THERE’S JUST NO ESCAPING
TEXT: Psalm 139:1-18
Some of you know that I felt my call to the ministry when I was 14 years old. I was giving the sermon--my first--for Youth Sunday in the North Scituate Baptist Church in Scituate, Rhode Island. It really shouldn’t be called a sermon. It was more like a five-minute testimony about one of the paintings of Jesus on our sanctuary wall. It was a simple picture of Jesus...robe and sandals and shepherd’s crook against a blue sky with clouds. I later learned it was bad art, but it captured my attention as a child; and when I sat in church and couldn’t really understand the sermon, I turned to the bad-art Jesus, and we went on fanciful journeys together.
I knew as I delivered those stumbling words, in a sermon that was as technically poor as the art I spoke about, that God was calling me to keep telling people what it was like to travel with Jesus--that I was to preach about it, teach about it, and do whatever I could to help others climb into that picture and discover a loving God who would show them wonders and help them over the rough spots.
As the rest of my high school and college years progressed, I came to many crossroads on my journey. I struggled with whether a woman belonged in pastoral ministry. I was tired of school and didn’t want to go right into three more years. I got married, had to work while he was in school, moved frequently and had no opportunity to go to seminary. Life went on and I kept selecting roads as the choices opened up before me. Pleasant enough roads, most of them, well-traveled, good company.
Then one day I rounded a corner and got hit by a train. Intestinal parasite, pinched sciatic nerve, panic attacks, and finally divorce. The train knocked me off all the paths and into a thicket of thorns. Friends came and bloodied themselves to pick me up and carry me for a time. Taking turns, they finally brought me to a clearing where they could set me down and return to their own roads. They left me food and drink, and in time I could sit up and even stand. As my faculties returned, I could see a worn, but still legible sign at the far end of the clearing, and I went to look. In a child’s handwriting, painted on a sky-blue board, it said, “To seminary” with an arrow that curved round at the end like a shepherd’s crook.
I looked over toward where the arrow was pointing, and there was a tiny, but definite path. It was overgrown in places, but someone had left provisions along its way...someone who knew that the way was hard for someone just gaining their strength. So I left the clearing and followed the path...and I follow it still.
“Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” Wherever you are on your journey this morning...whether your way is broad and comfortable, narrow and difficult, beautiful or frightening...even if you have, like me, been knocked off all the roads entirely and have found yourself bleeding in a thicket of thorns...listen to the message of Psalm 139. You cannot go where God cannot come. In fact, you can’t go anywhere without God beating you there. There’s just no escaping God.
To David, the writer of this Psalm, that is a complex feeling. Much of the language in the Psalm is the language of pursuit and capture. Verse 5, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” The word for “hem me in” has the sense of being besieged, beset, shut in. It is forceful and you get the image of God running after David, surrounding him and blocking his exit and then picking him up by his shirt collar with David’s legs still running in the air. He’s been running from God and is finally caught... “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” The answer is nowhere. There’s just no escaping.
“If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” “Hold me fast.” Same type of language. It means to seize, to take possession.” He still tries to hide. “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
The message of the Psalm is, you can’t take a road that God can’t take. You can’t get to a place where God can’t be. Even if you don’t particularly want God there, too bad, God is there anyway. Even if you run from God, God will catch you. There’s just no escaping.
I believe that until we grasp that point, there is no point in going on to the New Testament. The inevitable reality of God is the only backdrop against which the news of Jesus Christ becomes GOOD news. Let me try to spin that out for you a bit--unpack it, as my professors used to say.
As you read through the 2,000 plus years of history represented in the Old Testament, one theme shines out again and again. There is ONE God, ruler of all. God’s name is Yahweh, which means “I Am.” God is defined as the one who is...the real one...the one who exists. That’s the one who has created everything else that is...by imparting God’s nature, things come into being...because to exist is the very name of God.
Now you may well have some problems with some of the things attributed to God in the Bible. There are times when God seems capricious and unfair. And this is where we have to start paying more attention to the witness of the Hebrew Scriptures. Modern readers very frequently respond with some variation of “Well, I just can’t worship a God like that.” “If that’s what God is like, I don’t want anything to do with him.” If you find yourself saying that, you need to go back and read it again. You have missed the point.
The faith in the Hebrew Scriptures proclaims that there is one God. Period. For good or for ill, this is the God you get...look through the yellow pages all you want, Yahweh is the only one there is. If you ascend into Heaven? Yahweh. If you descend into Sheol? Yahweh. In the dark, in the light, under the sea, in the womb...makes no difference. It’s all Yahweh. You might prefer a world with no God at all. Too bad. There’s Yahweh. There’s just no escaping.
If you went up and said to King David, “Sorry, I just can’t worship a God like that,” you would likely get either blank stares or peals of laughter. That’s the God you get. Worship a non-being if you like, but if your problem with Yahweh is God’s wrath, I hardly see what good it does not to give Him what He wants. Yahweh is God. There is no other. Better to ride out the bumps with the God who is than to look for help from a stone.
Read the first 26 verses of Lamentations chapter 3. The writer (probably Jeremiah) goes on and on about all the terrible things God has done to him. “I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; against me alone he turns his hand, again and again, all day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribultion...” on and on it goes.
Until verse 21, when he suddenly says, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Wow. Before we have any business unwrapping the gift in the New Testament, we have got to get a handle on this kind of faith...the kind of faith that can look God in the eye and say, “You have broken all my bones...but still I hope in you, for you are faithful.” Or, as Job says, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” Why? Because God is all there is to trust. There is only Yahweh. We can’t make God go away by not believing God exists. God is there anyway. We can’t render God ineffective by not paying attention. God will get our attention. There is just no escaping.
When you really have that sense deep down in your bones...that we are all stuck with God, like it or not, believe it or not, acknowledge it or not; THEN the news of Jesus Christ comes as the glorious good news that it was meant to be. The Old Testament shows us that we were given over in marriage before our birth...betrothed to the one God. An arranged marriage that is not even annuled by death. Even in Sheol, the land of the dead, there is Yahweh. The New Testament tells us that the very nature of our betrothed is love. God is love. God loved us so much that God became human and died in our place. Because God’s ways are higher than we can understand... “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it”...we were afraid that God might be cruel or unjust or capricious. But fear not, says the Good News...this is what God is like...this Jesus is how God behaves--here, in a way you can understand, in human form.
There is no escaping God, but the good news of Jesus Christ is that when God finally hems us in, behind and before, and picks us up by the collar with our feet still running in the air, we discover it is Love that has caught us. When the day of the arranged marriage arrives, we discover all our fears were for nothing. We hit the jackpot. The nature of the God we can’t escape is love. That is the good news...the Gospel...that we proclaim. The Old Testament tells us we can’t escape God. The New Testament tells us we don’t want to.
Where are you on the road? Are you seeking? Fleeing? Lost? Determined? Wistful about other roads? Worried about a crossroads ahead? Maybe you’re off the road entirely. You can’t go where God is not. Make the best choices you know how to make, pray for God’s leading and leave the rest in God’s hands. You can choose roads that will be more painful than others, but you can’t choose a road where God can’t follow. “If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.”
“Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” There’s just no escaping. God is there. God is here. God is love. Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson
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