Monday, August 24, 2020

God on Our Side


Psalm 124

Proper 16 / Year A

Let Israel now say, If the Lord had not been on our side when our enemies rose up against us they would have swallowed us alive.

Bob Dylan’s 1964 album The Times They are a-Changin’ contains a song titled With God on Our Side.  The light, hummable melody played on an acoustic guitar belies the blistering criticism of the song’s lyrics:

Oh my name it is nothin’

My age it means less

The country I come from

Is called the Midwest

I’s taught and brought up there

The laws to abide

And that the land that I live in

Has God on its side

Oh the history books tell it

They tell it so well

The cavalries charged

The Indians fell

The cavalries charged

The Indians died

Oh the country was young

With God on its side

Subsequent verses speak of the Spanish-American War, the Civil War, two World Wars, the Cold War, and the threat of nuclear annulation; all with God on our side.  The final verse puts forward this idea…

So now as I’m leavin’

I’m weary as Hell

The confusion I’m feelin’

Ain’t no tongue can tell

The words fill my head

And fall to the floor

If God’s on our side

He’ll stop the next war

What do we mean when we say God is on our side? 

During the Civil War someone asked Abraham Lincoln if he thought God was on his side.  The President responded, “My concern is not whether God in on our side.  My concern is whether we are on God’s side, for God is always on the side of right.”  Though the word changes may be subtle, the meaning it conveys is anything but.  It rejects any thinking and theology assuming it is God’s duty to bless and prosper everything we undertake and places responsibility on us to ponder, prayer for, and then pursue what is just, right, and good.  Sometimes this path may in fact call for military engagement, but I sense for far too many people God-on-our-side thinking is far too cozy and far less challenging than it should be.

The 124th Psalm is one of the Psalms of Ascent we talked about last week.  Pilgrims said or sang it as they walked to Jerusalem to attend a religious festival.  In terms of its theology, it sits at a mid-point in Israel’s thinking.  At the time of the Exodus, God was not only on Israel’s side, God was entirely responsible for the people’s welfare.  God provided food, water, direction, protection, everything.  The people were passive and not always pleased.

Written hundreds of years later, the psalms reflect a different reality.  The people are now engaged and responsible for their well-being.  God’s role has shifted from provider to partner.  Israel acts and God assists.  The people expect God to be on their side and are grateful for it.  And the psalm’s confession “Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” remains a central tenant of our prayer life to this day.

Late in the development of the Old Testament another new kind of thinking begin to emerge called Wisdom literature.  Found most prominently in the Book of Proverbs, it holds God’s help is woven into the very fabric of creation.  The wise perceive it, live according to it, and typically prosper because of it.  The lazy and the ignorant do not look for God’s wisdom, live by their own will and whim, and generally come to disaster. 

If you purchase a new car you have two choices.  Either you can maintain it in the way recommended by the automaker or you cannot.  If you change the oil when you are supposed to, have the appropriate servicing done at the appointed time, and operate your car in a safe manner, you can expect it will provide reliable transportation for a long time.  This ‘wisdom’ is built into the nuts and bolts of the car.  If you never change the oil, don’t have it serviced, and drive like a maniac your car is going to need more than God’s help in short order. 

This is analogous to the theology of the bible’s wisdom tradition.  Our help is in the name of the Lord and we receive it not because God is obligated to give it to our side, but because we look for it in order to live by it. 

Where do you see yourself in this progression?  Is it up to God to provide for your every need?  There are times when this may be appropriate, like when you as so sick or so broken you don’t have the ability to care for yourself.  In times like this God’s help is real and it will get you through the moment and guide you to a better place.  Or, do you live life on your own terms, expecting God to be there to back you up?  There may be times when this too is appropriate, like when you feel it is necessary to take a risk and do something daring – perhaps changing your career or setting out to college for the first time.  The possibility of failure is real, but God’s help will be there no matter what.  Or, do you put your trust in who God is and how God has made this world and how God’s will is expressed in God’s word and seek to live in harmony with it?  I suspect this is how most of us try to live out our faith most of the time.

New Testament thinking develops this progression one step further.  It does not extol a God who is on our side, it speaks of a God who is on the inside.  At each baptism we proclaim this reality as we bid the Holy Spirit to come into the life of the infant, child, or person.  This Spirit on the inside comforts, strengthens, encourages, instructs, inspires, empowers, and generally seeks to animate everything about us as we live and move and have our being in God. 

The Spirit manifests itself in different people in different ways.  Some became charismatic holy rollers while others listen for the Spirit’s still, small, calming voice.  No matter where you fall on this continuum, how do you sense your help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth?  How and when do you sense and seek this help?  Do you feel the Spirit more present in your heart or in your head?  How is God on the inside manifested on the outside?