God is with us wherever we go. However far we may need to travel from home, and however long we may have to stay away. However much it may seem at times that we are alone, we are never really alone. Even if we feel we’re sinking into a deep dark pit, or are on the very point of death (Sheol is an ancient Hebrew term for the place people go when they die), there is nowhere we could possibly go, ever, where God isn’t. Behind us and before us and above us and below us. Accompanying us through the finest moments in our lives, and the worst moments too.
Granted, this can be a double-edged truth. Most of the time it is tremendously good news. But every now and then we may find ourselves wondering why God has to be quite so ever present. I’m reminded of the biblical story of Jonah, for instance, who tried to run away from God. Commanded to preach God’s word to the worst of Israel’s enemies, he caught the first boat headed in the opposite direction! The text says “he paid his fare and went on board, to go with the [sailors] to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.” (Jonah 1:3) “Oh, Jonah,” we say to ourselves with a smile, “there is no ‘away from the presence of the Lord.’ In God’s presence is the only option, ever. You know that.” And sure enough God is with Jonah: in the storm at sea that seems to result from his disobedience, in the belly of the fish (which incidentally Jonah calls “the belly of Sheol,” in 2:2), even when he is rather unceremoniously deposited out of the fish’s mouth back onto shore. And God is with him too, of course, as Jonah finally does go to Ninevah to obey that original command. We might prefer God was only around when we were behaving ourselves, but it’s kind of a package deal, isn’t it? God always being there means God is always there. In our finest moments, and in those we’re none too proud of, too.
Another interesting twist on how we might hear this psalm was pointed out by one of our MPC kids here just last Sunday. Apparently while I was speaking of words about enemies back in Psalm 27, and the fact that it’s ok to include in our prayers even our anger and bitterness, this young man turned to his mom and said “but isn’t that rude?” She explained that there were certainly things we shouldn’t say to other people, but it’s always ok to be honest with God about how we feel. After all, God already knows what we’re thinking, whether or not we intentionally put those thoughts into a prayer. Stunned, he replied: “But wait! That’s private!” Oh yes, wise child, there are indeed thoughts that each of us would prefer God didn’t have access to, as well. But it’s kind of a package deal, isn’t it? God always being there means God is always there. When the psalmist says “even before a word is on my tongue, Lord, you know it completely,” (Psalm 139:4) he doesn’t give us the option of a filter system where only our good thoughts make their way to God. Again, in our finest moments, and in those we’re not so proud of, too, God is there.
Still, on a balance, I’d rather go through life with God by my side, than not. Wouldn’t you? Particularly when the God who never leaves us alone is at the same time the God who promises to forgive us for our less-than-exemplary decisions and actions, and our less-than-honorable thoughts.
I confess I also need assurances that God remains with every one of God’s children, all over this deeply troubled world. Those who lost loved ones when that plane was shot down over Ukraine. Victims of the ground offensive in Gaza. Thousands upon thousands of children fleeing violence in their home countries and seeking refuge across our US borders. Nigerian schoolgirls, abducted months ago, who are still being held captive. God, I cannot begin to fathom why so many must suffer so much, but whatever you do, do NOT let them go. Be with them in their darkest hours, too. Psalm 139 assures us God is there, no matter how terrifying there may be.
Such an important truth is the fact of God’s constant presence with us, that Psalm 139 takes its place in a long line of biblical reminders. The ancient Israelites, moving from place to place in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land, found that Yahweh camped out right along with them, appearing in the form of a pillar of cloud or a pillar of fire to guide their way, as they moved from place to place. When the temple was finally built in Jerusalem, King Solomon made clear in his prayer of dedication that God would dwell there, certainly, but never only there. “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (I Kings 8:27) Throughout the New Testament gospels we find reminders that Jesus himself was Immanuel, God with us. With the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost in the book of Acts, the constant presence of God was passed along to the entire Church. And in the letter to the Ephesians, we read of the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s power and God’s love.
What difference does any of this make? It means that there is no circumstance we will ever either endure or enjoy in our lives, where God isn’t. Not one single second of our lives, when God won’t be there – indeed, God is the one who brought us here in the first place, knitting us together in our mothers’ wombs. (Psalm 139:13)
Sometimes when I’m trying to get a new handle on a familiar biblical teaching, I try reading a single passage in a variety of translations. And I wanted to share with you two helpful versions I leaned on this week, as I read and reread Psalm 139.
The first is Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message. Down to earth as ever, Peterson uses words like these to convey Psalm 139:
You know me inside and out,
you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth;
all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared
before I’d even lived one day.
Peterson’s version can be quite helpful when we’re reading for content and understanding. But then I sometimes find I miss the more poetic language of other translations, so back I go to more familiar territory, which for me is the New Revised Standard Version (same as our pew Bibles): “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me… Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?... For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:1, 7, 13)
I am also indebted to my mother, Dr. Margaret Patterson Hannay, for introducing me to a new favorite translation of Psalm 139 (not new at all actually, though new to me), this one by a 16th century English countess named Mary Sidney. It turns out that educated Renaissance women did many translations of the Psalms; it was one of very few ways they were allowed to express themselves in writing. Here is how Sidney conveys the opening verses of Psalm 139:
O Lord, in me there lieth naught,
but to thy search revealed lies:
For when I sit thou markest it;
No less thou notest when I rise:
Yea, closest closet of my thought
Hath open windows to thine eyes.
Thou walkest with me when I walk,
When to my bed for rest I go,
I find thee there,
Not youngest thought in me doth grow,
No, not one word I cast to talk,
But yet unuttered thou dost know.
If forth I march, thou go’st before;
If back I turn, thou com’st behind:
So forth nor back
Thy guard I lack,
Nay, on me too, thy hand I find…
Each inmost piece in me is thine:
While yet I in my mother dwelt,
All that me clad
From thee I had.
Whatever translation we choose, of course, the message of Psalm 139 remains the same: God, you are there.
So I’m actually going to ask you to join me in that refrain, as I conclude the sermon this morning. Each time I cue you, let’s all say in unison the words “God, you are there.”
When as newborns we take our first breath: God, you are there.
Even before we are ever born: God, you are there.
Where can we go, where you are not?
If we travel far from home, whether by choice or by necessity, and even if we do not have a home: God, you are there.
In moments we are proud of, and in moments we are not: God, you are there.
In our moments of great triumph, and profound joy: God you are there.
Even in times of deep darkness: God, you are there.
When it seems we cannot process the magnitude of one tragedy in our world, before another hits, God, you are there.
If we take the wings of the morning, and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead us, and your right hand shall hold us fast: God, you are there.
When we come to the end of our lives, and take our final breath: God, you are there.
When, beyond death, we enter new life: God, you are there.
We are more grateful than words can say, that:
God, you are there! Amen.
 The Sidney Psalter: The Psalms of Sir Philip and Mary Sidney, edited by Michael G. Brennan, Margaret P. Hannay and Noel J. Kinnamon, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 267-268.