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Sermon, August 9, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church

In the Shadow
Sermon Series: 
Psalm 91
Matthew 4:1-11
Date: 
Sunday, August 9, 2020

Psalm 91 (August 9, 2020

In the Shadow

It’s good to be back! We had some good times traveling and working on other things and for other people these past two weeks, so I’m grateful to have been afforded that. If you were wondering, I don’t plan to be gone again until October, probably.

When I left, we had just finished up a brief four-week look at Jonah, and I pray that was a fruitful study for you. It is a great blessing that as Paul reminds us in 2 Timothy, that all scripture is breathed out by God, and because of that it is all profitable for teaching. It doesn’t matter where we go in the bible, we will find things profitable to us, and truths that are applicable to our lives every single day. That is one of the reasons that I have endeavored to attempt to preach on several different kinds of scripture, from the Old to the New Testament, and one of the reasons that after spending several months mainly in Philippians and the gospels, we then went to Jonah.

Well, all of that is to say I’m going to try and keep the variety coming, and for the remainder of the summer, we’re going to do what we did last summer, and look at individual Psalms for the next five weeks. If you remember last summer we looked at some of the heaviest hitters, some of the most well-known ones—the great introduction in Psalms 1 and 2, David’s great penitence in Psalm 51, Psalm 110, Psalm 150, and my personal favorite, Psalm 90.

Today we’re going to look at Psalm 91, which like Psalm 90 is in Book 4—Psalms 90-106—the book of Psalms that Robert Godfrey summarized as “The King’s (or the Christian’s) Comfort in God’s Faithfulness.” Though there is great variety among those 17 Psalms, comfort is a major theme, and ultimately it is, as we know, not a comfort in any man, but rooted in the faithfulness of God. As we read it and learn from it this morning, I pray that you will see that shining through. Let’s read now together Psalm 91. Listen, this if God’s Holy Word.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress
    my God, in whom I trust.”

3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
    and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his pinions,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
    nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

7 A thousand may fall at your side,
    ten thousand at your right hand,
    but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
    and see the recompense of the wicked.

9 Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
    the Most High, who is my refuge—
10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
    no plague come near your tent.

11 For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
    lest you strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder;
    the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.

14 “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
    I will protect him, because he knows my name.
15 When he calls to me, I will answer him;
    I will be with him in trouble;
    I will rescue him and honor him.
16 With long life I will satisfy him
    and show him my salvation.”

The Word of the Lord.

Safety. Security. Health. Stay safe. It’s been months now. Countless hours have been spent by us individually, corporately, in our nation, the whole world discussing, often arguing about safety, More time spent on that topic in these past few months than ever before, I think. Safety.

I’ve actually found it an extremely tiresome topic. For the past few weeks, specifically, those of us in the educational profession have had to engage in hours and hours of discussion about safety as it relates to opening schools and welcoming students. I’ll tell you, sadly, most of the discussion has very little to actually do with a logical, science-based look at how to keep people safe, it has instead been largely focused on limiting liability, and so there is a race underway to create the longest lists, the most restrictions, and the thickest stacks of paper. That’s not the focus of this sermon, but it is certainly something that’s on our collective minds.

In this quest for “safety,” we’ve closed schools, businesses, literally destroyed livelihoods, indebted nations to each other to enormous heights, and even allowed relationships to be destroyed, or at least fractured in the wake of heated argument over “safety.” Probably worst, and most celebrated by our enemy, we’ve kept our churches closed, and many have seemed fine with it, all in pursuit of “safety.”

I am not trying to make light of the predicament this pandemic has placed us in, or say that all of the measures that have been employed were and are unnecessary, I would never say that. This has been and continues to be a real threat, and people have died, and the most vulnerable among us have reason to be concerned. But the most troubling thing to me is to watch a outsized pursuit of one kind of safety, specifically health, at the expense of so many other forms of safety.

And it illuminates the deep divide between those that believe in Jesus Christ and those who do not. Because of the radically different view of the purpose of life that the follower of Christ has—radically different purpose—the Christ-follower has a completely different view of safety, what it truly is, and from where it comes.

When introducing Psalms last summer, I often reminded that what we find in the Psalms, when we take them together, we find the entire human experience, and a guide to how we should respond and react in any situation. Calvin said “I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, ‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul,’ for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.” And Robert Godfrey in his book “Learning to Love the Psalms says “The Psalms teach us how to express our emotions to God in all the circumstances of our lives.”

Our present circumstance, here in August of 2020, is no different. There is not one thing that we can experience, or endure, that the Psalms cannot help us with. This is a collection of prayers, literally, that God wrote down for us and gave to us, so here, the Psalms is where we go to find out how God wants us to respond in every situation.

Early on in the pandemic I searched for which Psalms had been most helpful to the church fathers, most cherished by theologians and great teachers in times like these, and on the top of the list was Psalm 91. I think that’s natural, and you likely picked up on it as we read, it’s natural for this specific time in history because Psalm 91 mentions, several times, threats to our health specifically, among other things. But of course it is more than that, Psalm 91 talks about all manner of threats that we face, and our health is one of them, and it gives us crystal clear instruction about how we are supposed to look at all of them.

There are three parts to the Psalm, and the speaker and the one spoken to changes, which can be confusing, but the first two verses lay out the entire thesis, it gives it all away. On what rock is the Christ-follower standing as he or she suffers danger?

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress
    my God, in whom I trust.”

The Psalm begins with a beautiful confession by the Psalmist. He, and therefore also you “abide in the shadow of the Almighty.” It’s a really amazing choice of words there: in the shadow. In most situations, actually kind of all situations, shadows are scary. Shadows obscure things, shadows hide things, threats often come from the shadows. That word carries a massive negative connotation, doesn’t it? Think of the most negative part of the most well-known Psalm, Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through (what?) the valley of the shadow of death.

I did a quick word study of that in the Psalms and discovered that there are actually three different ways that the word “shadow” is used throughout the Psalms. The first, like Psalm 23, is the shadow of death, four times that is used in the Psalms. The second is using the word “shadow” to describe the brevity of man’s life—like in Psalm 102, “my days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.” Each of those two uses appear four times in the Psalms. But there is one other use, also appearing four times, and it is completely different. Here in Psalm 91 we read that we abide in the “shadow of the Almighty,” and the other three positive times the Psalms say “in the shadow of your wings.”

This is the shadow you want to be in, isn’t it? God’s shadow is a place to abide in. Verse 2 of this Psalm shows you what use that shadow is—it’s a rock, a fortress, it is the shadow of the one in whom you trust. Every other shadow causes fear, every other shadow is hiding something in darkness, but not this shadow. God’s shadow is a place of safety. And we know this, as Christians, don’t we? But I’ll ask, and I ask myself absolutely at the same time—do we live our lives, daily, as if we are in this shadow, the shadow of God’s wings? Or do we continue to be racked with worry about our safety? That’s an important question to ask, and we’ll come back to it as we apply this all later.

The first two verses act as a confession of the person writing or reciting the Psalm—as a follower of God, I abide in his shadow, and that is a perfect refuge. The second part of the Psalm is aimed at the reader, at us, and elaborates on that, because we know so well that it’s easy for a message like this to get stuck in our brains and never penetrate all the way through to our hearts so that it bears fruit in our actions. That is always the most difficult part. God knows this, so he says going on, “do you know what you are safe from in my shadow? Do you know what the protection of that shadow is to you? Let me show you:”

3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
    and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his pinions,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
    nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

There are two of the references to pestilence, but like I said, the message here transcends any virus or pandemic, that’s just one of many threats to our safety. There are many things covered here, but the main two threats dealt with in this Psalm are threats of physical harm through violence or war, and the second is disease or plague. You can hear that continue in the following verses

7 A thousand may fall at your side,
    ten thousand at your right hand,
    but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
    and see the recompense of the wicked.

9 Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
    the Most High, who is my refuge—
10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
    no plague come near your tent.

11 For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
    lest you strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder;
    the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.

That is incredibly comforting language, if we’re actually listening, is it not? But this, of course, is not talking about physical safety, ultimately. If we took it out of context, or didn’t look at the entire Psalm,  we could easily go too far, as some wrongly have, to say that it sounds an awful lot like a promise that we will not get sick, and we would never fall in battle, that’s not what is being said here. What is being said is that dwelling in the shadow of the Almighty is real safety, in an ultimate sense. That on the last day we will be delivered, not that there will never be threats to our physical safety during this life. And that is confirmed by the final verse “16 With long life (eternal, actually!) I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”

The Devil tried to take this passage out of context once, didn’t he? We read it earlier, when he was tempting Jesus in the desert. He said, “look, you’ve been promised physical safety, here’s a passage that says so, the angels are going to catch you, so throw yourself off the tower and live, think of how many followers that would gain you if they saw that!” But that’s not the message of Psalm 91. Christ rebukes him immediately saying that to test God would not be an act of faith, but of no faith.

We’ve talked a lot in the past year about how we are to look at our lives here, while we’re still here, what their purpose is. It’s really where the rubber meets the road. The living, as we do, in the already, but not yet. We are safe from the threat that matters, the loss of our souls and eternal judgement. That’s the only one that actually matters, so what of the rest of this life? We saw how Paul looked at it: I am so ready to die, because I am so eager to be with my Savior, but I’m still here, so that’s all the evidence I need that there’s still work to be done, not for me but for Jesus.

There is so much comfort in the shadow of the Almighty, but compare that, sadly, to the lost, and how they must look at their lives, and then I think we’ll understand better why the world is the way that it is. The unbeliever has nothing to value but this life that they are living. There is no “already, but not yet.” We can look forward to something so much better, but the unbeliever doesn’t have that, this is it. There is no other life than this one. So when faced with uncertainty, with threats, with threats specifically to health and safety, the logical response is to do anything you can to extend this life. Sacrifice anything for longer life. Extract as much happiness out of this life as you can, because it’s the only one you’re going to get.

The unbeliever is stuck. The pandemic strikes and you’re not living in the shadow, you’re completely exposed, the only thing that has value, this life, is threatened. So when I look out at the world and see people making decisions gripped by fear, and terror, and pursuing physical safety at any cost, I’m not surprised. Do the lost need more cleaning regulations, less interaction with people, more social distance? Maybe, to be prudent in some situations, but what they really need is to be in the shadow. They need Jesus.

Which makes me circle back around to the question—are we living like we’re in the shadow, or are we allowing ourselves to be gripped by fear? What is guiding our thoughts and actions more—the reality that we are already saved or the quest for safety in this life? This is not a call to be callous, be reckless, and to value this life too little, because it is precious. But I would submit to you that, as a nation, and as Christians in this nation, I think we are much more prone to value this life too much than we are to value it too little.

That’s why I was incredibly glad back in April and May when we were, for a time, following the guidance of our elected leaders and not meeting, but at the same time, expressed to me over and again, was a longing for us to come back together. We couldn’t wait to get back together, still following sensible guidelines, but longing to return to the church, because this is your real family. And on the flip side it’s been troubling to see some churches not push to come back together, to not find a way to make it happen. We are already prone to so much idolatry. We take good things and elevate them far beyond their real importance. Money, reputation, pleasure—those are always the easiest to see. Let’s not make a new one out of physical safety.

I know that this is a touchy subject and has been a lightning rod in our communities and even our churches, but it’s on my heart and it’s in our faces every day. I am not standing here this morning arguing for political positions or certain regulations, or certain safety precautions, or what have you. That is not the point. The point is to remind myself and us all of one of our many callings as Christians. We are called to live our lives in the reality of being in the shadow of the Almighty God, with the work of Christ clothing us and the power of the Holy Spirit in us. That is the rock, the refuge, that is the starting point for all of this.

We live the rest of our lives, however much God has planned for us, standing on a promise, here in Psalm 91: that we are his, and he will not lose us. He is our shield, he is our buckler, we need not fear anything, but go forth in joy. Do we really believe that all things—all things work together for our good? Do we? Or do we say that and act differently? Do we, as a people, value things of this life more than we should? Or are we always looking toward the future that has already been bought for us?

That’s why this Psalm ends, the third section, with a promise delivered not from the Psalmist, but from God, speaking in no uncertain terms.

Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
    I will protect him, because he knows my name.
15 When he calls to me, I will answer him;
    I will be with him in trouble;
    I will rescue him and honor him.
16 With long life I will satisfy him
    and show him my salvation.”

Call on his name, and he will deliver you. He will answer. It is hard for us to live with all of the confidence this promise brings with it. We want to know more than has been granted for us to know. When you think about it, the shadow is an odd metaphor for safety, because like I said, shadows are scary. But here’s the beauty of it, and it’s actually extremely fitting. Shadows hide things. When God promises us protection he doesn’t open our eyes to everything that’s going to happen—wouldn’t that make you feel better sometimes? Now, we’re still in a shadow, the future of this life is still hidden. So the question is whose shadow is hiding it? The world’s, which ends in fear and dread, or the Almighty. Because the shadow is his shadow, it’s all we need to know. Let’s live, every day, like that is true, because it is. Amen, let’s pray.

Dear Heavenly Father,

Here we pray, from the safety of your shadow. Forgive us when we give in to fear, when we live like we need to absolutely sure of more things than we actually need to be. Forgive us when we put confidence anywhere but in you and your promises. Help us to live this life, knowing that the grass does wither, the flower does fade, but your Word stands forever, and that’s all we need. Thank you for the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ, through whom we pray with confidence, amen.

 

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