Sunday, August 31, 2008

Knowing and Being Known

Knowing and Being Known
Third in a Series of Sermons on the Psalms

copyright © 2008, Robert J. Elder
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time: August 31, 2008

Psalm 139

We are known. There is no doubt that the poet who wrote the words of Psalm 139 believed that he was known. Philosophers may use words such as “omniscience” when speaking of the knowledge of God. And while there can be no question that the psalmist would readily have agreed that God is omniscient in that he knows his creation as a painter knows his canvas, his poem comes at the question from a different perspective. The psalmist realizes not only that God knows but that he knows about him. And even that does not put it clearly enough, since it is evident that the psalmist is possessed of a sense that he is known more than that he is known about. He is known “through and through,” from beginning to end. God not only knows about him. God knows what it is like to be him.

In the face of this knowledge that reaches even into the depths of the womb, we may feel exposed, as though we were part of a divine “peep show.” We want to draw the blinds. Who is prepared for such intimacy? What business is it of God what went on between my mother and me in the womb? Is God also the Divine Voyeur?

It is just this reluctance to be known that is revealed in the Genesis account of the walk in the garden. We want to know, to have knowledge such as God has. If there are any peep shows going on, we want to do the peeping. We want to be God. We want to be able to reveal only so much of ourselves to this Other as we desire, and we want to have the power and privilege of choosing just who it is to whom we make these partial self-revelations.

This is the declaration of the psalm that we may find disturbing if we really give it some thought. No room is left there for us to have any choice in the matter. We are known, known at every level of our being, probably known even at levels of which we are not aware. And we are known by this Other whether or not we choose to be known. The roles we would have chosen - if we could have chosen - are reversed. We might choose to know others, or even to know God, the Other, but to limit the knowledge they have about us, because knowledge represents power. To know someone is to have a measure of power over them. When we know another person or a bit of fresh gossip about them, we can make predictions, forecast their behavior, and we can use that knowledge to suit our purposes.

We are understandably reluctant to hand over such power to someone else. But the psalmist is aware that he is known, was known, and will be known by this Other so completely that he has given up trying to understand it:

“God, how hard it is to grasp your thoughts!
How impossible to count them!”1

The roles we would choose are reversed. We are known, like it or not. The very idea can be threatening. To what use might the power of such knowledge be put? Is the purpose behind such knowing malevolent or benevolent, evil or kind?

“My Father,” Jesus said, “if this cup cannot pass by without my drinking it, your will be done!”2

Christian believers answer the question of the intention behind God’s intimate knowledge by pointing to Jesus. It is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the attitude that Jesus expressed toward God in the midst of it all that convinces Christians that God’s intentions toward us are benevolent, are filled with loving purpose for the world he has created.

We are not only known, we are loved. God has demonstrated, through Jesus, that God’s love for us is as direct, complete, even embarrassing, as God’s knowledge of us. God comes close to us, it might even occur to us that God comes too close for comfort. Again, we may be struck by an impulse to protect ourselves from the ultraviolet rays of such penetrating love. We want to choose our loves. We don’t necessarily want to be chosen. But if we are known so intimately, loved so completely and with such familiarity that we can call the maker of all that exists our “Father,” our “Abba,” our “Daddy,” then we must also be claimed by God, no matter what we do. Paul wrote,

“Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ... For I am certain of this: neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, or height or depth, nor any created thing, can ever come between us and the love God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.”3

As we gather in the church or a nondescript chapel in the funeral home, trying nervously not to think too hard about what has happened to old uncle Stan, the preacher stands behind the pulpit and declares to us that there is nothing that can come between God and Stan, especially not now: no disease, no eight months in a coma, no cerebral hemorrhage, no coffin, no grave, nothing at all. God claims us. God’s knowledge of us goes beyond a detached interest, God’s love for us goes beyond a momentary infatuation, God’s intimacy with us lays claim to us. “I know my own and my own know me...”4 It is not the knowing that matters as much as knowing we are God’s own. It is not a knowing that is the result of some objective, scientific scrutiny, but a knowing that issues from personal contact and interest and desire for relationship.

God lays claim to us. God’s knowledge, love, and call to be God’s chosen ones all lay claim to us. But like a kind lover, God does not force the advantage. There is always an escape clause, the possibility of refusal. God’s love is such that inasmuch as it is freely given, God desires that it be freely returned.

We live in a time in which our own culture places obstacles in our way as God seeks to establish an intimate relationship with us. Once, a football coach was being honored at halftime. One of his former players, now a portly businessman, read over the loudspeaker the words that were engraved on the plaque:

“He never did anything that he would have to apologize to God for.”

There was thunderous applause (In spite of the fact that the statement on the plaque ended a sentence with a preposition). The coach humbly received his award and returned to his seat. Such is the view of God in our culture of non-intimacy. God is the keeper of the score card. God’s interest in us is seemingly limited to the role of police officer, enforcer.

Our culture of non-intimacy simply does not foster a sense of being known through and through by a loving, benevolent God. Its sense of God is more likely to be one which - if it views God at all - views him as adversary, as the keeper of the heavenly gate, stickler for the heavenly rules, frowning down upon us from his distant, high heaven. How far removed this is from the God who watched the psalmist’s bones being knitted in the womb!

Small wonder that when I have sometimes read Psalm 139 at funerals, I am often asked if it really comes from the Bible. It is so foreign to what so many think and feel about God from day to day.

The first cultural obstacle to modern day relationship with the God of intimacy is a popular view of God as One who knows but who does not necessarily love.

A second obstacle is even more ingrained. Our age has long since embarked upon a course of seeking the good through the assertion of individualism. When we are not healthy or in good mental balance, we are encouraged to “find ourselves,” to dig into the resources that are within us, to live up to our own individual potentials, to fulfill ourselves. When we are in conflict with others, we are encouraged to let others “own” their own problems; seldom are we encouraged to bear each other’s burdens. When friendships are not fulfilling, there is little encouragement to remain friends with another person for the sake of the relationship itself. We are told, in many ways, that the answers to all our troubles lie within ourselves, and that we are not responsible for the troubles of others. I recently saw a rewording of the old aphorism, “to err is human, to forgive, divine.” The new translation goes, “to err is dysfunctional, to forgive, co-dependent.”

“The trouble with the consciousness movement is not that it addresses trivial or unreal issues but that it provides self-defeating solutions. Arising out of a pervasive dissatisfaction with the quality of personal relations, it advises people not to make too large an investment in love and friendship, to avoid excessive dependency on others, and to live for the moment - the very conditions that created the crisis of personal relations in the first place.”5

The recognition of God’s intimate and loving knowledge of us from birth, through and beyond death, calls the myth of self-reliance into question. If we affirm, with the psalmist, that God’s deep knowledge of us is accompanied by his loving care and concern, then cause for relationship with God is established.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” In the end, the psalm concludes where every true disciple must: that a God who so demonstrably knows and loves us is worthy to see even the wickedness within us, so that it may be purged away. The psalmist throws himself on the mercy of the court, for that mercy has been tried and found sufficient.

Sufficient then, sufficient now. Sufficient for you and sufficient for me. Praise God.

copyright © 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Psalm 139:17, Jerusalem Version
2 Matthew 26:42
3 Romans 8:35-39
4 John 10:14
5 Lasch, Christopher, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, Norton, 1979.