Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Psalm 91:1-13 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. 2 I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” 3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. 4 He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. 5 You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, 6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. 7 A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. 8 You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked. 9 Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place– the Most High, who is my refuge– 10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. 11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. 12 On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. 13 You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
Ash Wednesday brought you face-to-face with your mortality as you crossed the threshold into another season of Lent, and Psalm 90, says: “You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’?” (Ps 90:3). There, Moses prays, lamenting the brevity of life and the reality of God’s wrath against sin, a wrath that carries with it an inevitable, inescapable death for every human being. Every day brings us closer and closer to the Judgment Day when we shall stand before the Judge to be judged for what we have done. Every day brings you closer and closer to the reality of God’s anger toward us and that outside Christ we are all doomed to eternal condemnation and punishment. “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12), we pray.
Now today we, God’s people, in faith and trust, call upon him for salvation. In the next Psalm, Psalm 91, these truths are made especially clear for you. The psalmist prays with confidence amid the real terrors of the night and the dangers that darken our doorstep even in the daytime.
What are those terrors of the night? The temptations of Satan, the sin that erupts in our hearts, minds, and words. That sin which has earned us God’s wrath and on account of which he has proclaimed a death sentence on each and every one of us. Yes, Satan is with us every day, attacking us, trying to kill us spiritually, separate us from Christ and from eternal life. He tempts us to doubt our faith. To fear death and judgment. He tempts us to sin.
Now, Satan is no fool. His temptations are subtle, hidden, and he comes to us clothed as an angel of light. To those of us sitting in church this morning he doesn’t come tempting us with evil things. We would see through such temptations and immediately reject them. He doesn’t tempt us to rob a bank or steal a car. He’s too clever for that. He doesn’t tempt us to be unfaithful to our spouse and run off with someone else. We know that is wrong and wouldn’t fall for that. He tempts us with subtle things, even things that look good to us, things that may even appear to us as faith.
Yes, God’s dear ones of every age have faced the old evil foe, and continue to face him every day. But they’ve never faced him apart from God’s promise of protection. So it is for you. This psalm provides a powerful contrast from the one before it. Gone is the lament of death. Instead, in Psalm 91,
We Are Invited to the Joyful, Confident Confession
of Refuge in the Shadow of the Almighty—
No Matter What May Come.
What better way for us to journey to the cross this season of Lent!
Sadly, such confidence, such trust, is not our natural way. This Psalm talks about one of those subtle ways we are tempted. A temptation that actually makes us think that we are exercising great faith. That is to test the Lord. From day 1 of the fall, the old Adam prefers to put the Lord to the test. One subtle way the slithering serpent likes to play on your confident faith, is to turn you from trusting to testing, and all the while we think we are exercising a strong faith. Satan tickles your fancy. He twists God’s commands and promises, with his goal of plunging you into the depths of doubt and uncertainty.
What does it mean to test the Lord? In 2012, Jamie Coots, a “snake-handling” pastor in Kentucky, died of—you guessed it—a snakebite! Coots was the star of a National Geographic TV reality show called Snake Salvation. He believed he had a special anointing from God that protected him from any harm from the snakes that he handled. Why not? Doesn’t God promise that in today’s psalm when he says, “You will tread on the lion and the adder,” and also later—Jesus to his apostles when he says, “They will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them…” (Mk 16:18)? Upon Coots’s death, the network released a statement to CNN noting his devout faith even in the midst of the dangers he faced.
Was Coots’s snake handling a sign of a devout faith, or rather, was it reckless behavior that misunderstands and tests the promise of God? Psalm 91 is not an invitation to “test” the Lord by seeking out danger and peril at every opportunity. It’s a misunderstanding not only of this particular verse, but of the entire psalm. That was actually Satan’s twisting of this psalm when he foolishly attempted to ensnare our Lord. That’s his game plan for you too.
Yes, the Lord indeed promises protection in the midst of dangers. He promises that nothing can separate us from his love in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:39). But nowhere is this an invitation for us to put him to the test. Jesus proved that when he outwitted Satan with a right understanding of Scripture: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Lk 4:12).
Examine yourself. In what ways have you tested God with your reckless behavior, rather than trusting him with a confident faith? Do you take refuge under the shadow of his wings for forgiveness, or do you use his forgiveness as a crutch, a license to continue living recklessly in the sins you love? Do you trust the Lord to provide for all your needs through your vocation—the employment he gives you and the salary you earn—or do you recklessly spend all your money on your wants and desires expecting that God will somehow make the money you need to live on just magically appear? Repent. Recognize the satanic ploys that so easily ensnare you. Confess your sins of weakness. Admit defeat.
But don’t walk away defeated.
You and I don’t always walk away the victor. In fact, we rarely do. But your defeat doesn’t mean you’re done for. That’s the blessed gift of your Baptism into Jesus. It’s a Baptism into his death and his resurrection, for in his death he paid for your sin and in his resurrection God proclaimed that you are now reconciled to him. It’s a Baptism in reconciliation with God and into his victory, to share in his victory, no matter how many times you’ve been ensnared and defeated. Living in daily repentance and faith, you can enjoy the refuge of his victory as you receive his gifts in Word and Sacrament. Yes, you can admit defeat, yet still live in victory, his victory. What is his victory all about?
The Son of God was tempted for real, just as you are. Satan led him to the pinnacle of the temple and tempted him with the very words of today’s psalm: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’?” (Lk 4:9–11). But Jesus took refuge in the promise of his heavenly Father. He held fast to God’s promise rather than fall prey to Satan’s lies.
Still, that wasn’t the real victory. The devil went away from Jesus “until an opportune time” (Lk 4:13). Wasn’t the most opportune time when your Savior hung from the pinnacle of the cross? There, the temptation intensified as he looked down at those who shouted, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Lk 23:37). But he wasn’t there to save himself. He was on that cross to save you. To save you from those sins you committed when you tempted the Lord. He was on that cross to save you from the anger and punishment of God. He trusted, even then, even giving up the shelter of his heavenly Father, so that you would dwell in the shelter of the Most High forever.
Enter this season of Lent with confidence, dear Christian, the confidence of a God who grants you refuge in the victory of his Son. How fitting to begin the Sundays in Lent with this glorious psalm. The psalms are prayers. Pray them, just as God’s people have always prayed them, even as your Lord Jesus prayed them. Pray them in the confidence of God’s promise fulfilled in Jesus. He is your refuge; the shelter God has provided for you. You live in the shadow of his wings, in his victory. Call upon him for salvation here and now, at the pinnacle of temptation, and even in the depths of defeat.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.