Every year the lectionary invites us to begin this season by considering the story of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell versions, but this Lent, since we are going to spend time with the psalms, I want to look at the tale through the lens of Psalm 91.
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 and Luke 4:1-13
March 6, 2022
Dr. Todd R. Wright Every year the lectionary invites us to begin this season by considering the story of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell versions, but this Lent, since we are going to spend time with the psalms, I want to look at the tale through the lens of Psalm 91. In Luke, the devil tries to get Jesus to forget his calling, his identity, and his relationship with God: first by reasoning that Jesus should turn stones into bread to quiet his growling stomach, and then by offering him all the kingdoms of the world. It doesn’t work. So, the devil changes tactics. Instead of making an offer, and having Jesus counter with scripture, the tester starts the third round by quoting Psalm 91.
I would have succumbed to the temptation of hot dinner rolls slathered in butter. Others would have jumped at the prospect of worldly power and glory. But the idea of guardian angels has its own allure.
So Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class, shows up in “It’s a Wonderful Life”;
And Amy Grants sings: “God only knows the times my life was threatened just today. A reckless car ran out of gas before it ran my way. Near misses all around me, accidents unknown, Though I never see with human eyes the hands that lead me home. But I know they're all around me all day and through the night. When the enemy is closing in, I know sometimes they fight. To keep my feet from falling, I'll never turn away. If you're asking what's protecting me then you're gonna hear me say: Got His angels watching over me, every move I make, Angels watching over me, every step I take …” Historically, as Philip Jenkins writes, “Psalm 91 has supplied both Jews and Christians with a refuge in all kinds [of trouble], including supernatural assault, deadly plague, and worldly violence. Through much of Christian history its words commonly appear[ed] on amulets [so that the wearer would feel God’s nearness and be reminded of God’s care.] Legends told of pious Christians who used the prayer to survive epidemics that killed thousands. It was called the Soldiers’ Psalm [for obvious reasons]. [In the US,] it was quoted after the 9/11 attacks.” But the psalm’s promise of protection has also led to … Bumper stickers reading, “Never drive faster than your guardian angel can fly!”, and snake handling as an essential part of the worship service in some churches, and recently, people refusing COVID vaccinations because they trust God to protect them.
But here’s the problem (and you know it as well as I do): Experience teaches us that, as one writer puts it, “people of faith do get cancer, heart disease, heart attacks, and die from any number of diseases. People of faith are crushed in spirit by acrid verbal attacks, broken in body and mind by physical and emotional abuse, and find themselves in a hospital or die as a result of all forms of violence. People who do trust in God are acquainted with poverty, lack of food and clothing, and experience starvation.” Worse yet, there are some who take the psalm’s language to mean that “the experience of misery and trouble in life must indicate that the sufferer is not, in fact, among God’s people.” Kate Bowler knows this experience well. Diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer at 35, she writes, “People wanted to see me pushed up on the stage to be healed by a celebrated Man of God or brushed to the side with teams of women touching my arms, my back, my head, and laboring over me in prayer. Sometimes I received an invitation … to go over a checklist of sins I might have committed that would have opened the door to … demons ... Because a suffering believer is a puzzle to be solved in that certain strain of theology .”
But what if Psalm 91 is not promising iron-clad protection, but that God will not allow suffering or even death to separate us from God’s love and care? What if that’s what Jesus was claiming there in the wilderness, and not willing to trivialize? What if that is the real blessing that we can carry with us in a dangerous world? Jan Richardson puts it this way: “I cannot promise this blessing will free you from danger, from fear, from hunger or thirst, from the scorching of sun, or the fall of the night. But I can tell you that on this path there will be help … there will be rest, that you will know the strange graces that come to our aid only on a road such as this.” May that be true for you, as it was for our Lord. Amen.
 From her song “Angels”, see https://www.lyricsfreak.com/a/amy+grant/angels_20007715.html  From “Psalm 91 in every time and place” in the Christian Century, 1/9/18  From Paul O. Myhre’s reflections on the text for workingpreacher.org, 2/17/13  From Matthew Stith’s reflections on the text for workingpreacher.org, 10/18/15  From her book, Everything Happens for a Reason and other lies I’ve loved, pages 15-16  From her blessing, “Beloved is where we begin”, from Circle of Grace