I once read about a pastor who begins what we would call his Communicants’ Class the same way every year. He has a jar of beans sitting on the table, and he proceeds to ask his young students to guess how many beans are in the jar and to write their estimates in a list on the legal pad that he passes around to each one of them.
Then, next to the column of those estimates of the number of beans, he gets them to make another list – he asks each student to write down their favorite song. Once every student has written down a song and that list is complete, he tells them how many beans are actually in the jar, and the whole class looks over their estimates to see which student was actually closest to the right number.
Once they know the number of beans, then he points to the list of their favorite songs, and he asks: “Which of these is closest to being right?” Of course, you know what those young people are going to do – the same thing you would do – they are going to protest that there is no “right answer”. A person’s favorite song is purely a matter of taste – it’s what we would call totally subjective.
Then, this pastor, who also happens to have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Notre Dame, asks another question: “When you decide what to believe in terms of your faith, is that more like guessing the number of beans, or more like choosing your favorite song?” Now, I want all of you to think about that question. He says they always answer the same way – whether they’re younger or older – their answer is always the same: Choosing one’s faith is like choosing a favorite song.
But, of course, it isn’t is it? Some of you younger people and/or sleepier people may be having trouble following the logic of this illustration. And if you are, just think of it in terms of Absolute truth. Is there such a thing as Absolute Truth? Yes, there is – Absolute Truth is right here in scripture. As the Psalmist teaches us in Psalm 119: “The sum of your Word is truth.” Just like the number of beans in that jar is a true number – it might be 100 or 125 or whatever, so is one’s faith true if he or she is a Christian. We can’t decide to believe subjectively whatever we want. Now don’t misunderstand, a lot of people do just that, but that’s not what God teaches in His Word. His Word is truth, just as Jesus Himself is truth. There’s a true faith, just like there’s a correct number of beans. There’s nothing subjective at all about the Christian faith.
In Psalm 91, we see some of that absolute truth. We can also see truth about what God provides for us – displayed so lovingly in this picture of God likened to a mother bird, who provides shelter for her young. For we’re told in verse four: “He will cover you with His pinions, and under His wings, you will find refuge…” This is obviously a picture of security – of protection for believers who are part of this fallen world. And this is made clear with verse 5 which tells us we will not fear the terror of the night or the arrow that flies by day.
John Calvin makes the point that when we stop to consider the majesty of God – His honor and glory – there is nothing that would suggest drawing a likeness between God and birds. But Calvin goes on to say: “But He descends, as it were, from heavenly glory which belongs to Him to encourage us to approach Him. Since He condescends in such a gracious manner to OUR weakness, surely there is nothing to prevent us from coming to Him with the greatest freedom.”
Do you see what Calvin is saying? That this picture of being under His wings is also designed to encourage us to come to God for whatever we need. That we can approach Him freely and not worry about whether He has some interest in whatever is going on in our hearts or lives. Just like you would not hesitate to go to your loving mother or father for advice or comfort or even just a hug; so, we should not hesitate to run to God our Father at any time and any place. No need is too small or insignificant. For those of us without living parents, we plug other Christians – wise Christians – into that equation.
But for many of us who have been ARP’s our entire lives, this section of this psalm has always spoken of protection because we’ve sung this Psalm our whole lives and we remember those words “Under His wings, safe in the refuge hide thee; trusting His truth and faithfulness, no evil can betide thee.” And we can see that attitude so clearly in the book of Daniel – chapter three, where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar had erected. They were commanded to do so, but they refused.
The king told them that if they bowed down, all well and good, but if they continued to refuse, he said who is the god that will deliver you out my hands? I want you to hear their answer to the king: “O Nebuchadnezzar…If it is so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand…But IF NOT, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.”
I’ve always loved their answer because it shows us that they believe in and serve an all-powerful God – One who IS ABLE to deliver them from the fiery furnace. But, at the same time, they know they also serve a Sovereign God who has plans and purposes of which they have no knowledge, and so they throw that in as well when they say ‘But If Not’ as if to say God may not choose to save us and that’s ok because He’s sovereign.
Jesus was love and mercy, grace and peace incarnate, and yet He was not only tempted in all ways as we are, but He suffered and died upon a cross. But that cross wasn’t the last word. The resurrection came three days later, and the ascension after forty days, and the Exaltation. But His path on this earth was a hard and difficult path full of rejection, suffering, and bloodshed, and the final victory was not easily won. But He finished God’s work and yielded His Spirit, and all of this was according to God’s plan.
We don’t fear death because Jesus has been there before us and has conquered it. And we also don’t fear death because we know that our best life is beyond the grave. As one person put it, “trusting in God, we express our confidence in the promise of this last verse, with the answer given in Psalm 23: ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’”
If we have this kind of faith in this kind of God, no outward circumstances can triumph over us. Whether it’s Stephen being stoned, or Paul in prison, or David Livingstone dying in Africa; Christian students gunned down at Columbine – our own Robert and Barbara, Adah and Noah; these are not contradictions of the faith and the truth we read in this text. And therefore, we don’t go through this life refusing to speak of them and their lives.
Instead, we talk about these people of faith with pride, as does the writer of the book of Hebrews in his 11th chapter, talking about those who were stoned, sawn in two, killed with the sword, or whatever. These are the people who go down into the valley of the shadow of death saying: “I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your Rod and your staff they comfort me.” These are the people who say to the Lord: “My Refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.”
In this world today, and in every generation in this world, what we need is a real faith in a real God; and the assurance that through all of life, the good times and the bad times – there is a divine Protector who goes all the way with us even into death, and it’s in this kind of God in the person of Jesus Christ, that we find peace – peace not as the world gives. For Jesus said: “in the world you have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” It’s the good news of the gospel – believe it and live in its peace – both now and forevermore!