Other sermons in this series
In the movie Unbreakable, Bruce Willis is… unbreakable.
Nothing. Can touch him. Nothing. Can hurt him. Nothing. Can kill him.
He is literally. Indestructible. And it’s something he only comes to realise slowly.
On the football field, he’s unstoppable. Never has an injury.
A car smash. Uninjured.
And then the big one. It’s the scene in the trailer of the movie. A train derailment that kills 131 other passengers. And Bruce Willis as David Dunn walks away without a scratch.
He says to the paramedic in the E. R., Why are you looking at me like that? And the guy says, “I’m looking at you for two reasons. One because you’re the only survivor of this train-wreck, and two, you don’t have a scratch on you.”
It’s fiction of course. Because much as we might like life to happen that way, it seems it doesn’t.
Much as we’d like to be unbreakable when the cancer comes, or the old age, or the truck round the corner on the wrong side of the road, or the ebola outbreak; much as we might like to be unbreakable… we’re not.
We’re FRAGILE.The human body should come with a big label that says handle with care.
Anything else. Is fiction.
Which is perhaps the thought you have when you hear the words of Psalm 91.
And the story it seems to tell, the promise it seems to hold… of an indestructible life.
Have a look again at verses 5 to 7:
5You will not fear the terror of night,
Nor the arrow that flies by day,
6nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
Nor the plague that destroys at midday.
7A thousand may fall at your side,
Ten thousand at your right hand,
But it will not come near you.
When ebola comes, or swine flu; the pestilence or the plague… ten thousand will go down with it. And you’ll be left standing.
Now folks, let me put this to you. There’s a problem. Because if ten thousand regular Israelites are reading this Psalm and there’s only going to be one left standing… which one is it? Who’s the promise actually for?
I mean, statistically when people are surveyed, 100% of us think we’re above average. But for the original readers, surely this has always been kind of a puzzle in reading the Psalm. Who’s the one in 10,000?
This morning we’re in part two of our series we’ve called sing with Jesus, we’re looking at a series of Old Testament Psalms. And the reason we’ve chosen them; because you might be wondering how it is we’ve gone from Psalm 2 last week all the way to Psalm 91 this week; but the reason we’ve chosen them is that we’re highlighting the Psalms that are quoted in the New Testament gospel accounts about Jesus. Who famously said, the Psalms “… are fulfilled by me.”
Which is when you think about it an astonishing kind of claim. Even for those of us who think we’re slightly above average!
Where we’ll end up this morning is Jesus. What we’re tying to do though as good bible readers is first of all look at how the Psalms were read by their first readers. And the understanding the original Israelites might have had of the words of the Psalm; which in the case of Psalm 91 is kind of hard to pin down.
If you glance back a page in your bible at the heading above Psalm 90, you’ll see a heading that tells you we’re just into book four; book four of the five books that make up the book of Psalms. Book four is made up of Psalms collected and used afterIsrael’s exile in Babylon. A time when they’re trying to put Israel back together.
Psalm 90, the first Psalm in book four, says at the top it’s “a prayer of Moses the man of God,” which means it’s ancient; it’s been chosen and put here at the start of book four of the Psalms as a reminder that God has been Israel’s dwelling placefrom before the mountains were born. And now they’re back in the promised land after a generation in Babylon it’s with a sense of humility and awe and heartfelt repentance. Psalm 90, verse 15:
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
For as many years as we have seen trouble.
16May your deeds be shown to your servants,
Your splendour to their children.
Which then leads directly into Psalm 91.
The perspective in book four of the Psalms is, we’ve been smashed and scattered, and now we’re fragile and frail and we’re ready to start over again. Encouraged by an old prayer of Moses from a time before the nation of Israel even got started. And now we’re ready to start again.
And so flowing on from the prayer at the end of Psalm 90 that “the favour of the Lord their God will establish the work of their hands” as they rebuild their temple and their fortress walls, there’s this resounding guarantee in Psalm 91… That whoeverdwells in the shelter of the most high, will rest in his shadow.
The point being that if you’ve been smashed and you’re rebuilding, start there. Not a castle or a stone house, but resting in the shadow of God himself.
And look, the same imagery runs all the way through.
Shelter, shadow, refuge, fortress, wings, refuge, shield, rampart, refuge, dwelling, tent.
Doesn’t matter what else they rebuild. If they want to be really secure it’s got to start here.
Because he’s the one who’ll save them from snares and from deadly diseases, he’s the one who’ll shelter them under his wings in verse 4. His faithfulness to his promises to Israel; that’s their shield. All words and ideas that go back to Moseshimself in Deuteronomy 32 when Israel was starting the first time around. Now picked up with a new resonance. As they rebuild.
And so in verse 5, that’s why they’ll have no need to fear the terrors of night. That’s why they won’t have to fear the arrow that flies by day. Or the pestilence of illness or of plague.
Because unlike the days before they were crushed and exiled… this time … they’ll hide in the right place. They’ll take their refuge in their God. And not the other gods around them.
This is going to be a whole new start. For a whole new Israel. And so verse 9:
9If you say, “the Lord is my refuge,” And if you make the most high your dwelling, 10no harm will overtake you, No disaster will come near your tent.
As it did last time round. Before their exile.
And that’s the tone of the Psalm over and over again. That’s how it finishes.
14“Because he loves me,” says the Lord,
“I will rescue him;
I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
15He will call on me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honour him.
16With long life I will satisfy him
And show him my salvation.”
He in this case, is I think a picture of the ideal Israelite. How an Israelite is meant to be. If you want to live long in the promised land now you’re back in it, don’t make the mistakes you made before.
Look, if you’re new to this stuff and that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, here’s a clue. Just read everything that comes before this in the Old Testament and you’ll see how the Israelites stuffed up. In every way possible.
Especially. Especially. In their idol worship. Running after any and every other wooden god they came across with lifestyles to match.
Here’s a promise from God that if his people dwell in him and shelter in him and make him their fortress, God’s going to snuggle them under his feathers like a mother hen; be their shield against arrows and their wall against invasion and plague.
And yet even though this is a picture of how every Israelite should be… it’s clear the Psalm is thinking the odds of finding an Israelite like that is one in ten thousand. Who’ll be the unbreakable one who stands when others fall? The one tent on the battlefield that’s safe from disaster.
And so when verse 14 says “because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him,” and you’re saying who’s it talking about, it’s the Israelite who constantly and faithfully takes refuge in God. When nobody else does.
Which brings us back to the verses I deliberately skipped. 11 and 12.
It was only yesterday I heard a loud ouch from the side room. No swear words, you’ll be pleased to know, but Louise had kicked her toe. I think on a toy some grandchild had left on the floor. I mean, it hurts, doesn’t it?
Verse 11 and 12 seem to hold an astonishing promise… that the faithful Israelite, the unbreakable one; he’s not even going to stub his toe. Because there’ll be an angel charged with guarding his every footstep… how good would that be?
Read the words for yourself. Verse 11 and 12.
11For he will command his angels concerning you
To guard you in all your ways;
12they will lift you up in their hands,
So that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
Even more. Verse 13.
13You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
You will trample the great lion and the serpent.
The serpent. Which right from the start of the bible in Genesis chapter 3 has been consistently the symbol and embodiment of the devil himself. Who is it who’ll take him on? Who’ll trample the cobra? Who’ll tread down the lion that’s always seeking someone to eat up?
The bad news is, even as Israel rebuilds after their exile, there’s not a single faithful Israelite who’s even remotely a candidate.
And anyone reading Psalm 91 for hundreds of years could rightfully say… who on earth… is this even about?
Until you turn to the New Testament and Luke chapter 4. And you come to a parching hot day in the desert. Where this one Israelite Jesus comes head to head with the serpent himself, Satan.
Who quotes exactly the words of Psalm 91 verse 11 and 12 to Jesus, as he hisses at him, I know who it’s talking about. It’s you. Isn’t it? The son of God. The ideal God trusting Israelite who the Psalm says is going to trample the serpent.
Give it up. That was the temptation we saw last week that was a link to Psalm 2. Don’t ask your father for a kingdom. Ask me! Worship me instead! Sssso much easier!
If you really are the son of God, he says, prove it. To yourself and me. Luke 4 verse 9; here’s where he’s going to quote the Psalm.
Follow the words on the screen.
The devil leads him to Jerusalem and has him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he says, hissing voice… Try it out. Use a bit of your power for yourself. He says,
throw yourself down from here. 10For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; 11they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’
Which of course would include smashing into a stone courtyard from 50 metres from the top of the temple.
But Jesus answers, quoting from Deuteronomy 6 verse 16,
It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’
Because being confident of God’s protection; trusting God… doesn’t mean you’re going to test him by stepping in front of a bus.
And verse 13, the devil gives up. For the moment. And leaves him till an opportune time. A much bigger scenario where Jesus is going to have to trust God’s protection in the absolute extreme. Of the cross. Where Jesus again actually declines tocall on the legion of angels to save him; because being saved himself is not the plan.
Interesting, all Satan’s three temptations are asking Jesus to use his power for the sake of himself. You’re hungry aren’t you? Make yourself some bread. He does that for 5000 later on. Not himself. How about an easy way to be king? Just worshipme! You’d like the angels at your beck and call? Call them!
I can’t think of a single recorded instance. Where Jesus uses his power for his own benefit. And most especially, not at the cross. Imagine the sort of self serving kingdom it would have been if he’d buckled and said yes.
But the bottom line is, Jesus is just going to keep taking refuge in his father. Right to the end. And beyond.
I don’t know how comfortable you are having the devil tell you who Psalm 91 is ultimately talking about; but see, here’s the faithful Israelite; the one who’s going to show the world what it looks like to shelter in the shadow of the wings of his father. And so when all the smoke clears, when the world has done its worst to him… even after he’s been nailed on a cross. He stands. Again.
And ultimately, he’s done that for and on behalf of his people. Including you and me.
The book of Hebrews calls him one who has become a priest. A mediator between God and man. Get this… One who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life.
Kind of gives him credibility, doesn’t it? Prepared to trust God through the cross on Friday, into the grave and right through to the sunday morning; who took on Satan’s power; who took our curse on himself on the cross. And then bounced back.Unbreakable. Because he’s trusted God perfectly and finally and fully for us.
Now our priest. And mediator. Which is where our comfort ultimately comes from.
You know, the first verse of our Psalm says this… Look again.
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
Will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
In 1956 five American missionaries in their 20s landed their boat in Ecuador near a native village, on a mission to share the good news of Jesus with them. They were ready to spend years there, learning the language, helping with medical care. And almost immediately, the local people killed them. All five. If you’re thinking every Christian is guaranteed protection from arrows and spears by God their stronghold, it’s kind of disappointing, isn’t it? And yet the widow of one of them, Elisabeth Elliot, when she wrote the memoirs of her husband Jim, she called it In the Shadow of the Almighty. Psalm 91 verse 1.
Because in the light of the resurrection of Jesus, she was fully convinced that just because he died… didn’t mean for a moment that he’d left God’s shadow. And that’s our conviction too. In the face of the dangers and fears of everyday life, that wewill not fear the terrors of the night. Or the arrow. Or the plague.
Because we have a high priest with an indestructible life who promises life to us. Who’ll call on his name to the end. And then beyond. As he showed at his resurrection.
That’s our comfort. Is it yours?