The First Sunday in Lent
You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
Well, if you weren’t here on Wednesday, you missed it. You missed Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40-day Season of Lent, and the evening worship service where I started a new sermon series called “Words Matter.” Usually I wait until the First Sunday in Lent, which would be today, but for some reason I decided to start early and it wasn’t until I was getting ready to preach that I realized I didn’t have a proper introduction to the series. So I said something about wanting to preach from the Psalms during the Season of Lent; and about how, when you practice the ancient spiritual discipline of Lectio Divina, you read through a passage of scripture several times and listen for the one word that jumps out at you; and how, when I read Psalm 51 this time around (the one where David asks God to create in him a clean heart) the one word that jumped out at me was the word wash. So, I preached an entire sermon built around that single word that included the story of David and Bathsheba, and a funny quote from Calvin Miller, and an episode from one of the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis (you may be able to find it on our website).
But today we’re looking at Psalm 91, which is sometimes referred to as “the Soldier’s Psalm,” mostly because of verses 5-7. Listen:
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
Or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
I found a story online about a brigade commander in WWI who gave his men a little card with Psalm 91 printed on it and asked them to recite it daily. The story goes that after they started doing that they were involved in three of the bloodiest battles in WWI yet suffered no casualties in combat despite other brigades suffering as much as ninety percent.[i] The writer who shared that story mentioned that there is a good bit of dispute about whether or not it is true, but either way it reveals some of the mystique that has grown up around Psalm 91. “There seems to be a real fascination with this particular psalm as a prayer of protection,” he wrote. “It has been printed on bandanas to give to people going on operations. It has also been stamped onto military dog tags.”[ii]
Psalm 91 has become a kind of “lucky charm” for soldiers and you can see why. The author claims that if you make God your refuge and your fortress, “No evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.” And then there’s the line that links this Psalm to today’s Gospel lesson, where the Devil himself quotes scripture by saying to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple, for it is written (in Psalm 91), ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” It’s tempting, isn’t it? To think that if you just pray Psalm 91 every day no harm will come to you? But as I wrote in my notes, “This sounds like the song of a soldier who has just dodged a bullet.”
I was thinking of that scene in “Saving Private Ryan,” where a young soldier feels the thud of a bullet against his helmet, takes it off, looks at the deep dent, and shows his friends how he nearly got killed. And then, while he is still marveling at his good fortune, still holding his helmet in his hands, gets hit by a second bullet in the middle of his forehead. He dies instantly. If it had only been that first bullet he might have written to his girlfriend that night, “A thousand may fall at my side, ten thousand at my right hand, but it will not come near me.” As it was, he wasn’t able to write a thing.
But the Bible was not written only by the bullet-dodgers. Turn back in your Bibles just three chapters, to Psalm 88, and you will hear a different story altogether.[iii] Psalm 91 says, “No harm will come near to you.” Psalm 88 says, “From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death . . . I am filled with despair.” Psalm 91 concludes with “He will call upon me and I will answer.” Psalm 88’s last line is “You have taken my loved ones from me; the darkness is my best friend.” Remember that when Jesus was dying on the cross it wasn’t Psalm 91 he was quoting, but Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Bible is real. It was written by real people. It tells the truth about those moments when we feel as if we have dodged a bullet and those moments when we know we haven’t.
But the word that jumped out at me as I read through Psalm 91 this time around was not a word of protection against “the arrow that flies by day,” it was that word in the opening verse, shelter, and the idea that we human beings could “live in the shelter of the Most High, and abide in the shadow of the Almighty.” Because I’ve had some experience with shelter; I know how comforting it can be.
Have I told you about the time I spent the night in an igloo? We had a heavy snowfall once when I was growing up in West Virginia. The snow was wet enough to pack easily and make good snowballs, and after my brothers and I had exhausted ourselves in a snowball fight we went inside, made some snow ice cream, and came up with the idea of building an igloo in the backyard. It was so easy! We just packed snow into a plastic dishpan to make snow bricks, and then stacked them up in a big circle that got smaller and smaller as we neared the top. My brother, Scott, had to stand inside and let us use his back as a temporary support to get those last few bricks into place, but when we were finished we had an igloo that any Inuit would be proud of, and I volunteered almost immediately to spend the night in it.
It got cold that night. I was deep inside my sleeping bag, thinking that it was much warmer than I had thought it was going to be, but also colder than I would have liked. So I crawled to the opening, stuck my head out, and whistled for our three dogs—Caspian, Glory, and Fang—and they came racing out of the barn and into the igloo, and finally down into my sleeping bag where they kept me warm all night. When I came in for breakfast the next morning Dad asked me how things had gone and I said, “Fine, but now I know what they mean when they talk about a ‘three-dog night.’”[iv]
And then there was the time my brother-in-law Chuck and I went backpacking in the Cranberry Backcountry and didn’t take a tent. We were trying a different approach in those days, an ultralight approach where we slept in backpackers’ hammocks under a sheet of plastic that served as a rain fly. We found a lovely place to string our hammocks, in a little hollow between the hills where there were three sturdy trees, perfectly spaced. We tied one end of both hammocks to one tree, and then tied the other end to separate trees. We lashed a pole up high between those trees, and then tied a ridgeline from that pole to the first tree so that we could throw that piece of plastic over it and make a roof for our little nest. We cooked supper and then, while it was still daylight, climbed into our hammocks to settle in for the night. And it was wonderful, except that we had seen some evidence of bear activity during the day, and we felt a little too much like pieces of ripe fruit hanging there, waiting to be picked.
But then—Oh my!—we experienced the thunderstorm to end all thunderstorms. The sky turned black, and the lightning began to flash and the rain began to come down as if we had set up camp under Niagara Falls. And, have I told you this? That sheet of plastic, that thin sheet of plastic, was clear, so that we could see every flash of lightning, and the thunder came so close behind it, and so loud, it was like a bomb going off every time it happened. And that cozy little hollow we were sleeping in became the watershed for all the rain that was falling on the mountain until it was like a river raging beneath us while the storm raged above us. At one point Chuck yelled to me, from a distance of three feet, “At least we don’t have to worry about bears!” And he was right. And with that thought in our heads we drifted off to sleep on what is still number one on our list of most memorable nights in the woods.
But then just last year, when Christy and I were on sabbatical, we spent two nights camping in the Badlands of South Dakota. I try to spoil Christy when I take her camping. I don’t use my little backpacking tent; I use the big, room-sized tent I bought at Wal-Mart. And I blow up one of those queen-size air beds that inflates to a height of 18 inches. And I put on the 600-thread-count cotton sheets, and the feather pillows, and the down comforter. I want her to think she’s sleeping at the Ritz. Our first night was perfect. The temperature was just cool enough to appreciate the down comforter and the airbed stayed properly inflated all through the night. We woke up to sunshine and bird song, a delicious hot breakfast and a leisurely tour of the national park.
But the next night was different. The wind had picked up through the day and by the time we got back to our campsite it was blowing at 40 miles per hour. Our tent was bowing down beneath the force of it and I began to wonder if the stakes would hold. I tried to park our car beside it, to serve as a wind break, but the park ranger told me I couldn’t do that. Eventually we climbed into the tent and hoped for the best, but that was before it started to rain. It rained hard all through the night, and the wind never let up. At one point the side of the tent was flattened against Christy’s cheek while rain pummeled it from the other side. She was trying very hard to be brave but I could also tell that she was not enjoying it. I leaned in close and began to sing into her ear that old spiritual, “The Storm is Passing Over,” and she said, “No, it’s not!”
But it did.
In the early hours of the morning the rain stopped, the wind died down, and we made it through the night. When I unzipped the tent flap and stepped outside the next morning everything was wet. Our campsite looked like a disaster area. One of the fiberglass tent poles had shattered under the stress of the storm. But here was the miracle: the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and we were safe and warm and dry.
“You who live in the shelter of the Most High,” says the psalmist, “who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’” Christy and I weren’t quite ready to say it yet, and if you read on down to verse 10 where it says, “No evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent,” we would have had to disagree. The scourge had come near our tent; the evil had befallen right on top of it. And yet we were alive and well, blinking in the bright sunshine of a brand new day. It makes me wonder if that’s what the psalmist is talking about: that if you make the Lord your refuge and fortress, your God in whom you trust, then you won’t have to be afraid, no matter what comes.
Even if you don’t dodge the bullet.
I remember going to see someone at the hospital once, someone who was dying. My daughter Catherine was with me and she was only five years old. But she liked to come to that particular hospital because, in the gift shop, they sold penny candy (for those of you born after 1926, “penny candy” is candy you can buy for a penny). I’m not sure why they did it there, but they did. So, I bought her a piece, and then I played a game with her. I said, “You hold on to the candy and let me see if I can get it out of your hand.” And I am not joking: she held on so tightly that I could not pry her fingers loose, I could not get the candy away. When I went upstairs a few minutes later I told that story to the man who was dying, and then I said, “Years ago, you put your life into God’s hand. If a little girl can hold on to a piece of penny candy so tightly that a grown man can’t get it away from her, how much more can God hold on to your life? Nothing, not even death, will be able to snatch it out of his hand.”
Maybe, for those of us who live in the shelter of the Most High, the experience of dying is like that experience Christy and I had in the Badlands, where the wind blows and the rain falls and the storm howls and you don’t know if you will survive it. Maybe you don’t survive it. But maybe you wake up on the other side of death and find that God has held onto your life all through that long and stormy night, and when you unzip the tent flap, and step outside, you find yourself blinking in the bright light of heaven, with the sun shining, and the birds singing, forever and ever.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] “Psalm 91: The Soldier’s Psalm,” published on the website of the Military Christian Fellowship of Australia by an author referred to only as “BBADMIN” (https://mcf-a.org.au/articles/the-soldiers-psalm/).
[iii] I am grateful to Scott Hoezee for this insight, found in his commentary on Psalm 91on the Center for Excellence in Preaching website (https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2022-02-28/psalm-911-29-16/).
[iv] “Three Dog Night” was the name of a band popular in those days and somehow, miraculously, still around. Their website explains: “The band’s now-famous name refers to native Australian hunters in the outback who huddled with their dogs for warmth on cold nights; the coldest being a ‘three dog night.’” So, there you go. (https://www.threedognight.com/bio).