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Sunday, September 4, 2016 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.
Being Known by God
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
I had a fairly good relationship with the Lord. But I always had this uncomfortable sense that he was looking at me and wanted me to look at him. But I would not, because I was afraid that I should find an accusation there of some unrepented sin or a demand for something he wanted from me. Then one day I looked. There was no accusation or demand. His eyes just said, “I love you.”
Anthony de Mello
Jeremy Troxler, a Methodist pastor, once told a story about a cemetery he visited in the Channel Islands. The cemetery is dedicated to soldiers who died during World War II. But according to Troxler, no one knows exactly who is buried there. No birth dates or death dates are written on the headstones. No names are given. Yet inscribed across each gravestone is the description “Known by God.” That is the name that ultimately matters the most—One Known by God (Jeremy Troxler, “Hemmed In,” preached 1 November 2010; www.faithandleadership.com). That is the name we hear in this psalm.
“O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.” If I had to choose three biblical passages without which I could not breathe, Psalm 139 would certainly make the cut. I have prayed these words in my own life during moments of great fear and upheaval. I prayed them in the days of adolescent illness. I prayed them by the bedside of my father as he dealt with cancer. I prayed them as I lay exhausted in Labor and Delivery after giving birth to my babies. And I continue to pray them as your pastor in those moments when I wonder just what God has in store for us in this new season, as well as whenever I prepare to visit you after chaos or pain or grief has erupted in your lives.
In all of those kinds of threshold moments, the words from Psalm 139 have poured a healing balm on to my heart, inevitably creating some breathing space for my spirit and transmitting strength and courage into my soul. On most days, I trust the psalm’s promise that we do not rest in some far-off land of autonomy and isolation, but rather we rest in God’s very being. As Marcus Borg wrote, “There is no place we can be outside of God” (www.beliefnet.com/faiths/2000/03/how-we-imagine-god-matters.aspx). On most days that theological affirmation offers me a visceral sense of being both held and held up by a Mercy and a Love much greater than we can even comprehend.
Yet I say “most days” very purposefully, because what can be God’s comforting nearness on some days can sure feel like God’s discomforting nearness on other ones. And the closer we attend to the language of the psalmist, we see similar reflections in his words: “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” The verb we translate as “hem me in” is actually the same verb used when a city is laid under siege. We could translate this phrase as “You besiege me, O God. You entrap me. You encircle me. You will not leave me alone” (Jeremy Troxler, “Hemmed In”). “Hem me in” is less like a protective embrace and much more like a divine capture and forced surrender.
This psalmist, who at first felt some comfort by being searched and known by God; who at first felt some peace at being both held and held up by Mercy and Love—this psalmist suddenly comes face-to-face with all the implications of that kind of divine all-pervading knowledge. As another preacher points out, “Such a God is disturbing, disquieting, unsettling. [Such a God] threatens our self-sufficiency. [Such a God] does not confirm us as we are. [Such a God] upsets the compromises we have made with ourselves and the world. Like most of us, the psalmist yearns to know God. [But] obviously, the psalmist has not expected such a God as this” (Gene Rice, “Psalm 139: A Diary of the Inward Odyssey,” Journal of Religious Thought, vol. 37, no. 2, pp. 63–67).
It is daunting, isn’t it? On the one hand, like many of us have experienced in our own threshold moments, it can be a comforting revelation to trust and acknowledge that God knows us better than we know ourselves and that God knows our thoughts even before we utter a word. But on the other hand, uh oh. That kind of divine all-pervading knowledge can also be a terrifying revelation for most of us broken creatures.
Wait a minute, we stumble as we really reflect on that truth—God knows all our thoughts? All those things we barely even dare to articulate to ourselves? All those secrets we think we keep hidden—God knows all those? But we don’t want God to know all of our secrets, do we? God cannot know those moments of shame and woundedness from our past that hold us captive. God cannot know our distrust of God’s care when death hits us in the face and changes our normal forever.
God cannot know those doubts of “Is this real?” that we try to squelch or the cynicism we pretend not to have on some days when we come into a sanctuary—we don’t want God to know those, right? For if God knew all of that, might that mean God could change God’s mind about us? Would that mean God might become angry with us or disappointed in us or, worst of all, might disown us and not want to pursue us or capture us ever again?
In his sermon on this psalm entitled “Escape from God,” Paul Tillich reflected upon our dilemma. “Nobody wants to be known,” he said, “even when he realizes that his health and salvation depend upon such a knowledge. We do not even wish to be known by ourselves. We try to hide the depths of our souls from our own eyes. We refuse to be our own witness. How then can we stand the mirror in which nothing can be hidden” (www.godweb.org).
Tillich’s struggle was what the psalmist experienced, and we hear it in his testimony. This psalm claims God is the mirror in which nothing can be hidden. Even when we put on our good church face—the face we wear to worship that says “everything is great. I am fine”—even when we put on that good church face and show up in the pew, the mirror still stands and the mirror sees right through our mask every time.
Clearly, that revelation of God’s inescapability and all-pervading knowledge terrified the psalmist and left him scrambling. He showed no desire to stand in front of God as mirror, and we hear that as he continued to document his spiritual journey: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there, and if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. And if I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” Another translation says “And if I take the wings of Dawn, in order that I may dwell behind the sea, also there your left hand will rest upon me, and your right hand will seize me.”
The psalmist realizes there is simply no way out. There is simply nowhere he can go that takes him out of God’s presence; no place created or imagined that removes him from God’s hand; no way to cover the mirror of the one who knows him the best, better than he even knows himself; no way to pretend to God he is always fine or that everything is totally in control or that the world does not feel sometimes like violence and chaos are winning.
Living in the presence of God means there is no authentic space for pretending or hiding one’s struggle and one’s fear. And that revelation startles the psalmist. He is frozen by God’s omnipresence, by God’s immanence, frozen by the realization that God is as close as his breath and has always been. We have no idea how long he might have been frozen by that revelatory moment. We have no idea how long the psalmist wrestled with the reality of God’s inescapability. It could have been a matter of minutes or hours. It could have been days. It could have been years. We do not know.
But as we keep reading the psalmist’s documentation of his journey, we suddenly recognize that something dramatic must have happened in the middle of his frozenness, in the middle of his wrestling match with God’s constant pursuit of him. Listen to his shift: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. . . . How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.”
Like Jacob on the river’s edge, clearly this psalmist refused to stop wrestling with his inescapable God until he felt blessed by the experience. God was not going to let go of him? Fine, he would not let go of God either. And somehow, through the stubbornness of both Creator and creature, the blessing emerged. These verses reveal the psalmist woke up to the promise that the very one from whom he fled was actually the same one who had lovingly created him. The very one from whom he desperately wanted to hide was the same one who had called him into being, knit him together stitch by stitch, and held his future in Divine hands.
After that time of feeling frozen and too well-known, this psalmist reached a point when, on most days, the Divine mirror ceased being a threat but, rather, became a gift. No longer did God’s all-pervading knowledge only produce fear and trepidation, but it started to equally create praise and gratitude as well. On most days, the Psalmist found reassurance that the God from whom he could not flee was the Ground of his very being (Paul Tillich, “Escape from God”).
The psalmist began to comprehend what John Claypool always preached: That the One who knew him the best was the Same One who loved him the most. And the awareness that not even his deepest, darkest secrets, not even his woundedness or his shame, could threaten God’s love and care for him bestowed upon the psalmist a freedom and a joy he could never have predicted. We see it, we feel it, in his words.
Now, I wish the psalmist had put down his own pen with that verse—verse 18. For verses 19–22 drastically contrast with the beauty of his revelation and the rest of his spiritual journey. In these four verses—verses the lectionary leaves out by the way—his praise turns to curse, and the joy the psalmist feels before God is replaced with a wrath towards others. The psalmist begs God to kill the wicked and destroy all those who stand against the Creator. The psalmist ceases speaking words of marvel and comfort and joy and starts speaking words of hate and loathing and enemy. These four verses comprise a strange and jolting tangent within the contours of the psalm. That shift of mood is why some interpreters claim this section must have been a later insertion into the journey. They make the point that not only does it strike a radically different tone, but it also has different grammatical word usage. It must have been added later, they say, by a different writer. We can understand why they make that claim and see how it could very well be true.
But, on the other hand, it would not be very surprising if these words were an honest piece of the psalmist’s journey, for how many of us find that once we have been seized by the immense grace and love of God, once we have been set aflame with the fire of Divine Presence, we suddenly have little to no patience or tolerance for what we define as evil and as standing against God’s purposes and justice. We claim a mantle of righteous, of prophetic anger. It is conceivable that was what the psalmist was doing too.
And yet, when the psalmist heard himself say those words, he immediately recognized something was wrong. He uttered those words of wrath and realized his initially appropriate righteousness had morphed into self-righteousness, always a danger. And in the face of that realization, just as quickly as the fire of judgment had exploded in the psalmist, it quickly turned back to smoldering embers: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
The psalmist wisely turned back to where he began his journey, as One Known by God—but this time, unlike when he started, he asks to be searched and known. This time, unlike when he started, he longs to be both held and held up by Mercy and Love. This time, unlike when he started, the psalmist requests to be seen by the divine, penetrating eyes of his inescapable God, for through the journey, through his spiritual pilgrimage, what the psalmist originally experienced as divine pursuit and capture had transformed into his own life-giving surrender and commitment.
We, too, have a similar opportunity. We have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the psalmist, to see our struggles in light of his, to find reflections of our lives in the poetry. And then we, too, could find ourselves blessed by our own honest wrestling, moving towards claiming our own experience of deep gratitude for our inescapable God. A God whose clear gaze sees us for who we are; who knows us better than we know ourselves despite our best pretending; and who also claims us and saves us with a big grace-filled Nevertheless, naming us Known by God forever. Amen.