A sermon for Epiphany 2 B
Psalm 139 is probably my favorite of the psalms. The idea that God knows me better than I know myself, and that certainly God knows me better than I know God permeates the psalm in such beautiful imagery. Some of which is included in today’s portion, and some of which is omitted. So I’d like you to get out your prayer books and take a look at all of Psalm 139. It’s on page 794.
Today we heard the portion of Psalm 139 that deals with God’s knowledge and nurture of us, beginning in the womb, and our humility at recognizing how infinitely larger and wiser than us God is. What got left out was our frailty—in two ways. Look at verses 6-11. This is where the psalmist describes his or her attempt to escape God. “Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand hold me fast.” Just because we know God is there, and love God, doesn’t mean we don’t try to escape from God. Does that sound familiar to anyone here? Have you ever tried to just leave God behind and move on with your life? And did you eventually find out that the very place you had tried to find where God was not turned out to be a place where God was waiting for you to arrive?
The second portion that’s left out is verses 18-23—a more understandable omission from the lectionary writers. It’s hard to imagine how the author of the psalm went so directly from the beautiful supportive poetry of God’s indwelling presence and into “Oh, that you would slay the wicked, O God,” and “I hate them with a perfect hatred.” But that’s part of the Psalm, too. God knows us so well that God knows our dishonorable desires as well as the goodness that is inside us. I am loved and wonderfully made by God; AND I am frail and human. It’s all part of the same package, and just when we discover the beauty that God has put inside us, we encounter the sin that co-exists with God inside us and we strike out at our perceived enemies. Which is why when people ask me if it’s OK to pray for something that they don’t feel like they should be praying for, the answer is always “Yes.” The Psalms are our model of Biblical prayer—and they reflect real people with the real prayers they bring before God—the good, the bad, and the ugly. God knows it all already, so when we offer it up in prayer, God can sort the wheat from the chaff and help guide us towards where God wants us to go.
All this self-knowledge comes to the Gospel narrative in the interaction between Jesus and Nathanael. Jesus greets this potential new disciple by saying, “here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Nathanael recognizes himself in that description, and asks, “Where did you get to know me?” And then Jesus lies (or as the 8:30 congregation chastened me, “He doesn’t lie, he just puts the truth in a way Nathanael can hear it). “I saw you sitting under the fig tree before Philip called you.” That’s not how Jesus got to know Nathanael. Jesus knows Nathanael the way God knows the author of Psalm 139—from the womb, not just from the fig tree. God knows us first, and then we—like Nathanael—“come and see” about God.
If Jesus said out loud what was inside of me, the way he does with Nathanael, it would not be something nearly as flattering as, “Here is truly a woman in whom there is no deceit.” Nathanael must be a far, far better person than I. I have plenty of deceit. I felt pretty duplicitous at Diocesan Convention yesterday as I looked supportive on the outside while inside wishing that lightning would strike down the person who was going to the microphone for the fifth time to speak on a resolution. I can hide a lot of my flaws from you; I can hide fewer from Jonathan—the biggest challenge of our early marriage was the discovery of not how flawed the other person in our relationship was, but the horror that our own flaws were exposed. But the one person I need not hide my flaws from is God. Because God already knows.
Now, there’s no good way to segue into any of the fornication passages in scripture. But as today in 1 Corinthians, whenever one of the fornication or adultery passages come up in the lectionary, it’s such a tough call whether to address it or just ignore it, and the last few years I’ve ducked, and I don’t want to do that today because it links with self-knowledge and God’s knowledge of us. Today’s passage is in the middle of several chapters of 1 Corinthians’ on sex. I don’t think Paul was as negative towards intimacy as he comes across as; but the reason he’s writing about it so much is that he was writing to real communities of people who wanted to know how to be a Christian in the real daily grind of life—what can or should I eat? Who can I marry—or should I marry? If I’m a slave, should I try to be free? If I’m a slave owner, should I free my slaves? If I can speak in tongues, should I?
The precipitating event for Paul in this context seems to be the rumor that one of the Corinthian Christian men is having an affair with his mother-in-law; I think that’s still pretty good moral advice in the 21st Century. You should not have sex with your mother-in-law. But then Paul gets caught up in the topic and just goes on, and then turns to lawsuits—don’t sue other Christians, and then he can’t help himself and goes back to sex. The kernel of joy in this is that we are supposed to glorify Christ with our bodies—which for Paul, in the context of expecting Jesus to return imminently, ends up meaning (after much, much hemming and hawing) that ideally no one should have sex with anyone just to be on the safe side, because you won’t have to wait long, because once Jesus returns, there will be better things to think about.
It’s 2000 years later, so much of Paul’s reasoning for his theology of sexual relationships is outdated not because of the morality of his time and place, but because the key reason to not have sex—Jesus’ imminent return—has been revised. And the basis for Paul’s theology is still quite relevant: we should glorify Christ with our bodies. And sometimes we do things with our bodies that do not glorify Christ—whether sexual hedonism, or harming ourselves with drugs or alcohol or food, or committing physical violence.
It’s the weekend that we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, jr, and usually I quote one of his speeches to inspire us and honor him. But in light of the Psalm and the Corinthians passage I feel inclined to focus on a different part of his life this year. Dr. King was a great man and a great leader. And he was evidently an unfaithful philandering husband. And God knew that and still called him to great ministry.
Look at yourself. Look deeply—look at your frailties, look at the things you hide from everyone around you. Look at the things you’re prefer to hide even from God. God already knows whatever that is. And God loves you anyway. And God has called you anyway. Just like God called Martin Luther King, jr. Jesus did not say about him, “here is a man in whom there is no deceit,” and yet he was called to great things. So are we. God knows us better than we know ourselves, so the better we know ourselves, the closer we come to finding out how God sees us, and indeed, the better we know God. And it is in knowing God that we hear our call, despite our sin, our call in this world and the next.