Sunday, August 01, 2010

Sermon: Psalm 139 The Searching Saviour

Almost every time you’re leaving the house, you’re being watched. I’m not just talking about your neighbours either. In the UK, there are more than 4.2 million CCTV cameras (according to the BBC in 2006, so it may have risen since then), with Belfast being one of the leading cities for CCTV footage. As well as that, there’s the cameras in shops watching for shoplifters; Tesco clubcards to watch what you’re buying; number plate recognition systems on the speed cameras. You’re being watched. I don’t know how that makes you feel - concerned for your privacy?

Or think about a programme on Channel 4 this summer (and for the previous ten summers). The inmates/ contestants are in the Big Brother house. Every conversation they have is heard, every move they make is watched by millions of TV viewers. (Isn’t it ironic that people sit around in their own houses watching people sitting around in the Big Brother house?) Millions of viewers, fascinated by how other people react. Constantly being watched.

Our Psalm tonight affirms that we’re being watched, but long before CCTV was invented, long before Big Brother was thought of. Rather than fear and alarm, though, this knowledge is described as ‘too wonderful for me’ and precious. It’s another Psalm of David, and the psalm records David’s praise to the God who knows me, surrounds me, made me and tests me.

I’m guessing that the Psalm is probably fairly familiar to most of us, but let’s take a moment or two to see the big picture, before looking at the sections. It’s made up of 24 verses, we have 4 sections of 6 verses, each dealing with a particular aspect of God’s character and power.

In the first six verses, we see God’s knowledge. ‘O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know...’ God, the covenant God, knows all about David - when he sits or rises, where he goes and where he lies down. But more than that - even further than the Big Brother cameras can reach - God also knows what we are thinking, and what we are going to say before we say it. Sometimes married couples can finish each other’s sentences, but nothing compared to God’s knowledge here.

[How does that make you feel - knowing that God knows all about you, all that you do and say and think? I don’t know about you, but sometimes that might make me feel uncomfortable - we can make ourselves presentable for church, and hold things together for the hour or two, but don’t ever let the real ‘me’ out. There is never a moment that God is not watching us, knowing us, searching us. But for David, this issues in praise, not fear: ‘Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.’

The truth is, we don’t have to pretend with God - he knows us better than we know ourselves. Rather than fear, this is a great comfort - we can’t surprise God with how bad we’ve been, he already knows. We can come as we are, in repentance and faith, but not stay the way we are (as we’ll see later)]

As well as God knowing me, he also surrounds me. Verses 7-12 are the second section, with a vivid description of the way in which God is everywhere present (omnipresence). If I go high or low, near or far, night or day, God is there. Now, some commentators think that David is trying to flee from God, as if trying to escape. But the tone of this section is too positive - it’s not desperation we’re seeing here, but still more wonder. It’s not like the old Tom and Jerry cartoons where Jerry runs through the house, being chased by Tom, then opens a door and Tom’s already there; then down the stairs and opens the front door and Tom’s there... God is present everywhere, leading us and holding us (10) - that no matter where David goes, no matter what he’s facing, he knows that God is with him.

[Have you ever been to a service or event and a speaker/leader/worship leader gets up and says “Let’s welcome God here...” How silly is that - God was there long before we arrived, and he’ll be there long after we leave - we can’t welcome God anywhere - it’s his world, he made it!]

What difference would it make to your day knowing that God is with you in the office/classroom/coffee shop? It’s not that we leave God in church on a Sunday night and then see him again next week. How would you live differently recognising the presence of God with you? It’s what Brother Lawrence did - practicing the presence of God. When he scrubbed a pot, he did it knowing that God was with him, praying to him; when he was cooking the dinner, he knew that God was present.

God knows me, God surrounds me, and God made me. We’re in verses 13-18, in perhaps the best known verses of the Psalm. If we put the first two assertions together, we arrive at this section - God knows me so well because he made me; that God surrounds me, and no place is beyond his scope, so that even in my mother’s womb - even before she knew I was there - God was making me. ‘You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb...’

Even before birth, God is active in David’s life. Think also of Jeremiah, God says to him: ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ (Jer 1:5) God made us in our mother’s womb - this means that we weren’t a mistake (even if that’s how its put humanly speaking). It’s why we need to think carefully about any plans to introduce abortion into Northern Ireland. God’s greatness is displayed in his knowledge, his presence, and his creating power.

Up to now, things are moving nicely, but there’s a sting in the tail. Up to verse 18, it’s all nice and lovely, verses to cherish and reflect on, perhaps with soft music in the background. But then comes the final section. It seems like it’s not just a key change, but a jump from one music style to another. Like from easy listening to heavy metal or something. Let’s look at verse 19: ‘Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me!’

It seems like such a contrast, doesn’t it. You’re sitting there thinking, where did that come from?! What brought that on? As David was composing the psalm did something bad happen to him at this point and he lashes out? It’s almost as if David is saying, look God, you know all about me, you are all around me, you made me - you know all this, and yet it’s as if you don’t know about the evildoers who are opposing you. Why haven’t you dealt with them? You see all that I do, can you not see this as well?

This final section might seem like a contrast, might seem out of place, but it actually helps us to better understand the whole psalm. That rather than standing out, this final section is the key to the whole psalm. You see, David is living in the real world, in a world of frustration, opposition, enemies, and prosperous evil people. His experience is the experience of all saved people with a passion for God’s name and honour - frustration that the sinful prosper. David is praying in that experience, and finding the comfort that God’s knowledge of him, and God’s surrounding of him, and God’s creating of him brings to him. That God knows what is happening.

So David asks God to deal with the wicked. That God would be true to his power and greatness and holiness and deliver his justice. It’s what we saw a couple of weeks ago (and a few centuries later) in Psalm 137 with the verses at the end about dashing the heads of infants off rocks - another cry for God’s justice.

But the question is how we relate to these verses now. What do they say to us, who live after the cross, in the last days, as the gospel is proclaimed? Well, those who oppose God are still his enemies, but the amazingly good news is that Jesus Christ died for his enemies. (Rom 5:8) That means that our attitude to the enemies of God still hates their sin, but we proclaim to them the salvation that is found only in Jesus. One day, of course, God will fully and finally judge every person - those who remain enemies bearing their own sin and its punishment, but for those who have confessed their sin and believed in Jesus, their sin has been carried by Jesus, its punishment has been satisfied.

You remember the old phrase from the war - who goes there? Friend or foe? Are you still a foe, the enemy; or are you a friend?

The last two verses show that the final section isn’t just a copy and paste error, but that the Psalm sits together as a whole. In verse 1, it was past tense ‘you have searched me...’ Now in verse 23, it’s an ongoing searching: ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’

God’s holiness is not just a matter for those enemies of God - it’s also an ongoing matter for his friends too. We see here David asking God to continue to apply his holiness - it’s the grace of sanctification. God, keep on searching me; testing me; trying me - am I slipping into patterns of sin? Are there things I’m not even aware that I’m doing that are sinful?

In a sense, this psalm can be summed up by what an American author, Max Lucado, once wrote: ‘God loves you just the way you are, but he doesn’t want you to stay that way.’ Are you willing to pray these last two verses to God? Willing to submit to his prompting, willing to surrender to his leading? You see, God knows all about us, he surrounds us, he made us, and he is awesome in his holiness. We cannot stay the way we are in the light of our great God.

Let’s pray verses 23-24 together after a moment of quiet.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 1st August 2010.

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