A Deeply Personal and Relational God
Passage: Psalm 139:1-24
Date: July 23, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Chris Murphy
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In the summer of 2006, my wife, Karen, and I went on a pilgrimage to Scotland with a group of about ten people. For those of you new to the experience of a pilgrimage, imagine a vacation that involves an intentional focus on prayer and that includes visiting sacred historical sites where people for centuries have connected to God. For part of our Scotland pilgrimage, we chose to spend three days on the Island of Iona. Iona is where Saint Colomba came in 563 AD and formed a community of fellow monks who devoted themselves to prayer and then traveled from the island to share the good news of Jesus Christ to much of Scotland. Through the centuries people have visited Iona in order to encounter God in an intimate way. In Celtic Christianity, sacred places like Iona are known as thin places where God’s presence seems incredibly close, where heaven and earth feel like one and the same place, where God’s soft and gentle voice of love is heard more clearly.
I will always treasure our time at Iona. I did sense God’s presence as I hiked the lush green hills of that island. I felt a connection to my wife in a profound way as one day we shared our hearts and prayed with each other, while overlooking an Iona sunset by a rock-laden beach cove. God’s presence was felt and in a deep sense I found a new connection to God, myself, and my marriage. I realized at Iona how relational and personal God can be. I noticed that if I slowed down and rested in God’s presence, I would connect to God in a deeply relational way.
In Psalm 139, we encounter a relational God who knows us personally and who formed us. The Psalmist wishes to enter into the spiritual conversation of our lives. You know this inward conversation. It is the one where we wrestle with our understanding of God. Is God really out there? If so, does God care about us personally? Does God have a plan or purpose for our lives or are we here by some cosmic chance? Psalm 139 is a beautiful prayer that uncovers the depth of how the Hebrew people understood God’s nature.
Let us explore the different parts of the Psalm and how it might invite us to relate to God.
The first twelve verses of Psalm 139 explore God’s presence with us and knowledge of us. According to the Psalmist, God sees us when we sit and when we rise. God knows our thoughts and the words we are about to utter. God is always with us. This image of God might seem a little too personal. What about the parts of our lives that are messy and unkempt? What about those not-so-nice thoughts? Can’t we get a little privacy? Can God get out of our business and let us lead our own lives?
The Psalmist doubles down and says not only is God always with you and me, but we cannot even escape from God. Even if we go across the ocean or to the grave, God is with us. Even the darkest night is light to God. This suggests to me that even when we attempt to wander away from God, God will seek us out. Another way to say it is we cannot out-sin God’s grace. God’s grace and love is pervasive and tireless in seeking out the one who feels lost and alone. Sometimes we do not feel lost in personal sin, but instead we feel confused, depressed, or simply tired of the struggles of life. In those moments God’s loving presence is with us.
The next section of Psalm 139, verses 13-18, explore the personal nature of God’s plan for each of our lives. Here we see a feminine and maternal image of God. God is like a mother who cares for us. God knits us together in our mother’s womb. She is our creator. She sees us when our very bones are being formed. Here we see God as the one who even knows the future of our lives and how many days we will live. In humility, the Psalmist acknowledges that the depth of God’s power is too wonderful to fully comprehend. Yet, however mysterious God might be, we are invited to believe that God actually has a plan for our lives. We are not born by chance. We are not alone in the universe. God has a plan for Her creation and loves us like a nurturing mother who helps us fulfill a deeper purpose.
Verses 19-22 are the portion of Psalm 139 we might be tempted to overlook. How can such a beautiful Psalm now contain such mean language? The Psalmist asks God to kill the wicked, to kill the enemies of God. The Psalmist speaks words of hatred. This feels like a far cry from Jesus’ words to love our enemies. One way to understand these words is that the writer is expressing the feelings of one who is oppressed. The people of Israel had many neighbors who oppressed them. The Psalmist here is being authentic in expressing the hatred that spills out of all of our hearts from time to time. I know for me, this season in politics has uncovered a lot of anger. Some of my anger has felt righteous, like the anger I feel against the white community, myself included, when we ignore racism and pretend that everyone is treated equally. I have felt anger towards those who seem to care little for the refugee or the undocumented worker seeking sanctuary. I feel anger when attempts to fix healthcare seem to show lack of concern for the most vulnerable, whether the elderly, the sick, or the most economically impoverished. Some of my anger has not been righteous. Sometimes my anger is born of my own pain and is a reflection of my sin. Sometimes I find it to easy to demonize who I think is the enemy and to not be aware of my own failings. I imagine the Psalmist here is expressing both righteous anger and some personal venting that is not helpful, but I like that this poet is being honest with God through prayer.
Ultimately Psalm 139 ends in verses 23 and 24 with a note of humility. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” It is as if the Psalmist knows there is a need to be humble after venting such anger, lest one pretends to be the judge of others, a role reserved only for God. The Psalm ends with a longing to stay in a deep intimate relationship with a personal God who is faithful to guide our paths to eternal life.
Now that we have walked through Psalm 139, how might the words of this Psalm shape our own relationship with God? We all have the freedom to go on our own spiritual journeys, our own pilgrimages through life. We can decide whether this Psalm reflects how we experience God or not. Rather than seeing this Psalm as a list of doctrines to simply believe about God, I suggest it is an invitation to trust in the mystery and depth of God. Psalm 139 seeks to woo us into a deeper relational intimacy with the divine and to trust that we are personally known by God.
This week I read my daily e-mail from the ministry of Father Richard Rohr, a well loved spirituality writer and Franciscan priest. Listen to what he says about the deeper purpose of our faith. “The movement through unknowing is necessary in all encounters, relationships, or intellectual breakthroughs, not just with the Divine. Human faith and religious faith are much the same except in their object or goal. What set us on the wrong path was making the object of religious faith “ideas” or doctrines instead of a person. Our faith is not a belief that dogmas or moral opinions are true, but a faith that Ultimate Reality/God/Jesus is accessible to us—and even on our side. Jesus was able to touch and heal people who trusted him as an emissary of God’s love, not people who assessed intellectual statements and decided whether they were true or false. Faith is more how to believe than what to believe.”
I like that Richard Rohr here highlights the relational nature of faith. Psalm 139 invites us to relate to God in a personal way. The benefit of this relational connection to the divine is that we don’t need to get hung up on our theology. We do not have to have everything understood about God before we learn to receive God’s love and grace. Our theology or beliefs about God are to help us have a tangible experience of God’s love and grace. Ultimately our experience of God’s love can then be the basis of our faith rather than whether we have complete knowledge of the mysteries of God.
As we journey through life here at Westminster, my prayer is that we can trust in the same loving God known by the poet of Psalm 139. May we trust in a relational God who connects to us in a personal way. May we relate to a God who is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. May we come to know a God who is both a mother and a father to us all, who knew us before we were born and who loves us unconditionally. This is a God we can share with our children. This is a God who provides us with hope in uncertain times. This is the God of love and grace that heals the pain in our world. AMEN