Video of Vespers is here. The sermon begins around the 19:15 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What does it mean to be safe? Safety is relative, isn’t it? For most of us, safety is a thing we take for granted. The United States, at least in the majority of areas, is a relatively safe nation. There are places in the world where safety is not even close to guaranteed. When we consider famine or persecution or war in other parts of the world, we are, relative to those places, very safe. But we know that our own safety is never absolute or complete. Out of the blue, our lives can be changed in any number of ways, and it is in those moments that we realize just how fragile our safety is.
In Psalm 91, the psalmist takes stock of the threats that surround him. There is the snare, or the trap, of the hunter; the plague or the pestilence that destroys; it is the pestilence that walks around in the darkness and the destruction that lays waste in the middle of the day, which the Greek translates as a demon; and there is the arrow of the enemy. There is the warfare in which thousands, or tens of thousands, are killed. There is every kind of evil and every kind of plague that might come upon you where you sleep. There are lions and poisonous snakes, and the serpent that sometimes got translated as dragon or sea monster. Who can find safety in the midst of so many dangers? We could probably lengthen the list indefinitely.
But notice that the author only mentions all these dangers and threats in the context of the protection of Yahweh. Where will we turn for safety? To the government? To our health? To our firearms? To doctors and medicine and medical technology, to all the precautions we can put in place? No doubt many turn to those and more for their safety and security.
And there are not only the physical dangers that we can see. There are also the spiritual dangers, and those are the more dangerous because they are threats not only to our bodily life in this creation, but to our eternal life. There are the spiritual traps and snares that catch us and kill our life in Christ. In the New Testament, the Greek word for snare is used almost exclusively of the devil and his traps. He tries to catch you by lies, by temptations, by false teaching, by giving you exactly what you want to hear, rather than the Word of God you need to hear. We are always searching for the things that make us feel good or comfortable or assure us that what we think and feel is right. It is the false teaching that grabs us and throws us around like the wind on a rough sea. And there is also the sharp word of the trap that constantly bites us, when our consciences are troubled because of our sin. Where will we find safety from either the spiritually false word, or the hammer of God’s Word in our hearts?
There is only one safe place, both from the devil, world, and flesh, as well as from the condemnation of sin, and that is in the refuge which God gives us in the body of Jesus. He is the rock that was struck and a space was opened where God puts us, as He put Moses in the hole in the rock when His glory passed him by. It is the hiding place, the place that is hidden and secret except to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. You cannot escape the false word, or the troubling, biting word except in the mercy of Jesus. Only God is true and right all the time. It is His truth that is the shield and buckler, the large and small shield. Jesus is the bird who saves His little birds from the trap by Himself being caught in it. He puts Himself into the danger of death and false witness until like the phoenix, He rises from the ashes of death.
When the death-shadow eclipses our sun with the cold darkness of fear and danger, He is the greater and comforting shadow, like an oasis in the burning desert. “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in You my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of Your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by” (Psalm 57:1). You are my hiding place (Psalm 119:114). Blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him! Because He will hide you in His shelter in the day of trouble. He will conceal you under the cover of His tent and lift you high upon a rock, out of the danger of the destructive flood. “He found [Israel] in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, Yahweh alone guided him, no foreign god was with him” (Deuteronomy 32:10-12). He longs to gather you under His protection and give you true safety, in the same way a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings. It was true for Jerusalem, and it is true for you.
“Wondrously show Your steadfast love, O Savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at Your right hand. Keep me as the apple of Your eye; hide me in the shadow of Your wings, from the wicked who do me violence, my deadly enemies who surround me. … [The enemy] is like a lion eager to tear, as a young lion lurking in ambush” (Psalm 17:7-9, 12). “How precious is Your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of Your wings” (Psalm 36:7).
See how He keeps us, even in this short life: He sends His angels to guard you in all your ways. This is what the devil omits from his quotation of Psalm 91 in the temptation of Jesus on the “wing” of the temple. He says that God will send His angels to guard Jesus, but he doesn’t say “in all your ways.” It may seem like a slight omission, but in those words is everything. What are the ways in which Jesus, or we, walk, that the angels guard us? It is not in throwing ourselves down from high places, or finding the ways in which we can test God. It is in the ways He has put before us—not on the wings of the temple, but under the wings of His certain promise and Word. As one Christian put it, “With one hand [the angels] protect the believers…and with the other they pursue and attack Satan and godless men…As you go about your daily work, the angels carry you in their hands” (Martin Chemnitz, Loci Theologici, 1:178).
This entire psalm is about the protection of God, the peace and security that cannot be found anywhere or in anyone else. Whether day or night, we have nothing to fear, because Yahweh is our keeper. Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. Yahweh is your keeper; Yahweh is your shadow [Psalm 91:1] on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. Yahweh will keep you from all evil; He will keep your life. Yahweh will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore (Psalm 121:4-8). “Let me dwell in Your tent forever! Let me take refuge under the shelter of Your wings!” (Psalm 61:4). Here is safety, not only for soul, but also for body. We are hid in Christ, whose life means resurrection for us, and eternal safety for body and soul. There is no more secure place than in the One who has already endured every danger and threat, including death, and come through on the other side, raised from the dead.
“I fear no foe with Thee at hand to bless; ills have no weight and tears no bitterness. Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still if Thou abide with me!” (LSB 878:5). “Lord Jesus, since You love me, now spread Your wings above me and shield me from alarm. Though Satan would devour me, let angel guards sing o’er me: this child of God shall meet no harm. My loved ones, rest securely, for God this night will surely from peril guard your heads. Sweet slumbers may He send you and bid His hosts attend you and through the night watch o’er your beds” (LSB 880:4-5).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/8/22