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In the small city of Voiron, a short distance from the Carthusian monastery in southeastern France, a 400-year-old recipe containing a unique combination of 130 herbs, plants, barks, spices, and flowers is carefully followed step by step behind locked doors. Once the perfect blend is crushed and distilled, the secret ingredients slowly age for eight years in French oak barrels stored in a cellar.

When the time is right and the liquid has matured into a gorgeous shade of spring green, the distillery bottles it and exports it to countries all over the world.

In the late Middle Ages, little was known about the human body and illness. Infant mortality was high, childhood diseases ran rampant, and life expectancy hovered around 32 years of age. “Health care” back then involved numerous elixirs developed by alchemists and sold to the public as tonics for various ailments. In 1605, an artillery marshal of King Henry IV of France gave the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse a manuscript containing a recipe for an “elixir of long life” developed by a brilliant but unknown alchemist in the 1500s.

That same elixir is known today as a light-green liqueur called Chartreuse. Over the centuries, many have tried to mimic the medieval potion by using some of the known ingredients, such as lemon verbena, citrus peel, mace, star anise, fennel, mint, and sage, but no one has been able to replicate the one-of-a-kind mixture that starts sweet and quickly transitions to spicy and pungent as it moves from the front of the tongue to the back.

Today, Chartreuse is an ingredient in some cocktails, but because of its limited supply, secret ingredients, and history, it is still believed by some to be an enchanted elixir that can cure sickness, bestow long life, and protect against danger.

For thousands of years, Psalm 91 has been an important psalm for Christians around the world, especially in times of trouble. Immediately in verse 1, we read words that have brought immense comfort for generations: “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.”

In a world where the nightly news reports one tragedy after another—terrorism, homelessness, hate crimes, genocide, animal extinctions, polluted oceans, melting glaciers, mass shootings—it’s hard not to feel crushing anxiety. In all this uncertainty, it’s natural to want—to need—protection from the many dangers we seem to be facing.

It’s calming to know that Psalm 91 promises to give us what we so desperately need.

In verse 4, God is described as a mighty bird, a fiercely loving parent who covers, shelters, and protects her children with her sturdy wing. Verses 9 and 10 build on this theme: “If you say, ‘The Lord is my refuge,’ and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent.” Psalm 91 paints a powerful picture of a God who protects his children from a dangerous world filled with arrows and armies, pestilence and plagues.

However, there is a major problem with Psalm 91.

Many Biblical commentators quote English clergyman Leslie D. Weatherhead, who said of Psalm 91: “It’s just not true.” Weatherhead advised preachers not to preach Psalm 91 or use it in their ministries.

In his commentary on this psalm, retired CRC pastor Stan Mast, notes that when he preached this psalm in his last church, several WWII veterans told him that their pastors “had given them this Psalm as God’s Word for their coming battles, and they were heartened by it.” But Mast then acknowledges the problem Weatherhead pointed to: encouraged as they entered boot camp, some of these soldiers, with Psalm 91 tucked inside their pockets, were severely injured or killed on the battlefield.

Maybe Leslie D. Weatherhead was right. Maybe pastors should push pause on preaching Psalm 91.

Every year, as the church lives into the rhythms of the liturgical calendar, Christians walk the road of Lent by following in the footsteps of Jesus. Lent is a season of sober reflection marked by repentance, prayer, and fasting. These disciplines are essential because Lent can be a particularly dangerous time on one’s spiritual journey—one filled with temptation. We need practices that will help us stay awake and alert. Along with these disciplines, the lectionary, in the third year of its three-year cycle, gives us Psalm 91 on the first Sunday in Lent as an important passage for the season.

Because of the complexity created when powerful promises collide with the grit of reality, it shouldn’t surprise us that Psalm 91 is Satan’s Scripture of choice when Jesus undergoes the trials of desert temptation in the early chapters of the synoptic gospels. Like Jesus, we need the words of protection that Psalm 91 promises. But we also need to be aware that the devil might also use those exact same words to seriously injure or destroy our faith. Like those soldiers who tucked Psalm 91 inside their pockets and yet were struck down, Christians with Psalm 91 tucked inside their hearts still experience the same devastating heartache that everyone experiences—job loss, the deaths of children and friends, depression, sickness, disabilities, addictions, anxiety, poverty, and discrimination.

When this happens, it’s easy to become disoriented, and we are tempted to doubt our identity as beloved children of God.

All by itself, Psalm 91 can lead us down a difficult path. But when we look at Scripture as a whole, a richer truth is revealed. The broad biblical narrative tells us about a God who comes down and becomes one of us. God in Christ is not removed from our pain, suffering, and sickness, but enters the deep sadness of life. Christ weeps with us, dies on a cross for us, and rises from the dead for us with a promise to make everything new.

When we hold this story in mind and take another look at Psalm 91, we now read God’s promise of protection through a cross-shaped lens. In fact, the cross is what ultimately unlocks the problem of Psalm 91. As we reach the end of Lent with Christ, we see what looks like a dead end on Good Friday. However, the story holds a surprise when on Sunday, the dead end is transformed into a doorway that opens to a safe and spacious land.

The strange truth of the whole Scripture is that God’s promises don’t circumvent death, but forge a path straight through it.

In 2021, Chartreuse mostly disappeared from retail stores all over the world. The shortage was largely due to the Carthusian monks refusing to increase production to match the rising demand during the pandemic. The secret recipe with the potential to offer needed protection was “out of stock.”

That’s never true of God’s promises. God’s protection from the danger of death’s finality is the remedy that never fails. When we feel afraid, we can face the danger of living and dying while holding on to the promise that God “will be our shield and rampart,” now and forever.

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