If Not for God

If Not for God

We are continuing in our summer series, entitled “Psalm +1.”  Each week we are looking at one of the Psalms, from the songbook of God’s people; and we are pairing it with a text from the New Testament which connects or opens up the Psalm to the Good News of Jesus Christ. This week we are looking at Psalm 124, one of the Psalms called a “Psalm of Ascent,” to be sung on the walk up to the Temple in Jerusalem. In this particular song, the Lord is being praised as Deliverer, with the imagery bringing to mind the Exodus, when God delivered His people from slavery in Egypt. The New Testament passage we will look at is Ephesians 6, which is the description of the “Armor of God” – the spiritual resources God has provided His people to withstand wickedness and evil in the present day.

This year and last week we talked about the concept of blessing – whether our act of blessing God or God’s act of blessing us. We talked about the place of blessing being a place of aligning with God’s Will and Word. As I re-read today’s texts, chosen back in May, the language of slavery, rising up, anger, and rage speak powerfully into our modern context, as does language of deliverance and help. The Psalm and the Ephesians text also make clear that help is in the name of the Lord, but that does not absolve humanity – and US – from participating in what God is doing. And that brings me back to blessing – precisely what we have the opportunity and responsibility to do is to align ourselves with what God is doing. So, let’s look together at these texts and listen for what the Holy Spirit would say to us.

Singing the Exodus (Psalm 124)

Exodus has been called the “Gospel” of the Hebrew scriptures. Exodus tells the story of God delivering His people from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. To do so, God raises up Moses, an unlikely front man for a number of reasons. He is older, he stutters, and he has run away from Egypt for murdering an Egyptian. And yet… God calls him, equips him, and sends him to confront the ruler of Egypt and say on behalf of the Lord, “Let my people go.” After no less than ten plagues – miraculous signs of God’s power – and much back and forth and changing of Pharaoh’s mind, he finally relents and the Hebrew people flee in the night. Even then, Pharaoh changes his mind and sends the army after them to bring them back (or kill them) and God parts the waters of the Red Sea to allow the Hebrew people to escape, while causing the Egyptian army to enact judgment on the Egyptians. It is the core story of God’s power and deliverance in the Hebrew scriptures and is still remembered every Passover.

Psalm 124 appears to be a song reflecting on that that deliverance. Verses 2b-7 describe with various images, some metaphor and some frighteningly literal (when you think about the Red Sea):

            Men rose up against us…
                        they would have swallowed us alive
                        when their anger was kindled against us (v.2b-3)
            Waters would have engulfed us,
                        the stream would have swept over our soul,
                        the raging waters would have swept over our soul. (v.4-5a)

The deliverance is pictured in imagery of wild animals escaping death and the snare:

            [The Lord] has not given us to be torn by their teeth (v.6b)
            Our soul has escaped as a bird out of the snare of the trapper (v.7a)
            The snare is broken and we have escaped (v.7b)

And then bracketing all that is the refrain that points to the Lord as the source of deliverance:

            Had it not been the Lord who was on our side…
            [Let Israel now say] – as if to say, “Let’s all sing this one together!”
            Had it not been the Lord who was on our side… (v.1-2)
            Our help is in the name of the Lord
                        who made heaven and earth. (v.8)

One of the ways people remember is to put history to song. It was important to not forget slavery, the danger of escape, and the miraculous deliverance of the Lord.  One of the reasons we opened the service with another Psalm is that Psalm 121 expands on “our help is in the name of the Lord” – it asks and answers “From where shall my help come?” (v.1) Those who trust in the Lord are wise to remember and to hope in God for help in every age and every situation.

But does God still do “Red Sea” miracles? I certainly believe He can, but I also read in the New Testament that Jesus was like a 2nd Moses, not only setting people free from sickness and bondage in his earthly ministry, but this time coming to deliver those enslaved by sin, through an even more deadly trial – that of the cross. After that more complete deliverance, we see God’s help extended in a different way.

Spiritual Resources (Ephesians 6)

In the generations after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there was still plenty of suffering, injustice, and conflict. Christians were among those heavily persecuted and killed in those first generations. The Apostle Paul traveled, ministered, and wrote to these early Christians, encouraging them in their faith and in their coming together as the community of faith. In the end of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul offers the help that comes from God through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, even facing extreme earthly trials, Paul begins this section by saying this:

“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (v. 12)

This is not to say that a hate-filled man driving a car into a group of people isn’t deadly, evil, or worth resisting. It is rather a reminder that there is a deeper war being waged for men and women’s souls, that the answers to such evils will be more than better information, better security, or better laws. Those things may all be helpful, if rooted in justice and truth; but those who can say “our help is in the name of the Lord” have access to an extraordinary, a supernatural, a God-empowered set of resources. I’d like to look at those briefly with you now.

First, Paul urges us to prepare for what we face in this world. We are to BE STRONG, not in ourselves and our own strength, but in the Lord and the strength of His might. (v.10) We are to PUT ON (v.11) and TAKE UP (v.13) the full armor of God. It’s like getting dressed for the day and then getting on with the day. Only then can we “resist in the evil day… and stand firm.” (v.13)

Then, fully prepared, we engage the world. What does that look like – are we archers, cavalry, raiders, or what? It turns out that we are simply to get out in the world and go about the mission and ministry to which God has called us… sharing the Gospel, loving our neighbor, serving God through all that we have and are. In doing so, we STAND FIRM (v.14). Remembering that the schemes of Satan are lies, temptation, and earthly power, the spiritual armor offers us a full range of spiritual resources. Note that it is described as already having been put on!

We are girded with the TRUTH of God to combat the lies of Satan, which surround us at every turn. We are covered in the RIGHTEOUSNESS of Christ, combatting sin and the temptation to sin, calling us to holiness, and covering us with gracious forgiveness when we fail and fall.  And though Satan’s earthly power might seem daunting, we are prepared and shielded by the very power of God in the GOSPEL to which we hold by faith. The spiritual armor of God is a metaphor which points to the spiritual realities of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, which we put on and take up by FAITH. The helmet and sword are special parts of the full armor. The helmet represents our SALVATION, as if to say Satan can’t have our neck! He can scare us, immobilize us, and even wound us, but cannot steal us away from God. The sword is the WORD OF GOD, able to both defend and repel Satan’s lies and power. Scripture tells us, “Resist the devil and he will flee.” We must be careful here, because people have twisted God’s Word to use against other people. We must always ensure that we use God’s Word truly, not out of context or falsely.

Finally, Paul offers two final challenges that, interestingly, move out of the metaphor of “spiritual battle” and into the specifics of the challenges he is facing – imprisonment and opposition because of the Gospel. Paul urges us to PRAY at all times (v.18) and BE ON THE ALERT (v.18). If you are wondering how you “put on” metaphorical, spiritual armor, these last two give some direction: talk to God and keep your eyes open to what God (and Satan) are doing. The armor is just spiritual realities that come with trusting and following Jesus. Prayer and open eyes of faith are how you put it on and take it up!

Today and Tomorrow

And that is a good place to jump into the realities of the day. There is so much that could be said. Let me offer this as a starting point for myself and for us here today, with hopes that a conversation continues, that we commit to seeking the Lord’s help, that we “put on and take up” not our own desires, but God’s; that we pray and open our eyes.

The events in Charlottesville have our attention right now. It is relatively easy to look at the self-proclaimed Nazi’s and white supremacists or the man who drove his car into the crowd and say, “That’s wrong; that’s evil; that’s not me.” I also know it can be easy for some to critique the counter-protestors. What I want to focus on this morning, however, is you and me, and I’ll start with me.

My attempt to be color-blind actually left me culture-blind!

I believe our great challenge is not a few or even many white supremacists, but a culture of racial inequality. Let me illustrate from my own life. I was raised to be “color blind.” I was taught that was the opposite of ‘racist.’ I was also taught, whether explicitly or not, that achieving such color-blindness (particularly internally) was the goal. And that viewpoint is reinforced when folks like the neo-Nazi’s and white nationalists are so clear in their hatred of others. But my attempt to be color-blind actually left me culture-blind! I had a huge blind spot for most of my life. It is one I am still trying to see around and I am trying to listen, read, pay attention, and see what I can’t see. I believe my blind spot was reinforced by the perceived ideal of being “color blind.” Really what all that had to do with was being prejudiced, or pre-judging someone based on the color of their skin. What I have come to see as my eyes are opened is that we are all swimming in waters saturated with racism.

What does that mean? It means that a person of color has a very different experience than I do of seeking housing, getting an education, being listened to, getting a loan, getting medical attention, what happens at a traffic stop, and 100 other every day experiences. One of the most mind-boggling, humbling, discouraging, eye-opening moments in my life was sitting in a workshop with 50 white pastors and 50 black pastors and hearing near unanimous testimony of being pulled over, suspected, doubted, questioned, and worse by my black colleagues who are pastors, many with advanced degrees, respectful, humble men and women. It opened my eyes. Observing the surveys, dialogs, priorities, and passion in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system and the various responses about how and where to draw school district lines… it has opened my eyes. Being blessed to be a part of a presbytery, a collection of Presbyterian churches rich in racial diversity and realizing even there the vast differences in pastoral salary, transition, and other factors. It has opened my eyes. We swim in water full of inequity and inequality and experience it so radically differently just because of the color of our skin. There is so much more to say, so much more to do. But, for today…

Two questions: 1) What does this have to do with the Bible and with our faith?  and 2) What can we do?

First, it has everything to do with the Bible and with our faith. From the beginnings in Genesis to the endings in Revelation, God’s vision for humanity is for the nations and races of the world is that they know Him, be gathered in to Him, and reflect the glory of being made in the image of God. Divisions of race, language, and culture are first manifest at the Tower of Babel and are the result of human sin. Human sin – not God’s will, but turning away from God and toward human self-rule and self-supremacy. But God comes to Abraham with a plan and a promise to reach and bless all the nations of the world. That covenant lies at the heart of God’s dealings with Israel and unfolds in the coming of Jesus, who announces the Kingdom of God and dies for all the world. At Pentecost, God pours out His Spirit in a vivid demonstration of calling together the nations under Christ. The Apostle Paul is called and sent to the nations and to the world, preaching a Gospel where there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. The final picture of eternity in Revelation has people from every tribe, tongue, and nation gathered around the throne of God. That is God’s design for humanity; not one race or one people, but the nations of the world gathered in holy worship.

Secondly, there are many ways for the church to respond to the inequity and inequality found in our culture and society. But I believe the FIRST STEP for many of us is to seek to see beyond our blind spots. There is more after that, but we cannot engage what we cannot see. So, I’d offer a tangible, doable first step toward where I believe God is leading us. I have mentioned the book, Waking Up White. It has been a useful tool in opening my eyes to my own blind spots. I’d like to invite you to read it and discuss it with each other. My hope is that you see it not as a chore, but as an opportunity God is offering you. There is a sign-up sheet in the welcome area where you can indicate your interest, along with a preferred time of daytime, evening, or weekend. If none of those work, I am open to exploring an online option, though I think face to face is better. I would encourage you to read and discuss the book in a group and not on your own, but if you need to read it on your own first, I would not discourage that either. If you do, would you at least let me know? I am glad to provide a copy of the book if you cannot afford one and will have several copies for the church library. There’s more to understand and do beyond that, but I think that particular book will offer us some common language and information to move forward together and I’d strongly encourage you to make time and space in your life this fall to read it with me. God has been pressing on me for several years in this area and I’ve been fortunate to have some experiences and training in the past year that have open my eyes and equipped me in a way that I was not prepared two years ago. May God lead us and join us and bless us as we respond to this Word. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made Heaven and earth. Amen.