5 Easter, Year A

5 Easter, Year A

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

Sermon by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“God our Rock, Refuge, and Fortress”


In Psalm 31 today, the psalmist, most likely during a time of trouble, danger or suffering, appeals to God in prayer with the following words: “Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.” Jesus in today’s gospel speaks of his Father’s house, where there are many dwelling places. And in our second lesson, Jesus himself is spoken of as: a living, cornerstone, chosen and precious, who has become the very head of the corner; and all Christians as living stones being built into a spiritual house. In biblical times, it was quite common to speak of God as a rock, a refuge, and a fortress. And in Psalm 118:22, as well as in Isaiah 8:13-14 and 28:16; the words stone and rock are symbolic references to both Israel and God. The early Christian writers of coarse read these passages differently, by interpreting them as symbols referring to Christ and the church.


In biblical times, and hopefully even in our day, these images of God as a rock, a refuge, and a fortress were, and still are, a source of comfort to many faithful people. Rocks or stones were widely utilized during biblical times. They were used by the Israelites to build altars, artistic monuments and statues, cities, homes and various other buildings, including the temple. Large rocks could also be places of protection and shade from the merciless heat or high winds. Of coarse the image of a rock, because of its physical and chemical properties, can also symbolize strength, power, protection, permanence, endurance, stability and security—all of which are characteristics that can be positive and comforting for us. 


When the psalmist speaks of God as a rock then, it is a reference to God’s power and strength; God’s enduring faithfulness and reliability. The psalmist could count on; could trust in the LORD. A rock is solid and stable and stands up under pressure and all kinds of conditions—better than many other materials. In the ups and downs, during the changing ebbs and flows of life, which bring instability and unpredictable outcomes; God is there as our solid source of stability, comfort and strength.


The psalmist also describes God as a refuge. When we think of God as our refuge, several things may come to mind. A refuge often is a place where others accept one unconditionally. It reflects an attitude of openness towards others; people are welcomed and offered hospitality. A refuge is a place of protection from danger and harm, it feels like a safe place where one is encouraged to be one’s self. A refuge can also be a place of retreat, healing and renewal, a quiet and holy place to relax and reflect. A refuge is rooted in compassion and deeper understanding of others.


Today Canada is a very desirable place of refuge for many different peoples from all over the world. It is a nation full of promise and hope for hundreds, thousands, even millions of people. A lot of our ancestors immigrated here as refugees and, by-and-large, have prospered and flourished in this land. Internationally, we have the reputation of being an open, welcoming, safe and peaceful, multicultural, democratic nation. Yet, in response to the terrorist activities in the United States last year; a growing number of Canadian citizens and politicians are becoming more cautious and less willing to accept an open door immigration policy. On the other hand, as people of faith, who follow Jesus, who himself was a refugee; how can we turn our backs, our hearts, and our compassion away from an alarming number of genuine refugees from all over the world?  Are the world’s refugees not the very voice of Christ himself crying out to us for help? If we were in a situation like them; for example, a situation of political and economic upheaval or civil war, or religious persecution; would we too not cry out to other countries to help us and even want to consider the possibility of starting a new life in another safe country as refugees?


Once we, like the psalmist realise that God has been our refuge; hopefully we, in grateful response can offer refuge to others. For God has unconditionally accepted us; God has welcomed us with open arms and forgiven us; God has protected us from danger and harm; God has been a healing renewing power and presence in our lives; God has had immeasurable compassion on us; God certainly understands us better than we do ourselves. For all of this and more, we can attest to others the truth of God our refuge because the power and influence of love is stronger than that of fear. The psalmist knew this well and therefore was able to confidently place his entire life into God’s care in all of his circumstances.


The psalmist then goes on to speak of God as a strong fortress. In the history of God’s people, “the fortress mentality” has, unfortunately, proven to be a rather negative, off-putting influence. In the name of spiritual truth and righteousness, the fortress mentality has led people to be very exclusive and hence hurtful of others who are different and don’t meet their standards. It has at times given legitimacy to an unhealthy withdrawal from the world—viewing the world as evil and to be avoided at all costs. It has dehumanised people by a narrow-mindedness and hard-heartedness that ghettoizes certain classes, genders, ages, races, religions and even nations; which only causes injustice, misunderstandings based on suspicions, which turn into hatreds and thus escalate into violence. The poisonous fruits of the fortress mentality have, unfortunately, all too often been born out in history.


However, there is a positive, more hopeful side of the symbol of a strong fortress. God as a fortress, similar to God as a rock, refers to God’s strength, protection from enemies, from violence and hatred. It symbolises God’s stability, security, peace and prosperity. That is likely why ancient Israel built Jerusalem, the holy city like a fortress with walls surrounding it and walls even surrounding the temple, so that the Israelites could live in safety and security and enjoy peace and prosperity.


My wife once met a man who had ancestors in Romania. The fellow told of how his people would build their walls around the churches so that everyone could go into them; remaining safe inside from the attacks of the Turks and other enemies. They would store enough food, drink and other necessities to outlast the enemy’s assault. Indeed, we also speak of our churches as holy sanctuaries—places of protection, hopefully places of peace, safety and security for everyone. It is most alarming that, especially in Europe today, Jewish synagogues are no longer sanctuaries for the Jewish people there. Antisemitic attacks in Europe, fuelled by Islamic extremists, have increased to the highest levels since the Second World War. As Christians who have inherited much from our Jewish roots—including Jesus himself who was a Jew—surely it is crucial that we do everything within our means to stop this antisemitic hatred by ensuring that the Jewish people, wherever they are, can live in peace and security with their neighbours.


In light of this all, is it not even more appropriate for us as a people of faith to follow our psalmist’s example? The psalmist, while facing physical illness, threatening violence, political conspiracies and other forms of hardships ultimately trusted in the LORD for protection, strength, guidance, security and every other resource. The psalmist reminds us that our lives, our times are in God’s hand. If that is true for us also, then does it really matter what our situation is? Is God not present; is God not protecting us; is God not providing us with strength, grace and every other resource necessary for us—even in the face of our most scary and dangerous circumstances? If we really believe that God is, then does it not follow that we, like the psalmist, are able to live confident lives, taking risks for the sake of freedom and truth; for the rule of God’s peace and love in the minds, hearts and lives of all peoples?   

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