Sunday, January 14, 2018

Phil Kniss: The searching and finding God

Epiphany 2: Known by God
Psalm 139
John 1:43-51

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One of my favorite psalms, as long as I can remember,
is the one that begins with these words—
“You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.”
For some reason, even as a child, and an adolescent,
I found those words greatly comforting, and encouraging.

The going message, for Christian young people,
in the evangelical waters I often swam in
during the 60s and 70s,
also emphasized this all-knowing characteristic of God,
but it was a message tinged with fear and dread.
As in, God knows your every thought and deed,
so . . . look out.

In contrast, this psalm’s particular angle,
on God’s all-knowing, pursuing nature,
was a deep comfort to me.

In the Bibles I read and marked in during my teenage years,
Psalm 139 was heavily marked with highlighting and underlining.
During my young adult years,
one of things I was known for among my friends,
was playing guitar and writing worship songs—
you didn’t know that about me, did you?
I remember putting almost the entire text of Psalm 139 to music.
That music still rolls around in my head
whenever this Psalm is read, as it was this morning.

So what are we saying, really,
when we say God searches us?
pursues us?
knows us?

That image of God as pursuer strikes me as potentially
being a little unsettling,
maybe even off-putting,
at the very least complicated.

In human experience, we are generally not comforted
when someone who has infinitely more power than us,
knows every move we make,
sees every place we go,
even seems to read our minds.
Are we saying God is a like a cosmic stalker, only a good one?
The psalmist describes it this way.
“Everywhere I try to go to get away,
guess who shows up?
If I fly up into the sky, there you are!
If I go down to the depths of the earth, there again!
If I go to the other side of the ocean . . . hello!!
Where can I go from your presence?”

Those are images that could conjure up fear in us.
But clearly, for the psalmist, these are images of comfort.

“You know me, Lord. Ah . . . you know me.
You knew me while I was being formed in my mothers’ womb.
You know me when I lay down, and when I get up.
You know my thoughts.
You know my ways.
You know me.
And . . . you love me.

That makes all the difference.
Love is the reason for the search.
Love compels God to search and find and know.

Love compels us to know.
In a real way, this is what all of us are doing.
In any good, healthy, and close relationship,
we seek to know the other.
And we seek one who will know us.

In the psalm,
God was not pursuing the psalmist to the other side of the sea,
to prove to him, in some sick way,
that you can run, but you can’t hide!
I’ll always come after you, and find you, so beware!
No! This is a picture of a God pursuing in love.
God wants to be with the psalmist.
This is an Old Testament image of Emmanuel,
the incarnate God-with-us,
that we know in Jesus.
This is love personified.

I think that’s why I was so drawn to this psalm from my youth.
As many young people do,
I went through a stage (actually, stages)
where I was a bit confused about who I was.
I wasn’t sure I knew myself very well,
which, of course, makes it difficult to love yourself.
So especially in those seasons of self-doubt, of uncertainty,
of not being clear on which direction my life needed to go,
up to the skies?
into the depths?
to the other side of the ocean?
especially in those seasons of turmoil,
it was a comfort to open this psalm
and see that wherever I went,
God would already be there,
knowing me, and loving me.

This is the same sort of thing going on in today’s Gospel reading,
where Jesus called Philip and Nathanael to be his disciples.
Great story!

The key moment in this story, in my mind,
is Nathanael’s first face-to-face encounter with Jesus.
Philip was first called to follow Jesus,
then Philip went and got Nathanael,
and told him, “You’ve got to see this!
We have found the one!
Jesus of Nazareth.”
Nathanael was skeptical, hearing Jesus was from Nazareth!
But he went, at Philip’s urging.

And when Nathanael approached Jesus, this was the interchange:
Jesus: “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
Nathanael: “How do you know me?”
Jesus: “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree 
before Philip called you.”
Nathanael: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; 
you are the king of Israel.”
Jesus: “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree.
You will see greater things than that.”

These Gospel stories are collected and told
so we get a glimpse into the person of Jesus
and the nature of the Good News of God’s Kingdom.
I used to think this was a story about
Jesus’ miraculous telepathic powers,
to see Nathanael sitting under a fig tree far away.
But that’s not the point of the story, it seems to me.
In this story we see that even before
Nathanael started his journey as a disciple of Jesus,
Jesus knew him and loved him.
Jesus recognized him as a person of integrity,
someone in whom “there is no deceit.”
It’s a picture of God’s pursuing love and knowledge of us,
that God, in Christ, knows and loves us,
even before we know and love ourselves.
It’s demonstrated here in the earthly ministry of Jesus,
but it’s also an eternal part of God’s nature,
still present with us by the Holy Spirit.

Both texts this morning underscore this reality.
God searches and finds, always,
in order to show us the depth of love God has for us.
We could say that God is the “hound of heaven,”
as the English poet Francis Thompson put it.
And that’s okay, as long as we don’t distort the metaphor.
Because God does not track us down,
like a bloodhound leading a troop of officers,
in order to catch the criminal and lay down the law.
God pursues us in order to be with us, Emmanuel,
because God loves us and longs for our company.
God may be more like a beloved pet hound,
who will do anything to find us and be with us
if we happen to wander away.

This picture of God is Good News for us today,
not only because of the benefit we ourselves receive
from a relationship with a searching and finding and loving God.

It’s also Good News because the picture is instructive for us.
It gives us a picture to model ourselves after.
It teaches us what authentic love looks like.
It gives us a glimpse into how we are to love God.
How we are to love our neighbor.
How we are to love ourselves.
How we are to love our enemies.

God’s love is persistent, just as ours should be.
We don’t give up the search
upon our first failure to find.
Just because what we were looking for,
didn’t show up where we thought it should be,
is no reason to stop looking.

And God’s searching pursuit of knowledge of us,
is not to condemn us,
but to bring us a full and rich life.
That way of loving is a model for how we might love.
We don’t try to get close to others,
and learn what makes them tick,
in order to advance our own interests.
That’s very easy to do, by the way.
And something we are all guilty of from time to time.

When we are trying to establish ourselves and our position,
or the legitimacy of our beliefs,
if we are trying to pursue an agenda,
or solidify our own reputation,
we are often tempted to use other people to accomplish that.

This can be true for both our friends and adversaries.
By gaining more knowledge of and about them,
we can make our friends
instruments of our own agenda,
and in the case of our adversaries,
we can use the dirt we find on them
to bolster our own position in the eyes of others.
We all are prone to do this.

It’s easy to see when others are doing it.
It’s glaringly easy to see when it happens in the political arena,
like it does nearly every moment of every day.
That’s the way the political game works.
Using knowledge to gain a political advantage.

But we are also guilty of using others in this way—
in the workplace,
in our neighborhood,
in our church,
in our families, and yes,
even in our marriages and other intimate relationships.

There, the pure pursuit of knowledge has been corrupted.
When we use our knowledge
to set ourselves above and apart from others—
we are not embodying the love of our all-knowing God.

But love modeled after the searching, finding, knowing God
that we see in Psalm 139,
is a love that pursues entirely for sake of the other.
It is a pure love, because it comes from God.
And that kind of unconditional and other-directed love
will elicit in the other a more generous response,
than anything we could ever manipulate from them.
One who is loved in this way,
is more likely to open themselves to us, in return.

We see that very thing unfold at the end of Psalm 139.
After reflecting on all these ways that God was pursuing him,
the psalmist concludes by saying to God,
“I’m yours! I’m all in, as I am.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.”

That’s what God was after from the start.
That kind of vulnerability and receptivity.
That response was not coerced. It was invited.
And God’s loving pursuit brought it out of him.

This is the kind of knowledge contained in a song
that we have learned to love to sing at this church.
Turn to STS 121.
We’re going to sing it in a minute.

This song and today’s scriptures, articulate a view of God
that stands in contrast to two other popular views of God—
distorted views, in my opinion.

One view, that many hold,
is that God manages and controls every happening in our world.
That God sits at a big control panel in the sky, pulling switches,
causing . . . every circumstance people face in life.

The other popular view, the opposite one,
is that God is aloof, and unknowing, and uncaring.
That if anything good happens in the world,
it is purely by our human good will and good effort.
That if God was the original Creator,
now things are just taking their course,
with God watching from far away, if at all.
That God is a force or energy field, not a loving being,
interested and active in the world today.

This song, and Psalm 139, dispute both those views, powerfully

Nothing is lost on the breath of God . . .
no suffering, large or small, goes unnoticed.
No, God is not directing every feather and grain of dust,
causing every impulse of every creature,
making things begin too late, or end too soon.
But nothing is lost on God.
God knows, sees, loves,
no matter what happens in life, large or small . . .
God’s breath is love, and that love will remain,
holding the world forever.

Look at the end of the third verse.
This one pulls some people up short, because it is misread.
Some things do begin too late.
Some lives do end too soon.
This song does not say God pulled a switch too soon, or too late.
No, it says God knows, sees, and loves, in those situations.

There is no premature or tragic death,
but is gathered by God . . . and known.
God sees with love, and that love will remain.
God’s heart is love, and that love will remain,
holding the world, holding us,
no matter what.

Nothing is lost on the God
who searches, who finds, who sees, who knows, who loves.
We can be certain of that.

—Phil Kniss, January 14, 2018

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