God’s people watched as the waters crashed all around them. The Egyptians, violence and murder in their eyes, were on their heels. The waters swirled around them, turning up and over them as they sprinted through the tunnel. Everywhere they looked was chaos. Each one assumed that they would die that day.
God’s disciples ran around the boat terrified. None of them knew what to do, as a raging squall had risen on the lake and tossed their little boat up and down on the waves. With each wave, the boat tipped dangerously farther to one side, and then another. Each of the disciples knew that this was very likely their last night on earth.
God’s people listened as the words were read aloud from the Revelation of John. From the terror of the seas came the figure of the Great Prostitute – bringer of pain and chaos. Each one that heard these words knew the chaos that John wrote about. It was clearly about the terror of the Roman oppression. When John wrote about the seas, the churches who read about his revelation knew that it was code for the chaos that reigned in their lives. Nero. Caligula. Domitian. Wave after wave of Roman Emperors who struck back at the people of God with more and more bloodthirsty vengeance.
It is a thread that continues throughout the pages of Scripture. Pay attention whenever you read about the ocean or seas in the Bible. To a desert people, it was a powerful symbol of chaos and the fear that such chaos brought. For the majority of Israelites, who had never been out of sight of the land, many of whom had never even been on a boat, the waves and the sea were terrible chaotic forces. They held strange creatures. They threatened with unpredictable storms. Their powers were unknown and uncontrollable. The average Israelite would rather have a sheep. Or a sturdy plow. When you read about the seas in the Scriptures, it is often the symbol for destruction and desolation and chaos.
Psalm 46 is yet another example of this thread – this theme: “the mountains shake in the heart of the sea” For the Psalmist and all of his or her readers, this was a doomsday scenario. The mountains were more than just great places to hike or vacation. The cosmological view of the time was that mountains were the very foundation of the earth itself. They represented stability. In contrast, the sea represented chaos. So, when the Psalmist writes that “the mountains would shake in the heart of the sea,” it is archetypal and symbolic. We say, “my world was turned upside down,” meaning everything stable and controlled and predictable has gone away, and been replaced by chaos and instability.
And, of course, while the Psalmist wrote these words millennia ago, it is still an experience we know all too well. How many of us lie awake at night, struggling with the internal and external chaos of our lives?
- The election season has been a reason for many to despair, psychologically and ideologically…like the Psalm says, “the nations are in an uproar.”
- The holiday season sprints through the end of the year, bringing chaos and, for many grief and depression.
- The winter season changes our psychological disposition and as the days grow darker, so do many of our moods and psyches.
- And beyond the seasonal chaos of our lives, many of us face personal chaos of change, of grief, of loneliness, of disease, of trauma.
And so many of us can relate to the Psalmist, afraid of the waves of terror and chaos that turn from calm and peaceful to chaotic and dangerous in a heartbeat. As we lie awake at night, we understand the fear and terror of the Psalmist, do we not?
But fear and chaos and destruction are not the final word of this Psalm. In fact, they are not even the first word: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea”
In the first line of this hymn of God’s people is a reminder that even in the face of doomsday scenarios, there is a presence. There is a hope and a help and a refuge. That word, “refuge,” gets used three times, like the chorus of a song, it comes back to drum the message into our souls. There is a refuge in the storm. There is a refuge against the waves. There is a refuge in the midst chaos.
And that refuge has a name: God.
And, to reword the old Beatles song, “God is all we need.” The Psalmist’s message is that in spite of all of the securities and promises and “refuges” that our world delivers, there is only one that comes through, and that is God.
Last week, we watched in Sanctuary of the Cinema a movie titled Armor of Light. It tells the story of Rob Schenck, a pro-life activist and Washington lobbyist who began to be troubled by the message of Christians closely tied to the NRA who suggested that in order to be pro-life and Christian, one must also oppose any regulation or limitations on any individual’s ability to own or use guns. He was baffled by Christians who explained to him that they had to have guns in order to be safe in this world. He struggled with the question of what it really means for God to be our refuge and our strength and our help. There is a point in the film in which he looks at a group of pastors and asks, “So what you are telling me is that we need Jesus and the Gospel…and a sidearm? That a gun is required for us to be safe in this world?”
And I think it is a haunting question for those of us on either side of the gun regulation argument. In so many areas of our lives, we insist that we need more than God…
- So what you are telling me is that we need Jesus and the Gospel…and a Democrat in the White House…or a Republican…or a Libertarian…or my candidate, whomever that is.
- So what you are telling me is that we need Jesus and the Gospel…and the Dow Jones Average to stay above 18,000. At least until I retire.
- So what you are telling me is that we need Jesus and the Gospel…and a really good security system in my house.
- So what you are telling me is that we need Jesus and the Gospel…and the church policy that I am looking for…on whatever topic.
Whereas the voice of the Church from the beginning is that we need Jesus and the Gospel. Period. That’s the end of the sentence. That while people have always sought security and peace of mind from a hundred different sources and powers and principalities, the Church has always said that Jesus is enough. That God is the refuge. Period.
And that is the message of the Psalm: Our God is trustworthy! The Psalmist goes on to deliver one of the most famous verses in the Bible: “Be still, and know that I am God.” How many of us have heard that phrase before, have said it, have used it as a defense of time to rest or relax or hide from the cares of the world? But that’s not what the Psalmist said. The Hebrew does not say, “be still,” in a meditative or contemplative sense. The Hebrew here is better translated as “Cease striving.” “Stop taking over.” Even bluntly “Knock it off.” Stop putting yourselves in charge, says God through the Psalmist. Know that I am God. Know that I am in charge. Know that I am all you need. The bottom line here, and in the whole Psalm is this: “You are not in charge. Trust God.”
How many of you have ever gone on a whitewater trip? For those who never have, it is a wonderful and terrifying experience as you and your boatload of friends crashes down the whitewater, paddling your heart out as you go. And the whole time, sitting in the back of the boat, is the guide. She sits in the back and barks orders the whole time. “Right side paddle.” “Left side stop.” “All paddle.” And she knows what orders to bark because she has been there before. She knows where the hidden rocks are, where boats are likely to get stuck, what route to take to avoid flipping the boat over. And pretty quickly you learn to trust the guide, because she knows what she’s talking about, and she has the guts to get into the boat with you. A bunch of clueless tourists who put their helmet on backwards.
It is my favorite image of God. One who knows the trouble and the danger in this world, but is also a guide in the midst of it. One who is willing to get into the boat with us, and enter the fray. Life will not stop being chaotic. At least not forever. Maybe a quiet stretch here and there. But then the chaos will return. Life is not a lazy river…laying on a tube in the pool as you go around in circles. Life is hard. It is chaos. It is a raging white water rapids, and the waves will lap at the boat and threaten to pull you under.
But you need to know that there is a Guide who is willing to be in the boat with you. Right behind you. And that guide knows the water, better than you ever will. That Guide cares about your safety and will do everything in her power to protect you and care for you. And that Guide wants you to listen…when to paddle and when to rest. When to act and when to wait. Because the Guide knows what’s best for you. Cease striving and trying to do it your own way. Trust the Guide!
That’s what the Psalmist means when she says, “Be still.” It is not about contemplation or meditation, but trust. James Mays translates and amplifies the passage in this way, “Cease your warring! Stop your attacks! Leave off your vain attempt to subject history to your power. There is but one power exalted over all the earth and nations. Only one is God – the one whose word is the destruction of weapons and whose help is the refuge of those who recognize that he is God.”
Because that is the real message of the Psalms, as a whole. A reorientation of the way that we look at the world. That we look at God. It is a reminder that the presence of chaos does not mean the absence of God. And listen to the way that the Psalmist reorients us to an orientation of trust throughout these verses. Remember how terrifying the seas were to the first hearers of this Psalm? How chaotic water was? With that in mind, hear these words: “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 the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.”
Every time the Scriptures name the chaos of the waves and sea, there is a voice, a guide, a refuge, a river that sustains. Again, the river is archetypal – it is a symbol of the way that God nurtures and feeds and sustains us. In the face of the sea, God creates a river. In the face of the chaos, God creates a safe passage. God is like the guide that brings us through the chaos.
And that is the story of the whole of Scripture, is it not?
It is the story of the saints that we celebrate today, who have told us, generation after generation: God is all we need.
It is the story of the God and the Israelites after the Red Sea…with the Egyptians behind them and the wilderness in front of them: God is all we need.
It is the story of God in Christ who woke up from a nap and calmly spoke, “Peace, be still.”: God is all we need.
It is the story of the final words of Scripture, where John of Patmos tells the people, “there will no longer be any sea.” No longer will there be chaos or trouble or fear. But until that day, we can look back and see that the guide in the boat with us. Trusting us. And asking us to trust in return.
And it’s our story – in the midst of our chaos – “God is all we need!”