THERE'S JUST NO ESCAPING|
TEXT: Psalm 139:1-18
Some of you know that I felt my call to ministry when I was just 14 years old. I was giving the sermon -- my very first sermon -- for Youth Sunday at the North Scituate Baptist Church in Scituate, Rhode Island, where I grew up. It really shouldn't have been called a sermon. It was more like a 5-minute testimony about one of the paintings in the sanctuary. And the painting was a simple picture of Jesus -- robe and sandals and a shepherd's crook against a blue sky with clouds. I later learned that that picture was considered bad art. But it captured my attention as a child. And when I sat in church and couldn't really understand the sermon or what was going on I turned to that bad-art Jesus and we went on fanciful journeys together. I knew as I delivered those stumbling words back then, in a sermon that was technically as 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, to tell about it, and to do whatever I could to help other people climb into that picture and discover a loving God who would show them the wonders and help them through the valleys.
As the rest of my high school and college years went on, I came to many crossroads in my journey. I struggled with whether a woman belonged in pastoral ministry. I was tired of school, and the thought of three more years of seminary right on top of college didn't sound so good right then. I got married and I worked while my husband was in graduate school, moving frequently then with him in the army, and had no opportunity to be one place long enough to be in seminary. Life went on and I just kept selecting paths as different ones opened up in front of me. They were pleasant enough roads, most of them. They were well-traveled, and I had good company.
Then one day I rounded a corner and got hit by an oncoming train. Some of you know what that's like. I had an intestinal parasite, a pinched sciatic nerve, panic attacks, and then finally divorce, within the span of a year. The train knocked me off all the paths and landed me in this thicket of thorns. But friends came while I was lying there, and they bloodied themselves to pick me up and carry me for a time. Taking turns, they finally brought me into a clearing where they could set me down safely and return to their own paths and their own roads. They left me food and drink, and in time I could sit up and even stand.
As my faculties returned to me, I could see a worn but still-legible sign down at the end of the clearing, and I went to look. And in a child's handwriting, painted on a sky-blue board, it said, "Seminary. That way." I looked over toward where the arrow was pointing, and there was a tiny but very definite path. It was overgrown in places, but people had left provisions along the way -- somebody who knew that the way was hard for somebody just gaining their strength. So I left the clearing and I followed the path. And I follow it this day still.
"Whither shall I go from Thy spirit? Whither shall I flee from Thy presence?" Wherever you are on your own journey and your own path this morning, whether your way is broad and comfortable, narrow and difficult, beautiful, frightening, or even if you, like me, have been knocked off all the paths entirely and are just lying there in a pile 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 is just no escaping God.
To David, the writer of this Psalm, that's a very complex feeling. Much of the language in this Psalm is the language of pursuit and capture. Verse 5 says, "You hem me in, behind and before, and lay Your hand upon me." That's not gentle language. The word for "hem me in" in Hebrew has the sense of being beseiged and beset and shut in. It's forceful, and you get the image of God running after David, surrounding him, blocking the exit, and then picking him up by his shirt collar with his legs and hands running in the air. He's been running from God and he's finally snatched up and caught.
"Where can I go from Your spirit, or where can I flee from Your presence?" The answer, scripture tells us, is "nowhere." There's just no escaping. "If I ascend to heaven, You're there. If I make my bed in Sheol (which is the place of the dead), You're 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 kind of language. It means to seize, to take possession. David 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 bright as the day, for darkness is as light to You."
The message of this Psalm is that you can't take a road that God can't take also. You can't get to a place where God can't be. Even if you don't particularly want God there, that's too bad. God's there anyway. Even if you run from God, God will catch you. There is just no escaping.
I think that until we grasp that point, there isn't any point in going on to the New Testament. Because 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.
As you read through the 2,000-plus years of history that's 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's created everything else that is. By imparting God's nature, things come into being, because to exist is in the very name of God.
Now you may well have some problems with some of the things that are attributed to God in the Bible. There are times when God seems capricious and unfair, and that's where we have to start paying more attention to the Hebrew scriptures. Because modern readers very frequently come across some of those passages and respond with some sort of variation on, "I just can't worship a God like that. If that's what God's 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, because you've 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 that you get. Look through the Yellow Pages all you want. Yahweh is the only one that there is. If you ascend into heaven -- Yahweh. If you descend to the dead -- Yahweh. In the dark, in the light, under the sea, in the womb -- makes no difference. It's all God.
You might prefer a world that has no God in it at all. Too bad. There's Yahweh. There is no escaping. If you went up to David and said, "Sorry, David, I just can't worship a God like that," you would get either blank stares or peals of laughter, because that's the God that there is. Worship a non-being if you like. But I've always thought if your problem with Yahweh is God's wrath, I hardly see what good it does to thumb your nose at Him and say, "Well I won't worship You then." Sounds like suicide to me. Yahweh is God. There is no other. And the Old Testament witness is that it's better to ride out the bumps with the God Who Is than to look for help from a stone.
Sometime read the beginning, about the first 26 verses or so, of Lamentations chapter 3. The writer, who is probably Jeremiah, goes on and on about all the terrible things that God has done to him. He says, "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 beseiged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation." And it goes on like that for 26 verses. Sometimes I've had at least 26 verses of feeling like that. But then down in verse 21 he suddenly says, after acknowledging that God has done all these things to him, "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 Thy faithfulness." Wow.
Before we have any business unwrapping this gift in the New Testament, we have got to get a handle on that 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, because You are faithful." Or as Job says, I think in maybe the greatest verse in the whole Bible, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him." That's amazing faith. 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's there anyway. We can't render God ineffective by not paying attention. God will get our attention. There is just no escaping.
Now when you really have that sense down deep 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. We were betrothed to the One God. It's an arranged marriage. And this one's not even anulled by death. Even in Sheol, the land of the dead, God is there. The New Testament tells us the good news 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. And because God's ways are higher than our ways -- as the Psalmist says, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me. It's so high I cannot attain it" -- and because we don't understand, 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 shows us the nature of God. Jesus shows us how God behaves. Here, in a way that you can really understand, in human form, in human flesh. 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 running in mid-air, we discover when we turn that it's Love that has caught us. When the day of the arranged marriage arrives we discover that all our fears were for nothing. We've hit the jackpot. The nature of the God that we can't escape is love. That is the good news, the Gospel that we proclaim. The Old Testament tells us that we can't escape God. The New Testament tells us that we don't have any reason to want to escape God.
Where are you on your road this morning? Are you seeking? Are you fleeing? Looking for a darkness that's too dark for God? Are you lost? Determined? Wistful about other roads that maybe you could have gone this way but you went that way? Worried about a crossroad ahead and fearful about making a wrong choice? 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 finally, leave the rest in God's hands. You can choose roads that will be more painful than others. You can choose roads where maybe God would have had you go this way and you went that way. But even when you choose a wrong road, you can't choose a road where God can't follow, where God won't eventually be running up behind you, hemming you before and behind, picking you up by the collar and saying, "Hey, the road's over there." If I make my bed in Sheol even, You are there. "Whither shall I go from Thy spirit, or whither shall I flee from Thy presence?" There is just no escaping. God is there. God is here.
(c) 2000, Anne Robertson
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