‘Assigned to an anti-aircraft battery, he experienced the horror of watching fellow soldiers being incinerated in firebombing. After surrendering to the British, he spent three years in prison camps, and saw how other German prisoners “collapsed inwardly, how they gave up all hope, sickening for the lack of it, some of them dying.”
‘[Jürgen] had not grown up as a Christian, but an American chaplain gave him an Army-issue New Testament and Book of Psalms, signed by President Roosevelt. He read the Psalms and found something he desperately needed: hope. He became convinced that God was present with him, “even behind the barbed wire.”
‘After being transferred to a camp run by the YMCA, [Jürgen] learned Christian beliefs, and experienced the love and the acceptance of the local population. They “treated me better than the German army,” he told journalist Philip Yancey. Jürgen found new life in Christianity after seeing only death in the Second World War. The gospel was life-giving good news for him, and it can be for us as well.
‘But wait, there’s more. The risen Christ was moving ahead of [Jürgen], leading him into an unexpected future. After the war, [he] became a Christian theologian and focused on the ideas that God is present with us in our suffering, and that God is leading us to a better future. Both ideas come out of the story of Jesus, and both come out of Jürgen Moltmann’s personal story as well.’
the presence of hope and strength
I’ll just bet we’ve all got a personal story of some kind where God was present with us in suffering or difficulty, where God led us to a place of hope and strength. For those of us who know Christ, we know the power of God’s presence with us in times of difficulty and times of prosperity. I suspect we also know that learning about God’s presence comes more in times of difficulty than any other times in our lives.
Maybe these words we read in Psalm 91 capture those feelings of God’s presence bringing hope in the middle of difficulty. Maybe we’ve prayed those words in Psalm 91 many times and so they are familiar to us, like a warm blanket reminding us of how good God really is. Maybe these words in Psalm 91 give us strength in time of need, a time like right now where we’re feeling a bit lost or lonely.
Today, we start a series on prayer. What does prayer mean? How does prayer make a difference for us? Can we learn to pray better, pray more, or pray with faith-filled hearts? As we read Psalm 91 today, let us consider how prayer is protection.
it’s all about the nouns
These first verses in Psalm 91 tell us something important about God, and we can see it in the nouns. Yep, we’ve got some grammar to handle. It’s all about the nouns.
Look closely, and we can see four words, not the same words, but all carrying the same powerful meaning for us: shelter, shadow, refuge, and fortress. These are wonderful words all suggesting something powerful about God – how God is a shelter, refuge, or fortress.
And, it ends with a verb: “in whom I trust” (v. 2). As we’ve experienced God in all the times and places in our lives, we learn that we really can trust him. We can trust his presence, and we can trust his person. But, there’s always that question, “Do we really trust God?”
screaming at the centipedes in our lives
You know, folks are afraid of lots of things. Kari Myers relates that, ‘Some people are afraid of flying. Some are afraid of heights. I am afraid of centipedes – deathly, unreasonably afraid. Just the sight of one of those dark, hideous, primeval creatures paralyzes me. I am instantaneously reduced from a generally well-adjusted adult to a frightened child. I scream. I shudder. I abandon the area of the sighting. And then I wait until it dies or my husband (who puts up with an awful lot) “takes care” of it.
‘It’s shameful,’ she says, ‘even more so when my preschooler feels the need to reassure me: “Mommy, God would want you to be brave! Remember how you tell me not to be afraid of monsters?”
‘Of course she is right. God does not want us to live in fear, though terrors are lurking in dark places all around us. You may not share my fear of centipedes,’ Myers says, ‘but there no doubt are other fears we share. It may be a fear of illness or death. It may be a generalized fear of the future. What is it that keeps you awake at night? Whatever it may be, [Psalm 91] reminds us that we have a choice. We can choose to live in fear or we can take shelter in the strong, loving arms of God where no evil can conquer us. When we place ourselves in God’s care, when we trust him to protect us, we can rely on his promise.’
We can totally rely on God; we can totally trust him. And, we have this litany of things in vv. 3-13, things that go bump in the day, things that go bump in the night. It’s the grocery list for the supermarket of terror, fear, evil, and death. All the things we could possibly imagine, and that’s the point, by the way – all the things we possibly imagine can be handled by the Lord.
a covering of wings
And, there’s this lovely image of being covered by God’s wings, “he will cover you with his pinions (feathers) and under his wings you will find refuge,” (v. 4). It reminds me of a story I read a long time ago that reportedly came from National Geographic.
‘After a forest fire in Yellowstone National Park, forest rangers began their trek up a mountain to assess the inferno’s damage.
‘One ranger found a bird literally petrified in ashes, perched statuesquely on the ground at the base of a tree. Somewhat sickened by the sight, he knocked over the bird with a stick. When he struck it, three chicks scurried from under their dead mother’s wings.
‘The loving mother, keenly aware of impending disaster, had carried her offspring to the base of the tree and had gathered them under her wings, instinctively knowing that the toxic smoke would rise. She could have flown to safety but had refused to abandon her babies. When the blaze had arrived and the heat had singed her small body, the mother had remained steadfast. Because she had been willing to die, those under the cover of her wings would live.’
a grocery list of terror
That is the image of God. That is the image given to cover this grocery list of terror. God handles all the stuff we think could go wrong, day or night, from disease to the demonic, as we reside under the shelter and shadow of his mighty wings. To this great promise of shelter is added a wonderful protection: God has commanded his angels concerning us to guard us in all our ways.
We can absolutely trust our God. We can absolutely rely on God. And that’s what we hear at the end of the Psalm. It’s a first person promise from God. Listen to the words (vv. 14-16, “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”
Notice what we find, here: God acting on our behalf, and we see it, interestingly, in the verbs. “I will deliver, I will protect, I will answer, I will rescue, I will honor, I will satisfy, and I will show.” I left one out of this list, “I will be with him.”
That’s the real power of prayer, God being with us, not God answering us or helping us; simply, God being with us.
That’s what all those verbs mean, in the end, “I will be with you if you hold fast to me in love, I will be with you.” That’s the real power of prayer, God being with us – not God answering us or helping us – simply, God being with us. God’s presence is salvation; God’s presence is shelter; God’s presence is shadow; God’s presence is refuge; God’s presence is fortress.
And we learn that, not so much in times of difficulty as in times of prayer. We learn that God is our protection as we turn our lives completely over to him because God is absolutely trustworthy. We discover that in God’s presence.
more love than can be said
‘Before Jimmy Stewart left to fight overseas with his bomber squadron, his father, an Indiana, Pennsylvania, hardware store owner and staunch Presbyterian, slipped a note into his son’s pocket.
‘The note read: My dear Jim boy, Soon after you read this letter, you will be on your way to the worst sort of danger….I am banking on the enclosed copy of the 91st Psalm. The thing that takes the place of fear and worry is the promise of these words….I can say no more….I love you more than I can tell you. Dad.’
God writes notes to us like that, and they always end, “I love you more than I can tell you.” We’ve heard those words, though; we’ve heard those words somewhere: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35, 37-39).
That’s the promise and the power of prayer is protection: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Text for the table: Psalm 91.
Textual note: All the stories, save the one reportedly from National Geographic, located on Homiletics Online.