“Worst Case Scenario”

Scripture – Psalm 46

Sermon preached by Doug Gerdts

Sunday, November 20, 2022


A worst-case scenario – the thing that you never want to experience but also want to know that you could if you had to. It’s the end point where one is unsure of survival yet comforted in the assumption that any point prior is safe. If we can handle the worst-case, then we can handle any moment between here and there.

It’s a bit of a twisted exercise admittedly and one that leads one down a path that’s often less than wonderful. Some exercises fall into the category of “mental gymnastics,” of trying to find our limits – what could we handle if needed – and others lead us into the category of things that are just too gruesome or sad or brutal. It may be one of those semi-ubiquitous human tendencies that folks ponder “what’s the worst that could happen?”

Yet, from the earliest of days, folks have dabbled in painting for themselves a worst-case scenario and then contemplating how they’d handle it. That’s what we have today right in the opening of Psalm 46:

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

For the most part, Americans have a love affair with the ocean. Planeloads of folks head to Hawaii, Southern California, Provincetown, Florida, the Pacific Northwest to say nothing of our own little strip of heaven downstate.

Yet our love affair with the ocean isn’t something the early Hebrews shared. To them, and to many of that era, the ocean was the ultimate in uncontrollable and terrifying elements that they faced. For us, it may be a place of swimming, surfing, cruising, and relaxing. For them it was a place that swallowed ships and sailors with indiscriminate force and selection. It was the epitome of terror!

To delve more deeply into the mindset of the psalmist is to understand that their perspective of how the earth was constructed and supported was quite different from ours. Mountains were key: They were the anchors to which dry land was tethered and they were the supports upon which the sky was supported. Should the mountains fail, the ocean would envelope the land and the sky would crash down upon the earth. It was the equivalent of a 10-point earthquake on the Richter scale and a category 5 hurricane. It was Katrina, Sandy, and Typhoon Haiyan all wrapped into one! It was their worst-case scenario and one that evoked nearly universal fear.

The psalmist knew the audience. They had a low tolerance for this level of fear and at this moment their attention was piqued. The psalm then moves from cosmic chaos to something a little more human-created: “The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;” – using the same language as the cosmic chaos, the psalmist now applies it to kingdoms that shake and tremble and that’s as frightening and threatening as anything nature can throw at them. You know – maybe that’s what connects us so easily to this psalm.

Natural disasters – we can handle those and figure that nothing too awful can come at us, especially if we ignore science and reason and align ourselves with climate change deniers. We may not always have faith in FEMA – but really – we’re on high enough ground and have strong enough infrastructure to deal with what comes…but nations in an uproar? Kingdoms tottering? That’s the stuff of nightmares.

Iran? North Korea? China? Russia? Ukraine? Constant tension in the Middle East? Any number of rogue nations with nuclear capability? I don’t know about you but I’d rather face a hurricane, earthquake, or tidal wave, or all of the above, before I want to think about some crazed dictator with his fingers on launch codes. For me, that’s the global worst-case scenario. With anxiety ratcheted to its apex, the psalm shifts – just in the nick of time – from chaos to comfort and offers this refrain:

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Even in moments wherein we imagine sheer terror and forces outside of any control or containment, even in our worst-case scenario, God is with us. Period. God is with us. That simple, yet profound affirmation is followed immediately by an imperative:

Come! Behold the works of the Lord!

What are the works of the Lord?

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.

God brings peace and order and justice. To that the human response is simply this:

“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”

We’ve often sanitized that opening phrase and many of us know if from the Taize chant – but the author never intended it as a lulling redundant contemplative measure – no, it’s the bracketed imperative to the first one: it’s not…be still…; it’s BE STILL! STOP! It’s not a call to meditation; it’s the clarion to a decisive moment. Stop! Decide! Know and act and live in the vast awareness that I AM GOD! And more to the point…you are not. God transcends those worst-case scenarios for nothing that humanity can muster, nor chaos that nature throws at us, usurps the power of God. To underscore that point, the psalmist repeats the refrain, the most basic of all confessions of faith:

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

What if we actually believed that? What if we actually believed that God is with us, that God is our refuge? In some respects, that the question that summarizes Jesus life and ministry. If we step back just a moment and take a wider view of the message of Psalm 46 – we understand that it really is the fundamental message of Jesus:

  1. God rules the world.
  2. Humanity is called to a decision.
  3. Jesus issued a 3-fold invitation and his hearers had to decide to accept or not:

a. Jesus invited those who heard his message to enter into the reign of God. A place of wholeness and peace and justice and love.
b. Jesus invited people to live in complete dependence upon God. Be still, stop, and know that I am God and you are not!
c. Jesus invited people to ultimate security in God rather than in themselves, or any human system, or in their possessions or accumulations of wealth. The Lord is with us and God is our refuge.

Jesus knew something about worst-case scenarios. For him, it was not a place of “what if” but a place called “The Skull,” a place where he was crucified for preaching and living and demanding that basic message of Psalm 46, a place where the inscription over his head read “This is the King of the Jews.” He was killed because his message was intolerable to the authorities of his day – to those of the temple hierarchy or to those of the Roman government. Either way, his messaged was snuffed out on the cross. Nails, thorns, and scorn – humiliation and fear meant to send a frightening message to his followers: this is not just a worst-case scenario – this is reality – for him and for us.

It was over. That small but growing movement was over. The Romans and the Temple elite went about their business, the followers of this Jesus went back to their lives. This one-of-many-Messiah-cults had been put down, the insurrection squashed, and order restored. Only it wasn’t.

According the book, “Zealot,” Jesus was one of many itinerant preachers of his day – likely one of the posse that followed John, whom they called “the Baptizer.” Jesus picked up John’s message after John was beheaded and then took it in a slightly different direction, a “Psalm 46” direction, preaching the reign of God and a new reality not just in the afterlife but in the present day, a new reality made plain by the way in which people lived, made choices, spent their money, and formed relationships with some very unlikely neighbors. Jesus said that God is with us and that priestly intermediaries were unnecessary and even corrupt abuses of power. Jesus said that the temple itself was superfluous and had been overrun by commerce and exchange.

His message was catching on. Temple revenue was in jeopardy. Roman control was challenged. This man some called “The King of the Jews” had to go. And so he was hung on a hill outside of the city, a place where so many executions took place that it was littered with bones, hence its name as “The Skull.” And he died there. Only he didn’t. Death wasn’t the final word and Jesus lived again and his message lives today.

His followers weren’t quashed; they were empowered. Their voices weren’t silenced; they were encouraged. Their zeal in proclaiming the Gospel wasn’t destroyed; it was given new life. Something was different about this Jesus of Nazareth, the one some called the Christ. Something was very different. So different that he lives today. Here. Now. In us.

I’ve been an interested lurker of Westminster for 20 years. I started at First & Central a year before Greg came here. We share some Kentucky roots, are about the same age, and both were called to challenging congregations – granted – for very different reasons. We became friends and we’ve collaborated on lots of initiatives and projects – sometimes public and other times quite under the radar. Our two congregations were, and are, quite different. For 17 years I led First & Central and for the last few months, I’ve worked here in financial management and reporting. From a curious outsider to now someone who knows quite a bit about you. Here’s what I’ve discovered: You are a Psalm 46 church.

Remember what I said about Jesus’ message? He was preaching the kingdom of God and a new reality not just in the afterlife but in the present day, a new reality made plain by the way in which people lived, made choices, spent their money, and formed relationships with some very unlikely neighbors. How people lived, made choices, spent money, welcomed neighbors. That’s you!

It’s budget time at Westminster and I’ve been intimately involved in the crafting of the spending plan for next year. It’s an impressive process and product. The amount of resources dedicated to mission and outreach and caring for the congregation – all ages and circumstances – and how you see yourselves as an integral part of the community. Sure – it’s not perfect – but the fact that you struggle with the decisions and allocations is the point. Getting it right isn’t necessarily the goal – struggling to reach it is. You struggle well! I suppose at this point there’s an easy transition to a stewardship appeal – but gratefully, for the first time in 30 years, that’s not my job!

Struggle, Westminster, keep struggling to live a Psalm 46 life – as a church and as individuals. Know that God is with us. God is good. God will provide. Keep pondering those worst-case scenarios, if you must, but don’t forget – if the worst-case scenario has God in it – then it’s not really the worst case – is it? Amen.


Prayers of the People

Doug Gerdts


God of Love and Justice, you have made it clear to us that you tire of our churchy words and religious festivals, and that the worship you want from us is an ethical life lived out in a society that we make just.

Hear our prayers for your whole creation, saying,
God of justice, save your world.

We pray for the church and for all who live by faith, doing charity and advocating for social change.
God of justice, save your world.

Cultivate peace between nations, between people, and between political parties.
God of justice, save your world.

Protect and comfort those enduring the violence of war, or crime, or the destructive forces of nature.
God of justice, save your world.

Preserve those who suffer violence at home and bullying at school, and embolden those who see their trouble to help bring relief and help.
God of justice, save your world.

Grant your healing mercies to those who are ill, or facing death, and uphold those who care for them.
God of justice, save your world.

Delivering God, through Jesus Christ you come to us and teach us the way of true worship: doing good, seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow. Renew in us your vision of the worship that you want, that we may take part in your work in the world, by the power of your strengthening Spirit.

Hear us as we pray as Christ taught us:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.