Tuesday, September 11, 2007

God Knows

I preached this sermon based on Psalm 139 on September 9, 2007.

Well, whaddya know? Truth be told, it is very little.

When babies are born, they don’t know how to do much. They cry. They eat. They sleep. Learning begins immediately as the baby learns the smell of his or her mother, the shape of the face of a caregiver, and how to eat from a bottle or breast. Learning starts and it does not stop. Through the basic milestones we go: first smile, first time rolling over, first time sitting up, first tasting of solid food, first tooth, first time standing, and first time walking. First word, first two-word sentence, first temper tantrum: all learned responses. The baby sees our eagerness for them to respond, and he or she quickly learns to make mom or dad happy.

But no one learns everything there is to know. Scientists say that we use only about 10% of our brains. Maybe it is a little more for some and a little less for others. But all of our knowledge is not a lot in the grand scheme of things.

Today, we are surrounded by knowledge. The internet has made finding answers so easy. If you did research even fifteen years ago, it might have meant hours spent in a library, chasing false leads, flipping through microfiche (like I remember doing in high school). If you wondered, “Now, what was the name of that movie—you know, the one with the guy and the girl and they go to that place?”—it might have taken days for you to remember or find someone who could refresh your memory. Now, you can google it. Answers are found at the click of the mouse. Sometimes it is helpful—being able to check medical symptoms, figuring out a substitute for an ingredient you don’t have on hand, communicating with friends across the world. Sometimes the internet isn’t so helpful—addiction to certain internet activities, chatting with people who are dangerous, being inundated with annoying pop-ups. It takes a bit of knowledge to navigate the information superhighway, after all.

But all this information, the potential knowledge, is never fully learned by a single person. Remember: we only use 10% of our brain. Most things in this world are things that you will never learn. All of our knowledge is like a drop of water in the ocean.

So, let us think about what you do know.

Think about the people you know. Maybe it is a mother, a sister, a child. Maybe it is a spouse. Maybe it is a close friend. Think about what you know about that person. Maybe it is a lot. Maybe there is not so much.

Think about other people you meet: acquaintances, the person bagging your groceries, the driver passing you impatiently as you travel down the highway. You do not know a lot about that person.

Think about the people you see when you go to an event at a stadium. How many hundreds or thousands of people there are, and you don’t even know a single soul.

Think about the people you see on television. When you watch the news and see people on the roofs of their flooded homes, or people lined up for food in a refugee camp in a war-torn area.

The fact is no matter how much you claim to know, it isn’t much. You are not meant to know every one of the 6.6 billion people on this planet.

But God knows.

God knows every facet of every person alive: every thought, every action, every cell function, and every breath. Even the billions who have died—God knows their entire lives. And it is not anything that we can ever get our head around. God defies our logic. If you hear someone breaking the third commandment and saying “God knows” to sarcastically answer a question, at least you know it is the right answer.

The psalmist who wrote the 139th Psalm found a great wonder in the knowledge of God. In ancient Israel, religion was a corporate event. Worship was in a group: in a temple, synagogue, or family. Religion was contained in a society that had rules to keep the community in line with the law. It was about living in God’s community—the entire Old Testament is about that theme—except for one part. The Psalms.

From the Eugene Peterson’s biblical paraphrase, The Message, our passages in Psalm 139 read:

1-6 God, investigate my life; get all the facts firsthand.
I'm an open book to you;
even from a distance, you know what I'm thinking.
You know when I leave and when I get back;
I'm never out of your sight.
You know everything I'm going to say
before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and you're there,
then up ahead and you're there, too—
your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful—
I can't take it all in!

13-16 Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;
you formed me in my mother's womb.
I thank you, High God—you're breathtaking!
Body and soul, I am marvelously made!
I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out,
you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth;
all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared
before I'd even lived one day.
17-18 Your thoughts—how rare, how beautiful!
God, I'll never comprehend them!
I couldn't even begin to count them—
any more than I could count the sand of the sea.
Oh, let me rise in the morning and live always with you!

God knows each one of us. But how well do we know the presence of God?

The lectionary texts repeat every three years. So six years ago today, many churches heard the words of Psalm 139. How wonderful to acknowledge that God knows us! And then Tuesday came, and you know where you were on 9/11. The God who knows us also knows the aches of our heart.

Many times in life, God seems far away. As ones who hunger to feel important and understood, there are times when isolation and despair are present in our lives. Times of war, Katrina, Darfur—we question where God can be. In our own dysfunctional families, our illnesses, our depression—those make us question, too. We have our doubts, our anger, our disillusion—it is not necessary to hide any of our feelings from God because God knows our thoughts. And yet, God is there, all around us, as our comforter and protector. Maybe we can recite the prayers and teachings of our childhood and hold to some small belief that God just may be somewhere. But when prayers become more than words and belief becomes more than doctrine, that is where we encounter God. Sounds a little like faith, doesn’t it?

St. Patrick discovered the presence of God as a young man. As a boy, Patrick was not a particularly observant Christian, but he heard the teachings of his church and his devout parents. At age 16, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish slave traders and forced to work as a shepherd. Life was difficult for Patrick, but he remembered the prayers of his childhood. And the words led him to realize that God was with him. Patrick eventually escaped and reached his home again. But he had a vision that his Irish captors were calling him back, and Patrick went to Ireland as one of God’s reconcilers.

St. Patrick wrote a prayer, and it acknowledges the all-pervading presence of Christ. Part of it reads:

Christ beside me, Christ before me;

Christ behind me, Christ within me;

Christ beneath me, Christ above me;

Christ to right of me, Christ to left of me;

Christ in my lying, my sitting, my rising;

Christ in heart of all who know me,

Christ on tongue of all who meet me,

Christ in eye of all who see me,

Christ in ear of all who hear me.

The Celtic Christianity in which St. Patrick was a part recognizes that God’s presence is in our lives. The understanding of the Incarnation—the embodiment of God in Christ—is a central theme of Celtic Christianity. After all, Jesus is Immanuel—God who is with us. The Incarnation is difficult for us to understand. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis bluntly said, “The Eternal Being who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man, but (before that) a baby, and before that a fetus inside a woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.”

God came into this world with staggering humility and self-emptying poverty. Kristen Johnson Ingram puts it this way:

If Christ showed up in his true form, everyone would probably fall down as though dead. Who could see such a sight and live? Who could see God’s Son in his glory and then go to the market to buy…dinner, or take the clothes off the line, or balance a checkbook? We would faint with awe and be afraid forever to open our eyes.[1]

After all, this is the God who knows us. Truthfully, I am more than a little afraid to approach a God who knows everything about me. There are things that I would like to hide. It is embarrassing to admit that God knows my sins, and yet nothing is hidden from the God who knows. Think about the secrets in your soul—you know what I am talking about, don’t you?

The world doesn’t want a God who knows. So God came as a baby—a baby who knew little. The baby cried to let his mother know what he wanted. The baby cooed. The baby rolled over. The baby got his first tooth. The baby learned to speak.

The baby grew into a toddler. The toddler grew into a boy. The boy followed his mother around as she prepared meals, visited friends, carried water. The boy followed his dad around as he worked on his projects—observing as children instinctively do.

The boy’s mother and father knew who he was. Others discovered it, too, starting with Simeon and Anna in the temple when this boy was just days old.

The boy was different. He was teaching in the temple at age 12—doing his Father’s business, or so he said. As a man, this Jesus was baptized and called out disciples. He went around healing the sick, casting out demons, loving people. And in John 10:30, this man, the former baby held in Mary’s arms, says that he and God are one. If that is true, Jesus could see into the hearts of the people around him. And suddenly, things are different. We don’t want to be known like that—the Jews didn’t. After hearing that statement, they took up stones to stone Jesus. They said it was because Jesus was blaspheming God, but maybe they got frightened by all that an Incarnation of God would know. We don’t want a man to say that he is God. You see, God knows. We have things in our lives that we don’t want to be made known. I don’t want you to look at my face, at my heart. This man will have to go. And he did go…to the cross.

Psalm 139 is a psalm of challenge and decision. Our mission, if we choose to accept it, is to decide whether or not we will open our lives up to God’s searching and knowing. Knowing, as depicted in this Psalm, is not about logic and reason; it is about knowing through relationships. And because we have been called to live in relationship with one another, it means opening up our lives to those around us—to feel vulnerable. It is not about knowing someone’s favorite food, the kind of music they like, or where they work—it is about truly getting to know one another: the dreams, the hopes, the fears, the longings, the struggles. God has given us our relationships and the possibility of knowing other people as a sign of the God who knows. After all, it is not enough to put the words of Psalm 139 in our heart: we must choose to do something with them in our own lives.

Maybe it is getting to know someone that you see every day but never speak to. Maybe it is acknowledging the service workers who work behind the scenes: the garbage collectors, the bagboy, and the janitors. Maybe it is getting to know the members of your family better, allowing older generations and younger generations to really sit and talk and begin to understand one another a little better. Maybe it is reconciling a hurt relationship that has been broken through misunderstanding. Maybe it is letting a church realize that we are a community of believers, and we have an impact on our community. Maybe we need to acknowledge that we need God in our lives, acknowledging God’s presence and seeking forgiveness. Whatever the Holy Spirit is leading you to do, make a commitment to know and be known.

Let us pray.

God, how wonderful that you know us that you seek to protect us and comfort us. How frightening it is to realize that you know our sins and failings, too. Help us to realize that you understand and care for us and that you desire a relationship with us regardless of the state of our soul. Amen.

[1] Ingram in “The Gamble” in Weavings Vol. 18, No. 6, Nov/Dec 2003.