Last summer when we discussed the Psalms I used the analogy of a Festival of Short Plays, each one with its own setting and script, each a different snapshot from the life of a person of faith long ago. Many of the Psalms even welcome us to cast ourselves as the lead actor as we make these ancient scripts our own, with first-person pronouns inviting us to pray their prayers for ourselves.
So together we tried on lines like “the Lord is my Shepherd” (Psalm 23), “the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (Psalm 16) and “I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 57). We considered both what it meant to say these lines ourselves and how we might broaden our understanding of these psalm scripts by casting other actors, imagining the same prayers prayed by women and men whose lives are very different from our own.
With 150 psalms in all, it won’t surprise you to learn I didn’t get to all of the lines I wanted to highlight last summer, so I thought I’d circle back this summer to pick up just a few more favorites. Today’s scene comes to us from Psalm 139 and its powerful reminders that God is with us wherever we go.
However far we may need to travel, 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 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 ‘awayfrom 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.
Speaking of which, in the interest of full disclosure there’s a section of Psalm 139 I didn’t have Steve read today. Four verses of rather violent retribution talk sneak in after verse 18 and they feel - at least to me - strangely out of place. It also surprises me when after that short section I then reach verse 23 and the words: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.” Really? Are you sure? Right on the heels of “kill the wicked, O God?” While it’s specifically those who “hate the Lord” that the psalmist hates and counts as enemies here in verse 21, don’t we run the risk of thinking our own enemies are the enemies of God? At least the psalmist not only admits but invites the God who knows all and sees all to search his mind in these moments too.
Because if we’re honest with ourselves, I imagine we all have thoughts we’d prefer God didn’t have access to. But 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 less proud of, 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.
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 endure or enjoy in our lives, where God isn’t. Not one single second 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)
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, God, you are there. In our moments of great triumph and profound joy, God you are there. In times of deep darkness, 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.
This text can speak to us so powerfully as individuals that it’s easy to keep our focus entirely on ourselves and our own experiences. But it doesn’t require much imagination to remember there are whole companies of actors equally deserving of the first-person pronouns in this psalm. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say they’ve been taking up this same script and playing this same part all along; I just haven’t taken a seat in their audience. I’ve been so focused on my own interactions with this particular short play, I haven’t always noticed who else is lending the weight of personal experience to these words.
So I invite us all to try a little recasting this morning. We might take a moment to think our way around our city, pausing in places we usually rush by… Or we might think about someone who doesn’t look like us, or live as comfortably as we do… Or we might consider a story we’ve been reading or hearing in the news this morning… There are so many circumstances that lend themselves to recasting a psalm like this one. Just to offer a few examples, what would it mean to speak these same lines from a detention center or a prison cell? Or in a bombed-out section of Gaza or in a Syrian refugee camp that’s been home for your entire childhood? What would it mean to pray these words from a shelter for victims of domestic violence, or while taking cover from a hurricane or wildfire, or while living out of the back of a van?
Take a minute to recast the first-person pronouns in this psalm. Choose just one other person to picture for now, someone in a situation very different from your own. Now listen again to these words from Psalm 139, this time as if they are spoken by that fellow child of God you’ve brought to mind:
1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
…5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me…
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth…
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.