Podcast – A Place of Refuge

Despite some easing of the restrictions, I wonder how you’re getting along with the continuing Covid-19 situation, limitations and uncertainties. I wonder how you’re feeling in the aftermath of the horrific killing of George Floyd and its ongoing impact. I wonder how you’re coping with the news just on Friday that the UK had the worst month of economic recession ever, and the implications of that. How’s your health? How are things in your family and with your close friends? What fears, sadness and anxiety do you have just now?

Maybe you’re doing fine just now. But maybe not. Maybe you really need to hear and receive the words of Psalm 62 that I’ve just read.        

In ancient Middle Eastern culture, populations were spread out and there was rarely much of a judicial system. There was a rudimentary form of tribal crime and punishment. If someone in your family was killed by another, your family would get together and appoint a ‘blood avenger’. His full-time job was now to find the murderer and release his neck from the burden of having to carry a head!

He does this by tracking down the whereabouts of the murderer and waits for him to come out into the field. Then, when the opportune moment arrives, he confronts him openly, announcing that he is the blood avenger. The two of them then fight until only one of them is left standing. If your family receives proof of the kill, then a celebration is in order.

Yes, it was crude but was intended to keep law and order. But unfortunately, this didn’t allow for what we might call ‘accidental homicide.’ Now this won’t be a problem you’re very likely to have in Lewisham today, but imagine your camel tramples someone to death. As things stood, the blood avenger system still applied because nobody knew what else to do – except God. He established what were known as cities of refuge. You can read about these, and the whole process I’ve just described in Joshua chapter 20.

So the Israelites chose six cities of easy access in good geographical positions. Signposts were put up pointing the way. And if you accidentally killed someone, off you would run to the city of refuge. And once inside the gates, you were free from the blood avenger’s wrath.

The city acted like a voluntary prison to hold the suspect until a fair trial could take place. If the suspect was found guilty of intentional murder, he would be handed over to the blood avenger. But if the death was judged to be an accident, the blood avenger had to go home, so could you, and the matter was over.

Cities of refuge flow right out of the heart of God. They speak of his concern for us. Bound up right in the very nature and character of God is to provide refuge and safety to people who are feeling hunted down and oppressed. He says, ‘Hide here for a while.’ *Psalm 91:4 says, ‘He will cover you with feathers and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

Imagine if a mother hen, with a lot of chicks chirping all around her, senses a predator. She does not organize a seminar or put together a self-help plan. She lifts her wings – and in a few seconds all the chicks disappear. All the predator now sees is one mean-looking bird daring the enemy to take a step forward.  

Now of course, eventually the chicks have to step out and face the real world, but for a season there is nothing like the shelter of those wings and their mother’s warmth. Today, when we feel beaten-down, world-weary and worn out, God delights in spreading his protective wings and saying, ‘Rest here a while. Find new strength in me.’ Of course, the time will come when God will lift his wings and urge us back into the world – but not until we are a calmer, a bit more secure and a little stronger.

Now you may think this is good news – or you may think, ‘I don’t need a city of refuge – everything is fine.’ You see, for 99% of Israelites, cities of refuge didn’t mean very much. They knew they were there if they needed them, but most of them rarely did. But to some people, the nearest city of refuge was the most important place on the planet. Imagine the innocent woman running for her life, with her blood avenger gaining on her all the time. She sees the gates of the city of refuge and prays that her legs will keep going that little bit longer. She just makes it before he grabs her.

Who needs a city of refuge? Oppressed people, weary people, fearful people, worried people, lonely people, heartbroken people, people who are being unfairly attacked. Psalm 9:9 says, ‘The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed.’ If someone is hearing footsteps getting ever closer, God swings open his gates and calls out, ‘Come on in!’ Providing a refuge is not his hobby – something he does in his spare time – it’s what he is. It’s at the heart of what he does and the essence of what it means for him to be God.

If you don’t need a safe harbour today, there is a very strong probability that you will one day. It’s where there is calm from the storm – it’s the safe place to be. It’s a refuge where you can feel protected and secure. Sometimes our immediate need is just to get out of the storm. Scripture says that God is that refuge. So how can we enter this city?

1. Call on God

Today, we don’t have to get a map out and calculate how far away the nearest city of refuge is, and then embark on a long journey. We don’t need to go a monastery. We don’t need to call a minister. We don’t have to wait for the next church service – whenever that may be! We can access the refuge of God anytime, anywhere.

Reading: Psalm 91:1-6

All we need to do is to acknowledge our need and ask God to become our hiding place. If we simply cry out to God in our need, he responds and becomes a refuge to us.

2. Pour out your concerns to him

‘Trust him at all times, O people. Pour out your hearts to him, for our God is a refuge’ (Psalm 62:8). You don’t need to book first. There’s no congestion charge. You don’t have to say to a machine what your call is concerning in a few words and then wait over an hour while some irritating tinny music plays. You don’t have to go to virtual waiting room.

If you use the internet, you will surely know that many websites require a personal password to access information you need. You could say that the passwords that open the door or gate into the refuge of God are the ones when we cry out to him and decide to really trust him in this situation we face. When we tell him how bad it really is, how close to the edge we are, but with the intention of handing it over to him, then somewhere in that step of faith, the gates open and God’s wings extend.

It’s like Jeremiah. God called him to speak words that people definitely didn’t want to hear. They tried to shout him down, and when that didn’t shut him up, they put him in a set of stocks in front of the public gate of the city so people could taunt him and make fun of him.

But as he’s pouring out his complaint to God about being put in this traumatic and unjust situation – as he does in a brutally honest way in Jeremiah chapter 20 – we suddenly get these words – right in the middle – *‘But the Lord stands beside me like a great warrior. Before him my persecutors will stumble. They cannot defeat me. They will fail and be thoroughly humiliated. Their dishonour will never be forgotten’ (Jeremiah 20:11). *And, ‘Sing to the Lord! Praise the Lord! For though I was poor and needy, he rescued me from my oppressors’ (Jeremiah 20:13). Almost like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m still alive! And somehow, mysteriously, I feel cared for!’

You see, false piety doesn’t wash with God. Nor does dishonest heroism. Much better to pour out your heart to God and tell him honestly how you feel. He won’t be surprised! When you do this, you’ll begin to feel the gradual covering of God’s comforting presence. The footsteps may still be behind you, but they’ll sound fainter. The opposition will feel less intense. Your spirit will feel a little stronger. The sky will feel a little lighter. You may not know how God will come through, but you know that somehow he will.

Sometimes Jesus retreated to a safe place. It might be a boat or the far side of a mountain. There he would enter the refuge of his Father. Perhaps drained by the spiritual battle and the demands of people, I imagine that there he would feel his strength and purpose restored and refocused.

It might not seem too hard to find refuge in God in the quiet of a river or a mountain, in a place away from the normal pressures of life. But in the Bible, most of the references to refuge are more like battle images – fortresses, strongholds, rocks and shields.

Medieval castles were places of protection during siege. But they were also places of ordinary life where people lived and worked. Because refuge isn’t an escape from life – it’s something that occurs in the midst of it. When the palmist fled to his rock – his refuge in God – he was putting his trust in the solid foundation of God’s unchanging character. He knew he was safe because God is good. The root of his refuge was the person of God.

This is about relinquishing the desire to understand. It’s not focusing on what God can do and agonizing over whether he can do it – it’s about being focused on who God is – it’s about having confidence in his character, his nature.

Knowing that God is my refuge doesn’t mean I will necessarily experience him as such – I must make him my refuge. Our natural tendency is to think, ‘This is out of control. God must not love me. I can’t handle this.’ But to make God your refuge is to choose to believe him – to trust that he will take care of you – no matter what comes your way – to surrender your need to be in control. It’s about surrendering your emotions and your circumstances to him.

Think about the experience of King David. One minute he’d been a national hero, eating royal dainties off platters of gold, a close companion of King Saul, married to the King’s daughter, best friend to young Prince Jonathan. And then a short time later he finds himself crouching in the dark depths of a limestone cave, hiding from Saul’s death squads.

He was to be a fugitive for the next fifteen years. Hungry, cold and gripped with fear, *David pleaded to God, ‘Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need!’ (Psalm 142:6). The Message puts it, ‘Oh listen, please listen; I’ve never been this low.’ David yelled his fears. He made demands. He warned God to act quickly, because he felt almost like his sanity was disappearing.

Is this just limited to trying circumstances? *No, the psalmist says, ‘Trust him at all times, O people’ (Psalm 62:8). Refuge is by definition a place of security and free from fear. It’s having confidence in the right place, in the one true source of security. At all times God deserves our confidence.

‘Some nations boast of their chariots and horses, but we boast in the name of the Lord our God’ (Psalm 20:7). What are modern chariots and horses? Your job? Your bank balance? A relationship? Your health? We need to know God as our refuge in both blessing and need – he alone provides my security.

What things pull us away from his refuge? Busyness? TV? Social media? The news? Other people? Maybe. But even more likely – forgetfulness and self-reliance.

Why not take refuge breaks!? Time to praise God for who he is and surrender to him event-by-event, circumstance-by-circumstance, feeling-by-feeling. Reflect on his nature and character. It might just be a quick thought, reminding yourself, because you don’t at that time have the opportunity to come aside.

Isaiah 26:3 says, ‘You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you’ A fortress stores food, armoury and weapons. Likewise, in the fortress of our refuge God, we find peace and provision for our daily needs, strength when weary, armour for battle.

In the midst of everything he was going through, David learned to tell his soul ‘I need only one thing to survive and thrive – and I have it! I need only God and his all-powerful fatherly love and care – everything else is expendable.’ It’s exactly the same for you and me.

Refuge in God allows you to view your circumstances from his perspective. No matter what the circumstances, taking refuge in God helps us to remember that ultimately nothing can separate us from the love of Jesus.  

Mary Slessor was a young woman who left Scotland at the beginning of the 20th century to go as a missionary to a part of Nigeria that was regarded as very dangerous and where there were lots of serious diseases. Once, after a particularly draining day, she found herself trying to sleep in a crude jungle hut. Later, she recorded these words in her journal – ‘I am not very particular about my bed these days, but as I lay on a few dirty sticks laid across and covered with a litter of dirty corn shells, with plenty of rats and insects, three women and an infant three days old alongside, you don’t wonder that I slept little. But I had such a comfortable, quiet night in my own heart’.

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