Does God Take Sides?
A Sermon on Psalm 124 by Dwight A. Moody, Providence Baptist Church, Hendersonville NC
Brignetta Dickerson is an employee at the Kroger store in Collierville, Tennessee, just outside of Memphis. She was working this past Thursday when a disgruntled vendor entered the store with a gun and started shooting. Brignetta gathered employees and customers and led them to the back of the store and closed the door behind them, but the gunman followed.
"He kept on shooting and shooting and shooting,” Brignetta said. “He shot one of my co-workers in the head and then shot one of the customers in the stomach. I'm a little shaky, but I'm OK,” she said. “I got God on my side."
I got God on my side.
Doxology is the praise of God, and this is a good piece of doxology. Who would not give thanks to God in such a situation? And a dozen others: after a successful surgery, the birth of a baby, the completion of a project, the salvation of a friend, even the beauty of a day.
“Thanks be to God” is a refrain that is heard over and over again: in the Bible, in the worship of God’s people, in the most private prayer of the believer. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless your holy name!” Hardly a day goes by that I do not feel this, speak this, sing this, praying this.
What do you have today worthy of such praise? Have you survived the COVID? Have you completed a long trip? Have you paid all your bills for the month? Have you held in your arms a person you love? You have a right to this doxology: praise God from whom all blessings flow. Or in the word of this psalm: Our help is from the Lord who made heaven and earth.
I recall the time we survived a scare on the highway. We were moving from Pittsburgh to Owensboro. We packed up our minivan: five us inside, surrounded by baggage, more on top the car, and bicycles strapped to the back. Interstate 70 runs east and west, and we picked it up south of Pittsburgh and headed to Columbus, Ohio. On the horizon I saw storm clouds. The sky was clearly demarked between the blue skies overhead and the storm clouds to the west. I could see the rain front approaching us. Up ahead the road was wet but where we were it was dry. Then, our road went from dry to wet, from safe to slick. They say the beginnings of a rain on pavement is dangerous because it mixes with the oil and causes a short-term danger.
So it was that day. Our grey minivan began to hydroplane—it lost traction with the pavement and skimmed along the thin layer of oil and water. And I lost control of the car. It began to rotate counterclockwise. Traveling 65 miles an hour down that double west bound lane of I-70, the car slowly spun to the left. We were facing the median, and kept going; we were facing east, and kept going; our swing continued, coasting now and facing north; and as we came out of the 360-degree turn, the car drifted off the pavement and into the median, and across the median headed into the east bound traffic. The driver of the 18-wheeler told me later, "I saw you coming and was sure you were going to end up on my front grill."
You know what happened? The front left wheel caught in the drain ditch at the northern edge of that east bound lane; and like the metal rails that guide a vehicle through a car wash, that concrete ditch grabbed the wheel and guided our west bound car until it came to a stop, a safe stop, along side the traffic whizzing by in the opposite direction. The truck stopped, the police arrived, and I drove my car—largely undamaged—on the shoulder of the road to the exit ramp a few hundred yards further down the road. We pulled into a service station there, huddled in the car, and gave thanks to God for keeping us safe. We prayed our own doxology. Thanks be to God!!
It is one thing to have doxology on our lips, it is a good thing; but it is something else to have a theology in our heads that comes out like this: The Lord is on our side! The Lord is on our side. These are the words of the psalmist. “What if the Lord had not been on our side? We would have been swallowed alive by the burning anger of our enemies!”
This ancient singer must be relieved that they survived some near disaster, some close defeat, some almost gone conflict. The people attacked us; they would have swallowed us alive in their burning anger…. (then it changes the image) We escaped like a bird form a hunter’s trap. The trap is broken, and we are free!!
This victory deserves doxology! Praise the Lord we are saved. But the psalmist goes one step too far when it moves from doxology to theology. God is on our side!!
This is one of many statements in the Psalms and in our own experience that leads us away from the truth. Why have you forsaken me? That is Psalm 22; the psalmist was desperate and felt alone. Jesus quoted this psalm from the cross when he felt abandoned. But God had not really forsaken Jesus, nor the psalmist, nor you or me. It is bad theology escaping from the lips of a desperate soul.
Blessed is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks” That is Psalm 137. It voices the anger against an enemy. Babylon, to be exact. For destroying the city of Jerusalem, defeating the Hebrew people, and carting the people off into exile. We understand the frustration, the anger, the spirit of revenge. But calling upon a third party—or even God—to take revenge by smashing babies on the rocks is bad theology. This psalm of lament ends up with a cry for revenge.
Or that this, from psalm one: They prosper in all they do! Psalm one is a celebration of the righteous person, who walks not in the way of the wicked, nor stands in the place of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scoffers. You remember the opening words of the entire book of Psalms.
The psalm goes on to promise that the righteous are like trees planted by rivers of water, bearing fruit in every season. “Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do.” It is a noble expression. The confidence that the righteous never fail and always win, always survive, always live, always triumph. But we know that is not good theology. We know that does not cohere with life. The righteous suffer and die; the good Christian is fired from a job; the honest person is blamed for loss; the best among us gets COVID and many die. So when some earnest believer shouts out, GOD IS ON OUR SIDE, I understand the emotion but resist the conclusion.
This is one of several things people say that stirs my soul into angst: as when a small child dies, “God needed another angel in heaven.” Or when trouble comes, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” Or the famous declaration of the traveling evangelist some decades ago, “God never hears the prayer of a Jew.” These are all bad theology; just like this outburst in Memphis, I Got God on my side!! Or this assertion here by the psalmist, God is on our side!!
These are all the emotion of the moment, the rush of adrenaline, the exuberance of faith: we know God does not forsake, the smashing babies is wicked, that the righteous sometimes fail, that God’s people are sometimes thrown into gas chambers. The theology behind these statements is faulty. This is not to disparage the truthfulness and usefulness of God’s Word. This Word and our testimony include our frustrations, our sins, our exuberance, our laments. This word testifies to the human condition, up one day and down the next, to quote the late great theologian, John Prine.
Into this category of faulty theology, is this conviction of taking sides. God is on our side, not theirs; God is on my side, not yours; God is fighting for me and not for you.
Except in one instance: God is on the side of Jesus. He was the righteous one. He was sent to be our teacher, our guide, our mentor, our coach, our substitute, our redeemer, our Lord.
God was on his side when Herod tried to kill him. God was on his side when the authorities tied to silence him. God was on his side when Satan tempted him. God was his side when his friends abandoned him. God was on his side when soldiers arrested him. God was on his side when they beat him, and mocked him, and pushed a ring of thorn branches on his head. God was on his side even when he called out, quoting this book of psalms, Why, why? You have forsaken me! Why? Why? God was on his side when, on the third day, God raised him from the dead. God is on the side of Jesus. Where Jesus is, there is God. Where Jesus is, there is God.
Jesus said, I have come to bring good news to the poor. God is helping Jesus do that. Jesus said, I have come to proclaim release to the captive. God is helping Jesus do that. Jesus said, I have come to make the blind to see. God is helping Jesus do that. Makes me think of the chorus we used to sing, with exuberance: “I’ve got a river of life coming out of me. Makes the lame to walk and the blind to see. Opens prisons doors, sets the captive free. I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me.”
God is on the side of Jesus; and where is Jesus? We think God is with us, on our side. In war, in struggles, lawsuits, in any kind of struggle. Surely God is on our side. But maybe not. Think about the scene this week on the banks of the Rio Grande. Where was God? On the side of sheriffs on horseback, using their reins as whips, corralling the refugees back into their squalor? Where was God? On the side of politicians in Washington, refusing to act for the wellbeing of mothers and fathers, boys and girls, seeking freedom, safety, opportunity, and health? Where was God? On the side of American citizens, demanding that walls be built and violators arrested? Jesus was busy obeying his own command: They were thirsty, and he gave them something to drink. They were naked and he passed out clothing. They were hungry and he cooked dinner over an open fire and served them in discarded bowls. They were strangers and he treated them like the best of friends. They were facing incarceration and he spoke peace to them and freedom and mercy.
Every morning he gathered that rag tag congregation of people, young and old, wise and ignorant, strong and weak, and prayed some version of this prayer: Our father in heaven. You are the holy and righteous one. We want your will and way to be done here and now. Give us something to eat today. Forgive the men with the whip. Forgive us also if what we are doing is wrong and what we are seeking is foolish. Do not lead us into danger, or sin, or a trap. Deliver us from the evil before us and the evil back home. It is all yours, O God: this land before us, the sun above us, our friends around us, the yearning deep within us. It is all yours. And we give thanks.
Jesus was on their side this week. Who knows where he will be next week, comforting the troubled, seeking the lost, feeding the hungry, forgiving the wicked, distributing grace to all. And looking around for you and me.