Cherished (Psalm 139:1-12; Acts 17:22-31; John 14:15-21)
I want to be honest with you. I have never been able to connect very well with the passages in today’s lectionary readings. I do OK with the Psalm that forms the Old Testament Lesson, but the other two have been, through the years, pretty difficult and opaque to me. As time has gone on, I have also had more and more difficulty preaching and teaching what doesn’t, first, make sense to me. This isn’t an intellectual issue – I can figure out the meaning of the passages all right, what I struggle with is their significance for me or us. These aren’t, by any means, the only passages in the Bible that are that way, and, for me, this means that I have to work very hard on them, and I’m glad that I had a week off to think about them. Now, perhaps, a minister shouldn’t admit that the Bible sometimes escapes him or her, but it’s true at least of me, and maybe others. Maybe, you’ve found it true for you as well, and I encourage you to keep on trying until something works. Let’s see what happens.
It is clear that these passages all work together to speak to us about our God. Let me start with the easy part. At least in the part of Psalm 139 that we read this morning, we find two things about God. first, we find that God knows us, and second that God is with us wherever we are. Knowing ourselves to be imperfect creatures, either thing could terrify us since it means that we hide nothing from God the way we do from one another and even ourselves. We are, so to speak, transparent to God who simply knows us at the depths of our real being. If that is true, then it seems that it makes all the difference what kind of God we have. If God is cold, judgmental, and waiting for us to make a mistake so as to punish us either in this world or the next, then we would be right to be terrified. I have known some of my students who were going out into ministry, and many of the folk in the churches they would serve, who have been taught that God is like that. I am sorry I could not convince many of them that it is otherwise.
Nonetheless, in Psalm 139, there is no sense in which the psalmist seems terrified, or in any way off-put by the fact that God knows us completely. I think that is because of the second thing about God: God is with us – maybe better – stays with us, wherever we are. And this “wherever” is not simply geographic, but behavioural and intellectual. Perhaps, in spite of the fact that God knows us (including all those little [and big] things we think and do that we’d rather nobody would know), God doesn’t abandon us. No, God is present with us, not to judge us but to accompany us. We can’t go into a far enough place, geographically, spiritually, doctrinally, intellectually, whether the heights or depths, the light or the darkness, the far reaches of the galaxy, that God is not simply together with us. God is the environment of our lives, whether we know it or not. In the part of this Psalm that we didn’t read, the psalmist goes on to give one reason for God’s presence with us. God is our creator. My own guess is that the words of this psalm were written by one who had been to the backside of hell in exile, persecution, marginalization and defeat. And, there in the midst of it all, was God, still there, still accompanying. We often think and pray that God will simply keep us from all those horrid things that, frankly, everyone must live through. That’s not life! What is (or can be) life, is that God is present with us in the midst of it all with abundance of goodness and love, made real by the fact that God knows us as our creator. Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” This Psalm encourages us to get to a place where we can trust ourselves to keep going with this God. For God goes through hell with us to keep us going. Now, I have to tell you, I’ve never had trouble understanding and finding a depth of meaning in this Psalm. My trouble has always come in what these two New Testament passages contribute.
The Gospel Lesson is from that special section of John’s Gospel that is his unique story of how Jesus spoke to his disciples in the Upper Room on the night of his betrayal. Many Bible scholars, preachers, and theologians get very deep and, frankly, long-winded, about all this. It becomes all about the nature of the persons in the Godhead. I’m not sure we have to go there, although I understand how many do.
Rather, I think that the Gospel Lesson today centres in the discipline of loving Jesus by adopting the values he taught and by which he lived and died. If we do that, Jesus said, God will send one called the Paraclete (variously translated as Advocate, Comforter, Counselor, Helper) to continue the spiritual linkage of the disciples with Jesus after he is physically no longer with them. Jesus called this one the Spirit of Truth, most have concluded that this is the Holy Spirit (and I think they’re right).
I have no doubt that John was saying something very important to those in his congregation who were wondering, now that Jesus had not been physically present for about six decades, whether they could have a connection with God that was any different than their Jewish or non-Jewish neighbours? Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly what made them wonder that, but it seems important for us, and followers of Jesus in any age, beyond the first, to be confident that they are connected with the God Jesus taught his disciples to love in spite of the lack of Jesus’ physical presence.
One of our problems with understanding the Bible is not so much what it says, but what some 20 centuries of Bible interpreters have said it did. And some of that interpretation has gotten very ethereal and mystical, and less than connected to real life in the world. Now, I’ve been here in this congregation long enough for you to know that I’m about as ethereal and mystical as a slab of granite, and so, I’m left rather puzzled, not so much with being able to grasp this intellectually, or even to say it’s worthy of thought and affirmation, but what with what to do practically, with lines like “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you?” Again, this doesn’t touch me except as a list of things to affirm, and I’ve not been helped by long discussions of the Trinity.
Recently, however, two things happened to point me in what I think is a good direction. One was my re-reading of Psalm 139 that talks about God’s presence in the ways I have described to you this morning. The second was some other reading that I have been doing in John’s Gospel that simply pointed out that John’s Jesus here wasn’t trying to construct high-flown doctrine, but simply to say (especially in lines like I just quoted) that we are cherished by Jesus and by God, and because that is so, we can cherish God, and one another. And, finally, cherishing one another, will demonstrate that we love God and, therefore that we live according to Jesus’ values (or his “commandments” to use the very words of the passage). In John chapter 13, just previous, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, and said: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.” (Jn. 13:34-35)
I suggest the word “cherish,” rather than simply “love.” Cherish means to keep or cultivate with care. It is a word that is not only a feeling, but an acting word. In Jesus’ world, “love” was also that kind of active word. To love something or someone did not primarily mean to harbour certain feelings for someone or something, but actively to embrace the person or thing or cause with nurture and support, an action like washing feet. Jesus meant exactly this when he said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandment” (which is to cherish, work for, identify with, support, nurture those we love). It occurs to me that Jesus’ statements were not primarily intended to give us doctrines to affirm or argue about, but to give us encouragement to realize that the God who knows us inside out also cherishes us, and, as we are encompassed by this reality, that we would cherish God and one another as acts of everyday life more than we do. The little painting in the bulletin of many kinds of people and the quote about each person as one to be reverenced comes into play here as an example of cherishing others.
And finally, it is within the context of the God who knows us, is present with us, and cherishes us, that the Acts passage fits in. Again, I know that what Paul was doing in Athens was to take a common feature of their own worship and devotion and to fill it with new meaning in the light of this God who he proclaimed in Jesus. Many folk have commented that Paul’s is not a bad cultural technique for ministry – to take a known quantity and fill it up with a different content than it has had in the past. I do this all the time at TEE (and in other teaching).
The story is that Paul said he had come upon an altar with the inscription “To an Unknown God.” He was going to name the unknown God. To my knowledge archaeologists have not found such an altar in Greece, but have found inscriptions with the words “to unknown gods.” It may easily have been the case that some of the Athenians might have heard of Israel’s God. Jews were reticent to pronounce the name of their God (Yahweh), lest they defame the holy name by having a sin on their tongues when they said it. When the name Yahweh appeared Hebrew Bible, those who put in the vowels inserted the vowels of the common noun “Lord,” or, later, in Aramaic, “the name.”
When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, it used this common noun “Lord” to translate the proper name Yahweh (a tradition which has made its way into many modern English translations, including our pew Bible). This would mean, technically, that the Hebrew God would not be called by a proper name, and could be called “Unknown,” that is to say, without a name. In fact Christians follow that method now. We have capitalized the word “God,” and treated it as a proper name, but it isn’t. Our God, in that sense, is still unknown (unless the name still be Yahweh).
Paul made the point that this God created the world and everything in it, was accessible to everyone (the words the text uses are “is not far from each one of us”), and has made humans so that they would “search after God, and perhaps grope and find God.” This same God would decide the outcome of the world with justice and fairness. Paul didn’t go further that day to talk about Jesus, although, before this address, in part of the passage we didn’t read, he had already talked about him, and it was curiosity about what Jesus had to do with God that led to this address in the first place.
What does all this have to do with us? Perhaps this. That in our world, by our actions and our speech, we can name the Unknown God beneath what is recognized but unnamed in our world’s worship, who is not cruel, sharply demanding doctrinal or political uniformity, but as the God who knows us, has determined to stay with us, and who is known to us in the life and teachings of Jesus as made real by the Spirit in life today, gifting us to think through what we say and do to make sure it makes sense today. We name that God as the one who has cherished us from our birth and will beyond our death, and who desires to nurture and teach us to cherish one another and our world to the end that God’s own reign of wholeness would come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
So that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God.
Whose name is: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.