The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
September 24, 2023
Courage may not be the highest virtue, but it is that virtue without which no other virtue can be practiced. We cannot practice the virtue of justice without the bravery to face fierce opposition from the unjust. We cannot practice honesty without the bravery to deal with the anger of those with a vested interest in squashing the truth. We cannot enact compassion without the bravery to put our hearts on the line and to become vulnerable to getting hurt by what happens to others.
This sin-ravaged world is a dangerous place and we often teeter on the edge of a cliff of catastrophe. Even mountains, those symbols of enduring stability, this Psalm says, “tremble” with the “tumult” of the roaring, menacing sea; and even the greatest human institutions “totter” before the precariousness of their power and longevity. So what can we who heed God’s word and base our lives on it do to gain and maintain courage as we travel along the edge of many an unstable cliff. I see this Psalm identifying three resources for sustaining bravery: our identity, our values, and our focus.
First, our identity as God’s beloved children gives us courage. While we can’t deny this world can hurt us, we can believe that God watches over us and protects us from suffering more than we can handle with His help. By His help, God enables us not only to deal with our troubles, but also to bring good of them. If we can trust that God will never let any trouble ultimately destroy us or keep us from realizing our highest aspirations, we will have courage.
Three times this Psalm refers to God as our “refuge” in this dangerous world. Twice it talks about God being our “help” in trouble. Furthermore, it speaks of God’s being “in the midst” of His “city”, “the holy habitation of the Most High” and His people. Originally, that meant Jerusalem; but Jerusalem came to symbolize wherever God is welcomed and recognized as Lord. That means that God is with the obedient as their champion who can turn back any enemy against them. His people can then be courageous because He is “with” them.
This Psalm also speaks of God’s bringing war to an end: breaking the bow, shattering the spear and burning shields. Originally, that referred, many biblical scholars think, to God’s thwarting, by a miracle, the evil designs of three superpowers that formed a military alliance during King Jehoshaphat’s reign to conquer and enslave Israel; but that one instance of God’s deliverance came to symbolize God’s one day bringing a bigger peace: making “wars cease to the end of the earth”. That means that God will ultimately bring the obedient into perfect peace. His people can then be courageous because He is faithful.
If we know our identity as those who belong to God and to whom God has promised good, we won’t fall apart in fear when, some days, evil gets the upper hand. For we know how the story turns out in the end, and that enables us to view our losses in the meantime as temporary setbacks that will eventually be reversed. That knowing keeps from being intimidated, by possible costs and dangers, from doing what is ours to do. That knowing makes us courageous!
Second, bearing in mind our values gives us courage. For our values determine what we fear most of all, and higher fears discipline lower fears. For example, we fear other fears less as we fear God more. The mother rushing into the burning building to save her baby fears her own death but fears even more failing to do her all to protect the child entrusted to her care. The freedom fighter in the totalitarian state who “speaks truth to power” fears imprisonment, torture and execution but fears even more falling short in his call to work for the liberation of his country. And all of us who devote ourselves to love fear the heartbreak to which caring exposes us but fear even more failing to live true to the God who was heartbroken on the cross for us.
We grow courageous by our sense of identity and by values. Third, we grow courageous by our focus.
When we permit our troubles to preoccupy us, we let our thoughts be thrown into chaos and we lose our heads. But if we set our minds and attention on God, we settle down as we rely on His potent help.
We must not let our problems consume us. If we keep fretting over them, we fix our gaze on them; and if fix our gaze on them, we magnify them out of proportion to their reality and we lose perspective. Our problems appear impossibly big because they’ve pushed God out of the picture and they’re all we see. But if we turn our eyes on God, God gets big again to us, and our problems get small in comparison – and we grow courageous.
That’s why this Psalm’s final command is this: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
“Be still” here does not mean to become either silent or inactive. In the Hebrew original it means to cease striving – literally, to drop our arms to our sides in a trusting, peaceful stance. When we keep our arms up, it usually expresses a sense that we need to fight off an attack or wrestle problems to the ground. But if we can trust God to take on our problems and lead the fight for us, the very act of dropping the combative stance strengthens our faith that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” We then courageously relax in our reliance on God.
That makes us like King Jehoshaphat. When the armies of those three superpowers were bearing down on his country, he felt fear but did not give into it. Instead, 2 Chronicles 20:3 tells us, he immediately “set himself to seek the Lord”. He held a fast to the Lord, prayed for God’s help, and recalled all the great things God had done in Israel’s history to rescue it from impossible situations. Saying Amen to that, a priest declared this truth: “The battle is not yours. It is the Lord’s.”
The whole nation then hoped mightily in God and held a big worship service. Imagine that! While we often only praise God when He gets us out of trouble, they praised God when trouble was breathing down their neck!
Jehoshaphat had such faith that, when he finally sent troops into battle, he put musicians at their head to lead them in songs of praise as they marched forward. Then, when they arrived at their field of battle, there was no battle to fight! For their enemies had killed each other, and their war came to an end without the Israelites lifting a hand. They took action but they didn’t strive. They acted “still” – and they came to know their Lord is God.
May we gain and maintain courage as we travel down along our cliffs by bearing in mind our identity, holding on to our values and focusing on our Lord God.