Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 12 October 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Psalm 139 verse 1:
O Lord, thou hast searched me out, and known me.
There’s a story about two little boys who were naughty in church, and they were sent to the vicarage for an extra catechism class. One didn’t go, and hid in a cupboard instead. The second went, and the priest started some basic instruction with the question, Where is God? The boy said nothing, so the priest repeated, Come on now, where is God? The little boy ran out of the vicarage and all the way back to his friend in the cupboard. We’re in big trouble now, he said. Why? Said his friend. Well, said the boy, God’s gone missing and they’re blaming us.
Where is God? Whoever wrote Psalm 139 knew the answer. God is everywhere. God speaks to us every second of the day. God wants the best for us, because He created us. The Psalm is an unsurpassed word picture of divine presence. Wherever I go, there is God. “If I take the wings of the morning; and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea. Even there also shall thy hand lead me …” It’s the perfect psalm for a Christian meditation, because it’s real, it’s about my life. God knows me. God has a purpose for me. Here’s what I think of Him, and He thinks of me. It’s real because the psalmist tackles the question of what happens when everything goes wrong, as it often does. Where is God when his world reveals malice, bloodthirstiness, and hatred, even “the perfect hatred” we feel against God’s enemies.
The psalmist’s conclusion is that God is the judge of all creation. God alone brings justice, because God alone knows everything, even the disordered will of human beings. “Thou understandest my thoughts long before.” Now God the Judge, God the fixed point of reference for everything, is out of fashion these days, because we see ourselves as in control of what happens to us. So we decide what’s right and what’s wrong. After all, God doesn’t seem to interfere much, so let’s make the best of life and do it our way.
How little we know today. How can so much information stand alongside so little wisdom? The answer to that is that information and knowledge can be accessed by us, hard drive upon hard drive, and now, without any irony, in the Cloud itself, but wisdom is not ours to get. It is God’s to give, when we are ready to receive it. How dear are thy counsels unto me, O God. O how great is the sum of them!
God’s judgement, God’s ultimate verdict, God’s wisdom, is not to be feared. His judgement, his wisdom is to be welcomed because it is the truth. God wills fullness of life for all His creation. And what this wonderful psalm does is bring to life the true relationship of God to you and to me. It is both transcendent and personal. God is everywhere, and yet “when I wake up, I am present with thee.” How valuable this insight is for Christians. God’s thoughts are beyond our comprehension, and yet He is still present in our lives at every moment. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made, and that my soul knoweth right well.” He was there at the beginning; he’ll be there at our end.
He’s there too when the darkness settles, and we can’t see God, and we can’t see our way. What then? “The darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day; the darkness and light to thee are both alike.”
This is where we bring to mind Christ crucified, and the experience of Christ’s followers that it is only in the darkness that spiritual growth occurs. It is in the darkness, the not knowing, that we learn to trust another, and so are brought to new possibilities, new ways of living, a new understanding of God’s purpose for us. The truth is that the darkness – which we all enter one day – is not something to be feared, but to be embraced, hard though that might be. St Teresa of Avila, whose 500th anniversary approaches, said that the reason we don’t go to deeper levels on the spiritual journey is because we flee the darkness. We flee, and become attached to other things, hence the multiple addictions of the modern world.
The Psalmist must have known this. Peradventure the darkness shall cover me; then shall my night be turned to day. St Teresa’s friend, St John of the Cross, suffered terribly, not only from persecution by others, but from a spiritual darkness, God not there. One day, in the actual, literal darkness of a prison cell, he wrote this on the prison wall: “In the evening of life you will be judged by how well you have loved.”
There is an insight into God’s judgement which arose in God’s absence, not his presence. Even in the darkness, God sees light. As judge of the earth, God sees all. What St John of the Cross understood is that God’s judgement is to be welcomed, not feared, because the ultimate standard turns out to be love. For just as wisdom is God’s gift, so is love. Being under God’s judgement is not about blind obedience, but about taking the right path to freedom, through accepting divine love as the principle by which we live. As another St John puts it in our second lesson this evening: “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.”