Sermon - 8th September 2019
God's knowledge of us
Scripture - Psalm 139
In today’s set of Lectionary readings, the set Psalm is Psalm 139. In this congregation, we know it well through the Bernadette Farrell’s hymn “O God, You search me and you know me”. As is often the case, the Lectionary selects only part of the Psalm; but today, we shall look at the Psalm as a whole – all 24 verses - splitting it into four, roughly-equal parts.
(Reading 1: vv. 1-6)
Like about half the Psalms, Psalm 139 carries the title “a Psalm of David”; however, Biblical scholars are unsure of who actually wrote it, and they are also unsure of when it was written. The language in parts of the Psalm is ambiguous, resulting in different translations. Nevertheless, these do not lessen our appreciation of what is a very beautiful, intimate piece of Hebrew poetry which explores to understand the mystery which exists between our Creator God and each one of us as individuals.
In many other parts of the Bible, we are encouraged to search for God outside of ourselves. In Psalm 8, we are encouraged to look up at the skies, to the stars and beyond, to think about the infinite majesty of God’s creation and our part in that. In the New Testament, we are pointed to look at Christ’s example to live out the Gospel.
Throughout history, the Church has pointed to saints and others as examples. But, Psalm 139 does something unique: it encourages us to look within to find God and to deepen our understanding of our relationship with our Creator.
When we study these first six verses, we get a repeating picture of God’s omnipresence – God being present in every moment of our lives, and the Psalm gives examples of our daily lives. That can evoke two different responses. Part of us may rejoice that God is so close to us; however, that intensity of relationship might also come across to us as too much, stifling, even oppressive. If you have a partner, would you want them right next to you every second of every day, with never a moment to yourself?
In verse 1, we read: “You [God] know all about me.” The Hebrew verb “ya’da” (=to know) is the same verb which is used in Genesis 4 to describe Adam “knowing” Eve – sex – but the most intimate act which unites two people, is not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. This parallel might be the closest we can come to describing this mystery.
The American Feminist theologian, Sallie McFague, reminds us that all language for God falls short of the mark. The 13th-century theologian, Thomas Aquinas, argued that while we rightly claim that God is all-knowing, we cannot understand that, because our limited, finite minds cannot know what it would be like to be all-knowing!
The next six verses continue to explore this inescapable image of God.
(Reading 2: vv.7-12)
Repeating the notion of having a partner who never left your side, not even for a second: in 21st-century language, we might label that domestic abuse, coercive behaviour. Whenever I read these verses, I remember Jonah, the reluctant prophet. He could not cope with God’s call, so he ran away from Nineveh, as far as he could; but God found him and returned him to shore in the belly of a big fish. Maybe sometimes, we feel a need – like Jonah – to escape our circumstances and run away.
Verse 10 speaks of God’s guiding, holding, never-ending presence, which we may find comforting. Take the allusion of learning to ride a bike: if the person teaching us never lets go, we would never learn to balance for ourselves, and we would never progress.
Verses 11 and 12 talk about light consuming darkness. Have you ever experienced complete and absolute darkness? Back in the 1980s, where I grew up in North Staffordshire, there was a coal-mining museum. For a school history trip, we went there and down into the mine. As part of the tour, the guide turned off the tunnel lights and asked us to turn off our helmet lights. While it was amusing for a few seconds, not being able to see anything at all, rapidly turned to uncertainty and it affected our balance.
And what about the absence of darkness? Our bodies are used today and night. In 1994, while living in St Petersburg in Russia, I experienced total daylight. In mid-summer, they have the White Nights, when the Sun never sets. It is odd to see the Sun shining in the North. It disturbs our circadian rhythm and makes sleep very difficult.
But human concepts and notions to explore the mystery of God’s intimate knowledge of us, all of them are flawed and insufficient. Our human experiences (good and bad) go some way towards explaining this mystery, but ultimately none of them fit.
The next six verses go deeper into this mystery.
(Reading 3: vv.13-18)
Much of our Christian concept and language to speak about God comes from the Gospels and New Testament. Jesus spoke frequently about “His” Father. Because the English language has three genders – masculine, feminine and neuter – our language is imperfect, which is why we have moved to use inclusive language.
When we look at these verses, no reference to “Father God” can be found. The language is clearly feminine, speaking of mother and womb. We might try to dismiss the Bible as ancient and scientifically ignorant, but from this Psalm, we clearly see that the Psalmist has insight into what happens in the womb in terms of the development of the foetus.
Verse 16 is worthy of advanced physics, even good science-fiction – Doctor Who would love it – as the Psalmist blows our mind that God is outside time and knows our lives from even before the moment of our conception, and each and every one of our days. In verses 17 and 18, we return to the mystery about what God thinks about each and every one of us. It might be an old-fashioned word, but the term “belovèd” comes close.
Many LGBT Christians, when we read this Psalm and reflect of God’s ever-being with us, we can take comfort in that God fore-knew our innate – that is, our in-born - sexual orientation and gender identity.
We come now to the final six verses: prepare yourselves for something very different!
(Reading 4: vv. 19-24)
Compared with the rest of the Psalm, you can perhaps now see why these verses were left out from the Lectionary reading. Verses 19-22 seem to be completely out of character with the rest of the Psalm. Some Bible scholars think that these verses were probably part of a different Psalm. The language is very different; the focus is no longer on the individual.
The lovely, calm, reassuring feelings which the rest of the Psalm evokes in us seem to be suddenly ripped from us. We should, however, concede that anger, hate and upset are all part of our human experience, too. When we open our eyes after praying, we return to a world of pain, greed, suffering and inequality.
As with much Hebrew poetry, particularly in the Psalms, this Psalm finishes in the way that it began: “God, see what is in my heart.”
The God, we cannot fully comprehend, searches us, surrounds us. It was God who formed us and chose to make us who we are. God is ever-present and all-knowing. This is not a neutral fact of life: it is God’s call to us to recognise this so that in our free-will, we can allow God to show us the person we were wonderfully made to be.