Year B: Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; John 1:43-51
The Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright
As we all know, Scripture has lots of passages in which there are things that are difficult to understand. That’s one reason why some people don’t read it as much as they would like to. One of the basic principles I learned when I became a Christian was that Scripture explains Scripture: when you come across one of those passages that has something in it that raises questions, you often find it explained or at least simplified a bit by some other passage of Scripture. And I think that two of our readings this morning illustrate that pretty well.
What struck me first was what the gospel reading says about Nathanael. Philip is convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, the one promised in the Law and the Prophets, and he says to his friend Nathanael, you have to come and meet this Jesus of Nazareth. Nathanael says ‘Nazareth? You must be kidding. The Messiah couldn’t be from Nazareth.’ Nathanael wasn’t from Nazareth, apparently; Philip’s words had the effect of telling a Pittsburgh native that the Messiah was from Cleveland, or Wheeling. But Philip insists, and Nathanael goes with him. And after just one look, Nathanael is hooked: he practically yells it at Jesus—exclamation marks and everything—You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel! Just one look. But here’s the part that needs explaining: it wasn’t Nathanael’s look, it was Jesus’s. Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, and Jesus said, Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no guile. I know the leaflet says ‘deceit’, but I still hear ‘guile’, so forgive me. And when Nathanael bursts out his recognition of Jesus, Jesus makes a joke of it: you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. Of all the great things about this passage, the one that struck me most this time was that it was because Jesus saw Nathanael that Nathanael became a believer. When Jesus makes his comment about Nathanael, Nathanel says ‘how do you know me? have we met before?’, and Jesus says I saw you. Jesus only needed to see him to know him fully. And everything that might be puzzling about that is explained in the psalm for today, Psalm 139. Look at the opening verses:
1 LORD, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.
2 You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.
3 Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, but you, O LORD, know it altogether.
4 You press upon me behind and before and lay your hand upon me.
5 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it.
The first characteristic of God that the psalm describes is God’s knowledge of us. He knows all that we do, all that we think, He knows what we are going to say even before we do. He knows where we have been and where we are going. He knows what we want and what we need, and knows what a great gulf there is between the two. If we don’t believe in Him, He knows that too. We have no privacy from God. There is nothing we can hide from Him. And Who is Jesus? We will say it in the creed in just a few minutes: God from God, light from light, very God of very God. When Jesus looked at Nathanael, Nathanael had exactly the experience that the psalm describes, the experience of being known through and through, known to the very bottom of his heart. Jesus wasn’t even there when Nathanael made his flip comment to Philip, but Jesus knew: this guy won’t try to be anything but what he is, if he thinks it he’ll say it. He won’t make a good diplomat, but he’ll be the kind of friend you can count on.
Now it is true that God knows each one of us that well, but sometimes it makes us a little uncomfortable. Most of us suspect that what Jesus might say about us might not be so complimentary. But this is one of the great things about God in Christ, that He begins with what is good about us. I think that’s what hooked Nathanael: He saw me through and through, but what did He say? Here’s a chap who speaks his mind! He knows the good and the bad, but he still likes me!
That’s why the psalmist says that God’s intimate knowledge of us is a glorious thing. It’s so glorious, he says that he is trying hard to comprehend the glory of it, but he cannot, he says, because it is simply too wonderful for the human mind to grasp. God is so wonderful, that we don’t even have to worry that He knows all those things about us—it’s wonderful that He does know those things, for reasons that become clear at the end of the psalm.
In the next few verses, he reminds us that even if we don’t want God to know all about us, there’s no way we can stop Him. The printed leaflet skipped them, but you can read them in the Prayer Book on p 794:
6 Where can I go then from your Spirit? where can I flee from your presence?
7 If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
8 If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
9 Even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast.
10 If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me, and the light around me turn to night’,
11 Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike.
The truth about God is that He is closer to us than we would ever suspect. We talk about coming into His presence when we come into church to worship together, but God was with us before we came in here, and He will go with us when we leave. He was with us when our head first stirred off the pillow this morning, He will still be with us when we lay our heads down again tonight, and will stay with us while we sleep or while we toss and turn. We may follow the wrong path sometimes, but we have not wandered away from God. If we feel that we have, it’s because we’ve stopped thinking about Him, that’s all. But He never stopped thinking about us. He never stopped trying to guide us and keep us safe, hold us fast.
In the next verses, the psalm reminds us why it is that God is so interested in us, why He won’t ignore us even when we ignore Him: it is because we are His own creation—not just as human beings, but as the specific individuals that each of us is:
12 For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
13 I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well.
14 My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth.
15 Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; all of them were written in your book; they were fashioned day by day, when as yet there was none of them.
16 How deep I find your thoughts, O God! how great is the sum of them!
God knew we were there in the womb even before our mothers suspected anything; He was forming us and shaping us even then, knowing the lives we were to lead and the people we would become. He knew even then that we would love chocolate, or be afraid of snakes, that we would be a teacher or a businessman or a full-time mother. And the psalmist praises God for this, he finds these thoughts infinitely precious. The fact that God is always thinking about us is precious because it means that God never lets us face the difficulties of this world alone: He’s there when we’re in trouble, and we can turn to Him. He loves us and will never leave us. Perhaps that’s what gives the psalmist confidence enough to pour out some pretty bitter feelings at that point; 20 Do I not hate those, O LORD, who hate you? and do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I’m not going to dwell on that—the psalmist speaking his mind as easily as Nathanael does—because whatever weakness it springs from is brought under God’s authority by the closing verses:
22 Search me out, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my restless thoughts.
23 Look well whether there be any wickedness in me and lead me in the way that is everlasting.
The psalmist rejoices that God knows him as well as He does, because He knows that God can make his life better. He will not try to hide from God, but wants God to see even the things he thinks and says and does does that don’t please God, because then God can help him do better. As God corrects his mistakes, He finds the psalmist co-operating. ‘When you find wickedness in me, dear Lord, lead me away from it, root it out and put me back in the way that leads to everlasting life.’
God knows already that we are not perfect, that we have turned our thoughts away from Him. He knew it before we did. He does not call us to confess our sins because He needs to know what we are like, but because we need to admit the truth about ourselves. For when we do, God can lead us in the way that leads to eternal life. That’s what God wants for us. That’s why we encourage people to seek Him. And the psalm assures us that there’s no better thing that any of us can do.
And Jesus assures us that this wonderful knowledge of us, even to the bottom of our hearts, that He has, is only the beginning—You will see greater things than these!