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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Psalm 46
“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 paradise.

         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 busy elsewhere.

         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.

         Martin Luther 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 and kindness.

         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
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated February 2, 2014