I've decided for this
epiphany season, the season between Christmas and Lent, to do something
I've never done before -- to preach through the Psalms that have been
set as the lectionary for the Sunday's of epiphany.
So we'll be looking
at each of these Psalms, the first of which is Psalm 139, of which we
have already read the first 12 verses for our call to worship this
To the leader. Of
David. A Psalm.
1O Lord, you have
searched me and known me.
2You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it
5You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover
and the light around me become night’,
12even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
So I won't repeat those, but I will
continue at verse 13 through 18, after we have heard of God's presence
that is with us from the heights of heaven to the depths of Sheol (sort
of equivalent, not quite, to the notion of Hell), in other words there's
no place we can go where God can't be there. The next section just
parallels that, only speaks of God more in terms of the time of our
life. So listen to God's presence throughout our life:
it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14I praise you, for I am fearfully and
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18I try to count them—they are more than the
I come to the end—I am still with you.
This is what I would
consider a 'feel good' Psalm. It's very personal -- the personal
pronoun "I", "me", or "my" occurs 43 times
in this Psalm. So it's about us and our relationship with God,
although that's not quite accurate. It's really about me.
Because, you see, the plural "us" does not occur. It's
about me. It's about each one of us individually, and our
relationships with God.
And it has a few
surprises for us. The first is that there's nothing in here about
how I get to know God. How we get to know God. It's all
about how God knows us. "Know", in various forms,
appears 7 times in the Psalm, and it's always God knowing us. And
this is the surprise, that in this vast, great universe, God actually
knows me. Not superficially, not casually, but intimately.
God knows every act, every thought, every thing we've said. And I
know that's rather scary for most of us, this idea that God knows
everything we've ever said or thought or done. God knows what I
did last night? Yeah, God knows. God knows what I have
hidden under my bed? Or in my closet? God may know, because
I don't know! But yeah, God knows that. God
knows those foul things I was thinking about what I was going to do or
what I was going to say. Yeah, God knows that too.
God knows all of that
and much more. And yet not one ounce, one iota, there's not one
tiny hint of any judgment in this text for any of those awful things we
may have said, done, or thought. To the contrary, the Psalm
celebrates with exuberant joy this intimate knowledge by God of our
lives. And the Psalmist proclaims ". . .such knowledge is too
wonderful for me, it is so high I cannot attain it."
And this suggests to
me two things. First of all, that there is nothing we have done or
that we likely can do beyond the reach of God's forgiving love. So
while a certain amount of guilt is a sign of a healthy conscience, at
some point we have to get over our guilt and accept God's forgiveness
and get on with our lives and leave all of that guilt and shame and
Leitha sent to me a
story this last week that she read out of a book that Alan Brandenfelds
referred to her, "The New Earth" by Eckhart Tolle. It's
a story about our inability or perhaps our unwillingness to let go of
the past. A story is told of two Zen monks, Tazan and Akito, who
were walking along a country road that had become extremely muddy after
heavy rains. Near a village they came upon a young woman who was
trying to cross the road, but the mud was so deep it would have ruined
the silk kimono she was wearing. So Tazan at once picked her up
and carried her to the other side. The monks walked on in
silence. Five hours later, as they approached the lodging temple,
Akito couldn't restrain himself any longer: "Why did you
carry that girl across the road?", he asked, "we monks are not
supposed to do things like that". "I put the girl down
hours ago", said Tazan, "are you still carrying her?".
You see there comes a
time when we need to let go of some of that baggage that we carry which
makes life more difficult. Letting go of our guilt. Learning
to accept the forgiveness of God, the forgiveness of others, and
especially the forgiveness of ourselves is essential to good spiritual
So read in the praise
of this Psalm that blessing of being known by God without any
condemnation or judgment.
The second thing this
lack of judgment suggests from a God that knows us so intimately is that
God also knows all the good in us. God knows when we commit random
acts of kindness. God knows when we forgive others. God
knows when we have good intentions, even when those intentions don't
turn out the way we intend.
In the final episode
of the Star Wars saga, that great theological reflection in film J,
Luke Skywalker refuses to kill the evil Darth Vader when he has the
chance. Why? Not only because he learned that Darth Vader is
his father, but also because, more importantly, he believes in his heart
that there is still some good in him. So he does not kill
him. And he is desperately trying to get his father back into his
spacecraft, away from the exploding death star, after his father (Darth
Vader) has been fatally wounded while saving his son from the even more
evil Emperor. And he tells Luke that he is dying. And Luke
says "No, I can save you, father". And Darth Vader
responds "You already have, Luke. You already
You see, like a
single candle in the night, even the smallest amount of good is more
powerful than the greatest evil, for that good is from God. And,
like Luke Skywalker, God knows that there is great good in each of us so
God does not condemn us. Hence the Psalmist celebrates with exuberance
God's complete knowledge of our being. And in very poetic
language, meant therefore to be read with great sincerity and not taken
literally, the Psalmist affirms God's intimate knowledge with God's
constant presence, from the heights of heaven to the depths of Sheol.
From the moment we were conceived to the moment we die. In other
words, there is no place, no time, when we are without God.
Now, if the wise,
nameless souls of the lectionary committee had their way, we would end
our contemplation here, on the joys of being forever held close in the
heart of God, and we could all go home feeling good about
ourselves. That all is right in the world. Kind of like Duck
fans going home after an Arizona game, celebrating that victory over the
basketball powerhouse in the Pac-10. You know, when we can beat
Arizona, everything is right and good in the world.
So maybe I should
quit while I'm ahead. But I won't. Why not? Because I
figure I've got at least 10 minutes left in the sermon, and because
that's not the end of the Psalm. The lectionary committee
conveniently omits the rather pesky problem that occurs at the end of
this Psalm. After the Psalmist gets us all feeling warm and fuzzy
about how God is always there for us, we come to the finale:
you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.
23Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
24See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
We're never the
wicked ones, it's always them. They're the wicked ones,
punish them. What do we do with a text like this?
I think this must be
the favorite verse, in all of scripture, of the Reverend Pat
Robertson. I mean, did you catch his latest, after he announced
that Katrina was God's punishment upon all those sinful folk in New
Orleans? He revealed last week that the stroke suffered by Ariel
Sharon is the punishment of God. Here's what he said on his T.V.
read the bible and God said 'this is my land'. And for any Prime
Minister of Israel who decides he is going to carve it up and give it
away, God says "No, this is mine". Sharon was dividing
God's land and I would say 'woe' to any Prime Minister of Israel who
takes a similar course. God says 'this land belongs to me', you
better leave it alone.
Woe is right.
Evidently God doesn't give a hoot about the plight of
Palestinians. Or about international law, or the security of
Israeli citizens. Or the right of self-determination of
Palestinians or Israelis. God wants Israel to continue to occupy
the West Bank and Gaza at great cost to Middle-East stability and anyone
who works to end the occupation and to bring peace to the Middle-East
must be an enemy of God. That's the way I read it.
Well, now to the
Reverend Robertson's credit, he did apologize to the people of Israel
and to the family of Ariel Sharon. Now he needs to apologize to
all of us, for the way he has embarrassed Christians. And he needs
to apologize to God for taking the name of the Lord in vain.
[Applause and Amen's from the congregation].
Of course it's easy
for me to criticize someone like Reverend Robertson, who I think frankly
is the biggest embarrassment to Christian faith on this planet since
Adam realized he was naked and hid from his wife J.
I'd tell you how I really feel but I don't want to break my ordination
vows or about 3 or 4 of the 10 commandments.
The truth of the
matter, however, is that we are not all that different. I mean,
who has not at some point in their life had that same desire as
expressed in this Psalm? To count as our enemies those who hate
God, meaning at least those who hate us. Have we not as a nation
hated with perfect hatred Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers?
Of course we wanted vengeance, just as the Psalmist does. Are we
not justified in our desire for the wicked to be punished and to suffer?
Hebrew scholar Walter
Bruggeman says "The real theological problem is not that vengeance
is there in the Psalms, but that it is here in our midst. And that
it is there and here only reflects how attuned the Psalter is to what
goes on among us. Thus we may begin with a recognition of the
acute correspondence between what is written there and what is practiced
In other words, the
presence of such texts as this gives witness to the very human desire
for vengeance. And it must not be seen as divine justification for
our anger. Rather, it simply affirms that we are not alone.
We are not the only ones to suffer from the deeds of the wicked.
God knows what we have suffered because God has been there before with
God's people, and God is there now with us today.
We are therefore free
to confess our feelings and to confess our anger and hatred, get it out
and get it over. And let it go, so that the wickedness of others
does not continue its destruction of us.
Martin Luther King, I
think, understood this better than anyone. And he found a way to
demonstrate to all of us that the way of Christ was precisely NOT to
count as enemies those who hate us or even those who hate God. "To
meet hate with retaliatory hate", he said, "will
do nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe.
Hate begets hate, violence begets violence. We must meet forces of
hate with the power of love."
And you see, that is
what changed this country. The power of love over against the
power of hate. That is the power of the cross that we celebrate as
The irony of calling
for God to strike out against the wicked is that in the very act we
become the wicked we want God to destroy. Thus the only perfect
hatred is that hatred which condemns itself, and in so doing gives way
to the love and power of God.
So if we as a
religious, as a Christian, people, don't get that, if we succumb
to the hate and the ways of the world in our desire for vengeance
against those who hate us or who hate God, then woe to us for we are a
lost people to be pitied as those who should have known better.
But if we do get it,
as a Christian people, if we can confess our hatred and be purged of it,
so we can say with the Psalmist: "Search me and know my
heart, see if there is any wicked way in me". Then we can be
that power of love. We can be that force of change. We can
be that light of God through this dark world.
This is the good that
will defeat evil. The way of Christ. The way not just of
ours, but of the world's salvation. May our prayer, then, be that
of the Psalmist: Search me O God and know my heart, and lead me in
the way everlasting. May it be.