Does God have your back?
Scripture: Psalm 71:1-6
This week has felt like a week of storms.
- Hurricane Dorian is turning towards Georgia and the Carolinas.
- More gun violence in west Texas and in communities close to home
- Continued protests in Hong Kong
- Political scandals, a burning Amazon…
And here we are, caught up in the midst of these storms, desperately looking for something to hold on to, sometimes wondering who has our back in these difficult days.
About twenty years ago, the Hollywood blockbuster Twister came to theaters, detailing the risky lives of tornado chasers in Oklahoma, scientists who go toward twisters to try to understand them in the name of science. In the climactic scene of the film, the two main characters are stuck just as a tornado turns in their direction, so they manage to run into a well shed, tie themselves to the pipes from the well, and hang on as the tornado blows right over them.
And literally, the final scene is them holding on for dear life.
Like any Hollywood movie, there is truth to the fiction. I grew up in Oklahoma, and we were taught that going to a room in your house with plumbing, where the pipes were embedded into the ground, gave you a better chance of surviving a tornado. Because the house there was a little more fixed in the ground. Connected to something solid.
Right now, with everything going on in our world and our lives, too many days can feel like we are desperately holding on to anything as the storms of turmoil and conflict threaten to engulf us. Some of you have shown up for worship this morning because there is a tragedy or crisis in your family, and you don’t know where else to turn. Some of you might feel like this country or this world is on sinking sand. Maybe it’s your faith in God, that hope persists in all the madness.
What do we hold on to when the storm blows past us?
Who will we cling to when the world shakes?
Who has our back?
Psalm 71 makes clear - God has our back.
Psalms are the ancient hymnal of the Jewish faith. What makes them so special is their complete honesty as they talk about and to God. Some Psalms are prayers of joy and celebration and gratitude, and some are angry laments for when life has gone horribly wrong. Often, many Psalms demand God show up in desperate situations or ask God to be there, like a rock, when life seems uncertain.
Don’t ever let anyone shame you if you need to cuss out God or demand something of God - the Psalmists did it way before you!
Psalm 71, which we reflect on today, follows a repeated pattern through the whole passage - asking for help from God and then an expression of trust in God. Help then trust. Help me, God, but I do trust in you.
The key image is one woven throughout all of the Bible - God is our rock.
God as a rock is kind of a puzzling thought, but for these ancient Hebrew people, rocks were the primary feature of their terrain. Rocks shaped their landscape. Rocks served as guide points and hazards. Rocks could be hiding places and resting places. Rocks could be a shelter in the midst of a storm. Rocks could provide shade and boundaries and permanence in a world that changed rapidly around them.
So when the Psalmist asks God for help - help against shame and turmoil - help while enemies seem out to get them - a rock seems a fitting image. A rock is stronger and longer lasting than the short term violence of this day. A rock can get in between an enemy and their target. A rock is a sign of strength and majesty.
Hear verse 3 again:
“Be to me a rock of refuge,
a strong fortress, to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress.”
God as a rock, likewise, points to the Divine’s strength. God is majestic. God is long lasting. God is prepared to step in even the mightiest storms and provide shelter amidst 150 mph winds and earthquakes and fire. God is prepared to save the weary traveler from bandits and wolves. God is ready to back up those who feel abandoned and alone, serving as a sure foundation when all else seems out of control.
What the Palmist gets right is that life is hard. And life is hard even for those who believe in God. The storms of life, tornadoes, hurricanes, chaos, scandals, and disruption, bring uncertainty and pain. Too often, churches paint faith as a step from a hard life to an easy one - or one where everything is chaotic to one where everything has order, but the Psalmist is not telling lies here. Following God can be difficult.
Sometimes, by loving who God loves, by living the way God would have us live, by trying to live lives of justice, we go into the eye of storm and not away from them.
We become storm chasers in our pursuit and worship of God.
God becomes our rock, our firm foundation, to anchor us in the midst of chaos, violence, and confusion.
If you read the whole of Psalm 71, you see all the situations where God is prepared and has backed up those who love and seek God.
God backs us up when enemies choose to hurl harsh words or take revenge. God backs us up when we get things wrong and stumble about. God backs us up when we feel alone and afraid. God backs us up when we are ensnared in systems of injustice, when nothing seems to be going right. God backs us up when we are young - God backs us up even when our hair is grey, when our bodies get old and weary.
Psalm 71 reminds us that we can call God our rock because our Creator is worthy to be trusted.
One definition of trust that I read recently is - “feeling safe when vulnerable”.
One of my mentors, our former regional minister, Rev. Lari Grubbs, would always say that the opposite of faith is not doubt. We all doubt our faith from time to time. We all struggle. The opposite of faith is mistrust. Faith then is placing our trust in God. The Psalmist in our scripture is telling us that placing your trust in God is worth it - God is there even when the storms rage and you are holding on for dear life.
God can be counted on.
God is the rock we grip onto when the storms of this world are threatening to overwhelm and snatch us away.
In God, we discover an incredible care even when everything else seems uncertain.
When we are able to trust in God - even when that is really hard, God is there - God has our back.
Perhaps in your life right now, you are struggling to place your trust in God. You see the storms, and you feel an urge to dash into their midst to be the hands and feet of Christ. But you aren’t sure. Maybe you have experienced failure. Maybe life and work and family are not going as smoothly as you hoped they might. Maybe there are simply too many storms.
How do we restore our trust in God?
One strategy might be to go to God with our vulnerability and express, like the Psalmist does, our need of help, our frustration, and our hope for how God might show up. To speak our own prayer of help and trust, help and trust.
God, I’m not sure you really are calling me to do this. Will you help me? You are my rock and my salvation.
God, my family is a hot mess at the moment, and I don’t know what to say or do. Save me! In you, I trust I will find the words.
This world is burning God. We can’t breathe. Too many people are hurting. How can I hope? Creator of All Things, I praise you even in this storm, for You are the shelter we need.
Pray like the Psalmist here - pray for help and pray for God to be your rock, to continue to back you up.
In verse 6, the Psalmist recognizes that God has been there all the days of their life - even from the womb, even from birth. We are encouraged to think of God’s presence - not just in hard times or not just good times - but in all moments, God waiting to back us up and get us through.
As a church, our mission too is to go out this week and back other people up with this good news.
I don’t ever want us to take for granted the work we do as a church - caring for our children and youth - caring for neighbors in need through the Day Center or Community Place Cafe - being partners with amazing people and organizations in our neighborhood. When we do this work of compassion and action, we are letting people know that we are backing them up in the midst of their storms. We are making known a God who is not just our rock - but the rock for all people.
Think of the number of college students this week who are going to face hard and lonely moments in their journey. Think of the people in our own community facing difficulty paying bills. Think of our teachers who are going to face crowds of students and hope they can help those young people grow. Think of those who will face a personal crisis this week - a hospital trip, a death, a job loss.
And our work isn’t confined to this neighborhood but to the world. How do we back up a hurting world?
Is our mission as a church just to stay here in this nice sanctuary, in the shadow of the Almighty Rock, or are we to go into the eyes of those storms and bring the good news that the world needs to hear?
Be our rock, O God. Save us. Save this world.
Thanks be to God.