This sermon was preached on the Last Sunday after Pentecost – Christ the King, November 21, 2010 at Messiah Lutheran Church, Knoxville, TN. The text at the heart of the sermon is the psalm for the day, Psalm 46 as well as the gospel, Luke 23:33-43.
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A third grader was given the homework assignment of writing an essay that explained why she believed in God. This is what she wrote: "God sees everything and hears everything and is everywhere, which keeps Him pretty busy. Since He hears everything, not only prayers, there must be a terrible lot of noise in His ears. So, you shouldn't go wasting His time by going over your parents' heads asking for something they said you couldn't have. If you don't believe in God, besides being an atheist, you will be very lonely, because your parents can't go everywhere with you, but God can. It is good to know he's around you, when you're scared in the dark or when you can't swim very good and you get thrown into real deep water by big kids. You know, I figure, God put all this here and God is God and I am not, and so that's why I believe in God."
It sounds to me like this little third grader understands well what the writer of today's Psalm was trying to say. She understands that "The Lord of Hosts is with us”, and that “The God of Jacob is our stronghold." She trusts that "God is our refuge and strength a very present help in trouble." Or as she said, that "God sees everything and hears everything and is everywhere," and, "He's around you when you're scared in the dark." Ah yes, out of the mouths of babes and psalmists.
But let me ask you a question. It’s a pretty important question, really. Do you believe the words of the psalmist? Do you believe that God is with you, that God is your stronghold? Do you believe that God is your refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble”?
Martin Luther did. Yes, Luther believed in the God of “refuge and strength a very present help in trouble." It’s what led him to base one of his hymns on our psalm for today. “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing,” he wrote. You see Luther was concerned that many people in the church saw God only in terms of judgment and retribution, only as an angry, spiteful God who was out to get them. Luther was concerned about this because he himself had gone through a period of time in which he truly feared God. Luther once wrote:
“I had been taught that God is righteous
and that He punishes unrighteous sinners.
In fact, I was angry with God.
I was born in sin, I lived in sin,
and the only sure fact that I could count on was
that I would be damned in sin by a righteous God."
Luther had been schooled in this sort of theology, which saw God only in terms of judgment and of threat of punishment. For all Luther knew, God was some ancient terrorist who used threats of violence, as well as, actual violence to make people fear him. With fear he could bend their will, hold them captive, and make them “walk the line.”
Maybe some of you have been exposed to this fear-based approach to religion. And maybe you, like Luther, have found that this understanding of God has alienated you from God rather than drawing you close to him. Luther could not love this angry, judging, punishing God. So, what was Luther to do? How could he do what the church demanded? How could he have faith in this god?
Well, in the process of preparing for his doctorate degree, Luther immersed himself in the study of scripture. And, it was there, as he studied the Psalms, the Gospels, and Paul's letters, that Luther's understanding of God was transformed. It was there that Luther, maybe for the first time, really looked and saw Christ, the man, God in the flesh, dying there on the cross. He looked and saw Christ, the servant King, suffering there on his cross-as-throne, saying "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” and, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
With these new scripture-enlightened-eyes, Luther could begin to see that in fact God was no angry enemy, but was rather a forgiving Father. What he had assumed was an all-terrible God, was actually all-merciful. The all-righteous was also the all-compassionate. Luther could now see that God was no spiteful god out to get the people, but was rather, a merciful, loving, and gracious God who was out to be with his people, to be their stronghold and strength, to be the one true place of refuge.
Yet, understandably, in these shaky, fearful times one cannot be blamed if he or she finds it difficult to believe like Luther, and the little 3rd grader, and the psalmist. All we need do is look around and ask, where was God’s refuge and strength, God’s very present help in the troubles of ________________…and you could fill in the blank, Sept. 11th…Hurricaine Katrina…the south Asian Tsunami…or, the earthquake in Haiti and it’s cholera outbreak now? Where was God, our refuge and strength then? Or maybe you’ve asked, where is God in my sickness, in my divorce, in my addiction, in my death or in the death of my loved one? Where is this God who is supposed to be refuge and strength?
The truth is though, God in Jesus, at least as far as I can tell, never promised to suddenly, magically show up with us, every time there was a sign of trouble. He never promised to suddenly appear and wave his Harry Potter  wand to fix everything. Sometimes I wish he would. But, God is not that kind of refuge and strength. God is not that kind of a stronghold. We’re not talking about fantasy here. We’re talking about something real. We’re talking about a God who is able to speak, and the earth will melt away. God who is able to make war to cease who can break the bow, and shatter the spear…and yet, who has chosen another way, a way of suffering for, and a way of suffering with the creation he loves.
I know it doesn’t make for a great movie. The hero suffers and dies. He doesn’t ride in to save the day. The victor doesn’t win using his own superior strength and overwhelming violence. In fact, he doesn’t seem to be a victor at all. This so-called victor, this refuge, this strength, this King gets a crown of thorns, not gold.
But maybe, just maybe we have misunderstood real might all along. Maybe victories don’t actually come through threat and violence and awful power. Maybe real might comes through love and service, through compassion and solidarity, in forgiveness and in grace. Maybe real refuge and strength comes in the form of the One who chooses the suffering of a cross, who chooses a cross instead of a throne, who chooses to come and be in solidarity with us in the midst of our suffering? Maybe real strength is shared in water poured over a baby’s head; in bread broken and wine poured in a simple meal; in a broken and sinful person announcing forgiveness to other broken, sinful people; and, in ministry and service coming from a group of people who join their individual gifts together into a family of gifts.
Yes, this is real power and might.
God is not some judging, distant, angry God. He is Immanuel, “God with us.” He is the God of the cross, the God who came to suffer with us, not Lord himself over us. He is the God of amazing grace and unconditional love, the God who desires to be your refuge and strength in the midst of these shaky, fearful times. This is the God in whom Luther now trusted, the God whom Luther wanted the world to know, the God who is your refuge and strength a very present help in trouble”
But the question still remains. Do you believe in this God? Do you believe in this suffering, servant King? Do you believe that the Lord is with you, that God is your stronghold? If you don’t, then may you…
10"Be still,…and come to know that God is God”;
may you come to know that
11”The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.”
In Jesus’ name. Amen