5th Sunday after Pentecost
Elizabeth M. Deibert
Several weeks ago, the Deibert family went to Montgomery, AL, to attend the 20th anniversary of the first new church development we loved and served: Immanuel Presbyterian. When that church built her first sanctuary, we had a stained glass artist design a beautiful window for the wall behind the pulpit, baptismal font, and communion table. It is mostly abstract, depicting subtly the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The only words in the window are the literal meaning of the name Immanuel, with us God. As I sat in the sanctuary after everyone had left and viewed that window I pondered the words of Psalm 139 and its connection to the them, God with us. God is with us, no matter where we go, no matter how far away we might wander, no matter how much trouble we’ve seen, as the Psalm says. I thought about how God has been with my family as we have moved across oceans and back again in the decade after we left there. I thought about how God has been with us as our children have grown from little kids with little problems to big kids with more complicated lives. I thought about the three churches I have served and their ups and downs, but how I always know that God is with us.
And lastly I thought about how that truth of God with us became even more true for humanity in the incarnation, in God becoming with us, one of us in Jesus Christ. So while this Psalm was written long before Christ was born, we learn in the opening of John’s Gospel that Christ, God’s supreme Word, was in the beginning with God. So I invite you to read this Psalm, with an understanding of the fullness of the Triune God, the one who in Christ was truly with us -- in birth, in life, in death, and who gives us hope for the resurrection of the dead.
Hear the Psalmist express confidence in the arms of the inescapable God.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Okay, let’s talk about that hate-filled part of the psalm first, that part that most churches will leave out of their reading today, but I dared to include it. I included it because sometimes it is unhelpful when ministers leave the awkward parts of scripture out. Then people pick up their Bibles and start reading, and they are shocked at some of the stuff they’ve never heard in worship. So why does the psalmist speak this way? Because the psalmist had a clearer delineation than we do between people who are respecters of God and those who were not. They saw those who did not respect God as dangerous, as evil, as an affront to God. They understood these folks to be a danger to society, much as we do terrorists or serial killers. They were no different from all the people who demonized Casey Anthony. Do you know that google pulled up 1.4 million sites when I couldn’t remember her last name and I typed in three words, Casey baby killer.
We get obsessed with evil, just like people did in Biblical times. They did not have an innocent until proven guilty notion, like we do. This sentiment in the Psalms is a statement of loyalty to God – do I not hate those who hate you, Lord? We believe we are called to take a stand against evil – not by hating people but by hating the evil that people do and that our unjust systems create. We hate the sin, but not the sinner. “Evil is whatever works against the loving purposes of God. We can still affirm that evil is God’s enemy as well as ours… In Christ God shared our agony over evil and broke the back of its power by bearing the worst it could do. God works continually to overcome evil. In the end, it will be utterly defeated.” (A Declaration of Faith, chapter 2.2)
Now let’s deal with the rest of the psalm, the bulk of the psalm is a message of reassurance to the one who might feel far from God, either because of evil perpetrated against the psalmist or by the psalmist own running away. Have you ever tried to run away from a problem – as a kid or an adult? As I reflect on my own life, I remember some distinct moments of life – about every decade, when I tried to run away. I guess I was four or five years old and angry at my parents or my siblings, who were old enough to feel like three more parents, and so I packed my little suitcase with a couple of favorite stuffed animals and some underwear, and went to the far edge of the one acre yard to sit under the pine trees.
The second time I ran away at age 14, I had dropped my sister’s baby on his head, and I was terrified that he might have a serious brain injury, so I handed over the screaming baby and ran out of the neighborhood. The third time I ran away, I was about 24 and had been married to Richard for a year or two. We were having the kind of conflict which normal for couples, but which happened to be overwhelming to me at that time. I stormed out of the house, got in my car and drove off with every intention of driving home to N Carolina from Atlanta, but then I realized that running away would not solve my marriage issues – that in fact, my marriage issues were symptoms of both my and Richard’s personal issues – areas in which we both needed growth – growth that might not happen if I ran away.
I think I ran away emotionally at age thirty-four when I got angry at children who would not do as I said, and I slammed doors and said things that should not have been said. I ran away virtually via my computer, when as a forty-four year old minister, I looked for churches to whom I could run, churches where all the people love their pastor perfectly and all the ministries of the church run smoothly, where the church building is built, the budget is ample to support all the staff, where there are never any broken toilets or air conditioners or even broken people. That perfect church, those perfect children, that perfect husband, those perfect siblings and parents are a figment of my imagination and running is rarely the answer to any of my problems – unless I happen to be running from a seriously abusive relationship or running from the company of friends who contribute to addictive or otherwise unsafe activities. In every case, God was trying to use a challenging situation to teach me something. God knew was going on. God knew I was stressed to the max. God knew my weakness and my sin, as well as that of others. God was with me in the struggle.
(singing) “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” These words, of course, are from a song about Santa Claus, but really they seem to be written directly from a reading of Psalm 139. They are more true of God, than of Santa, and unfortunately, we have sometimes gotten mixed up about this in childhood and carried some of childlike wishful and self-centered feeling into adulthood. It’s not about what we get, how happy we are, but whom we are becoming.
The psalmist teaches us that there is no where to run away where God will not be there. God knows our thoughts, knows our actions, knows our ways, knows the words we will say before they are formed on our tongues. We can ascend to heaven and God is there. We can go down to the place of the dead, known as Sheol in Biblical times, and God is there. We can run to the farthest limits of the sea – that edge which we see on the horizon. We can go to the darkest corners of our minds, hearts, souls, to the darkest corners of the world, and God is still there. It was God who made us, who made us well, who imagined us before we were conceived in our mother’s womb. In other words, God is with you wherever you go, loving you, seeking to help you become the wonderful person you were intended to be.
And the best thing that ever happened is that Christ became one of us to search our hearts and know our thoughts. Christ saw the evil ways of humanity and took them on to defeat them from within by offering us light for our darkness, life for our death, healing for our sickness, goodness for our sin, heaven for the hell we raise, love for our hate, a welcome homecoming for our estrangement. Christ embodied the truth of this psalm so that the whole earth might know the joy of being fearfully and wonderfully made and precious in God’s sight.
God took a lying thief, Jacob, who stole his brother’s birthright and inheritance by deceiving his blind and aging father and turned him into a leader of God’s people. Jacob ran away from the fury of his older brother Esau, and while he was away, God came to him in a dream and reassured him with the words we will hear in the call to discipleship. God said to Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” If God could create a strong patriarch out of a liar and cheat like Jacob, then just imagine what can God do with you?
So I invite you to trust God anew, through all the circling years of life, trust God’s goodness. In the good times and the bad times, trust the God of your life. Praise God for your past, your present, and your future, and place yourself securely, submissively and obediently in the providential care of the one who knew you long before you were born, who knows you and loves you now, the God who is always with you, who will walk with you through this life into the life to come.