SERMON for the second Sunday of Epiphany

SERMON for the second Sunday of Epiphany

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Graham Low on 14th January 2024

A few words about Psalm 139. One of the basic questions that faces every human being is how we as individuals find a place of contentment and meaning in the often hostile world, or the universe. In view of this challenge which we all face it is hardly surprising that Psalm 139 has had a huge appeal to people down the ages. This is a wonderful hymn from the heart of Israelic thought which sings not only about a God who acres for us. It sings also about a God whose being is so intimately linked with our own being that this being it is utterly enfolded in, and shapes each part of each of us as human beings. Todays other readings reveal a God who takes the initiative and claiming each of us as individuals. And so our knowledge of God comes not from superior sill we have developed as human beings, but from God’s knowledge of and care for us.

The first six verses are words about a being which knows that each of stands naked before God: it is absolute, nothing of us is not known to God, not even our most intimate and secret thoughts and desires. There is no concealment. Now at first we may easily find this extremely uncomfortable. The idea that we are linked with a God who knows our inmost thoughts, who utterly invades our sometimes jealously guarded privacy, may seem very intimidating. This God who knows when I sit down and when I rise up may not always seem like a welcome guest.

But one of the wonderful aspects of these lines is that there is no sense of judgement, no sense that the condemnation of a tyrant is around, even though God’s moral perspective is intact. Instead we see a God who is intimately involved in creation at its deepest levels, and continues to engage with it. And we see that this intimacy with creation is particularly directed to the human race, the part of creation with which God has a special relationship. And furthermore this intimacy is particularly directed, not just to any human being, but individually to each of us.

That personal intimacy is emphasized in the frequent use of speech in the first person singular: O Lord you have searched me, known me, You know my rising up and my sitting down. Our translation from the Hebrew into the New Revised Standard Version is accurate and every verse in the first section has reference to I, or me, or my at least once. This reinforces for us that this is not an abstract philosophical discussion about a remote entity. It is about me and my God. This very skilled and beautiful literature has an irresistible intimate allure for us now, as it has down the ages.

There is a point of climax in verse 6. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, so high that I cannot attain it. Here the encounter with God is not some kind of union with God, or mastery over God. While God may know me more intimately than I know myself, I do not have such intimate knowledge of God. Instead I place myself before God in wonder and awe. This God cannot possibly be fully known by human beings. We may note that there is no direct mention anywhere in the Psalm about God’s love for individuals, or for God’s partner in the covenant, Israel. But this may be explained by knowing the culture in which the Psalm was written: the idols of nations were subject to human manipulation and control. The God of Israel is utterly unlike this. This God far outreaches all human efforts of contrivance or containment.

The extraordinary claim here is that this God actually seek us out, and even more extraordinary seeks each of us as individuals. From this we can begin to understand ourselves and give ourselves an identity as one of God’s beloved. If we have any doubts about this love, they may be countered by reading verses 9 and10, which are missing from the set reading, which states: even if I settle at the farthest limits of the earth, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

Verses 12-18 form the second part of this reading. They enlarge on the thems of the earlier verses. Here the Psalmis stresses that God’s involvement in each of our lives is not an ad hoc relationship, or a kind of afterthought. You knit me together in my mother’s womb underlines God’s involvement in our own creation. In verse 16 we see not only God’s commitment to the whole of our life span, but God’s premeditation in bring us to the moment of our creation and also the shaping of our life.

When we look at the whole of the verses in today’s reading we can have a sense of the Psalmist’s astonishment and joy. The last verses repeat the sense of verse 6. The exact translation of the end of today’s last verse is “I awake, I am still with you”, which has been interpreted by some as a reference to resurrection. Though this may not be entirely sound, because of the infrequent reference to resurrection in the Old Testament, it is likely that this verse refers to the consummation of the end of an person’s life. The God who is at the beginning of our life is the God who is also there at its end.

The extraordinary reality expressed here is that the God whom we cannot understand, understands, provides for, and loves each one of us. Amen.