As part of her ordination service yesterday, Cordelia asked me to read Psalm 139. Those who know me well or have spent time talking with me about scripture know that this is one of my very favorite passages. I preached a sermon on this text at two years ago for my Intro to Homiletics class and then at Smithville the following Sunday. For the children’s message I read one of my favorite children’s books, The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown, and then wove portions of the psalm and the book into my sermon. I am including here the text of the story, the psalm and my sermon that day …
The Runaway Bunny
Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, “I am running away.” “If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”
“If you run after me,” said the little bunny, “I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.” “If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”
“If you become a fisherman,” said the little bunny, “I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you.” “If you become a rock on the mountain high above me,” said his mother, “I will be a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are.”
“If you become a mountain climber,” said the little bunny, “I will be a crocus in a hidden garden.” “If you become a crocus in a hidden garden,” said his mother, “I will be a gardener. And I will find you.”
“If you are a gardener and find me,” said the little bunny, “I will be a bird and fly away from you.” “If you become a bird and fly away from me,” said his mother, “I will be a tree that you come home to.”
“If you become a tree,” said the little bunny, “I will become a little sailboat, and I will sail away from you.” “If you become a sailboat and sail away from me,” said his mother, “I will become the wind and blow you where I want you to go.”
“If you become the wind and blow me,” said the little bunny, “I will join a circus and fly away on a flying trapeze.” “If you go flying on a flying trapeze,” said his mother, “I will be a tightrope walker, and I will walk across the air to you.”
“If you become a tightrope walker and walk across the air,” said the bunny, “I will become a little boy and run into a house.” “If you become a little boy and run into a house,” said the mother bunny, “I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.”
“Shucks,” said the bunny, “I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.” And so he did. “Have a carrot,” said the mother bunny.
The scripture reading for today comes from Psalm 139: 1 – 12; 23 – 24. As you listen to (or as you blog readers read) the text, recall those wonderful images of the loving and steadfast mother bunny. Hear then the reading of God’s word.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
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.
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.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Psalm 139 has always been one of my favorite psalms because it speaks of a Creator who knows us intimately and whose presence is with us even in the darkest of dark places. Like a mother bunny who will not let her baby get away, God will go to great lengths to keep us within reach. This psalm is a prayer that is both unsettling and reassuring, reminding the Psalmist that the Lord is aware of our comings and goings. I remember hearing this Psalm for the first time when I was a teenager, and you may think this is strange, but the Psalm reminded me of Santa Claus. You remember the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake. Oh you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town.” Equating God with Santa Claus, I often wondered if God would only give us presents or blessings if we did what was expected of us. I wondered if God’s presence was only given to those who were in keeping with God’s commands. Surely this was not what the Psalmist had in mind when these words were penned.
The authorship and dating of individual Psalms can rarely be determined. Many are believed to have been written during Israel’s monarchy between 1000 and 587 BCE, although some of the later Psalms, particularly 90 through 150, were thought to have been written or re-written in response to the theological crisis of the Babylonian exile, somewhere between 587 and 539 BCE. Although Psalm 139 is included in those later writings, it is attributed to David. David was King of Israel for forty years. He is often portrayed as a righteous king, an acclaimed warrior, a musician and poet. But he was not without fault. You may recall his little tryst with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. When Bathsheba becomes pregnant, David plots and schemes to get Uriah to sleep with his wife to conceal the identity of the child’s father. When Uriah refuses to sleep with her, however, David has him killed. It is this David – musician and murderer – who writes this Psalm. Oh Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit and when I lie down. You are acquainted with all my ways. These words have to be unsettling for David because of his misdeeds. God indeed knows all that he has done. The Psalmist says such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is beyond me. And yet his words go on – where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, or Hell, you are there. For the Psalmist, even in the midst of his deepest despair, God is present.
It is possible, too, that this Psalm was re-written after the time of David – during the time of the Exile with the needs of those who had been exiled in mind – reminding them that God indeed is with them wherever they go – even the dark places – Sheol, Hell, Bablyon. Those bleak and barren places. Those dismal and deserted places. Those horrifying and hopeless places. Brutal Babylon. Think for a moment about the brutal Babylons you have experienced.
Melissa was ten years old when her life changed. She was a somewhat shy child in the early years of her life, hiding in the safety of her mother’s skirt and sucking her thumb when adults talked to her. As she grew from a toddler to a young child, she knew that she was deeply loved, both by her parents and the Jesus she had heard about in Sunday School – that man whose picture was in one of the stained glass windows at her church; that man who picked little children up, put them on his lap, and held them in the safety of his arms. But her life changed drastically when she was ten. She was ten years old when her neighbor touched her with one of those touches that did not feel safe; one of those touches that not only hurt her physically, but made her feel very ashamed of herself. She knew that what he did to her was wrong and she longed for the shelter of her mother’s skirt. But he threatened her. He threatened to harm her if she told anyone. He told her no one would believe her anyway. And so she was silenced. Silenced from her family, silenced from the God who she thought loved her, and silenced even from herself. She told no one. Over the course of the next two years, this neighbor continued to touch her, to harm her, to hurt her; his actions were unimaginable. And she endured in silence, in darkness, in her own Sheol. In her own brutal Babylon.
Then one day Melissa outsmarted him. It was a risk for sure, but she devised a plan to make certain she was never alone with him again. And it worked. She was free, and her bodily wounds began to heal, but the painful memories haunted her – they penetrated her mind, pierced her heart, and punctured a hole in her soul. And she continued to remain silent. Like the basement he lured her to, she locked away her secret in her own deep, dark dungeon, desperately determined to make it disappear.
In a sense, her strategy worked. On the outside, she appeared to have a great life. She did well in school. She went on to college, graduated and got a good job. Her friends envied her, never knowing the torment that lie dormant in her soul. She was a perfectionist, a control freak, you might say, trying desperately to make up for the times as a child when her situation was so out of control. For years she played this game. She hid from her family, she hid from her friends, she hid from herself, and she tried to hide from God. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
She ran from God. She said to God, I am running away. But God said to her, if you run away, I will run after you for you are my child. If I ascend to heaven you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
She said, Fine. If you run after me, I will become a fish and I will swim away from you. And God said, if you become a fish, I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you. She said, Fine. If you become a fisherman, I will become a bird and fly away from you. And God said, if you become a bird and fly away from me, I will become a tree that you come home to. 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.
She said, Fine. You claim to know me. You know when I sit and when I lie down. You know the words that I am going to say. You must know what happened to me. You must know the darkness I have experienced and the battle that rages within me. For fifteen years Melissa hid in the darkness, wrestling and running, trying to make sense of what happened to her. She told God again and again, I am running away. And God said, if you run, I will catch you in my arms and hug you. 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 day, for darkness is as light to you.
As Melissa ran and wrestled, the words of this Psalm popped into her head when she least expected it. This Psalm that she had heard as a child began to penetrate her thoughts and patch the hole in her soul. She broke her silence and began the healing process. She began to realize that God’s presence was indeed with her in those dark days and would continue to be with her in what surely would be some dark times ahead as she confronted her past. When she realized that God had a grip on her and she was never out of God’s reach, she slowly began to relinquish her tightly-held control, saying, “Shucks, I might as well stay here in your presence and be your child.” And she did.
“We are always in the presence of God … There is never a nonsacred moment! God’s presence never diminishes. Our awareness of God’s presence may falter, but the reality of God’s presence never changes.” (Max Lucado). Amen.
Until next time, peace …