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God Knows

January 15, 2018

“God Knows” Psalm 139:1-18, 23-24 © 1.14.18 Ordinary 2B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It’s close to midnight, the time Shakespeare called “the witching hour.” In bars all over town, people are partying—drinking, dancing, flirting, losing their inhibitions—a fact celebrated in the old Eric Clapton tune “After Midnight.” By contrast, at the same moment, in a home or a hospital, someone is lying in bed, denied sleep by worries about the day just past and the fears of the one whose dawn seems far away. A child is sick, a pain is never ending, a crucial meeting looms large. At still another place, people are engaged in conversation over late-night coffee about the issues of the culture and their lives, seeking resolution or reconciliation, trying to understand another’s viewpoint, maybe even praying.

Rewind 3000 years or so, and things are much the same. Only the names, places, and circumstances have changed. The taverns are full, and wine and beer flow freely. Parents still worry about their children, sick or hungry or afraid. And a lone poet sits on his rooftop, his papyrus scroll lit by a candle. It’s his time for study and reflection, for recording thoughts and feelings about the most important reality in his life. He thinks about his bed downstairs and the rhythm of his days. And that’s all he needs to lay quill to paper: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me,” he writes. “You know when I sit down and when I rise up… you search out my path and my lying down….” He could flee to the limits of the known world or pull the darkness over him like a shroud, but this knowing God would be there. His bed could be not where he was right now, which was in a comfortable home with a loving wife and children to care for their parents in old age, but in the lonely place of horror and desolation the Hebrews called “Sheol,” and shuddered as they said the word. Yet this watching, searching God would be there, too. And in his late-night reverie, the psalmist is utterly filled with wonder, for he is watched over, protected, known, accompanied by the One who made him so marvelous, so complex, so self-aware that he can praise his Creator, this Weaver Woman God, this Sovereign so glorious, which in Hebrew, as I have said before, is “heavy,” “weighty,” fraught with gravitas. And when he comes to the end of his life or the end of his nightly sleep—what a late friend of mine once called “a little slice of death”—when he comes to such a moment, even then God is still there. The poet is with God, and God is with him.

There is a knowledge others might have of us that’s frightening. Consider your terror if someone, particularly a stranger, sent you a text with a message like the old movie title: “I know what you did last summer.” Think about Peter in a courtyard, desperately trying to disguise himself, not wanting to be recognized as a disciple of Jesus, but given away by his distinctive Galilean accent, by the testimony of an eyewitness, replying with curses and imprecations to those who said: “I know you. You were with him. You’re one of them.” Then there’s the song that used to be sung at weddings sometimes, but its composer Sting said was actually about surveillance: “Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, I’ll be watching you.” Another comforting ditty, this time for children, is one that may have blared from store speakers not so long ago: “He sees you when you’re sleeping/he knows when you’re awake/he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake. Oh, you better watch out….”

Or how about the all-too-real possibilities and perils of technologies like facial recognition and miniaturization explored in the recent movie The Circle, with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks? It envisions a world minutes from now in which a big social media company called The Circle, supposedly for good and positive reasons like transparency and accountability, puts tiny, hidden cameras in strategic spots all over the world. A young woman employee, the Watson character, even volunteers to wear one of the cameras almost all the time. “Secrets are lies,” says the company motto; we should all be able to know what somebody else is doing, where they are, who they’re with, and comment on such matters.

But then there is the knowledge others possess that provides great comfort to us. Watching becomes not voyeurism or control, but protection or readiness to help. I think of my neighbor keeping a close eye on her rambunctious, heedless little boy who is getting too close to the street on his tricycle as he rides it in the driveway or the way I watch for any threat to Chloe while I’m walking her, be it roaming big dogs or speeding cars with careless drivers. Consider how awareness of the things you or I do, our behavior, becomes a resource for recommendation about our character when we’re accused of wrongdoing or when we need a reference for a job or admission to a school. “I know him,” the friend says. “He would never do such a thing.” “We’re very close,” someone tells an HR rep who calls. “Let me tell you how kind and capable she is.” And to have a companion for every move we make, every breath we take, especially in old age, is to go through this world not alone, but with a faithful guide, a constant source of strength.

One of the most basic promises God makes over and over is “I will be with you.” We celebrated such presence at Christmas, as we welcomed Immanuel. This God who is with us is a God who sees. And when God sees, God acts. “I have seen the affliction of my people,” he told Moses, “and I have come down to deliver them.” The knowledge of God is not merely intellectual awareness, a database of facts like dates and numbers and names. It’s the intimate relationship so often described by the word “know” in Scripture, the deep bond between marriage partners, an image often used for Yahweh’s relationship with Israel and Christ’s union with the Church. In Hebrew the word is “yada,” from which perhaps Star Wars got the name of its diminutive Jedi master Yoda.

The blogger Jan Richardson asks: “Do we want to be this sought, this known from the inside out?” and suggests that to be so known is overwhelming. But she goes on to give assurance: “Yet the God we see in [this psalm] is not an intruder invading our lives by stealth or by force. Nor—though too many have absorbed such an image—is God’s persistent presence with us a form of surveillance designed to keep track of everything we do wrong. Somehow, this God who pervades all of creation, down to our very cells, manages to offer a spacious hospitality that calls to us but does not confine us; that continually invites but will not force us; that simply asks us to see and hear and know the One who is ever in our midst and in our own selves” (http://paintedprayerbook.com/2012/01/10/epiphany-2-how-did-you-come-to-know-me/).

“God knows, watches over, the way of the righteous,” says the sage of Psalm 1, “but the way of the wicked will perish.” The knowledge of God sustains, guides, upholds, comforts, delivers. God knows because God is with us. He’s with us in the most complete way possible, having taken our flesh in Jesus, walked where we walk, suffered what we suffer, enjoyed what we love, shared all of human life. When we gather at the Table, as we do this morning, we remember and celebrate Immanuel, God with us; Yahweh-yireh, “the God who sees,” and Yahweh-yada, “the God who knows.” And when we baptize, we celebrate the knowledge of God, who names, claims, and keeps us.

If sometime late at night, maybe “after midnight,” you can’t sleep because worries won’t let you go, remember that even in Sheol, the Pit of darkness, God is there, God knows. If you feel alone and abandoned and without direction, recall that wherever you are, God is with you, God knows. If you believe no one understands, consider the wondrous thoughts of God, the God who knows, Yahweh-yada. If your intentions or actions have been misunderstood, God knows your heart. If your life is falling apart, remember that God made you, and he can and will put you back together. Take comfort. Be at peace. Do not fear. Live with wonder. Go confidently into the dark. God is there. God knows.

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