“By the River”
February 2, 2014 - Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
I reached down into
the water and carefully lifted up a beautiful little rainbow trout. It was
twenty years ago and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. We had just moved
here to Oregon and I was twenty minutes from home, fly-fishing, and catching
trout. Our house in Springfield was 15 minutes from the McKenzie River and 5 minutes from Clearwater Park on the Middle Fork of the Willamette.
The closest river to
our home in Nebraska was several miles away. The Platte River was wide,
shallow, lukewarm, and muddy. No trout to be found there. So here I was now,
living by not just one but by two rivers, and I thought I was in
The thing I
discovered, though, is that you can live by a river without paying it much
attention. I didn’t go fishing as often as I expected and though I drove over
the Willamette on a bridge every day to come here to church, I didn’t really
spend all that much time on the river. The streams were there, but I was
Psalm 46 starts out by celebrating God as “our refuge and strength a very present help in
trouble.” That’s the theme of this song from Scripture, the constant,
unchanging, eternal presence of God among us. Nothing can change that. Let the
earth change, says the psalmist in verses 2 and 3, let the mountains shake down
into the ocean, let the sea roar so loud that the mountains which remain are
trembling, let all that destruction happen and it will not change the fact that
God is present, God is there, for us.
expressed the steadfast presence of God by picturing Him as a refuge like a
medieval castle, a mighty fortress which no force on earth can penetrate or
capture. Some Bible scholars follow that image out and say that this song was
written to celebrate the great deliverance of Jerusalem described in II Chronicles 20, when Moabites, Ammonites and Edomites came and surrounded Jerusalem.
Jehoshaphat the king
prayed and God answered through a prophet who told him, “This battle is not for
you to fight; take your position; stand still, and see the victory of the Lord
on your behalf.” So when Jehoshaphat sent the army out the next day, he had
priests and singers go in front. They just stood there and sang praise to God.
As they sang, an ambush of Moabites attacked the other armies. So the enemies
of Jerusalem fought with each other and destroyed themselves. Jerusalem’s army
just stood still and watched.
So we have verse 10 of
our psalm today, “Be still and know that I am God.” That’s what it originally
meant, God saying, “Be still and watch me fight for you.” That’s a good word,
but I would guess that some of us have found a different, quieter sort of
reassurance in that verse. The stillness here is not the armed readiness of soldiers,
but the quieted heart of people trusting in their Savior.
This psalm is rich in
meaning and carries both thoughts and more. That’s why we find something
absolutely absurd right in the middle of it, in verse 4, “There is river whose
streams make glad the city of God.” There is no river in Jerusalem. It’s on the
side of a mountain. No stream runs to it or through it. So this verse is not
literally true. It has to mean something else.
There is a spring near
Jerusalem, the Gihon. It’s named after that river we saw flowing out of Eden in Genesis 2. You may remember the name means “Bubbler.” But the Gihon was outside the
city and ancient people had to dig channels underground to get its water into
the city, into the Pool of Siloam. II Kings 20 tells how Hezekiah had that
water tunnel dug, probably when the Assyrian army was preparing to surround the
city. That excavation is confirmed by a inscription found by archaeologists on
the tunnel wall. It tells how two teams of diggers worked from opposite directions
to meet in the middle and open the underground canal.
But Hezekiah’s tunnel
is not a river. There is no literal river whose streams make Jerusalem into a
watered garden. Our psalm writer is using the river as an image for the same
reason he spoke of God as a refuge, as Luther’s mighty fortress. He’s talking
about the fact that God is always with His people. That’s why verse 5 goes on,
“God is in the midst of her; the city will not be moved; God will help it when
the morning dawns.”
As I am trying to
preach for several weeks, it’s still true. God is still in the midst of our
human city, like a deep, clear, refreshing river flowing through the middle of
our lives. He is always there. We are always near Him. If we only knew it.
When we were at Notre
Dame my friend Jay bought a house on Riverside Drive there in South Bend, Indiana. I envied him a little. He and his wife lived across the street from the St. Joseph River, with unimpeded access. There were no houses on the river side of the
street. He and I talked about how he could go fishing anytime he wanted, how
maybe salmon would find their way upriver from Lake Michigan. It seemed ideal
to be by the river.
But Jay and Jan were
expecting their first child. Jay was trying to write his dissertation and teach
classes. The old house they bought needed many repairs. So Jay didn’t spend a
lot of time by the river. I think he tried fishing for bass there once. Mostly
he just didn’t think about the river, except the time when it flooded, spilled
over the street, came up his lawn and almost reached his front porch.
God’s people often
have a relationship with Him that is like my friends’ relationship with the St. Joe River. He is there, pouring out love and grace right beside us and mostly we don’t
even notice. We go about our business, raise our children, fix our roofs and
hardly pay any attention to God. Until one day we find ourselves flooded by
worry or care or need and find God creeping up to our door.
A couple years ago I
went to Alaska to teach theology to some of our native pastors. I couldn’t go
to Alaska without going fishing, so I booked three days of fishing on the Kenai River southeast of Anchorage. Just before I left it started raining. The Kenai flooded. I
phoned my guide and we agreed to cut the fishing down to a single day, hoping
for the river to go down. It didn’t.
I went fishing anyway.
The guide drove us to east edge of Skilak Lake. He told us we would get in his
boat and motor across the lake to fish in the Kenai River below it. It was a
cold, damp ride, with wind and drizzle blowing in our faces and nothing but
grey water around us. The shore was far away to either side.
Suddenly our guide cut
the motor. “O.K., he said. Grab your rod. We’re in the river.” I looked around
and the shore didn’t seem any closer than when we were on the lake. The flood
level was so high I couldn’t tell the difference between lake and river. But
our guide knew where we were and knew the fish would be there, in the river.
That’s how you and I
can be with God, with the grace of Jesus Christ our Savior. There it is, all
around us. There we are, right in the middle of it. And we miss it, we think
it’s not there, we think God is not there. But He is.
Charles Spurgeon tells
about two men lost at sea in a dinghy off the northeastern coast of South America. Days went by and they thought they were still far from land. Then to their
relief a ship came passing by and hailed them, “What do you need?” They shouted
back, “We’re dying of thirst. We need fresh water!” The answer from the ship
was, “Then reach down and dip it up! You are in the mouth of the Amazon River.” What they needed, what they were dying for, was all around them but they
didn’t know it.
That is you and I. The
fresh, living water of God’s grace is flowing to us, flowing around us and we
don’t realize it, or we have forgotten. It’s like Jesus’ conversation with the
woman at the well in John 4 after He asked her for a drink. “If you knew the
gift of God and who it is who asks you for a drink, you would have asked him,
and he would have given you living water.”
We read the Beatitudes
in Matthew 5 this morning. Read just the last few, and you might think they are
blessings for good people, for holy people, for nice people: the pure, the
peacemakers, the people with enough courage to be persecuted for their faith.
But read the first few and you realize that Jesus has a blessing for everyone,
has a blessing for anyone, if we will only see it, reach out and dip up the
grace that is flowing by.
If you are poor in
spirit or simply poor, you are in the river of His grace. If you are mourning
and grieving for someone or something you’ve lost, you are floating upon the
flow of His love. If you are hungry for integrity, for righteousness you don’t
have, His river is watering the fruit of the Tree of Life for you to eat.
A couple weeks ago I
alluded to the old saying, “If you feel far from God, guess who moved?”
suggesting that God never leaves us, we leave God. But the truth here in this
psalm is that you and I cannot really leave God. All we do is forget
where we are, forget that He is there, forget that His gracious, living water
constantly surrounds us.
You can try many
things to be near to God. Our other Scripture readings this morning picture a
couple of those. Micah imagined trying to get next to God by offering enormous
sacrifices, thousands of animals, our own rivers of oil, maybe even a
first-born child as atonement for our sins. But then Micah says all God wants
is for you and I to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
God is there. All we need is to walk with Him, enter the flow of His justice
In I Corinthians 1, Paul worries about those who struggle to get next to God by thinking. This
cuts close to home for me. We want to figure it out, get our doctrine and
apologetics in neat rows, and answer all the questions. But we too must realize
like Jehoshaphat that our own strength, not even the strength of our minds is
what’s needed. Paul says, “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” Our
psalm says God makes wars cease, “breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he
burns the shields with fire.” The reason is there is I Corinthians 1:28, “so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”
That’s where we want
to be, in God’s presence, and we won’t get there by being smart or strong or
good. We will get there, says Paul, because God “is the source of your life in
Christ Jesus.” God is the true spiritual water source of His people. It is in
the River of God, by the grace of Jesus Christ, that we will find life and
health and peace.
So “Be still, and know
that I am God!” But have you ever been still on a river? If you are in a canoe
or drift boat, you are usually anything but still. You are rowing or steering
constantly, trying to stay in the middle, avoid the rocks, maybe get back
upstream to a good fishing hole you passed. But if you are simply still, the
river will take you where it wants. It may be a rough ride. It will definitely
be an adventure. That’s how this psalm invites us to be in God’s presence,
still, so He can carry us in His direction, not ours.
Stillness on God’s
river doesn’t mean boredom. Jehoshaphat’s soldiers standing there listening to
the singers in the face of Canaanite armies weren’t bored. They were on high
alert, anxious to see what God would do. That’s how it is to be still and see
that God is God. We don’t know what He will do, where the river will turn next.
All we know is that He is there and He is God.
Come and live by the
River. Be still beside, be still within it. Let God’s love in Jesus Christ flow
around you and take you to places and experiences you haven’t yet imagined.
“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. Those streams will
make you glad, because as Psalm 65 tells us, “The river of God is full of water.”
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj