November 22, 2009

Completely Known

Have you ever started out on a journey of some sort that seemed like it was going to be really good only to get a little ways into it and discover that the opposite looked to be the case? The first time my family went to Disney World on vacation we were on the same plane going and coming with a family who was making their second or third trip. My dad got to talking with the dad from the other family and discovered that on their previous trip they had decided to take a break from the heat by riding the Small World ride. You know: the ride that plays the irritating song over and over and over…and over. What started out looking like a brief respite from the heat turned out to be not quite so pleasant. The ride broke down about halfway through and they were stuck for two hours. Now I know that some of you are thinking what a great nap time that could have been; they just got a longer break than first envisioned. Oh, did I neglect to mention that everything broke but the music?

But sometimes, if we stick with the once-promising journey, things will turn out better than we thought. As it happens, while the final path isn.t what we might have chosen on our own, it.s actually better. I suspect that only a very few imagined the American Revolution would be as long or as hard a struggle as it actually was. What began with great promise became in a few months what seemed to be a hopeless debacle. Lives were being lost at an alarming rate and there was no clear end in sight. Yet under the excellent leadership of our Founding Fathers we came through a darker valley than any of those involved on this side of the Atlantic had ever imagined to a glorious freedom on the other side. Now that illustration may only be somewhat helpful to making my point, but we face experiences like that here and now. We don.t have to look back in history for unexpectedly difficult situations. We don.t have to look any further than our own journeys with God. Starting a journey with God is an event primed with hope. New believers are always an excited bunch. Their faith seems as strong as nails and the questions which sometimes dog older believers don.t even seem to faze them. Yet if you have been a follower of Christ long then you know that this youthful excitement does not last. The excitement and newness turns to familiarity and contempt. God doesn.t make everything right as quickly as we were expecting. In fact, we still face and wrestle with many of the same struggles as before. We long for the newness and accompanying lightness again as we slog our way through the trenches.

Now, for those of you who are starting to wonder where I.m going with this and what it could possibly have to do with Psalm 139—which the bulletin tells me we.re talking about this morning—let me tell you: not a single thing…and everything. Psalm 139 begins as one of the most exquisite reflections on God.s knowledge of and care for His children in all of Scripture. It paints a picture of God.s loving care for us like we.ll find nowhere else. In beautifully poetic fashion it teaches us about some of the divine characteristics that make God, God. But then we come to v. 19 and things fall apart. The journey that started with such promise all of a sudden turns up much more difficult than we would have ever imagined. In fact, many folks either ignore the last six verses of the psalm or try and argue that they didn.t really belong to this psalm in the first place. After all, who wants to think about asking God to kill their enemies and proclaiming their hatred for an entire group of people? Let me come to my point, though. What we were talking about just a minute ago has nothing to do with Psalm 139 in the sense that the psalm is actually about the proper response on our part to God.s gloriously complete knowledge of us. On the other hand, it has everything to do with this psalm because as we have just hinted, the journey begins with incredible promise and hope which give way to a drop off into painful misunderstanding. Yet if we stick with it we will find that the path, though challenging, was true and in fact leads us to a better place than when we started. We will find the real meat of this psalm: a call to the only lifestyle that is a proper response to God.s complete knowledge of us. So turn in your Bibles with me to Psalm 139 as we experience a leg of David.s journey of faith and see how he responded to the realization that God knows him more completely than anyone else in the world.

We.ll start our journey with him in the same place he began: at the beginning. This psalm breaks down nicely into four sections with a concluding point. The first three sections each present a different divine attribute of God: omniscience (God is all-knowing), omnipresence (God is present everywhere), and omnipotence (God is all-powerful). But more than this David gives us a picture of God.s pursuance of us. You see, our knowledge of God is awfully important and we should learn about Him every chance we get. But His knowledge of us is something worth reflecting on as well. With this in mind, take a look at the beginning of this masterpiece with me: “Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I stand up; You understand my thoughts from far away. You observe my travels and my rest; You are aware of all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue, You know all about it, Lord. You have encircled me; You have placed Your hand on me. This extraordinary knowledge is beyond me. It is lofty; I am unable to reach it.”

So you see, the Psalm starts out beautifully: God knows us. Now in one sense we all know that God knows us. Many of us have been taught that fact from very early on in our lives. When we put our theological hats on we even know how well God knows us. But I don.t think we often take our theological hats off and think about what this means. David exclaims: “Lord, You have searched me and known me.” We could be excused for reading this and wondering if there was ever a time God didn.t know us. I mean, why would He need to search us? Well, the searching of God here is intended to convey more of a sense an examination. It.s not at all like God can.t find us or doesn.t somehow know us, but instead the picture here is of God looking over our lives to see what He can see. Think of this like an oral defense of a thesis. The examination committee already knows what we are going to argue because they.ve read the paper. If they are doing what they.re supposed to, they know our argument inside and out. They search us to make sure we know what we.re talking about. The idea here is that God knows us completely and totally. He has given us a thorough examination and knows every part of us. Verse one really serves as the heading for the rest of the psalm. How shall we respond to this knowledge is the question. True to fashion, though, David doesn.t answer this question just yet. Instead, he goes on to further describe this incredible knowledge of God.

In the next three verses David makes the point that God.s knowledge of us encompasses every part of our lives. He knows whether we.re standing or sitting: he knows our physical location. As David makes clear a bit later, there.s nowhere we can go that God doesn.t know where we are. Furthermore, God knows our thoughts from far away. This doesn.t mean that God is distant and simply aware of what we.re doing like the unconcerned clockmaker god of the deists, but rather this means that God knows our thoughts before we have them. Going further, His knowledge isn.t limited to where we are, but includes what we.re doing. He.s aware of our travels and our rest. In other words, whether we.re working, traveling, or resting, God is fully abreast of what.s going on. If you notice, this rather poetically fits with the first idea of God knowing our physical location. Finally, completing this pattern of repetition, God knows our words before we speak them. This fits hand in hand with knowing our thoughts before we think them. The point to all this is to drive home the fact that God knows us. And not like I know organic chemistry. Not even like Cecil Bishop knows Rose after fifty years of marriage. This is a knowledge that is fuller and deeper than anything we could ever imagine.

This four part description of God.s knowledge of His people leaves us almost breathless. David really hits the nail on the head when he says in v. 5: “You have encircled me; You have placed Your hand on me.” That might be an understatement for some of us. I mean, to have someone who knows where we are, what we think, what we do, and what we say can feel a bit confining. And for a lot of people, this is smothering and so they try and run from God. For others, though, this depth of knowledge is comforting. As we.ve talked about before at least a couple of times we need to be known. Here we see that we are in fact known. My question is: which is it for you and what do you think that says about you? It.s never too big a deal if Big Brother is watching if you aren.t breaking any laws. Frankly, for me, it kind of blows my mind. Can you even fathom being this well-known? I can.t. I don.t even know myself this well. Sometimes I don.t know what I.m going to say until it comes out of my mouth…which usually gets me in trouble. Seriously though, God.s ability to know us so completely goes way beyond our comprehension. How do we deal with this? How do we respond to this knowledge?

Well, when we come to v. 7 David gives us one response: “Where can I go to escape Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?” In other words, David.s response is: “Get me out of here! I can.t handle this.” Ever have a realization of just how present God is in your life and then tried to get away from Him? We.re like teenagers keeping secrets from their parents just so they have some area of their lives over which they feel like they have some say, some control. To be known this well is a frightening thing for most of us. Well-hidden faults and flaws could become clear. The other person might see all those imperfections we try and keep under wraps and not want us anymore. All of our insecurities become magnified. We might let the other person down in some way, and then all those vulnerabilities will be publicly exposed and used against us. No, it.s much safer to keep everyone at an arm.s length regardless of what it does to our souls. Our false security is always preferable to reality. So David first tries to run. Now, I know some of you are thinking: “That doesn.t sound terribly holy.” And it.s not, it.s honest. You see, the Psalms speak to reality. They aren.t interested in consistently giving us a picture of how things should be (though they do that too sometimes); they spend a lot of time speaking to how things are. And who of you who have been following God long haven.t gone through some experiences that made you wish you could just get away from God for a while?

But you see, there.s this funny thing about God: He.s omnipresent. He.s everywhere at the same time. That.s why we and every other church in the world meeting this morning can say “God is here” and all be right. David finds this in his running. Take a look at the next three verses with me: “If I go up to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there. If I live at the eastern horizon or settle at the western limits, even there Your hand will lead me; Your right hand will hold on to me.” No matter how high or low we go or how far in either direction, God is there. And again, this has the potential to feel like God is smothering us and not giving us our space, but when we look more closely, this isn.t the case. We know that God is in heaven, but God is found even in Sheol. That was the place of the dead for the ancient Jews. David went and laid among those who are dead and still found that God was with him. Putting a bit of an interpretive spin on this and drawing from another of David.s psalms, God is with us when we walk through the valley of the shadow of
death. When we feel like everything around us is crumbling and life itself doesn.t make any sense any longer, God is still there. Furthermore, no matter how far we go in either direction, God will be at hand. When we run East or West we are generally running from something. But with God we will only find that we are running to Him. Even when we feel like we are as far from God as we possibly can be, He will still be there with us every step of the way.

This is, in fact, the very next thing David says: “If I say, „Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light around me will become night.—even the darkness is not dark to You. The night shines like the day; darkness and light are alike to You.” Let.s be as honest as this psalm: there are times in our lives that we try and hide from God in the darkness. There are times when we go to places we are as sure as the world that God is not. And yet, as David so clearly proclaims: “even the darkness is not dark to You.” Now, we just heard from David last week about the fact that sin separates us from God, so how can David talk about God being there in the darkness? Because God is everywhere. He may not be able to be with us in the sense of being in our hearts, or more importantly in the sense of our being in His presence, but He is there all the same. That often guilt-inducing line about Jesus being there with us when we sin, though not intended to invoke guilt, is true nonetheless. He.s there because He loves us that much and wants to help us out of whatever the situation is back on the path of righteousness. He.s there because He.s crazy about us like we can.t even really imagine. Parents know this feeling. We go with our kids through hell and back at the very least in spirit because we love them that much; because we made them and have a vested interest in seeing them succeed in every way. The same is true with God.

For the third section of the Psalm, David goes one step further in describing how complete God.s knowledge of us is. Listen to these beloved verses starting in v. 13: “For it was You who created my inward parts. You knit me together in my mother.s womb.” As an aside, while this may not be an explicit pronouncement against abortion, it does speak to the fact that God is involved from awfully early on in the process of our creation. If we are going to mess with something God is doing, we.d better have an awfully good reason for doing so. “I will praise You, because I have been remarkably and wonderfully made.” Now, the actual Hebrew of this verse doesn.t make a lot of sense to translators and so they have to make some very educated guesses as to what is being said. Another option is that David is praising God because He is remarkable and wonderful. “Your works are wonderful, and I know this very well. My bones were not hidden from You when I was made in secret, when I was formed in the depths of the earth [that.s the womb]. Your eyes saw me when I was formless; all my days were written in Your book and planned before a single one of them began.” David has made clear that God is omniscient and omnipresent. Here he brings in the third omni: omnipotent. God is all-powerful. Staying with the theme of the psalm to demonstrate this, David reveals that God was involved in every step of our creation. No part of it was left to chance. Generally speaking, the more delicate an operation is, the more powerful the operator must be. I can think of few things more delicate than the new life forming in a mother.s womb. For David, that God was involved in every step of that process is a clear demonstration of His power. Furthermore, it is also another demonstration of His knowledge. If you want to know all the details about something, go talk to the engineer who designed and built it. As far as we are concerned, God is our engineer. All of this leads to another exclamation of praise from David in v. 17: “God, how difficult Your thoughts are for me to comprehend; how vast their sum is! If I counted them, they would outnumber the grains of sand; when I wake up [or when I am at an end…when I die], I am still with You.” After reflecting for this long on God.s incredible knowledge, David is left awestruck. Are you not also? The question we must answer in light of all of this is: how should we respond? How should we respond to God.s complete knowledge of us?

Before we get there we have to face the really tough stuff. Verses 19-22 are famously difficult to deal with. We.ve gotten pretty far into this psalm and things have seemed great…until now. All of a sudden the path takes a much more difficult turn. Yet if we stick with it, we will find that our answer is not nearly so hard to reach as it initially seemed. Rather than get caught up with trying to puzzle out what David means here and how they relate to the rest of the passage, thereby forgetting that they weren.t difficult when first written, let.s look at them in context. First hear them: “God, if only You would kill the wicked—you bloodthirsty men, stay away from me—who invoke You deceitfully. Your enemies swear by You falsely. Lord, don.t I hate those who hate You, and detest those who rebel against You? I hate them with extreme hatred; I consider them my enemies.” The first question many people will ask in response to these verses is: didn.t Jesus tell us to love our enemies? Absolutely He did. But if you look closely, David is not talking about his enemies here. He.s talking about God.s. Other than emotionally and relationally rejecting these people, David does not profess to do anything about them himself. Instead, in a show of faithfulness, he asks God to do away with His own enemies. These four verses are often a shock to modern sensibilities because they don.t fit the mold we.ve created for God as only loving. There is a big problem with this: The character of God revealed in the Bible is loving, but also just. The Bible speaks of God.s wrath against those who oppose Him as much as it does of His love for those who are for Him. The former doesn.t feel as good to us, but that doesn.t make it any less true. And in a culture where we are fed messages both subliminal and overtly that men like Nidal Hassan are innocent victims can we be surprised that so many have trouble with the thought of God opposing anyone?

At their core, however, these verses are not about expressing hope that God.s enemies all get what.s coming to them; they are about David responding to his understanding of God.s complete knowledge of him. David.s response is one of faith. It.s easy to support the friends of a friend. Such a display offers no real test of friendship. Instead, friendship and loyalty are tested when it comes time to stand against the enemies of a friend. Let.s be more concrete. Offering our support to a missionary family like the Georges that loves God and is dedicated to the same ends we are is easy. It feels good and makes everybody happy. We need only give lip service to a relationship with God to do that. It.s an entirely different matter to actively oppose those who are opposing the things of God. You see, to take such a stance naturally brings with it risks and dangers because there is a whole world out there opposed to God. Yet such a stand is the best and only response when we understand how deep and encompassing God.s knowledge of us is. Let us faithfully follow our leader who knows us completely.

In the final estimation though, standing against the enemies of God as a display of faithfulness isn.t the first or even the main thing He wants from us. Simply put: He wants us. Let us faithfully follow our leader who knows us completely. And this is David.s offering as the close of the psalm: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my concerns. See if there is any offensive way in me; lead me in the everlasting way.” Whereas he began this reflection on the proper response to God.s divine characteristics with a declaration that God had searched and known him, David finishes by asking God to do this. But why would he do this? Why ask for something he.s already declared to have happened? Think about where we.ve come. God.s knowledge of us is deeper and more complete than we could possibly imagine. But this isn.t because God wants to try and smother us. It.s because He loves us that much and in His love for us is pursuing us with a near reckless abandon. He.s been pursuing us from the very beginning. Just like if you follow a sports team or a soap opera or a series of books closely for long you know all about them, God has been following us from second one. God knows us and is calling us to follow Him. But being known does us no good if we don.t heed His call. Acknowledging the truth—which David does in the first verse of the psalm—does us no good if we don.t give our lives to it. This is how vv. 19-22 make sense: David is boldly responding to God.s knowledge by affirming his intention to be faithful to God and only Him. Let us faithfully follow our leader who knows us completely. David affirms his intention to be faithful and asks God to come and lead him. This is the call to us as well. God knows you just as intimately as He knows David. How will you respond? Will you try and run in order to hide from God or will you open yourself to God for Him to lead you to life? The road will go from smooth to steep and narrow. The journey that began with promise will turn much more difficult than we could ever possibly expect. But it is the journey to life and the difficulties we encounter along the way won.t change that fact. If we persevere life will indeed be our reward. Let us faithfully follow our leader who knows us completely. Nothing else makes sense.