Sermon for the Last Sunday of the Church Year
(Proper 29)

Text: Psalm 46:1-3,6,7
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Our refuge and strength

Every now and then you hear of a news story about people who do something very brave, acting without any fear of what might happen.

There is the story about a couple of young teenage boys who witnessed a man push down an elderly woman and snatch her handbag. With no thought for their own safety, the two lads chased and tackled the man. The boys returned the handbag to its rightful owner and the thief was arrested.

Part of me admires those two boys. But the other part is horrified! Those boys put themselves in a lot of danger. The thief might have been armed. They might have been killed or dreadfully injured. Their action was brave but foolish, unselfish but thoughtless.

If those boys were your children would you have been proud of what they had done or angry with them for putting their lives at risk? Would you be upset because they had risked life and limb simply to rescue a handbag? Of course, this kind of anger comes as a result of fear for the safety of someone else.

I would like to think that if I saw anyone in a burning house, I'd rush in and rescue them! It's easy to think I'd do that from the comfort of my armchair. I wonder what I would do if I was really faced with a frightening and dangerous situation. I guess none of us would know how we would react until we are actually faced with this kind of a decision.

Remember that young student in Tiananmen Square in China standing in the middle of a street as army tanks slowly converged upon him? He was protesting against the lack of freedom in China. He was risking his life for an ideal. What is it that enables people to do such fearless things? All of us who watched it on TV were fearful of what might happen to the young student. If that was your son and you were watching him stand in front of an army tank with the possibility that he could be crushed at any moment, can you imagine what you would be feeling?

Fear is a normal human emotion. We experience it almost daily to lesser and greater degrees. What I am talking about is -

When we come to talking about the end of the world or the end of our lives we can be filled with fear. Perhaps as Christians we are not so worried about the fact that the world will end, but how the end will come.
Will we see our families suffer persecution before the end of the world?
What about the floods, earthquakes, and famines that will bring pain and death before the end of world?
What about the whole disruption of the universe as sun, moon and stars are flung out of their orbits?
Jesus talks about the fear that will fill people’s lives as the end draws near.
He says, "That people will faint from fear as they wait for what is coming" (Luke 21:26).
Jesus talks about the signs of the end times and he must have scared living daylights out of those who heard his words. Fear is a normal emotion in situations as Jesus is describing.

And we aren't helped very much when we sing hymn verses like these:-

That day of wrath, that dreadful day,
when heaven and earth shall pass away,
what power shall be the sinner's stay?
How shall we meet that dreadful day?

When, shrivelling like a parched scroll,
the flaming heavens together roll;
when louder yet, and yet more dread,
swells the high trump that wakes the dead. *

Neither are we helped very much by Bible verses that say, "The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. … That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat" (2 Peter 3:10-12) or that there will be a day when all must stand before the Judgement throne of God. The hymn writer asks a very valid question,

How will my heart endure
the terrors of that day,
when earth and heaven before his face
astonished shrink away? **

Can you see why Psalm 46 has been chosen for this Last Sunday of the Church Year when there is the emphasis on the end of things?
    God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
    Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
    though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with their surging. …
    Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
    he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
    The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

The songwriter is talking about earthquakes, storms, tidal waves, wars, upset in world powers, and the melting of the earth by a fierce and destructive fire.
He is talking about those very things that frighten us about the end of this world.
He is writing about the very things that Jesus spoke about when he warned of the troublesome times to come before the end of the world.
He is telling us that, even though everything around us may give way and there is much to be afraid of, there is someone who is always there for us and with us in all that happens. His love for us and his concern for the well-being of his people is rock solid.

The writer of Psalm 46 talks about God who is our shelter and strength when we are helpless and vulnerable. He says, "God is our shelter and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not be afraid". Jesus tells us quite plainly that there will be a lot to be afraid of between now and the end of time. Even in our own personal lives there will be a lot to threaten us before the day we leave this life. Because God is our protector we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.

But what about the judgement that will follow the Last Day? The Bible often talks about the unrighteous being sent to eternal punishment. And you and I are well aware that by no stretch of the imagination can we call ourselves righteous. We are sinners through and through.
Have you imagined yourself standing before God on the last day and giving an account of every wrong deed?
Have you imagined giving an account of things that until that time had been unknown to anyone else?
And what is worse your wife/husband, or your parents are standing there beside you when God reveals those secret deeds and thoughts. Now that is scary! The hymn writer is right,

And from his righteous lips
shall this dreaded sentence sound…
'Depart from me, accursed,
to everlasting flame. …
How will my heart endure
the terrors of that day? **

We are sinners and that means we would have no hope - except for Jesus Christ. He has made us clean and pure in the sight of God. On the last day when God looks at us and judges whether we shall enter eternal glory or not, he will not see our sin but only the righteousness that Jesus has given us because of his death for us. He will see us as clean, pure and sinless, because all of our guilt has been done away with when Jesus gave his life for us. We are blameless. We are clothed in his perfection and so God will have great pleasure in welcoming us into eternal life.

Fearful things will happen as this age draws to a close. Fearful things will happen in our lives in the days we have left on this earth. But of this you can be sure - God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Note the words ever-present. Didn't Jesus also make that promise? "I am with you always even to the close the age." What can be surer than that? To the very last minute before this world disappears, or before we take our last breath - "I am with you always", he says.

Let us give thanks that we have a God who never abandons his sheep, but always lovingly watches over them. Yes it is true "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble."

To conclude lets turn to Psalm 46 again and stand and sing the first verse again boldly and confidently.

God is our refuge and our strength
a present help in trouble.
And so we will not be afraid,
though all the earth may tremble.
Though mountains may fall,
though seas roar and foam,
though all the earth quakes,
still we are not afraid.
The Lord of hosts is with us! ***

*Walter Scott 1771-1832
** Philip Dodderidge 1702-1751 verse 3 of 'And will the Judge descend?'
*** D Schutz (1998) Tune: Ein feste Burg

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
25th November 2007
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

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