Date Sunday March 10, 2019
Service First Sunday in Lent
Text Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Luke 4:1-13
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Previous Sermon "Bring Out the Brass!"
Next Sermon "WAIT for God"

     Lent has begun; this is what I referred to last Sunday as “the lean time”, which could mean it’s a time for giving up rich food, but also might mean it’s a time to narrow our focus and consider how to live a transformed life. We do so by growing in faith, perhaps by praying differently; by nurturing relationships, one could be especially attentive to someone who needs support; by seeking justice, by participating in the Wednesday Interfaith Justice Series; by countering materialism, put something in a bag to give away each of the 40 days; and to trusting God more.

     In worship, we are focusing on confession and absolution more than usual, and also on the Psalm of the day, which does not often receive our attention. Each week the psalm will helps us focus on the three-word theme of the day. Today it is: Trust in God.

     The psalm begins: “You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, who abide the shadow of the Almighty – you will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.”

     What image does that evoke for you? Shelter… Shadow…. Ancient people who first heard this psalm might have thought of a rocky overhand that casts a shadow, a place of shade from the burning sun, or a cave that provides safety in a thunder or sand storm. We think of our homes, schools, churches as shelters … until we see the havoc a tornado, like the recent one in Alabama or a fire, like those that blazed in California last year, can cause. The idea of a building as a shelter is weak, and even a natural shelter has its limitations. In contrast, the Psalmist declares that God cannot be overtaken by anything we encounter that threatens or life or the lives of those we love.

     As commentator Paul Myhre notes, “regarding the Lord as your personal refuge is a decision to place your habitation – your life itself – in a place that cannot be broken by the stresses and strains of life.” (1)

     But what about the claim in the psalm that those who do so will not face evil or affliction? Experience teaches us that it’s not true that those who trust in God face no harm. Quoting Paul Myhre again, “People of faith do get cancer, heart disease, heart attacks and die from any number of diseases. People of faith are crushed in spirit by acrid verbal attacks, broken in body and mind by physical and emotional abuse, and find themselves in a hospital or die as a result of all forms of violence.” (2) Add to that the harm caused by accidents, poverty, prejudice and a long list of other maladies known to humankind, and it’s clear that Psalmist’s words about being spared from life’s imperfection are not true.

     So??? What are we to do? Well, first, we remember, psalms are poetry, they are hymns and are not supposed to be taken literally but are intended to remind us of several important matters of faith. Also, note that throughout the psalms people call out to God in the midst of suffering, so it can’t be that the faithful are spared from difficulty. Instead, the promise of this psalm that the faithful will never suffer must convey a broader message. Pastor Myhre writes that It is that the refuge that is found in God alone will sustain people even if the body is destroyed; it is a refuge that provides an inner strength to endure the trials of life. God’s presence is a refuge, always present in all circumstances of every waking and sleeping moment. God is our rock shelter of hope. (3)

     As commentator Jane Strohl notes, we can put our trust in all kinds of persons or things, our first choice generally being ourselves, but the Psalmist insists there is only one place where we can be truly safe, and that is in the shelter of the Most High. (4)

     In today’s Gospel lesson, immediately after his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit in (notice it does not say into) the wilderness, where for 40 days he was tempted by the power of evil. The third challenge that he faces echoes Psalm 91.

     Jesus is take to the holy city and placed on the pinnacle of the temple, where he is taunted: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angles concerning you,’ and, ‘on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” This challenge is futile, though, because Jesus understands that there is a difference between being confident in God’s power and presence in all circumstances and being confident that God will jump when we call and act according to our demands.

     Yet, as the psalm ends, God promises deliverance, protection, responsiveness, presence, honor and salvation, all given as God chooses. And, in the Gospel lesson, Jesus trusts the Spirit who was with him in the wilderness, to lead him out, and remain with him. That’s trust.

     Here’s another picture of trust. The Rev. Dr. Christopher Girata tells a story in a sermon on Jesus’ Temptation about his grandfather, who he describes as a good man, a child of the depression who served in World Wat II, a business owner and a person of faith. However, that faith was tested when his oldest daughter, a teenager at the time, was riding in a car with friends when the driver lost control and flipped the car off the road. The other three girls walked away from the accident, but his daughter was critically injured and died after her parents made the impossible decision to end life-support.

     Years later, when Pastor Girata asked his grandfather about the accident, he said it was the worst experience of his life and made him question everything. He spent years questioning God, angry, confused, hurt; he was truly in a personal wilderness. But then, one day, something changed inside of him.

     Let me quote Pastor Girata: “One day he realized that his anger and hurt were all because he thought he knew how life was supposed to work. He thought that if he lived a good life, an upstanding life, and if he worked hard, then he should expect, even deserved, good things in return. He finally realized that he had been cutting a deal with God, rather than trusting God. He told me that he realized that he had a choice – either he could ignore God’s presence in his life and let anger control him, or he could accept that God was there, that God was always there, and trust that God’s presence with him was all he really needed.    

     “(My grandfather) came to a point when he knew he could continue living in spite of God, or he could open himself up to trust that God was with him, that God loved him, and that God would never leave him alone. Years after losing his first child, my grandfather said, he would wake up everyday and choose to trust God again.” (5)

     On Wednesday many of us received a cross of ashes. This morning we confessed our sin and received absolution. Later today we will receive strength and forgiveness in Holy Communion. All of these “rituals” signify our willingness to trust God as we live in an imperfect and impermanent world. We are proclaiming, along with the Psalmist, “My refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.” AMEN     

  1. “Commentary on Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16” by Paul O. Myhre, www.workingpreacher.org
  2. Same as #1
  3. Same as #1
  4. “Commentary on Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16” by Jane Strohl, www.workingpreacher.org
  5. “The Good Choice” by the Rev. Dr. Christopher Girata, Luke 4:1-13, February 14, 2016, www.day1.org