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Fearfully and Wonderfully Made 

Epiphany 2, Common Lectionary Year B

Psalm 139

©2015 Rev Elisabeth R. Jones

Today’s Psalm, and the preaching text for today is Psalm 139.
It ranks right up there with the 23rd Psalm, and Ps 121 (Unto the Hills)
as one of the best known and best loved of the psalms.
As such, it fits into my approach to this season of Epiphany,
which is to take one of these familiar lectionary passages,
and dig a little deeper into them, looking for new insights
as we push pass the obvious, to the complexities that
are so characteristic of these gems of Scripture.

So this morning, rather than read, then preach,we’re are going to slow the process down a little, and intersperse the reading, the reflection, and the response.

Let’s first begin with an introduction:
This psalm is the song of an individual rather than one of those
barn-raising congregational hymns.
It invites the reader to get comfortable,
to create some personal space, even on a crowded pew(!)
and to shut out the noise of the world for a while
so that you, the reader can turn these words
into your own conversation with God.

Now the ancient singer who wrote this song
lived in a world that made a lot of noise – much like ours.
Just outside the safety of their private space,
enemies circle, terror threatens,
she feels besieged by a hostile world.
Does this sound familiar?
For the psalmist the threats could have come from
the enemies of Israel or Judah;
it’s hard to date this psalm,
but given the almost constant
state of threat from Assyria, Babylon, Egypt,
the singer’s world is far from peaceful.

For us, we can quickly name our own threats
to our sense of safety and security:
The hooded murderers Nigeria,
the destabilization in Syria, ISIS,
the threats on western soil, Paris, Belgium;
or the more personal threats –
ageing, illness, unemployment, economic uncertainties,
falling stocks and a shrinking retirement fund.

In this state,
the singer shuts the door on the world for a moment,
and like a threatened child seeking out
the comforting arms of a parent,
he calls out God’s Name, “Yahweh!”
And the song –prayer begins:

Let’s use our hymn books to begin the Psalm together
turning to p. 851 in VU.

Stanza 1
O God you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You discern my pather and the places I rest,
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue, you know it, O God, completely.
You guard me from behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
It is beyond my knowledge; it is a mystery, I cannot fathom it.

What a comfort it can be,
to run to the arms of one
who knows us through and through!
To quote my mother to be with one
“who can stand to see you without your makeup on!”
The parent who knows our faults and loves us anyway,
the spouse, the BFF, the mentor, the soul-friend
with whom we can safely vent and rage, cry and snivel.
The one who can finish our sentences,
and who has our back, always.

Let’s imagine this for a moment, quietly…
(silence)

I pray God we’ve all known one such person in our lives,
and that all God’s children get to know this security,
enfleshed in a human other,
so that we can begin to grasp the depth of these words –
this declaration that God can be this for us..
that we can rest this safely
in a relationship with our maker, redeemer, sustainer.

The lectionary now moves us straight to the third stanza,
as if wanting us not to get distracted while we deepen our trust in this opening word of comfort.
Let’s sing and read,

Stanza 3
It was you who formed my inward parts;
you fashioned me in my mother’s womb.
I praise you for I am fearfully, wonderfully made.
Wondrous are your works, that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was being fashioned in secret,
intricately woven in the mystery of clay.
Your eyes saw my substance taking shape;
in your book my every day was recorded;
all my days were fashioned, even before they came to be.
The marvel for me of these verses
is that they predate by millennia,
perhaps as many as three,
the wonders of modern pre-natal imaging technology.
These words of intimate poetry
can be confirmed by what science can now show us,
but poetry gives voice to the awe and wonder,
as we look at fingers and toes,
the barely discernible eyebrows of a newborn,
the grip of a tiny fist.

The gasp of wonder of this poet is her
realization that she is no accident of cell generation,
but the beloved miracle of a God
who knows and delights in us, each one of us.
The words are for those of us who have lived
more than half our days, too;
seeing in our life-marked bodies
both the infant and the crone,
both children of God:
we stroke the hand of a grandparent, or our own
skin papery fragile, warm, and marked by the years,
and those laughter lines and surgery scars
– testify to the miracle of healing….

Let’s take a moment to imagine with the eyes
of our heart and soul
the ways in which we can echo the psalmist’s
whispered, awe-filled prayer,
“I praise you, for I am fearfully, wonderfully made!”

(Pause for silent reflection.
On my cue: Refrain sung by choir).

If we were to follow the lectionary, we’d end it there,
on the high holy note of wonder and praise.
But that would be to miss the point of this psalm entirely.
Remember that I said at the outset that this psalm
was sung originally within the context of a world of threat,
enmity and terror, much like our own.
And the shadows of that world are seen in the second stanza,
to which we will now turn,

Stanza 2
Where can I escape from yor spirit: Where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I lie down in the grave, you are even there.
If I take wing with the dawn and alight at the sea’s farthest limits,
there also your hand will be guiding me
your powerful hand holding me fast.
If I say, “let the darkness cover me and my day be turned to night,”
even darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
Being known has its blessings,
but perhaps it can also betoo much of a good thing?
I remember hearing – often –
from the tiny nun who ruled my high school
with iron fist, and beady eyes,
and these oft repeated words,
“God knows what you are doing…..
God knows who smokes behind the hockey hut,
God knows who floated their hats down the canal,
God knows who the bullies are….”

God knows when our façade to the world,
of calm success, or bonhomie
hides a maelstrom of inner turmoil,
or disease, or despair,
some brokenness we don’t trust the world to know.
And that is not always a comforting thing;
to realize that the highest heavens
and the deepest grave
are not far enough away
to escape the excavating gaze of our Maker.

This is where the word “fearfully” comes in.
To be both fearfully as well as wonderfully made,
and to recognize that about ourselves,
is the beginning of honest wisdom in our dealings
with self, with God and with the world.
As our singer explores this shadow side
to being known by God,
she reminds us that we are creatures of God’s making,
and that everything God creates is good,
and capable of goodness.

We need to let that sink in, don’t we?

Silence……

Only now can we dare to lift up a stone
and discover something
that the church has kept from you all these years.
The fourth stanza isn’t even in your hymn book,
and is never included in the lectionary.
You’d need to go to the Bible to find verses 19-22.
And you’d be shocked to hear them:

Remember now,
that our singer is facing a world
as threatening and frightening as our own;
the terror of the night,
and the arrows of vindictive oppression
lie in wait outside her sanctuary too.
In her newfound honesty and trust of the
Knitter and Knower of her Being,
she suddenly sings,

“If you would only slay the wicked, O God!
They are too many to count on the face of the earth!
Get away from me, all you evil ones who seek my destruction!
God do you realize how these evil ones perpetrate violence
while calling falsely on your name?
I hate them with a perfect hatred,
and count your enemies among my own!”

The truth of the matter is,
while we are shocked that such invective
can be found in a book called “holy,”
we’ve probably, most of us,
thought such words in recent days.

I know I have.
When I saw the news of yet more atrocities
perpetrated by the murderous criminals
of Boko Haram,
whose inhumanity is a deviant travesty of the Islamic faith they falsely claim,
I was enraged.
A rage compounded by the inequity and ineptness
of our western response to Nigeria’s plight,
in comparison to our outrage at the events in Paris.

Perhaps the reason why our churches have kept this diatribe hidden is because
we fear that they may be used to condone a violent, enraged retaliation
against the perpetrators of violence? Perhaps, so,
But the key thing to note as soon is this:

If we allow the psalm to stand in its entirety,
we can see that the singer does the very thing
she feared in the second stanza!
She invites God’s piercing gaze upon her heart,
her thoughts.
She begs for God’s scrutiny,
trusts it, relies upon it!

“Search me, God, know my heart,
test me and know my thoughts,
if there is any offensive way in me,
lead me instead in the way that leads to life.”

Those last four lines of the psalm,
as you have it in your hymnbook,
are a prayer for wisdom in the face of terror,
and in the midst of our own anger.
This prayer has saved me, more than once,
from acting rashly in anger,
as they challenge me to listen more closely
to the God of life,
for a way forward through terror that might lead
to hope and healing.

Let’s say them together,
responsively as you have them, the last four lines.

Search me, O God and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
Watch closely, lest I follow a path of error
and guide me in the everlasting way.

Now, would you turn the page to VU 862, and find there v. 5.
As we close with a moment of collective prayer, beginning and ending with this verse.

Sing VU 862 v.5
Search me, O God, search me and know my heart;
try me O God, my mind and spirit try;
keep me from any path that gives you pain,
and lead me in the everlasting way.
Knower and Knitter of our lives,
you who formed us in the womb,
you who know our thoughts, our motivations,
and our anxieties, fears,
our faults and failings,
our anger and our outrage
You who love us, who shape and remake us
in your image every day of our lives until life is no more…..

Sing VU 862 v. 5

Search me, O God, search me and know my heart;
try me O God, my mind and spirit try;
keep me from any path that gives you pain,
and lead me in the everlasting way.

Amen.

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