Known and loved

Good morning, Friends!

For the last couple of months, our Wednesday night Bible study spent some time on the Psalms in the Old Testament – those ancient poems and songs of praise which have come down to us.

Many people don’t know the Psalms very well. But the Psalms contain some of the deepest thoughts and the most spiritual experiences of the Bible.

Last week we looked at Psalm 19, which talked about how we know that God exists. Today we’re going to look at Psalm 139, which talks about how God is everywhere and sees everything.

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

How precious to me are your thoughts,[a] God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you.

Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

– Psalm 139

I really love the Psalms. All during the year, when I prepare for worship, I mostly concentrate on the life and teachings of Jesus. But when I’m praying by myself, when I need some personal devotional time, or when I’m hurting, I usually turn to the Psalms.

That’s in keeping with thousands of years of Jewish and Christian tradition. The Psalms are such an incredible resource for prayer.

We all like Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd. . .”
We often remember Psalm 19, “The heavens are telling the glory of God. . .”
When things are going wrong, we turn to Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. . .”

But Psalm 139, the one we read this morning, is one of the most important.

Do you use a yellow highlighter when you read your Bible? It’s OK, I do it all the time, and, I mark the verses that stand out to me. Most books in the Bible it’s a verse here, a verse there, 2 or 3 key phrases on a page or in a chapter. With Psalm 139, I’ve marked the whole thing.

The basic message of Psalm 139 is that God sees everything. That’s what God does all the time. God knows us inside and out, the good stuff and the stuff we’re not so proud of.

One of the biggest challenges in our spiritual lives, is that most of us are unwilling to let God see everything inside of us. We try to protect huge areas of our selves and keep those areas closed to inspection. We have emotions and experiences, we have ideas, we have behaviors, which we try to keep to ourselves.

Psalm 139 says that’s impossible. It’s not because God is prying into our secret lives. Psalm 139 simply says that no matter what we do, that God sees everything. It’s just the way God is.

So the big change in our understanding, and it changes our whole relationship to God, is that we don’t “let” God into our lives. We realize and admit and embrace the reality that God always sees and knows everything about us.

“You search me and know me; you know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar; even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord you know it completely. . .”

That’s the reality. And a lot of the time, we pretend otherwise. We pretend that our fears and our doubts are hidden from God. We pretend that our anger and our laziness are hidden.

We pretend that God doesn’t see, and we pretend that everyone else doesn’t see. We pretend that our closest friends and our family don’t see. We even pretend that we ourselves don’t see – we even try to fool ourselves.

Do you all remember the story of the Emperor’s new clothes? This king was so proud of the fine clothes he thought he had. In reality, he was buck naked, and everybody pretended that he wasn’t. That’s us!

Or do you remember the story of Adam and Eve, walking around there in the garden of Eden, acting as if God doesn’t know they’ve done something wrong.

And do you remember the story of Cain and Abel. Cain kills his brother because he’s angry and jealous. The next day, God asks, “Where’s your brother?” and Cain says, “What brother?” as if he thinks God doesn’t already know what’s happened.

We’ve got story after story in the Bible of people who ran from God, or who hid from God, who pretended that God didn’t see what they were doing. The prophets say that sometimes whole nations try to hide and lie and pretend.

But the reality is, that God sees and knows. God hears and feels. It’s just the way God is.

Really absorbing that understanding, really taking it to heart and knowing that it applies to absolutely everything, knowing that’s reality, is one of the most basic discoveries of the spiritual life.

The other reality is that God doesn’t just know us. God also loves us. God loves us, even when we’re not aware of it. God loves us to the same extent that God knows us, to a level and to a depth we can hardly imagine.

Again, let me read from Psalm 139: “If was you who formed my inmost self; it was you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am awesomely, wondrously made. . .You know me through and through. You watched my bones take shape when I was being made in secret. . .In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them yet existed. . .”

Those two realizations – that we are known, and that we are loved – completely change our entire view of reality. Any time we forget either one of those, we’re forgetting something terribly important.

God doesn’t always like us. God certainly doesn’t always like what human beings do. A lot of the time, God is really unhappy with all of the wrongdoing, the foolishness and arrogance and selfishness of human beings. God is very clear that there are terrible consequences when we fail in our responsibility as stewards, as neighbors, as employers, as families, as witnesses, or as peacemakers.

But there is also no question that God loves us. God loves us, the way mothers and fathers love their children. God loves us the way a faithful spouse or a passionate lover cares about the one they love.

Psalm 139 says that there is no place we can go, where we can get away from the knowledge and love of God. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the place of death, you are there.”

Here’s one of the most beautiful images in the whole Bible: “If I take the wings of the morning, and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there – even there. . .”

You all know I like to compare translations, and see what’s going on in different ones. That last phrase has something important happening. Your pew Bible has it in the simple future tense – “even there your hand will guide me. . .

The Jewish translation is even stronger – it’s in the future progressive tense, if you remember your grammar from high school. It says, “If I take the wings of the morning, and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall be leading me, and your right hand shall be holding me fast. . .”

God isn’t just on the sidelines, like a spectator. It says that God is actively in our future. God will be there, leading us, holding us. God will be down there, in the scrimmage, going to the boards with us. God has been with us, is now with us, and will always be actively involved with us, with knowledge and with love.

I said before that the psalms are one of our greatest resources for prayer. Simply reading the psalms, and especially ones like Psalm 139, is a good way to pray. The words and the images and the poetry enter into our souls. And that’s good!

But today’s reading also says something important about prayer. Prayer isn’t telling God something which God doesn’t already know. God already knows what’s in our hearts. As Psalm 139 says, “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. . .”

Prayer is about digging deep inside ourselves. Prayer is about bringing deep things to the surface. Remember what I said earlier, about how we often hide things from each other, and even try to hide things from ourselves? A lot of the time prayer is taking what’s hidden, or what isn’t admitted, what’s unconscious, and bringing it up to the surface, into the light of God’s complete knowledge and love.

In one of the epistles in the New Testament, Paul says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how or what to pray. The Spirit prays for us, with sighs too deep for words. And God searches our hearts, and understands the Spirit, as the Spirit prays for God’s people. . .” (Romans 8:26-27)

Prayer is feeling. Prayer is celebrating, and giving thanks. Sometimes prayers ask for help. But always, prayer is built on the understanding that God knows us, and that God loves us.

Sometimes people tell me that praying seems like a kind of a denial of reality, a denial of what really is. They say that prayer is pretending that God really can make a difference, that what’s going on really isn’t happening.

But prayer isn’t denial. Good prayer always moves us from denial to reality. It’s moving to a reality which includes the love and knowledge and power and all of the awesome resources of God.

Prayer is always about truth. Prayer is about acknowledging and admitting what really is. But prayer is also about drawing a circle that’s larger than ourselves. It’s about drawing a circle that includes God. It’s usually a much bigger circle than the one we started with, before we started to pray.

One of the things that Psalm 139 says, so clearly, is that God sees through us. God sees through all of the darkness and hiddenness of our lives.

“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me will become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness and light are the same to you. . .”

A lot of destructive behaviors are built around darkness and hiding and pretending. Addiction and alcoholism are very complicated behaviors, and I won’t try to over-simplify them.

But part of what’s going on with addiction and alcoholism, is that they’re trying to drown or to bury or deny feelings of loneliness or emptiness or depression or anger. And God sees through it all. God sees the truth of our lives, even if there doesn’t seem to be very much good left. And yet God loves us. When we’re willing to admit the truth, God helps us to rebuild.

The closing section of Psalm 139 is very humbling. “God, how hard it is to grasp your thoughts! How impossible to count them all! I can no more count them than the grains of sand. . .” Think about the times you’ve sat at the beach and built sand castles. How many grains of sand were there? Who could ever count them? And yet God is greater still. It’s hard to realize.

I read and re-read Psalm 139, and I let the words and ideas and the images and the poetry sink into my soul. I could spend a lifetime trying to figure all this out. But the basic lesson is always the same.

God knows us, and loves us. “I come to my end – but I am still with you. . .”

Let’s take all this into worship together, and respond to it as we feel led.

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