selah-moments will be a time to reflect upon the blessings you have been given. For all of us, my prayer is that this Thanksgiving, we each will be still, that we will cease and desist all our worrying, fretting, scampering, cooking, napping and shopping to silence our hearts so that we can hear the heartbeat of God.
Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
© 2016 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.