Lent 1C – God Is Not Magic
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
February 14, 2016
Throughout Lent, we’ll be taking a special look at the psalms.
Martin Luther said that the book of psalms might well be called a “little Bible”
– a handbook for faith –
because like the Bible in miniature,
the book of Psalms explores the highs and lows of faith
and everything in between.[i]
There are times when the psalmist sings with joy;
and there are times when the psalmist cries out in pain.
The overarching message of the psalms is that no matter what…
whether we are at the mountaintop
or at the base of the pit,
God is there.
The psalms bear witness to the promise that
God is with us.
Today we turn to Psalm 91.
It’s one of many ‘refuge’ psalms.
“I will say to the Lord, “my refuge and my stronghold;
my God in whom I trust.”
At times all of us are refugees of a sort…
at times all of us search for safety and shelter from trouble.
This psalm is meant for us in those times.
But it’s hard to hear this psalm in recent months
and not think of specific groups of refugees.
This psalm is meant for us in a different way too.
The UN regularly documents the stories of refugees.
One such story comes from a family in Syria.
I’ll post the video on our Facebook page later this afternoon –
but be warned, the images and text can be disturbing.
29 year old Dara Muhammed paid a smuggler $2500 in US dollars
for his wife Naleen, two year old daughter Lamar,
infant son Pulat, and himself
to cross the Aegean.
They were in a tiny boat crammed with 40 people.
They were headed to the Greek island of Lesbos.
Dara and Naleen had lived in Kobane,
a Kurdish town on the border with Turkey.
The small village had been overrun by militants,
their homes completely destroyed,
and the entire village – thousands of residents forced to leave….
a story that has been repeated over and over again.
Like many others, they arrived at a church – the Church of the Mermaid –
with nothing but the clothes they were wearing,
their cell phones,
and a little bit of money.
As she remembers the trip across the open sea,
Naleen starts to cry and says,
“until we arrived here, we counted ourselves among the dead.
If we had fallen into the water,
no one could have rescued us.”
But arriving in Lesbos was only the beginning of their journey.
In the middle of July,
they walked 70 kilometers to the capital.
And then by bus, by train, by taxi, by running and by walking…
lots of walking…
they went through Greece, through Macedonia,
into Serbia, Hungary,
through Germany and finally to Holland.
They crossed streams in the dead of night;
walked through forests surrounded by gangs;
went days on end without sleeping;
and all of this never knowing where they would end up…
where their refuge would be.
Naleen says of her children,
“For me it is important that they are small –
they will forget this….
When they ask how they came here?
I will tell them we suffered.
We did the best we could to make a life for them.”
Psalm 91 is a psalm of refuge.
We pray in the words of the psalm for God to be our place of shelter and protection.
The psalmist promises that God will give protection
against enemies, sickness, dangers and evil.
The lions and serpents of the world will not hurt you the psalm says.
Throughout history, many believers thought of Psalm 91
as a magical formula that protected them from danger.
Some rabbis called this an “amulet psalm” –
Jews and Christians copied the psalm,
enclosing the words in amulets to be worn as protection.
Believers were taught to recite it over and over again.
Are we to believe that if only Naleen and her family were Christian or Jewish
that their village would have been spared?
That if only they had prayed this psalm the right number of times,
or worn it around their necks, their suffering would have been different?
This psalm has some beautiful and comforting imagery.
But it’s troubling too.
And then I’m reminded of our gospel reading for today.
Jesus is tested by Satan in the wilderness;
Satan says throw yourself down from the top of the temple;
Satan says, “Surely you know the psalm – psalm 91 – God will send angels lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
And Jesus says,
Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
God is not magic.
If you jump from the top of a mountain you will get hurt –
whether you are a person of faith or not.
If you drive too fast you may get into a car accident –
despite the fact you pray this psalm every day.
If you smoke you may get cancer or you may not –
regardless of whether or not you’re wearing this psalm around your neck.
And if you live in Syria and people bomb your home and your neighbors’ homes
and your neighbors’ neighbors homes,
you will be forced to look for a new place to live,
whether you recite this psalm or not.
God is not magic.
Perhaps some who pray this psalm;
Perhaps some who believe that God is a refuge,
also believe that at times, they are the hands of God,
and they will take you in.
That’s not magic…that’s faith.
[i] Introduction to “Psalms” in Lutheran Study Bible, Augsburg Fortress.