Sermon for August 23rd, 2020
Scripture reading incorporated into sermon.
Psummer of Psalms III: Psalm 139
Long, long ago, back in the days when children went to school in person and ate lunch together in a crowed room known as a cafeteria...at the beginning of the school lunch line there was a large pile of apples. A clever lunch lady, in a desperate attempt to improve the moral standing of the students, had put a sign next to the apples that said, "Take only ONE apple. God is watching you." Further down at the other end of the lunch line was a large pile of chocolate chip cookies, and next to this pile, a clever student had added his own note. It read, "Take all the cookies you want. God is watching the apples."
Psalm 139 is a hymn to the "inescapable God"--the God who sees everything, knows everything, and brings everything into the light. If you're a take-two-apples or a take-five-cookies kind of person, this psalm might be terrifying. But if your'e the kid at the end of the lunch line who arrives only to find an empty plate of cookie crumbs, I imagine this psalm might be kind of comforting.
Actually, most people who read this psalm take great comfort from it. It is one of the most popular and often quoted psalms after the 23rd psalm. It is some of the most beautiful and familiar poetry in the entire Bible. It has inspired countless works of art, music, and literature. Just ten days ago, I read these words to the family of church member Merci Goff, as we paid our respects and laid her to rest beside her husband, Dean. Merci Goff loved the psalms, and this one was one of her favorites.
What is it about this Psalm that speaks so powerfully to so many people? Let's jump in and find out.
The first section of the psalm, verses 1-6, are all about knowledge.
1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me. 2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. 3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. 5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
In America today, we are obsessed with privacy, probably because we have less and less of it with every passing year and every new technology. Between Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.com, someone is keeping track of almost every aspect of your life--what you purchase, what you read, where you go, what political party you belong to, and even what you say in your most intimate conversations via email, text message, and anywhere in the vicinity of your smart phone. Someone is always listening, always watching. And yet, despite that, most of us have a growing sense that no one really, truly knows us, understands us, at least not in the way we long to be understood.
Amazon collects your information because they want to sell you more things--something that is in their best interest, and not necessarily yours.
But Psalm 139 teaches us that God searches out our paths, and is acquainted with all our ways...why? There is nothing we can offer to God that he doesn't already have. The answer to that question comes later, in the third section. But first, listen to the second movement, verses 7-12. If the first section was about God's knowledge, the second section is about God's presence.
7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” 12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
Most of us were taught as children that "God is everywhere." There is certainly truth in that, but Psalm 139 is a little more specific. It's not so much that God is everywhere, but rather God is everywhere that we are, everywhere that we go. Not in a creepy stalker-kind-of-way, but more like an advance team that prepares the way before you get to your destination, like a friend who refuses to leave your side, or like that one person you always call when you're in trouble, because you know he will find you, come for you, and tear down any obstacle to get to you and carry you to safety.
And now comes the why. Why would God do all that? Why does God stick with us, why does God watch over us, even when we are often horrible people...harmful to each other, to ourselves, and to the world around us?
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. 17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.
If the first two sections were about God's knowledge and God's presence, the third section is about God's actions, God's works. And God's greatest feat, the greatest accomplishment of all, in the eyes of God, is you. You are, in the words of Psalm 139 "fearfully and wonderfully made" by a God who knew every thought you would ever think, every word you would ever say, and everything you would ever do...before you ever came into this world.
Some of you are thinking right now that God must be either incredibly forgiving or incredibly stupid.
I promise you, it's the first one. Yes, God sees all of our pettiness and weaknesses and flaws. We tend to dwell on those things, to brood on them and so often we get stuck there, creating our own miniature hell and becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. But I believe that God consciously chooses to see each one of us as the person he created us to be, who we are in our better moments, who we could have been, and who we still have the potential to become.
The last section of Psalm 139, minus the final two verses, is the part that always gets left out. It's the part that is never quoted from, and never gets read at funerals. That's because right before the end, the beautiful soaring poetry of Psalm 139 takes an unexpected turn to the vindictive. If you've read the psalms much, this shouldn't surprise you, and yet it is surprising coming right after such an affirming message of God's universal knowledge, reach, and love.
For me, verses 19-22 are the most human part of the entire psalm. These later verses are the perfect reminder of everything we can be...beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, ugly, beautiful.
19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me— 20 those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! 21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? 22 I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
The Psalmist tries to couch his vindictiveness towards his enemies in religious terms, in the name of God. "God, I only hate the people you hate; I'm only against the people who are against you." Usually, when you dig deeper into that kind of sentiment, it's really the reverse: "God, I want you to hate the people I hate. Since I'm your friend, God, all those people who are against me must really be against you, right?"
But then in the final two verses, the Psalmist walks himself back and puts everything--including his hatred--in God's hands again. Verses 23-34:
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. 24 See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
People of First Presbyterian Church: May you always place all of yourselves--your passions and your pleasures, your fears and your failures--in God's capable hands. And may you always know that God is with you, wherever you wander in this life, from the highest heights to the deepest depths. You are known, completely. And you are completely loved.