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Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Ever-Present Holy Spirit (Psalm 139, Acts 2)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; June 4, 2017 - Psalm 139; Acts 2:1-13

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
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:: Scripture and Music ::
Singing Together: Breath on Us (Jobe, Cash)
Singing Together: Holy Spirit (Torwalt)
The Word in Music (Choir): Psalm 139 (Pote)
Preparation for Communion: We Will Feast in the House of Zion (chorus) (McCracken, Moore)
Hymn of Sending: Holy Spirit (Townend, Getty)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) ::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

Today we begin a summer series entitled, “Psalm+1.” Each week we will look at one of the Psalms or ‘songs’ of God’s people. They cover a wide range of topics and themes, sometimes celebrating, sometimes grieving, and much in-between. The “plus 1” of the series is because each week I will also look for a New Testament text that lifts up the theme of the chosen Psalm, rooting that theme in the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Today we celebrate Pentecost, that day fifty days after Easter when the Holy Spirit fell upon the Apostles and the Good News of Christ began to spread in earnest throughout the known world. The beginning of the Pentecost story is told in Acts 2 and continues on throughout the book of Acts. I’ve chosen Psalm 139 for our starting point because it describes God’s Spirit in a memorable way and reminds us that God’s Spirit is not new with Pentecost or the New Testament.

I want to divide Psalm 139 into four main sections before looking at Acts 2. There is more there than we can look at in a sermon, but I hope it will whet your appetite to dig in a bit more on your own.

God Knows Me (vv. 1-6)

The first section of the Psalm is found in verses 1-6, though verse one also serves as a summary of the entire Psalm: “O Lord, You have searched me and known me.” That’s what the Psalm is about: God knows us thoroughly, inside and out. And really, I should note that as the main idea of this Psalm rather than it being specifically about the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, we will see in the second section that God’s Spirit is named specifically and is part of this deep knowing from which we cannot hide.

Verses 1-6 serve as a general (but powerful) introduction to the theme God knows me, walking us through our sitting, standing, sleeping, waking, coming, and going. Verse four even describes God knowing the words we will speak before our tongues even form the word. But remember, too, that this is poetry, and it is Hebrew poetry. This is not a treatise on divine mind-reading; it is a poetic song trying to get across the message that God is interested in you and knows you, and is as close as close can be.

The Psalmist pauses in verse six to reflect in awe at this God who knows us: it is “too wonderful” and “too high” to truly grasp. It is not something to fear (because God is not out to smite us), but is a wonderful mystery.

God Sees Me (vv. 7-12)

A question in verse 7 marks section two, which runs through verse 12 and might be described by the theme, God sees me. The question is “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” The answer is clearly going to be “nowhere” and it is here that God’s Spirit is introduced as God being ever-present, such that we are never alone or abandoned from God. What follows is a series of evocative, poetic images and examples to ‘test’ those bounds, but they serve simply to mount up the understood answer that there is nowhere where God’s Spirit is not present: “If I ascend to heaven… if I make my bed in Sheol… if I take the wings of the dawn… if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea…” (vv. 8-9)

Even in the highs and lows and extremities of our existence the Psalmist can affirm, “You are there… you are there… Even there Your hand will lead me… Your right hand will lay hold of me.” (vv. 8-10) Even darkness is no match for God, who’s can “see” and be present even in the places most fearful to us. (vv. 11-12)

Since this is the section where God’s Spirit is mentioned, I will simply add here that the Old Testament is full of God’s Spirit. The Spirit hovered over the waters of Creation; the Spirit appeared as a cloud and fire to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt and through the wilderness; the Spirit filled prophets that they might speak, “Thus saith the Lord.” And the Spirit was promised by those same prophets to one day be “poured out” on sons and daughters. All that is to say that God’s Holy Spirit is not a New Testament invention or phenomenon, but deeply understood as God, ever-present with His people throughout time.

And because of that Spirit, we are assured that God sees us.

God Made Me (vv. 13-18)

Still talking about the depths to which God knows us, the Psalmist turns in verses 13-18 to talk about God’s intimate knowledge of us as our Creator, the One who made me. In what is a beautiful description of the mysteries of conception and development, the Psalmist writes, “You formed my inward parts; You wove (knit) me in my mother’s womb… I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (vv. 13-14) After more artistic description of our creation, God’s knowledge through making us culminates with “Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.” (v. 16) As earlier, the point is not a treatise on fate or destiny, but a poetic emphasis on just how thoroughly God knows us – as our Creator and Maker.

And again, as in the first section, these reflections lead to wonder and praise. The Psalmist declares, “How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How vast is the sum of them!” (v. 17) Indeed it is mind-boggling (and heart-boggling!) that such a powerful, infinite, all-knowing, ever-present God not only sees and knows us with such depth and detail, but that God cares to see and know us with such depth and detail!

God Knows All of Me (vv. 19-24)

Finally, in a fourth section, the Psalm takes an unexpected turn. For four verses (vv. 19-22) the Psalmist pours out what can only be described as hatred for the wicked, for those who shed blood and despise God: “O that You would slay the wicked, O God.” (v. 19) I admit not knowing what to do with that right off, though I do note that the prayer is for God to enact justice (rather than personal vengeance). Nonetheless, it is the kind of thing that we are taught not to feel or express and it’s the kind of thing we critique in other religions as fanatical. Yet there it is. What do we make of that?

And then I read the conclusion to this section and to the Psalm. Right or wrong, we can’t say that the Psalmist wasn’t being honest. Then as abrupt as the turn to those hate-filled exclamations, the Psalmist turns again to say, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.” (vv. 23-24). What I make of the four verses are a brutally honest expression of what rages through the heart of the Psalmist. He struggles with some real enemies who have shed blood and done wickedness. And then he lays that before God. Having gone through this whole Psalm about the God who sees and knows and made him, he trusts that God even knows the most brutal parts of him. And he invites God into that, to know the “anxious thoughts” and the “hurtful way.” And he asks God, finally, to lead him in the “everlasting way.”

It’s hard reading, but I wouldn’t have you miss it. This is why the Psalms are so important to us and this is the perfect introduction to the summer study. This Psalm begins with what we might expect: inspiring words about God and how God sees and knows us. But it’s not just words; the Psalmist puts it to the test before he’s done. He says what’s really on his mind and he doesn’t hold back, and precisely because God sees and knows us – all of us – he can lay the anger and hatred before God and invite God to take it and do something right with it.

So don’t hold back with God. But also, don’t miss the part at the end. Rage and anger without inviting God in just destroy us or others. “Search me… try me… know me… and LEAD ME.” (vv. 23-24)

God Lives and Works In Me (Acts 2)

Finally, I just want to say a brief word about Acts 2 and Pentecost. There’s so much going on there, but I want to focus on a piece that overlaps with Psalm 139.

If you think the Good News of Jesus is that God was born into the world to come among us, you wouldn’t be wrong. He did that, but that’s just Christmas.

If you think the Good News of Jesus is that he died for the forgiveness of sin so that we would know God’s mercy, you wouldn’t be wrong. He did that and it’s amazing! But that’s just Good Friday.

If you think the Good News of Jesus is that he rose from the dead so that we might also experience the grace of a new life and a new start, you wouldn’t be wrong. He did that, but that’s just Easter.

The Good News is also that God partners with us to do His work in the world. He sent His Spirit on people like denying Peter, doubting Thomas, revolutionary Simon, and more. They weren’t perfect, saintly, or model human beings, but they trusted Jesus. They experienced God-in-the-flesh, the forgiveness of their sin, and the new start of the risen Christ. And on Pentecost, God’s ever-present Holy Spirit joined with them for what God was going to do next in the world.

Like the end of Psalm 139, each one encountered the powerful presence of God and had to decide whether to stick to their own plans or say, “Lord, lead me in the way everlasting.”

That’s the over the top goodness of the Good News: that God partners with imperfect ordinary people like you and me to accomplish His work in the world. And if you think that God wouldn’t want someone like you; God wants someone just like you. And didn’t you hear? God sees you and knows you – intimately. I get it; that can be terrifying. But if you really understand how much God knows and loves you and wants you, it can also be reason for wonder and awe, as it was with the Psalmist.

So, will you join the Psalmist in praying?  “Search me, O God, and know my heart… and lead me in the everlasting way.” Amen.

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