A sermon on Psalm 46
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
November 24, 2019
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Churches meet in all kinds of places, don’t they? After all, the church is really the people and not the place where it meets, isn’t it? Store fronts, small meeting houses, tents, under shade trees, large auditoriums, converted factories, beautifully constructed historic church buildings—all of those structures can be a suitable place to house a congregation and be a place where it worships.
When I was younger, I don’t think that I gave much thought to church buildings. What the sanctuary looked like, how it was designed, the symbols that the worship space displayed—I didn’t take much notice of such things. The churches that I grew up in worshiped in buildings that were attractive, to be sure, but they were not very ornate. They were nice and fairly modern—but rather simple and functional. But as I have gotten older, my understanding and appreciation of church architecture has undergone some changes… I have come to understand that the architecture of a church building can reveal something about the congregation that worships in it…
Over the course of my ministry, I have served churches that meet in several types of sanctuaries. The first place that I served after graduating from seminary was The First Baptist Church of Luverne, Alabama. First Baptist Luverne is a small county seat town church located in the rural southeastern corner of the state. I am not sure when that sanctuary was built—probably in the 1950’s. Frankly, it is rather plain and kind of austere. As I recall, there was not a single symbol of the Christian faith to be found anywhere in the sanctuary—no cross, no dove, no Bible, no stained glass—nothing—just bare white and beige walls. I do not know for sure, but my guess is that the folks responsible for constructing that sanctuary were just trying to be careful in obeying the second of the Ten Commandments. That is the one that goes “You shall not make for yourself any graven images.” So the congregation did not include any images in their sanctuary…just to be on the safe side… Throughout church history, there have been those who have advocated such views. Several religious groups still follow their teachings.1
The second church that I served out of seminary was the Warrenton Baptist Church located in northern Virginia. This church building is totally different than the one in Luverne. Construction on the Warrenton church sanctuary began in 1860. It was suspended two years later when the Union army occupied Warrenton for much of the rest of the Civil War. One interesting feature of the sanctuary is that it has divided pews. (I imagine that this is a holdover from colonial times when men and women did
1 Reformers who pushed for simplicity in worship like John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox and Oliver Cromwell readily come to mind.
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not sit together in church.) The sanctuary also has dark stained heart of pine wood and lovely stained glass windows.
One of the images on the windows is similar to the “Christ standing at the door and knocking” scene in our sanctuary—except that someone thought the picture would be improved by the addition of a door knob on the door that Christ is standing in front of. The painting on which the window is modeled does not have one…
Truth be told, the lack of a door knob in the original was intentional—in order to symbolize that the door of our hearts can only be opened from the inside and that Christ never comes in where he is not invited. The addition of the door knob changes the picture significantly…but it is still a lovely picture…
The church I served right before coming here was Peakland Baptist. Peakland’s sanctuary is one that could have only been built during the 1960’s. It is of A-Frame design with exposed beams, handsome handmade tapestries decorating its walls, a large marble communion table that appears to float when observed from a distance, and thick slate tiles on the platform. It reflects the fact that its founding pastor, Arthur Brown, ultimately wound up becoming an Episcopalian minister. It also reflects the ecumenical outlook of its congregation. It is a lovely, well-appointed worship space that is very different from either of the other ones that I have mentioned…
Finally, we’ll conclude our brief discussion of church architecture with a look at the Dauphin Way Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama. That is the church building pictured on your bulletin insert this morning. I invite you to take a moment and look at it with me…
This building was constructed in 1988 at a staggering cost of over $17 million. The front of the church is patterned after Greek Revival architecture, a style that has been popular with many church buildings across the South for a long time. It features Greek columns and steps leading up to the front doors. Nothing unusual about that. But look at the rest of the building. To my eye, the rest of the building does not so much resemble a church as it does The Pentagon in Washington DC. And apparently, I am not the only one who thinks so. In fact, the locals in Mobile have a special nickname for Dauphin Way Baptist Church. They call Dauphin Way “Fort God.” (No, really—it’s true! I am not making that up!) And you’ve got to admit it—it kind of looks like that, doesn’t it?…”Fort God”…what a name for a church…
I confess to you that I do not have any training in designing and building church buildings. But if I were designing a church, I think that I would want to design it in such a way so that it would appear to be inviting…and warm…and welcoming to newcomers. (Wouldn’t you?) This building is none of those things. To me, it has an imposing, forbidding appearance. I have never visited Dauphin Way Church, so I do not know the personality of the congregation from firsthand experience. Nor do I know any of the current ministerial staff. Judging from the outside, though, it does not appear to be a very open or
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friendly place. Nor does the building give the impression of being a place that would accept anyone who doesn’t conform to whatever their ideas of what the Christian faith is…
Psalm 46 is one of the best-known and most beloved of all the psalms. It speaks of the architecture of God—that is, it uses the metaphor that our God is like a building. But not just any building. In this psalm, God is likened to a fortress.
[Side bar here: I find that interesting that the Psalmist has not chosen to picture God as a hospital…or a school…or even a temple. I think that there are aspects of who God is that could be compared to all of those buildings. Instead God is described as a “fortress.” The other qualities suggested by different kinds of buildings as representative of God would probably make for a good sermon. But that is for another time…
not today…]
This striking image of God as our fortress has captured the imagination of believers, poets, musicians and preachers throughout the history of the church. This idea is mentioned three times within these eleven verses. Another well-known part of this psalm is the opening words of verse 10: “Be still, and know that I am God.” We will spend the next few minutes thinking about this psalm and what it can say to us today…
We are introduced to the idea of God as our fortress in the very first verse, “God is our refuge and strength.” The Hebrew word translated here as “refuge” is makhaseh. It is a word that means “shelter.” Shelter, in this context, is a synonym for a fortress. In verses seven and eleven, the word translated as “shelter” is a different word. It is the Hebrew word misgav, which is best translated as “fortress” or “tower.” It designates a safe and secure military location.
In ancient times, and really right on up through the Middle Ages, forts were a part of practically any major city. The city would be defended by walls for sure. But there was also a fortress within the city walls. This was the command post for the military forces charged with defending the city. It also served as the barracks for the soldiers charged with defending the city.
But it also served another function. With the approach of an enemy army, those outside of the gates of the city could come inside the city walls in order to escape. This fortress—which was really a fort within a fort as the city’s walls themselves could be considered a fort—provided safety and security. Inside the city, the folks could find food, water, shelter from the elements, and safety until the opposing army had been defeated. Then the people could return to their homes and farms outside of the city since the threat was removed.
The psalmist likens God to such a fortress. He goes on to list the dangers from which the Lord provides protection. In verses three and four, he mentions natural threats like earthquakes, floods, and storms related to the seas—one would presume he’s describing earthquakes and typhoons. He writes that “We will not fear even though the earth should change, though the mountains shake…and though
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[the waters of the sea] roar and foam.” In the midst of those events, the people of God have no cause to be afraid.
He then goes on to list threats that are human created—wars, political strife and intrigue. He speaks of nations being in an uproar and kingdoms tottering. (Don’t those words have an eerily contemporary sound to them?) All of these kinds of things threaten the wellbeing of God’s people, be they natural or political. And the psalmist tells us to have no fear.
Those words in this psalm are hard to believe, aren’t they? They sound so naïve to our ears. They appear to be so much wishful thinking. So instead of trusting in God in these kinds of situations, we prefer to trust in things that we can see. We are inclined to trust our own resources to tackle these troubles. We would rather put our confidence in a strong military, a robust economy, a savings account full of money and solid resumes. But here’s the thing about that: these defenses ultimately prove to be unreliable. They might seem to be the answer, but they do not have the answers to the troubles that come into our lives. Those kinds of resources can quickly change and fade away. A political and military reversal…a sudden downturn in the economy…the next banking crisis looming right around the corner…a completely unexpected health crisis…a sudden downsizing of the company. We cannot hope to adequately meet those kinds of challenges solely depending upon our own resources. Instead, the child of God learns to lean ever more heavily on the boundless goodness and unfailing faithfulness of God.
The first phrase of verse ten is one of the more famous verses in the psalm. It reads, “Be still, and know that I am God!” Most of the times when I have encountered that verse, it has been used as a call to prayer…an encouragement to focus on God using the discipline of silence…to listen and meditate on what God has to say.
But that is not what it really means here in this context. Instead of an invitation to be more contemplative, it is the equivalent of God saying to us “Stop right there!”…”Cut the chatter!”…”Cease and desist!” (Or more in the vernacular: “Put a sock in it!”) The Lord says, “I am God—and not you. I am the God of the nations and the creator of the world. I’ve got this. Let me work my will in the world…and in you.”
What I am about to say seems to be so obvious. And yet, it has become something that has been helpful to me as the years have gone by. And this is it: Nothing happens in this world or in my life that God is not fully aware of. Nothing happens on the national or international scene that takes God by surprise. There is nothing that goes on in my life that catches God off guard. And because of that, I know that God is already at work using what happens to bring about his will—whether it be in global politics, the governing of our nation, or the trials that I face in my own life. God is in control. And while that does not mean that I will be shielded from all hurt and suffering, it does mean that God knows and cares what is going on. And furthermore, God is ultimately going to work his good pleasure however he sees fit in whatever the circumstances are.
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One more quick thing as the sermon winds down…Verses seven and eleven contain these same words, “The Lord of hosts is with us.” The Hebrew word translated as “with us” is immanu. Does that sound familiar?
This is the very same word used in Matthew 1:23. You may remember the story that an angel of the Lord came to Joseph, the husband of Mary of Nazareth to tell him that the child that she was carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The angel further told him that she would give birth to a son and that his name would be Jesus because he would save his people from their sins. At the conclusion of that story, Matthew informs us that, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said to the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him ‘Immanuel’—which means ‘God with us.’” Psalm 46 says that “The Lord of hosts is immanu.”The Lord of hosts is with us. And then, as we look ahead to the Advent/Christmas season next week, we are reminded that our Lord Jesus, the babe born in Bethlehem, was called Immanuel—“God with us.” The God who is our fortress and the God who was born in a stable is with us…
We close the service today by singing what is the best-known of all the hymns inspired by Psalm 46. It is a hymn that has been described as “The greatest hymn of the greatest man in the greatest period of German history.”2 The hymn is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” written by the German monk responsible for the Reformation in the 16th Century, Martin Luther. All told, Luther wrote some 37 hymns beginning in 1523. This one is easily the best known. A testament to its greatness is the fact that it has been translated into more than 80 languages. You can find the hymn at #26 in your hymn book.
Luther starts off with a fairly close paraphrase of the opening verse of the psalm, which goes “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.” But from there, Luther soon departs from the language of the psalm and uses powerful imagery drawn from the book of Revelation and from the writings of the Apostle Paul. The result is a song of defiance against the forces of evil in the world—both spiritual forces of evil and worldly powers as well.
At the end of the third stanza and the beginning of the fourth, we sing of the fate of the prince of darkness and of his ultimate end: “The prince of darkness grim, /We tremble not for him—/His rage we can endure, /For lo, his doom is sure: /One little word shall fell him.” And what exactly is this “one little word” that Luther speaks of—the word that spells defeat for the forces of darkness in our world? John 1 tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the word was God…And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The word that will bring about the final defeat the forces of evil in our world is none other than our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the one through whom God works his will in the world. He is the one through whom God will bring evil to its knees.
2 James Moffatt, quoted in H. Augustine Smith, Lyric Religion—The Romance of Immortal Hymns (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1931), 4.
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And so we sing. We sing with confidence. We sing with joy. We sing in the full knowledge that, even when we are weak, it is God who will prevail despite those desperate times when evil is rampant and seems to have the upper hand. The psalm and the hymn both declare that God WILL have the final word. Thanks be to God—and all of God’s people said, “Amen!”
To God alone be the glory! Amen.