The message of Psalm 91 is that we are protected. If we step out in faith, God has our back. If we make the Lord our refuge and the Most-High our dwelling place, God will keep us from evil and harm.
Is this true? Or is the Psalm just giving us some pious wishful-thinking here? Because we all know, and know of, people who were dedicated and faithful disciples of Jesus, who on that account had to endure a great deal of evil and harm.
Starting with our reading from the prophet Isaiah about the suffering, faithful servant of God, who we believe looks ahead to Jesus and his death on the cross, moving on to Jesus’ own words about how all his disciples must take up their own cross of suffering, and to the Apostle Paul who also assumes that pain and discomfort, even death, is part of the cost of discipleship, and concluding with the book of Revelation that talks about how the faithful “wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb,” which is to say, suffer and die for the gospel… in what sense, then, is this Psalm true?
How does God guard, deliver, protect, rescue, and satisfy those who trust in God? How are God’s witnesses shielded from harm, when with our own eyes we see them enduring so much harm, and with our own ears we hear about their suffering?
Anyone who becomes a disciple of Jesus with the assumption that this is going to exempt them from harm is crazy. In fact, the more faithful you are, the more dedicated you are in your discipleship, the more you are likely to suffer. Following Jesus puts us out of synch with the culture, which creates inevitable tension and friction, which can lead to consequences. Becoming a follower of Jesus costs us.
Some of you may recall hearing some of the verses from this Psalm in the New Testament. They even appeared in the song we sang earlier: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”
Very comforting words. But don’t forget who says them. In Matthew and Luke these words are spoken to Jesus by the devil. The devil quotes this Psalm to tempt Jesus to step out… and throw himself down from the top of the Temple as a public display of his divinity, forcing God to send angels to save him. The devil suggests that this spectacular event would prove to everyone that he is the Messiah, and be very effective at launching his ministry.
I am sure it would! But Jesus has to reject this temptation. Is Jesus thereby saying the Psalm isn’t true? Would God have sent a legion of angels to protect Jesus if he jumped from a height? Well, if Jesus tempted God that way he wouldn’t be who he was; he would just be another false, pretend Messiah… which would be verified by the impact with the pavement.
The question is: How do we tell the difference between the calling to step out in faith and obedience to God, and the temptation to step out in an attempt to glorify ourselves, to prove to ourselves that God loves us, to draw attention to ourselves? How do we know when it is truly the voice of God inspiring us forward, and when it is the voice of the Evil One, pushing us off the edge? How do we avoid being paralyzed by this very question, and not stepping out at all, but remaining safe and secure in our own status quo?
This is an important question for us in a time of great change such as ours. I sense that God is calling us to step out in these times in new ways of discipleship. But we have to be able to discern when this is faithfulness to God, and when it is our trying to draw attention to ourselves, attract more members, solve our budget problems, preserve our traditions and institutions, or any of the many other things that we value.
We have to answer this question as a church. And of course as individual believers we also have to answer it. We have to be able to discern when we are doing something for our benefit, and when we are responding to God’s call in discipleship. And making that distinction is never easy.
It is never easy because our ego always gets in the way. It lurks behind even our most apparently selfless acts and desires. It defiles even our most altruistic motivations. Our ego is always looking for what we can get out of this: fame, money, health, peace-of-mind, power, influence, admiration, whatever.
What makes this even more complicated is that we are all different. One person’s act of discipleship can be another’s capitulation to the temptation of the ego. There are some folks whom God is calling to a spectacular act, and whom God will save and vindicate. There are others for whom the same outward act is purely ego-centered and Satan-driven, for whom no rescuing angels will appear.
There are ways we can use to begin to become conscious of when we are under temptation, and when we are following Jesus. There are ways to learn to honestly look at ourselves so we may be able to perceive when it is our ego talking, and when it is God. Our ego is always trying to feed, justify, rationalize, defend, excuse our own sin; our ego wants to protect who we think we are. Our ego resists transformation and change; it wants us to stay the same. But God is always drawing us away from who we think we are.
Following the ego leads to death; it has to do with judging others and protecting yourself at all costs. The ego is self-centered, self-righteous, self-preserving, and selfish in every way. It fosters anger, hatred, and fear. It sucks up all the attention and all the assets available to it.
Following God is the opposite of all that for us. To put it most simply, in following Jesus, you identify what your ego wants you to do, and then you do the opposite.
In our gospel reading, we have the story of James and John, two brothers who were Jesus’ disciples. They feel called to positions of particular responsibility and honor in Jesus’ kingdom; they want to be seated at Jesus’ right and left when he is King. It doesn’t get more egocentric than this… but perhaps, to give them the benefit of the doubt, they carefully thought about it and decided they had the gifts and could do the most good for the most people if they got to be Jesus’ chief ministers.
Before we criticize James and John here, let’s remember how their attitude is not that foreign from what happens today. How many students at Princeton Seminary have visions of being a famous preacher in a big, rich church dancing in their heads? How many ministers feel themselves called to lead a church to spectacular growth? How many of us have great ambitions to fame, fortune, or power, that we dress up in pious, spiritual, religious, churchy language?
Jesus’ response to James and John is his response to all our egocentric ambition: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Do we know what that means? Do we have any idea what it is going to cost us to be a disciple of Jesus?
Maybe James and John remembered this Psalm and imagined that God would hold them up and protect them in their endeavor to be Jesus’ best and brightest ministers. Maybe they thought God was there to support their ambition and fulfill the desires of their egos, as long as their ambition and desires were for “good” things. What it would have been better for them to remember is the passage from Isaiah about the suffering borne by the servant of God.
So Jesus then gathers all his famously clueless disciples around him and explains: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
Jesus is saying that in order to follow him we have to let go of what he calls our “Gentile” attitudes about power. By “Gentiles” he means people who do not have the benefit of God’s Law, who do not define themselves by God’s redemptive story. Gentiles, for Jesus, are those who automatically submit to their egos, they cave in to their fears, angers, and hatreds, without even imagining that there is some other way to live.
We have to abandon the bloated daydreams and formidable defense mechanisms of our egos. We have to relinquish our ambition for things that society tells us to value: status, money, power, attractiveness, and so forth. That all has to have so little influence over us that we can be said to be “dead” to it. We have to die to ourselves, he says, take up our cross, and follow him.
In other words, we must identify what our egos want, that is, what the devil is tempting us with, and we have to turn away from that, towards the One who shows us who, and whose, we truly are. Jesus Christ reveals our true essence. He calls us to our deepest identity, the source of our most profound joy.
God is not our servant in the sense of protecting and providing for the demands, fears, and fantasies of our egocentric ambition. God will not sustain us in a pathway that leads to destruction, even if it is the pathway we most fervently choose.
But if we are following him with all our hearts, souls, and bodies, that’s when the message of Psalm 91 starts to be activated within and among us. If we are following him and not our egocentric whims, then we find ourselves sustained in ways we couldn’t otherwise imagine.
This means acting out of obedience to God’s Word and always going to the least comfortable place under him. For each of us functions as a “slave of all” in ways appropriate to our own personality. Our ambition should be for nothing more (or less!) glorious than to follow Jesus Christ.
But following Jesus is not to be confused with a sick, masochistic, self-flagellating, self-hating attitude. It is rather to see your ego tamed and your true essence as a child of God allowed to emerge. Jesus does not want you to become a slave of others out of fear, but to become a slave of God out of love. The one who has true power from God is the one who gives that power away and rejoices to see it at work in others.
So: How do we discern when God is speaking to us? How do we distinguish God’s voice from the voice of our own ego? God always takes us out of our comfort zone… and delivers us safely into God’s comfort zone.
God calls each one of us, and all of us together, to step out. We have to step out of the protective zone of our own ego, habits, traditions, routines, assumptions, desires, and fears. We have to step out of what we think we know and who we think we are. That means choosing to literally and actually behave differently, for the sake of the good news of God’s love.
You abandon wastefulness for conservation. You give up cheapness and adopt generosity. You come out of hiding and reveal yourself. You bring yourself out of the spotlight and act humbly and anonymously. You stop bossing and start accommodating. You cease talking and start listening. You give up gathering and start sharing.
In Matthew 4, it is when Jesus rejects the angels that the devil was promising him that God sends angels to sustain him. It is when we stop imagining that God will protect who we think we are, our ego-selves, that God does step in to protect the emerging new, original person we truly are.
For what we are rescued, delivered, and protected from in Psalm 91 is not suffering. It is death. It is the long, slow, unconscious perishing of passing through time and existence never aware of who we truly are. In the process of becoming who we truly are, we have to have our old selves blasted off, we have to shed our old skin, we have to put off the old Adam, as Paul would say. And this hurts. But this suffering has a purpose, a goal, a resolution, and an end. It is the transformation of the caterpillar into the butterfly, or the acorn into the oak tree.
When we step out on this journey, the journey of transformation, that’s when God’s protection covers us. When we abandon our own security and step out in discipleship, that’s when God will be with us in trouble. Even when our hearts ache with the emotional bends of being pulled through the compression of our world… that’s when we know the presence of the angels guarding us in all our ways. That’s when we can walk with confidence in the world, fearing neither snake nor lion. That’s when we are living into the calling we have from the Lord to truly live.