Second Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

God is so perpetually present we cannot even speak of God in past or future tenses

hands open to God's call
"Here am I; send me!" (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

January 14, 2024

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Commentary on Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

There are lengthy debates in academia about the origin of the modern notion of the “self.” The notion seems so natural to us that we can hardly imagine any alternative. But the notion of the “I,” relatively independent of family or faith of origin, patch of ground on earth, history, or anything other than one’s own consumer preferences, is a relatively new thing in human history. Charles Taylor, the great Canadian philosopher, blames St. Augustine, with his invention of the autobiography, the Confessions. Taylor might be the most learned human being drawing breath, so disagreeing with him is fraught. But I (!) just wonder whether the origin of the “I” might be much older: in the Psalms of Israel.

Psalm 139 is one of the most beloved of the Psalms. You might have it in needlepoint somewhere. “You hem me in, behind and before”(verse 5). “Wonderful are your works” (verse 14). “It was you who formed my inward parts” (verse 13). “How weighty are your thoughts of me, O God! … they are more than the sand” (verses 17–18). It does not take too much sentimentality to come to tears in response to such notions of God. 

But there is something else here too, perhaps missed because of this psalm’s iconic status. There is a note of menace. Go ahead: try and escape a God like this. You can’t. Anywhere you go, even to the depth of hell itself, and God is already there (139:8). There is nowhere far enough away to escape from God, no darkness thick enough to hide (139:9–10 and 11–12). St. Augustine comes to the only rational conclusion: the only possible way to escape from God is to run toward God. Only then will divine pursuit stop and will you find mercy.

The psalm reminds this parent of the Margaret Wise Brown children’s book The Runaway Bunny. A baby bunny tells his mother he plans to run away. But she can go to extraordinary lengths to find him. If he becomes a fish in a stream, she can become a fisher and fish for him. If he becomes a bird, she will be a tree in which he can land. If he becomes a little boy, she will be the maternal presence he comes home to. 

“Shucks,” he concludes. “I might just as well stay here and be your little bunny.” 

“Have a carrot,” says his mother. 

Parents will go to any lengths out of love for their child. Likewise, there is nowhere to escape God. Except God’s own arms of kindness.

The psalmist sees God’s presence not only after our lives—where biblical faiths tend to linger in thoughts of the afterlife—but before our lives. God had thought of us before we ever were, keeping careful custody over the process of our assembly in our mother’s wombs (verse 13). Biblical scholar Pat Miller notes that most of us don’t worry too much about “where” we were before we were born. Similarly, the psalmist insists, we should have no worry about “where” we will be after we are dead. God, the only eternal one, has both “times” in steady hands.

So far, so edifying. But the psalm dips into the genuinely fantastic, going deeper than the merely edifying. We preachers should take note: our job is also to reenchant the world. Two fabulous notions are present in our verses (at least). The language of our “unformed substance” came, in Jewish tradition, to be understood as the golem, an unformed being. J.R.R. Tolkien took this notion for his character of Golem, a hobbit so enticed by the ring of power that he becomes a sort of shadow self, able to live to extreme old age, but only as a hollowed-out shell of a creature. 

Another verse here speaks of the “book” in which all the psalmist’s days are written before one of them even exists (verse 16). The psalmist’s plain proposal that there “is” such a volume reminds me of a friend’s riposte to the hymn “There is a fountain full of blood”: “Is there? Really?!” All the history of demythologization in modern, liberal churches traces from that incredulous question: “Really?!”

The psalm replies, simply: “Really.” We might put it this way: God’s book, in which our days are written, is more “real” than any book you or I have experienced, more “there” than any book we can hold in our hands. These objects familiar to us are the derivative ones; God’s own is the archetype. This is no claim about predestination—a rare Augustinian doctrine of which I am not overly fond. It is a statement of comfort. 

God’s menacing, all-knowing care hovers over every microsecond of our lives, every molecule in creation. God is so perpetually present we cannot even speak of God in past or future tenses. God simply is, without change or derivation. The psalmist peers deep into this reality … and is terrified. But keeping on pondering, he becomes pleased, satisfied, secure.

All this is true of the psalm on a literal level. But in Jesus Christ, God takes on Jewish flesh and wears the psalm as literally as any Jew wears tefillin. It is not only we who are “fearfully and wonderfully made”; God is too. In Christ, God has eyelashes, a spleen, and a Jewish mom. The divide between Creator (maker of all) and creature (made thing) is smashed, and there is now traffic between the one and the other. The only “I” worth belonging to, biblically speaking, is the resurrected body of one Jew, whose raising presages the resurrection of all creation. 

And that is frightfully good news.