The Great Fire of the Love of God for Us
Rev. Amanda L. Highben
Text: Psalm 46
Last Tuesday night into Wednesday morning bright lights could be seen streaking through the sky. These weren’t fireworks or spaceships, but bits and pieces of Halley’s comet hurling through earth’s atmosphere at 148,000 mph. This meteor shower, called the Orionid shower, is so named because it looks like the streaks emanate from the constellation Orion. If the sky above you happened to be clear that night, it was possible to witness ten to twenty meteors, or shooting stars, per hour. How many wishes, I wonder, were made that night?
Alas, my daughter Ceci’s most fervent wish—to just see at least one shooting star—never came true. It was a cloudy night in Durham, and it didn’t help that the best viewing time was between midnight and 6 a.m., when all good 7-year-olds should be in bed. But I’m not sure we would have seen any meteors even in the middle of the night, mostly because our neighborhood is too bright and close to the city. According to NASA, the best thing to do is to “get as far away from light pollution as possible and find a location with a clear, unclouded view of the night sky. Once you get to your viewing location, search for the darkest patch of sky you can find, as meteors can appear anywhere overhead.” Give your eyes time to adjust and develop night vision. Be still. You might need to wait for at least an hour before you see anything. Don’t fidget, don’t check your phone’s bright screen. Rest your body and center your gaze upon the wide sky in the deep, still darkness of the night. Breathe slowly. Be still.
“Be still,” declares Psalm 46 on this Reformation Sunday, as we remember that 503 years ago the German monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. “Be still, and know that I am God.” For his own part, Luther longed for stillness. He longed for his spirit to be still long enough to see the grace and forgiveness of God, like clear, bright lights streaking through the sky. But Luther could not and would not be still, as he was constantly trying to flee from the tumult he felt within himself and the world. His sins hovered around him like thick, dense clouds, and he could find no peace or refuge. No matter how often he confessed his sins—which he did, obsessively—no matter how often he berated himself for his failings, he was terrified that he would never be good enough for a righteous and holy God. How could ever do enough to earn God’s love, broken as he was? And if this is how Luther felt, priest and monk that he was, imagine how the lay people felt, those who could not impress God with their theological knowledge or ability to read the Bible in Latin. The best they could do was scrape together a few coins to purchase forgiveness from the Church.
The tumult and chaos of Psalm 46 were therefore familiar to Luther. When the Psalmist sings about mountains shaking in the heart of the sea and the waters that roar and foam, Luther would have replied, “Yep, I know that world.” His spirit trembled, just as the mountains tremble in Psalm 46, but his outside world was also full of fear and instability. Huge gap between the wealthy and poor? Check. Wars between nations and political leaders putting their own power above the needs of their oppressed people? Check. Plagues and pandemics? Check and check. More than 500 years ago Luther and his friends started the Reformation, and yet 2020 would not have been so unfamiliar to them. “Therefore we will not fear,” insists Psalm 46, and yet, Luther would have agreed, how can we not be afraid? From COVID to unemployment to the anxiety that nearly everyone feels as the election near, it seems like there’s more than enough reason to fear. How difficult it is to be still, to find refuge, when the very instability described in Psalm 46 seems feels very real and present.
Nevertheless, Psalm 46 is known as a hymn of praise, and when Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” based on Psalm 46, he titled it “A Hymn of Comfort.” But where and how is such comfort to be found?! How can we rest when the “waters roar and foam” and the “mountains tremble with its tumult”? How can we rest when we don’t know when a safe vaccine will be available? How can we rest when it’s still a risk to embrace our loved ones, sing hymns to together in worship, and share meals with our neighbors, as the Duke Lutherans used to do at the Grace House on East campus before COVID made this simple act of love dangerous? I’m reminded here of the words of one of our students, Jovita, who said the meals have “facilitated great friendships, especially with those in the local refugee community. What draws me is an ever-present call, or conviction. I feel called to reach out to my neighbors, not just periodically, but continuously through genuine relationships.” Thankfully, Jovita can still nourish these relationships through calls or text messages, but it’s not nearly the same seeing someone face-to-face, as sharing a meal from a neighbor’s home country or culture.
On this Reformation Sunday, as we dwell in the Psalmist’s hymn of praise and comfort in the face of our own world’s chaos and uncertainty, there are two things I want us to consider…
First, Psalm 46 names the troubles that afflict God’s people. Instead of ignoring things as they are or pretending they don’t exist, the Psalmist shouts it from the rooftops. The mountains shake in the heart of the sea, the waters seethe, the kingdoms totter. In other words, even God’s good creation suffers from earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, and droughts. But that is not all; the upheaval is also political and social, as nations use war, spears, and shields against each other. The Psalmist is unafraid to call-out all of this, to expose violence for the destructive thing it truly is. Psalm 46 calls a spade a spade. Yes, pain and suffering are real, but burying our heads in the sand will never lead to true healing or lasting peace. It is more than ok to name our grief over what we’ve lost, whether a sanctuary full of people or the meals the Duke Lutherans once shared at Grace House. It’s more than ok to grieve; in fact, it’s Biblical.
Which leads me to the second thing I want us to consider about Psalm 46. There is a refrain we hear twice in these verses, three times if you count the opening words. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” and then twice in verses 7 and 11: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” The key here is that in drawing near to the heartache, the Psalmist also finds the God of mercy and compassion who doesn’t shy away from sorrow, who gives refuge right in the thick of the storm so that there might a measure of stillness and rest.
You see, the Psalmist’s belief that God is a “very present help in trouble” became Luther’s great insight too and the one that sparked the entire Reformation project. People could no more flee the world’s brokenness or their own sins than they could flee themselves. In Paul’s famous words to the Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Confess this. Stop fleeing and, instead, put down your heavy burdens at the foot of the cross where the Crucified One suffers with and for us in love. “This is the great fire of the love of God for us,” Luther once wrote:
“The chief article and foundation of the gospel is that [you] recognize [Christ] as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is you own. This means that when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you.”
Dear ones, if Christ belongs to us, if Christ is for us, then we can also be still and know that God is God. We can do this because, ultimately, the stillness, the refuge, the strength, the grace is from God alone. We do not have to find these within ourselves or manufacture them somehow, but they flow from the “great fire of the love of God for us.”
The love that we see in the manger, the cross, and finally the empty tomb, where even death itself could not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea,” God is, and always will be, our refuge and strength. Amen.