Most of us are now aware, via the media, of the suicide bomber at Ataturk Airport, Istanbul, who last night left behind him 36 people killed and 147 wounded. On Monday I visited a dear Christian brother whose drug-addicted son raped his own grandmother. Scientists tell us that the Arctic ice cap is melting and will lead to future flooding of coastal cities. Journalist Justice Mahala in a recent newspaper article tells us ‘SA is sitting on a tinderbox’ due to the masses of unemployed youth – 2 years ago the SA Institute of Race Relations claimed that 70.4% of black youth between 15-24 were neither working nor in training. Yesterday I was chatting with a mature Christian friend who shared how, thinking about the Church at large, he just cannot get past the image of Rev. 3:20, the Exalted Christ knocking at the door of the Church and dying to be invited in. Maybe your personal world is in turmoil: perhaps through retrenchment, marital break-up, diagnosis of a dread disease, persecution. Returning to the Istanbul tragedy, Christian activist Shane Claiborne wrote last night, ‘Heartbroken for Istanbul. And for the victims of violence. Let us pray tonight that God would heal our hearts, our streets, our world… from the contagion of hatred and violence. And let us wake up tomorrow with a renewed commitment to become the change we want to see in the world!’
Having over the last months read a psalm a night, I was freshly impacted by the perhaps over-familiar Ps. 46, truly ‘A Psalm for Troubled Times!’ This Song of Korah seems to reflect that period of Israel’s history when Assyrian King Sennacherib’s tide of war against Judah, under the rule of Hezekiah, was divinely and wonderfully rolled back by God himself. Three things shouted for my attention as I read Ps. 46…
Firstly we (those trusting in the God of the Bible) have a REFUGE: v. 1ff (NRSV), ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present (well-proved) help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.’ Mountains have always symbolised all that is fixed and unchangeable – but here they shake in the heart of the ever-changing ocean. The image of a shelter and stronghold has always been significant to the Hebrews – think of the scorching sun (48 degrees in the shade at Tiberias when we visited Israel a while ago in autumn), the constant onslaught of invasions, war and destruction, etc. The song-writer revels in the fact that when troubles come, the LORD is the refuge and strength of his people. Of course Judah often looked for help and protection elsewhere, through political alliances with pagan powers, instead of trusting in God alone (repeated 4 times in Ps. 62) – a perennial temptation for God’s people in every age, when we easily trust our bank account more than the one we owe our very life.
God no where guarantees that trouble will not come to those who trust in him, but he does guarantee that when trouble comes, he will be the rock that saves them and the fortress that frustrates their enemies! Oh, the confusion sown by a largely compromised Church today with her message of physical health and material prosperity for those who simply ‘claim’ it, that of a trouble-free life for his own despite Job’s story, the unbiblical ‘secret rapture’ when the going really gets tough, and so on. Then here in my country we have so many sycophantic clergy appearing on national television donned in Santa Claus-like garb, falling over one another to lay anointed hands on our ancestor-venerating leaders, promising for the umpteenth time ‘a better life for all.’ Swiss theologian Karl Barth once exclaimed: ‘At my lowest, GOD is my hope. At my darkest, GOD is my light. At my weakest, GOD is my strength. At my saddest, GOD is my comforter!’
Secondly, Ps. 46 declares we have A RIVER: v. 4ff, ‘There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns…’ My wife and I recall walking knee-deep in the refreshingly cool water of Hezekiah’s tunnel under the city in Jerusalem, the tiny fish nibbling at our feet in the tranquil Jordan River where two confessed Christ in baptism, the beautiful desert spring of Eingedi near the cave hiding David from King Saul, determined to kill his successor. Long before, the prophet Ezekiel envisioned a river flowing from the temple in Jerusalem, becoming deeper and deeper, bringing life to the trees along its waters and abundant fish for the fishermen on its banks (Ezek. 47). Then Jesus comes as the fulfilment of that ancient promise, declaring in Jn. 7:37ff (on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, celebrating harvest), “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart (belly) shall flow rivers of living water…'” To quote Jurgen Moltmann, where Jesus is, there is life. There is abundant life. There is life-before-death. Moltmann is dismayed at our having become so accustomed to death, death of the soul, death on the street, death through violence, death-before-life when Jesus is life-before-death!
I tell you what, you can’t even find Jesus in much of the Church today. Thank God for the millions around the globe who are seeking and finding the biblical Jesus outside of institutional church walls (Jesus has always been an excellent wall-breaker) and then taking him into their community and across cultures! A good friend of mine used to say that the institutional church has taken the River of Life and turned it into swimming pools of different sizes and shapes – some with swimming lanes, all with costly maintenance, filled with dead water no one can drink and flowing nowhere! [in my writings over the years I have consistently argued from Scripture, like many others, that Jesus and his Church constitute the ‘true Israel of God’ (Gal. 6:16). Jesus inhabits his people and they incarnate his presence in the world]
Third, Ps. 46 declares we have a REGENT: v. 8ff, “Come, behold the works of the LORD… He makes wars cease to the end of the earth… ‘Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth’… the LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” God says to his people, ancient and modern, stop your frenzied activity, think, trust, worship and make your King known among the nations for he is exalted in the earth! Jesus Christ is not merely Lord of the Church but King of the world. There is a world King, whom an unbelieving world has never affirmed with certainty. God’s people Israel were blessed to be a blessing to the world (Gen. 12) and a light to all nations (Is. 42, etc). It is a charge Israel never delivered. Today believing Gentiles and Jews constitute one body called to ‘disciple the nations,’ so that all the earth may own Christ as King. You and I and our communities of faith have a responsibility to know Christ and to make him known to the ends of the earth, in the power of his risen presence.
Read Ps. 46 often – it certainly is a psalm for the troubled times in which we live!
‘God is the Ruler of His mighty creation. There is no reason to despair, because He holds in His hands the whole world, while His Spirit is able to fill the void in man’s heart.’ Billy Graham.