Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, July 23, 2017
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Psalm 139 begins with the awareness that none of our secrets are hidden from God. “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.” Initially, at least, that is a scary thought, because the Lord Yahweh is the one who will judge us. Hebrews 4:13 underlines that thought:
Before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render account.
When we have to give account for our behavior, we hope the authority figure doesn’t know everything. When my mother called me by my full name with a hairbrush in her hand, I hoped she didn’t actually know what I did. If we get a call from the IRS, we hope they don’t really know everything about us and what receipts I might not actually have. Certain people are hoping that Robert Mueller doesn’t know everything they said and did.
God is the one who actually does know. God knows more than Google. Many people are worried today about other people knowing too much about their business. Some say that with the internet collecting data on us, privacy is no longer “a thing.” Yesterday I used a Square chip reader for the first time at the auction; I was surprised that when you put your card in the slot, the little machine knew your email and automatically sent you a receipt. Someday that credit card chip may tell the merchant to raise or lower the price depending on how much you make and what you usually buy. Besides that, we fear the government knowing everything about us. That was the issue for Edward Snowden and for George Orwell in 1984.
A counselor who has been working on Block Island for many years told me that he thought the number one mental health issue for islanders is the lack of privacy. You have the sense that everyone knows everything about you, whether it’s true or not. You live with that fear.
But with God, the psalm says, it’s really true. God, I give up, the prayer goes. You know when I sit down and when I stand up. You know my thoughts. You know when I leave the house and when I go to bed. You know what I’m going to say before I say it. You hem me in. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to know that way, he says; I can’t even know myself that way.
On the other hand, we have a deep hunger to be known. “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen; nobody knows but Jesus.” Most humans come to feel that there is this wall of flesh between us and any other human being, that there are things in our hearts and minds that cannot be communicated to another person. A singing duo I like who call themselves the Weepies who have a song that says:
When I was a child everybody smiled,
nobody knows me at all.
Very late at night and in the morning light,
nobody knows me at all.
I got lots of friends, yes, but then again,
nobody knows me at all.
Kids and a wife, it’s a beautiful life,
nobody knows me at all.
Hey, I want you to know me. That’s part of why I gave a poetry reading last Tuesday, hoping to be known. But all I have are words. It’s so hard for you to understand my history, the cultures that shaped me, my genetic predispositions, traumatic experiences, deepest joys. After 39 years, Becca knows a lot about me, and I know a lot about her, but we do not know each other completely, as much as part of us has merged. Heck, I don’t even know myself completely.
That’s the great thing about prayer, just soaking in God’s presence. You don’t have to explain things to God. You just let down the barriers and admit to yourself that God already knows all that you would prefer to hide. It’s unnerving to face that reality. A stranger from an AA meeting came up to Becca as she was working yesterday in the Fellowship Hall and told her, “You can’t play God. You can fake it with other people, but God knows you. You can’t pretend. God knows the difference.” At the same time, it is deeply comforting to know that you can only be real with somebody, and that you are fully known. One of the first women psychoanalysts, Karen Horney, asked the question, “Why is it so unutterably beneficial, the thought that someone besides myself knows me?” I would tell her that it is the salve to the human condition of loneliness. Those are the two sides of Psalm 139: I am afraid for my failures to be known to others, but I am tired of being so alone. I want to know that someone in this universe understands me.
The first response of the person aware of sin is to hide from God. Adam realizes suddenly that he is naked, and he hides from God because he is afraid of God’s judgment. The true prophet Jeremiah gave an oracle to the false government-sponsored prophets of his day, with Yahweh asking, “Am I only a God nearby and not a God far away? Who can hide in secret places that I cannot see them?” The psalmist wants to escape God. Where can I go to get away from you? he asks. He knows that he is not the only one asking this question.
The theologian Paul Tillich had a wonderful sermon on this Psalm published in 1948. He said, “It is safe to say that a man who has never tried to flee God has never experienced a God Who is really God”—not a god of our own making, with whom we can live comfortably because he is an extension of our own values. Not the universe or nature, of which we are a part. Not a god who is no more than a benevolent father patting us on the back. But the real God. Tillich quotes Nietzsche, who in his myth has the spiritually advanced being Zarathustra confront the man who murdered God, saying,
You could not bear him to see you,
always to see you through and through…
You took revenge on the witness.
You can stand to be known so completely? This is why people try to “kill” God by becoming atheists, Tillich says.
And yet, the psalmist understands eventually that the one he is running away from is the one whose right hand is guiding him and holding on to him, keeping him from falling. He understands, as Tillich puts it, that “the eyes of the Witness we cannot stand are also the eyes of the One of infinite wisdom and supporting benevolence.” The one who sees us is the source of the gracious beauty we see in the created world, and the one who shows himself as pure compassion on the cross. So at the end of the poem, the psalmist asks God to do what God has been doing relentlessly already—searching him and knowing him. This line touches me: “Know my anxious thoughts.” Ferret out my fears. Reveal them to me. Show me what there is in me that offends you and lead me in the right way that lasts forever.
God’s knowledge of us and his pursuit of us are signs of his love. We want to run away, but God insists on following us. God is like the mother in the classic children’s book The Runaway Bunny (by Margaret Wise Brown), which has not been out of print since it came out in 1942. Let me tell you that story.
Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away.
So he said to his mother, “I am running away.”
“If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you.
For you are my little bunny.”
“If you run after me,” said the little bunny,
“I will become a fish in a trout stream
and I will swim away from you.”
“If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother,
“I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”
“If you become a fisherman,” said the little bunny,
“I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you.”
“If you become a rock on the mountain high above me,”
said his mother, “I will become a mountain climber,
and I will climb to where you are.”
“If you become a mountain climber,”
said the little bunny,
“I will be a crocus in a hidden garden.”
“If you become a crocus in a hidden garden,”
said his mother, “I will be a gardener. And I will find you.”
“If you are a gardener and find me,”
said the little bunny, “I will be a bird
and fly away from you.”
“If you become a bird and fly away from me,”
said his mother, “I will be a tree that you come home to.”
“If you become a tree,” said the little bunny,
“I will become a little sailboat,
and I will sail away from you.”
“If you become a sailboat and sail away from me,”
said his mother, “I will become the wind
and blow you where I want you to go.”
“If you become the wind and blow me,” said the little bunny,
“I will join a circus and fly away on a flying trapeze.”
“If you go flying on a flying trapeze,” said his mother,
“I will be a tightrope walker,
and I will walk across the air to you.”
“If you become a tightrope walker and walk across the air,”
said the bunny, “I will become a little boy
and run into a house.”
“If you become a little boy and run into a house,”
said the mother bunny, “I will become your mother
and catch you in my arms and hug you.”
“Shucks,” said the bunny, “I might just as well
stay where I am and be your little bunny.”
And so he did.
“Have a carrot,” said the mother bunny.