Jan 18, 2009
Scripture: Psalm 139: 1-18
Sermon Title: "The Inescapable God"
Rev. George N. Miller
Once there was a female pastor who was asked to come and to pray with a man’s mother. The woman was lying in bed with her head propped up on 2 pillows. An empty chair sat beside her.
"I guess you were expecting me," the pastor said. "No," responded the mother, in a frail voice, "Who are you?"
The pastor introduced herself and said "I saw the empty chair and figured you knew I was coming."
"Oh yes, the chair," said the old woman, with a smile. "Would you mind closing the door?"
The mother began her story. "I’ve never told anyone this, not even my son. But all my life I never knew how to pray. I’ve heard pastors talk about it, but it went right over my head, so I abandoned any attempt at it."
The old woman coughed and continued, "Then one day a friend said to me ‘Prayer is just a simple matter of having a talk with Jesus. Here’s what ya do: place an empty chair in front of you, and in faith, see Jesus on the chair. Then just speak to Jesus in the same way we are doing right now.’
"So I tried it, and I’ve liked it so much that I do it every the day. I’m careful though, I don’t want my son to see me and think I’m crazy."
The pastor was deeply moved by the story and encouraged the old lady to continue her journey. She prayed with her, anointed her with oil and returned to church.
Two days later the son called to say his mother had died that. "Did she die in peace?" the pastor asked.
"Yes," said the son, "When I left the house for the store Mom told me she loved me and kissed me on the cheeks. When I got back, I found her. But there was something strange about her death: Apparently, just before Mom died, she leaned over and rested her head on the chair beside the bed. What do you make of that?"
The pastor wiped a tear from her eye and said "I wish we could all go like that."
...This is a story which works on many different levels. On the surface, it’s about prayer, on another level it is about presence.
Presence is an important part of ministry. Perhaps more so then administration, more then preaching, ministry is about the ability to be present to another person.
Being present says "I love you," being present says "You matter and are a person of worth."
Unfortunately, there are far too may people in our world who are alone or feel alone, and sometimes they take drastic steps to make that aloneness real.
What we’ve heard today is a Scripture challenging the notion that anyone is ever truly alone.
Psalm 139 is called a song of "most personal expression." It portrays human experience in all its dimensions, stating that no matter what or where, God is present in our lives, and knows us.
This Psalmist asks God "Where can I go from your spirit?...If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even then your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast."
This is a song about knowledge, that the God who made us wonderfully, who knew us even when we were yet unformed, continues to know us at all times, no matter where we are.
For some people, this Psalm is comforting. To know that God will always be there for them: just pull up a chair and begin a conversation!
For some, this song can be a bit scary. For those, such as myself, who have been stalked, or have been abused, there can be something ominous about this image of someone who sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake.
But I believe that this is not a Psalm of fear, but of comfort, because God is not looking to hurt or abuse us, but to know and love us, to be present in a way no one else can be.
I believe this Psalm is God’s way of saying "No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, I am right there with you."
For further clarity, let’s look at the story of Jesus and Nathanael in the Gospel of John 1:43 -49. I invite you to turn to your Bibles and read along.
[Read the Scripture]
This is a call narrative, beginning with Jesus on the town, where he meets Philip who recognizes Jesus as the one the prophets had talked about.
Full of excitement he goes to find Nathanael. But where is he? Is he hanging with the guys? Is he smooching with a squeeze? No, instead, Nathanael is a under a fig tree, where we can assume he is alone.
When hearing the news about finding the One, Nathanael is non-plussed, simply replying: "Can anything good come out of such a hick town?"
When Nathanael sets eyes on Jesus and is greeted with a compliment, the only thing he can say is "You don’t know me."
To which Jesus responds with a poetic line of knowledge and presence, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you."
..."I saw you under the fig tree..."
Let’s meditate on that thought for a moment. I think this is a profound statement for us to hear today, at a time in which we are wrestling with worries about snow, economics, and our futures.
When Philip met Jesus he was out with his friends. But Nathanael was under a fig tree, alone.
What’s up with Nathanael? Why wasn’t he out with the guys? Or with a significant other?
Perhaps Nathanael was a busy man taking a much needed break, but I don’t sense that. His words have an air of cynicism that can only come from loneliness and disappointment.
His words strike me as someone guarded and wounded who has found it easier to be in his own company then to be in the company of others.
Or perhaps, like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, he was someone who was never invited to play in other peoples games.
"How did you get to know me?" he asks, and Jesus states, in what I believe would be a loving voice: "I saw you under the fig tree."
Think about that statement, think about that image.
Doesn’t it sound like one of profound sadness and loneliness, where one is alone, feeling left out?
Have you ever had a fig tree moment? A time in your life when you felt abandoned or forsaken? I certainly have. It was June of 1982.
I was graduating from 6th grade. People were having and going to parties. The only party I was invited to was for a girl named Ingrid, a chunky girl with glasses who wore fancy barretts.
One Saturday I was playing ball with Scott and Matt. After a while, Scott abruptly said, "Well, I gotta go: I’m having a party this afternoon, and its going to be a great one. We’re having ice cream and watermelon and everyone’s coming."
That was the first time I had heard of the party. Matt was invited. So was our neighbor Dawn. But I wasn’t. So that afternoon I spent alone, while everyone else I knew was in Scott’s backyard, having a great time.
I was under a fig tree, and as if that wasn’t enough, I added insult to the injury by walking past his house. Sure enough, I could smell BBQ, the pool was full of kids, jumping in and climbing out, and I was alone, standing on the street.
That moment will always stay with me, and has shaped me in more ways then I can imagine.
Because of that moment I get a thrill when invited somewhere because it means I’m worthy enough to be invited. And I feel hurt when someone has a party and I didn’t make the list.
I wonder how different things may have been if I knew about Psalm 139? I wonder if that would have provided me with a different set of eyes.
That was my fig tree moment. When was yours?
When did you feel all alone in the world? When did you feel that no one cared if you were alive? Was there a time in which you felt like you’d be better off dead?
We all have. Those feelings are natural, and they are real. The Bible is full of stories of people who have their own fig tree moment.
Hagar who runs away into the wilderness. Jacob who has only a rock to rest his head. Gideon as he cleans a wine press. Mary Magdalene who comes to the garden alone. Nathanael, as he sits under the fig tree wondering what for.
But they were not alone, where they? For Hagar is met by God who promises to care for her and her offspring. Jacob has a dream of angels and God pledges to be with him wherever he goes.
The Lord calls Gideon to be a mighty warrior. Mary hears the voice of her resurrected savior.
And Nathanael meets the Messiah, who lets him know just who he is. Continue reading, and hear how Nathanael makes an excited proclamation, and shortly afterward, the disciples attend a wedding in which Jesus performs his first miracle.
Psalm 139 makes the claim that no matter what, no matter where, we are not alone; God is present with us.
John 1 illustrates that statement for us, taking us under a fig tree where a disallusioned man sits, unaware that the Son of God was present and seeing him as well.
This is a testimony indeed. A celebration that no matter what, we are not alone.
In these two scriptures God speaks to us saying, "You may go through so much pain. People will disappoint you, economics will go belly up, and at times you’ll have to fight to stay alive. But you are not alone. I am with you."
"I know your hurts, I know you pains. I have seen every single fig tree you have ever had to sit under, and I was with you."
"I saw you when you sat in the front of the bus and refused to move because you were so tired."
"I saw you when you lost everything you had and was sleeping under the 196 underpass."
"I saw you when you had the miscarriage that no one else knows about or wants to talk about."
"I saw you the day you went to the doctor and the prognosis was not good."
"I saw you the moment you came home from the funeral and realized you were officially now a widow or widower."
"I saw you all those days when you could not get out of bed because the pain was so great."
"I saw you on the day you were born, and when it is your time to die, I will be there to greet you into my kingdom, where pain, and hunger, and sorrow and sadness will be no more."
All those moments of sitting under the fig tree, feeling alone, wondering what for and how so, God was there, present, even when you did not realize it.
And God has been working on ways to get you up and out from under that tree.
There will be times in our lives in which we will be, and we will feel alone. Perhaps we can be like the Mother in the beginning of the sermon, able to locate Jesus by pulling up a chair and inviting him to sit and talk for awhile.
Perhaps we can remember the words of Psalm 139 to remind ourselves there ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no river wide enough, ain’t no valley low enough to keep us away from God.
We can recall Jesus’ words to Nathanael and know that when we have a fig tree moment, God through Christ is right there, seeing us, knowing us.
In Jesus, we are completely known. And through Jesus we are invited to rejoin the human world, taking part in fellowship, sharing both the good times and the bad with those around him.
All thanks and praise be to God who has searched us and known us, to the Spirit that will never leave us and for Jesus who knows us by name.