Sermon 1-17-21 The Rev Jen Van Zandt
“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. 3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. 5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. 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.”
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
What Then Shall We Say?
As we try to sort through the horrific events at the capitol last week, whilst being deeply preoccupied by threats and protests and violence at every state capital this Sunday (we’re obviously pre-recording this), we await with anxious hearts over a peaceful and safe transition of power. We’re also awaiting with anxious hearts as to when the vaccine will be available; when our children and grandchildren can return safely to school; when we can go back to our offices, have larger family events; and, of course, gather again safely to worship. As Paul writes, “What can we say about all these things?” Just to be clear, I am intentionally taking this out of context, because I’ve been pondering this verse in light of all that we have endured, and are enduring, and will have to endure a while longer. What do we say about all these things that continue to be unfathomable? Rarely does a week go by when someone asks me, “Do you think this is actually part of God’s plan?”
While there are certainly plenty of religious and political leaders who believe that the death and this destruction from Covid and abuse of power is seen as ‘righting wrongs’ and ‘teaching people a lesson’, that surely is not Presbyterian theology and certainly not mine. It’s also not the Gospel, especially highlighted in these two particular texts. Psalm 139 is the clearest example of the most intimate connection between the psalmist and God. It’s also unique in other ways as well.
First, the psalmist actually doesn’t ask for anything, well until the very end. Most psalms, as you know, are pleas for God’s intervention to stop something, provide for something, or fix or reverse the psalmist’s plight or to eschew and actually destroy all enemies of self and God. And that’s why they’re also beloved. They give voice to the things that we are thinking and feeling and even saying.
So why Psalm 139 today when so many other psalms may be apparently a better fit? Maybe at first glance. Just hang in with me. Instead of jumping right into the petition or supplication which in layman’s terms means a prayer of “Please God help me heal or help someone else”, this psalmist is able to step away from the chaos of all that distracts and actually ponder out loud, at a deeper level: the joy, the relief, the miracle and the true mystery of God’s constant, unconditional, unending and comforting presence. That’s not something that many of us are prone to, especially in the anxious life and times we are living now.
Verses one through six particularly lay out the multi-dimensional presence of God–a presence that’s not a hovering God, like a parent or a teacher, standing over us to see if we’re doing our homework or misbehaving. No, this presence is like a gentle but constant breeze that warms our faces, swirls in our hair and brings us fresh oxygen to breathe (without masks!). This presence is not something we have to ask for. It is already given. It is part of the covenant that God made with Israel and us; that Yahweh would be our God and we would be God’s people.
In modern terms, the difference between hopingGod will do something and understanding God’s presence is a simple word and it’s laced all throughout this psalm. KNOW. This psalmist knowsand trusts and relies and celebrates this inexplicable mystery of this gift of God’s presence. But knowing God’s presence is with us can make all the difference in how we act and react to news of any sort. Let me share a real-time example.
As I was writing this sermon, I got a phone call. I don’t usually ever answer my phone or even have it nearby to avoid any and all distractions, but I answered it because it’s the hospital where my father currently is and has been since Tuesday. The Dr. tells me that he’s in a surgical suite and they’re looking for internal bleeding. I’ll be told the outcome of that later today. And when I immediately got off the phone, I started that rapid-fire prayer that begins with, “Please God, please God, please God…”
I noticed my stomach was clenched. I was rubbing my forehead. I was holding onto my phone with a death grip. Then I caught myself. I took in a deep breath. I sat back in my chair, and remembered the very psalmist’s words. I drank in the presence of God, who knows completely more than I do, of what I’m fearing and what I need, because God looks beyond even those all too familiar human emotions. God looks beyond all of that, deep into our hearts. In that moment I felt surrounded by God and held by God in God’s grasp. My friends, this does not mean that the test results will be what I want and need them to be, but what it does mean is that God’s presence will sustain me regardless.
In Romans 8, Paul fleshes this out even further and speaks even more aptly to the multiple world and national crises we are dealing with. “What then shall we say to these things? I am convinced that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Friends, these words are a gift to us in this day. They will be a gift to us in the days and weeks and months ahead. But, friends, we have to turn over our control. We have to turn over our fear. We have to turn over all things that get in the way of us actually sitting and noticing and allowing God’s presence to shower over us and give us the peace, the peace that passes all human understanding. That is a gift that comes from God. Thanks be to God! Amen.