The Third Sunday of Easter April 10, 2016
3, 371, 376, 465
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word on my tongue, but behold, O Lord, You know it altogether. You have hedged me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it. Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,” Even the night shall be light about me; Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, but the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You. For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, When as yet there were none of them. How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; When I awake, I am still with You. Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God! Depart from me, therefore, you bloodthirsty men. For they speak against You wickedly; Your enemies take Your name in vain. Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies. Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
Walk through most public cemeteries and you’ll see grave markers of all shapes and sizes, bronze and granite, flush and upright, headstones and hearts. But whatever the design or composition, almost every grave marker has the same essential information: The name of the deceased. The date of birth. The date of death. Ironically, it is the little dash between the dates of birth and death that symbolizes the story of the deceased person’s life: successes and failures, joys and sorrows, loves and losses, triumphs and tragedies, their sitting and rising, their every thought, word, and deed.
In 1996 a woman named Linda Ellis wrote a poem about the dash on a tombstone. Part of the poem reads: “I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend. He referred to the dates on her tombstone from the beginning to the end. He noted that first came the date of her birth and spoke the following date with tears; but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years. For that dash represents all the time that she spent alive on earth. And now only those who loved her know what that little line is worth.”
Today’s text, Psalm 139, reminded me of that “little dash” and particularly the words of verse 16: “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (NIV). The dash is the story of our lives, but more importantly, it is the story of how our loving God is with us from the beginning to the end.
In essence, Psalm 139 describes four important attributes of God, and how they relate to the all-too-brief “dash” of our lives. Verses 1-6 speak of God’s OMNISCIENCE—that is, God is an all-knowing God. Verses 7-13 refer to God’s OMNIPRESENCE—that is, God is always present and present everywhere. Verses 14-16 emphasize God’s OMNIPOTENCE—that is, God is all-powerful. Finally, verses 17-18 present God as an ALL-LOVING God.
We may remember terms like omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence from our study of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism and its discussion of God’s characteristics. But today, I want us to view these wondrous attributes of God as they apply to our personal lives because this is how David viewed and expressed them in Psalm 139: “O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off” (Psalm 139:1-2).
When you hear the personal pronoun in Psalm 139, don’t think “King David,” think “me.” Insert your personal name. View the attributes of God related in this psalm in intensely personal terms. Omniscience: “God knows me completely.” Omnipresence: “God is with me constantly.” Omnipotence: “God’s power is always at work in my life.” Love: “God loves me eternally, irrevocably, and unconditionally.”
Let’s start with “God knows me completely.” How well do you know others? How well do you know yourself? You may know what you want, but do you know what you truly need? You may think you have all the answers today, but will the answers be valid tomorrow? You and I cannot read minds or hearts, so what we know about others is based entirely on what they say and do. Even in the closest of relationships—after ten, twenty, even fifty years of marriage—we still don’t know everything about a spouse, do we? Husbands, do you know the name of your wife’s favorite author? Wives, do you know the name of your husband’s best childhood friend? And no, husbands, I won’t ask if you remember the date of your wedding anniversary.
The following is a true story. I heard it when working as a Family Services Advisor at Lakeland Memorial Gardens. A man’s wife died. Not knowing her wishes about the disposition of her wedding ring—the two had never discussed funeral arrangements—he buried the ring with his wife. A few months later, his only daughter came for a visit. When the man realized how troubled she looked, he asked, “Sweetie, what’s wrong?” “Oh, nothing,” she replied. “Now, I know that isn’t true,” the man said. “I can see it in your eyes.” “Well,” the young woman said at last, “it’s just that mom had wanted me to have her wedding ring.” The man was devastated. Eventually, at great emotional and financial expense, he had his wife disinterred in order to retrieve the wedding ring and give it to his daughter. “If only I had known,” he said.
But God knows us completely. This fact is stated and restated throughout verses 1-6 of Psalm 139. The Hebrew verb translated as “You have searched me” in verse 1 has the idea of “digging deep.” The verb translated as “You discern” in verse 3 also means “to scatter,” like ashes on the wind or wheat with a pitchfork—scattering in order to sift and investigate. Also in verse 3, the basic meaning of the verb “You are familiar” is that of “to inhabit or dwell”—in other words, the type of intimate knowledge that comes from living together in the same house or family. “You hem me in—behind and before,” in verse 5—could be paraphrased, “God knows me backwards and forwards.”
God’s knowledge of us encompasses every detail of our lives: when we sit down and stand up (v. 2). Frankly, do you know how many times you will stand and sit in church today? Probably not. But God does. Just as He also knows all our “ways” (v.3), when we lie down for a nap (v.3), and every word before we think it or speak it (v.4).
God knew all these details about us from eternity, before the universe ever existed, before we were born, before our parents, grandparents or great grandparents were born, before Alexander the Great conquered the world, and before Adam and Eve tasted the forbidden fruit.
Who can fathom such complete knowledge? It overwhelms us. It leaves dwarfed at the very suggestion of its greatness and limitlessness. No wonder David exclaimed in Psalm 139:6, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it.” No wonder the apostle Paul exclaimed in Romans 11: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33).
God knows us completely. How does this reality impact our daily lives? On the one hand, it should remind us that we can never fool God and that is a sobering prospect.
Sometimes we may think we can hide thoughts from God. “God won’t know what I’m thinking if I hurry up and think it. God won’t know what I’m thinking if I think it while staring at my Bible or humming my favorite hymn or if I’m at least fifteen miles from the nearest church. God won’t hear what I whisper in secret or mutter in the darkness.” If we ever think something like this, we couldn’t be more wrong. “Before a word is on my tongue, You know it completely, O LORD” (Psalm 139:4 NIV).
For good reason we confess in our worship liturgy: “Almighty God, our Maker and Redeemer, we poor sinners confess unto Thee that we are by nature sinful and unclean and that we have sinned against Thee by thought, word, and deed.” Oh, how grateful we should be to hear the absolution: “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, has had mercy upon us and has given His only Son to die for us and for His sake forgives us all our sins.”
If God’s complete knowledge of us is sobering, it is even more encouraging. Many of us may be thinking: “God doesn’t have any idea what I’m going through. God doesn’t understand my pain. God didn’t see when I lost my job or went to the emergency room or laid awake all night listening to the incoherent ramblings of a loved one with dementia.” But God does understand. God does see. God does hear. God understands, sees, and hears because He is the omniscient God—the God who not only has intimate knowledge of us intellectually, but experientially in the coming, suffering, death, and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
The letter to the Hebrews declares of Jesus: “We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16). In that perfect understanding of us, throughout the all-too-brief dash of our lives, God will never confuse our wants and needs. God will never let us suffer more than we can bear.
God is with you constantly. One of my favorite Bible stories is the life of Joseph. Here was a young man whose circumstances appeared to go from bad to worse. Do you know anyone like that? Are you someone like that? Joseph was resented by his own brothers, cast into an empty cistern, and then sold into slavery. He would never again return to Israel, until his remains were brought home in a casket. His refusal to commit adultery with Potiphar’s wife resulted in a lengthy, unjust imprisonment.
Yet, significantly, throughout the story of Joseph’s life and misfortunes, the Bible repeats the same statement. When speaking of his enslavement in Egypt, the Bible states, “The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered” (Genesis 39: 2 NIV). When speaking of his imprisonment in Pharaoh’s prison, the Bible states, “But while Joseph was there in the prison, the LORD was with him” (Genesis 39:20 NIV). In good times and bad, the LORD never left Joseph. And in good times and bad, the LORD never leaves us.
As with God’s omniscience, His omnipresence is both sobering and comforting. David asked in Psalm 139:7, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” We can’t run away from God. We can’t go someplace where God won’t find us. Ask Jonah. Ask Hagar. Ask Moses. When I look back at the “dash” of my own life and the way I left the ministry in 1987, I think I was trying to run away from God and His calling. But I couldn’t run fast or far enough. When I finally stopped running and started listening, I heard His call again, and it led me to North Port, Florida.
In the difficult times of our lives, we are always tempted to believe that God has deserted us, but He never does because for God to forsake us God would have to forsake Himself. Though we often try to run from Him, He never runs out on us. When we get a promotion at work, He is with us. When we lose our job, He is still with us. In sickness or health, poverty or wealth, highs and lows, from the moment of conception to the moment of death, throughout the “dash” of our lives the Almighty is with us.
Not only does God know you completely, not only is God with you constantly, but His almighty power is always at work in your life. In Psalm 139 David alludes to that almighty power of God as especially revealed in creation—whether the birth of the universe or the miraculous birth of a human being. “You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14).
“I believe in God the Father almighty,” we confess almost every Sunday. I’ve seen that almighty power of God in the heavens—infinite space scattered with countless galaxies, stars, and planets. Imagine the power that in one instant, with one “Let there be,” created the universe in all its vastness, splendor, and glory. I’ve also seen the power of God in the grandeur of mountains and depths of the oceans and life in all its myriad forms. But I don’t think I’ve ever been more awed by that power of God than when watching the birth of my own two sons—so fearfully and wonderfully made.
You may be sick. You may be suffering. You may be struggling to save a marriage. You may be worried about bills or family members or your own sins and failings. But know this: The Bible tell us that God is at work in our daily lives, using the same almighty power with which Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. You may not always see that power at work with the eyes in your head. But you will see that power at work with the eyes of your heart. This too is an absolute, undeniable, and irrevocable promise of God, given to you in Scripture.
Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know Him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and His incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of His mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised Him from the dead” (Ephesians 1:15-20).
When I began this sermon, I stated that I wanted us to view the attributes of God expressed in Psalm 139—His omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence—in a personal way. God knows me completely. God is with me constantly. God almighty power is always at work in my life. The one question remaining is “why?” Why should God want to know me? Why should God want to be with me? Why should God want to exercise His almighty power in my life?
David provides the answer in Psalm 139:17-18, saying, “How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; When I awake, I am still with You.” There is another way to translate verse 17: “How precious also are your thoughts about me, O God!” It’s not just the way we think about God, but the precious thoughts God has for us—the everlasting love that moved Him to sacrifice His Son, Jesus Christ, to redeem us from our sins.
Do you still remember that poem by Linda Ellis about the dash on a tombstone? Listen again to this one line: “For that dash represents all the time that she spent alive on earth. And now only those who loved her know what that little line is worth.” It is the love of our gracious God that lends such infinite worth to the little dash of our lives, and stretches it to all the dimension of eternity. Amen.
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