Yr C ~ Lent 1 ~ Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Back in the 1970s when the television show Saturday Night Live was in its infancy there was a hilarious character created by Gilda Radner named Miss Emily Litella. The joke was always that Emily would mishear something and then go on and on, ranting about how terrible it was, and then at the end she would get corrected and sheepishly say, “Never mind.” My favourite sketch had Emily as a substitute teacher filling in because the regular teacher had been involved in a “stubbing”. Emily couldn’t understand why there were police involved, and why the school was thought to be so dangerous, and why the teacher had to go to the hospital just because they’d stubbed their toe! It was obviously a very bad stubbing! The students eventually correct her and tell her it was a “stabbing” – to which Emily says, “Oh, that’s very different!” But instead of saying “Never mind” she looks at the camera and says, “Mind your toes!”
That was the story that popped into my mind when I read the Psalm that we’re looking at today. Verse 12 of Psalm 91 talks about how God will protect us and not even let us “dash our foot against a stone.” So much protection that we’ll never even have to endure a stubbing!
Except that’s not really the message of the psalm at all. So let’s dive into it!
First we need to talk a bit about psalms in general. Psalms are a special kind of biblical writing. The two main features that we need to remember about interpreting psalms is that they use highly metaphorical and colourful language and imagery, and they are intensely personal writings.
Psalms are not dispassionate theological reflections. They are more like reading someone’s diary, when that person is having a terrible day and trying to make sense of their life.
Psalmists are often completely wrong about something, or at least completely confused, and then they learn something about God.
Imagine you are a fly on the wall of someone who’s pacing back and forth in their room, talking to themselves, arguing with themselves, trying to sort out a challenging thing in their life. That’s what reading a psalm is like.
One of the most interesting things about psalms is that there is usually a movement within them where the writer starts off in one place or one frame of mind and over the course of the psalm they work it out and come to a deeper understanding of God. Psalms tend to “move” from plea to praise, from lament to thanksgiving, from articulation of hurt to submission to God, from thinking things are one way to realizing things are another way.
It’s that last movement that, I think, captures the sense of Psalm 91. It’s a movement from how the psalmist wishes the world worked when you’re a person of faith, to how it really works.
The gist of the psalm is that we want immunity from bad stuff, and we probably think because we’re people of faith we deserve that immunity, even from stubbings, but in the end the psalmist realizes that God isn’t in the bubble wrap business.
God offers Presence – and that is everything!
Another thing that can be confusing about psalms is that they will change voice without any warning whatsoever, and sometimes you have to work hard to figure out who is talking at a given moment.
In Psalm 91 it’s pretty straightforward – we have the psalmist’s voice for the first 13 verses, and then it shifts to God’s voice for the last 3 verses.
It begins innocently enough:
91:1 You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, 2 will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
That is a lovely image – God as our refuge and fortress, God as our shelter, God in whom we abide, God in whom we trust. We’ve started off great!
The lectionary reading skips over verses 3-8 which are a list of all sorts of ways that humans can be harmed but God protects us from the harm. That’s getting a little dodgy.
Then we get to verses 9 and 10 and our real theological trouble starts!
91:9 Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, 10 no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.
Because you’ve made God your refuge no evil will come, nothing bad will ever happen to you, no scourge (which means illness, stroke, plague, or disease) will come near your tent (meaning into your life).
Our plain experience tells us the psalmist is dead wrong here.
There has never been a human ever, no matter how wonderfully faithful and righteous they were, who has escaped bad things happening, or illnesses befalling them. It’s just not possible.
The psalmist is clearly mistaken. And yet they go on.
91:11-13 For God will command God’s 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. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Apparently, the psalmist thinks that people of faith can count on God’s angels guarding us all the time, bearing us up so that we’ll never so much as stub our toes, and that we’re so powerful that we can walk all over those who would seek to oppress us (that’s what the lion and snake bit is about).
Again, the psalmist is wildly wrong.
Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the psalmist is wildly dreaming.
Maybe they’re so completely immersed in God’s loving Presence that it “feels” like nothing bad will ever happen to them and they can take on the world.
Or maybe they’ve been devastated in the past and they’ve come through it and now it feels like God’s love, upon reflection, held them and delivered them through it.
Or maybe they’re staring at an impossible situation and they’re trying to convince themselves that God will see them through it.
Like I said, reading a psalm is like being a fly on the wall listening in on someone’s innermost wrestlings.
It doesn’t have to make sense. But it sure as hell is relatable!
I’ve felt all three of those ways before – like I’m fully immersed in God and I’m on top of the world – like I’ve been chewed up and spit out and come through it and realized God was with me all the way – like I’m at the edge of a cliff and hoping against hope that all this God stuff is really real and will see me though. I’ve been there – and so have you.
I’m a person of faith, and immunity from hardship oughta be one of the perqs of that, don’t you think?
I know that doesn’t make theological sense and I oughta know better – but I still feel that way sometimes.
If I don’t get immunity why bother?
I know it’s the wrong question, but I ask it anyway.
I can’t help myself.
The danger, of course, is that unchecked this can lead to an indescribably destructive and problematic theology – one that says, “If you have enough faith you’ll never suffer, and God will bless you.”
Please, if you ever hear someone suggest that, help them to understand how horribly misguided that is.
So we need another view here.
We need to hear from God.
We need to move from our wishful thinking to our faithful reality.
So the psalmist writes God’s response. It’s a holy reality check, and it’s wonderful.
91:14-16 Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.
I will protect those who know my name. Well, everybody “knows” God’s name, so what’s going on here?
I’m certain that if I knocked on a random door out there and asked the person what the names “God” or “Jesus” referred to they’d know even if they’d never been near a church.
The blessing doesn’t come by knowing God’s name, it comes by “KNOWING” God’s name!
It’s about a relationship. It’s about intimacy.
Way back in the very first verse of this psalm it used the name “El Shaddai” for God – which is Hebrew for “God Almighty” or more literally “God of the mountain.”
But the root of shaddai is also the word for breast – an image of mothering, of care and love, of intimacy.
So it’s not just God Almighty, but also God All-Nurturing.
That’s the God we can KNOW.
And the “Those who love me, I’ll help” part is nothing more than an obvious acknowledgment that while God’s love is surrounding everyone only those who have chosen an intimate relationship with God are likely to be aware of it and open their hearts and receive and accept that loving Presence.
So from that level of relationship – nurturing, loving, intimacy – God says, “When they cry out to me, I will answer.”
And then notice this carefully, God says, “I will be WITH THEM in trouble.”
Not “I will eliminate the trouble,” but “I will be with them IN the trouble.”
Faith has never been about a “get out of trouble” card – it has always been about an “I will always be with you” promise.
v.16 With long life I will satisfy them – means with “length of days” or in other words “in all the days of their life” what happens? – I will satisfy them.
‘To satisfy’ here means to be filled, to be sated, to have excess – so for all the days of our lives God will fill us to overflowing with God’s loving Presence – and that Presence is our salvation, our protection, our comfort, our relief, our hope, our joy.
Loving Presence is the great gift of God.
The gospel reading for this first Sunday in Lent is about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.
You probably know the story well.
What you may not know, is that in Luke’s telling the character of the devil actually quotes Psalm 91 as the ultimate temptation of Jesus – the temptation to think that because you have God you have immunity.
Luke 4:9-11 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘God will command God’s angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”
Throw yourself down because you’ve got immunity.
Jesus rightly refuses: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
God isn’t in the bubble wrap business.
God offers Presence.”
Immunity would be nice, but it’s not reality.
Reality is that we are enfolded in God’s loving Presence, in the good times, and in the bad times.
And accepting God’s Presence and love heightens our appreciation for life, and heightens our awareness of blessings.
Knowing that, I wouldn’t go looking for lions or snakes to stomp on.
And I wouldn’t expect to be spared every hardship that comes by living.
I will simply trust that the ever-Present God who I know intimately through spending open-hearted knee-time with is with me, guiding me, helping me, correcting me, strengthening me, inspiring me, encouraging me, enlivening me, and ever so quietly whispering in my ears, “Mind your toes!”