A sermon based on Psalm 139 preached on July 6th, 2014.
“He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”
No, those are not words from scripture. They are words of a song many of us sing every year around Christmas about Santa Claus. And even though we are here at the beginning of July—with no hint of Christmas in the air, let’s spend a minute thinking about these words from this Christmas song, because, believe it or not, I think doing so will help us understand Psalm 139 better.
The words of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” are an exciting way for kids to learn a lesson about the rewards of good behavior. This song is a friend of many parents whose children behave better because they know a jolly old man in red is looking upon them, adding and subtracting toys from their Christmas stash based upon their behavior.
According to this Christmas carol, Santa Claus is all-knowing, and his ever-present eyes see everything kids do, and the size of his generosity depends on each child’s behavior.
Santa is a stressed-out parent’s best friend. He takes away harshly as much as he gives generously, and that giving or that taking away—bestowing on children enough gifts to fill a swimming pool or harshly leaving them with nothing but a lump of coal on Christmas morning—depends not upon his goodness but upon the goodness of each child.
There is no aspect of our lives that is concealed from this man who lives at the North Pole, so as the song urges, “We better watch out!”
The words of Psalm 139 are some of the most beautiful words of scripture. There really is no better poetry than this.
The psalmist writes about a God who knows him intimately—who knows us all intimately. The Psalmist declares that God has examined him and knows him better than he knows himself. God knows of us even before we were born. God knitted us together in the womb. God knows our inmost thoughts. For some, that might be a threatening idea—God knows our thoughts, but notice the Psalmist doesn’t seem to feel threatened by that.
Some have this idea that God is like Santa Claus—sitting somewhere up North keeping a list of good and bad behavior—records on each of us—lists of who’s naughty and who’s nice. And haven’t we been taught that one day we will all be judged according to those standards—that God will open the big book of life—which by now, we have to imagine, must be converted into a searchable database—and God will tabulate all of that information—all of those naughty things and all of those nice things and reward or punish us based upon the results. If we think of God like this—a God who judges much like Santa Claus does, being known can feel more like a threat of vengeance than a promise of love. Every kid who’s ever received a lump of coal as their only Christmas gift knows something about that.
Notice that even though the psalmist declares that God knows his inmost thoughts and desires—all the beautiful and all the ugly—he doesn’t seem concerned about any sort of punishment. In fact this Psalmist seems comforted by the idea that God knows everything about him. God knows us intimately, but that doesn’t mean we are under God’s thorough judgment. God knows of our brokenness and failures but there’s no thought here that God keeps tabs on any of it. God knows us in a way that shouldn’t make us fearful or threatened because God’s knowledge of us is not a judging knowledge.
Here the Psalmist hands over every part of himself to be known by God because he understands that God doesn’t keep score. God does not keep a naughty or nice list. God is not in the record-keeping business.
The psalmist spills it all to God not in confession but as a way of handing over every bit of himself so that he can be in full relationship with God. That’s what God desires. That’s what kind of business God is into—the relationship business. God knows us not in order to judge us but to draw us into closer relationship with God.
As this Psalmist sings his song, it dawns on him how intimately God has always known him. Over and over again, scripture tells us that God gives everything that God has to be in relationship with each of us, and over and over again it turns out that what matters most is not how big we screw up but how big God loves us even when we do. That is the story of the bible. It’s the Psalmist’s story, and that’s the story of our faith.
That is God’s story, too. God spends time carefully creating us, knowing us deeply, loving us completely, and pursuing us relentlessly. This loving and stubborn and patient God searches for us all the days of our life.
Whenever we baptize someone into the family of faith, we celebrate God’s story. Shannon and Michelle, Wesley’s baptism is just a marker on the long road that you will help Wesley walk as he grows into the person God has created him to be.
In essence, baptism is a sign that points both backward and forward. Baptism is a backwards-pointing sign because it is a symbol of something that has already been declared—God has called Wesley his beloved child before you even knew him. Baptism is also a forward-pointing sign because in baptizing Wesley, you have made a big promise to raise him in the ways of Jesus, to teach him to love others more than he loves himself, to teach him to live his life not for himself but for his neighbors, and to do your part to shape him into a person who seeks to do God’s will rather than his own.
The good news is that you don’t have to teach Wesley all that by yourself. Just as Emily was and now Wesley is baptized in the community of the faithful, it is important that they also be raised by a community of the faithful. We come to know God only when we extend ourselves outward and fellowship and worship with other Christians.
It’s hard to find genuine relationship these days—especially in our individualistic culture.
A community of faith is one of the only places left in our culture that offers true relationship—the right church is one of those safe places where we are loved not because of what we can do—not appreciated only if we bring added value to the situation—a good community of faith is one where people are loved and valued simply because we are seen for what we are: children of God.
Church is one of those rare places where we can teach our kids, and learn for ourselves, what our culture has stopped learning: that being in community matters—that we belong. We belong in community and we belong to God, and in faithful community, we are loved just as we are—no strings attached. No naughty or nice lists kept.
So perhaps this Independence weekend, we should take some time to celebrate our interdependence. We might be the only ones doing such a crazy thing!
In a society where rugged individualism is celebrated as the ideal, we who call each other children of God gather together to celebrate that we belong to one another. We gather to celebrate that we are each called God’s sons and daughters. We gather to celebrate that we are bound together into one body—the body of Christ, the One who came to say with his life that we are created, known, and loved by God far more than we will ever be able to fathom.
In a country full of do-it-yourselfers, and self-starters, we gather around that baptismal font to declare that we cannot make it on our own. Wesley cannot make it on his own. I cannot make it on my own. None of us can live this life independently. In the waters of baptism, we proclaim and celebrate that we belong to one another and to a God who has created us, knows us, and loves us just as we are. That our lives our not our own.
So, happy Interdependence Day!
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful.