Grace Presbyterian Church
January 17, 2021, Epiphany 2B
The One Who Knows
When I was a young lad in Sunday school, one particular part of our learning somehow involved learning a series of particular attributes of God. In this case the attributes were summed up in three words, each of which began with the prefix “omni-,” which of course roughly translates as “all-.” The first was “omnipotent,” or all-powerful. I was a geeky enough child that it was fairly easy to figure out, because I somewhat knew the word “potent.” The next was “omnipresent,” a fancy way of saying God was everywhere and even easier to figure out.
The third word required a little more work to understand and was therefore (to me at least) the most fascinating of the bunch. God is, by this description, “omniscient.” I had to work a little harder for this one, as my teacher kept conflating the ideas that God is “all-knowing” (which would be the approximate translation of the world) and “all-seeing,” which to my still-developing mind was a different, if related, thing. Even so it’s clear enough that (especially speaking of God) the two things – knowing and seeing – do go together quite well.
Something along these lines is clearly what is going on in the psalmist’s mind in Psalm 139; a God who knows all and sees all, with all that knowing and seeing trained specifically on the psalmist.
It’s not hard to see how this psalm was appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary for this day, given the readings from Hebrew scripture and from the gospel of John already in place. The passage from 1 Samuel tells of God’s calling of the boy by that name, who had been dedicated to the Lord from birth and worked and lived in the Temple in service to the priest, at this time a corrupt old man named Eli. It took a few tries to get through Samuel’s youthful ignorance and Eli’s absence from God, but at long last Eli remembered his calling and taught Samuel what to do the next time the Lord spoke.
In the gospel reading, the “all-seeing” and “all-knowing” nature of God in Jesus is made even more explicit, as the recalcitrant Nathaniel is gobsmacked to learn that Jesus saw him under a fig tree before Philip had even come to tell him (Nathaniel) about Jesus. This extracts a great confession from Nathaniel about this Jesus he was just meeting, to which Jesus replied in essence that if you thought that was big, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Indeed the idea of God (again, in Jesus) as all-knowing and all-seeing is made explicit here, and even suggested as kind of a “no big deal” attribute – there are far more arresting and magnificent things yet to be seen.
For the psalmist, though, things are more personal. That is clear from the very first verse: “you have searched me and known me,” the psalmist sings. It is a staggering thought, that one’s very words and thoughts are known to God even before they are known to the psalmist. The psalmist admits as much in verse 6: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.”
It is at this point that I must confess that I regret not having Russel Rumenik read the intervening verses here as part of the psalm reading. The developers of the Revised Common Lectionary had their reasons for keeping them out, I am sure, but I have come to believe that we can miss the fullness of this psalm if we don’t take in verses 7-12, if we don’t acknowledge that there are times when such knowledge, knowledge of just how completely God knows and sees us, can seem something less than “wonderful”:
Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
This begins, at least, to sound a little more ominous. There is nowhere to go, the psalmist muses, where God is not. Even Sheol (a Hebraic concept of the underworld, not to be confused with the later concept of Hell) offers no escape from the Lord, in the psalmist’s understanding. There is even no darkness from which one can be hidden from God, if “night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light” to the Lord.
Let this sink in.
Nothing about us is hidden from the Lord. Nothing.
That’s all fine and good when we are, say, gathered like this, even in this virtual space, for scripture and proclamation and prayer and song. We’re good with showing this to God. We feel all righteous and proper and churchy and we want to make sure God sees us like this.
But that doesn’t apply to our whole lives, not as long as we’re human beings.
There are times when our thoughts are more like those expressed by the psalmist towards the end of the psalm, the other part left out of the lectionary:
O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me – those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil.
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
No, no human being is immune to the violence of thought and attitude captured here in this, in which the psalmist is in the position of becoming what he says he hates. No wonder the psalm ends with words of chastised confession and petition:
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.
It is a challenging spot to be in.
Even for those who would cloak their evil actions or desires in God-talk – like the man charged in a plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan, who claimed (according to court testimony Wednesday) that God had given him permission to kill – cannot hide their corruption and hatred from God. God isn’t fooled by fervent-sounding prayers and churchy-sounding songs and t-shirts full of “God” this and “Jesus” that. God sees the darkness and knows it.
But even those of us who aren’t plotting an attack on one Capitol or another can’t claim to be without those darknesses and petty sins we would hide from God. We can’t, not from the all-seeing and all-knowing God. Politicians who hide their true motives behind calls for “unity” and “healing” cannot hide their sinfulness from God. Those who indulge in hatred disguised as fear cannot hide their sinfulness from God. None of us can hide our sinfulness from God, no matter how great or small by comparison to the sins of another.
This is a tremendous challenge in clouded and divisive times such as these. It is still imperative that we do justice, as Micah and Amos and numerous other prophets (not to mention, oh, Jesus) demand throughout scripture. That call cannot be overruled by anything else in scripture. We are not, however, free to “go dark” ourselves in pursuit of those things necessary to bring forth justice. We are not free to be ungodly in the name of God. We are not free to be ungodly even when opposed to those being ungodly in the name of God. God knows and God sees.
Indeed, we truly have no recourse but to plead with the psalmist, for God to “see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” We cannot claim to be unblemished in God’s eyes; God sees and God knows.
For the God who has searched us and known us, from whose presence we cannot flee, who made us fearfully and wonderfully, and who leads us in the way everlasting; Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #686, God of Our Life; #634, To God Be the Glory
 “Man charged in alleged plot to kidnap Michigan governor says God gave him permission to kill,” Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2021-01-14/man-charged-in-alleged-plot-to-kidnap-michigan-governor-says-god-gave-him-permission-to-kill (accessed 1/14/21).