When The Center Cannot Hold
Summer Psalms 2019 • Sermon • Submitted • Presented • 34:27
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If you’re a fan of early Twentieth-Century Irish poetry (and let’s face it—who isn’t??), then you may recognize the title of this sermon as a reference to a poem called “The Second Coming”, by W. B. Yeats. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the poem, which Yeats wrote after the end of World War I, the Russian Revolution and the political turmoil of his native Ireland. It was his attempt to capture not just the political and violence, but his anxiety over “the social ills of modernity: the rupture of the traditional family and societal structures; the loss of religious faith, and with it the collective sense of purpose; the feeling that the old rules no longer apply and there’s nothing to replace them” (www.theparisreview.org).
Let me read the first stanza to you, and see if it doesn’t sound as appropriate for us in 2019 as it did for him in 1919:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
In the rest of the poem, Yeats expresses his fear that the loss of the “center that cannot hold” (the moral authority of Western culture) will open the door for an even more monstrous evil than has already befallen us. That if there is some kind of “Second Coming”, it won’t be a Savior to save us, but a monstrous wickedness that will destroy us:
What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
It is, on the whole, not the kind of poem that you would read, say, at your niece’s wedding reception! It is dark and ominous, and Yeats works overtime to heighten a sense of dread and foreboding for the future.
And much of its imagery feels perfectly suited to our present cultural moment: Just a couple of weeks ago the Pennsylvania State Senate budget hearings devolved into a screaming match between Lt. Gov. Fetterman and Majority Leader Jake Corman (“mere anarchy loosed on the world”), while New York, Vermont, Illinois and now Maine are passing laws that will loose a “blood-dimmed tide” to “drown the ceremony of innocence” of children in the horror of abortion right up to the moment of birth. The very notion of marriage and family is under assault, diluted and maimed to the point of irrelevance in our national discourse by the worst voices, who are “full of passionate intensity” while the best lack all conviction.
Even the natural world around us seems to be spiraling out of control—wildfires in California devouring entire cities, volcanic eruptions burying Hawaii under rivers of lava, squads of tornadoes ripping across the South like enormous soldiers in some horrifying invasion, even a flood of shark attacks off the coast of North Carolina!
Add to that the daily chaos and uncertainty that each of us struggle with in our own lives: Financial instability, job market fluctuations, health challenges and illness, family and domestic struggles—if there was ever a time when the nightmarish evil of Yeats’ poem applied to the world, it is now!
So what are we to do? Where do you turn for some kind of stability in a world that rages against God? How can you find peace and confidence when it feels like “the center cannot hold”, and everything is falling apart? When we turn to Psalm 46 this morning, we find that the psalmist is using the same kind of stark, arresting imagery—but the tone of the psalm is far different:
1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, 3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
The earth gives way, the mountains are thrown into the sea, the oceans roar and foam—this kind of imagery is the way the Biblical writers paint the picture of a world spiraling out of control. I had a professor in Bible college that was a missionary in Guatemala during the earthquake of 1976, and I remember him describing the terrible sense disorientation he experienced, watching the earth roll and swell beneath him like an ocean wave. And a couple of years ago, I experienced something very similar during the total solar eclipse, watching the Sun go dark in the middle of the day! It was uncanny, eerie and unsettling in a way I hadn’t expected. That’s what the psalmist is trying to convey in these verses.
But the striking aspect of these verses isn’t the ominous imagery of a world thrown into chaos—it is the deep and unshakeable confidence of God’s people in the midst of it! Reading Psalm 46 doesn’t convey the echo of ominous footfalls of an approaching evil—it rings with a confident song of joy and gladness!
And this is what I aim to show you this morning from this psalm, that
The presence of God’s Spirit in us is our refuge in the chaotic rebellion of this age.
First, look at the way the psalmist describes
I. The Chaos of the World’s Rebellion
I. The Chaos of the World’s Rebellion
Look again at verses 2-3: The imagery of the earth heaving and the mountains being thrown into the sea is an ominous picture of the world falling apart. And this is especially the case when you realize that the Israelites really didn’t have much experience as a seafaring people—the image of the sea is always used in the Old Testament to symbolize Chaos—uncontrollable danger, peril and confusion. But the mountains were always described as a place of security and refuge (Ps. 121:1). So when the mountains are thrown into the sea, it means that Chaos has overwhelmed Order—it’s the psalmist’s way of saying there is no place left to hide! His point is clear:
We live in a chaotic and dangerous world. (vv. 2-3)
It’s also interesting to note that the psalmist is one of the “Sons of Korah”—a descendant of one of the men who rebelled against Moses in the wilderness in Numbers 16. Do you remember how God judged him?
32 And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. 33 So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.
So when this psalmist writes about “the earth giving way”, he is writing about something that strikes very near his own personal history. When the earth gives way and swallows you up, there is no escape! (And yet, as we will see, he has peace!)
We live in a chaotic and dangerous world, and in verse 6 the psalmist reminds us that
We live among raging and tottering kingdoms (v. 6).
6 The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The upheaval and chaos of earthquakes and floods in verses 1-2 is mirrored by the upheaval and chaos of the nations that refuse to acknowledge God. Like the unruly sea, they foam and rage and swirl in anger and rebellion against God—and like the hills in an earthquake they sway and totter and crumble! They are loud, they are furious in their denunciations, they sign their legislations and threaten to sue, they throw back their heads and scream at the sky—but they are all about as stable as the second-to-the-last move of a game of Jenga! And all it will take is one little word from God: “He utters His voice, and the earth melts!” The firm footing they thought they had under them, their absolute conviction that they stand on solid ground, that they are “on the right side of history”, as they like to say, melts and crumbles away like a popsicle on the sidewalk in July!
This is why the tone of Psalm 46 is so different from W.B. Yeats’ vision of the world—both of them use startling, haunting imagery to describe a world in chaos. Yeats is singing a dirge, but the psalmist is dancing a jig!
7 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
When “the centre cannot hold” in the upheaval of a world that rages against God, we have
II. The Refuge of God’s Presence
II. The Refuge of God’s Presence
Look at verses 4-5:
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. 5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.
On either side of this psalm we see the chaos and rebellion and disorder and peril of a world gone mad—but here in these verses we see the peace and gladness of “the city of God!” This psalm is one of the first of the “Songs of Zion” in the Psalms—along with Psalm 48, 76, 84 and 87, they are songs that celebrate the strength and beauty and majesty of the dwelling of God with His people in Jerusalem.
And the way the psalmist sets out the contrast of this psalm, you get the sense of standing on the parapet of a high mountain fortress. You look out and see the turmoil of the churning seas, the earthquake-tumbled mountains and the raging, tottering nations—and then you turn and look into the city and you see peace and stability, flowing streams, glad laughter, music and feasting—completely and utterly untouched and unmoved by the raging chaos outside!
There is great gladness in God’s presence (v. 4)
When the psalmist writes in verse 5, “God will help her when morning dawns”, he may be making a reference to an episode in Jerusalem’s history when the rage of the nation of Assyria was directed against her. It takes place in 2 Kings 18-19, (p. 326) when Sennacherib encamped his army, 185,000 strong, outside the walls of Jerusalem. In 2 Kings 18:33, he taunts Jerusalem:
33 Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? 34 Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? 35 Who among all the gods of the lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?’ ”
But the prophet Isaiah, who was there in Jerusalem with King Hezekiah, tells the people,
32 “Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there, or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. 33 By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the Lord. 34 For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.”
And then, in the very next verse, we read,
35 And that night the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies.
“God will help her when the morning dawns!” The psalmist rejoices in the great gladness in God’s presence, and he rejoices that
There is great security in God’s presence (vv. 5, 7, 11)
“God is in the midst” of the city, so “it shall not be moved”. And in verses 7 and 11 the psalmist repeats the statement
7 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
I mentioned earlier that Martin Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” based on Psalm 46. Verses 7 and 11 are the basis of the line “Lord Sabaoth, His Name / From age to age the same / And He must win the battle!”
“It is said of Luther that there were times during the dark and dangerous periods of the Reformation when he was terribly discouraged and depressed. But at such times he would turn to his friend and coworker Philipp Melanchthon and say, “Come, Philipp, let’s sing the forty-sixth Psalm.” (Boice, J. M. (2005). Psalms 42–106: An Expositional Commentary (p. 388). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.)
One of the strongest, most secure fortresses in the modern world sits under Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. Housed under two thousand feet of solid granite, the Cheyenne Mountain Complex houses the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Built to withstand a direct hit from any of the largest nuclear weapons in the world, it is also invulnerable to electromagnetic interference or biological or chemical attacks. It’s earthquake-proof structures are built on massive springs to protect them from tremors, and massive redundant generators supply electrical power. It is perhaps the safest, most secure, unmoveable place on the entire planet—but one word from your God and the entire mountain will melt like wax!
In the chaotic upheaval of this world’s raging, tottering rebellion against God, you have a “mighty fortress” in Him— “a bulwark never failing!” And in the last section of this psalm, we are called to give
III. Our Response to God’s Power
III. Our Response to God’s Power
Look at verses 8-10:
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he has brought desolations on the earth. 9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. 10 “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”
Up to this point, the psalmist has been describing the chaos of the rebellious world around us and the security of God’s people in His presence. But starting here in verse 8, he calls on us to respond to His works. The first thing we are called to do is to
Behold the works of the LORD (v. 8).
The psalmist calls us to come over with him to the parapet of the fortress, and sweeps his hand over the desolation before us and says, “Behold—this is the power of YHWH your God!” Just as Hezekiah woke that morning and saw hundreds of thousands of dead Assyrian soldiers scattered around Jerusalem, just as Moses led the Israelites out of an Egypt that had been decimated by fire, hail, disease and death, just as the churning waters of the Flood wiped out Noah’s wicked and raging generation, so the God you serve is powerful to bring desolations on His enemies today! As Yahweh spoke to His people through Isaiah:
17 no weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed, and you shall refute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord and their vindication from me, declares the Lord.”
Beloved—none of the weapons being fashioned against you by this raging, tottering nation will stand! There is no bow of godless legislation He cannot break, no chariot of arrogant political careers that will not burst into flame at His word!
So the first thing you must do, Christian, is see the mighty works of God! It is so easy to forget the power of God, so easy to be cowed into submission by the rage that is directed all around us—but look behind that rage and see the tottering! That, in Martin Luther’s words, “The prince of Darkness grim / We tremble not for Him / His rage we can endure / for lo, his doom is sure / one little word shall fell him!”
We need to constantly remind ourselves of the mighty works of God so that we are not intimidated by the chaotic rebellion all around us. So remind yourself of His mighty works by reading His Word, remind yourself of His mighty works in your own life as He delivered you from the power of sin and Satan by His Son’s death on the Cross! And remind each other of what God has done! Speak to one another about His power, encourage each other in fellowship—call each other over to the wall of the fortress and say, “Come and behold the mighty works of the LORD!”
And once you have reminded yourself of the might of your God to defend you, the psalmist says, then you are able to
Be still and know that He is God (v. 10)
10 “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”
The literal rendering of the word “be still” in the original language means to “let go” or “go slack”—the way that a small child will relax and rest when gathered up in her Daddy’s arms. When you see His power to defend you, you can rest in Him! The God who shatters the bow and breaks the spear and sets the chariots ablaze and wreaks desolation on His enemies has you in His arms, Christian! You don’t have to fret over the chaos and uncertainty of this world, you don’t have to be intimidated or cowed by the rage of the tottering Jenga-tower! He has spoken: “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”
The nations that reject Him and rebel against Him, the modern-day Sennacheribs on TV who stand outside the walls taunting you, saying “Your God is irrelevant and worthless and can’t save you”—they will be utterly and completely desolate because of the Word He has spoken through His Son Jesus Christ! They cannot stop the reign of King Jesus, and the more they rage, the wobblier they get!
So Christian, when you feel your blood pressure begin to spike as you’re watching the news, when you see that Facebook feed that taunts you for your trust in God your Refuge, be still! Let go and say, “God will be exalted!”
And when you do that, you are free in this world! Free because the LORD of Hosts is with you! And what is so wonderful to remember, Christian, is that you do not have to come to some Tabernacle on a mountaintop in order to have that Refuge—because the Spirit of God Himself dwells in you!
16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
You are not just in God’s holy habitation, you are God’s holy habitation!
When you come by faith to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, God becomes your fortress, your Rock, your stronghold that can never be moved by any of the chaotic rebellion of this world! There is not chaos—no sickness, no disaster, no stock market crash, no plant closing, no foreclosure, no Equality Act, no tax-exempt status loss, no Supreme Court ruling, no act of the tottering, blaspheming Jenga-Tower Congress that can shake you in the slightest! Because He will be exalted among the nations—He will be exalted in THIS nation! He will be exalted among the peoples—He will be exalted in your life! See that power He wields on your behalf, and rest in it!
And friend, if you are here apart from Jesus this morning—if you have never called on Him for forgiveness of your sins and salvation for eternal life—why do you want to be out in that chaos by yourself? Don’t you see (or maybe you don’t want to let yourself see!) how treacherous your steps are today? How do you know the earth under your feet isn’t going to give way and pitch you headlong into Hell? What assurance do you have that whatever “mountain” you’re trusting in—the mountain of your good reputation before others, the mountain of your hefty bank balance, the mountain of your seniority and senior-level position at work, the mountain of your good health and low cholesterol and 120/80 blood pressure—what proof can you show me (or show yourself) that any one of those mountains can’t be pitched into the ocean of Almighty God’s judgment in the blink of an eye?
Friend, the only mountain that really controls your destiny right now is the mountain of your guilt before Almighty God. And you can deny it all you want, you can lie to yourself all you like, but you know that mountain exists, and you know what you deserve. And you know that there is only one escape—flee to the refuge of Jesus Christ! It is no accident that God calls Himself “the God of Jacob” in this psalm—Jacob the liar, Jacob the deceiver, Jacob the swindler and con-artist and two-bit hustler. God specializes in rescuing liars from themselves—and He will rescue you when you give up lying to yourself and agree with the Truth that He speaks over you:
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
So make this the day when you find your fortress—from the chaos of the rebellion out there and the chaos of the rebellion in here. Come and find your strong and eternal Refuge from the guilt of your sin, as He drops it into the depths of that raging sea, never to be seen again! Come to the Mighty Fortress, the “bulwark never failing”! Come—and welcome!—to Jesus Christ!
20 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Questions for Reflection:
Questions for Reflection:
Where do you experience the most “chaos” in your life? In your family? Your health? Your finances? How does this psalm give you ground for confidence in the middle of the upheavals in your life?
Think of one time in the Bible where God’s miraculous power came through in defeating the enemies of His people. Have you seen God’s power at work like that on your behalf? How can you encourage someone with that testimony?
When are you most tempted to anxiety or frustration over our nation’s “tottering rage” against God? What does it look like for you to “be still”—to “let go” and rest in God’s promise that He will exalt Himself in the world?