Relatively Triumphant


A Song of Ascents. Of David.
1 If it had not been the Lord who was on our side
—let Israel now say—
2 if it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
when our enemies attacked us,
3 then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
4 then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
5 then over us would have gone
the raging waters.
6 Blessed be the Lord,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth.
7 We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped.
8 Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth
(Psalm 124, NRSV)

A few weeks ago we were all riveted to our televisions to watch the Super Bowl XLVII ( Forty-seven for us ordinary folks. Why do they still use Roman numerals anyway??). Regardless of what our regular team was, we watched the Baltimore Ravens battle the San Francisco 49ers. An exciting game complete with the drama of a blackout in the Superdome no doubt! Of particular interest to many was the subplot of the retiring Ray Lewis who in his final appearance in the pinnacle game of any football player’s career, helped to put the Ravens over the top to win.

Ray Lewis has been an interesting figure in athletics (not that there is a lack of any). A highly gifted athlete with a passion for the game he was surrounded with scandal in the early part of his career in the NFL. In 2000, he was charged with the murder of Richard Lollar at a night club in Atlanta. Eventually, he struck a plea bargain in exchange for testifying against the other persons who were involved. Prior to this incident, Lewis’s life was marked by intense partying, showmanship and a generally embracing of the culture that is so stereotypical of the NFL in the 21st century.

After this incident, Lewis “found” (or rediscovered) the Lord and sought to live a life that was (at least by public expression) dedicated to the Lord. He continued to play but began to be a great deal more outspoken about his faith. He could be seen before and after games in intense prayer and praise. None of this is bad in any way. He obviously has had an experience that changed his life and as a result that has changed his view of the world. Of interest to me are the underpinnings of his proclamations for winning and losing…..

Ray Lewis Triumphant

We live in a culture that is so often shaped and defined by winners and losers. Political winners and losers, cultural winners and losers and ever-present sports winners and losers define all of us in our life together. There are times when we are celebrated for being on the winning side, and derided when “our team” has lost. Winning and losing is everything in our society. So much so that we have placed God into our obsession of winning. Triumphalism is essentially the exuberance for victory to the point of devaluing the loser (an all others who identify against you). Triumphalism celebrates the winner at all costs and associates all things ‘right’ and ‘good’ with the winner. All things wrong and bad are associated with the loser. (Triumphalism is at work when we say “God Bless America” with the intent to elevate the blessings of the Almighty as  being fully expressed in the United State of America.)

One of the things that happened as the Ravens advanced from the playoffs to the Superbowl is that each time the mic was put in front of Ray Lewis, he would proclaim that God was “on his side”. Many of his statements would infer that God had chosen a side in a football game and that was the reason for the win. Time and again, his attempts at attribution for the win devolved into triumphalism. Ray Lewis’s isn’t special in this regard, for we can all very easily move to a triumphant position when we believe that our cause is somehow greater than our adversary’s.

Our text today is a Psalm of Ascents, that means that this was often sung as Israel would prepare itself to enter Jerusalem or the place of worship. This is a celebratory Psalm, acknowledging the power of God in Israel’s history and all the ways that God has been faithful in delivering the people from traps, snares and danger. However, in its celebratory context, the Psalm appears to be a form of triumphalist pronouncement. The text speaks in such a way as to suggest that our triumph over the enemy comes from God’s deliberate choice to pick a side, (“If it had not been for the Lord who was on OUR side). While this was true in the Old Testament when it was believed that when two nations fought, two gods were fighting, what happens when in today’s world when two Christians are in conflict, (Or even broader when people fight each other)?

Triumphant Jesus

Put simply, we should have a problem when allow others to suggest that God chooses sides. Jewish theology can handle such a God. The election of Israel is without question in the Exodus narrative and God is overt in his choice of Israel OVER the gods of Egypt or anywhere else. However, Christian theology suggests that the only side God chooses is oppressed humanity. In the context of Jesus Christ, God makes a choice to be on the side of humanity and specifically oppressed humanity. Wherever Jesus goes and whatever Jesus does, God does and chooses to do.

Let’s be clear: Our victories come as a result of God beneficence but not because God didn’t bless our adversaries. Winning a earthly victory doesn’t equate to being on God’s side. God’s being and sovereignty means that our human victories and losses are part of a larger plan that bring us closer to God. Simply put, our winning and our triumph is not God’s winning. God is not concerned with blessing one group and against the other. God blesses one to be a blessing to the other. Zero sum games are not in the plan, knowing that gets us closer to a vision of truth this week.

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