When we hear that God knows everything about us, we might feel nervous. All of us have things about ourselves that we’d rather hide from God’s sight. But we don’t have to be afraid, because scripture tells us that what God sees in us is wonderful.
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Second Sunday of Epiphany, year B
Texts: Psalm 139:1-18; John 1:43-51
What exactly happens to Nathanael? This might be the strangest call story in any of the gospels. In the space of an instant, he goes from a tough-minded skeptic to praising Jesus as the son of God. And it’s hard for us to understand why. It all starts when Jesus calls Philip, who quickly believes that Jesus is the messiah. So Philip grabs Nathanael to share the news. But Nathanael’s not buying it. He doubts that anything good could come out of a poor little village like Nazareth. But Philip challenges him to come and see for himself. So Nathanael follows. When Jesus sees the pair coming, he greets Nathanael as an honest man. Again, Nathanael is guarded. “How do you know me?” he asks. Jesus responds that he saw him earlier, standing under a fig tree before Philip approached him. Maybe Jesus is referring to a supernatural vision of Nathanael or maybe he just saw him in passing, John’s Gospel isn’t clear. All we know is that Jesus saw him before they met, and understood something about him. That’s it. That’s the miracle, that Jesus saw and knew Nathanael. It doesn’t sound like much, and even Jesus is a bit taken aback that Nathanael responds with such enthusiasm. “You will see greater things than these,” Jesus promises his newest disciple. But Nathanael doesn’t need to see to believe. He only needs to be seen.
The idea that God sees us and knows us can be a source of joy, but too often, we hear it as a source of terror. In many Bibles, Psalm 139 is titled “the inescapable God.” The writer sings that there is nowhere we can go that is apart from God. If we go to heaven or Sheol or the far side of the sea, God will be there. God is above and below us, before us and behind us. Not even our innermost thoughts are hidden from God. It’s beautiful and comforting to hear that that nothing can separate us from God, but every time I’ve discussed this psalm over the past week, someone has joked about how ominous it sounds. “The inescapable God” – it sounds like a threat as much as a promise. You can run, but you can’t hide. In this age of stalkers and hackers and the NSA, we’re uneasy with the thought of some unseen force watching our every move. It makes our skin crawl.
But it’s not just our modern nervousness about surveillance that makes us uncomfortable with the idea that God knows us completely. We don’t like the thought of other people watching us because they could have bad intentions, but we know that God would never hurt us. No, we’re nervous because there are things about each of us that we’d rather God not see. All of us have parts of our soul that we have roped off and declared unhallowed ground. Our insecurities, our ugliest thoughts, our worst impulses – we’d much rather hide those away than entrust them to God. When we don’t love something about ourselves, we have trouble believing that God could love it. We have trouble believing that God could love us if God knew us too well. We’re terrified of being exposed as unlovable. And so we try to hide parts of ourselves – from each other, from ourselves, from God – and it scares us to be reminded that that doesn’t work. “Where can I go from your spirit, or where can I flee from your presence?” Nowhere? That’s not very reassuring in those moments when we’d prefer to run away and be alone.
If anyone knew about trying to hide from God, it was David, to whom our tradition attributes this psalm. Israel’s greatest king was far from a perfect person. He had plenty of things to be ashamed of. Whenever we think of the sins of David, we tend to think of his crimes against Bathsheba and Uriah, and that’s part of his story, but it was far from the only thing he did wrong. In his pursuit of power, he committed treason, extortion, and murder. His very last act before dying was to give his son a list of his surviving enemies, with orders to hunt them down and kill them. Scripture tells us that God gave the honor of building the temple to Solomon because David had too much blood on his hands. He was great, but he was rarely good. There are plenty of things he must’ve wished he could hide from God’s sight.
And yet, the sinful psalmist whom we name David says that God’s knowledge of him is wonderful – more wonderful than he can understand. He tells us that we are God’s creation, and as God’s creation, we are marvelous. God knows all that we think and do. If we had to see ourselves like that, as we really are, we might want to flinch away, but God keeps looking, and calls us good. We can give up on parts of ourselves. We can despair completely and say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” but even the darkness is not dark to our God, for the night is as bright as the day, and darkness is as light. God looks at us in our wonderful, terrifying fullness, and God sees light in even our most shadowy places. It’s not because God thinks we’re perfect, or because God ignores our sins. No, it’s because God knows us, and God knows that each of us are made wonderfully, even when it’s hard for us to see. That’s the message we need to live. We all need to be loved for who we are. We need to hear that we don’t have to earn love, because we already have it. God loves us at our worst just as much as at our best. And when we accept that nothing in us is too ugly or sinful for God is when we can finally stop running and do something our sins.
On this Martin Luther King Sunday, we are called to face hard truths about our sinful nature. We are challenged to confess that, not only is this country still broken, but we are still broken too. Even in this wonderful community, where people try so hard to do justice and love kindness – none of us are free of sin. All of us contribute to the injustice of this world. Consciously or not, we perpetuate worldviews that place some human lives above others. We participate in economic systems that take advantage of those who have less than us. We look away when we see our fellow children of God suffering. These are scary things to face, because they mean admitting that terrible ugliness lives within us. We don’t want to deal with that. We don’t want add racism or classism or sexism to the pile of things that we dislike about ourselves. And so, when we hear that we have failed to live alongside all people as equals, our instinct is to push that truth away. We shut down or lash out because those things are so unlovable, and we desperately want to be loved.
But we can confront these sins, and all other sins, because God already sees them, and God loves us anyway. There’s nothing to hide, and there’s nothing to lose. The God who knit our cells together in the womb knows us more intimately than we know ourselves. God is better acquainted with our sins than we ever could be. God sees us in our entirety, and scripture tells us that what God sees is wonderful. That means we can finally stop trying to run away. We can follow Christ without being ashamed of all the ways we fall short. God knows us completely and loves us completely, and nothing we do can ever take that away. We are seen and known by God, and we can rejoice in that without fear.