Sermon by Pastor Dave Collins
We're going to work our way through Psalm 31
I assume that you have been glued to your phones or tvs this week, just like I have, watching in horror as Russia has invaded Ukraine, bombing hospitals and apartment buildings, and threatening the world with nuclear war if we intervened. I’ve watched with admiration at the bravery of the Ukrainian people, led by, let's just admit it, the coolest President the world has ever seen.
And we've watched it in real time, as those being attacked went live with their phones, just like those who are doing the attacking.
And that’s all I can do. Watch. And pray. Which is why this Psalm that the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine invited the Christians of his country to pray together with the Jews is so powerful. It’s a prayer that Jesus prayed, and countless martyrs. It’s a prayer that shows us what it means to pray. That prayer is more than just passionate wishing. Prayer grounds us in God, and connects us with humanity.
Psalm 31 begins like this
1 In you, O Lord, I seek refuge;
Refuge. A safe place. When everything seems at risk, that’s the desire of anyone’s heart. We know what that literally means for the citizens of Ukraine right now, as they gather together in subway stations. But even as they are down there, they aren’t feeling safe, right? Would you? Refuge is more than a hiding place. The psalmist looks to God for refuge, and so should we. So should everyone. Look at what refuge means:
do not let me ever be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me.
Refuge is about more than physical safety. It’s about not being put to shame. Having your whole life, your whole world, proteCted. The prayer is made according to God’s goodness, to God’s righteousness, not the one who prays.
2 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.
3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
4 take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.
It’s almost like the psalmist is reminding himself over and over and over again that God is his refuge. He says it 6 times in 4 verses. You are my refuge. And I don’t think he’s trying to talk himself into it. It’s like a mantra that is either repeated or forgotten. It’s so easy for us to forget that we belong to God, that God is faithful and near. That God is our refuge.
If I’m being honest, my primary feeling this week has been apprehension. I’m nervous. A little jumpy. And I think it’s because my temptation is to think that my refuge is my own sense of understanding. But I’ve just been wrong now, so many times! Just over the last few years! I’ve had times where I was sure everything would be fine and ended up just wrong. And I’ve had times that I thought everything was going to fall apart, and it ended up not that bad, for me at least.
The future is just impossible to predict! Who knew? Well, God did! And the psalmist knew too. God is the refuge. Trust in the Lord and lean not on your own understanding. And when we know that, when we learn it over and over again, we can pray this next line along with Psalm 31, and along with Jesus Christ.
5 Into your hand I commit my spirit;
You might remember that according to Luke, this is what Jesus said at the moment of his death on the cross. And I hope we’re all able to say the same thing when we go through the same thing, but it’s not something you can just tack on at the end of your life. It’s a stance that you can only have then, if you have it all along.
The word for spirit in Greek and Hebrew is the same word for breath. It is a confession of ultimate helplessness. Or dependence, of trust. It’s a way of saying in the midst of affliction, "It is up to you, God, what becomes of me, and I am actually good with that”
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
This name for God, faithful God, is a rare one in the Bible. God is faithful to Israel. And because of Jesus, God is faithful to us, too. God keeps his promise to us. God is loyal to us.
This is where prayer begins. It begins by remembering who God is, and what God is like. Even if it does take a little remembering. But prayer also has to be honest. And that’s where this one goes next.
6 You hate those who pay regard to worthless idols, but I trust in the Lord.
God does hate. That might feel yucky to hear, but it’s true. Not the way that we hate though. God hates with a pure and perfect hatred. Our hatred is always colored by our biases and hurts, but God’s isn’t. God hates sin, idolatry most of all. And people who give worship and priority to idols put themselves in the line of God’s wrath.
It’s not playing politics to warn those who gathered at the white nationalist conference at the Orlando Marriot this weekend, who chanted Putin’s name, and cheered the invasion of Ukraine, that they are playing with fire. Do you think God looks at that and says, “Well, boys will be boys.” Do they think God can be mocked? Psalm 31:6 says, “You (God) hate those who pay regard to worthless idols”. Yes, every person there can be redeemed, but the Bible is clear that you can be absolutely lost to sin. Your heart can be hardened, and it’s no one’s fault but your own.
Aa a pastor, and a father, I worry about how seductive hatred can be to our young men. Partly because I’ve seen just how much damage it has done to some of our old men. It’s an idol. It’s worthless. And it keeps you from trusting in the Lord.
7 I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have taken heed of my adversities,
8 and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; you have set my feet in a broad place.
It’s odd, In v. 2, he prays “deliver me” and he’ll pray it again in v. 15, but here he says, “You have not delivered me into the hand of my enemy.” You may not have completely delivered me from them yet, but at least you haven’t given me up to them.
He is in that in between time, where as long as you’re still breathing, it’s not over. Sometimes that’s enough deliverance to be grateful for. I imagine there are people praying this prayer in a subway station in Ukraine, and they are grateful for the one kind of deliverance, even as they long for the complete one.
But this psalm goes back and forth just like all prayers do when under stress. Grateful for what we have one moment, and the next…
9 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.
And next it turns to the part of being under attack that is dreaded most of all. When people turn against you.
11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
Russia must have expected that the world would ignore Ukraine like this instead of rallying behind them in other ways. One of the many problems with power is the inability to find anyone who will tell you the truth.
13 For I hear the whispering of many— terror all around!— as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.
14 But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hand;
"My times are in your hand" doesn’t mean it depends on God how long I live, but that the occasions when things happen that determine our lives are in the hand of God. We don’t get to choose what is happening in the world during our lifetimes. If we did, we wouldn’t have chosen the last few years, would we have? But the truth is, it’s not up to us. Ultimately, our times are in God’s hand. Thankfully, he is a God who cares.
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.
17 Do not let me be put to shame, O Lord, for I call on you;
Let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumbfounded to Sheol.
18 Let the lying lips be stilled that speak insolently against the righteous with pride and contempt.
If you ever don’t know how to pray, you can always start with who you’d like God to kill first. Don’t worry. He won’t do it. I know from experience. It can be very disappointing.
I love scriptures like this, for one, because I love how honest they are. This is how honest we should always be in prayer. God isn’t interested in the fake, “holy” version of you. God wants the real thing.
But verse like these make a broader point as well. The misery in the world isn’t necessary. It doesn’t have to be there. It is caused by evil men. The war in Ukraine wasn’t necessary. It was caused by one evil man. And it is thoroughly Biblical to pray “Let the wicked be put to shame. Let them go dumbfounded to Sheol.”
But for the sake of the world, and for the sake of the people of Ukraine, we should pray, let them just go back to where they came from. Let the wicked live so that they will let innocent live.
19 O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear you, and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone!
God is big enough to bless everyone. Not just those who deserve it. We don’t love this part of the gospel. We like the part of God who blesses good people and forgives us when we mess up. But the God who holds the evil in this world accountable also died on the cross so that same evil would be encompassed in God’s grace.
There are no winners in war, only different kinds of loss. On the cross, God became the victim on behalf of all victims, and also all perpetrators. We are meant to look at him there, in both ways.
20 In the shelter of your presence you hide them from human plots; you hold them safe under your shelter from contentious tongues.
21 Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as a city under siege.
A city under siege is what we are witnessing today. The Ukrainians under siege as an evil leader grasps for power. And the young soldiers of Russia, many of whom are under siege too, as they are sent into a war they didn’t want, forced to choose between their lives and the lives of their neighbors in Ukraine. All the ones I’ve seen so far have been my sons’ age, as they held their heads and cried.
But the effect is the same. A city under siege. Two cities under siege. Really, a world under siege.
The way this Psalm is written, as it jumps around in tense, tells me that the writer assembled it from scraps written at various times. This verse says that God has delivered me, and remembers the worst, most paralyzing feeling experienced, of being beset as a city under siege, but it’s written in the past tense, when it’s over. The next line is during that time.
22 I had said in my alarm, “I am driven far from your sight.”
Imagine feeling like God couldn’t see you. Or maybe just remember the way that felt, because you’ve been there. That’s the feeling. That’s the worry. And as we, and the rest of the world watches and worries about what comes next, we are alarmed. We wonder, “What will happen next?”
Like the Psalmist, all we can do is look back.
But you heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help.
God has been our help is ages past, and is our hope for years to come. God is our shelter from the storm, and our eternal home. And we do need that hope. But when you can’t summon up hope, you can summon up love.
23 Love the Lord, all you his saints.
When you can’t hope, love. Love the people next to you. Right now, one of the most practical ways you can love the people of Ukraine is by calling our senators and representatives and telling them that you support all the sanctions and asset freezing of Russians that’s being talked about right now. It might not feel like love to you, but you literally can’t send a casserole. And you can’t go fight. So pick up the phone.
The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
And then the psalm ends, like a lot of Psalms end, like this:
24 Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.
What a “meh” place for the Psalm to end. But where else would it end?
That’s all we can do.
Be strong, take courage, watch, and wait for the Lord.