Note: The psalm for this sermon was chosen by Eric Valentine and Sondra Rosholt as their favorite.
Scriptures: Psalm 139
How do you respond, how do you feel, when you hear these words of the psalmist? I think for some, the words seem heavy with that overwhelming, always there whether we like it or not, presence of God. God’s unyielding presence is seen and felt as claustrophobic and even threatening. God is everywhere! I can’t hide! I can’t escape! If I lock myself in the bathroom for a moment, you are there! God, don’t you know I have a right to my privacy! Don’t you know that my privacy is part of the Bill of Rights forged by the founding fathers of this country? Leave me alone, even if it is just for one minute!
It is easy to go down that path, especially if we speak only of divine omnipresence or divine omniscience, the doctrine that God knows everything and that God is everywhere. It is difficult not to go to these concepts of trying to describe and define God. How do we talk about God’s presence in our lives?
But that is where the danger lies. When we take an overwhelming religious experience and make it into an abstract, philosophical and theological statement, we lose something important. Definitions about God can be accepted and rejected, defined, redefined, and replaced. When God becomes a concept, God can be rejected. It makes God into an object of study instead of a living presence experienced in scripture. God becomes an abstract idea instead of the living God of history and of our lives. God becomes an electric power field flowing around us instead of a creator who is intimately involved with his creation.
That’s how the psalmist understands God’s overwhelming, always-present presence. He probably hasn’t even though of it in theological terms, since God is relational and not a concept to be defined. God isn’t an abstract notion, but encountered and experienced before we take our first breath and long after we take our last. Only because God is universally present, ultimately powerful, and all-knowing does the psalmist have such a profound sense of an immediate and personal relationship with God. Because God is at the farthest reaches of the universe and in the most secret depths of the human heart, God is the constant companion, who cannot be escaped, fooled, or ignored. “You hem me in, behind and before me, and lay your hand upon me.”
Now, I can see where the opening line might cause some to push back against God’s constant presence. It speaks of judgment. The line “O Lord you have searched me and known me” reveals that judgment is part of God’s intimacy with us. Instead of seeing that intimate judgment as something to be feared, though, the psalmist sees it as something to be praised. In the psalm we experience trust and not fear, honor and not guilt, grace and not condemnation as God’s personal relationship with the individual is intertwined with his absolute and accurate judgment. The psalmist reflects on his utter dependence upon God and finds it comforting as well as demanding. God did all the knitting and weaving that made us who we are before we ever came to an understanding of self. God’s personal care and knowledge of each and every one of us can even make a parent’s familiarity and nurture of their children seem distant. God is closer than close.
God’s loving involvement and God’s participation in the psalmist’s life includes the end of his days as well as his beginning. God has spelled it all out to the smallest detail. Nothing can befall him that is not included in God’s loving providence. In a similar fashion, the psalmist writes, “I come to the end”—whether the conclusion of endless reflection of God’s goodness or of his own life—“I am still with you.” The psalmist trusts that no extremity, whatever it is, can separate him from the loving presence of God. Wherever he goes, whatever becomes of him, God is there. Now note that the psalmist never says that God caused the sickness and heartbreak that he experienced in his life, just that God’s loving presence was with him in every moment, good or bad. This trust that God is always there is echoed in Paul’s words to the church in Rome, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, not things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, not anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”God is transcendent enough to overcome any earthly power, immanent enough to be present in the midst of whatever happens, and gracious enough to care about the destiny of each of God’s creatures.
This psalm is a beautiful meditation on God’s presence in our lives, and in it, the psalmist captures the fundamental message of the gospel. But, then we hit those few verses about hate and loathing, we may wonder what in the world to do with them. Sondra even shared that she felt they should be in a different Psalm. In fact, when this psalm comes up in the lectionary, it skips right over verses 19-22, “O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart me—those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with a perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.” These lines go against our sensibilities. In the midst of praying this psalm that deeply connects God to us, we may feel that it is inappropriate to pray this way.
Nevertheless, the prayer is for God to deal with wickedness and sinfulness—in other people and as well as in the heart of the psalmist, that is part of this psalm, “Search me and know me.” This prayer is a reminder that God’s divine knowing of human beings does not eliminate human responsibility for obedience to God’s will. Because God is intimately a part of our lives doesn’t get us a “get out of jail free card.” For some, they turn and try and flee God’s presence, living life on their own and attempting to be free. For others, knowing God is closer than our next heartbeat leaves them in awe and wanting to live into God’s will. God’s closeness leads to both judgment and direction of our paths, if we embrace that close relationship.
Friends, this psalm is loaded with good news. First and foremost, God is with us no matter what we do or where we go. There is no escape, and that is a good thing. In the midst of tragedy or joy, God’s loving, reconciling presence is with us. God isn’t ever present with us to find every flaw in our lives to use against us, but God is for us, a constant companion to guide and lead us into the freedom of his righteousness. But this psalm also frees us to see each other, to see each and every human being we meet, as loved by God. These words not only lift us up, but they lift every person up to experience God’s loving presence and salvation. Because of the gift of this psalm, we can say of everyone we meet, “God is with them.”
I’d like to close with a poem that has been adapted from a portion of this psalm from by George Cuff. Yes, he avoids the section about the killing the wicked, but he does capture the heart of God’s presence with him and creation.
O Lord, You know all about me;
With You there is no surprise.
My daily plans and activities
Are known before I arise.
I am surrounded by your care,
Hemmed in before and behind.
What a tremendous love affair
You have with all mankind.
There is no place that I could go
Where You would not be there too.
A glorious comfort it is to know
That You will carry me through.
When trials of darkness blot out my faith,
They are not dark to You.
For there is nothing that can displace
The comfort You imbue.
I am a miracle of Your creation
Placed in my mother’s womb,
A member of a new generation
Ordained and prepared by You.
My frame was not hidden when I was made;
Your eyes saw all I could be.
All my days You clearly ordained
So I could come to Thee.
I am amazed You think about me,
Millions of times each day.
O that everyone could read
Or hear these words I say.
I cannot comprehend this love
Bestowed on fallen creation.
I praise You for leaving heaven above
To purchase my salvation.