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Sunday, August 26, 2018
Scripture: Psalm 139
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
I think one of our basic human desires is that we want to be known. We want someone somewhere in our world to know who we are deeply and intimately. I also think that our socially networked world has made it simultaneously easier to have a superficial knowledge of others and harder to be known fully and well. I read recently that 94% of respondents to a recent poll said, “Nobody really knows me.” This is really a sad statement to me because God has made us for relationships – relationship with God and with others. This survey reveals a deep place of longing and loneliness in our world.
In the 1990s British anthropologist Robin Dunbar performed research that suggested that the human brain can only handle so many social relationships. These stable social relationships max out at 150 people, Dunbar theorized, meaning that any group larger than 150 people pushes beyond our human capacity for each person in the group to know how every other person in the group relates to the other. In other words, beyond 150 people, the group’s ability to truly know each other breaks down. We are a church of over 800 members, with many other people who have never joined us officially but who maintain a relationship with us. You can imagine the challenge we have as a church body in truly knowing each other.
Because of the nature of my work as a pastor and because I have lived in several different places, I have collected a group of friends that is far beyond Dunbar’s 150 number. Social networks like Facebook have allowed me to maintain something of a relationship with people over time and space that would not have been possible in another era. As many problems as social networks have introduced into our lives, I find myself thankful that they make it easy to keep up with people from different periods and places of my life.
Did you know that the average Facebook user has about 338 friends? That’s quite a few – over double of Dunbar’s number. As of the writing of this sermon, I have 914 Facebook friends, which is kind of ludicrous now that I think about it. These 900+ people generally don’t actually know me deeply or intimately. If they’re paying a lot of attention, they might know a curated version of me that reveals only some parts of myself to them. I would guess I could tell you a few things about every person who is my “friend” on Facebook, but that’s a far cry from my knowing them or they knowing me.
We want to be known, don’t we? We want others to understand us for all our complexity and depth, not just by basic categories. I am far more than a pastor or a father or a husband or a student or an athlete. My beliefs cannot be reduced to simple categories. And we’re truly all that way.
But God knows us. Truly. Deeply. Intimately. God knows us better than we will ever know ourselves.
We’ve spent much of the summer talking about David, and this is the last Sunday where David will be our focus. Psalm 139 is attributed to him, and, to my mind, it’s one of the most beautiful poems ever written. It is a psalm that beautifully illustrates the height, depth, and breadth of God’s loving knowledge of us. I’ll get to David in a little bit, but I wanted to take our final look at David by redeeming him a bit. David was a lot of things, but one of his legacies is his art. None of the music he played for King Saul is preserved, but some of his poems are captured by the psalms. His writings are a master lesson in prayer and in considering the mysteries of God.
Psalm 139 itself is beautiful in words but also in structure. It is poetry. This psalm can be broken down into four units that are six verses long each. It’s actually pretty rare for a church to read the whole psalm, but I wanted us to do it today because I think it really captures David so well.
This psalm begins with six verses that highlight God’s intimate knowledge of David. It begins with the same plea it will end with, “Search me and know me, God.” The Message puts it this way, “God, investigate my life; get all the facts firsthand. I’m an open book to you; even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.” Six times in these first six verses David uses the word “knowledge.” God knows us. And his knowing is more than just a list of who we are or of what we have done. God knows us better than we know ourselves. There is divine intimacy in this description. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,” David writes.
The next six verses move into God’s presence everywhere. Even if a person didn’t want to be known by God, it wouldn’t matter. There’s nowhere that person can go to get away from God. Can we go so high that we can escape God’s notice? No! God is in the heavens. Can we go so low that God will ignore us? No! Even in Sheol – that is the place of the dead, the place where it would be easiest to assume God would not be – even in Sheol, God is there! Maybe we could try a different direction and set sail for the further horizon, but God is also there, guiding, loving, protecting. This intimate knowledge of God is everywhere, all the time. (This really reminds me of the backpack tags our kids are carrying to school this year!) God’s intimate knowledge of us goes everywhere. There is nowhere we can go and nowhere we can hide that escapes God’s loving notice.
David goes even further in the next six verses. Even if we became time travelers, God would still know everything about us. God knew us before we were born. God knew our steps before we took them. Stan Mast captures this so beautifully, “Our entire existence is encompassed within the reality of God.” For eighteen verses, David is setting up his case before God. He is saying, “God, you know everything about me. You know my thoughts and my deeds. Your love never gives up on me.”
All of this striking poetry has led to the final six verses. These are usually the verses we skip in church because they sound petty and not particularly like we’d expect from the church. David gets down to what’s on his mind:
O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
Why are such harsh words there in such an otherwise lovely psalm? They just don’t feel like they belong. But they are there because David feels wronged. David believes that God knows him perfectly, so David is proclaiming his innocence before God, and he wants vindication in front of those who would seek to treat him unjustly. We really cannot know the circumstances of why David feels wrongly accused, but his desire to lay himself bare before the One who knows him better than any other person ever will surely is a move in the right direction. David finds comfort in God knowing him so well. Perhaps others would find it a threat. “If we are trying to flee from God’s presence, God’s omniscience and omnipresence will seem oppressive. If we are resting in the hollow of God’s hand, we can take deep comfort from the words of the Psalm.”
I find it truly interesting that David trusts God this much because we all know David – the heights he reached and the depths to which he descended. This summer we have walked with him through it all. We began with God calling him from the fields to save the people from Goliath. We walked with him as he faithfully and slowly worked his way toward being the king, even while his life was under threat. We have seen him as a shepherd, a musician, a warrior, a poet, and a leader. But we have also seen him at his worst, most notably in his behavior that began when his eyes wandered to Bathsheba. From there David became an adulterer, a murderer, a dehumanizer, and so much more. His family tree fell apart at the seams over power plays and uncontrolled desire.
As we mapped out preaching on David, I found myself growing in my anger towards him. He was not the man I thought he was from my Sunday School days! He was cruel and vicious. He was lost and not doing a good job of redeeming himself. I told Jill multiple times, “Which week do we want to kill off David? I’ve had enough of him!” But as I looked to wrap things up, I was drawn to redeeming him. His death as recorded in 2 Samuel and the beginning of 1 Kings is kind of sad. He fades into nonexistence as his son Solomon takes center stage. I wanted to leave us with some redemption of him.
God knew David and paid attention to the details of his life. God was with him at his best, and God was with him at his worst. There was nowhere he could flee from God’s presence. There was no time when God was unaware of David’s deeds – for good or for ill.
The same goes for us. In a world where we know so many people superficially, God knows us inside and out. In a world where we can carefully curate our image so that others only see our best selves, God knows our secrets and our pain. In a world where it feels like our cries for justice or peace go unheard, God knows them before we ever utter them. We are known. God knows us. We are loved. God loves us.
Whenever I feel low, especially in my soul, I come back to this psalm. It speaks truth deep down to me that God knows me better than I know myself. God loves me more than I can love myself. God hears. God cares. God watches over. God is there. As lovely as my 914 Facebook friends are, they can never know me the way God does. Even if I cut things down to 150 of my closest relationships, they still couldn’t match the intimate and loving knowledge of God for me. This psalm is an anchor for my soul, a place I can turn to so that my soul can find some rest.
I pray for each of you today, too, that this psalm would become a part of your own heart language. Like David, we’re all mixed bags of good and bad, of beauty and pain. Still, God is there with us in the beautiful mess. Even when we come to our end – God will still be with us. And that is good news.