“Getting Away from God”

June 9, 2013


Psalm 139:1-12


The Psalmist writes of God’s awareness of the human situation: “such knowledge is beyond my understanding, a height to which my mind cannot attain.”

In spite of all our wisdom and thought, the knowledge of God remains a mystery. Our intelligence, however vast, does not grasp it. Our words, however eloquent, do not express the mind of God.

We feebly speak of “divine omnipresence”—the idea that God is everywhere. We speak of divine omniscience”—the idea that God knows everything.

Someone pointed out, however, that these words are “at least as dangerous as they are useful.” When we use them, we begin to picture God as some superhuman being: “omnipresent” like an electric power field; “omniscient” like some vast computer network.[i] We may find the picture of God in Genesis—walking in the Garden in the cool evening breeze—quaint, but our own pictures are not much more sophisticated, really.

When we label our experiences, we often obscure them. Perhaps we can learn something from those ancient Hebrew poets.

Instead of speaking of omniscience, the Psalmist wrote: “God, you have searched me and known me.”

Instead of speaking of omnipresence, the Psalmist asked: “Where shall I go from your Spirit?”

Clearly, God’s involvement in our lives goes beyond all the labels we might apply. Our understanding of God does not match God’s understanding of us. Our faith announces that God knows us through and through. Our experience tells us that we are known.

The psalmist spoke about an external knowledge: “You know when I sit down and when I stand up. Whether I walk or lie down, you are watching. You are before me and behind me.”

Remember the words of Jesus? Trying to speak about God’s awareness of each of us he said: “Even the hairs on your head are numbered.”

We hear the testimony of Jesus and the Psalmist and we feel that somehow it is true. Not that there is literally some catalogue of our hairs—ever diminishing for some of us. But we recognize that it’s not possible to be in a relationship with someone who knows nothing about you, not even the barest outline of your life. To say that we live in relationship with God would seem to indicate some basic awareness on God’s part of who we are.

And yet we also sense that God’s knowledge is not just external. God, after all, is not some giant security camera, recording our every move. God knows us at the depth of our being.

Have you not been aware of a searching light in the darkest recesses of your soul? You know what it’s like, don’t you, to try to keep a part of yourself hidden from others—or even from yourself—only to have the nagging sense that you have been discovered by Another. “You discern my thoughts from afar . . . and you are acquainted with all my ways.”

This is not only about those things that you would like to keep to yourself. Remember when your highest aspirations, your deepest longings developed? It was as though you were being pulled beyond yourself, drawn toward something far greater. Certainly God’s Spirit was present with you, giving shape to your dreams. “Even before the word is on my tongue, O God, you know all about it.”

All of our being rests in God who gives us life. Our hearts are laid bare before our Creator. The searing eye of God searches us and knows us.

We are known, thoroughly, by God.

Were it not for the way in which God knows us, God’s awareness would be too terrible to bear.

We keep so much of ourselves from other people because we are afraid of their judgment. What were the words of the old song? “Don’t confront me with my failures, for I have not forgotten them.” We recognize our own faults all too well. We hide and think to ourselves, “If you knew me, you wouldn’t approve.”

To think of our faults, our sin, our selves visible before the God who creates and judges is too much for many.

What it is behind our dislike of talk about sin? Why are we so reluctant to confess our sin?

Perhaps we fear the consequences. If I am indeed sinful, how could God possibly love me? We are loath to admit that we have not lived up to the image of God in which we were created. We are afraid that our failure is also our judgment—separation from God. I think it was the theologian Groucho Marx who first said, “I’d never join a club that would have someone like me as a member.” We think a God who knows us would also have nothing to do with us.

So we attempt to get the upper hand. If we can do without God, if we can run from God, perhaps we will not be known and judged.

We try to run by being really good—as though in our goodness, God will not be necessary.

We try to run by being powerful—so that in our moral or physical strength we will have no need of God.

We try to run by being rich—thinking that if we could just gain the whole world—or at least a little bigger piece of it—we would not lose our souls.

We try, we try, we try. We seek to flee from the presence of God. But where can we go? Where indeed? “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” It is in God, in the presence of God’s Spirit, that we live and move and have our being.

Wherever we are, God is.

Wherever God is, we are known, fully known.

The good news is that we need not fear God’s knowledge. It is a knowing that accepts us as we are.

Yes, our sin is known—and accepted.

Yes, our failed dreams are known—and accepted.

So, too, those moments when we have found the ability to love or the courage to give, the great hopes and aspirations by which we live today are known and blessed by the Holy One.

To truly know another human being is to understand and forgive. In God we find that knowledge perfected. So we are set free to be ourselves—simply who we are and who we are becoming.

There is no more need to hide. All can come in free. God has searched us and known us—and in that knowledge we are loved and liberated for life.

Perhaps this love is best shown in our baptism.

The water of baptism is a sign of being washed by God, cleansed from all that would separate us from the One who has given us life. We are not baptized because we are “good Christian people.” We are baptized because we are accepted—as we are—by God.

What we have been no longer matters—there is a new creation in Jesus Christ.

What we will be remains to be seen—the full meaning of our baptism will become apparent only as we live our lives.

The American artist, Mary Cassat, painted a mother bathing her child. The child is held gently as water runs over its body. We see a picture of the tenderness that we hope all parents would show to their children.

In washing and caring for an infant, a parent knows every part of that child.

As a mother bathes and infant, so in baptism, God knowingly washes us with the water of new life. The waters of baptism surround us above and below, before and behind. They bury us in a death life Christ’s that we might be raised in a resurrection like Christ’s.

God’s acceptance of each of us in baptism marks us for new life, even out of the worst circumstances. We are loved by God. Our troubled lives do not change that love. Our fortunate lives do not change that love.

Baptism shows us that God’s understanding presence with us is love.

Of course, the knowing presence of God is not limited to religious situations.

We’re used to talking about God’s presence at certain acceptable “religious” moments—baptism, communion, times when we might expect to feel the Spirit of God in our lives.

The Christian experience—and the experience of the ancient Hebrews spoken of by the Psalmist—is the experience of a God who is there even when we don’t feel the Spirit. The question: “Where can I go to flee from your presence?” speaks of God attending to us in every possible situation in life.

You know this.

When you walk out the door and onto Clinton St. this morning, God does not remain trapped in this room.

When you’re off to work on Monday morning, God is there.

When you’re on vacation, God is present.

We are not polytheists, worshipping God in prayer, mammon in business, Mars in international relations, Bacchus in social life. As Christians we are people claimed by the one God of all creation and of every dimension of existence.

At home, in business, in politics—yes, wherever we go—we are surrounded by the ever-present reality with whom we must deal, the God who has given us life.

God surrounds all of life—not just our “religious moments”—with loving acceptance.

Dripping wet and crying from the waters of baptism;

            doing something that will later be regretted;

                        acting out of compassion;

at all times we live in God’s knowing presence.

God has searched us and known us. We might not understand it completely, but in every situation we are known by God. We can’t get away.

Thank God, we cannot get away!

[i] Paul Tillich, “Escape from God,” The Shaking of the Foundations, pg. 45.