SJF • Epiphany 3a • Tobias Haller BSG
Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.+
Last week I was away on retreat with my Brothers, and we spent much of the retreat meditating on and discussing Genesis 3:1-7. So that ancient tale of the fall of our distant ancestors is very much in my mind. So I want to begin my sermon by casting our thoughts back in that direction.
From the time that Adam and Eve first ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and discovered that they weren’t dressed for dinner — indeed not dressed at all! — and hid themselves in the shrubbery so that God might not see them, people have been trying by one means or another to get away from God. Well, as Adam and Eve learned, and as people ever since have learned, you can’t get away from God. God has his eye on you, on me, on every single person on this world of ours, and there’s nowhere you can go to hide, no hiding place from the Lord’s piercing vision. And this strikes us most, we most keenly feel the relentless watchfulness of God, when we’ve done something wrong.
When I was about four and a half years old, I took it into my head one day when my parents were out of the house to disassemble my mother’s wristwatch, which she left on the dining room table. I always was an inquisitive child — I had tiny little hands perfectly designed for mischief — but unfortunately I was no watchmaker: I could take the watch apart all right, but I had no hope whatever of putting it back together. And I realized this fact with that awful sinking feeling that must have been very much like what Adam and Eve felt when they experienced the cool evening breezes and realized they weren’t wearing anything. And so, knowing of course that I couldn’t hide myself, I decided to hide the watch — or what was left of it! Going into the living room, I reached up as high as I could and put the watch, or I should say the remnants of the watch, up onto the mantlepiece over the fireplace, out of sight.
Out of my sight, that is. For of course, as soon as my parents got home, they found the disassembled wristwatch lying in pieces in plain sight at a very convenient level for them to see — I could hardly have chosen a more obvious place to display my misdeed. Well, suffice it to say I went without dinner that evening, and got a good whupping in addition. And I did, I hope, learn my lesson. And the lesson I learned wasn’t to pick a better hiding place, but to respect other people’s belongings!
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Sadly, down through human history, there are plenty of people who haven’t learned their lesson, who haven’t learned that you can’t just do what you want and not expect the consequences, who think that their misbehavior will remain out of sight and out of mind. The examples come so frequently one need only pick up the newspaper or listen to the TV news. Most recently, it seems, some people have forgotten that you can erase as many e-mails as you like, but eventually things will catch up with you! In fact, the supposedly missing e-mails more than anything else call attention to the problem, as glaring and obvious as a dismantled watch sitting on a mantlepiece. Yet so many times people will act like children who cover their own eyes and say, You can’t see me. Well, that just doesn’t work: you can’t hide from God, you can’t get away from God.
The prophet Amos reminded the people of Israel that not only could God see them, but that of all the families of the earth, God most particularly had his eye on them. And Amos called out to them in that ringing series of questions, questions that challenge us even today with a resounding, Who do you think you are? Don’t you know God has his eye on you? Don’t you know God has kept his appointment, and is here to judge you? Don’t you know that God is roaring like a lion in anger over you because he’s caught you? Don’t you know you’ve stepped in the bear-trap, and that disaster is coming to overtake you? Tremble, tremble: for God has his eye on you, and you can’t get away from God!
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The people of Corinth, now they tried a different approach to get away from God. They played a sort of a theological Three Card Monte, a kind of ecclesiastical shell game, choosing up sides and dividing themselves into subdivisions according to whom they liked the best, hoping, one supposes,
that God would get confused with the shuffling between allegiance to Apollos, or Cephas, or Paul, or yes even Christ, who in that congregation just became one more option among many. And the Apostle Paul, like the Prophet Amos, confronted them with a ringing series of questions. Do you think God is divided up among you? Don’t you know into whom you were baptized? Don’t you not know that Christ was crucified for you? Don’t you realize that Christ is our unity, not our division? Tremble, tremble: for God has his eye on you, and you can’t get away from God!
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Yes, brothers and sisters, it’s true; and we can’t get away from God, either. But we need not hear that as bad news; indeed we need only hear it as bad news if we are set in our ways to perdition, if we insist on persisting in wrongdoing — for those who choose that path it is indeed a frightening thought to know that there is no escape, that they can’t get away from God. Those who are trying to hide from God, to get away from God, will hear as bad news the fact that God knows where they are.
But we are not trying to hide from God. We’ve learned our lesson, and know it’s pointless trying to hide anyway. What we’ve come to understand is that we are not hiding, trying to get away from someone, but lost. And that changes everything.
If you are lost, the one thing you want to know most of all is that someone is looking for you; better yet, that someone knows where you are, that someone has his eye on you, and is coming, not to judge, but to rescue.
That makes all the difference, doesn’t it? You could look at Psalm 139, which we sang in a hymn version today, as the complaint of some guilty person who has been found out, someone who has tried to get away from God and found that however much he tries there is no escape. And perhaps with our obsession with the right to privacy (no doubt going back to Adam and Eve!) it is natural to read this psalm in this way. But think about it in a more positive light, and you will see that it is not a song of a guilty criminal confessing, “You caught me fair and square.” No, it is the song of praise to God, who is so vigilant and watchful that he will not allow a single one of his children to be lost, no matter how far they stray, to the ends of the earth, the far reaches of the sea, the height of the dawn or the depths of darkness.
And it is the same God who seeks the lost who comes to us in Jesus Christ, as he came to that land of Zebulun and Naphtali, that far off province of Galilee, a land looked upon by the other tribes of Israel as no better than a suburb of the Gentile Philistines and Phoenecians, people who, as far as they were concerned, were sitting in darkness, in the region and shadow of death. Jesus came to what the people of his day thought of as the most God-forsaken part of Palestine, in part to make the point that no place on earth is God-forsaken. There is no place that God will not go, no place that God’s Spirit will not penetrate, no place that is beyond God’s reach.
And whether that hand of God is reaching out to punish or to rescue will depend to the greatest extent on whether you are looking for a judge or a savior — for God is both! You can’t get away from God, either by running or hiding, or by getting yourself lost. Christ comes to the backwater of Galilee, and starts his ministry of recovering the lost ones, calling fishermen who will fish for men and women and children and bring them in, in to where God wants them to be.
We can’t get away from God — that is the good news of the kingdom, the cure for the disease of fear, the remedy for the sickness of hatred, the antidote for the poisonous debility of division, the healing balm for the malady of loss and despair.
And so let us rejoice, sisters and brothers, in the knowledge that God has his eye on us, he knows where we are when we stray, and will guide us back on to the right way; God is with us whether we walk in the light or in the dark, whether we walk with open eyes or closed, and his amazing grace and holy Spirit will seek us out and bring us home, and heal our sin-sick souls. We can’t get away from God, thanks be to God! +